When telling friends we were going to Madagascar, the world’s fourth largest island, they invariably, and disappointingly, began guessing the top three, rather than showing any interest in our six-week tailored trip.
We love wildlife holidays, but having travelled extensively in Africa, and seen the Big Five, we wanted something different. Madagascar, where 90% of the animals and plants are endemic, fitted the bill perfectly: and, of course, cuddly lemurs helped.
Coincidentally, a David Attenborough 4-part documentary on Madagascar, shown in 2011, was repeated weeks before our trip. Searching iPlayer, we also found 5 episodes of ‘Zoo Quest to Madagascar’. Made in 1961, David Attenborough’s mission was to search for exotic animals, which were captured, brought back to the UK and exhibited in zoos.
Malagasy people abide by several cultural prohibitions or taboos, and each of the 18 tribes have their own ‘fady’. For example, it may be fady to hand an egg directly to another person or hold a funeral on a Tuesday. Exhumation, turning of the bones and reburial, is a major custom and large ornate tombs were often seen on the roadside.
Madagascar obtained independence from the French in 1960 and the language is still widely spoken. Most people we encountered also spoke good English and our French phrase book remained unused. We learned a little Malagasy before setting off, e.g. salama (hello), misaotra (thank you), and found this was much appreciated and broke the ice when meeting new people.
The Euro is the foreign currency of choice, whilst the local currency is the Ariary (AR). In September 2018, £1 was worth 4,600 AR. Credit cards were accepted in some hotels, but as the signal was not always guaranteed, back up cash was essential.
There are two seasons: rainy and dry. Although we visited in September and October before the rains began, the climate varied dramatically. This is mainly due to a central mountain range running down the country which makes the east wet and it’s said that rarely a week passes without rain. During our time at Andasibe National Park, it poured and we needed our rain ponchos. Conversely, the west has a dry tropical climate with almost no rainfall from April to November. At the Amber Mountain National Park, with its elevation of 1475m, the winds blew, evenings were cooler, and jackets required, whilst at the beach, on the island of Nosy Tsarabanjina it was hot and humid. So, in terms of what clothing to take, the best advice is a bit of everything.
There are no direct flights from the UK to Madagascar. We flew with Turkish Airlines via Istanbul but met others who had travelled with Ethiopian Airlines via Addis Ababa.
We wanted to see as much of the island as possible, but also limit internal flights due to the reputation of Air Madagascar, so travelled extensively by road by 4WD with guide and driver. The road network is not extensive, and conditions are poor with potholes and bridges washed away during the rainy season. In some places the road was simply a dusty track, and we spent over a week travelling in the west without seeing a tarmac road. We travelled on one of the most dangerous roads in the world when heading for the Andasibe Hotel and crossed the Tsiribihina river on a floating raft with 4 other vehicles. One journey of four hours had to be undertaken in a convoy consisting of around 20 vehicles for security reasons.
One of the popular tourist routes is the Route Nationale 7 (RN7). There was plenty to see on the roadside and the stops along the way. We also needed quick overnight stays to break the journey at the Couleur Café and Betsileo Country Lodge.
Hotels ranged from simple tents and mattresses on the floor at Camp Amoureux to the more luxurious Soleil des Tsingy. All our accommodation except that in the capital, Maison Gallieni, was in individual bungalows or cottages. It was often some distance between our accommodation and the main building and restaurant and, although we were often allocated the room nearest to reception, some walking and often steps were involved. At Le Paradisier, we also had to contend with a two-storey cottage with downstairs bathroom.
Two hotels, Isalo Rock Lodge and The Litchi Tree had no overnight power, and our head torches proved invaluable. Even with 24-hour electricity, there were unexpected power outages, and at Setam Lodge we were plunged into darkness for 2 hours over dinner.
Whilst most had Wi-Fi, it was usually only in the main building and was often a poor signal, especially at popular times. Complimentary water was nearly always provided in rooms and tea and coffee making facilities were sometimes available.
When flying in and out of the capital, we stayed at the Relais des Plateaux for its proximity to the airport.
Food and Drink
Our dinner was included at all hotels with set menus offering a couple of choices for each of the three courses. One was usually zebu, a humped back cattle, and it was amazing to see how many ways it could be prepared: carpaccio, steak, minced, stewed, roasted. Fish was also frequently featured especially when near the coast. Vegetarians may have limited options.
Our main drinks were Three Horses Beer, known as THB, and Cristal, a refreshing sparkling water. Wine could be expensive, and we found gin and tonics more reasonably priced.
Madagascar is renowned for its white sandy beaches, turquoise seas, snorkelling, diving and fishing particularly around the islands, known as Nosy, in the north. We chose to stay at Constance Tsarabanjina. However, this was not necessarily a good option for Silver Travellers.
As Nosy Be, the largest of the islands, has direct flights from Milan, you may find many fellow guests are Italian.
What to see
There are few cities worthy of a visit, and even the capital Antananarivo, has only a couple of notable sights, but we did stop at the Centre Fihavanana to donate embroidery threads.
Madagascar has a huge variety of wildlife reserves, national parks and nature reserves, run by Madagascar National Parks, or the local community e.g. at V.O.I.M.M.A. There is a mixture of rain forest (Andasibe National Park), dry deciduous forest (Kirindy Reserve) or spiny forest (Reniala Reserve).
Each had its own species of lemur, for example the best place to see the largest lemur on earth is Andasibe National Park whilst the golden bamboo lemur is found in Ranomfana National Park. The lemurs are so varied and ranged from Madame Berthe, the smallest which we managed to see at Camp Amoureux, to the largest, the Sifaka.
We managed a sighting of fossa (the island’s largest carnivore and like a short-legged puma) and saw many and varied chameleon and gecko. We also had an albeit glimpse of a tenrec (like a hedgehog) and radiated tortoise.
Night walks are prohibited in many of the parks, so on two evenings we walked along the roadside looking for the vast array of chameleon, frogs, gecko and nocturnal lemur in the undergrowth. Unfortunately, so did many others, and when our guide spotted something with his torch, we were quickly surrounded, often by a large group. Whilst staying at The Litchi Tree, our walk took us along a narrow track high above a river and I had visions of tripping over a tree root and falling in. Needless to say, night walks were my least favourite activity.
I was surprised not to see more birds: maybe we didn’t get up early enough. However, we did spot giant coua with their distinctive blue eye, ground-roller, stripy hoopoe and hook-billed vanga in the parks and white egret, black parrots and black-winged stilt whilst on the river.
Although we had our own guide, the national parks require you to have a local guide, who are sometimes accompanied by an animal spotter. These all required tipping, so a ready supply of small notes was essential.
Visiting the parks all required a degree of hiking, with often steep and dense terrain, in either very hot or very wet weather depending on the location. At Isalo National Park, with its sandstone rocks, unusual formations and deep canyons, the second of our two walks defeated us.
We visited three arboretums, including Ranomafana, and I became fascinated by the huge variety of trees and their incredibly differing barks. Madagascar’s most famous tree is the majestic baobab and of the eight species, six are endemic to the island. The sunset at the Avenue des Baobabs was a spectacular sight.
We quickly learned that ‘tsingy’ are sharp limestone pinnacles, resembling a sea of church steeples and that the ‘t’ is not pronounced. Visiting the Petit Tsingy was fine, but five hours of climbing the Grand Tsingy nearly finished me off and I tried not to think about whether my travel insurance would cover me if I fell. If you ever contemplate visiting the Grand Tsingy, I’d urge you to read my review first. We also saw tsingy at Ankarana National Park, fortunately from a viewing platform up only a few steps, and whilst staying at Iharana Bush Camp, decided against sunset cocktails at the top of the tsingy. This was a good decision as it rained heavily and unexpectedly.
Whilst I’m not bothered by heights, I’m not so good with caves. Having experienced low, narrow caves in the Grand Tsingy, the Mandresy Cave was high and cavernous, but as the hike and clamber through it took 2 hours in hot conditions, it was challenging.
You need to get used to long and complicated names: both people and places. The name of one guide contained 17 characters, but this didn’t compare with the King of Imerina (1787 to 1810) named Andrianampoinimerinatompokoindrindra. Whilst commonly known as ‘Andrianampoinimerina the Wise’ I think he’d have been wiser to shorten it further still to Andy.
For me, seeing animals, birds and flowers found nowhere else in the world was an amazing experience. However other highlights were things not included on our official itinerary: meeting Madagascan royalty, Centre ValBio, and Lemur Island.
This frequently felt a very epic trip. A strong constitution is required for long journeys on dreadful roads, where loos stops are few and far between, and a good level of fitness is required for hiking in the parks. Hotels are often simple and basic and invariably involve lots of steps or walking. Even the Pallasandre Cote Quest described as ‘the most upmarket in town by far’ had issues. If you feel you have the stamina go now, if you haven’t, read my reviews or watch David Attenborough documentaries.
Finally, if you’ve resisted Google, and are still guessing the top three largest islands, they are: (1) Greenland (2) New Guinea (3) Borneo.