Madagascar is neither here nor there: neither part of Africa, its nearest neighbour, nor part of Asia from whence the ancestorsof the Malagasy migrated, comparatively recently, in double outrigger canoes. Most of its flora and fauna is unique. So are the people, whose distinctive culture is as attractive and unexpected as the lemurs, didera, climate, terrain and methods of transport.
Dervla Murphy and her 14-year-old daughter Rachel landed at Antananarivo, the island’s capital. After a week in ‘Tana’ they walked south to Antsirabe through the Ankaratra Mountains of Imerina, the scene of much English missionary activity in the 19th century. Sometimes they camped out, sometimes they were entertained by Merina villagers, whose hospitality is justly famed but not without eccentricity. Once they collapsed by the wayside at the end of a 28-mile marathon.
South from Antsirabe, by bush-taxi and truck, the Murphys discovered that in Madagascar motoring is much more gruelling than walking. The little town of Ranohira became their base for a lemur-centred trek through the freakish Isoala Massif, which compelled geologists to invent a word – ‘ruiniforme’. Then an interlude among the Vezo fishermen of the west coast, followed by a hazardous and hilarious truck-journey of nearly 400 miles across the celebrated Spiny Desert – a botanical lunatic asylum. Around Fort Dauphin on the south-east coast they encountered the Antanosy tribe and, during their slow and painful journey north, they explored the territory of the Mahafaly and the Antandroy, desert tribes who survive where no one else could. A final trek through the rain-forest of the Betsimisaraka tribe ended with an unwelcomed surprise on the east coast, once the world headquarters of English pirates.