“Baobab Sacré”—sacred baobab—is painted in thick curlicues on a nearby fence that guards a towering, thirst-ridden tree. My guide, Nambs, instructs me to remove my shoes before taking a step closer. I toss my footwear on the fluorescent pile of knock-off Havaianas, and beyond the gate, a handful of visitors have dropped to their knees in mindful prayer.
Although seemingly indistinguishable from its neighbors, the plant, I’m told, once appeared in the dreams of an old medicine man, and has since been a conduit between the material and spiritual world—realms ruled by animism in these parts. As Nambs and I continue down the dusty path dubbed the Avenue of the Baobabs, I’m drawn towards the bases of others trees—some sacred, some not—all of which have grown far beyond a human scale over the course of their thousand-years-long lives. Nambs offers to take my photo, but I feel compelled to turn my back to the camera and hug one of the behemoths instead. I want to commune with a being that’s been watching over the earth since before the Vikings came to the New World—its skin felt like a strange amalgam of paper and leather.
There are nine species of baobab found throughout our planet, but the so-called giant baobab, Adansonia grandidieri—the one that calls out to travelers with its slender, branchless trunk and electric puff of twigs at the top—is only found in Madagascar. Scientists believe that the island nation, whose name aptly means “large stone” in the local dialect, was one of the first rocks of terra firma to break off from the ancient Gondwana supercontinent. Eons of environmental isolation account for its singular ecology like an African Galapagos: Lemurs coo and flip through the canopy, pudgy chameleons snooze on drooping vines, and, of course, the botany is so otherworldly it quite literally inspires devotion.
Beyond the unique flora and fauna, Madagascar—around the same size as France—is one of the most resource-rich nations on the globe, and over the last several decades has become an easy target for predation by stronger political powers. A rusty placard at the entrance to Andasibe National Park in the central part of the island explains that 80 percent of the country has been stripped of its native habitat; Nambs says that the sign is almost 50 years old. Today, it is estimated that around 90 percent of the original biosphere has been forfeited to logging, mining, coal production, deleterious farming practices, and urban sprawl. And only in the last few years, since a shift in government power, have large-scale reforms been put in place like a threefold increase in border size of forest preserves.
Private enterprises, too, have launched campaigns to not only protect Madagascar’s final swathes of primordial land but to also reclaim damaged regions in the name of reforestation. Mitsinjo, a small NGO near Andasibe, operates on a $30,000 annual budget funded by a grant from the Finnish government to restore roughly 25 to 35 hectares each year, an agonizingly precise process that involves reintroducing over 70 species of native plants to the barren earth. In the north, Time + Tide, an eco-minded safari consortium, opened the ultra-luxe Miavana resort last year to help buoy their ambitious plans to translocate a population of endangered lemurs.
Mango African Safaris, an award-winning travel operator based out of the U.S., employs a coterie of Malagasy specialists, including Nambs, to help illuminate a destination that doesn’t even attempt to apply a touristic gloss—visitors can even directly engage in conservation efforts, like spending a day volunteering with primatologists and botanists at Mitsinjo.
Back in western Madagascar near the port city of Morondava, the Instagram-famous Avenue of the Baobabs is the endgame for the average traveler (of which there are admittedly few), but for Mango’s co-founder Teresa Sullivan, the towering trees mark the trailhead of Africa’s most compelling road trip: a weeklong circuit through Madagascar’s interior that, as Sullivan puts it, provides “one of the last real adventures left on the planet that truly spotlights travel’s journey-not-the-destination truism.”
Although the path after the city of baobab skyscrapers technically has a governmental designation—Route 8—the road quickly devolves into a rutty track that’s practically indistinguishable from the surrounding mud pits. And the foliage changes to low-lying brush, obscuring the line of vision from the side windows. This is the domain of the fossa, a carnivorous cat-like creature found only in Madagascar which stalks its pray in the silence of the night.
A wide, snaking waterway marks the halfway point of the journey—the river’s name, Tsiribihina, roughly translates to “don’t put your feet in the water,” as the locals wash their funerary idols in the tributary when their family’s tombs are exhumed. A roaring market town clings to the river’s edge where a system of improvised pulleys help get the passing jeeps across. Wooden planks lay laterally across two canoes like a makeshift catamaran and oarsmen ply the waters when their crafts fill to the brim with cars and goods.
A periodic huddle of huts lines the way to a second river crossing and the children from each village, still drenched from splashing around the watering holes, come to ogle who’s trundling through. The Tsingys lie just beyond—an undulating rock formation with vertical peaks as thin as the bristles on a comb. A testament to the island’s rare topography, the stones—which mean “place where one cannot go barefoot” (but more of an onomatopoeia if you ask Nambs)—are protected under a UNESCO World Heritage mandate, and are best explored over the course of several days intermixed with lazy poolside afternoons at Soleil des Tsingy, one of Madagascar’s best approximations of boutique digs.
In order to unravel oneself from the impenetrable wilds of Madagascar’s interior, travelers must venture back down the rutty path from whence they came. Most guides, including Nambs, time their return to Morondava and the coast with the sunset over baobabs. In the evening glow it’s more apparent that trees aren’t actually lifelines in an otherwise barren desert, but the sole survivors of years of slash-and-burn practices that have rendered the area otherwise extinct. As the light turns from orange to purple it’s easy to anthropomorphize the giant trees—their branches reaching out like little fingers—and truly fathom the reverence for these sacred beings.