There are certain names that conjure a sense of inexplicable exoticism. Faraway lands, from Timbuktu to Zanzibar, which beckon wonder and mystery.
Often we’re aware of them from childhood without knowing when or how we’ve learned about these places. And nowhere is this truer than that of Madagascar — an intriguing byword for the extraordinary and the unfamiliar.
Adrift off the south-eastern African coast, this island nation is like nowhere else on earth. A land of lemurs, weirdly shaped baobab trees, colourful chameleons and a plethora of other endemic wildlife all surrounded by the balmy waters of the Indian Ocean, Madagascar split from India almost 88 million years ago, leaving its formidable flora and fauna to develop in complete isolation from the rest of the world.
Indeed, it’s believed that an amazing 90% of its wildlife is found nowhere else on the planet. A baffling blend of verdant rainforest, jaw-dropping geological formations and tropical islands, Madagascar should be on the bucket list of all aspiring adventurers. Here’s our guide to the island’s top three sights…
The rest of the country may be awash with unusual animals and natural wonders, but time spent strolling around its capital reveals a captivating insight into local life. And while Antananarivo’s tourism infrastructure is in its infancy, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you want to discover one of the world’s last frontiers, it’s worth visiting a city such as this.
It may be a capital, but it’s not defined by iconic sights such as the Colosseum or Big Ben. True, trips to the Prime Minister’s Palace and Rova (Queen’s Palace) are worth the taxi ride, but a few hours’ wandering its labyrinth of medieval streets and markets is an exhilarating way to meet the locals and sample Malagasy food, from creamy fish curries to salady voankazo (vanilla-spiked fresh fruits with lichee nuts).
Andasibe-Mantadia National Park
You’d be mad to miss a trip to this lush national park of rainforest which is simply teeming with enthralling wildlife experiences. Just a three-hour ride from Antananarivo, it’s home to several species of lemur including the largest of them all - the Indri. Drawn in by its unique and haunting call, it's possible to spot them sitting in the tree canopy a few metres above your head.
While the Indri can be about 1 metre long, other species - the mouse lemurs - are tiny enough to squeeze into a matchbox. In total there are around 90 species of these furry primates scuttling around the island; glimpsing these curious creatures is a real highlight. If your eyes are good, you might spot one of the equally curious species of leaf-tailed gecko or perhaps even a tomato frog. Your best bet is to head here in September, before the humid rainy season starts in earnest.
Ile Sainte Marie
Castaway off Madagascar’s east coast, the paradisiacal Ile Sainte Marie is a dream, whose idyllic coves and coral reefs are the stuff of Robinson-Crusoe travel legend. After trekking through rainforest, this is the perfect pit stop to wallow on soft sand, fringed by swaying palms, before setting off to cycle to the next deserted beach. Try a spot of beach combing and you might come across exotic shells or a brightly coloured starfish stranded by the receding tide.
Feeling energetic? Throw on the snorkel or dive its kaleidoscopic coral reefs. And if you travel here from July to September, there’s always the chance you’ll spot humpback whales as they journey between this speck of paradise and the wilderness of Madagascar.
Our 15-day The Lost Continent takes in Antananarivo, Andasibe-Mantadia National Park and Ile Sainte Marie. The price includes flights, transport and the services of a tour leader.