Journey To Beauty & Chaos In Paradise Islands

Madagascar: Erotic Tombs, Tribal Warriors & Bull Fights In The Great Red Island

Part II: The South


Tan Wee Cheng, Singapore  (July 2003)

Scenes of Toliara (Tulear)

We flew south to Toliara, the provincial capital in the poorest and least inhabited part of the country.  This is a dry semi-desert land of spiny forests and low shrubs on the southern coast of Madagascar.  The tribes of this region, the Vezo and Mahafaly, are among the most “African” of the Malagasy tribes.  Tall and shining dark in complexion, they hardly display any of the Asian features common among the Merina people of the Highlands around Tana.   

The Mahafaly is also famous for their impressive tombs.  These tombs tend to be mini buildings painted with bright colours, featuring scenes from the lives of those buried within.  I have seen themes ranging from traditional ones such as zebu fights – zebus are the omnipresent Malagasy bull which has a distinctive hump on its back - and country life, to contemporary ones featuring space shutters and aircraft, plus one with Leonardo diCaprio and Kate Winslet together, inscribed “Titanic”.  Many tombs also have zebu horns on them symbolising power, and some have stelae and poles with elaborate carvings, some of which are erotic in nature.  All this contrast deeply with the state of abject poverty in this region, where many live in huts made of leaves and tree branches, the only mitigating factor of which is that the region is mostly hot during the day although temperature drops drastically in the evenings.  Is the after life more important than the present? 

Tombs of Madagascar

Zebu horns on a tomb
Saphire town - Sakaraha

The Malagasy people are famous for their veneration of the dead.  The Highland tribes practise a ceremony known as famadihana – turning of the bones, which is an occasion for rejoicing rather than mourning.  Periodically, the dead were exhumed, washed and rewrapped in new shrouds.  Relatives visit the dead, and celebrated his life with lots of pomp and ceremony, and drinking and feasting, after which the dead is returned to his grave accompanied with many gifts. 

This is also lobster country.  We saw the largest lobsters of our lives in the local market, bought some for a song and got someone to cook for us.  The pleasures of life! 


Madagascar is a big country with awful roads and poor public transport.  Route Nationale 7 (RN 7), which stretches from Tana (in the middle of the country) to the south disappears into mud and sand in some areas.  The most common form of public transport is the taxi-brousse, or bush taxi, which can be any type of vehicle, usually with luggage tied to the top, and human capacity squeezed to the maximum, together with assorted chickens, ducks and furniture that accompany the passengers.  Our original plan is to take taxi-brousse from south to north but given that taxi-brousse takes a long time to reach anywhere and that they do not depart on regular hours, we have to seek more costly alternatives to do RN7 in the short timescale that we have. 

Therefore, whilst in Tana, we arranged for a chauffeured car to bring us from Toliara back to Tana over a period of 8 days, stopping by in various cities and national parks in between.  Tobi, the designated driver, was unable to make it in time and so a taxi was arranged to pick us up in Toliara and drive us through to Isalo National Park where Tobi would be waiting for us. 

Isalo National Park

And so off we went northwards along RN7.  It’s a dry, dry road passing through miserably poor hamlets with surprisingly cheerful people.  Despite their poverty, we found the Malagasy people most hospitable and friendly.  They also love to be photographed.  Everywhere, the locals urged us to take their photos, and no payment was ever asked.  This must be a paradise for those who love portrait shots in exotic locations. 

We also passed a few baobab trees.  The baobab is a magnificent tree with a straight, thick bulging stem, and quite often with branches concentrated at the very top.  In Madagascar where rainfall is scarcer than continental Africa, baobab branches sometimes look disproportionately small compared to their tall thick trunk.  In Africa, the baobab tree exerts an aura that is legendary.  The baobab is large and often lives for a long time, as it is often too large to be chopped down.  As such, it is often a meeting place and local landmark, not only for humans but animals as well.  Its trunk stores water and provides clean drinking relief for travellers in the desert.  Village elders tell tales beside it and the animals rest by it.  It is the source of goodness and wisdom in African folklore, and surreal and photogenic for the traveller. 

Before we reached Isalo National Park, we passed two sapphire towns, Sakaraha and Ilakaka.  This is the local equivalent of the Wild West, settlements that spurted out overnight with the discovery of sapphire.  For a region renowned for its poverty, these were islands of bustling shops, restaurants, bars, casinos, inns and vices of every kind – women in bright dress and overly heavy makeup seemed to be in great supply here compared to Toliara.  We did not stay for long in these dodgy places as we stick out like sore thumb.  Drunken miners and working gals stared at us, while police subject our taxi drivers to long chats (and bribe demands) at every checkpoint on that stretch of RN7.   

Many people thought we were Thai.  Many Thai come here to buy sapphires.  They have even set up their own hotel for collective security and familiarity, complete with neon lights and a sign that reads “Casino”.  We saw a smartly dressed Thai trader in his chauffeured car at a police check point.  He passed a thick bundle of banknotes to the police and drove past the checkpoint in no time, whereas we had to spend many minutes for him to examine our documents and extract a few extra franc from our driver.  

African Dawn Travellers Palms At Isalo N.P. The Plains of The South Magical Baobab

At Isalo, we met our driver Tobi, a nice forty-plus who knows what the traveller wants.  He has a pair of sharp eyes and was able to spot village celebrations and feasts two hundred meters away.  And he would drive up muddy tracks so that the traveller is given an exotic visual and emotional feast into Madagascar’s colourful village life and culture.  He is the man I would recommend for any journey through the Great Red Island.  Those of you who know how thrifty I am would be pleased to know that I have tipped him well to the tune of a decent proportion of the country’s per capita GDP.   

We also met Rainer, a cheerful German finance controller who squeezed a Malagasy cycling trip between work in South Africa and a business trip to China.  We had many discussions on the world of adventure travel, business and finance.  We did a few treks together in this national park, the Malagasy answer to the Grand Canyon, and punctuated our complaints of mud and deforestation with discussion about the troubles of the global auto industry and effective hedging strategy.   

Madagascar is renowned for its wildlife, not so much for its abundance, but rather, its uniqueness and the fact that its many rare endemic species now come under unprecedented threat from deforestation and human population growth.  The lemur is Madagascar’s chief mascot and the poster boy.  The lemur is a cute, monkey-like creature often with long tails and rather slow reflex.  They are the ancestors of all apes, including man, and the missing link in the chain of evolution.  Their slowness and sleepiness rendered them uncompetitive in the food chain, and had long gone extinct in the African Mainland and elsewhere.  In Madagascar, however, in the absence of other primates (such as monkeys), large predators and until 2000 years ago, humans, the lemurs have survived and evolved separately.  The lemurs are now under threat – the giant lemur and other species have long disappeared.  Fourteen species remain and these cute creatures have lured many tourists to this country, in the hope of seeing them before they disappear for good. 

We walked around the national park in search of lemurs.  We have been warned that deforestation and poaching have become so serious that tourists often have to go to the zoo in Tana at the end of the trip to see some serious lemurs.  We were lucky – we saw three species at Isalo and would see a few more species for the rest of the journey in other national parks. 

Baobab Lobsters! Friendly Locals
Bara Warrior & His Rifle Bush Taxi

We sped eastwards from here, heading for the Highlands.  We entered the country of the Bara, a fierce warrior tribe who value their zebu more highly than anything else.  Tradition has it that every young Bara has to prove his manhood by stealing a few zebus, and only then will he prove his worth among Bara girls.  The zebu symbolises wealth and power to the Malagasy people, and this is even more the case for the Bara.  All major ceremonies are accompanied by the sacrifice of zebus.  That’s why the Bara guard their zebus with their lives.  We passed a few zebu herds with their masters on these dry savannah plains.  We stopped by a young fierce-looking warrior armed with an ancient rifle and a red Chinese woollen blanket wrapped tightly around his torso – they used to be dressed in zebu skin but this Chinese factory-manufactured stuff is cheaper and better in fighting cold.  We asked one how many zebus he owned.  “Three hundred,” said the proud warrior with a faint smile, and asked for some cookies as a present.  

Madagascar - Part III: To The Highlands 


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