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Colourfully dressed local women near Ifaty, Madagascar.
Colourfully dressed local women near Ifaty, Madagascar.
Madagascar, Mother with baby lemur
Madagascar, Mother with baby lemur

Madagascar travel guide

Neither Africa nor Asia, Madagascar defies classification. From desert to rainforest, mountain to beach it’s packed with endemic species and a culture all of its own

Adrift in the Indian Ocean, the size of France but with about ten main roads, Madagascar is one country where you can really escape the influence of the modern age and escape to remote communities scarcely touched by the outside world. Increasingly it is being discovered by naturalists and anthropologists as well as those who value its remote beaches.

Madagascar’s history is key to its development. The island split from Gondwanaland before big predators had developed. Instead of primates Madagascar developed lemurs, a gentle, unaggressive near-monkey, whose nearest relative lives in South America. There are more than 50 species now, but all have gentle hands and soulful eyes.

A stunning 90% of Madagascar’s flora and fauna are endemic, found nowhere else in the world. These are protected in National Parks where rugged hikes are needed to track rare species and in private reserves where, to appeal to the French market, the lemurs are fed from the table and almost tame.

Its isolation also shaped the island's culture. The human gene pool arrived by boat from about 500BC, crossing the Mozambique Channel from Africa and drifting across the Indian Ocean from Southeast Asia and Austronesia. Here they blended and divided into 18 different tribes, each with its own language and beliefs.

Village life is conducted under a strict set of taboos and traditional beliefs. The island’s musical traditions also developed independently: each region has its localised types of music, keenly followed live and on bootleg VCR tapes. Two hundred years of French colonisation have overlaid a thin (but fervent) layer of Christianity and basic cooking skills but never threatened local cultures and beliefs. 

All this and natural beauty too. Straddling climate zones Madagascar has rocky wastes of spiny desert, patches of montane and tropical forest, intensively-farmed cool highlands and vanilla-scented lowlands basking in year-round warmth. Life continues offshore: cross the golden-sand beaches and join the lateen-rigged wooden fishing boats: below the surface are little-dived coral reefs and big pelagics. 

Wanderlust recommends

  1. Go Beach. Beach resorts are relatively new to Madagascar, but are reasonably developed on the islands of Nosy Be and Ile Ste Marie in the north and around Fort Dauphin and Tulear in the south. Take local advice before swimming on deserted beaches: some have sharks
  2. Stalk a Lemur. In National Parks tracking lemurs is an adventure, with few trails and no guarantees. Get amongst a group and the experience is captivating, as they call through the forest canopy. Sightings are easier in private reserves, where they're practically tame
  3. Walk the ‘Avenue of Boabs’. It’s not often Unesco recognises a grove of trees, but near the town of Morandave it’s easy to understand why. A stately procession of vast boabs tower over a scatter of fishponds and fields. Many have spiritual significance: there are shrines and tombs to see
  4. Go to a Grave. Death is big in Madagascar. Funerals are lavish, with plenty of sacrifices (later usually eaten) and large tombs with ceremonial posts and carvings. Catch a funeral and you’re in for a party, and there’s another chance a year later, when the bones are exhumed and turned (to confuse the spirits)
  5. Take in Tana. The capital is a charming city in the central highlands that sprawls across a series of hills. Steps thread between narrow, toytown houses that rise high and narrow. Sip a cassis on a French colonial terrace and take in the sights of life at street level
  6. Dive and Discover. There are excellent reefs around the islands of Nosy Be and Sainte Marie in the north, and Tulear and Fort Dauphin in the south, with operators to supply equipment and expertise. Be careful and very insured: the nearest decompression chamber is on Mauritius or in South Africa
  7. On your Bike. Mountain bikes (VTT in French) are easy and cheap to hire. They’re a good way of extending your range without isolating yourself from your surroundings
  8. Call for Cattle. The zebu, the local humped cow that’s very nearly an ox, is widely venerated. Their horns invariably feature on Malagasy tombs, they're a sign of wealth and the meat is on all the best menus. Hand-carved and polished, zebu horn makes an ethereal, translucent set of ladles or salad servers

Wanderlust tips

Learn some French – but don’t get too fluent. The Malagasy are generally friendly but open up once they realise you’re not from France: most cordially dislike their colonial overlords. Only the young have had the opportunity to learn English and – unless you’re prepared to tackle one of the 18 regional dialects – communication relies on a broad-vowelled version of school-room French. 

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