An island nation off the coast of Africa, Madagascar has an incredible diversity of unusual landscapes and wildlife, of which lemurs are the most famous but by no means the only ones! 90% of its flora and fauna are endemic, found nowhere else in the world.
While there are some resorts, much of Madagascar is remote and escapes the influence of modern life with unique religious and cultural practices, as John Gimlette talks about in this interview.
John Gimlette is a multi-award-winning travel writer. His latest book is The Gardens of Mars: Madagascar, an Island Story.
- Unique aspects of Madagascar including the landscape and wildlife
- Influences of Borneo, Africa, and France
- The beliefs about ancestors that guide the Malagasy life
- Food and drink in Madagascar
- Recommended travel books
Transcript of the interview
Jo: John Gimlette is a multi-award-winning travel writer. His latest book is The Gardens of Mars: Madagascar, an Island Story. Welcome, John.
John: Hi, Jo. Nice to be here. Thanks.
Jo: Welcome to the show.
Where is Madagascar and what are some of the unique aspects?
John: Well, yes, let’s place it first. It’s in the Indian ocean, about 240 miles off Africa adjacent to Mozambique. But the thing to really get about this place is that it’s enormous.
It’s the fourth largest island in the world. Just to put that in perspective, if you were to lay it across a map of Europe, it would stretch from London to Algiers. And yet it’s got a smaller road network than Jamaica, where there are roads but tend to get washed away every year.
Now it’s unique because it was separated from Africa during the great tectonic shifts of the earth, about 150 million years ago. And then after that, India and Sri Lanka also broke off from it and they floated off to the North. But the plants and animals that you have in Madagascar are really survivors from a much earlier age.
So whilst there were once lemurs everywhere, even in South America, now they’re really only here and there are 107 species of them. In fact, 91% of the wildlife of Madagascar is endemic, you will only find it here.
In cross-section, the Island looks a bit like a wedge, and oddly, most of the people live right on the very top of the Ridge and on the steeply sloping sides of the East coast. Why do they do that? Because that’s where the water is.
And the capital is up there. It’s a sort of Shangri-la city, if you like, on a group of islands rising out of the rice and it sits at 3,000 feet
Beware to the South and the West it gets much drier. And some of the people there, one group I’m thinking of in particular, the Antandroy where their whole life is a struggle for water and they’ll walk up to 40 miles a day just to get at what they need.
In that vast area of the Southwest, others really only went there for the first time at the beginning of the 19th century. So yes, it is in a sense, a lost world or a real-life Jurassic Park.
Jo: Wow. I’ve seen it on maps and I was saying before we started recording that I worked there remotely, but I’ve never been. I just didn’t realize it was so big. It’s like it always gets missed off things that people don’t even realize it’s there.
Would say that it’s more influenced by Africa, or you mentioned India, is it more Asian?
John: Do you know, you’ve touched on something really important about Madagascar and that is who are the Malagasy people? And the answer is that until you have to go back 10,000 years and this Island was completely unoccupied.
Then when the first people came, they didn’t come from Africa, despite the fact it’s so near, they actually came from 3,700 miles away across the other side of the Indian ocean from Borneo. And we know that because the language of Madagascar is the same as that of Kalimantan in Borneo.
And these Asians created a very sophisticated society growing rice and smelting iron. And it was only much later in about the 11th century that Africans started settling along the coast. And that’s still the position today, Afro-Malagasies on the coast, Asian-Malagasies in the Highlands.
By the middle of the 18th century, it’s the Asians who dominated in some brutal wars. So what you see around the country is really their rice terraces and their circular faults.
Now grafted on top of that is Christianity introduced by Welsh missionaries between 1820 and 1830. So colonialism arrived really late in the day in 1895 when the French came and it was pretty short-lived until 1960.
So you don’t really see such strong friendship evidence there. It still feels like an Asian or African place, despite the fact that they love baguettes and boules and they have gendarme and they drink a little wine but really it’s all superficial. Once you leave the town, the empire never really existed.
In truth, much of Madagascar still feels very unconquered. This is a place where disputes are still resolved and they’re mostly disputes about cattle, but they are still resolved with spears.
Jo: The unconquered, I love that, but it is in terms of the French side because I remember when I speak to people there, we were speaking in French. That was the language we spoke in. So is that still spoken in the more official business world? And what about architecture?
Is there a French influence in the architecture in the big city?
John: I wish more French was spoken because it would’ve made my travels a lot easier because I can manage a bit of French, but actually once you get away from officialdom and the city, people don’t really speak very much French. It’s the language of government still, but it probably won’t be for much longer.
A lot of the old colonial names have been changed back in the 70s to Malagasy names. So France is culturally really disappearing from the picture. I say, culturally, because actually commercially France is still there.
A quarter of everything Madagascar sells goes to France and there are still 25,000 Frenchmen living in Madagascar. So in that sense, the French are still there and they fund the government and so on, but no, Malagasies are really their own bosses now and they’re just not like anyone else.
Jo: Fantastic. In your book, you mention an unforgettable journey through ‘The worlds of Hieronymus Bosch and middle earth,’ which is a very evocative description. And also I wanted to ask you about this emphasis on red, the garden of Mars, and the color of your book cover.
What are some of the most memorable landscapes?
John: Well, it’s funny, isn’t it? Because people have described Madagascar in lots of different ways and you mentioned the world of Hieronymus Bosch and so on.
When the first Arab traders came to Madagascar in probably the eighth century, they called it the Island of the moon. Well, that’s because they never went any further than the coast. I always think that if they’d gone further inland and seen the greenness and the forest and the sheer weirdness of Madagascar, then they probably would have called it the gardens of Mars.
Not everybody has liked it. One French geographer described it as having a shape, color, consistency of a brick, but I don’t really think that’s fair.
There’s an enormous variety of landscapes. And I think what really unites them all is this sense of strangeness. You’re driving along and there are great orange mountains of mud, boulders the size of office blocks.
And I remember going past a brickwork and seeing hundreds of little figures all working half-naked in the mud. And then there’s this railway that drops through the mountains about a kilometer over any 100 kilometers. And then of course there were the baobab trees because if they’d been drawn by children when you get close are like enormous towers of stone.
The redness is everywhere. It’s in the river, it’s in people’s clothes, it colors the entire landscape. The French were right, this is the isle rouge.
Jo: I actually went to school in Malawi and I remember the baobab trees there. I imagine they’re similar. They must’ve come over from Africa, I guess.
John: Yes. Possibly bought by the Arab traders. No one’s terribly sure about that, but they are magnificent and they do really well in Madagascar. Huge groves down in the Southwest where no much else can grow. They’re great survivors.
Jo: And I’ve read about the Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park with the shards of rock?
John: Oh, the Tsingy are unforgettable. So how do you describe it? If you could imagine a couple of square miles of gothic spires, cathedral spires, all made of sunk limestone, all packed in together, that’s what it looks like from the distance.
It’s an amazing forest of spires. But when you get up close, you can go down inside the spires and down into the gripes and underground rivers and caves and there’s a whole world down there of unique plants and strange creatures. It’s just the most extraordinary environment and much of it’s probably never really been explored.
Jo: I imagine that’s the type of place you could go hiking in and just never make it out again. Did you have to have a special guide?
John: Yes. You would need a guide around the Tsingy. I didn’t hike around the Tsingy and I certainly went in there with a guide. It’s great.
Generally, you’re going to need a guide for Western Madagascar because of the language issue and there are cultural issues. This is a land where people think in a very different way and you really need someone there as your cultural guide apart from anything else. It’s a very special and unique culture.
Jo: Give us an example of that.
How do people think in a different way?
John: Well, now Malagasies, there are sort of syncretic religions. It’s a good starting point. So there’s Catholicism, there’s Protestantism brought by Welsh missionaries. There’s Occult, there’s Islam, and actually, they’re all merged together.
One of the unifying themes of the beliefs is the idea of ancestor worship and the idea that the dead control their lives. So when Malaggasies want to plan something, they have to think what would the dead, our grandparents do? And the dead are very respected there. Tombs are visited, and in some parts of Madagascar, bones are actually taken out and paraded around. That’s called walking the dead.
But what happens is that the Malagasies are really what they do is determined by the dead. What they think is right. There’s this idea of custom should only do what your ancestors would have been happy with. And that makes it very difficult for Malagasies to move around because they can’t leave the tomb.
It makes it very difficult for them to do anything new because would it be right? And it’s not just individuals who think this, parliament too will only do things if they think it’s respectful to the ancestors. So it creates a whole different way of thinking and it can be sometimes difficult to access that.
Jo: That’s really interesting. I was actually reading earlier about how the continent of Africa is very ahead in mobile technology, particularly Kenya and places like that. So even though the ancestors might not use cell phones and things, is Madagascar up there with mobile technology?
If people are traveling can they still connect or is it that the dead affect even things like that?
John: Well, strangely the dead obviously approve of that technology because technology is doing really well in Madagascar. This is a really poor country and it’s a country where you can still eat a chameleon that’s been killed with a spear.
Some people even in the capital city live on a Euro a day. But despite all of that, it’s got a burgeoning call center industry. So France and Morocco and various other French-speaking countries are putting their call centers in Madagascar.
And the other new industry there is data processing, and Malagasies are doing really well at that. So for example, if you buy Marie Claire in France, the chances are your subscription will be managed in Madagascar. Your complaints will go through Madagascar.
So yes, the ancestors obviously approve of that, but there’s a lot of things they don’t approve of. And so for example, you could find your flight canceled because the crew think it’s the wrong day to fly or the moon’s not right. It can get a bit complicated.
Jo: It’s so interesting, isn’t it? I wonder sometimes if because I think this happens in other cultures too, where ancestor worship is more common is that if there was nothing like that in the oral history or whatever, then, of course, it’s accepted. The problem is the things where there is evidence of that.
John: In Madagascar, there’s a whole raft of really complicated rules about what you can and can’t do, it’s called thud which, I suppose it translates as taboo and they vary around the country, but you’ve got to be really careful of these.
For example, in some parts of the country, it is taboo to pass someone an egg or it’s taboo to sing at the table. And they really believe, it’s really believed strongly that these will really upset the ancestors if you do these things.
Fortunately, some of these taboos are very much the advantage of the wildlife. So in parts of Madagascar, it’s taboo to eat lemurs. Unfortunately, it’s not a taboo all over Madagascar, but that’s great for the lemurs in the Southeast of the country because that’s what they believe there. So yeah, it can get a bit tricky negotiating all that, and it helps to have someone to stay you all through it.
Jo: You’ve mentioned lemurs. That’s what everyone thinks about Madagascar although I didn’t know there were, what do you say, 107 species or something, which is amazing.
What are some of the incredible, or interesting, creatures you encountered?
John: I don’t know about you, but I was brought up on Durrell and Attenborough and so I’ve always had some familiarity with the animals in Madagascar, but really nothing prepared me for the sheer strangeness of it all.
The first thing to know is that apart from the crocodile, Nile crocodile, really nothing is dangerous there, but they are remarkable and almost unique. In fact of 170 wild mammals found on Madagascar, only bats are found elsewhere. Everything else is unique and this is pretty strange stuff that everything weighs under 25 pounds. So it’s all quite small but nonetheless remarkable.
So there’s this thing like a hedgehog. It’s not a hedgehog, it’s actually no relation, but it looks a bit like one it’s called a tenrec and it’s got 36 teeth. And there’s another amazing animal, which I did come across once. It was raiding our kitchen when I was visiting a camp and it’s called a fossa.
The fossa is a really ugly creature. It’s sort of half dog, half mongoose. It’s very fierce, actually. Malagasies treats it with great respect but it’s also horribly ugly.
And then there’s another really amazing creature called the indri, which is the largest of the lemurs. And it looks like I suppose it’s a bit like a sort of a toddler wearing a fluffy pajama suit.
And what it does is it sets up these barriers of sound every morning. It sets out its territory with these hoops and screams and it really fills the forest with noise. It’s quite eerie really. Now I always think that’s rather a weird thing to do for an animal that’s really completely defenseless. All it seems to me to be doing is peaking everybody else’s appetite. Anyway, it’s a lovely creature, well, like all of the lemurs really.
Jo: You mentioned spearing a chameleon and eating that and that some people do eat the lemur.
What is the food like on the island? What could people expect to try?
John: It’s going to be a bit variable. You will find French food. That’s one habit that has stayed on. You’ll have baguette for breakfast in most cities, you’ll find spaghetti everywhere. That’s lingered on.
But once you get out into the countryside, if you’re staying in a lodge, there are plenty of lovely lodges across Madagascar, Italian and French lodge is particularly really nice. But if you get away from all that and get into Malagasy food, you might be in for a little bit of a surprise sometimes because bushmeat is big. People will eat whatever’s really available. I have seen lemurs that have been roasted. It’s a very upsetting site and also a little roasted quails, just sort of handed around bus stops and things like that.
I’m afraid you should expect to see a little bit of wildlife on the menu, but predominantly the staple is rice and there are a hundred different ways of cooking and eating rice and Malagasies eat more rice than anyone else in the world per capita. They just love it. A day is not complete without rice. A friend of mine says I cannot sleep if I haven’t had my rice. So look out for lots of rice.
Jo: Again, that’s the Asian influence, I guess. And is it spicy? You mentioned some of the Arab traders and things.
John: Malagasies will tell you their food is a bit spicy and that’s what I heard, you’ve got to be careful here it’s quite spicy, but actually, for the English palate, it’s really not very spicy. We’re more used to a bit more spice on a Friday night at our local tandoor. Now the food is not hot. If I’m honest, it’s not particularly exciting tasty, the Malagasy food, but it’s nice but it’s not what you go to Madagascar for.
Jo: I was going to say it’s not as remarkable as the landscape for the animals.
Jo: What about alcohol and drinking? Because of course, if there is a French background there might be something there or does the religion impact that in some way as well?
John: Alcohol’s tolerated everywhere. I say everywhere, but there are Islamic communities who may be slightly less accepting of it. I think down in the Southwest is particularly Islamic down there, but elsewhere you can expect to find a very good beer called Three Horses, very delicious. That’s everywhere.
And then about a third of the way up the country, there’s a university town called Fianarantsoa and the French always loved it and the climate is just right for wine there. The wine they produce is pretty good. So yeah, you’ll enjoy that. And then there are some rougher spirits, rum and so on as you’d expect in a country that produces sugarcane, but yeah, you won’t get thirsty.
Jo: You mentioned that there’s nothing dangerous in terms of animals except the crocodile. And I was reading in your book that when you were in one of the big cities, people were saying don’t go out at night, it’s dangerous, but you did and didn’t necessarily find it particularly dangerous.
Is the country, in general, a safe place to travel?
John: I think so. I was often told by Malagasies be very careful. I remember in my hotel, the lovely receptionists, I used to stay the same place all the time. And she’d get this map out, she’d cross all the areas where she thought I shouldn’t go. By the end of it, she crossed out most of Tana, but actually I never really had a problem.
Compared to London or New York, or Paris, it’s not really much worse. And actually, when I talked to diplomats, that was their experience as well. The perception of crime is far worse than the actuality. And they said that they’ve never really had any problems at all. And I certainly didn’t despite the fact you’d occasionally hear some quite sort of ghoulish stories. Yeah, it’s very poor. You have to be careful, but no, it’s not particularly dangerous.
Jo: I know what you mean. I have friends who’d say, how can you live in London? It’s so dangerous. And as you know, we just carry on. That’s what we do. That’s good to hear.
Obviously, your book is packed with research and so clearly you did a lot before your trip and also when you got back.
Was there anything that surprised you or remains very striking in your mind that stood out?
John: There are two things really that come to mind. One is this extraordinary capacity for joy that Malagasies have. And deep down there, they’re really inexplicably content. And it may of course be that most of them regard this life as really an interlude for the real thing to come. Then here they are, I’ve mentioned it already that some of the poorest people in the world, and yet they’re stubbornly happy. And that really constantly surprised me.
A bit different really, but the other thing that surprised me is how much history has survived the heat and the damp and so on. I would go in search of a story maybe about a Fort, and I went down to the East coast and there was the Fort built in 1820 out in the jungle still with 23 British cannons in place.
And when you go inside, it’s like walking around inside a Georgian warship of 1820. Remarkable. And another time I went to the site of a battle and I knew the Malagasy artillery had been on top of this Hill and I climbed up there in the heat and dust, and I got there and scraped away at the dust, and sure enough, there was lots of pottery and belt buckles and all sorts of things. You’ve scratched the surface and the story is still learned. It was very rewarding.
Jo: It’s interesting as we record this toward the end of what has been a pandemic year. You are obviously a great traveler. You’ve written a number of books, but back in London, you’re a barrister. So I wonder, like, what does travel mean to you? A lot of people, I guess, are travel writers as more of a job, but you have a different job.
What does travel mean to you, especially this year in particular?
John: It’s really difficult doing without travel. I haven’t been anywhere since Eastern Poland. Last January, I went for a newspaper and to write something for the Spectator, but I haven’t let it stop me exploring. And this year I’ve been to a few of my favorite places around this country. It’s been a good opportunity to re-explore.
I’ve been to Whitby, which I absolutely love in North Yorkshire, and to Lyme Regis and then Hope Cove in Devon. So they’re really special places and I really enjoyed going there and fossil hunting and doing all sorts of funny things. I’ve also done a bit of exploring around London, cycling off to all sorts of places that I always wanted to see like Grenfell tower, and then over to Horace Walpole Strawberry Hill just to catch up on places that I really ought to know about.
I also I felt I wanted to do something and maybe do something useful so I joined the Met’s police support volunteer scheme. And that involves going around some very, very difficult parts of London and joining a team looking for weapons. It’s been a really extraordinary experience. Very, very interesting to see how the policing is done and how the world of drugs and gangs operates and to meet the other volunteers and fantastic people, Brazilians, Albanians, all sorts of people.
We do find some knives and maybe do a bit of good, who knows, but yes, it’s been a memorable year and I can’t wait to travel again. India, maybe in Russia, Mozambique. How long have you got, Jo?!
Jo: Exactly. I’m the same. I’m planning a trip to Japan; as foreign as possible. But it’s interesting because you mentioned London and I did the Pilgrim’s Way Walk from Southwark to Canterbury, which is something I’ve always thought about. And it’s interesting because I feel like, maybe you’re similar, our default is to get on a plane or to go somewhere different. This year has kind of made me feel like, oh, well I haven’t seen enough of my own country.
Do you think that this period has changed your attitude and will you continue to travel more in the UK, do you think?
John: I always have. I’ve always loved traveling in this country, particularly long-distance walking. Like you, I’ve done the Pilgrims Way, but the things like the West Highland way from Glasgow up to Fort William, it’s just a fabulous experience and the places you stay and the people you meet along the way, it’s just great.
And then the Southwest Coastal Path is also unmissable. I feel you should do these things before you think about casting out abroad because there’s just great experiences to be had here on our doorstep. So all I have done it before. This year has only increased my enthusiasm for it but still I need to get abroad. I need to see what the rest of the world is doing and I love it.
Jo: Yes, me too. And so do all the listeners, that’s why we’re here. And I actually found that this podcast has been almost a mental health this year as you can travel in your mind and imagine these different places. And of course, your book has lots of pictures in too which is really interesting.
Apart from your own book, The Garden of Mars, what are a few books that you would recommend about or set in Madagascar or other travel books you recommend?
John: Now that’s a good question. Okay. There’s one in Madagascar that really jumps out because it’s so old and it’s actually very old. It was published in 1729, and it’s a journal by Robert Drury and it was probably ghosted by Daniel Defoe, but the basic story is true and it’s been proved to be true.
What happened? Robert Drury was shipwrecked off the coast of Madagascar in 1703 and was taken prisoner by the local tribe and remained a slave of the King and various Kings around that area for the next 15 years before his escaped came back to London. And he told this story to Differ. We think it’s Differ. Differ’s name is not on the book. And actually, this story became a reference point for Madagascar for maybe the next 200 years, because Drury learned language, he learned all the history, and so on.
So it’s still a guidebook to the area for many, many years. And Drury himself died very close to where I work in legal London and he’s actually buried under the LSE’s library, but it’s a great story and really worth reading.
But back to Madagascar, a couple of books sort of more generally, which I really like to mention. One of my favorite travel books is by an American called Elliot Paul. It’s probably written about the second world war or just afterwards, and it’s about his time in Paris. It’s called The Last Time I Saw Paris. And he lived in Rue de la Huchette just in central Paris and he got to know all the locals. And it’s about what happened to them during the second world war.
And not only is it absolutely beautifully written, sort of every sentence you could reread, but it’s very poignant to hear about his friends, particularly his Jewish friends who as you can imagine, didn’t fare too well during the war.
On a completely different note, there’s one other which I love to mention, and that is Eric Newby’s Love and War in the Apennines. I know this is a favorite of a lot of people and I put it in there for sheer charm.
On one level, it’s a celebration of Italy and the title really says it all but I always think of it on the more profound level. It’s a beautifully philanthropic and yet unsentimental work. However miserable the times are, and however awkward the place, Newby’s characters are always endearing and very often complex.
And that’s much how I feel about travel. That it’s more about people than places. I think I’d actually hate it in Antarctica, the absence of people would just not do it for me.
There’s an lovely tail end to that because I did actually meet Eric Newby once in Stanford’s. He was walking around with his wife, Wanda who’s the girl he meets in the book. And I managed to say to him that his book was one of my favorite travel books and to my surprise, he blushed as if no one had ever said that to him before. It was a lovely moment. It’s just great.
Jo: Oh lovely. And we should say, if people don’t know, Stanford’s is a famous UK travel bookshop and definitely somewhere you have to visit in London. And there’s one in Bristol nearer where I am, I’m sure there are some others in the country, but it’s a must-visit place, isn’t it?
John: Oh, absolutely. It’s great. First port of call when you need your maps.
Jo: How is the literary scene in Madagascar? Are there Malagasy writers who are coming into translation or did you find bookshops in the main cities?
John: Books are really tricky in Madagascar. It’s so poor that the opportunities for publishing are very, very limited. Obviously literature in Malagasy is inaccessible to me. This is a really difficult language. The language is so difficult that a lot of diplomats who go there are excused from learning it.
And that’s very rare. Usually our foreign office insists that our diplomats learn the language, but they don’t in Madagascar. It’s just too tricky. So the local literature is difficult, but I did come across and read books about Madagascar in French, by French people that live there or by Malagasies who are writing in French.
And in fact, I met a lovely novelist who runs a hotel there and she writes under the lovely name of Madame Ink.
Jo: Oh, lovely.
John: It’s a great name for a writer. But she lives in this village, Belo-sur-Mer where they make schooners. I’d really recommend anybody goes to Belo-sur-Mer and see what goes on there and see Madame Ink, and read some of her wonderful books.
Jo: Fantastic. So where can people find you and your books online?
John: I’m on Facebook.com/JohnGimlette. I will be posting more and more bits and pieces about Madagascar from January onwards, from 7th of January launch date. But I tend to post pictures about travel on my Facebook page. I also have a website, JohnGimlette.com. I’m afraid it gets a bit out of date, but it is there. And as for the books, well, they should be in usual places, Waterstones, Hatchards, Daunt, and Stanfords, and more broadly on Amazon and I hope elsewhere.
Jo: Fantastic. Thanks so much for your time, John. That was great.
John: Jo, it’s has been a pleasure. Lovely to talk to you.