Whether it is due to its uniquely endemic wildlife or its immortalisation in DreamWorks’ eponymous animated movie, Madagascar inspires wonder and intrigue in travellers of all ages.
Home of the world’s only native lemurs across over 100 species – though much to many a child’s disappointment, not the famous King Julien, the fictional character from the film – Madagascar is a curious anomaly. Much like the Gálapagos, it has developed completely independently of external influence, at least upon the resident fauna, and is almost completely free of significant predators.
Curiouser still, many travellers don’t know what to expect of the African nation, roughly the size of Texas and adrift off the coast of East Africa. It is a country of diversity, from exquisite tropical beaches to otherworldly landscapes, jungles and mountainous national parks. Though remaining distinctly African with nuances of India, early Portuguese and French settlement influenced its modern development, and flavours – both culinary and architectural – remain across the island.
We delve into Madagascar to discover why this wonderful destination may well be the perfect addition to help diversify your itinerary:
A Desert Island Getaway
When venturing upon a more conventional safari, there are few better ways to conclude your itinerary than on a tropical beach. It allows you a few moments of complete relaxation, time to contemplate your adventures and decompress before returning to the real world.
Madagascar offers precisely this: a Robinson Crusoe island paradise, yet one with extraordinary nature, enough to keep the wildlife enthusiast piqued, with white-sand beaches and warm oceans to wash away the dust of safari.
Located off the northwest coast ot the Malagasy mainland, Nosy Be harks straight from the fictitious annals of Daniel Defoe, and one might expect to see his shipwrecked protagonist gathering coconuts in a secluded bay.
Yet despite its castaway air, Nosy Be is a contemporary resort island where bohemian chic meets modern-day luxury. A vacation destination, it has a more cosmopolitan atmosphere, but escapism is only a stroll along the soft, white sand away.
A Spectrum of Landscapes
From these tropical surrounds, one can venture to any of a number of vastly contrasting landscapes. Of particular interest and intrigue are the tsingys, or Tsingy de Bemaraha. Rather descriptively, tsingy roughly translates to ‘to walk on tiptoe’, and these fascinating limestone pinnacles leave little wonder as to why. These towering shards of rock reach skywards, appearing to be desolate and lifeless, the discarded set of some sci-fi B-movie.
Visitors can wander the narrow canyons or more comfortably stroll the boardwalks and rope bridges that span the summit. Despite their hostile appearance, the tsingys are home to an abundance of birdlife and several rare species of lemur, including the alarmingly bizarre and critically endangered aye-aye.
Drastically contrasting the arid Tsingy de Bermaraha, though also a stronghold of the world’s few remaining aye-ayes is Farankaraina Tropical Park. This thick estuarine jungle is akin to a small pocket of the Amazon, both in its dense rainforest and in its abundance of nature. Chameleons, lizards, lemurs and one of the island’s few small predators, the galidia – a species of small mongoose – all dwell in this lush park, now vehemently protected from logging and development.
In fact, Madagascar is an island of many wondrous national parks, each with its own appeal. The wooded Andasibe-Mantadia and Zahamena are canopied in low-lying cloud formed by the steam rising from the rainforests below. Waterfalls cascade down ferned rock faces, towering palms filter the sunlight and a wealth of mammals, reptiles and birds take up residence amongst this fertile landscape.
The celebrity of Madagascar, the ring-tailed lemur, can be found in numerous locations, but Isalo National Park is considered to be one of the best to spot these lovable characters. Rocky outcrops ascend from a drier, more arid landscape, with smaller woodland areas giving the lemurs plenty of arboreal swinging space.
Culture Through the Ages
The fourth largest island in the world, Madagascar as a nation actually encompasses numerous satellite islands, many of which have their own appeal and reasons for visiting. Though inhabited for two millennia, it was first discovered to the western world in the 1500s, when Portuguese missionaries established themselves. Two centuries later, it was the French that took up residence. An integral port on the Asian trade routes, its dark history involves pirates, spices and the slave trade, but the more genial aspects of the European settlers – the architecture and cuisine in particular – are thankfully all that remains.
Despite this western influence, Malagasy culture remains distinctly and wonderfully unique, like so much of this nation, with a fusion of African and Indian character.
The capital of Antananarivo maintains its colonial persona. Though it has spread and modernised over the centuries, the heart of the old city offers historical strolls, bustling marketplaces and a conflgration of mouthwatering aromas.
Outer islands have remained far less affected, and a taste of the true Malagasy way of life can be found with a good guide and a short boat trip.
Madagascar is an island of many islands. The large mainland offers the majority of the country’s attractions, but one should not limit travels to the big island alone.
We have already mentioned the tropical resort paradise of Nosy Be, the most popular and frequented of Madagascar’s islands, but Isle St Marie holds its own collection of unique attractions. A former enclave of buccaneers and pirates, it still boasts – if one can boast such a thing – a pirate’s cemetery, and the names of many a swashbuckling reprobate adorn the rock headstones scattering the graveyard. Pirates would hide on this exquisite atoll, establishing camps of timber huts displaying flags denoting their allegiance. History aside, Isle St Marie – locally referred to as Nost Boraha – remains blissfully unaffected by major tourism, and the quiet island retains much of its local charm alongside myriad reclusive sandy bays and palm-fringed shoreline.
It is also a favoured destination for divers, particularly due to its proximity to the migratory routes of humpback whales. The crystal-clear ocean teems with life, and divers can experience exceptional visibility and abundant fauna.
Of Madagascar’s numerous islands, Nosy Mangabe is one of the finest preserved nature reserves. Its rich yellow sand and large granite boulders make for an impressive coast, but it is to the interior that visitors venture.
Accessible only with a permit, Nosy Mangabe is another refuge for various lemur populations. Here, the aye-aye can be found in number. The endangered aye aye isn’t the most attractive of lemurs, with its scruffy hair, bulging yellow eyes and elongated digits, but it is the most fascinating. The world’s largest nocturnal primate, it hunts using what is known as ‘percussive foraging’. Having evolved an extended forefinger specifically for the purpose, it taps on tree trunks, listening for signs of life, before peeling back the bark to gorge upon the bugs and larvae that lay within.
An Unmissable Instagram Moment
Morondava township is an intriguing collection of timeless timber houses and rustic guesthouses, with local markets proffering all manner of the region’s produce, including fruit and vegetables, and the wealth of sealife harvested from the surrounding Indian Ocean. But a little out of town, its real drawcard stands tall. Best visited at sunrise or sunset, Morondava’s Avenue of the Baobabs is a dirt thoroughfare linking Morondava to the neighbouring town of Belon’i Tsiribihina. Though trucks do frequent its dusty length, the avenue is a stunning sight, with locals walking its length as it winds between the engorged trunks of immense baobabs.
It is a favourite of backpackers and social media influencers, but the sheer majesty of the impressive towering trees makes Morondova well worth enduring the numerous millennials posing for selfies.
Though we recommend at least a week to explore the diversity of Madagascar’s appeal, if you are searching for a fascinating, relaxing and distinctly diverse bookend to your African safari, Madagascar is an exquisite destination that is highly worth considering, even if only for a weekend.