Article

Madagascar

IN THE EYE OF THE STORM

Isalo National Park, Madagascar.

We could see them coming. They were miles away, so far that they had probably been there – shimmering on the horizon – for some time before we even saw them.

The guide, a young man who had lived his whole life in the village nearest to this National Park, pointed them out, almost for something to say.

I stopped and followed his finger out up to the foothills of the mountains that boxed off the edge of the plain, three or four miles away. There, spread along the horizon, for maybe a mile or two, hovered a silver mist, like cobwebs in the dew. The problem was, it wasn’t morning, and not the sort of place for mist. I wasn’t sure what I was looking at until he told me: locusts.

We stopped and watched them moving almost imperceptibly along. They were travelling parallel to the path we were on, safely out of distance. We watched them going past as we would a train going by.

The sense of relief was overwhelming. No-one likes locusts. They have no redeeming features and far too many negatives. They seem to target people who have next-to-nothing and are already struggling to survive. I started thinking about how I have always hated them, ever since school, when we had a few dozen of them (God knows why) in a glass cage at the back of the class in biology. The sight and the smell and the touch of locusts had always faintly revolted me. The horror of seeing such vast numbers of them just floating by was difficult to quantify. Still, the guide did not seem that concerned and I felt the alarm of seeing them subside. I noticed there were birds circling – not hawks, the guide said, but parrots, relishing the feast.

I was just explaining to the friends I was travelling with about the devastation they can cause, how difficult it was to stop them, how they just drift wherever the wind takes them… That was when I noticed it: the long grass of the undergrowth bending in the wind, bending straight towards us.

Walking on, my glances over to the foothills grew more and more frequent. The train just looked as if it had stretched along the mountains. But the breeze was definitely heading our way.

I stopped and looked more carefully. The heart of the haze was still shimmering safely in the distance. But I was looking into the centre of the swarm. Re-focusing, training my eye on the mid-distance between us and the mountains, suddenly I could see them individually and then I knew they were coming.

We stood there, waiting for them to hit, pretending inwardly not to panic, wondering nervously what it was going to be like. We were stranded in the open, miles and miles from anywhere, right in the sights of a plague of fucking locusts.

“We know how to live ! ” my friend laughed.
“Yeah. You don’t get this in Croydon.”
We started taking photos – as if they would be the last thing that we did. A record of our demise. My friend stoically lit a (final) cigarette.

Now I could see the fore-runners of the swarm were nearer, almost with us. The worst thing was the noise, the tiny (frightening) fluttering of wings, exactly as it would be in a horror film, like the sound of rain on the metal roof of a tin shed at the start of a storm. Just beating. And increasing.

The first fluttered in to view, almost harmlessly. Then they came, like a rain, just descending in droves, moving in low over the sky like a grey cloud, as if plane-loads of pepper had been dropped to top of us. They droned in, remorselessly, like bombers from a bad war film; like something super-imposed in a bad science fiction film; as surreal and ridiculous as the 3-D bits from ‘The Birds’.

We crouched down in the dust, and they flew five feet over our heads, millions and millions of them, swishing almost silently through the air like eerie arrows. It was hard to actually accept, but not one touched me. I had envisaged them just landing on us, end up with the sort of thick locust matting that now covered the path we were walking on.

The guide just stood there, laughing, laughing at our fear, and leaping in the air, jokingly knocking them out of the air, like the last line of resistance.

I lay on my back looking up, the blue skies overhead blacked out by locusts. When (tentatively) we stood up, thankfully, they flew around us, inches over our heads. Still nothing touched me.

Our guide, bored of waiting for us to start walking, had taken to knocking them out of the air with the yellow carrier bag that contained what was left of our lunch. He was picking their stunned bodies up off the ground, filling the bag for his dinner.

After an hour or so, we had to get going, even they kept coming. Walking through the locusts that lay thick on the path, disturbing them as we went, I saw it was not a good day to wear shorts. We took almost triumphant delight in seeing one being eaten on the path by a praying mantis, its mandibles actually visible as it devoured it. One down. Four or five million to go.

Back at the village, mostly they just laughed when, wide-eyed, we told them what had happened. But later we learned they faced the threat of food shortages and even famine, as the grazing land for their cattle was gradually destroyed. The swarms were so dense, the planes sent out to drop the insecticide had been unable to land.

The guide said it was only the third swarm he had ever seen there and easily the largest. We, jokingly, suggested, in the circumstances, he should waive the fee. As he left for home, reaching into the carrier full of locusts, he turned and shouted that we had forgotten to take the biscuits.

“NO !!!” we shouted in unison. “It’s OK you can keep them.”
Never has the offer of some biscuits been so swiftly resisted.

We had gone to the park for the lemurs. Isalo is one of Madagascar’s best National Parks, where lemurs, virtually the country’s national symbol, are a protected species. When we’d arrived, we couldn’t see why they made such a fuss. Yeah, OK, so they’ve got a few lemurs. What sort of wildlife was that ? And anyway, how cute can a lemur be ? The answer, once we’d seen them, was pretty bloody cute. Cuter than a lorry load of koalas.

Tracking them down in the forests had become something of an obsession. The guides all made a show of calling them, making clicking noises with their tongue, but the lemurs never seemed to answer. On one occasion, as we stood holding our breathe to see if he could find them, the only noise that responded to the guide’s call turned out to be another guide making the same noises.

But amazingly each time, in the end, they came anyway, crashing round our ears, as if they wanted to see us. At one point in Isalo, there were so many of them around us, getting nearer and nearer, we actually began to worry about them. We even saw a solitary nocturnal lemur you very rarely see, so we were feeling pretty pleased and rather fortunate. That was half an hour before the locusts.

We had plenty of other Madagascan memories – the Madagascan lager (“Three Horses Beer”), lethal moonshine rum and ginger, daily doses of bananas flambe, liberally doused in rum.

The people we encountered when we arrived were the customs officers who confiscated our passports until we procured them two bottles of Johnny Walker. On the Bounty Bar island of Sainte-Marie, having breakfast, we watched in amazement as so we saw a whale arc out of the waves. The madness of the music and dancing, the absolute joy, at Le Vieux Port in Nosy Be’s aptly-named centre, Hell-Ville, was even more astounding.

The variety of the landscapes and the beauty and poise of the people were also something to behold. I once found myself in the market standing next to a young woman with a melon balanced on her head, as if it was the most natural thing in the world (which of course it was). One tiny old lady with a singer sewing machine on her head could give Kate Moss lessons in deportment.

But what I remember most, of course, are the locusts – a genuinely Biblical experience ! Waiting for the plane home, sitting in Antananarivo airport, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the souvenir shop was selling a vividly-decorated carving – of a fucking locust ! Like a kind of over-sized version of Jiminny Cricket, even the hairs on its horrible hind legs had been minutely depicted. I asked the guy running the stall how long he had had it, or the last time he had sold one. He admitted he didn’t sell very many.

I felt it had fallen upon me to buy it. I couldn’t see it meaning very much to anyone else. It was a tribute to Madagascar and what a fantastic time we had there that they had in no way dented our enthusiasm. In some strange way, they had actually become the highlight. By the time we got home, we were still high on Madagascar where he first three letters remain constant.

ends