It’s an unwritten rule in our house that special occasions demand extra special holidays. It’s my wife’s unwritten rule but I know not to question it. I might win battles, I seldom win wars when my wife digs her heels in. So landmark birthdays, anniversaries distinguished by precious metals and jewels and noteworthy events like our son’s / daughter’s graduation inevitably see us in some far flung place. I think many of us have a bucket list of places that we consider one-offs, locations that are truly uniqie. The wilds of Alaska for example or the Amazonian rainforests. As we’re both nature lovers and follow everything David Attenborough does avidly, we knew Madagascar was in this elite group of “nowhere else on Earth” destinations.
It’s the remoteness of Madagascar that makes its animal life so unique. Of course that doesn’t lend itself to easy access. You may find you have to go through Amsterdam or Paris and then either Nairobi or Jo’burg to reach Antananarivo (abbreviated to Tana for obvious reasons !), the island’s capital. Madagascar is enormous, the fourth largest island on the planet. This is partly why we chose the capital as our base. After a journey time that can take anywhere between 17 and 28 hours, we didn’t want another flight within the island itself to reach a more remote corner. Not immediately anyway.
Aside from the practicalities of time, Tana is a very stategic place to be based initially anyway, it’s pretty much in the centre of the island allowing you to radiate out more efficiently during your stay if you decide not to have more than one base. And it’s large, the population is over one and a half million so everything you need will easily be found here. We weren’t really in Madagascar to slog round a large city, but it is a quite aesthetic place and one worth exploring. It’s built on three ridges and has a motley collection of colourful houses and churches which have a French influence. The Manjakamiadana royal palace is based at the summit of one of these hills and is visible from just about anywhere in Tana. Be aware that French is spoken widely, not English. And the French make up the majority of visitors. That said, many tourists on the island are highly qualified professionals, many of them there as part of their research or study. You wont be short of conversation on excursions or feel isolated.
Madagascar hasn’t really caught on to the leisure boom. That’s no bad thing of course, nobody would want this idyll destroyed by an invasion of 18 – 30s, it’s not that sort of a place. It’s amazing how far it is behind its neighbours like the Seychelles and Mauritius in terms of international standard hotels and infrastructure. That’s a shame because 70% of the people live in poverty and they would seem to have a ready made solution if they can get the balance right. Like many people living with not very much, we found the locals to have permanent smiles, a happy disposition and a willingness to please.
We stayed in the Le Lac Hotel which isn’t a hotel at all, it’s a collection of bungalows that front the lake. The complex is near enough to the airport to be convenient but not too near as to be noisy. Cheap in the extreme even though there were some minor maintenance issues that needed addressing. The cold tap trickled, the loo needed three flushes to do its job (sorry for that one !) and there was peeling paint in numerous places. None of which really bothered us at all but might be an issue for the more discerning guest. At the price, think one night in a good London hotel equalling a week here, a definite 8 out of 10.
It might be a cliched first excursion, but our primary venture out was to Lemur Park. If one animal sums up the island it has to be the lemur. And as the park is quite near the capital, 45 minutes, it seemed an obvious attraction to visit. You can see the primates in their natural habitat and there are many different species including nocturnal varieties. Needless to say these are caged during the day. The flora and fauna in the park is diverse and interesting and the English speaking guide was enthusiastic and knowledgable. We only spent one and a half hours in the park but this was enough after the previous day’s long flight and late arrival.
The afternoon we spent at a local market. I find markets in any hot country to be a visual feast, the colours are always overwhelming and Tana market was no exception. It was the rices though that dominated the stalls, Madagascans love their rice and paddy fields are everywhere. Not only were the counters groaning under the weight, so were the locals, I was astonished at the volume of the grains they were carting away. And I mean carting, they literally needed wheels to take their purchases home. Cheese and fish were the other foodstuffs that were in abundance but surprisingly few vendors offering spices.Maybe they are just too expensive to import or they’re simply not in demand. By the way, most locals are appreciative of tourists and treat them kindly and respectfully. But in any impoversished country (indeed in any country rich or otherwise) you will inevitably get those who prey on the unaware and Madagascar is no exception. Pickpockets operate in the busy markets and it’s a good idea to leave your valuables at the hotel and carry only what cash you think you’ll realistically need. The police are undermanned and if you do need to report a crime you’ll lose a day of your holiday doing the paperwork.
Thankfully we had no such drama during our stay and enjoyed trips out to the flower market, again a very colourful and visual extravaganza, the Royal Palace, a couple of art galleries featuring contemporary Malagasy craftings as well as some nice picnics by the lake and river. One museum I wouldn’t recommend is that detailing the history of piracy around the island and further afield. It’s overpriced and is little more than a collection of boards almost entirely written in French. There’s nothing on offer you couldn’t better on the Internet.
It was now time to venture to the West of the island and visit one of my must-see attractions, The Avenue of the Baobabs. These trees define Madagascar second only to the Lemurs, there are only two dozen or so of these magnificent species in the Avenue (there’s another clump of equal size nearby) but they give you a glimpse back into history. Before deforestation dense forest used to stand in the region. The trees remaining are 800 years old and in an area we would call of outstanding natural beauty. Photographers gather here in numbers to take in both sunrise and sunset and it has a very spiritual feel about it. The road to Morondava is dusty and rutted and you really need to either hire a 4 x 4 or book an excursion if you want to avoid a breakdown.
The beaches around Morondava are attractive enough but the currents are deadly. Swimming is not advised. If you fancy getting to somewhere less treacherous and with excellent snorkelling or diving I would recommend a couple of days on the Nofy-Be. Believe me, this remains one of the great experiences of my lifetime. The crew are born entertainers, great raconteurs, incredible musicians and just so entertaining. The snorkelling was likewise as good as I’ve experienced and I’ve been lucky enough to partake in Hawaii and Australia. As for the onboard food, exquisite. If you weren’t permanently working off the pounds swimming around the reef, you’d come home seriously needing a gym membership.
We finished our two week holiday in Anakao on the South Western tip. The beaches here are reputed to be as good as any you will find. An unusual morning’s excursion was a pirogue (dugout canoe) trip to nearby mangroves and islands, including one that’s home to the world’s southernmost breeding colony of red-tailed tropicbirds. A day trip to the salt lake at Tsimanampetsotsa National Park is a must. Tsimanampetsotsa is simply a bird lovers paradise, there are so many different and wonderful species here, including Flamingoes, it’s not true. Once again the Baobabs display their majesty and magnificent Banyams actually manage to compete with them. The area has numerous sink holes and caves and there are numerous walks to take in the stalactites and stalagmites. A truly fascinating and educational region.
I’ve touched upon a fraction of what Madagascar has to offer, it would be quite easy to write a book on the island. I’m disappointed and regretful I might only get to see it the once. But I should consider myself lucky. Once is better than missing out on completely on this amazing collection of sights and experiences. Mr Attenborough, you are a very, very priveleged man.