In this fascinating 90 second animated timeline of the past 400 million years – and forecast for the next 250 million years – you can see Madagascar spinning out of Africa and breaking off from India about 160 million years ago. The island’s isolated mammals and reptiles then evolved without any human interference at all, creating a unique biodiversity of interest to scientists and tourists alike. For example, 80% of the country’s birds live nowhere else in the world. And of course this is the only chance we have to see lemurs in the wild.
The first people arrived in the fifth century, from south-east Asia and the Arabian peninsular as well as east Africa. Marco Polo named it Madagascar in the thirteenth century although Europeans did not set foot on the island for another three hundred years. (The Malagasy language emerged from this melting pot and oddly has no letter C in its alphabet.)
For visitors these days, the wildlife is mainly viewed in protected reserves of rainforest or desert, which are ideal for hiking. The most iconic of these national parks are to be found along the RN7 paved road which sweeps from Antananarivo, the capital smack in the centre of the country, down to Toliara on the south-west coast. In addition, there is decent diving and surfing along with plenty of undeveloped golden sand beaches. On top of all that, there are outstanding opportunities for novices to hire crewed sail-boats to reach the paradise islands around Nosy Be off the north-west coast.
However, even more than usual, it is best to have quite a bit of time and/or money to get the most from Madagascar. There are some important caveats, especially for independent travellers, about coming here. The first is its sheer scale: it is almost the size of France. This would not be an issue except that outside the towns there are really only three tarmacked roads on the mainland. As most visitors (in tour groups or alone) ply the same routes (especially down RN7, then back again), it can feel a bit like everyone eats at the same few restaurants, sleeps in the same few hotels, and visits the same few sites.
With so few actual roads, you will need a 4×4. While in theory you can with an international driving licence hire a car in Madagascar, in practice it is all but impossible to rent one without a driver. The leading outlet is Budget in the centre of Antananarivo. It costs roughly €50 per day plus fuel plus food and lodging for your driver; the drivers all stay together in shacks at the back of the main hotels you are likely to use. There are internal flights available with Air Madagascar, mostly between Antananarivo and a handful of coastal towns. But there are not many services, they can be filled up months ahead by tour parties, and local staff are desperately unhelpful when it comes to last minute bookings.
All told, these factors can sometimes make the effort/reward ratio feel a bit out of kilter. For instance, it is highly recommended to drive the 750 metre Allee de Baobabs, with its impressive thousand year-old trees, near Morondava on the west coast. But unless you are lucky enough to catch a rare flight, this will end up being at least a four or five day round trip by car. Like the lack of ATMs, English and wifi, this can all be part of the adventure; just be prepared.
For trekking and lemur spotting, the high season is the dry season, winter, from June to September, when it hovers around 20°C in the day and falls below 10°C at night on the plains. For the coasts of Toliara and Nosy Be, all year round is good as it is about 30°C in the winter and can reach 40°C in the summer.
Madagascar is only two hours ahead of GMT. It is a three-hour flight from Nairobi to Tana, as the capital is universally known. You will not only arrive and depart here (you buy a visa at the airport for €25), you are sure to pass through from time-to-time as it is the hub of what amounts to the country’s transport network, by road and by air.
Tana has elegant colonial buildings and vivid street life, and with just a little investment this could be a handsome city. The centre is built around the beautiful 1.5 kilometre circumference heart-shaped Lac Anosy, with a monument to French World War II dead in the middle. By the water’s edge, locals play boule, pool and table football, and spread their laundry out to dry. We were advised against walking here for security reasons, although we had no trouble whatsoever apart from the stench caused by the whole area being used as a massive public toilet.
The necessary investment is unlikely to be forthcoming imminently. A period of relative development twenty-five years ago came to an end with a military coup in 2009, which triggered an immediate collapse in foreign aid. While elections in 2013 restored a degree of political legitimacy, endemic corruption, fraud and tax evasion, along with deadlock between the president and the national assembly, as well as the failure to reform bloated state industries, has kept foreign money away. There remains tremendous potential: there are large bauxite, coal and uranium fields plus gas and oil reserves; the land is so rich that 70% could be farmed; and the infant tourist industry could be developed rapidly. Yet there is virtually no visible evidence of international investment: we saw hardly any foreign-owned stores and very few adverts for global products; even the fizzy drinks seem to be local brands. No wonder the average income is just €50 a month.
Right on Lac Anosy is the Carlton, the country’s only five star hotel, with probably the country’s only real gym; it is a bit bland but it has great views across the water. As does the Citizen Guest House, a three-room boutique hotel just around the corner with a first class restaurant. Magnificent cuisine at low prices is a feature of the city – and the country – largely thanks to its heritage as a French colony between 1897 and 1960. (The other tangible legacy is that everyone who has been to school speaks French.) The signature dishes involve steak, known as zebu, either in a prime cut or in a traditional romazava stew. There are lots of great places to eat, but a particular treat is La Varangue, set among a vast collection of antiques.
High above Lac Anosy, dominating the city on its highest hill, is Haute Ville. At the very top is the Rova, or Queen’s Palace. The original dated from 1839 but was burned down in a politically contentious fire in 1995; the rebuilt structure cannot do justice to the original, though it is beautifully lit at night. There is a pleasant walk down the steep lanes.
The other two main sites are further afield and require at least an hour each in one of the thousands of ancient, cream-coloured Renault 4s, Peugeot 205s and Citroën 2CVs that serve as Tana’s taxis. Unusually, it is best not to agree a price in advance as whatever you think appropriate at the end will be gratefully received. About 1.4 million of the country’s 25 million people live here, and they all seem to be on the street all the time, so there is considerable congestion and pollution. One common excursion is 21km north to Ambohimanga, the previous capital, where the primitive Rova, or King’s Palace, a simple wooden hut from 1788, is still present (and is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in Madagascar). The other popular place to go is 25km out west on RN1 to the Lemur Park, a cheap and easy way either to get an informed introduction or to have your last fix before flying home. There are fifty individuals here, from six species, mostly displaced by deforestation or hunters, and easy to see up close.
It is just shy of 1,000km from Tana to Toliara, the bookends of RN7, the great tarmacked if pockmarked “national road” that runs down the spine of Madagascar. This is the most popular route for adventurists and it is strongly advised to book your return flight from Toliara well in advance. This obviously has the disadvantage of preventing you from going at your own pace and lingering longer when you see something you like, but the alternative is driving all the way back again. We spent about ten days going south, but then came back in one 20-hour drive (at an exorbitant cost of 1,700,000 aviary – there are currently about 3,500 ariary to €1), which was less fun.
This is an exotic road trip: pootling along, cracking monkey-nuts and slicing pineapples bought at the roadside as you head off into the bush. There are frequent military and gendarme roadblocks all along RN7 and once in a while your driver will be required to pay 5,000 ariary for some invented infringement, usually to do with imperfectly presented papers.
Just south of Tana is the agricultural heartland. As the road traces various valleys, there are paddy fields – not always of rice, but also of vegetables and grazing zebu too – along the bottom and rising on both sides in steeply raked steps. This is also the home of cottage industries, especially around Antsirabe, where small houses are in fact factories smelting aluminium, pouring it into moulds to make kitchen cooking pots. The island’s Three Horse Beer is brewed here. And, most visibly, there are numerous vast clay pits where walls of newly-minted bricks dry in the sun.
Many of the houses around here look sturdily built from these local bricks; they are often ornately designed, even with porticos, and give an impression of grandeur. Yet the people cannot afford cement so the bricks are held together with a compound of zebu dung and egg whites. Nor can they afford glass so the windows are either just holes or shuttered. As there is almost no electricity, they live half their lives in the dark. Driving after sunset through villages lined in rows of ten or fifteen such houses on either side of RN7 is ghostly. It feels like nobody lives there anymore. But in fact the villagers are huddled together inside from about 5.30pm until sunrise, with nothing to do, terrorised by the fear that rustlers will come to steal their zebu for sale to restaurants in Tana.
There are so few RN7 turn-offs that it is hard to miss the junction at Alakamisy Ambohimaha to take you along a rare side road the 50km to Ranomafana. Here the hills are higher and the slopes are steeper, covered with eucalyptus and pine trees. The forest used to spread far wider, but logging hacked it back until the Ranomafana National Park was formed in 1991 to protect this rainforest microclimate.
In the small town, there are a string of low rent places to stay, all with ropey wifi, hard bedding and soft showers. But Manja, the only one to take credit cards, has an outstanding restaurant.
It is compulsory to hire guides, often with advanced animal spotters, in all the national parks. At Ranomafana, you can hike a trail lasting anywhere between two and eight hours; there will never be more than 70-80 people at a time, and on our rainy day there were fewer than ten of us. At night you can see the smallest lemur species, the pygmy mouse lemur, at just 45 grams, as well as the endangered but gorgeous O’Shaughnassy’s chameleon, with its tail curled like a fossil. However, even during the day it is hard to see the fosse, the cat-like predator of lemurs. There are twelve species of lemur here, including two kinds of very rare bamboo lemurs.
The main reason most people come to Madagascar is of course the unique opportunity to see some of the 101 species of lemur in their natural habitat. Lemurs are prosimians, primates that were the evolutionary predecessors (from about 60m years ago) of apes and monkeys (20m years ago), simians. They dominated Madagascar as there were no apes, monkeys or homo sapiens there; though now they all face the threat of extinction. There are two species that use only their back legs: the sifaka and the indri, which can weigh as much as 10kg. These jump, up to 5m, from branch to branch at great speed, or skip along the land as if they are dancing; and they never drink water, drawing all their hydration from leaves and berries. All the other lemurs use all four legs, with padded, clawless paws, either to walk like cats on the ground or to haul themselves like monkeys up into the trees; unlike some monkeys, they do not have prehensile tails for use as an extra limb. Every single one that we saw was just as cute and cuddly as advertised. The black-and-white ruffed lemurs are particularly striking, and the common brown lemurs are especially friendly. But there is one outstanding star of the show, what most people think of as the classic lemur: the ring-tailed. Known as maki in Malagasy, these guys hang around in sociable groups of 10-15, each full of personality, and each with twenty-eight tail rings, one per vertebrae.
It is an hour back to RN7 by which time the rain is only drizzle, and a further two hours to Anja Park, where the ground is bone dry. This is an easy place to see many of the 300 ring-tailed lemurs who live here, along a simple guided walk.
About half-way down RN7 is the regionally important town of Fianarantsoa, where you can find a rare ATM. There is a legendary colonial FCE railway that runs from here to Manakara on the east coast. It is only 160km but can take anywhere from 12 to 24 hours to get there. It is crucial for the local economy, and spectacularly passes over 67 bridges, through 48 tunnels, over four viaducts and across one airport runway.
Just south of Fianarantsoa is an oddity: Lazani Betsilo vineyard, producing very sweet whites, reds and “greys”, which can be procured from street vendors in Ambalavao. From here the landscapes become bigger, wider, drier; there are 360° horizons, with deep blue skies and cartoon clouds. There are dramatic golden-yellow mountains and wide open grass prairies occasionally speckled with individual trees where the forests used to be.
The highlight of this road trip is a little further down RN7: the Isalo National Park. There are more than 800 square kilometres of brown sandstone desert canyons and gorges that are ideal for treks that can last between one and eight days. Isalo is limited to about 150 people, and zebu brochette picnics will always be provided. There are spectacular views from up the hills and down the vales, with many natural pools for a dip. There are three species of lemur. And there are also several sacred burial grounds of the local Bara tribe, which exhumes its dead from time-to-time.
Ranohira, where you will find your guide, is a dusty magnet for budget hotels. There are several decent lodges south of town with awesome views of the rock formations, including Satrana Lodge, Isalo Rock Lodge and Le Relais de la Reine. They are beautifully designed, though even here you can be unlucky enough for a loaded Chinese coach party to pull in for a couple of nights. And in the Malagasy winter, it can be bitterly cold at night.
It is just 90 minutes further to Zombitse Park. This is a birdwatchers’ paradise, with 85 species in a tiny area, including the only place in the world we find the Appert’s tetraka. There are also eight species of lemur and it is an easy place to see sifakas.
Apart from the sapphire boom town of Ilakaka, built from hand-mined gems nearby, the final two hours of RN7 showcase the most abject poverty. The land is infertile, the shelter is mud and wood huts, shoes are rare and school virtually unheard of.
The streets of Toliara are owned by a blizzard of colourful pousse-pousses, hand or cycle pushed carts. There is not a lot to do in Toliara and from here you have a choice. Either you can head south to the beach town of Anakao, the other side of River Onilahy, which is reached by speedboat for an hour first thing every morning. Or like us you can head north for 20 minutes up RN9, funded by the Chinese and still under construction, to Ifaty and Mangily.
The coach parties seem to stop in Toliara so whichever way you go there will be very few independent travellers. Lonely Planet’s reviewers don’t seem to have been here either, or else they have awfully faulty judgment. Their verdict on Ifaty and Mangily is they are “unkempt villages, saturated by tourism”. In fact, these two tiny wooden villages meet on a beautiful beach which curves for about 1.5km around the tranquil blue sea; there is a relaxed atmosphere and no hassle, just a few stalls offering massages and sarongs, and local fishermen preparing their tiny pirogues with their sails designed in Mondrian style.
There are a handful of places to stay on Ifaty/Mangily beach, many of which compel you to buy dinner from them, thereby inhibiting independent restaurants. The pick is Ifaty Beach Club with its handful of chalets semi-circled behind a pool just metres from the beach where there are a dozen or so padded loungers. There are three or four dive centres, but US-born Anna Flurr at Mangili Scuba is the only English-speaker.
At both Anakao and Ifaty/Mangily there are patch reefs. However, there are no sharks (as they have all been killed for their fins by the Chinese) or turtles (as they have all been eaten by the locals). Winter is a good time for humpback watching.
It is a 90 minute flight over another 1,000km north-west from Tana to Nosy Be. If you sit on the left of the plane, as you come in to land you will have an ideal view of the “big island”, covered in forest, like florets of broccoli, bordered by sandy beaches. This is a wonderful destination, easy and easy-going, ideal for those who enjoyed Zanzibar but want a step up to somewhere more exotic.
As the most popular tourist destination in the country, the paved roads here are more extensive than anywhere else, and it takes just a couple of hours to drive the perimeter with a rented scooter or mini-moke. Misnamed Hell-Ville on the south coast is the quiet capital with a park square where you will find Le Papillion, reputed the best restaurant on the island; we went on a Friday night and were the only ones in the tumble-down colonial building. The busier town is Ambatoloaka, on the south-west corner, where a row of bars, hotels and dive centres spill onto the beach. Further round the west coast are better, quieter lodges, such as the Nosy Be Hotel.
Villages all over Madagascar distil their own rhum, and bars everywhere offer “rhum arrangé”, which is basically molasses macerated with fruit, herbs or spices, and they are unfailingly revolting. However, the Nosy Be west coast village of Dzamandzar is rightly lauded as the home of the delicious “Mandarine Divine”, a rhum-based liqueur. Another popular product of Nosy Be is icky sex tourism. Although it is formally discouraged, you will see the occasional well-heeled white man in his 50s or 60s accompanied by a beautiful local in her late teens and their young baby.
Most people come here to experience the archipelago and the best way to do that is on your own sail-boat. Moored in the harbour just outside Ambatoloaka there are ten or fifteen private yachts or catamarans available for hire for anywhere from two days to two weeks. To book one, try Globe Sailor or just wander down there and ask at Locomotion Bar. We took an an 18 metre yacht, lovingly made over eight years by a retired French dentist turned captain, his two crew, and our own cook who provided a stream of fresh fruit breakfasts and seafood carpaccios, ceviches, curries, salads and stews. You can plot your own course, but cruises of a week or longer, like dive liveaboards, tend to head either north-east to the Mitsio Archipelago or, as ours did, to the south-west around the Ampasindava peninsular and on to the Radama Islands.
There are two interesting islands near Nosy Be. Off the west coast is tiny and quiet Nosy Sakatia. Sakatia Lodge and dive centre has been run by South African Jacques Vieira for the past eighteen years. All around there are very healthy soft and hard corals, with the colours especially vivid on a novel fluorescent night dive; you use an ultraviolet flashlight coupled with an orange filter over your mask and hey presto it looks like you’re diving on acid.
About two hours south-east is Nosy Komba. Tourists come here primarily to visit the brown lemurs which have been trained by locals waving bananas to jump onto your shoulders. But there are other spectacles too. On Saturday evenings there are cock-fights. And on Sunday evenings, including while we were there, moraingy, an indigenous martial art. Hundreds of locals and a handful of tourists crowd around a half-sized sandy-floored basketball court overlooked by palm trees right by the ocean. At one end under the hoop, a band plays spiritual music while three scantily clad women and the upcoming fighters dance. Meanwhile, pairs of young men, bare-knuckled and bare-footed, strut to the centre of the court and under the eye of a referee proceed to kick and punch each other as much as possible. It is gruesome and electrifying.
As soon as we headed further out to sea, there were lines of silhouetted mountains in all directions, of the mainland and of islands all around the horizon. We sailed for five hours south-west – about 30km – to the Ampasindava peninsular. Here there is tiny Nosy Antsoha, with three species of lemur: four black-and-white ruffed, six brown and five sifaka. These are the friendliest we found. When I stooped to take a photograph, one surprised me by jumping on my back. And they will happily come up to lick your fingers for salt.
For about 20km south from here the coastline is blessed with long beaches sprouting palms behind. Lemurs can be found along here too, especially around Coco Beach. More or less the only building on this coast, this is really a series of tree houses with a cute bar and restaurant behind a pool. If you are to stay in this romantic if remote spot, they will sort you out with canoeing, diving, mountain biking, quad biking, and trips to nearby islands.
At the end of this stretch of coast are two picture-perfect paradise islands. Nosy Iranja Be is 2km square, with a Lodge and a tiny village where the local women wear a yellow paste made from tree bark to protect their faces from the sun. About a kilometer away is Nosy Iranja Kely, just 150m square. These two are connected, in the middle of the ocean, at low tide by a sandbar that is washed away every six hours as the waves gently lap at both sides until they meet.
Another two hours south around the Ampasindava peninsular is a river estuary at Ambariomina. The water is calm, the bright blue starts to cloud over as sun sets, causing a fiery red sky. There can often be a little rain overnight before a perfect sunrise. This is beautiful country. Yet it is blighted by poverty. As soon as we dropped anchor here, we were met by a young woman in a canoe carved straight from the trunk of a tree selling 2-litre water bottles full of honey and waving huge untethered crabs. She is from one of the local villages we then visit, where there is no electricity and no sewerage.
I have travelled far and wide in some of the poorest parts of the world, and I am always surprised when the locals have mobile phones and not only wear Manchester United football shirts but can often tell me the score from the latest match. But here poverty is compounded by isolation. There is rarely phone reception and no villagers have mobiles or any other form of long-distance communication. If anyone is wearing a Real Madrid shirt it is not because they have even heard of Cristiano Ronaldo, it is because a tourist has passed it on; gifts of second-hand clothes, pencils and paper are desperately welcome.
Madagascar’s geological and natural histories are crucial for our understanding of the way our planet has developed. Though it is not an easy country to visit, largely because of its vast size and dreadful transport, there is a lot for visitors to enjoy. But it’s current economic plight signals just how far our world still has to go.