Splitting off from India approximately 88 million years ago, Madagascar is the world’s fourth largest island, and has an extraordinarily diverse array of endemic wildlife. This has seen the country become one of the most important ecological hotspots on earth. Native plants and animals were allowed to evolve here in isolation, resulting in a place where 90% of the fauna and flora can be found nowhere else in the world.
Incredibly, Madagascar holds 5% of all known animal and plant species, including iconic lemurs, six of Africa’s eight baobab species, two-thirds of the world’s chameleon species and more than 300 different types of birds.
The mixed variety of ecosystems ranges from spotless beaches, to rainforests, mangrove swamps, dramatic mountains and desert. This remarkable natural bounty has drawn tourists and conservationists from far and wide, and the country plays host to accommodation ranging from luxury hotels to off-the-beaten track destinations suited for intrepid adventurers.
The majority of Madagascar’s 22 million people are subsistence farmers, with the main crop being rice. In general, infrastructure is underdeveloped, and travellers should not expect to find smooth roads and modern amenities. Indeed, some areas are so remote that getting there requires a trip by boat or small plane. There are more than 250 peripheral islands, some completely uninhabited, which fall under the country’s jurisdiction too.
Surrounded by more than 5000 km of coastline, the main landmass has a steep escarpment running along its eastern edge - home to most of the remaining tropical lowland forest. Rarely does a week pass here without rain, with the risk of torrential downpours and cyclones greatest in February and March. The months from April to November are a little drier, while December and January are also great times to visit.
Visitors can expect to see a staggering variety of endemic plant, bird and animal life in the area’s numerous reserves and national parks. The rainforests of the Andasibe National Park and the surrounding six reserves are easily accessible. If you prefer tropical, palm-shaded beaches, the island of Santie-Marie is perfect.
The capital of Antananarivo (more easily known as Tana) is situated in the mountainous central highlands. Although many travellers only use Tana as a launchpad into the rest of the country, it is well worth sticking around to enjoy a host of cultural, historical and natural sites, all the while experiencing the gentle, friendly nature of the Malagasy people.
In stark contrast to the opposite side of the island, the western half of Madagascar is largely characterised by dry grassy plains and arid deciduous forest. This area sees almost no rainfall from April to November. The Tsingy de Bemahara National Park offers one of the country’s most breath-taking natural landmarks; eroded limestone pinnacles that form dramatic clusters of spikes and spires. Just over 100 kilometres south of here, the Avenue Des Baobabs is another must visit, encompassing hundreds of these majestic trees.
On the northerly half of the western coast, the Anjajavy Reserve is a great place to enjoy luxury hotel accommodation at the seaside, and protects a swathe of dry forest and limestone spires. Heading further north, the beach-fringed islands of Nosy Be offer exceptional scuba diving and snorkelling.
These are just a handful of the extraordinary attractions of this unique country. As with any trip to an African nation, careful travel planning is essential in creating an itinerary that will suit your needs and help make the most of your stay. One thing is certain however; a visit to this mystical, legendary land is certainly something to tick off the bucket list.