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Madagascar

Madagascar is a fantastically beautiful island off the east coast of Southern Africa where time has stood still. Visitors will discover fauna and flora that exist nowhere else on Earth, an amazing variety of landscapes, from dense primordial rainforest to desert, sandstone canyons and white beaches, plus superb outdoor activities such as diving, snorkelling, trekking, birdwatching and game viewing.

The world’s fourth-largest island, Madagascar was left isolated in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Mozambique when Gondwana, the prehistoric supercontinent, broke up about 180-million years ago. This isolation allowed the island’s prehistoric fauna and flora to evolve in their own unique way, and today 80% of the wildlife and 90% of the plants are endemic.

Perhaps the most endearing and familiar of Madagascar’s endemic creatures are the endangered lemurs, one of the first primate families to evolve. Unique to Madagascar, dozens of taxa of lemurs can be found in the island’s diverse ecosystems.

Lemurs have large eyes for easy night vision and thick coats. The smallest lemurs are no bigger than a human’s thumb (the tiny pygmy mouse lemur weighs between just 30g and 70g), while, at almost a metre tall, the indri lemur is the size of a small boy. Tourists would be most familiar with the ring-tailed lemur, with its upright posture and friendly nature. Interestingly, there has been discovery of new species in recent years.

Visitors can take lemur-watching tours to some of the very best wildlife reserves, such as the Berenty Reserve, Ranomafana National Park, Isalo National Park and Andasibe-Mantadia National Park.

Berenty Reserve, one of the island’s oldest private nature reserves on the banks of the Mandrare River in the semi-arid spiny forest eco-region of the far south of Madagascar, is one of Madagascar’s most-visited destinations. It’s a hub of TV crews, scientists, students and tourists watching troops of ring-tailed lemurs strutting their stuff and the panda-like white sifaka lemurs that appear to “dance” over the ground.

On a typical day’s walk at Ranomafana National Park in south-east Madagascar, visitors should spot at least four or five of 12 different species, including the very rare golden bamboo lemur, and will also have the opportunity to see over 100 species of birds, stands of giant bamboo, ferns, orchids and tree ferns.

Isalo National Park in the Toliara province of Madagascar, sometimes called Jurassic Park because its massive plateau, deep canyons and rocks date to the Jurassic era, is also home to palm-fringed oases and grassland. It’s another excellent place to find ring-tailed lemurs and the “dancing” sifaka lemurs.

A white sifaka lemur.

A white sifaka lemur.

The rainforest of Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, easily accessible from Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar situated in the central highlands, is famous for the readily seen and heard largest living lemurs, the indri, which sing like a whale.

Excellent guides are available at all of the top lemur-watching destinations.

But there’s much more to Madagascar than unique animals, plants, birds and trees. Because of its almost 5 000km of coastline, 450km of barrier reef and numerous smaller islands, it’s also a beach-lover’s paradise.

There are dozens of lovely beaches and islands ranging from wild uninhabited ones to popular ones, with accommodation available from beach chalets and camping grounds to five-star hotels.

Among the most-visited are the picture-postcard beaches of Île Sainte-Marie (or Nosy Boraha) in the east; Nosy Be (pronounced bay) Archipelago and Diego Suarez in the north; and Ifaty on the south-west coast, where offshore, a natural barrier of a kilometres-long coral reef creates perfect conditions for diving, snorkelling and fishing.

Haute-Ville in Antananarivo (known locally as “Tana”), with its lovely colonial buildings, steep streets and pleasant climate, is a great place to find excellent markets and shops with products and crafts from all over the country. Visitors will also find some of the best food on the island here, a mix of Asian, African and European flavours, with restaurants that rival some of Europe’s finest, often with France-trained chefs but with much lower prices.

Just 24km north-east of Antananarivo, the World Heritage Site of the Royal Hill of Ambohimanga, a royal city, burial site and assortment of sacred places, is well worth a visit.

Also worth checking out in Madagascar are the crafts, which often have a cultural dimension – for example, the woodcarving knowledge of the Zafimaniry community is included on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List.

The many craft markets in Antananarivo, as well as specialty stores, are a focal point for crafts from all regions, including marquetry and sculpture, wrought-iron works, raw silk, Antemoro paper, lace and embroidery, gemstones, pottery, books, horn products, sand bottles, baskets, paintings, bamboo, and objects made from recycled material, among others. The RN7 road, a main road that crosses three provinces, might well be called the Crafts Road; it’s a road where, to borrow from a famous traveller, “we stop non-stop”.

Madagascar’s infrastructure outside its main cities is often poor, and the roads often impassable (especially at the height of the rainy season, January to March); and because it is a huge country to get around, the services of an experienced tour operator are advisable.