Death is not the end but the beginning of a long, hard climb. At least that’s what the Bara people believe. No sooner have your bones been scraped clean than you’re off, into the Isalo Massif. Fortified with rum, your relatives will shin up the cliffs to find the perfect niche, at heights of up to 4,000ft. The greater you were, the higher they’ll climb. Occasionally they’ll fall, and there will be more rum, more climbing and more coffins. But eventually, you’ll be properly dead, enjoying eternity from the top of the world.
For outsiders, it’s a tricky business, getting to Isalo. For a start, Madagascar is stupendously big and empty. It has a road network no greater than Jamaica’s and yet it’s 53 times the size. The massif is just south of the centre, in an area that gets all its rain at once, and then almost nothing from March to October. To reach it from the capital, Antananarivo, it’s either a tenderising two-day drive, or an hour’s flight to Tulear. From the air, you might even see the massif itself, rising out of the plains like a big red cake, over 110 miles across.
Tulear gives no hint of what’s to come. It’s a breezy little city, sprawling along the beach. At low tide, old wooden schooners moor in the shallows, and the ox carts wade out to meet them. In the 17th century, English pirates settled here, and it still has a briny, swashbuckling feel. One hotel is even shaped like an ocean liner, while all the rickshaws have names like ‘Mad Max’, ‘Girlfriend’ and ‘Titanic’. Best of all is the Sea Museum, with its grotesque collection of pickled coelacanths, dredged from the depths of the Mozambique Channel.
Most of the people here are from a fishing tribe, the Vezo. Many of them still live out on the dunes, where they dry their fish and carve out huge canoes. Unlike their inland cousins, the Vezo have always shrunk from violence, and, at the first sign of trouble, they head for their boats. They are adept mariners, navigating purely by instinct or the sound of the reef. Although they look African, some people think they are the heirs of Madagascar’s first human beings, who were Indonesians, arriving in around 500 ad.
Travelling inland, life becomes more complicated. I remember thinking how warlike the trees had become, everything covered in spikes or weeping poisonous sap. Even the baobabs here looked like great fortified towers, topped with a sprig of green. Within an hour, the rivers had all turned to sand, and there was nothing but silvery thorn. ‘This’, said my driver, Toky, ‘is the Spiny Forest.’
Even the people were a little spinier here: the Mahafaly tribe. We occasionally saw them by the roadside: men with spears, women breaking rocks and children carting water. Sometimes we’d stop by one of their magnificent tombs. Covered in paintings of film stars and guns, here were the Mahafaly as they hoped they’d be: sexy, implacable and armed. They’ve never liked government or rules, and only fought their last war in 1932.
Several hours down the road, the land changed again, along with the tribe. At Zombitse, there was a brief moment of ancient forest, and then the grasslands began. In places, the straw had been burnt away by the cattle-men, but mostly it was golden; a glorious, seething pelt of yellow, rippling off in all directions. ‘Cowboy country,’ announced Toky, ‘the land of the Baras.’
Like all Wild Wests, Isalo has its Klondike town. Until 1998, Ilakaka was just a collection of shacks on the RN7. But then a rich seam of gems appeared, and suddenly there were hotels and brothels springing from the dirt. At one point, more than 100,000 desperados were living by the road, and Ilakaka was producing around 40 per cent of the world’s sapphires. In this scramble, hundreds were murdered, including Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law, in 2007. But it didn’t last. Many of the miners have now drifted away, leaving a town of shovels and a landscape of holes.
Beyond the mines, the savannahs opened out again, and the massif appeared. From below, it looked like some fabulous intergalactic fortress, with its giant buttresses and portals half a mile wide. Even its outworks were monumental: a maze of mountains that rose up like pillars, each bristling with pinnacles the size of cathedrals. Somewhere in here we came across the Relais de la Reine, with its own oasis, its own orchards and its own little stretch of savannah. Of all the hotels I stayed in, during three months in Madagascar, this is still my favourite.
Humans have always loved it here. Isalo was once part of the Sakalava empire but then came the ferocious Baras in about 1700. They were dancers, fighters and cowherds, and — even as late as 1896 — they were still raiding the interior for slaves. Nowadays, their nearest village is out in the long grass, at Voatovolave, or ‘Long Pumpkin’. It’s their second settlement here. The first was considered unlucky, and so they burnt it down.
One day, I asked one of the hotel boys to take me out there. It was an unforgettable walk through the gardens and gorges. The village chief, Monsieur Bahidy, lived in a house of bright red mud, and owned only a bed, a suitcase and his weapons. He described a life that was both lawless and perfect. A man could be rich here, with up to 2,000 cattle and eight wives. The rustlers were no match for his villagers’ spears. As if to show how strong they were, a boy appeared, with a huge snorting bull. In a brief squall of dust and limbs, the great beast was wrestled to the ground. I somehow felt that I’d been warned.
Another day, I clambered up into the massif itself. I had with me a Bara called Coco, who knew all the canyons and tombs. Despite the heat and Coco’s grisly stories, it was a curiously happy day. Up on the plateau, we ate by a pool full of evil spirits, and were joined by a sifaka lemur. Coco also found me chameleons, a troupe of troglodytic lemurs and a rainbow milkweed locust. This was toxic, he said — one lick and you’re dead.
Before leaving Isalo, there was one thing more I wanted to do: visit the tombs. My last morning, the hotel’s climbing instructor kitted me out in carabiners and gloves, and up we went. It was easy work, clipped to a cable, and we were soon amongst the spires. But the little graves were still way above us, inserted in the rock. Coco once told me that his people never re-visit their ancestors but that they’ll never leave them either.
It’s a pleasing thought; the idea that the Bara will always be here, protecting these magnificently difficult mountains forever.
John Gimlette travelled as a guest of Rainbow Tours (0203 733 6778; rainbowtours.co.uk) and Air Madagascar (airmadagascar.com).
He is the author of Elephant Complex: Travels in Sri Lanka.