The mini continent of Madagascar lies in the Indian Ocean off the south-east coast of Africa. It is truly a lost world, with relics of fauna and flora dating back to the world of dinosaurs. Every creature and plant is just a little off centre and like nothing anywhere else on earth, making it a naturalist’s paradise. The island features every kind of environment from dry desert to dense mountain forest and is home to over 70 varieties of lemur, over 120 endemic bird species and the distinctive baobab trees. It has the greatest diversity of chameleons in the world, including the world’s smallest and largest and there are also a number of reptiles, mammals and plants waiting to be discovered.
Culture shock comes quickly in Madagascar. Even as the plane banks over the red clay houses and emerald paddy fields on the outskirts of Antananarivo you scan for an image that will confirm your arrival in Africa. A dilapidated Citroen taxi shuttles you onward into the capital and, as it swerves around rickshaws and garishly painted carts drawn by hump-backed zebu cattle, you struggle against the illusion that you have landed in the Far East.
Even the taxi driver’s fine-boned, café-au-lait features only help to confound your efforts to convince yourself that this is Africa. You can waste a lot of time shifting Madagascar from Asian to African pigeonholes, and back again, until you accept the fact that the world’s fourth largest island is at once a combination of many things . . . and an island continent in its own right.
The capital Antananarivo, also known as ‘Tana’, is a bustling hill town with a number of cultural, historical and architectural sites that can be easily reached by foot. Street market stalls sell everything you can imagine from fresh fruit and meat produce to electronics, leather goods and handicrafts and the local restaurants serve fine international and gourmet cuisine. An urban oasis in Madagascar’s highland, the spa town of Antsirable has a noticeably different climate to the heat of Antananarivo and is the centre for the trading of amethyst, beryl and aquamarine gems.
Berenty Private Nature Reserve, is the most well known reserve in Madagascar and is famous for its population of ring tailed lemurs and sifakas. There is a small cultural museum with interesting exhibits about the local peoples and their customs and the forest trails are well kept and easy to explore on unguided adventures. Nocturnal walks in the spiny forest and a visit to the local sisal factory can also be arranged and are highly recommended.
Madagascar has a tropical climate, with large variations in rainfall across the island dictated by the central mountain and trade winds. The most popular time to visit is during the dry months between April and October. There is a rainy season from December to March, including the cyclone season in February and March.
Madagascar’s natural history is its most remarkable asset. Varying habitats ranging from rainforests and mountains to deserts and mangrove swamps are home to over 200,000 species, many of which are unique to the island. Over 90% of the island’s chameleons and frogs are endemic but the star attraction that brings visitors to Madagascar time and time is the 70 different species of lemur.
From June to September the 20 metre long humpbacked whales come from Antarctica to the waters of Madagascar to give birth or to look for a mate. The whales may be watched in the waters around Nosy Be, Tuléar, Fort-Dauphin or Morondava, but the two major spots for whale watching are the Bay of Antongil and Sainte Marie Island.
There are plenty of unique bird watching opportunities on the island as it is home to over 270 bird species of which 120 species are endemic. To see a fair variety of Madagascar’s endemic birds you will need to visit three separate areas the eastern rainforest, the southern ‘spiny forest’ and the western dry deciduous forests.
Madagascar is a uniquely exotic destination. Nowhere else will you experience the many stunning animal and bird sightings, the mixture of cultures, or be overwhelmed by the extraordinary ever changing scenery.