Madagascar also offers the inquisitive tourist the bizarre burial sites of the Mahafaly tribe, strange rock formations, spectacular landscapes, the French-speaking capital
in Antananarivo that is just about worth a couple of days and good beaches with diving and snorkelling locations.
• Public transport is unreliable and some grasp of French is vital
for individual travellers, so horrible as it may seem, consider
a package tour if you have special interests and/or limited time
A South African herpetologist comes face-to-face with Malagasy wildlife, a common-or-garden chameleon.
The bugcrew were chatting to this South African in a bar/café in the Berenty wildlife reserve in south Madagascar. We mentioned having difficulty finding the much-hyped chameleons. He promptly reached into the bush beside us and slapped this surprised chameleon onto his face. After that we learned to really look everywhere...
• Looking for exotic birds, animals and plants.
• Hiking around the parks and reserves.
• Mountain biking: Many locations will hire them, including Tana, Nosy Be, and Fort Dauphin. People are usually very friendly. If you bring your own bike then ensure it's tough as roads will be rough and don't forget basic spare parts.
• Diving and snorkelling: in the north of the island such as Ile Ste Marie (northeast), around Nosy Be (northwest) and near Tulear.
• Whale watching: off Ile Ste Marie (humbacks in the channel between Ste Marie and Madagascar, July - September).
• Local Culture: In Tana try to attend a 'hira gasy' local folk music/dance on Sundays.
A traditional Mahafaly grave in south Madagascar adorned with horns of plenty (actually zebu) and beautifully carved wooden totems.
Antananarivo, the capital
Also known as simply Tana, this over populated, polluted and bustling city is not an attractive place at first look. But tourists should perhaps experience the cultural side before heading off to see natural wonders. Antananarivo offers a few historic buildings and museums to explore, such as Rova, the Royal Palace and Musée Andafivaratra, a colourful lakeside market at Lac Anosy, especially flower market and also a quite few gourmet restaurants - French and Creole - can be found downtown.
East for the Andasibe-Mantadia National Park
Three hours easy drive east from Antananarivo the Andasibe-mantadia National Park is a rainforest hosting a large number of rare and endangered species including 11 lemurs species.
A 'wild' Ring-Tail lemur mother enjoying a piece of pineapple in Berenty Reserve.
South for the Berenty Reserve
Berenty Reserve is a private nature reserve, home to various lemurs including Ring-tailed Lemur, chameleons and birds beside the Mandrake river. It's in a semi-arid spiny forest in the Atsimo-Andrefana region of the far south of the country.
West for Morondova
A small coastal town with airport if you don't fancy a 9 to 12 hour drive drive, Morondova is a relatively relaxing place with few beggars, several decent beaches with small beach hotels and near to a couple of brilliant nature reserves as well as the famous 'Avenue of Baobabs' 45 minutes drive away, a grand line of ancient and magnificent specimens that are particularly spectacular at sunset.
Nosy Kely near Morondova town is a good place to stay, with comfortable beachside chalets and good French food. Chez Maggie Hotel is well known, offers excellent tours in many languages and worked well for us, though there was a bit of excitement about a snake. Ours, not theirs, and in our defence it was not deadly (there are no deadly creatures in Madagascar, apparently), but it was quite big and coiled peacefully in the middle of the dining table.
North for Montagne d'Ambre National Park
The rain forest stuffed with the usual unusual species including the blue nose chameleon. No shortage of leeches either. Lots of hiking trails and two lovely waterfalls. It's 500 miles north of Tana and cooler than the coast so you don't need shorts.
Nosy Be island for expensive beach package hotels, Lokobe Nature Reserve and the usual beach activities plus Deep Sea Fishing.
Ile Ste Marie island (Nosy Boraha) for beach bungalows, coral and kayaking.
Superb, panoramic landscapes, though deforestation is an ever-present issue that is not being seriously addressed.
Many rural villages have neither electricity nor running water, roads are dirt poor and schools are fundamentally useless. The burning of forests to plant rice and manioc happens through ignorance and desperation and has been happening for many years, enough time to strip the island of thousands of hectares of unique plants and animals.
A recent president, Marc Ravalomanana, established a conservation plan to triple protected areas and give alternatives to slash-and-burn culture. Sadly he was ousted in a coup in 2009 and since then commitment to the island's precious and fragile bio diversity seems to have disappeared down the river, along with the rosewood logs. More.
One of Nosy Be's many beaches. Photo by Susi4.
Madagascar is embraced by hundreds of fine sand beaches but few are accessible to tourists. The most common are on the centre-west coast near Morondava, further up on the northwest coast and two little islands up north, Ile Ste Marie (east) and Nosy Be (west).
Nosy Be is the most popular tourist island 8 kms (5 miles) off the northwest coast offering a variety of superbly organised, attractive and expensive beach resort hotels, mostly all-inclusive and parked on fine, large beaches, a lot of volcanic lake craters, a 450m peak and some reasonable wildlife sightings in the Lokobe Reserve.
Ile Ste Marie (island), otherwise known as Nosy Boraha, caters to rather lower budget, more active visitors,
with modest beach bungalows, brilliant coral snorkelling, diving, kayaking and whale watching (humbacks breed in the channel between Ste Marie and Madagascar, July to September).
Antananarivo - Madagascar's capital city - looking unusually attractive from this perspective.
The Best weather May-October (winter, dry season)
Worst: December-March (rains and storms)
A Malagasy bush taxi in default mode.
The easy answer is by plane, but of course it's more costly than road transport, you see little and meet no one, so travelers with time and an adventurous attitude should consider car hire, buses (but destinations are limited ) or bush taxis (taxi-brousse). The last way is the toughest but cheapest, most interesting and the way to meet real Malagasy folk, especially when it breaks down. And it firms up the gluteus maximus too.
A Radiated tortoise frequently travels faster than a taxi-brousse.
• Check the current malaria situation. If need be prepare to take anti-malaria tablets, starting before the trip. The best are doxycycline and Malarone (atovaquon-proguanil). Mefloquine (Lariam) works well but can have unpleasant side effects such as psychosis. Our choice would be Malarone but it's quite pricey. Don't buy the pills cheap on the internet, they may well be fakes. A million people die from malaria every year around the world and millions more are yellow and sick for weeks. See our Malaria page.
• Leave valuables in the hotel safe and carry only small bills with you.
• Be especially wary in Antananarivo in the market area or transport hubs where pickpockets lurk.
• Don't take walks in Tana at night.
• Beggars, particularly children who may just pester but older ones could step up to bag-snatching. Do NOT give them anything, whether it's cash, a pen or sweets. Say firmly "Non, merci" or "Tsy misy (tsee meesh)" or even "Mandehana! (man-day-han)" (Go Away!).
• Stray dogs, especially in packs, can be threatening. They usually back off if they see their target picking up a stone, but don't hesitate to fling the largest rock you can find, aiming to damage. These animals are a pest and frequently aggressive.
• Don't drink the tap water and beware of buying water bottles that have been refilled with the stuff! Check the cap is tight.
A fishing fleet heading out from Madagascar's west coast.
The ariary or possibly the French franc in extreme cases. Large towns mostly have ATMs that will provide ariary to Visa or Mastercard holders.
Free at the airport for up to 30 days if you have at least 6 months left in your passport.