This is the fourth largest island in the world (after Greenland, Papua New Guinea and Borneo for those quiz fans amongst us) and truly is a unique destination. While it is only 250 miles from the coast of Africa but might as well be ten times that distance if you are looking for comparisons.
Madagascar has some of the highest endemicity on the planet with nearly 80% of its flora and fauna being endemic. There are 30 species of lemurs that are only found on the island and another 100 mammals that are endemic to Madagascar.
It is known as the Red Island because of how it is viewed from space. However as you fly in you will notice that it is slashed through with varying shades of green as rice is grown in every part of the country that is flat enough to sustain a paddy field.
It is one of those places that everyone knows of but probably can give you just one or two key facts; particularly that it is the home of the lemurs. Madagascar is also not on the main road of tourist destinations – yet although the French, the Italians and, increasingly the South Africans are coming in growing numbers.
For travellers from the UK, there are no direct flights. The main options are to fly from Paris to Antanarivo (the Capital) directly. This service flies on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays with return flights on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The alternative is to fly to Johannesburg and pick up a connecting flight to Madagascar from there. These go daily and there are options on who you can fly with.
As you approach the Island you will see that most of the beach is that silver sand that promises to make walking along the beach such a pleasure. You will also notice that there a good number of rivers coming down from the highlands and that they are usually full of water.
Once in Tana (as Antanarivo is locally known) you will be hit by a number of immediate re-actions. Firstly the sheer number of people that are walking the streets. When asking how many people live here, you will get estimates from 2 to 6 million. Poverty is evident and there is often smog from the old diesel engines. If you ever wondered where Renault 4s go to die, then Tana is certainly their anti room to the scrap yard. Next you will notice that the features of the Malagasies vary from Far Eastern to African and every combination in between. Very many if them are extremely attractive, benefiting from the mixture of cultures.
This mix is also applies to the architecture and the food, making for a culinary delight. Seafood is often on the menu, is fresh and excellent. The local drink is rum and makes for the chief ingredient in a number of great cocktails; the local beer is very drinkable but the wine probably worth avoiding. Stick with South African wines.
So what should the traveller do when in Madagascar? Tana, the capital, is well worth a day or two to explore. Certain parts have a real Parisians feel to them, narrow streets, boutique hotels with character and lively cosmopolitan bars. Other parts are wide and the lake gives a feeling of openness. However the urge to explore will have you heading out. Within driving distance of Tana and the Central Highland areas are Andasibe and Ranomafana National Parks, both of which have the attraction of lemurs, many other animals, birds, reptiles and insects many of which are endemic to Madagascar.
The north of the Island is tropical, has several national parks and reserves and is the most popular destination for tourists. The sea and the beaches of the Nosy Be islands and coastline are what dreams are made of, but a tip would be to ensure that this is the last bit of your trip as the humidity can sap your energy making lying in the sun and doing nothing or very little the best option. The northern mainland has wonderful rainforests, hidden waterfalls, crater lakes and the endemic wildlife such as lemurs, mongoose chameleons and a host of birds to make this an exciting destination.
Eastern Madagascar is for the more adventurous as access is more difficult. But the rewards of the wildlife and the eco friendly lodges make this an ideal location for those wanting to get away from it all. From July to September humpback whales can be seen from the mainland and cruises will give you that never to be forgotten up-close view of them. This was a pirate haunt and boasts the only pirate cemetery in the world.
Finally the south and west of Madagascar is different from the rest of the island. It is much drier, has a good number of national Parks, one of which, Tsingy de Bemaraha, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Much of the area is only accessible by 4×4 and during the dry season. This is the domain of the Ring Tailed lemur, spiky forest and Baobabs. In addition there is a shallow soda lake which makes this a birders paradise with flamingos and the Madagascar plover to be seen along with a host of other wildfowl. Again the beaches are wonderful giving an energetic or relaxed end to your trip here.
Madagascar does not need to be rushed and could very easily be a two/three trip destination. Each trip would be different in content, experience and location. What would be constant would be the warm welcome, the good food and the stunning scenery and wildlife.
When asking the name of the flowers, animals and birds you will notice how many are prefaced with “Madagascan”. This is no surprise as the whole island is truly unique. Try to get there before it becomes “popular”.
Peter Ellis – UK agent on Madagascar FAM trip