Sean Fennessy

Why Madagascar Is One of Africa’s Most Extraordinary—and Endangered—Wonderlands

With the help of a few pioneering resorts, the island is making new efforts to protect its natural treasures. 

As if the pages of an old children’s book had fallen open, my first glimpse of Madagascar felt both weirdly familiar and unlike anywhere on earth.

Sundowners in the dry riverbed at Mandrare River Camp.

Sean Fennessy

The crumpled highlands around the capital, Antananarivo, were a jumble of tall redbrick buildings with wrought-iron balconies and steep shingled roofs, crammed alongside emerald rice paddies, white ducks, peach orchards, zebu cattle, towering church spires, and cobblestoned streets. It was as if a careless artist had mixed up concepts for a storyboard and the result was this dreamscape—Provence by way of Indonesia and southern Africa.

To me, it was a song composed of old chords, a type of exposure therapy. My parents were unsettled British settlers who spent the 1970s and ’80s living on a series of remote farms in southern Africa. For nine months of every year I went to boarding school in Zimbabwe, but during school holidays I was left unsupervised on those farms, left to roam wherever and with whomever.

Approaching the Miavana resort by helicopter.

Sean Fennessy

There, I was shown a different way of seeing, a world of ancestors, bewitchment, and sacred trees. My family and I weren’t where we were from, but we weren’t from where we were either. That’s my crux. I split somewhere— not the middle, that would have been too neat, and probably less painful. It’s in all my work, this longing for belonging. Or rather the question of land, and who is best tasked with preserving what’s left of it.

Humans settled Madagascar less than 1,500 years ago. First to arrive were Austronesians, who traveled to the island in outrigger canoes. Subsequent waves of immigrants came from Africa, Arabia, and beyond. As the human population grew, Madagascar’s endemic creatures gradually began to go extinct. The large, slowmoving ones went first—the enormous elephant bird, for example. Other animals, and forests, became sacred and untouchable.

But in Madagascar, almost nothing’s in general. It’s an island roughly the size of France—980 miles from north to south and, at its widest, 370 miles east to west—but there’s so much to it that some ecologists call it the eighth continent. Put another way, when crossing it, you’ll go through hundreds of little worlds. Each has its own precise conditions and fosters a certain rare plant or a nearly vanished creature.

Take the triangle palm, for example: Dypsis decaryi. Only about 1,000 of these trees are left in their native habitat, a small area in southern Madagascar’s Andohahela National Park. If you’re driving through that part of the country, you may see the palms—some of them nearly 50 feet high and incredibly graceful—for half an hour or so. And then you won’t see them again. Or, the avenue of giant baobabs in the southeast, silver under a gray rainy-season sky and pink at sunset. They’ve been there for an eternity, some of them, or at least since mankind’s arrival on the island. Blink and you’ve missed them.

By starkest contrast, daydream through the western U.S. for a couple of days (I live in Wyoming now and have done this a couple of times), and the difference between one place and the next creeps up on you slowly. That barely undulating land can lull you into thinking everything’s forever. Madagascar leaves you in no doubt that it’s not.

On my first morning I caught a twin-engine south from Tana, as the capital is known, toward Mandrare River Camp—from which I was to travel to the island’s lowland and spiny forests to see the endangered lemurs that reside there. The property, which aims to provide a kind of low impact immersion into the surrounding ecosystems, consists of large, solar-powered canvas tents pitched under towering tamarind trees along the banks of the Mandrare River.

Walking to my tent, I was assailed by wildlife. There were butterflies everywhere, droning bumblebees, skinks, a boa, a little brown snake, frogs. And birds: The place felt like a massive aviary, with a constant, lively accompaniment of cuckoos, drongos, nightjars. 

Baobab trees near Mandrare River Camp.

Sean Fennessy

All that life, even in the life-hushing grip of a countrywide drought. The river was nearly bone-dry. From the veranda of my tent, I could see small villages shimmering in the heat on the opposite bank, a quarter mile away. There were tiny wooden houses on stilts, each with three doors: one for women, one for men, and one for children.

All day, herds of zebu cattle—gorgeous speckled creatures with sweeping horns and humped necks—wandered down to drink at the shrunken river. In the morning and evening, girls brought buckets to those same shallows to take water back to their households. Everyone was looking at the battleship clouds to the west, which withheld rain night after night. And yet, at the small weekly market in the nearby town of Ifoka, to which villagers from all around the area came, the mood was sanguine, upbeat, defiant.

The Antandroy, or “People of the Thornbush,” have learned to cultivate toughness. Southeast Madagascar, eerily beautiful in its spiny, secret way, is not a place that would reward those given to despair or to surrender. It makes sense, then, that the Antandroy resisted the French colonial forces longer than any of the other 17 tribes on the island, taking refuge in their forests until they were hacked out of hiding.

It’s an equation worth considering: The French are long gone; half a century has passed since political power was handed back to the Malagasy people. Still, the colonial template remains. Thousands of acres of sisal are grown here for the European fiber market—the farms are the region’s largest source of employment. And, at the same time, guests at Mandrare River Camp can hire an Antandroy guide for walks into the sacred spiny and canopy forests to see wild lemurs, to meet the villagers with their silver-tipped spears and elaborate tombs, and to show them, more or less, how it was before the arrival of the Europeans.

I have a friend who says that all stories are circular, because you can’t escape the basic shape and nature of the universe. Seen from that perspective, perhaps it was logical that, in trying to make sense of Madagascar, I kept returning to the figure of Queen Ranavalona I. Ranavalona was the first female sovereign of the Imerina kingdom, the precolonial dynasty that ruled Madagascar from 1540 to 1897.

Assertive and ambitious, she was also something of an interloper, having ascended to power in 1828 after the death of her young husband. The story of her 33-year reign speaks to the condition of her country before the European invasion and to the condition of Madagascar as it is now. Ranavalona adhered rigidly to her traditional beliefs; she wanted nothing of Christian proselytizing. She sent the London Missionary Society packing and persecuted Malagasy Christian converts.

In an 1835 kabary—a royal proclamation, spoken not written—the queen was clear: “To the English or French strangers…. It would be a waste of time and effort to grab the customs and rites of my ancestors. Concerning you, foreigners, you can practice according to your own manners and customs.”

Left: The pool at Miavana, which occupies a private island off the northeastern coast. Right: A salad of fresh herbs, vegetables, and sunflower seeds at Miavana.

Sean Fennessy

You do you, in other words, and we’ll do us. But Europe’s ambition for the island was overpowering, and the kabary was, of course, ignored. The queen met pressure from the British and French with like resolve. She amassed armies, and when those armies were wiped out, she amassed more. The population of Madagascar plummeted from an estimated 5 million to just 2.5 million between 1833 and 1839; the queen’s soldiers, slaves, and martyrs died like flies. Or, put another way, Queen Ranavalona I wiped out half the population of her nation in an effort to rebuff the influence of foreign invaders. She died in her sleep in 1861, in her early eighties.

There’s a French poster celebrating France’s eventual defeat of the Malagasy people in 1895. A soldier astride the island, a bayoneted rifle slung over his shoulder, is plunging the flag of the French Foreign Legion into the capital, marked “Tananarive.” Madagascar gained independence from France in 1958. Not surprisingly, it hasn’t all gone smoothly since. But there are determined efforts to repair the land in places and the wildlife too—and many of those efforts involve inviting visitors to witness the natural riches that remain. Not everything can be healed, obviously, but since land and culture and wildlife and human welfare are inextricably linked, it seems like a good place to start.

It is hard to imagine a greater contrast than that between the canvas tents of Mandrare and my next stop, Time and Tide Miavana, an ultra-high-end resort on Nosy Anko—a private island in the Levens Archipelago, off the country’s northeastern coast. A Robinson R66 helicopter ferried me from the port city of Antsiranana, and from it we saw dolphins, scores of turtles, and schools of fish. The experience was like snorkeling from the air. Miavana, meaning to bring together.

Here’s how it goes: Step out of the helicopter—cool towel, iced mango lemonade—into a golf cart and whir along shaded brick trails to breakfast in a dining pavilion overlooking an infinity pool by the ultra-aquamarine sea. Staying here is like being in a James Bond movie, except everyone in aviator sunglasses is there to help you. You’re whisked, you’re noticed, you’re indulged. It’s never too early or too late at Miavana. The bartender is from Zimbabwe, a place where people know shaken, not stirred.

But above all, Miavana is private. Three miles of deserted beaches; shelves of coral gardens to snorkel or scuba dive around, uninterrupted; wild winds from Borneo that have swept across the entire Indian Ocean before finally making landfall there. At night I sat outside my villa, doors open to the ocean, lights off. Shooting stars rained down through a sky so black it looked like a time before time. Everything at Miavana was like that.

A step beyond expected, miles beyond what seemed possible. My villa, for example, was built from hand-hewn rock and had sliding glass doors. It also had its own private pool and a sunken bath—too much luxury for one person, almost. Outside, the resort’s horticulturalist was painstakingly rehabilitating the Nosy Anko’s habitat. Thousands of non-endemic plants have been removed and more than 60,000 native plants added.

This, in Madagascar’s seasons—at certain times of year, the wind is scouring, the heat a blanket. The land was slowly being made to look wild again. In this fragile, often damaged country, it felt as if erasing the impressions left behind by humankind was the greatest luxury of all.

The day before I left the island, five endangered crowned lemurs—two males, two females, and a baby—were released into the forest a few hundred feet from the villas, the first step toward rehabilitating the island’s primate population. It seemed like a kind of restorative justice, a gesture toward repairing all the land. That evening, in the resort’s Cabinet of Curiosities—a whimsical museum-library containing, among other treasures, the skeleton of an extinct Malagasy hippopotamus—Russell Mittermeier, the man who literally wrote the book on Madagascar’s lemurs, gave a stunning presentation.

If Richard Branson had suddenly dropped through the roof in a hot-air balloon, I don’t believe I would have spilled my drink. That was Miavana: to bring together.

The lounge at Miavana.

Sean Fennessy

I keep Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton’s novel set in pre-apartheid South Africa, with me at all times. I can open it anywhere and read it like a Bible. And like a holy book, I have committed parts to memory. “Cry for the broken tribe, for the law and custom that is gone…. Cry, the beloved country, these things are not yet at an end.”

Anjajavy Le Lodge is a resort in Madagascar’s northwest overlooking the Mozambique Channel. It is surrounded by 1,850 acres of protected land, scalloped by isolated beaches and limestone cliffs, and covered with wild baobab forests that remain untouched after hundreds of years. It is run by Cédric de Foucault, who is descended from French settlers who came to the island three or four generations ago.

His staff at Anjajavy is almost entirely local—Sakalava is the name given to the people around here. There’s a trail around the refuge, which I took one afternoon. I saw Coquerel’s sifakas and common brown lemurs; collared iguanas were everywhere. I may have seen a fossa—the threatened, catlike mammal found only on Madagascar—though it seems unlikely.

Another afternoon I paddled around the peninsula to a nearby village to meet with a local elder. I was accompanied by Anjajavy’s naturalist, a young veterinary student named Rasoanaivo Hoby Ambininitsoa, who is doing doctoral research on lemurs. The elder showed us around a traditional Sakalava home: the wooden platters used to winnow rice, the machetes for chopping wood, the guitar for making music, the mats for sleeping. And then he quickly made a small fire, rubbing two sticks and blowing gently.

Left: A farmer with his herd of zebu cattle near Mandrare River Camp. Right: A female crowned lemur––a group of which was recently moved to the island of Nosy Anko, where Miavana is located.

Sean Fennessy

As flames licked the kindling, he sat back, smiled, and sang us a song so sweet it made my throat hurt. When he was done, Ambininitsoa asked if he could sing us another, which he did. After that we thanked him and walked back into the bright sun. “What he knows about,” Ambininitsoa said, turning to me as if it had just occurred to her too. “If we lose that, we lose everything.”

When Queen Ranavalona issued her kabary in 1835, she hadn’t intended a massacre of her people. “I welcome all wisdom and all knowledge which are good for this country,” she said. All of it, as long as it didn’t disrupt the wisdom and knowledge of her own people. How tenuous and difficult and essential is that balance between what has always been here and what arrives on these wild shores from elsewhere. Anjajavy seems to be striving toward it.

“The tragedy is not that things are broken,” Alan Paton wrote 70 years ago. “The tragedy is that things are not mended again.”