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Written by Sue DobsonPhotos Sourced by our Photo Editor Sarah Harvey

The Baobab tree

Photos - click to enlarge.


The fourth largest island in the world lies 400 kilometres off the east coast of Africa and is a naturalist’s paradise.

Mountains, rainforests and dazzling beaches feature on this large and beautiful Indian Ocean island off the southeast coast of Africa. But the real magic of Madagascar is its wildlife.

Most of the extraordinary animal, plant, insect and bird species are found nowhere else on earth and the country is one of the 12 most important in the world for biodiversity.

Madagascar is best known for its lemurs, of which there are 50 varieties. Furry and fascinating they have big-eyed faces and range in size from the tiny, nocturnal, mouse lemurs to the black and white indri at around a metre tall. Among the most appealing are the ring-tailed and red-ruffed lemurs and the sifakas, which seem to dance as they bound upright across the ground before leaping and swinging spectacularly from tree to tree.

An example of a tree found in the Berenty Reserve

With 12,000 plant species, 80 per cent of them found nowhere else, 170 species of palm (three times more than the whole of Africa, 165 of them unique to Madagascar), more than 1,000 orchid species, 300 species of butterflies, countless rare insects, over half the world’s chameleon species and 110 endemic bird species, no wonder this island country is considered an Eden paradise by naturalists.

Nature reserves and national parks

The most visited reserve is Analamazaotra (best known by its old French name, Périnet), a fragment of mid-altitude rainforest with well -maintained trails about a three-hour drive on a tarred road from the country’s capital, Antananarivo.

Home to nine species of lemur, it is famed for the two habituated groups of endangered indri, black and white, tailless creatures whose eerie, whale-like calls drift across the early morning mist. At about a metre tall, they are the largest of the lemurs and their long back legs propel them through the canopy with agility and speed. You can do guided night walks here and spotting nocturnal lemurs is a highlight experience. Périnet is also good for birds, chameleons, hedgehog-like tenrecs and tree boas.

The Sifakas Lemur

Berenty Private Reserve in the southwest of the island is well known and popular with tour groups. Its riverine forest is home to photogenic ring-tailed lemurs and cuddly-looking sifakas (tree-dwelling lemurs), fruit bats (flying foxes) and around 100 species of birds. Chameleons, skinks, lizards and snakes are among the many reptiles to be seen. The trails are good and both day and night walks are rewarding.

In the north, the scenic, volcanic and rainforested Montagne d’Ambre National Park has crater lakes, waterfalls and fascinating tree ferns, especially the massive bird’s-nest ferns, rare trees and orchids. Among the magnificent bird species are Madagascar crested ibis, long-tailed paradise flycatchers and ground-rollers. It is the only place to see the locally endemic Amber Mountain rock thrush. Some of the trails are good and some very challenging. The best months to visit are September through November, when the weather is most comfortable and the lemurs have babies.

Isalo Canyons

Isalo National Park in the semi-arid south is quite different. Here there are spectacular jagged rock formations, deep canyons and sandstone massifs that secrete waterfalls and natural bathing pools, strange succulents, pockets of forest, open grasslands and palm-fringed oases. Excellent for walking and hiking, Isalo boasts an array of rare, endemic plants, birds, insects, reptiles and frogs.

Idyllic islands

Off the east coast of Madagascar, long, thin Ile Ste Marie or Nosy Boraha has miles of sandy beaches shaded by coconut palms and coral reefs to edge its bays and coves. Its forests, home to lemurs, chameleons and myriad colourful birds, hide waterfalls and magnificent orchids grow on this island that’s known for the humpback whales that arrive between July and September. The only downside is that it is in a cyclone region and the weather can be even more unpredictable than the rest of Madagascar.

Nosy Be beach

Nosy Be, off the northwest coast, has everything you’d expect of a tropical island archipelago. It’s also the most organised for tourism. Blessed with a good climate, as well as the magnificent beaches there are black lemurs in the Lokobe Reserve, lakes, forests, villages, markets and some nightlife. Vanilla and ylang-ylang perfume the air and boat trips are available for island hopping.

The Princess Bora Lodge on Ile Ste Marie

Madagascar is not a country for mass tourism. It’s for people with a love of nature and wildlife, an interest in local culture and a relaxed attitude when not everything goes to plan. A growing collection of high quality hotels, forest lodges and island resorts and retreats in idyllic settings are bringing comfort and style to eco-holidays.

Need to know

Madagascar is a poor country and the infrastructure, although much better than it was, is not great (many bad roads and unreliable domestic flights).
Malagasy is the official language. French is the language of government and business. Some English is spoken in tourist areas.

Malaria is endemic and precautions must be taken all year round. Medical facilities are limited. Drink bottled water (available almost everywhere).
It is advisable to book with a specialist Madagascar tour operator.
Go with an open mind and a sense of adventure.

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