Tuesday, 26 January 2016


From Tana I took a plane to Mahajunga (Mazunka in the book, where the radar station is). Internal flights – on the unfortunately named national carrier, Air Mad – are a hair-raising experience of propellers, turbulence and crazy pilots, but necessary given the size of the island. At Mahajunga I was met by my guide and driver who would be my constant companions over the next few weeks of travel; luckily we got on well.

Our first destination was Ankarafantsika National Park where I spent several days trekking through the jungle to get a sense of what it would be like for Burton and the other characters as they moved around the island. Particularly memorable was a night hike, the forest thick and loud with insects and tree frogs. As it happens, nearly all these journey scenes were cut from the book (word length again) but it was still a useful experience to understand the physical demands put on my characters.

Sculpture at the entrance of Ankarafantsika National Park

Next was the town of ANTSOHIHY, a ten hour drive from Ankarafantsika; we had to be there by dusk. Travelling on Madagascan roads is not advisable after nightfall, a combination of poor road conditions (and obviously no lighting), wild animals wandering into your path, and banditry. So we left first thing. In the year the book is set, 1953, the drive would have been through dense jungle but all the forest has long since been cut down. Deforestation is a major issue on the island. Several times on my journey I saw the land either side of me literally being slashed-and-burned. There’s something apocalyptic about travelling along roads bordered with fire.

Antsohihy, or Antzu as it is called in the book, is one of the key locations of the narrative. In reality, it’s a forgotten, nowhere place in the north-west of the island that merited only six lines in my guide book. Tourists rarely come here; it’s one of the most obscure places I’ve ever visited. I arrived at dusk to the most dramatic of sights. A lilac sky, growing darker by the second, and in the distance the ridge of a hill on fire (more slash-and-burn) giving the impression of a great sickle of flame around the town. It was an image I used at the end of Chapter 43.

With little tourism, there’s not much call for accommodation so my base for the next few days would be one of several dilapidated bungalows inside a compound – the closest Antsohihy has to a hotel. The first thing I remember about arriving at the place is the mosquitoes. I’m rarely bitten by insects but the second I stepped out of the jeep the air around me was electrified with them, my arms black and crawling... a detail I incorporated into the book. Another detail which you’ll recognise when you’ve read The Madagaskar Plan was my room: corrugated tin roof, breeze blocks painted white and behind a partition, a bucket of water that was my ‘shower’. Dinner was served in an outbuilding and I assumed I would be the only guest but as I entered I heard voices. English voices. It turned out that the BBC camera crew filming David Attenborough’s series on Madagascar was also in town.

There are no street maps of Antsohihy and wanting the scenes there to be as accurate as possible, the next morning I set out to draw my own. Since foreigners are so rare here, my guide felt uncomfortable leaving me by myself so together we explored the streets and backroads, sometimes on foot, sometimes in the jeep. It was punishingly hot. But the experience furnished me with a wonderful array of details that I could only have learnt by being there. There was the lie of the ground and how the whole town slopes down to the river; an old colonial mansion painted a vile acid green; the abundance of mango trees and great spewing fountains of magenta bougainvillea; a long, snaking road named after a man called Boriziny, though who he was or why the road had been named after him was lost to the inhabitants.

On the final day I made my way to the docks. Antsohihy is on the Analalava River which connects it to the coast. Years ago barges brimming with plantation crops made this journey. Now most of the agriculture has gone. The river is quiet, the docks rotting. And on a warehouse I came across some graffiti. I did try and think of some clever link between it and the end of this section, but the picture probably says it better:

A is also for ANKARANA

After Antsohihy I travelled to Mandritsara (which will be the subject of my next blog entry). Mandritsara is literally on a road to nowhere, so once I finished there I had to retrace my steps and spend another night in Antsohihy before heading north again to the ANKARANA Special Reserve. This doesn’t feature in the book but is worth mentioning for its geological rarity.

Ankarana is a limestone massif that rises out of the jungle. It is a strange and extraordinary landscape, riddled with crocodile caves and one of the few examples in the world of ‘tsingy’: protrusions of limestone that have been eroded by rainwater to form jagged pinnacles. Too sharp and delicate to walk on, you view them from above on swaying bridges that reminded me of that scene in Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom.

No comments:

Post a comment