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A surreal drive across Madagascar’s highlands

It was an unforgettable journey across the high plateau. After Tana, we passed through the rice, and then what seemed like Tuscany, Borneo, the world of Hieronymus Bosch and Middle Earth. At some stage during this drive, I would fall asleep and then wake up, utterly lost.

But even from the beginning, I remember thinking how random things had become. The memories of those first few hours are fabulously disjointed: the punts, the petanque, and the brickmakers’ wives; a taxi full of goslings; the concrete Virgins; the hilltop villages, daubed in ochre and floating on water; the fishermen casting their nets, and the car wrecks, still limping along; an ancient policeman wearing a kepi; the strawberry stalls, the pines, the ox-carts, and a beautiful girl breaking rocks with a hammer.

My driver, Faustin, was a thoughtful companion, and knew all the place names and tombs and magic pools. But he was different from the people out in the paddy, with his heavy limbs and his head all shaved and shiny. His forebears weren’t from the hauts plateaux, he said, and they’d never got used to the dogs and the cold. Even though Faustin was born up here, he still found the houses strange. The typical dwelling, or trano gasy, looked like a thatched loaf, two storeys high, with sky-blue shutters. ‘Everyone here sleeps upstairs,’ he explained, ‘and only the cattle and children sleep down below…’

After a few hours we passed Ambatolampy, where we stopped at the foundries. This is where Madagascar’s hubcaps are melted down and turned into saucepans and spoons. Inside its blackened workshops, a prickly burnt-aluminium smell caught in the throat. The moulding teams worked fast, reshaping the hot sand with their hands and bare feet. They also had a special kind of bamboo piston for firing up their kilns. It’s said that these bellows are found nowhere else in the world except Kalimantan. But Faustin said we shouldn’t hang around. ‘See how young these men are? The fumes make you sick.’

Beyond the town, the hills began to empty. For a while the rice terraces continued to collect in the gullies. But then, after four hours, there was nothing but grass and brittle tufts of Philippia and Helichrysum. There were no trees or houses now, just the endless, borderless, waterless savannah. In places, the hillsides had collapsed, leaving great crimson wounds the size of amphitheatres. It’s thought that, once, this whole area was covered in forest, but then came the humans and their tribal wars. After a particularly bloody clash, in 1821, the grasslands were all but abandoned. For hundreds of miles to the north and south, the savannah was stripped of life. Even now, it’s referred to as the efitra, or ‘partition’, a beautiful no man’s land that separates Madagascar’s Asian highlands from the Sakalava.

The hills were now turning mauve, and Faustin drove faster.

‘You worried?’ I asked.

‘We have to go quickly, there are many bandits and ghosts.’

‘Oh. Are we going to be robbed?’

‘It should be OK. We have a big car. They’ll think we have guns.’

‘And what about the ghosts?’

‘Vazimba. They’re everywhere here, in the hills.’

Extracted from John Gimlette’s new travel book, ‘The Gardens of Mars’. Now available on Amazon. Inexplicably it has only one rating and that is one star. Given John is about the best English-language travel writer out there and this book is not yet on general release I suspect a disgruntled rival. Expect five-star ratings and give it a read. Oh, and see his online book launch ‘event’ below.

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