Madagascar Q & A with Daniel Austin

Intrigued by Madagascar from a young age and visiting regularly over the years, Daniel Austin is an author of the ‘Bradt Madagascar Highlights Guide’, co-author of ‘Bradt Madagascar Travel Guide’ and of ‘Madagascar Wildlife Guide. He also owns the Madagascar Library, the largest archive of Madagascar-related literature in the UK.
We are very excited to announce in the autumn of 2016, we will be offering our second tour led by Daniel, a highly experienced and knowledgeable guide to this diverse country, his home away from home. In celebration of this new tour, we sat down with Daniel for a Q & A session to find out what inspired him to first visit, learn about his highs and lows and discover all his priceless travel advice.
What was it about Madagascar that first inspired you to go to the country?
It was very much the island’s striking and unique animal and plant life that initially drew my attention. I’ve always been interested in nature. As a young kid, I was forever turning over logs searching for insects to identify, collecting frogspawn to raise into frogs, that kind of thing. I also got into growing xerophytes (cacti and other succulents) in quite a big way. And, of course, I’ve long been an avid consumer of nature documentaries from the likes of David Attenborough.
At every turn, it seemed I bumped into the name “Madagascar”. I don’t really recall how old I was when the country entered my consciousness as a place that stood out from others, but I remember I had accumulated a shelfful of books about it by the end of my teens. Certainly I’d become quite obsessed with Madagascar a good four or five years before I had my first opportunity to go there for real – immediately after finishing university.
Was Madagascar everything you expected it to be?
It was everything and more. I went for the wildlife but fell in love with the whole package. The people are so warm and welcoming, their culture endlessly fascinating, the language, history, geology – all unique and intriguing in so many ways.
My first ever time there was three months spent volunteering as a field researcher for a conservation organisation. I loved every minute of it, but the downside was that I had to spend the whole time in just one village. Only in the final week did I have the chance to travel a bit and get a taste of the rest of the country. That opened my eyes to just how much variation there is from region to region, especially in habitat type. My appetite for exploration was well and truly whetted.
At the end of that visit, as the plane accelerated along the runway at Antananarivo, I vividly remember an awful sensation in my stomach, a feeling of being torn away from something special that I’d barely had a chance to begin. I bit my lip as we took off, feeling almost tearful and uncomfortably aware that, having spent most of my savings on that trip and now needing to find a job, it would no doubt be several years before I’d be able to return.
Or so I thought. That anguish of premature departure rapidly morphed into an intense determination to return as soon as possible. Rather than starting the job-hunting I’d planned, I gradually carved out a niche for myself as a Madagascar specialist: opportunities subsequently opened up for me as a travel writer, photographer, lecturer and tour leader, and I’ve been back more or less every year since that first time.
You’ve spent a lot of time travelling around Madagascar. What are your most memorable highlights?
The wonderful wildlife encounters are too many to list: swimming with turtles, watching lemurs leaping overhead, a paradise flycatcher feeding her chicks, dolphins and whales playing in the ocean, the magical wailing of the indri at dawn, sighting the incredibly rare aye-aye and fosa, searching for impossibly well camouflaged geckos…
But I suppose the most memorable experiences of all are those that are least expected. Years ago, while walking in the rainforest at Montagne d’Ambre, I heard a great cacophony in the distance. It seemed as if it must be a huge flock of parakeets. My guide refused to be drawn on the source and kept me guessing. It had to be birds, I mused as we approached; far too loud to be insects. Then all of a sudden we came into a flooded clearing and there, as far as the eye could see, were thousands upon thousands of bright yellow frogs, singing loudly as they went about the happy business of creating more frogs. The guide explained that this species is normally dull brown and solitary, but for a couple of days each summer then turn canary-yellow and gather in temporary pools for a noisy mass orgy.
And the lowlights?
The country suffers many threats to its people and environment. There is poverty, lack of access to clean water, corruption, illegal logging, bush fires, harvesting of endangered species, and so on. You are never far from stark reminders that Madagascar is more than just the paradise island portrayed in documentaries. That said, it is heart-warming to see how much is being done by the countless community and conservation organisations working across the country.
On a personal level, lowlights include the occasional bouts of sickness (inevitable when backpacking in the tropics), quite a few vehicle breakdowns in the middle of nowhere (but you get used to these), and on one occasion being liberally urinated upon by my subject whilst trying to photograph a critically endangered grey-headed lemur in the branches above (I’m convinced he knew exactly what he was doing). Lemur pee is pretty whiffy and the smell is persistent, which is why they use it for scent-marking their territory; oh, and it doesn’t taste good when you unexpectedly get it full in the face either.
You wrote Madagascar Highlights for Bradt Guides, have taken over the Bradt Madagascar guide with Hilary Bradt and now are co-author of Madagascar Wildlife: a Visitors Guide. Any further projects in the pipeline?
My various current involvements with Madagascar are keeping me busy. Writing new editions of the three books you mentioned takes a lot of time, and the research for these never stops; the pace of change in Malagasy tourism can be quite fast. To keep readers abreast of the latest developments, I continually post updates online, such as on the Bradt Madagascar guide’s dedicated Facebook page.
In between all this, I spend quite a bit of time exploring the island, both alone and leading or accompanying small group tours. I am also Secretary of the Anglo-Malagasy Society, which holds Madagascar-related talks and events in London, open to anyone interested to learn more about the country.
What are the merits of traveling in a small group, such as the tours you lead?
Madagascar lends itself particularly well to tours in a small group of six to 12 clients. A cosy group like this strikes a comfortable balance that is affordable yet still intimate. Organised tours take the stress out of planning a complex itinerary and give you the opportunity to get more from Madagascar by experiencing it in the company of a few like-minded people.
Being escorted by a leader with extensive knowledge of the country offers many advantages in challenging destinations like Madagascar. The island has poor infrastructure, often complicated logistics, frequent disruptions and delays, and the potential for all manner of unexpected problems. This is not to say independent travel in Madagascar cannot be very rewarding – it can, as I can attest from numerous fantastic backpacking experiences myself – but it does require you to have an open mind, be prepared to get stuck somewhere for days or change plans at a moment’s notice ­– and above all you need lots of time if you want to see much of the country that way.
An experienced leader takes all the hassle out of your trip, taking care of the red tape and allowing you to relax and enjoy what the destination has to offer. Your understanding of the country is enriched by the presence of a leader who can interpret what you are seeing and doing, and put it into context as part of a cohesive tour expertly designed to allow you to experience the best of what’s on offer.
Many ask about safety in Madagascar. What are your thoughts?
Like every nation on earth, Madagascar does of course have crime, and this rose somewhat during the 2009–2013 political crisis, but the figures for serious incidents like violent mugging are nevertheless still tiny by comparison to a lot of other countries, especially those throughout the rest of Africa. With an experienced tour operator and tour leader, who understand what types of crime are likely where, the risks can be effectively mitigated.
This also goes for safety issues that are not related to crime, such as the proliferation of poorly maintained vehicles on Madagascar’s roads. A responsible tour operator will provide safe transport with an experienced driver, and will not allow night-time driving in places where banditry is possible, for example. You will also be in good hands in the case of a medical emergency, which is important when you may be far from the nearest reliable treatment centre.
How do you see tourism helping conservation in Madagascar?
Despite being a relatively unknown destination, tourism is a hugely valuable part of Madagascar’s economy. Not only does it provide jobs and bring in foreign money, much of which goes towards conservation projects, but promoting ecotourism as an attractive income source gives the Malagasy a significant incentive to protect their own environment. It is critical that the will comes from within if the effects are to be sustainable; imposing solutions from outside is only ever a temporary sticking plaster. Ecotourism is one such sustainable sector of the Malagasy economy, just so long as the flora and fauna remains.
What do you consider the main threats to its fauna and flora to be?
The key problem is habitat loss, in one way or another. A large proportion of Madagascar’s natural forest has been destroyed since man first colonised the island just a couple of millennia ago, and it continues to dwindle for many reasons. The rapidly growing population often has little choice but to cut trees for firewood and convert land for agriculture. The loss of forest cover leads to soil degradation and erosion, which in turn silts up rivers, which ultimately can even devastate coral reefs. Vast swathes of the already-degraded parts of Madagascar go up in flames each year, as illegal bushfires are deliberately set in an attempt to scrape a little more nourishment from a virtually barren landscape.
But the solution is not straightforward. In recent years, there has been a welcome shift in the conservation movement, from simply setting aside portions of natural habitat to a recognition that protection of the environment is not possible without working with communities to establish new sustainable livelihoods, adopt more efficient agricultural methods and implement family planning measures to curb population growth.
What are your favourite places to visit there?
This is a question I am asked a lot, and it is a tough one to answer because there are so many contenders, each with their own very good reasons. For richness of wildlife, the rainforests are unbeatable, and perhaps my favourite spot of all is the small uninhabited island of Nosy Mangabe in the northeast. Not only does the rainforest there have diverse and plentiful wildlife, with a network of relatively easy trails from which wildlife viewing is effortless, but there is a picturesque sandy beach on an idyllic bay where turtles, dolphins and whales may be seen. On the nearby mainland is Madagascar’s largest and most impressive tract of rainforest, which includes Masoala and Marojejy national parks.
No visit to Madagascar would be complete if you were to visit only rainforest sites, though. The western dry forests host a whole different set of remarkable flora and fauna, and in the deep south is a unique habitat variously known as spiny bush, spiny forest or spiny desert. It’s an arid environment with some of the most curious botanical wonders you could ever encounter. A particular gem is the little-known Tsimanampetsotsa National Park. Here, some of the most striking spiny forest vegetation in Madagascar surrounds a salt lake, which is an important wetland habitat for flamingos and other birds. There are bizarre stunted baobab trees, pachypodium ‘bottle’ trees, caves with blind fish, bat roosts, and some very cheeky mongooses of a species that is locally endemic.
Any advice for keen photographers wanting to go there?
It all depends on the kind of photography you are into, but one of the biggest challenges for photographers in Madagascar is coping with extremes of light. Out in the open, in the middle of the day, the sun can be extremely intense, casting very harsh shadows. On the other hand, if your main interest is wildlife then you are likely to spend a lot of time in the rainforest, where light levels are typically lower than you’d think. Night walks are very rewarding in most Malagasy forests, but of course involve even more difficult light conditions for the photographer.
My best advice is to practice before you go. Take your camera to shaded places and test it to see how far you can push the ISO settings and shutter speed while still obtaining a decent image. Performance in low light is one area where expensive cameras often perform considerably better than simpler models. If you decide to use flashes, then those that are not mounted on the camera will produce far better results in most circumstances.
Also give some thought to how much gear it is practical to carry over potentially difficult terrain, while keeping your hands free to take photos. Most photographers find that a tripod is more trouble than its worth, for example, especially if you are in a group with some non-photographers who won’t want to be continually held up.
And don’t forget the frequent showers that give the rainforest its name – you’ll need to make sure you can protect your equipment from this, as well as from seawater and sand if you are on the coast. All things considered, for reasons of portability and protecting your camera from a hostile environment, you may decide good zoom lenses are preferable to carrying a host of primes.
You founded the Madagascar Library and travel to Madagascar as often as you can, but you have also been to other interesting countries, so why the steadfast dedication to Madagascar?
It’s true, Madagascar is very much in my blood now. I guess I differ from most tour leaders and travel writers in that, if circumstances were to make it impossible for them to write about or lead tours to their preferred country, then they would look for an alternative destination to cover. The difference, I think, is that these colleagues are travel writers and tour leaders first and foremost; on the other hand, I am Madagascar specialist first, and a tour leader and travel writer second. That’s to say, if I couldn’t continue writing books on or taking tours to Madagascar, then I would look for some other way to be involved with the country.
It’s a beautiful and incredible island, and there are still plenty of places I haven’t been and things I haven’t seen. I think it will be a good while yet before I begin to tire of Madagascar, and until such time I look forward to going on sharing my passion with others.
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