Madagascar Travel, Africa

Baobab trees at sunset, Madagascar, Africa

Baobab trees, Madagascar

Visiting Madagascar

The fourth largest island in the world, tropical Madagascar has an astounding selection of fascinating plant and wildlife species, 80% of which are unique to the country.
It also has weird burial sites and customs, off-planet rock formations, good beaches with diving and snorkelling locations. What the place doesn’t have is too many tourists!

Downsides

• 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 in Madagascar.
• Appalling deforestation (85% gone up in smoke) is putting the exotic flora and fauna on the endangered list.
• Crime is on the up, especially in Antananarivo (Tana), so observe Safety suggestions.
• It can get extremely hot (we recorded 61C/142F there on one occasion, in the shade).
• Malaria, see more below under Safety.
• Just about every park/reserve requires a permit.

n. b. The adjective of Madagascar is not Madagascan but Malagasy, as in Malagasy music. You, a foreigner will be ‘Vazaha’!

Weather

Best: May-October (winter, dry season)
Worst: December-March (rains, storms)
This is a large country with 6 different climatic zones ranging from an extremely dry southwest region to often wet eastern area that hosts some surviving tropical rainforest so the weather will partly depend on tourist target activities and destinations.

Length of stay:
Minimum worthwhile stay, not incl. flights : 10 days – since domestic transport is unreliable and distances are great.
Recommended: 3 weeks +

Main attractions

South for:

Berenty Private Nature Reserve‘s lemurs, chameleons and birds beside the Mandrake river, in a semi-arid forest region of the far south of the country. Also elaborate carved and painted graves and the extraordinary wind cut sandstone, lemurs, and wacky plants of Isalo National Park.

West for:

Morondova’s small coastal town – with airport if you don’t fancy a 9 to 12 hour drive drive – is a relatively relaxing place with few beggars, several decent beaches with small beach hotels and proximity 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.
It’s just 50 kms south of the Kirindy Forest Reserve that is home to some stunning baobab trees, a huge number of small primates including 8 species of lemur, 60 species of exotic birds, and plenty of peculiar flora.
The newish Kirindy Mite National Park is about the same distance in the opposite direction, south of Morondova, offering the rare tourist a look at baobab forests, many lemur and bird species, beautiful lakes, sea beaches and offshore islands.
Then there’s the Tsingy de Bemaraha 200kms away, a bit of a hike but strewn with weird limestone pinnacles, 50 species of birds, varied lemurs, strange plants and more. 370mi west of Tana.

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. More of that later.

North for:

Montagne d’Ambre National Park, 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. 500 miles north of Tana. Cooler than the coast so you don’t need shorts.

Beaches

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.
Apart from fooling around on the beach with traditional marine toys such as windsurfers, airbeds and snorkels, Nosy Be also offers brilliant scuba diving served by a couple of friendly and efficient dive centres as well as the obligatory forest walks spotting lemurs and chameleons.
Like the rest of Madagascar Nosy Be, meaning ‘big island’ in the Malagasy language, has a tropical climate that is most oppressive in summertime, December to February.
Most visitors reach Nosy Be by plane directly from Europe, including flights from London and Paris. Visas are issued at Nosy Be airport which is about 30 minutes drive from most hotels.

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).
The island is also famed as the base for celebrity pirates such as Captain Kidd, many of whom are buried in a pirate cemetery. Ste Marie climate is considerably wetter than that on Madagascar’s west coast.
Get there by plane from Antananarivo.

Activities

• 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.

Getting around

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. And it firms up the gluteus maximus too.

Main Festivals:
May or June, Donia music festival, Nosy Be.
June – November, Famadihana ‘turning the bones’ reburying the dead ceremonies.
November – December, Gasyfara music festival, Tana.

Safety

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.

Poverty and Deforestation

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.

Nowhere else on earth has so many unique animals and plants, and nowhere else is environmental destruction so rampant and unchecked. Only three per cent of the island’s forests are left, and illegal logging is now rife inside the national parks and reserves, with poor, hungry loggers also hunting rare lemurs for food. The most valuable tree is rosewood, upon which the aye-aye and other lemurs depend, and the market for it is in China, where factories are turning it into reproduction antique furniture for the new bourgeoisie.

The current Malagasy government is heavily implicated in the lucrative trade, which has increased 25-fold since it came to power by coup d’état in 2009. The international community, in protest at the lack of democratic elections, has pulled most of its aid from Madagascar, and this has only made things worse, gutting both conservation and poverty-alleviation projects all across the island.

A deeper problem is that the island’s population has doubled since 1990 and is increasing faster than ever. Nowhere in the world have I met nicer people, but their need for firewood, charcoal and land, their farming and herding practices, and their increasingly successful attempts to have seven daughters and seven sons per marriage, have created a catastrophe with no solutions in sight.
Already Madagascar is one of the most eroded countries on earth. The topsoil is washing away in red rivers to the sea, and astronauts have reported that Madagascar appears to be bleeding to death.

Madagascar’s continuing unstable political situation is cited as a reason not to go there, but that is nonsense. There is no conceivable danger, or even inconvenience, posed to foreign tourists. The infrastructure is in place: excellent safari lodges and city hotels; sunshine; delicious French-influenced food; informed and passionate guides.
Animal-loving, camera-toting tourists represent one way of developing a sustainable future. More from the Telegraph newspaper.