Sheltered on what were once mud and sand flats behind straggling stands of mangroves, the port of TULÉAR (also known as Toliara or Toliary) is not the most prepossessing place in Madagascar. This former slaving port has been sidelined by recent history – a fact reflected in the rebellious political stance often taken by the townspeople to matters being decided in Tana. Trash abounds here, especially around the outskirts, and there’s very obvious poverty, with begging quite widespread and frustrated pousse-pousse men looking for fares. Like an island of impoverishment in a sea of destitution, the town is barely able to look after its people, with insufficient support for its basic municipal services from Antananarivo and not enough wealth trickling down through jobs and market forces. There’s a new Chinese cotton factory out near the airport, but people here lament the complete lack of any local enterprises that contribute significantly to employment. The hinterland is barren and dry for most of the year – cotton, cattle and goats and a little subsistence agriculture are about all it can support and the drift of rural migrants to the town is ceaseless.
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In practical terms Tuléar is a bit of a backwater, too. Although it’s connected to Tana by the country’s best road, the drive of at least 20 hours just serves to emphasise how dislocated it is from the rest of the country. Assuming the picture that’s forming hasn’t put you off coming here completely, you’ll find that there are one or two things to do in town apart from heading out of it. As you wander around Tuléar, look out for the town’s zebu carts, sometimes painted with bright, symbolic imagery derived from popular culture – typically music and film stars – and whose young charioteers will invariably stop to be photographed for a modest fee.
Tuléar has no real beach to retain tourists passing through. Batterie Plage, on the northwest side of town – site of British gun emplacements from World War II – is a working beach of windswept dunes that has also attracted notoriety for attacks on tourists. One to avoid.
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.
Anakao and around
While it is more or less inaccessible by road, the beach area around the Vezo fishing village of ANAKAO, 30km south of Tuléar across Saint Augustin Bay, is one of Madagascar’s favourite getaways for locals and low-budget travellers – and increasingly for more upmarket visitors too. Be prepared for the lack of infrastructure at Anakao beyond the hotels’ compounds: the local poverty often jars uncomfortably with carefree tourism, as does the obvious lack of toilet facilities for villagers with enjoying the beach itself.
Nevertheless, the main attractions of this area, where scrubby dunes meet ocean, are the simple pleasures of sun and sand. The area is getting a world-class name for surfing and wind- and kitesurfing rather as much as snorkelling and diving, though marine life can be very worthwhile and the water conditions are usually good. Whale-watching is also good here during the migration season, from July to September. And if you’re interested in local culture, you’ll find the big painted cement tombs of Vezo ancestors, near the point, fascinating.
North of Tuléar
As you head north along the coast out of Tuléar, the road starts unpromisingly, with acres of rubbish and landfill. After crossing the Fiherenana River and passing a quite demanding police barrier, it’s rocky, sandy and corrugated. Although the route runs very close to the seafront, don’t expect a tropical beach paradise: much of the zone immediately behind the beach is degraded scrubby bush and overgrazed goat lands. You’ll pass the occasional turning to a beach hotel, and several straggling small settlements, one or two of which will try to waylay you with rickety stalls of sea shells and dried marine specimens.
Ifaty, Mangily and around
Eventually the road bypasses the small fishing village of IFATY (25km from Tuléar) and reaches the coconut groves and scattered wooden bars and shops of MANGILY centre 3km further on. From here, various tracks trail through dry fields and over the dunes to the beach (about 500m) and inland into the bush. As a beach getaway the area plays second fiddle to Anakao and beach vendors can be a nuisance. The main attraction is the beach hotels themselves, some of which are very nice – and the more questionable appeal of Mangily’s watering holes – though the barrier reef here is extensive, and there’s great snorkelling and diving to be done (and the chance to learn if you’re a novice).
Baie de Ranobe coral reefs
The brightest note in this area is focused on the undersea world. A voluntourism reef-diving NGO, ReefDoctor, based on the north side of Ifaty village, works on community-based reef conservation the length of the Baie de Ranobe, the 26km lagoon behind the barrier reef between Ifaty and Manombo. With local participation, they have created the small marine reserves of Andabotira, Ankarajelita and Massif des Roses, which visitors can dive.
Reniala Forêt de Baobabs and around
Several areas of the original wild spiny forest in the Mangily area have been fenced and commercialized as wildlife reserves for guided visits. The largest, though less than 1 square kilometre – and also generally the best reviewed – is the Reniala Forêt de Baobabs, which incorporates a labelled plant trail and bird reserve. The park is open from dawn to dusk, though you should check in with the office by the main road the evening before if you want to make a really early start.
The standout flora here are the baobabs (reniala means baobab in Malagasy), with roughly a thousand specimens of the smooth, cylindrical Adansonia rubrostipa, and the fantastical, cactus-like Didierea family of octopus trees and their relatives, with their tiny leaves and fearsome spines, for which the spiny forest is named, and which are endemic to southwest Madagascar. Lemurs include the attractive little nocturnal grey-brown mouse lemur (Microcebus griseorufus), while the endemic birds highest on every self-respecting birder’s list are the very rare Madagascar plover (Charadrius thoracicus), the very localized red-shouldered vanga (Calicalicus rufocarpalis), the sub-desert mesite (Monias benschi) and that would-be roadrunner, the long-tailed ground roller (Uratelornis chimaera) – though increasingly you’ll need to be lucky to see the last named.
Sharing an entrance off the RN9 with the Reniala Forest on the north side of Mangily are two other parks, the Spiny Forest Ifaty Private Reserve (t 034 36 579 72 or t 033 85 549 44) and the Réserve du Parc Mosa (t 034 36 579 72 or t 033 85 559 44; guided visits from 15,000ar depending on trail and subject of interest).
Village des Tortues
Different from the other reserves is the Village des Tortues, a highly recommended 7-hectare private sanctuary and conservation project for the big radiated tortoise (Astrochelys radiata) and diminutive spider tortoise (Pixys arachnoides). Visits among the baobabs, euphorbias and strangely shaped Didierea are accompanied by guides from the sanctuary, and as well as free-roaming adults you can see hatchlings in the nursery areas.
The spiny forest
The strangest biome of all Madagascar’s ecosystems is the spiny forest, which covers more than 14,000 square kilometres of the country’s southwest and is unique to this corner of the planet. With its multitude of strange forms, including spine-covered tendrils, bulbous stalks and fleshy, cactus-like lobes, the xerophytic (dry-loving) flora of this tangled, alien environment is utterly distinctive – more like the studio set from an early episode of Star Trek than natural vegetation. The forest occurs naturally in this arid landscape, sheltered from the drenching cyclones of eastern Madagascar by the central mountains.
The key plant types in the spiny forest are a brilliant variety of succulents – the euphorbias – as well as the stumpy, triffid-like pachypodiums, the baobabs and dozens of species of a family endemic to Madagascar, the spine-possessed Didiereaceae, which are almost encased in ruthless, hard spines and which can grow to 15m in height.
But the spiny forest isn’t all about the plants: it’s also about the animals that, bizarrely, flourish among them. While the animal life is not as prolific or diverse as the rainforest, this is still a rich and rewarding ecosystem for any amateur naturalist. Iguanas and day geckos, chameleons and tortoises, flightless birds, bats, spiny tenrecs (a family of primitive, shrew-like mammals), all make their home in this dessicated environment, extracting moisture from plants refined by evolution to retain it.
Lemurs are widespread, too, and none seemingly more unsuited to a home amid the thorns than the waif-like Verreaux’s sifaka (Propithecus verreauxi). And yet this cuddly toy of a primate, with its soft inquisitive fingers, seems quite at home clinging vertically to the spine-covered green spears of a giant Allaudia ascendens. What still perplexes primatologists is that the sifakas are able to hurl themselves from spiny trunk to spiny trunk, grasping and landing between the closely set clumps of vicious needles, and are never seen to stab a toe or get a painful surprise in the backside. If you want to witness this compelling phenomenon yourself, the best place to do so is in the Anjapolo part of the Réserve Privée Berenty and at Mangatsiaka in Parc National d’Andohahela.
You’re very likely to stop the night at the small town of MOROMBE, effectively the Vezo capital, if you’re en route by taxi brousse between Morondava and Tuléar. With the Mozambique Channel on one side and mangroves and tidal flats on the other, it’s almost an island – a couple of sandy, parallel streets back from a beach strewn with boats and fishing nets, and flecked with fish scales. Morombe is the Majunga or Morondava of fifty years ago – remote, isolated and, since the cancellation of Air Madagascar flights, a little forgotten.