OnSafari: Ghosts & Cactuses

OnSafari: Ghosts & Cactuses

SpinyForestsMadagascar’s internal airline is so unreliable that we had to charter a long way from Tana to the South to see what is perhaps the island’s most unique ecosystem, the Spiny Forests.

We were not the first to seek the unique treasures of this weird part of the world. Olivier Lavasseur (aka ‘The Buzzard’) and Edward Seegar (aka ‘Edward the Pirate England’) teamed up in the 1720s to bury a $1 billion dollar treasure here.

We were in the charter aircraft for more than 2½ hours and it got so cold the pilots passed out blankets. But as we descended along the great Mandrare River, the temperatures rose substantially.

The airstrip was built for the lodge, so it was a quick five minute drive through some extensive sisal fields filled with their own violent history. Sisal was the main produce of much of eastern and island Africa before nylon was invented in the 1950s, after which the product disappeared…

…except from Madagascar and I have no idea why. But mostly French overlords who had run the plantations before the 1950s kept running them. I guess a market for hemp and rope was never entirely destroyed.

But hardly 20 years ago the workers of the area destroyed the sisal factory, incensed at the low pay they were receiving. But the plantations – literally miles and miles of them – were kept going. The sisal was transported to Ft. Dauphin, 4 hours east of here. Now that there is a stylish resurgence in the use of hemp road, they are prospering once again.

The Spiny Forest once covered much of southern Madagascar, but they were cut down for the sisal plantations. So today the plantations are surrounded by Spiny Forest, the absolutely unbelievably weird world in which The Buzzard and Edward England presumably buried their $1 billion pirate treasure in 1720.

And scattered among Spiny Forests are Sacred Forests, which are sacred spiny forests, of course, but which contain the tombs of local people. Very much like super distant cousins in Indonesia, funerals are often the single most important event in the community’s affairs. Recently dead may be kept from burial for years, waiting for the right, spiritual moment.

And also suggesting a link with that far distant world, modern religions – especially Catholicism – have woven into a hybrid spiritualism practiced by the local people.

So pirate treasures, planetary biological treasures, and religious treasures have all been confounded here into one of the most amazing, complex and weird places on earth.

After we checked into the lodge, we hopped into the Landrovers to visit the Spiny Forest at night.

The Spiny Forest consists of mostly water-starved plants that reach gargantuan proportions that sort of look like cactuses and rocket spears and tumble onto one another in a green and thorn maize. Verreaux’s Sifaka lemurs and all sorts of exotic chameleons and geckos and frogs make this home. To see them here was crazy. I wouldn’t think anything would live here but spiders and their prey.

As night fell and our pace increased, I absolutely was ready for one of the pirates to emerge from the night mist.

Everything in Madagascar is so weird, and the Spiny Forest epitomizes it all. Johnny Depp belongs here, right next to The Buzzard and Edward England.