To be frank, we found Tulear (Toliara) to be a little short on major tourist attractions (except the utterly brilliant Arboretum outside town, which we think is worth visiting the town for all by itself), but the other major highlight was visiting the coelacanths at the small Museum of Ichthyology.
I am sad to report that said coelocanth is long since deceased - this large and armour plated prehistoric fish that has remained unchanged for about 200 million years and was thought to be extinct for the last 70 million years until it unexpectedly turned up in fisherman's net off the East Cape coast of South Africa in 1938, has never successfully been kept in captivity. The specimen in this small museum is pickled, but what is remarkable about the exhibit (other than the fact that very few museums in the world have a genuine one) is that she was pregnant at the time she was caught, and so you can also see the foetuses of the coelacanth pups, still with their yolk sacs attached. Quite wonderful.
The museum is otherwise what you might expect for an institute that is clearly starved of funds and kept going by the sheer grit and commitment of the staff. Mindbogglingly, the coelacanth is kept in a tank of formaldehyde that is partly open to the atmosphere - akin to storing the Rosetta Stone in a cardboard box! By first world standards, it may be an unspectacular museum, but considering how much they have achieved with virtually no resources, it is a sterling achievement and provides an interesting perspective on the rich marine environment of Madagascar's coastal waters.
You cannot take photos inside the museum, and so have no option but to buy the museum's postcards. They may seem overpriced for what they are, but considering what this plucky little institute manages to achieve with precious little support and even less money, hell, they more than deserve it!
If coelacanths fire your imagination (as, you may have gathered, they certainly do mine), you can see the original specimen preserved in the JLB Smith Institute of Ichthyology in Grahamstown, South Africa. Even better, read "A Fish Caught in Time" by Samantha Weinberg, which is an immensely readable account of the whole bizarre tale surrounding the rediscovery of the coelacanth (which has since been shown to be moderately well distributed in parts of the Indian Ocean extending as far as Indonesia, if still extremely rare) - this is the popular science book that I wish I had written, and I can't recommend it highly enough!
We ended up visiting the Arboretum outside Tulear because we had time to kill and didn't particularly want to visit the Shell Market. What a fortuitous discovery, as this was one of the highlights of our trip to Madagascar, and this sort of happy accident (I think that the correct term is 'serendipity'?) is exactly why I find travel so addictive!
The Arboretum is located a few kilometres out of town, and is a botanical garden devoted to the spiny forest, which is a bizarre and unique ecosystem unique to parts of the coastal fringe of southern Madagascar. The area gets precious little rain, so the plants have evolved to withstand extremes of temperature and drought (and avoid being eaten) - most of which involve growing formidable spikes, spines, prickles and other uncomfortable protruberances! Despite its inhospitable appearance, this ecosystem supports a rich variety of wildlife (including lemurs, though heaven knows how they manage to negotiate their way unharmed through this terrifying stuff).
The arboretum was set up by a Swiss and was clearly a labour of love - you can just sense his passion, and there can be no more fitting memorial to his memory than this fantastic legacy. I am no botanist, but the labelling of specimens is scientifically rigorous, and the interpretive displays are wonderfully thought out and among the best that I've seen anywhere in the world. The signage is on what appears to be recycled metal that has been hammered out to size, and the text appears in three languages (French, English and Malagasy) along with an excellent use of graphics and cartoons: most international tourist destinations could learn from this beautifully executed presentation that cannot but make learning fun!
The site is compact but beautifully laid out and intriguing even to the non-specialist. There is also a wealth of bird, lizard and insect life to keep you engaged, even if ferociously armed plants don't hold your interest. I was particularly charmed to see what was presumably the arboretum's original vehicle - a Renault van - which has been abandoned within the arboretum (probably left to stand where it last gave up the ghost?), and is now bristling with spiny plants which are bursting forth from the bonnet and interior (see picture)!
Bear in mind that Tulear is hellish hot (it was over 40C the day we visited) and can be windy, so cover up and so make sure that you come armed with hat and sunscreen, otherwise you'll fry!
As though this place wasn't perfect enough, we had perhaps our best meal in the whole of Madagascar in the on site restaurant). There also appears to be limited accommodation on site (which we didn't get to investigate), but the sparkling blue pool certainly looked tempting!
We visited this private reserve on the way to Isalo from Ifaty. It is a pleasant enough stop. Good to get out of the car and stretch the legs. Entry is 10,000 Ariary and includes the guide fee.
We weren't so lucky with our guide this time - he was nice enough but mostly reeled off the botanical names of plants, with little 'colour' to the commentary, which took about 45 minutes, around the short circuit (a little over 1km I'd guess. But his command of English (probably his third language after malagasy & french).
The flat dry terrain suports the drought tolerant spiny plants endemic to the south west.
Most of the trees are young, so it will be some time before the place is really well established. The wildlife we saw was restricted to birds, though the reserve keeps some tortoises. There is also quite a nice mineral and fossil display if you like that sort of thing.
There is accommodation and a pool available as well as a restaurant. Oh, and there is a shop for souvenirs.
I unexpectedly encountered my best meal in Madagascar in the arboretum outside Tulear.
The restaurant provides welcome respite from the blazing sun and heat, and offers a small menu - if the other options are anywhere near as good as what we had, then you wouldn't need any more choice!
Favorite Dish: We started our meal with a glass of chilled baobab juice - presumably made from the seeds of the baobab fruit, which are rich in cream of tartar. It was absolutely delicious - tart, refreshing and - oh joy! - icy, icy cold: so much so that we downed it in a few gulps and asked for a refill, only to be disappointed that they only make a limited quantity per day (which we had obviously just exhausted).
My main course was a cheese salad because it was just too damn hot to have anything more substantial. The result was absolutely perfect - a variety of french-style hard and soft cheeses on a bed of crisp, varied salad leaves with an accent of red onion. Simplicity can be perfection - and this was.
We spotted this facility just off the main road to Tulear, but couldn't quite work out what it might be. "Fuel storage?" No. "Asphalt for road maintenance perhaps?" No. A rum distillery!
Clearly the locals have developed a taste for rum with that extra special hydrocarbon aftertaste and the afterburner effect ... yet more reason to stick to the excellent beer!