Tuléar, the capital of Madagascar’s Southern Dry Forest, is said to be where the road ends and the adventure begins. Tuléar is also known as Toliary or Toliara is a wild area of semi-desert, situated on the southwest coast of the island of Madagascar. Lying on the Tropic of Capricorn, it was known as one of the routes to the Western Indian colonies. It is now the capital of the Atsimo-Andrefana region and the Toliara province.
The province is reminiscent of an ‘old west’ town is extremely diverse. It is home to the Antandroy people, known as ‘the people of the thorn bush’, the nomadic Vezo fishermen, the Mahafaly renowned for the funerary art and the mysterious bush-dwelling Mikea.
The town itself has approximately 60,000 residents and a university that was founded in 1970. The name of the town is said to derive from an encounter with a sailor who asked a local where he might moor his boat. The Malagasy reply was ‘toly eroa’, which means ‘mooring down there’. The town itself is quite modern and was designed by a French architect in 1985.
Tuléar is the opening to the bush country of the vast and dense, thorny thicket where the main species are didiera, euphorbia and baobabs. The huge area includes the baobab country of Morondava and the tsingy of Bemaraha in the north, the spiny bush of Andatabo in the south and the spiny forest of Ifaty.
The Madagascar Spiny Thicket is such an unusal habitat that experts cannot agree on whether to call it a forest or a desert. The trees are either tall and branchless, often with long, sharp spines, or short, densly branched, with swollen trunks. These unusual characteristics are thought to be adaptations to survive the long, dry periods of up to seven months without rain.
Approximately 18.6 miles (30 kilometres) from Tuléar is the small village of Ifaty-Mangily. The village can be reached in an hour or two by car, along a dusty, bumpy road. Near the village is the Reniala Reserve, meaning ‘Mother of the Forest Reserve’, after the nickname of the baobabs endemic to this area.
Within the Spiny Forest of Ifaty, this 140 acre (0.57 square kilometre) reserve was created as a protected area. In 2001 the area opened as a botanical garden, ornithological park and baobab forest and it is now one of the last pieces of primary forest in the south. Throughout the park, carefully created sandy paths lead visitors past the endemic plants and to the biggest baobab of Ifaty, known as the ‘teapot’ due to its appearance. It is thought to be around 1,500 years old.
In total there are nine species of baobab tree; six from Madagascar, two from Africa and one from Australia. These trees store large amounts of water in their trunks, which is why elephants and other animals chew the bark in the dry season. The widest baobab on record has a circumference of 177 feet (53.9 metres) and the oldest is thought to be 6,000 years old.
These trees are one of nature’s most unique creations due to the way they become hollow as they grow. In 2005, an investigation into a large baobab tree in Mozambique took place. It was discovered that the youngest wood was found both on the outside and right next to the hollow cavity, suggesting that the cavities are in fact natural empty spaces. It was then found that the tree actually consisted of five fused stems, the oldest being 1,355 years old and the youngest being only 900 year old (scientists used radiocarbon dating to determine their ages). A hundred years or so after the youngest stem began growing, the stems fused together forming the false cavity. Since this investigation, analysis of over 50 baobabs have confirmed that the huge, hollow trees are actually multiple fused stems.
Within the Reniala Reserve is a lemur rescue centre, that aims to protect ring-tailed lemurs. The NGO project houses 25 lemurs, which were confiscated from the illegal pet trade and the bush meat trade and aims to care for, rehabilitate and eventually release this lemurs back into the wild. The ring-tailed lemurs are unmistakable because of their long, vividly striped, black and white tails.
Along the paths, small Madagascar iguanas, more commonly known as ‘three-eyed lizards’ scuttle in front of visitor’s feet. These tiny creatures distinguish themselves by having a dark spot on the top of their heads that resembles a third eye. The dark spot seems to have some rudimentary light sensing ability but is not an actual eye. The species is endemic to Madagascar, where it is widespread in the south and the southwest. Most localities occur on or near the coast and the lizard mainly inhabits sandy areas in the primary dry forest, spiny forest and degraded areas.
Camouflaged chameleons cling on to branches, staying very still as visitors pass by and quite often going completely unnoticed. Madagascar is home to about half of the world’s 150 species of chameleons (approximately). The way these creatures can alternate between stealthy camouflage and flashy displays within minutes is quite incredible. They have two layers of specialised cells that lie just beneath their transparent outer skin. The cells in the upper layer, called chromatophores, contain yellow and red pigments. Below these cells is another cell layer, called guanophores that contain a colourless, crystalline substance called guanin; the guanophores reflect the blue part of incident light. A layer of dark melanin containing melanophores is situated below guanophores and they influence the lightness of the reflected light. All these different pigment cells can relocate their pigments, thereby influencing the colour of light that is reflected.
It is a long drive back to Tuléar but the journey can be made more tolerable with a stop for a cold beer at the Ifati Bamboo Club on the way!
CRUISE: Silversea‘s Silver Cloud from Mombasa to Cape Town.
- Information provided by Silverseas Cruises