By Alex Marino, Staff Writer
The Madagascar landscape from North to South goes through a geographical transformation as the highlands flatten into open savannas of tall golden brush, deep red earth, and jagged rock formations. Ancient baobab trees aged one-thousand plus years protrude into the open sky as a formidable natural icon. After another four-hour journey through this incredible landscape, we arrived at Isalo, where we spent two nights in an outdoor tent-style hotel situated in a valley surrounded by red rock formations and desert cactuses reminiscent of Sedona. After a short hike and photo shoot atop the rock formation, we rested up after a long day on the road.
The morning sunshine glowing across the valley energized our spirits for a day of unforgettable experiences unique to Madagascar. We started off on the Namazaba hike in an environmental protection zone for our first interaction with lemurs. After hanging out and observing them in their natural habitat, we followed Felix, our Barri Malagasy guide, to the “blue pool,” “black pool,” and natural spring waterfalls. The natural beauty and calming sensation of these flowing mountain pools demanded a courageous dip into the freezing water. Despite the initial shock, the experience was both an invigorating and refreshing dive into the islands terrain, and Felix and Melissa got a kick out of watching the Vasahs (white men) strip down and freeze to death. Moving on we journeyed through a deep canyon and spotted a mystical owl perched on a branch at the base of the canyon, adding to the endemic wildlife sightings. We concluded the hike with a traditional Malagasy cuisine of Zebu and potatoes picnic-style in the open woods beneath the lemurs.
After the hike, our adventure continued on horseback into the open savanna and up through the rock mazes. We made some attempts to trot the horses, but the racehorse mentality steered mine off track into a gallop, while Nash and Fred lingered nonchalantly in the rear, and Donna (Melissa’s dog) battled her persistent male companion. So, instead, we took a more leisurely stroll through the colorful terrain for two hours while taking in the fresh country air. We returned back to our tents exhausted from a day full of once-in-a-lifetime adventures, but it was still just the surface of what Mada had to offer.
For our last stop-off, Taheen suggested the eco-friendly Princess Lagoon hotel perched right on the Mozambique Channel. The French doors, courtyard gardens, infinity pool, and candle lit beach cafe created a quaint vintage-style atmosphere with a calming lagoon background. Princess Lagoon is solar-powered and fixated on the local content principle as it only purchases products from within a 50 km vicinity. After a relaxing candle lit Zebu dinner, we rested up for our morning travel to Fort Dauphin. In usual style, we took a morning stroll down the beach to give Donna her exercise and test Melissa’s stick fighting abilities against pesky Malagasy strays attempting to challenge her territory.
Nash has already explained the difficult poverty scene we faced everywhere in Madagascar, and the beach is no exception. Local entrepreneurs gravitated towards us to push their hand-crafted products and massage services in a desperate attempt to make a sale. This morning, however, offered a different experience than before, as two local Malagasy brothers, both named Mario and younger than 10 years old, approached Melissa and I with no motive other than introducing themselves and showing the open-hearted kindness you often see in children. The younger Mario held our hands as we walked down the beach and looked at Melissa with glowing eyes like he’d been waiting to meet her his entire life. For their unabashed kindness Melissa offered them some “bom bom” (candy), and Donna even gave out high-fives. In the Mario brothers we saw kids full of joy, laughter, and imagination, but I couldn’t help but wonder how long their spirits would stay so wholesome as they headed into a life of extreme poverty and poor education. It was the perfect realization of how life here can be transformative to the human spirit despite the “Mora Mora” mindset (think Hakuna Matata, or a relaxed, worry-free outlook on life) adopted by the Malagasies. That realization was a difficult yet important feeling to keep as we headed into a business development project that had real potential to implement effective and sustainable change for the Malagasy people and a more promising future for Mario.