Touring the Central Highlands 


Landscapes and natural escapes 

The Route N7 from Antananarivo to Tulear on the lower west coast passes through a diverse cross section of Madagascar’s landscapes.

In the central east region, the road weaves around low rolling hills of red dirt and patchworks of luminous green and yellow terraced rice paddies, dissected by a winding river.

It climbs through forests of French pines and avenues of Australian eucalypts, passes through Ambatolampy, the island’s capital of counterfeit goods which reputedly makes fantastic bank notes, and studiously avoids numerous bombed out bridges in civil unrest in 2002.

Houses in this region are typically made with clay and brick, and presumably without a setsquare or spirit level: most are decidedly wonky.

If you’re dead, chances are you’re living in one of several hundred tombs visible from the roadside. These are square buildings, usually about half a storey high (no need for lofty ceilings unless you’re buried vertically…or are extremely obese), and it is considered ‘fady’ (disrespectful) to point at these with a straight finger, as the dead are revered even more than the living and it is always rude to point.

Past the sizeable and frosty Antsirabe, Ranomafana national park is a sprawling rainforest which sees rain 250 days per year, and is home for 12 species of lemur – two discovered as recently as 1986, and an unnecessarily diverse spread of flora.

With so much flora, a typical conversation with a guide is thus:
“So this forest has 100 orchids, and 35 species of fern. Like this one, or this one. Here’s another, that’s one too. And behind us, these two are different, as is that one there too. Yes, that’s a fern as well.”

There are traveller’s palms, which grow in the shape of an oriental fan and can be tapped for water, and sticks of bamboo reaching higher than 60 metres. They grow 40cm per day, so it’s lucky the lemurs have voracious appetites for it.

There is also a hot springs swimming pool in Ranomafana, the second most popular destination in the central highlands behind the nightclub in Antsirabe for locals to strip down to their underpants and frolic. (One tourist here had the most amazing tan line – though it turned out to be a local guy wearing peach-coloured underpants).

Isalo national park, four hours’ drive east from Tulear, is a park formed around a series of canyons pushed up by tectonic collisions.

A day trip through the park leads to a fine selection of watering holes with a poor selection of elderly Italians parading poorly-selected Speedos (real banana hammocks). The botanical garden has the ‘salotsy’ shrub, which grows only on rock and only in this park, and also the ‘justice plant’ – highly poisonous and traditionally given to people accused of crimes: if they die, they were obviously guilty.

Several tombs have been hewn into cliffs by the Bara and Sakalava people, who ceremonially exhume their dead.
 
 “Do you exhume your dead people in your country too?” asks the guide. “Well, not legally, but it depends what valuables they were buried with.”