Jewel-green chameleons. Lemurs the size of fairground teddies. A trip to Madagascar feels like a journey to another world, says Chris Haslamre
It’s Planet Earth, but not as we know it: an ark afloat off the African coast wherein life has evolved to the hypnotic beat of a different drum; where gods and ghosts walk the hills; where human life is ruled by taboo — or fady. In an increasingly homogenised world, the island nation nicknamed ‘the eighth continent’ retains more than anywhere else the power to alienate, astonish and awaken your inner explorer. It’s chaotic and hard to reach, with bad roads and worse infrastructure. And it’s wonderful. Go sooner rather than later, though: deforestation, forest degradation and the illegal wildlife trade present an irreversible threat to the island’s biodiversity. This is no country for independent travel, so go with your tour operator and, by bearing witness, you’ll return as an ambassador for Madagascar’s conservation. You’ll be told to visit during the dry season, April to September, but you could easily wait till October — when skies are still blue and baby lemurs are on show.
Fly into Antananarivo, known as Tana. The favela-like capital certainly isn’t Madagascar’s highlight, but you won’t be staying long. Before heading to your hotel — arranged via your tour operator — change sterling for local ariary at the airport as few Madagascan shops or restaurants take credit cards.
Days 2–3: Andasibe-Mantadia National Park
Your guide (again booked via your tour operator) should arrive early for the three-hour drive east to Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, a steamy rainforest with critically endangered indri — the world’s largest species of lemur, the size of a fairground teddy. Try to spot them on easy treks — sightings aren’t guaranteed, but you’ll hear their whooping through the dense forest. Make time for the ramshackleyet-fragrant Andasibe village, the best place in the world to buy home-grown vanilla pods at wholesale prices.
Day 4: Vakinankaratra
As you climb into the Vakinankaratra region of the central highlands, the beguiling landscape makes it hard to establish a sense of location. There are mountains, zebu cattle herds, paddy fields, churches — you could be in Vietnam or Sri Lanka, but for the absence of trees. That’s the effect of a deforestation process that started in AD600 and only stopped once there was nothing left. Lack of vegetation, accelerates erosion, so as you head for Antsirabe city, about four hours south of Tana, you pass landscapes seemingly scooped out by a giant spoon. These are the lavake, a type of gully also seen — appropriately, given Madagascar’s otherworldliness — on Mars.
Day 5: Antsirabe city
Antsirabe’s biggest attraction is its Alpine-style Hôtel des Thermes, a thermal bathhouse built in the 19th century for weekending French colonialists. It’s now a spot to meet Madagascans, who pay for a dip in the outside pool. Elsewhere, the town’s craft industry is a wonder of recycling, improvisation and strong opinions. If you want to know about deforestation, speak to woodcarvers at Asabotsy Market. Otherwise, take a seat outside Café de l’Alliance and watch farmers, schoolkids, herdsmen and merchants rush past in pousse-pousse cycle rickshaws or overloaded taxi brousses minibuses.
Days 6–7: Ranomafana National Park
Two days in the Kipling-esque rainforests of Ranomafana probably isn’t sufficient time to catch the golden and greater bamboo lemurs — the rarest of the family. But it’s enough to follow your guide along trails to see acrobatic red-fronted browns, hefty Milne-Edwards’s sifakas, jewel-like frogs and chameleons.
Day 8: Ambalavao
Now head into the high mountains of Andringitra National Park, stopping en route to admire Ambalavao, an unassuming market town set among glittering granite crags and pools reflecting rice fields. The artisan paper mill sounds dull, but don’t miss it — masters press wild flowers into sheets made from mulberry-tree bark. It’s another three hours south to your campsite in the Andringitra’s Tsaranoro Valley, the ‘Yosemite of Madagascar’. The nickname does the cloud-veiled peaks of this ethereal spot a disservice — you’ll weep at its beauty.
Days 9–10: Tsaranoro Valley
Walking the Tsaranoro is like falling into the pages of a novel by H Rider Haggard: a stroll in a lost world of mountain, moor and sparkling water. Look out for the ring-tailed lemurs that share the wide valley with the Betsileo people, fêted as the country’s best farmers. Fady rules behaviour up here; it is believed that two souls leave the body after death, with one lingering in the mountains, offering assistance or causing mischief to the living. Sit down at any farmstead and they’ll happily explain how complicated life can be in paradise.
Days 11–12: Isalo
Heading west, the scenery gets even better. You’re travelling from the glittering peaks and wispy waterfalls of the green Tsaranoro Valley to the yellow desert and wind-sculpted sandstone spires of Isalo National Park. Your guide will lead you through Dalí-esque gullies to jungle-fringed rock pools of jade-green water, where crowds of lemurs will watch you swim.
Days 13–14 Ifaty
It’s a four-hour drive to Ifaty on Madagascar’s western shore. With its palm-shaded beaches and languid fishing scene, it’s just the spot you need for a couple of days of decompression, before the 90-minute flight north from Toliara to Tana for your flight home.