Wild for Madagascar
A Selection of Our Favorite Places
Calling all nature nerds. It's time to pack your bags.
Madagascar is a world apart. The world’s fourth-largest island (or the smallest of the eight continents, depending on how you look at these things), it easily holds its own as a fabulous beach destination, boasting a 6,000-mile Indian Ocean coastline lined with postcard-perfect beaches, turquoise lagoons and snorkel-friendly coral reefs. But there is far more to Madagascar than just another tropical beach idyll.
In fact, for many wildlife enthusiasts, Madagascar’s beaches are the least of the island’s attractions. Long separated from all other landmasses, Madagascar stands out as possibly the planet’s most important biodiversity hotspot – a vast al fresco laboratory whose ancient floral and faunal stock has been allowed to evolve in virtual isolation for 100 million years, supplemented by the occasional vagrant that flapped or floated across from continental Africa.
The outcome of this natural experiment is a unique level of endemism that includes around 10,000 animal and plant species found nowhere else in the world. For birdwatchers, more than one-third of Madagascar’s 300 species are endemic, a list that includes such peculiarities as the ground-rollers, mesites, cuckoo-rollers and couas. The island also supports more then half the world’s species of chameleon. These range from the hefty Parson’s chameleon, which is roughly the size of domestic cat, attaining a length of up to 28 inches, to an inch-long nano-chameleon that was first described in 2021 and is regarded to be the world’s smallest reptile.
By far the most famous of Madagascar’s oddball creatures are the lemurs, a line of strange and endearing primates descended from a founding pair of stowaways that arrived on an island of floating vegetation some 30 million years ago. Tragically, the gorilla-sized giant lemurs that once roamed the island were hunted to extinction shortly after the first humans set anchor there 2,000 years ago. Even so, Madagascar today supports 100 different lemur species, ranging from the trunk-hugging indri, which weighs around 20lb and looks a bit like a cross between a koala and a panda, to 18 nocturnal species of diminutive bushbaby-like mouse lemurs.
Beaches aside, Madagascar is best suited to relatively active and robust travelers. Although the island’s bountiful natural wealth is protected in a network of 50 official national parks and reserves, most of these can only be explored on foot. Travel logistics can also be challenging: the road infrastructure might generously be described as patchy, domestic flights with Air Madagascar (aka Air Maybe) are limited, lodges tend to be low-key compared to their counterparts on the African mainland, and communication can sometimes be an issue for non-French-speakers.
That said, if you’re an active wildlife enthusiast who places experiential travel above creature comforts, Madagascar ranks among the world’s most alluring and worthwhile bucket-list destinations. Here are half a dozen hotspots that should be included on any itinerary to the world’s strangest island.
Antananarivo or 'Tana has a venerable and diverse history
The main port of entry to Madagascar, the bustling city of Antananarivo has been the island’s political hub since King Andrianjaka made it the capital of the Imerina Kingdom circa 1610. Its historical heart is the elevated quarter of Haut-Ville, whose steep cobbled alleys are flanked by imposing precolonial edifices such as the three-storey Manjakamiadana Palace. More impressive still, the out-of-town Rova Ambohimanga – long regarded to be the spiritual capital of Imerina, and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site – is graced by several royal palaces and tombs, including a well-preserved traditional wooden residence built for the succinctly named King Andrianampoinimerina in 1788
Andasibe - Mantadia National Park is home to the charasmatic Indri
If you visit only one wildlife destination on Madagascar, make it Andasibe-Mantadia. Only four hours’ drive east of Antananarivo, this national park is the main stronghold of the Critically Endangered indri, a charismatic stump-tailed lemur whose eerie ear-shattering call that evokes images of a whale on a helium trip. For birders, the Circuit de Tsakoka is the place to seek out a beautiful quartet of shy, localised and elusive ground-rollers endemic to the eastern rainforest interior. Andasibe-Mantadia is renowned for its frog diversity, with more than 100 endemic species recorded within a 30km radius. Look out, too, for the giraffe weevil, a bizarre fire-engine red insect whose hinged neck is several times longer than its body.
Mandrare River Valley - A Dr. Suess spiny forest
The otherworldly spiny forest (or, if you prefer, spiny desert) of southwest Madagascar is dominated by weird dry-country succulents. This includes the Didiereaceae, an endemic family of tangled trees and shrubs whose skeletal euphorbia-like trunks are lined with spiny leaves and long protective thorns. The Mandrare River Valley, where you can stay at the delightful Mandrare River Camp, is the stronghold of the mighty octopus trees which totter haphazardly above the canopy like misshapen rugby posts. The Mandrare River region also is a wonderful place for birdwatching and lemur-viewing, including the ‘dancing’ Verreaux’s sifaka and foxy ring-tailed lemur.
Baobabs on the horizon
The Allee des Baobab is the quintessential natural landmark that comprises two dozen Grandidier’s baobabs, some of which stand about 100ft tall and are thought to be 800 years old. At dusk, the bulbous trunks are in silhouette to the setting sun. A truly stunning sight.
Nosey Be - A dreamy island destination
If you’re heading to Madagascar for the beaches, you’ll most likely end up on this lovely tropical isle, which comprises an extinct volcanic lapped by shallow water.
Popular landmarks include the gorgeous beaches at Ambatoloaka and Ambondrona, and the charming old town of Hell-Ville, whose intriguing name refers rather prosaically and anticlimactically to one Admiral de Hell, a former French Governor of Réunion. There’s plenty here to keep you active. You can hike around the crater lakes that pockmark Mont Passot or into the forested Lokobe Nature Reserve, interact with habituated black lemurs on the nearby isle of Nosy Komba, or snorkel and dive the reefs of Nosy Tanikely.
Tsingy- in local language means "walking on tip toes" or " the place where one cannot walk barefoot"
Without doubt, Madagascar is truly unique and needs to be on your adventure radar.
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