It might be part of the African continent, but having broken away from the mainland more than 160 million years ago, the fourth biggest island on the planet feels a world away from its big sister.
Granted, you’ll still find the white sand beaches, savannahs and deserts most closely associated with Africa here. But it’s the island’s other features that make this country so beguiling.
From the 45,278 square miles of primordial rainforest in the north via the central highlands’ paddy fields to the otherworldly spiny thickets of the south, it’s the more unusual aspects of Madagascar’s landscape – and the titanic assortment of wildlife and vegetation living within them – that draw travelers from far and wide.
Whether your focus is on primates or geology, coral reef or baobabs, Madagascar won’t fail to delight. The eighth continent, as conservationists have labeled it, promises a taste of nature like nowhere else on earth.
Discover the Island’s Curious Creatures
Home to 5 percent of the planet’s flora and fauna – 90 percent of it endemic – this highly diverse biosphere is jammed-packed with bizarre beasties, a firm favorite being its 100-plus species of lemur.
There are dozens of parks and reserves in which to observe these captivating primates, but a good place to start is Marojejy, inscribed – alongside five other national parks along the eastern coast – into UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
Covering 212sq miles of rugged territory and passing through four different types of forest – from lowland evergreen to montane scrub – it’s not for the fainthearted. Yet those fit to trek won’t be disappointed.
I certainly wasn’t when I made the trip, and while I might have only had a fleeting glimpse of the critically endangered Silky Sifaka, I did spot weasel sportive, bamboo and white-headed lemurs in the canopy – just three of 11 species living in this verdant tract of land, 30 miles south-west of Sambava.
Bird and reptile lovers and are sure to be delighted, too. After all, Marojejy boasts 118 types of birds, including the blue-billed Helmet Vanga, and also has the richest diversity of reptiles and amphibians among any of Madagascar’s protected areas.
Take a Trip Down Baobab Avenue
Geographically, it’s about as far removed from the lush rainforests of the north and east as it gets, but the ‘Allee des Baobabs’ is every bit as iconic. Situated along the 123-mile ‘route nationale’ RN8 that lies between the towns of Morondava and Belo Tsiribihina, this stretch of track is lined by soaring, 90ft-high adansonia grandidieri: the largest and arguably most impressive of Madagascar’s varieties of baobab.
Vacationers travel from miles around to observe the mammoth, cylindrical trunks and flat-topped crowns of these red-barked giants – often combining it with a trip to the Tsingy de Bemaraha, sitting some 115 miles north.
Those visiting, either on a private expedition from Morondava or a wider tour of the west, should aim to be at the avenue for sunrise or sunset to witness the baobabs at their best.
While in the area, though, don’t miss the Baobab Amoureux, situated just a few miles away. Legend has it that these two adansonia za baobabs, entwined in a passionate embrace, were shaped by the Malagasy gods to represent the wish of a local couple whose love couldn’t be consummated because they were each betrothed to another.
Trek into Madagascar’s Stone Forest
Karst landscapes may be found elsewhere on the planet, but nowhere is there anything that quite compares to Madagascar’s grey tsingy. These jagged limestone fangs – whose name in Malagasy literally means ‘where one cannot walk barefoot’ – have been shaped by 200,000 millennia of squall and rainwater, transforming what was once a smooth plateau of rock into vast swathes of steel-grey, serrated pinnacles rising several hundred feet above the ground.
Those touring the north of Madagascar can get a taste of this dramatic landscape at Ankarana National Park. But for the real deal, head to the Tsingy de Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve. Situated 185 miles due west of the capital, Antananarivo, this 257sq-mile UNESCO site is split into two parts – the Petits and Grand Tsingy – both a veritable playground for the adventurous. Think rope bridges, ladders and even abseiling opportunities.
While here, get your guide to break you in gently with an hour-long circuit of the Petits Tsingy before driving north to attempt the Grands Tsingy’s ‘via ferrata’: a route of fixed cable walkways and bridges running through the karst allowing harnessed thrill-seekers to experience this demanding territory at close hand.
Explore one of the Planet’s Biggest Coral Reefs
Madagascar is feted for lemurs and chameleons, but did you know it’s also home to the world’s third largest continuous coral reef? Running for 279 miles from Itampolo in the deep south to Morombe, a quarter of the way up the west coast, the Great Reef is one of the island’s best-kept secrets – a treasure trove of barrier and fringing reef, sheltered in-shore lagoons and deep crevasses, their walls festooned with gorgonian sea fans.
It’s on this coastline I not only learned how to dive, but also got my first taste of marine conservation during a six-week volunteer expedition to the remote village of Andavadoaka. Situated seven hours drive north of Tulear – the gateway to the south-west – this tiny bolthole has developed in the six years since I first took up scuba; there are now two modest lodges and a dive shop alongside village huts.
But what hasn’t changed is the pristine quality of the reef. While it may not quite parallel the Maldives or Red Sea in terms of diversity, some 164 types of hard coral can be found here, plus nearly 400 species of fish.
Sainte Marie Whale-Watching: This popular vacation island, east of the mainland, is a great place to spot humpback whales between July and September, when they stop to calve during their annual migration.
Hitting the Open Road: The RN5’s national road status is somewhat dubious – being more akin to a mud-bath than a highway in places – but it nonetheless offers tantalizing glimpses of Madagascar’s stunning north-east coastline, and is the best way to reach Nosy Mangabe: the island home of the Aye-Aye lemur.
Tsingy Rouges: Situated close to colonial Diego Suarez in the far north, these laterite stone formations are more rounded than their grey cousins but just as impressive with their reddish hue.
Nosy Iranja Turtles: This utopian duo island of white sand islets in the north-west of Madagascar is more than a tourist resort; it’s also a key nesting ground for hawksbill and green turtles.
Parc National de l’Isalo: Home to desert plains, canyons, 201,490 acres of sandstone massif and scores of ring-tailed lemurs, Madagascar’s most visited park is located within a two days’ drive south of Antananarivo.
When to Go: Sitting south of the equator, winter falls between July and October in Madagascar – and it’s during this cooler season that most people visit, when temperatures range from 59°F in the central highlands to 80°F on the coast.
Currency: Ariary (MGA). $1 = 2,380MGA.
Language: A Francophone country, French is an official language alongside Malagasy. English is less widely spoken.
Getting around: The far extremes of the island are best traversed by the national carrier, Air Madagascar. Locally, taxi-brousse (bush taxis) or private vehicles are the best form of transportation.
Rainforests, white-sand beaches, savannas, deserts, baobabs and one of the planet’s largest reefs await you Madagascar! You’ll be amazed how such different landscapes coexist on one island. And nature and animal lovers will be fascinated by the many types of creatures in their natural habitats.
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