Recently I was lucky enough to escort the Unicorn Trails Madagascar Trail, so along with three lovely clients I set off to explore the Great Red Island. This is an account of our life changing adventure.
Flying into Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, is fairly straightforward. Flights depart from Paris most days and there is only a small time difference, meaning jetlag is not a problem. Landing is an interesting experience as it would seem the airport designers never had the huge European airliners in mind when they first built the runway, meaning the brakes are applied as soon as the wheels touch the tarmac and sliding forwards off the seat is a real possibility. Having retrieved my runaway hand luggage from three rows in front of my seat, it was time to step out onto Madagascan soil for the first time.
After what felt like an eternity of queuing (the terminal is no better suited to large influxes of passengers than the runway is) it was time to meet the rest of the group and our host André, who was easy to find in the crowd as he is much taller than average among Malagasy people. We went straight to a nearby hotel, where we were all relieved to be able to go straight to bed after a long day of travel. The next morning we were treated to a delicious breakfast of fresh pineapple, melon, banana and avocado, accompanied by a refreshing lychee juice. This was the perfect start to our first day of adventuring through Madagascar!
Driving through Antananarivo gave our first taste of the colours of the country, many houses are painted in bright pastel shades and the women leave their multi-coloured loads of washing out on the grass verges to dry, creating an accidental roadside art scene. First stop on our journey was the lemur park, a nature reserve created completely without fences which provides the native lemurs with a safe home. It’s the perfect way to see the lemurs in their natural habitat and the animals are perfectly relaxed (as one of our group, Nathalie, learnt to her cost when a Ruffed Lemur relieved itself on her shoulder!) There are many species living at the park, including the tiny nocturnal Mouse Lemur and the most famous Ring-tailed Lemur. Very soon it was time to continue our journey onwards to the ranch, with only a few holdups on the way caused by farmers driving their Zebu (similar to cattle) to market in the capital.
André is obviously very proud of his home country and this always makes for a wonderful holiday host. He was able to tell us information and stories about everything we saw along the way, and this pride was perhaps only just outweighed by the passion he has for his horses. Upon arrival we were given a tour of the stables, meeting every one of André’s precious horses and hearing their backstories. There are currently 14 ex-racehorses living there, which André rescued from Mauritius earlier this year and three of whom were to join us for their first ever trail. That evening we had our first trial ride and I was paired with a lovely bay Mauritian ex-racer, named Monsieur Dan. Also in our group were racehorses ‘Sweep Forward’ and ‘Solar Symbol’, stallions Aramis and Helios, and native cross breeds Cador and Finire.
The trial ride built up the anticipation for the week ahead, so we were an excitable group sitting down to dinner that night, discussing our horses and their various quirks. Monsieur Dan was definitely the clumsy member of the group, clearly the Mauritian racecourses are carefully attended to and kept very very flat. Either that or Monsieur Dan was simply born with his talent for falling down any and every hole in his vicinity. He was incredibly sweet though and certainly put his heard and soul into everything. Over the course of the week we of course all fell in love with our horses, I was lucky enough to also ride Aramis, probably the calmest stallion I’ve ever come across. After our delicious dinner of chicken and rice (rice is something of a national dish for the Malagasy) it was time for our last night spent in moderate comfort before starting out on the camping trail.
Setting out early in the morning we were soon surrounded by wide open mountain views, as we crossed plateau after plateau across the central highlands. The ground beneath the horses hooves was red and sandy, allowing for plenty of faster riding. Monsieur Dan and Sweep Forward particularly enjoyed the canters, and had clearly not forgotten their racing days as they took each other on. This wasn’t always ideal as they had no more idea where they were heading than their riders, but we managed to avoid disaster. Over the course of the week the horses never ceased to amaze us, the ex-racers in particular. They boldly strode through rivers up to their bellies, they walked calmly past deafening ancient farm machinery, and they covered up to 30km a day without complaint. Horses are a rarity in Madagascar and André is something of a maverick among the Malagasy people, so the fact that he is making this work using horses that are all too often seen as a ‘waste product’ after their careers is something to be applauded.
The locals, without exception, were extremely welcoming. This is not a tourist area and we met a number of people along the way who, after shyly answering our greetings, asked André in Malagasy what we had painted our skin with to make it so light. With the addition of the horses we created something of a circus scene as we entered each village, children and adults alike running for what seemed like miles just to get a closer look. The noise of riding through each village is one of my biggest memories of the trip, the happy laughter of the children, the clapping, the barking dogs, and the steady hoof beats of our horses walking through the middle of it all.
When the time came to say goodbye to our horses and grooms at the end of the trip the group was silent, each of us giving that final pat before loading our new friends onto the horse box for their journey home. I truly believe that there is no better way to get the true feel for a country than on horseback. We went to many places where no other tourists will visit, we showered in geysers, we ate what the locals eat, and we formed real friendships with real people (especially once we discovered the Malagasy speaking grooms were partial to a boiled sweet!) As far as holidays go, this was my biggest adventure yet.