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Madagascar: Masoala Coral Gardens

Harmony amongst the coral: A pair of butterfly fish in sync.

The Masoala peninsula is home to a large proportion of the remaining hectars of Madagascar primary rain forest. It is refuge to such rare and strange species as the leaf-tailed gekko and the red-ruffed lemur. so much I knew and so I was stoked for my first visit to that ecosystem. What I didn't know is that Masoala is also home to spectacular coral reefs, the likes of which I have not seen.

Masoala is where the forest meets the sea.

As long as I can remember, beach and sea have been the elements where I feel most at home. Whether during holdidays in France as child, as student of marine ecology in South Africa, dive master in Egypt or traveler in the Carribean or the Indo-Pacific, I found again and again that I just feel great with lots of water over and lots of sea creatures around me. I have dived with big fish, I have dived wrecks and caves, at night and with zero visibility - and I thought I had more or less seen it all.

However, I was ill prepared for snorkling the Masoala. The pristine beauty and sheer untouchedness of this place are simply astonishing. The corals are obviuosly in strong and healthy conditions, I found no traces of bleaching or broken corals, or other damage. Instead, I swam through mystifying seascapes that seemed to stem directly from the early diverpioneers descriptions of Hans Hass and Jaques Cousteau that I had gobbled up as a teenager. Corals, corals corals of all types and forms growing over and on top of each other, with intermittant sponges and giant clams thrown in. Add to that an abundance in fish and other life forms of which I had heard, but never seen, and the occasional turtle, and you get only a glimpse of an idea of what it was like.

E. O. Wilson made the term 'biophilia' popular for describing the experience and healthiness of enjoying the company of living things. I came out of the Masoala waters thinking I would like to take that to the next level and define 'ecophilia' - as the sheer joy of finding and experiencing a spot in nature that still seems absolutely healthy.

Colourful clams: Tridacna can be found in abundnace.

Corals, corals, more corals, sponges, anemone, clown fish, corals. And a thousand other things.

Here, HE is king: Lionfish exude that calm self-confidence onyl potentially deadly animals have.

Tropical sandwhich: sea, fish and coral.

Nudibranch freaks will have a feast: Only one of numerous colourful specimen.

Always a nice shot: Rhizostomae medusa from below.

Decidedly territorial, this Emperorfish was not put off by excessive photography on my part.

A blue spotted stingray chillaxing under some corals. Nice place for a snooze, I must admit.

Wall-sponges of enormous proportions find spots between the coral blocks.

A Fungia coral displaying its tentacle. This is actually a single polyp, despite being the size of a dinner plate, and the only mobile coral.

Always a beauty: a Nephtheid soft coral all contracted and curled up for sleeping through the day.

A colony of brigth orange anemone add yet another splash of colour.


Madagascar: Paradise

The Maroantsetra Airport is an experience in itself: Checking in.

Untouched primary rain forest on rolling hills that gently slope to a warm turqouise sea, raucous calls of red-ruffed lemurs and the gentle drone of the cicadas, empty sandy beaches dotted with boulders from a giants' playground, a healthy coral reef teeming with life – and amongst it all, a secluded spot, where a few tented huts have been put up, a few kajaks that silently split the sea, a footpath that leads into the mountains. No power grid, no mobile reception. Spending time at the Masoala Lodge is eco-tourism that lives up to the name – and an unforgettable experience. Yet for me, the beauty of the location immediately triggered a traveler's dilemma.

If you found Paradise, would you tell everyone how to get there? Probably not, for the very absence of humans, or at least of human impact, is the recipe for keeping it heavenly. Those places where you can experience what this planet would look like if it wasn't for us are getting extremely rare. Thailand, Sinai, Goa, Morocco... place names that once stood for individual travelling have lost their magic to the cheap and glitz of hotels and tour operators. And even the most remote beaches or mountain tops will carry the plastic litter of our age. So do I tell people about the wonderful things I have seen and experienced and thereby contribute to the process? Or do I keep my mouth shut, and somebody else will blurt it all out?

Monster en miniature: The leaf-tailed gekko Uroplatus.

Madagascar as a whole is prime example of how humans mess up their environment – deforestation and erosion have sculpted the landscape of the highlands, where once were lush forests, bare earth now bakes in the sun as far as the eye can see. In a process that took him not even 2000 years, man has stripped the land and made it inhospitable even to himself. But an speck of primary rain forest remains on the Masoala peninsula, protected from the onslaught by National Park status, and unfit for mass tourism by its sheer remoteness: it takes an international and then a domestic flight, a taxi and a 3 hour boat ride to get you to the gates.

Home of the clownfish: Amphiprion couple with host anemone.

Still, looking at the way the world turns, distances forever shrinking, one wonders how long this legal and geographical protection will hold. Madagascar is a country where coup d'états seem to happen with a certain regularity, and concessions to international firms for cutting wood are quick to be signed when money is scarce - as it always is, even if you are not running one of the world's poorest economies. Tourism is ever expanding – Europeans, Americans, Japanese, Russians etc are lining up to push into more and more far and away places, bringing noise, litter, pollution and aggression.

The Masoala peninsula is a potent tonic that serves almost immediate relief from tensions, worries and everyday stress. Just jump into the luke warm waters after a forest walk, or stroll under the lush vegetation lining beaches that are free from litter, listen to the birds and crickets sing in the morning or enjoy the silence when bouldering up a forest river. The mind goes into limbo - I almost immediately lost all sense of time, weekday names became just a fleeting memory. Locals are relaxed, and immensely friendly, nature is abundant and benign - bar the odd cyclone pushing through. “The only problem here is that there is no problem,” says Pierre, the owner of Masoala Forest Lodge, who came to this pristine spot with partner Sandra eight years ago, and makes sea kajaking trips around the peninsula available to those who are willing to put up with little comfort in order to experience nature. “The people here probably don't even know what a problem is.”

Even in Paradise Beauty and Death are closely connected: Mantis on Orchid.

It's hard to grasp – and I hope my own sense of foreboding for the future of this place proves to be just that: a Western incapability to stop worrying about loss.


Madagascar: Tana

I have always held the belief that when it is love, you know it from the first second. This assumption gives some sort of sense to my life, and at the moment it guides my meandering through the streets of Antananarivo, the capitol of that mystic island Madagascar.

Antananarivo: a view of Haute Ville.

The moment I had set my foot on the crumbling asphalt of the minuscule airport, where gangways or busses are non-existant, and felt the warm, lazy breeze bathe me over, I had already taken a liking to the place. Even before, straining through the airplane window, glimpsing the first stretch of ragged coast-line which quickly turned from beach white to lush green to rich African red as we headed inland, and I realized that Madagascar is an endless tapestry of one fantastically eroded hill, ravine, and mountain after the other, I felt beguiled. The ten minutes or so my passport was handed from one official to the next at customs, each one trying to outcompete the friendly smile of his or her predecessor, however, were enough to calm my anxiously thumping heart, relax my hunched shoulders and turn my travel-worn frown into a smile in its own right.

All Tana is a market. Streets are shops.

Tana, as it is commonly (and less tongue twistingly) called, is a dump, there is no denying. But it is a lovely dump, if there be such a thing, a charming chaos full of vibrant colour, the sweet smell of sweat and rot permeating the mountain air, which is cleared from smog by tepid rainfalls evening after evening. Buildings in different stages of decay crumble and are recycled in the shacks growing between colonial palaces, there does not seem to be a distinct line defined by class, colour or cash. And it is inhabited by a people humble and gracious, extremely poor, but apparently content.

Boys taking a break.

If courtesy as a way of life was ever brought to fruition, it is here. The Malagay are so well behaved, that when asked whether they would object to a photograph, they will just regretfully lower their eyes rather than tell you outright that it is against their wish. But I can hardly set one foot before the other, let alone turn a corner without the immediate wish to take a picture. Strange, bemusing or simply captivating images enter the mind in a steady flow.

Goat anyone?

I walk mile after mile without goal, without plan, but the richness of life, the things to see, the lighting up of faces that a simple Bonjour, a casual ca va or even just a nod in passing will provoke driving me out in the streets time after time, even though the knees ache from the steep hills and crooked cobble stone curbs.

Selling fresh fruit.

The distinct wonder I feel at all of this is the sense that I, obviously the filthy rich tourist, feel completely safe even walking alone at night. The chaos of poverty, and hunger, and dreadful sicknesses, that might in other places come with a pronounced threat to the intruder, here somehow is covered with a benign veil. But just when the old legend, that the poor people are the happier, which we like to comfortably flee to when confronted with unbearable living conditions of the slums, sounds inside yourself in apologetic affirmation, there is this boy, maybe four years old, dressed in dirty shreds, cradling his baby sister, sheltering himself in the shadow of a rotting dung heap from the hard sunshine, looking at you with eyes that are bottomless, and you realize that it is just that: a legend.

You are never alone for long.


Scene at Jo'Burg airport

Wide almond eyes overflow with tears, a mouth parts in a silent scream, pearl white very even teeth reflect the neon lights, the face distorted so that at first you cannt decide whether from laughter or pain. An Indian teenage girl, excessively pretty, model-figure, grey high heel boots, holds a delicate hand over her mouth and gazes unbelievingly from father to mother.

The middle-aged woman - once she must have been so beautiful - clutches desperately at her husband, the face dark, unbelieving. The wife buries her head in her hands. His face is a hard, set mask. The temples stone grey, the deepset eyes do not blink. He pats the mother one or two times, then reaches out for his daughter over the small table with the assorted rolls and tea pots. She shies away in disgust, hugs her arms to her chest, looks for comfort from anwhere or anyone in the busy airport cafe. Briefly our gazes meet, but her eyes see nothing, hold nothing, she rests her head briefly against a marble pillar and seems about to faint. There is no sound from this group, even though I am sitting less than five meters away. The steady drone of boarding calls and security announcements and squeaking trolleys blocks it all.

A bizarre scene from an over-acted, over-burdened silent movie. An everyday scene, really, made unreal just by the public display. Did the husband plan his revelation for this occasion so he would have a plane to catch and could smoothly fly away from the wreckage?

A waitress brings my breakfast, yoghurt, fruit, muesli and coffee. The silent wailing, the suffering, the hard staring, it just goes on in that other world across the aisle, there is no relief, no turning point. Finally, the man gets up, there is a final embrace, now the daughter doesn't want to let go. The man disentangels himself and pushes his trolley (three suitcases) to the boarding gate.

I pour sugar in my coffee and take a sip. It's very hot and much too sweet.