The best attraction in Tuléar is the Arboretum d’Antsokay, a 25-acre patch of managed spiny forest heavily planted with the flora from a lifetime’s botanical collecting by its Swiss founder, Hermann Petignat. The fascinating hour-long guided tour, made all the better by engaging guides (some of whom speak good English), starts – or ends, depending on whether you follow the numbered route or do it in reverse – in a neat and well-lit mini-museum. As well as geological samples, fossils and relics (including a giant Aepyornis egg), displays include musical instruments (note the two guitar-like kabosy on the left, a lokanga fiddle and a large zither or marovany on the right) and various local crafts.
Along the arboretum’s footpaths, there are some 900 species of plants, more than 80 percent of which are endemic to southwest Madagascar. Among them have been recorded 34 species of birds and 25 species of reptiles – although as the animals are free to come and go, sightings vary depending on the weather and the time of year.
Look out for the arbre vazaha (Commiphora) that “peels like a European”, and the baobabs from Morondava that are 30 years old yet only a metre or so tall. Further along, notice the stick-like green euphorbia, which has a toxic, adhesive white sap, and the famous octopus tree (Didierea madagascariensis), with its trailing leaf-and-spine-covered limbs, so characteristic of the southwest. Keep an eye out too for the beautiful jabihy or “natural bonsai” (Operculicarya pachypus); the strangely shaped succulent known as “Napoleon’s hat” (Kalanchoe beharensis); and the amazingly unclimbable Pachypodium lamerei, with its fearsome armour of tri-pronged spines (what, you wonder, is it so afraid of?). As you walk, you’ll see natural spiny forest beyond the park’s boundary.
Finally, back near the office and museum, is the absorbing ethnology trail, or sentier ethnologue, where exhibits demonstrate plant use in traditional culture and include the nazo manga (“blue wood”) posts put before a chief’s house. The hut-like houses of the local Antandroy cattle herders, of which an example is on display, are typically made of the ocotillo tree (Alluaudia procera; or fantsiolitse in Malagasy), a young specimen of which is growing outside the house.