Ask someone to pin Madagascar on a map and there's a slim chance they'll manage to locate it. For me, this was never the case. Having grown up in South Africa, Madagascar was always easy to locate on a globe: east of Mozambique, west of Mauritius. A year-round destination (with a few rainy months from November to April) loaded with nature and wildlife, there are few countries on earth that offer as much biodiversity as Madagascar. But for many of those who live more than a few countries away, the little they know about this island is probably from the animated film Madagascar, which means they don’t know much about it at all.
To be fair, Madagascar hasn’t had a lot of attention from tourists. Getting to the island is a challenge; there are a few direct long-haul flights (from Johannesburg, Nairobi, and Paris to Antananarivo), but most routes are out of Johannesburg (to Antananarivo and Nosy Be), so overnighting in Joburg is recommended. Getting around the island is even harder; most roads aren’t in mint condition and while there are a handful of small airports, there are only a few routes, with limited flights per week. Even if you do manage to get on a plane, a domestic flight could be cancelled at any moment. (Insiders call Air Madagascar—a primarily domestic airline—‘Air Mad,’ because it's so unreliable.) When trekking to a destination proves difficult, however, the journey is all the more worth it when you arrive to find an uncrowded, unspoiled, and spectacular place.
And boy, oh, boy, is Madagascar unspoiled and spectacular. Having developed in isolation—the island broke away from the main continent of Africa around 180 million years ago—Madagascar is unlike any other part of the continent. Yet it manages to look like a collection of African countries all jumbled into one. It has the azure waters of Zanzibar, the mangroves of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the rolling green hills of South Africa’s wild coast, and the fiery sunsets of the Serengeti.
It is one of the most offbeat and interesting places on the planet, but sadly, parts of it are disappearing—and fast.
It is one of the most offbeat and interesting places on the planet, but parts of it are disappearing—and fast. Rapid population growth, deforestation, overfishing and poaching have led to a decline in the country’s natural resources and animals (lemurs are often poached for bushmeat). Thankfully, there are preservation projects underway, such as Gerp, a group of researchers working to protect the biodiversity of Madagascar and the Lemur Conservation Foundation, an NGO dedicated to the preservation and conservation of Malagasy primates. And the more responsible tourism the country gets, the more likely it is that these projects will prosper. Here are six reasons why you should go.
Yes, lemurs are the number one reason to visit Madagascar. The endangered species endemic to the island exist nowhere else in the world, and are on the verge of extinction due to deforestation and poaching. They are also ridiculously cute. Best possible way to see them? In their natural environment in a national park, such as Andasibe-Mantadia National Park in the northeastern part of the country. Here, the Lemur Conservation Foundation has a few programs underway including reforestation, lemur repopulation as well as teaching locals about sustainable agricultural practices. “A conservation project is successful when it has motivated a local community enough to make them protect their own resources," said Simon Andrianiana, head terrestrial guide at Time + Tide Miavana. "Malagasy NGOs like Fanamby, Vahatra and Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership (MBP) have worked extensively to identify the major issues that conservation is facing in Madagascar. They each adhere to the vision that lemur conservation is a success when you explain it to the local villagers, get them involved and make them benefit from it."
A sustainable stay
Miavana, a luxury hotel dedicated to helping preserve the surrounding nature and wildlife and empower local communities, opened on the private island of Nosy Ankao, a short helicopter ride from Nosy Be off the northeastern coast of Madagascar, last year. Over four years of construction, the lodge created employment for over 450 people and it currently has a few wildlife preservation projects underway, including reintegrating lemurs back onto the island and restoring surrounding marine life by working with local fisherman to stop netting. It was one of the most anticipated hotels to open on the African continent in 2017, and it lives up to its hype. The contemporary stone and glass beachfront villas have private decks and pools that are a few footsteps from the ivory beach. Just look at these rooms. How about this insanely wild beach?
Who knew soil erosion could have a positive side effect? A labyrinth of sharp vertical rock formations formed by soil erosion is the hallmark of Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park, a seven- to ten-hour drive from the town of Morondava on the west coast. There you'll find the Great Tsingy and the Little Tsingy, limestone needles that climb high up into the sky from the earth. Tsingy Rouge, in the northeast of the country, features stunning clay pinnacles that are deep red and brown in color.
Madagascar is home to 11,000 endemic plant species, 80% of which can only be found on the island. Same goes for the fauna. Unique endemic animals include the fossa (a cat-like creature) and many species of the aforementioned lemurs, which, although endangered, can be found in the protected forests of national parks. In addition to Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, you can also head northwest to see the rare primates at Ankarafantsika National Park.
The Avenue of Baobabs is on Madagascar’s west coast, between the towns of Morondava and Belon'i Tsiribihina. It's a dusty road lined with ancient baobabs that rise almost a hundred feet into the sky like 800-year-old wooden skyscrapers. As deforestation has spread across the island, this road remains one of the most accessible places to see these quintessentially African "upside-down" trees bursting with bird’s nests.
Sustainable tourism can help preserve the country's unique flora and fauna and support local communities. To travel sustainably, consider staying at hotels that have eco-initiatives, working with local travel agents, and visiting national parks. In 2016, travel and tourism generated more than 641,500 jobs for local Malagasy. The hope is that by 2027, it will support 850,000 jobs. As for conservation, projects like Anja Reserve, a reforested nature reserve independently managed by a local community, relies on tourism (entrants into the park have to pay a small fee) to support and build the community.