One of very few destinations left untouched and unaffected by tourism, Madagascar has been allowed to evolve more or less naturally. The result? A wild world of epic landscapes, undisturbed wildlife and endearing locals.
Who wouldn’t like to visit Madagascar – even mention of the name brings out the intrepid in us all and piques our curiosity on many different levels. But how close are our imaginings to the real thing? Let’s take a closer look at the Big Red Island.
Your journey into the unusual begins before you have even stepped foot onto the island. The national airline, Air Madagascar, is affectionately known as Air Mad, and that’s a good indicator of what you’re about to experience. International conservation societies have recognised the island as one of only 17 megadiverse countries in the world. Some of the sights you are about to experience are so diverse, they defy belief.
Let’s start as we mean to go on. The cartoon movie is incorrect (obviously). The lemur king that greets our cartoon heroes should in fact be, you guessed it, a lemur queen. Lemurs are a female-dominated society of prosimians. It is they who get the best food, defend the family group and choose their own mates. In this simple aspect, and many, many others, be prepared – Madagascar is going to surprise you.
And the reason lemurs exist nowhere else on Earth? Simple – their larger, more adaptive monkey and ape cousins were better at getting food, and although they are the world’s oldest primate, dating back 55 million years, they have died out everywhere else except Madagascar, where they are respected by locals as living spirits.
Quick facts about Madagascar
Time zone: GMT +3 hours
Flight time and airlines: Approx. 15 hours indirect via Nairobi and Johannesburg with Kenya Airways and South African Airways.
Best time to go: July and August are cool and dry, making this the ideal time for exploring and spotting whales. September-November is also great for weather and a perfect time to see lemurs have their young.
Currency: Malagasy Ariary, though US Dollars and Euros are often accepted
Language: Malagasy and French
Surprising but true: The fourth largest island in the world, over 90% of Madagascar’s wildlife is endemic
- Wander through the Avenue of the Baobabs
- Spot the ghost lemur referred to the little man of the woods
- Get to know the Malagasy, their customs and history
The fascinating Malagasy people
Speaking of locals, you’re going to be on first name terms with the people of Madagascar – culturally they use first names only – which is handy because Madagascar names are some of the longest and most difficult to pronounce in the world. Try this one for size: A 19th century prince called Andrianampoinimerinatompokoindrindra. That’s 36 letters!!
The first inhabitants were said to arrive in 350 BC on canoes from Borneo, with African and Arab settlers arriving later, each bringing with them their own customs and traditions. The locals are very protective of their heritage. One of the most celebrated Malagasy in history is often referred to as the Mad Queen. Ranavalona I (born: Rabodoandrianampoinimerina), who ruled Madagascar from 1828–61, was so protective of Madagascan identity, she ousted missionaries and revoked trade agreements with both the French and the British.
While they have many curious traditions on the island, it is worth noting that the Malagasy live by the creed of Fihavanna or brotherhood – which means that every household believes it is their duty to provide a warm welcome to any that visit – making this already incredible island one of the friendliest on the planet.
Endangered habitat – tread carefully
You’re going to hear this word a lot: endemic. And that’s because over 90% of wildlife in Madagascar do not exist anywhere else on Earth. That’s right. The world’s fourth largest island is a pretty special place to be, the rarest of biodiverse habitats that ecologists refer to as the eighth continent, and for good reason too.
Madagascar was isolated from the African continent for 88 million years making most of its plant and animal life unique to the island. This is the only place you will find a giant jumping rat, the satanic leaf-tailed gecko and the cat-like fossa. Plus, Parson’s chameleon, two feet in length, the world’s largest is also joined by the world’s smallest, the Brookesia chameleon (roughly an inch long) which if you tread upon, locals believe is extremely bad luck. But let’s not forget the tree boa. The Boa, I hear you say, what’s so special about that? Boa’s exist only in South America, are not found in Mainland Africa, so how they came to Madagascar is a mystery that has scientists totally baffled. Suffice to say, if you travel to encounter the weird and wonderful of nature, put Madagascar at the very top of your list – you need to go.
Antananarivo and the Avenue of the Baobabs – Otherworldly landscape
You know when you’ve hit upon an extraordinary experience when part of the fascination of your visit is spent, hour upon hour, simply staring at the scenery, having to remind yourself that you’re still on the same planet.
The Avenue of the Baobabs will do that to you. These giant trees, some of which are over 800 years old, line the dirt track that links Morondava and Belo Tsiribihina. The Malagasy call them renala or mother of the forest. To the untrained eye, they defy belief. Legend has it they were plucked by a giant and thrown, where they landed upside down, with the roots where the branches should be.
Imagine an adventure holiday on this vast island that includes rainforests, arid deserts, stepped rice paddies, and unspoilt, sweeping beaches, plus that red soil found nowhere (yes, you guessed it, again) else on Earth. Madagascar is home to many national parks, from the sandstone vistas of Isalo National Park, with its canyons and hidden waterfalls, to the humid forests of Andasibe Mantadia National Park where the celebrated indri lemur cavorts like a teddy bear toreador. Madagascar’s beautiful coastline also offers a rich natural habitat that includes the third largest reef system, the Toliar Barrier Reef. Is there no end to its abundance of wildlife, I hear you ask?
You could admire the scenery from your gently swaying hammock, and who would blame you, gazing at those white sand-blue sea vistas. Its beaches are stunning and all the more so for being less developed than neighbouring Indian Ocean islands. You could island-hop along the coastline until your heart’s content discovering natural wonder after natural wonder.
Yet there’s so much to explore here, from the mind-boggling spiny forests, to sightings of the impressive giraffe weevil to the ghostly night time gaze of the sifaka lemur, known as Kalamoro – the little men of the woods. When you embark on an adventure to Madagascar you begin a peerless journey of discovery.
It’s as though nature threw everything she had at this island, cloaked it in isolation, and then wreathed in a culture so compelling culture as to astonish at every twist and turn. It’s a celebration of everything that is amazing about our beautiful planet, preserved, for now, in all its finery, and waiting, just waiting for you to visit.
For more information, please visit our Madagascar holidays pages.
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