The best advice I can give anyone going to Madagascar can be covered off by the phrase mora mora. Loosely translated as ‘slowly slowly’, the sooner you decide to just ‘go with the flow’ the better! I’d also highly recommend you go guided, as the local knowledge of a native Malagasy adds greatly to your insights of the country.
Madagascar is an easy place to like. The world’s fourth largest island, it has evolved in isolation for over 88 million years resulting in an amazing diversity of unique flora and fauna, with 90% of its wildlife found nowhere else on Earth.
The people of this tropical country are a melting-pot of Asian, Arab and African, with at least 18 different ethnic groups. Malagasy and French are the official languages, but many people also speak some English — plus the national sport is rugby union, so I felt right at home!
The capital city of Antananarivo (referred to as Tana) is home to about 1.4 million people and has a colourful and chaotic vibe with much of life lived out on the streets. Founded in the early 1600s, the narrow cobbled streets and old buildings at its centre have a medieval feel, while in the ‘suburbs’ you can see small houses alongside rice paddies, churches and markets. The roads are shared not only by cars, trucks and the ubiquitous taxi-brousses (mini-van shuttles), but also with zebu (bullock) carts, rickshaws and hand-pulled wagons.
The exotic wildlife of Madagascar’s national parks is a major drawcard, and one of the best is Andasibe-Mantadia National Park — a world heritage site home to Madagascar’s largest lemur, the Indri, as well as others such as the diademed sifaka, the brown lemur and the black and white ruffed lemur. Also, there’s more than 100 bird species plus colourful chameleons, amphibians and reptiles. South of Tana is the incredibly scenic Ranomafana National Park, a large area of cloud forest and also a world heritage site. Well-marked trails make exploring easy, and night walks along the park boundaries reveal some tinier treasures such as red mouse lemurs.
Madagascar is incredibly photogenic, typified by sweeping rural landscapes complete with ox-drawn ploughs. Numerous artisan workshops and backyard cottage industries were an unexpected highlight for me. The thermal spa town of Antsirabe is home to the country’s largest brewery and artists’ workshops, all are fascinating to explore and worthy of support.
For a beach stay head to the low island of Nosy Be — with snorkelling, swimming and diving, or day trips to smaller offshore islands which boast stunning white coral-sand beaches and fantastic seafood.
The word ‘unique’ is often overused, but Madagascar can certainly lay claim to it. Better suited to travellers than tourists, its infrastructure is modest and things don’t always come easy — which is a large part of its appeal. Combine this with friendly and accommodating people, diverse landscapes and an amazing variety of flora and fauna and you have a destination that will reward your efforts at every turn.
Words: Tony O’Callaghan, World Journeys Travel Designer