Tuesday, 26 January 2016


On a map the journey from Antsohihy to MANDRITSARA looks nothing: 100 miles along Route 32. The reality is a bit more daunting. Although a paved road was built in the 1960s very little maintenance has been carried out since. The annual cyclone season has battered it for decades. We set out at 7am. In a few places the tarmac was fine, but mostly it was as pitted as the lunar surface, including several ‘potholes’ that threatened to swallow up our four-wheel drive. At one point our jeep literally disappeared beneath the surface of the road – something I now regret not photographing. The journey took seven hours – but whatever it lacked in speed was made up for by the sheer drama of the landscape.

Landscape on the road to Mandritsara

I should point out a small detail about the book and my research trip. The Madagaskar Plan is mostly set in April, during the rainy season. I travelled in September when it was dry because many of the roads are impassable during the wet months. So I had to imagine the landscape I saw not as gold and brown and taupe – but as a lush emerald.

Mandritsara is one of the most remote places I’ve ever visited. Even my guide, a native Malagasy with twenty years of tour experience, had never been there. On the long, torturous drive we stopped at a village and so unusual was it to see a tourist that everyone in the village (or so it seemed) wanted to say hello and shake my hand.

Finally, under grey skies and an oppressive heat, we reached Mandritsara. It sits in the Sofia Valley (see R is for...) and in the book is the location of a secret Nazi hospital that conducts unspeakable experiments. There is a real missionary hospital in the town – which is where I stayed during my visit (the town not being over-blessed with alternative accommodation). The hospital – with its courtyards and carmine brick walls – was to become the basis for the hospital in the book, though the latter is on a much bigger scale. I should also add that there is no connection between the two. Indeed the real one is a missionary hospital that does work for the local community and surrounding area. I was shown round by its administrator, Dr David Mann. I always feel humbled by people who give up their lives for the sake of others.

Part of the hospital, as seen from the top of its water tower

It was sobering to see the primitive conditions of the hospital in comparison to what we expect in the west. If ever you complain about the NHS or equivalent – you should come to a place like this. But enough moralising. The tour of the hospital prompted many unexpected ideas for the book. At the end I climbed to the top of the water tower and had a spectacular view of the valley as the sun began to dip. In the distance I could make out another complex of buildings and as dusk approached I went to visit. [Spoiler alert.] It turned out it was an abandoned colonial school from the 50s, and exploring it as the night descended, alone and with a vague sense of foreboding, I had a moment of inspiration for when Burton reaches the hospital at Mandritsara...

M is also for MICROCLIMATE

Later on in my trip I visited Montaigne D’Ambre national park. It has nothing to do with the book (though Salois does mention it towards the end) but since it is a couple hours drive from Diego, and since the chances of me returning are slim, I thought I’d take the opportunity to hike and camp there. One detail about the place I must share.

One of Montaigne D'Ambre's many waterfalls

Montaigne D’Ambre has a MICROCLIMATE, the park being enclosed by a ring of mountains; a microclimate much chillier than the surrounding landscape. I noticed it as soon as I entered the park – but more so as we left. By that point I’d been there three days, three days of cold rain and being wrapped up in T-shirt, shirt, hoodie, jacket, two pairs of socks and a hat. As we (guide, driver and me) left the park we passed out of the micro climate and in the space of no more than ten foot went from being cold to sweltering. It was like stepping through a barrier. We had to stop the jeep, pile out and strip back down to our T-shirts. One of the more bizarre experiences of my trip.

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