Places of Madagascar
Many contrasts. It's not called 'The Island Continent' for nothing.
The Hauts Plateaux (High Plateau)
Travelling south from Tana you begin to understand why the original Malagasy settlers decided to locate their capital in the middle of a vast island and not, as might seem natural, on the coast. Among the hills and bluffs are the many fertile valleys that make the Hauts Plateaux the country's rice bowl. Rice paddies occupy most of the valley floors, and climb many of the slopes. The human population is dense, with the area's typical red mud-brick dwellings grouping very few kilometres into villages.
Deeper into the south the granite outcrops that had already been evident begin to dominate. The scenery is dramatic and underlines another reason for the selection of Tana as the island's capital. There could hardly be better fortification than these sometimes perilous cliffs.
At the same time as the terrain becomes more imposing the climate starts to dry out. Rice paddies give way to grassy plains, the result of annual burns conducted to stimulate new shooting feed for zebu cattle herds. Zebu are unique to Madagascar and, as a measure of wealth and influence, are a significant symbol in the Malagasy culture.
Approaching Isalo further to the southwest the landscape changes once more. Sandstone replaces granite, jutting from the savanna-like grass plains in deeply weathered masses. Canyons inside Isalo National Park shelter some of the region's remaining indigenous habitat but elsewhere the native forests have been cleared.
Isalo also marks the beginning of the long and gradual descent to the southwest coast. The country flattens and broadens then shifts again to close rolling hills. Rain and water are becoming scarce. The mud-brick dwellings of the Hauts Plateaux are replaced by stick shacks, many which could only be described as hovels. The poverty is more obvious. The land does not appear capable of providing any substantial yield.
But after the land there is the sea, coming into view during a small drop to the coastal plain.