Madagascar is a nature lovers dream. With lemurs, chameleons, baobabs, deserts, jungle and mountains, the country is unbelievably diverse. 5% of all animals and plants in the world can be found in Madagascar. Isn’t that incredible? Almost 75% of all species in Madagascar can be found nowhere else. The only place in the world to find lemurs, 6 of 8 species of baobabs, half of all chameleon species, 6% of the worlds frogs etc etc etc. Why wouldnt you want to visit Madagascar? The accessibility and inaccessibility of the animals means half of the fun, or hardship, is getting there. It is the world’s 4th largest island but it probably has the 4th worst roads which means outside of the ‘tourist highway’ from Antananarivo to Toliara there are very few good paved roads. The roads can be dusty during summer and flooded during winter. The island can have a typhoon on the east coast and just over the mountains be beautiful on the other side. The people are as diverse as the animals with the island all speaking the same language but with people from Africa, India and Malaysia all mixed together to produce a truly unique country that has a unique bond with a skinny, big horned cow called the zebu. And another unique in the country is their airline. It was Mad Air (which would be appropriate) but was changed to Air Madagascar. You have no choice when in the country but to fly with them but I would recommend flying with somebody else (Kenyan Airways) if possible on the way in. Among other things I got put up in hotels on 3 separate occasions with free dinner. Nice of them!
Time to Do: Everything I mention here will take approximately 3 weeks to complete in total
I’ll start off with Antananarivo (Tana) and work my way south and east on probably the two most popular tourist routes of Tana to Tulear and Tana to Morondava/Tsingy de Bemaraha before touching on the delights of the north of Madagascar. At the end of the part on Antananarivo I’ll talk about the best strategy for seeing the rest of the country or what should be expected. As Madagascar is so big with bad roads and sometimes bad weather unless you have an awful lot of time you will not get to see everything in the country you want to see. You will also have to make the choice of something that may be really cool but is way off the beaten track so it may take 2 weeks to see that one jungle or do you stick to the easier, less cool part, to see more.
Antananarivo – Things to do
Antananarivo (Tana) is a bit of a mish-mash of a city built on 12 sacred hills. The whole city is a bit chaotic and if you get a taxi into the city centre from the airport you will notice the abundance of street sellers and the general poverty of people in the city. No offence Tana, but there is basically nothing to see in the city. It is definitely worth being there for at least half a day to get a feel for the place and to trek up and down the steps but there are no major attractions and compared to the riches elsewhere in the country a minimum amount of time should be given to it. The one or two attractions to see are:
- Rova- Queens Palace: This shell of a palace up on top of one of the highest hills was destroyed by fire in the nineties but gives great panoramic views of the city. It is a very long walk so a taxi would be the best option to see it.
- Market: In the city centre near Avenue de L’Independance and the main square is a local market that sells everything from handbags and handicrafts to carrots and potatoes.
Need to Know
Social: First of all to note that Tana and Madagascar in general is very poor with 85% of the population living on less than $2 per day so modesty is encouraged. Also around Tana there are groups of very small kids living on the street and they begin groups and try to pickpocket you. Basically while you are distracted with all of them touching you and saying ‘non’ one of them has his hands in your pocket.
Transport Plans: For large journeys such as Tana to Diego Suarez for example I would recommend flying unless you have a lot of time as it will save you days. Below I will go into the land transport options that should be considered when planning your trip. Madagascar has a simple transport system, ie. Taxi-brousse. Every part of Madagascar is connected by them but they are not always convenient. There is no bus company that travels directly between big cities, Madabus closed in 2008. So as a tourist you have a few choices when planning your trip.
- Taxi-brousse (bush taxi’s): Are very cheap but they are also very very slow. They are also uncomfortable and many swaps are needed. To get to Ranomafana NP from Tana is close when speaking about the whole country but still requires 3 bush taxi’s and every time you swap you will have to wait a long time for the next one to come. If you have lots of time and want to experience the Madagascar way of life then this is the way to go. If the journey is not that long or there is a direct bush taxi then they are worth the experience. Loud music, seeing the locals interact with each other getting fruit on the side of the road, where they stop for lunch etc.
- Renting a car and driver: This may sound fancy but is quite normal in Madagascar and is especially popular on the Tana to Toliara (RN7) route. They can be booked through a hotel, tour company or specialised car rental companies. A plan is agreed beforehand and the driver acts as a guide on the drive (but not in the parks) and you can change your plan at any time. The RN7 route can vary but by this method stopping in 2 or 3 parks will take 1 week. This is obviously a more expensive option than the bush taxi’s but much quicker. One very major thing to consider is that petrol (gas) is very expensive and you will notice that this is factored into every decision. Even getting a taxi a few kilometres outside town the driver thinks of the cost of the petrol. Petrol in Madagascar is roughly the same price as it is in Europe per litre, around €1.30 (US$1.70 or $6.33 per gallon). If you only live on $2 per day then spending 80% on one litre of petrol is a big decision. Tana to Toliara is almost 1000km and you must also pay for the driver to return so that is 2000km of fuel you must pay for plus the driver’s time. So as a rough guide for a week from Tana to Toliara this would cost approx $650. If there is at least 2 of you and are only in Madagascar for 1 or 2 weeks then this is a good option.
- Tour Companies: There are several tour companies in Antananarivo and they will bring you to all the main tourist spots on a tour like any other. They are more expensive but you get to see what you want in a set time but miss out on some local culture. For example a 5 day trip to the Bemaraha Tsingy cost €550 for one person for 5 days excluding accommodation. This trip includes a flight to Toliara but that means you miss all the stuff in between. Like any poorer country, if the company has the money for a good internet site (an even one at all) then it means it will be expensive. www.madasmile.com, www.madagascar-tour.com
RN7 – Antananarivo to Toliara (Tulear)
As you leave the bustle of Tana behind and head south through the highland you will notice how green the place is and dotted with large 2 story red mud houses. After hours of gazing at the rolling hills it dawns on you that all of this was forests, full of lemurs, full of animals but it was all burned and destroyed to plant crops or to make more grassland for zebu. Only 11% of the original rainforest remains. At one point in the central highlands you drive through a flat plateau, tens of miles of grassland. What lives there now? Nothing. Humans destroyed the forest for crops but no longer live there and none of the native animals can live on grassland as they are built for the trees. But things do change as you head south such as the houses no longer being the two story red blocks and the colour of the faces of the people. You will pass several towns on the way but the first big attraction is Ranomafana National Park
Ranomafana National Park: With 100% off all lemurs on earth and with 12 separate lemur species in this park and easy accessibility from Tana this is one of Madagascar’s most visited parks. The rare Golden Bamboo Lemur was only discovered here as late as 1986 and the park also supports one of the weirdest looking animals in the Aye-Aye. Don’t count on being able to find one though. The village of Ranamofana is nestled on the edge of the river and on the forest on the side of a valley. No matter where you stay you will encounter lizards, geckos, birds, butterflies and an array of strange insects. One very best things about Madagascar is that most animals are easy to see and find (some with a guide of course). Just walking in the jungle the guides are able to bring you to different lemurs, insects, point out chameleons among other things. There are 5 guided treks that can be done around the park. One of the shortest is a flatish trek of 4hr on the Varibolomena circuit. A full day trek is the Vohiparara circuit which is demanding but well worth doing. Several day treks such as the Soarano circuit can also be done. During any of the treks lemurs, plenty of insects, animals and flora will be seen.
The park entrance is Ar25,000 for 1 day or Ar37,000 for 2 days and you pay on the drive in. A guide is compulsory and you can either get one at the park office or if you have rented a car and driver in Tana he will organise one for you. The cost depends on the number of people and length of the trek. For example between 1-5 people for a 4hr trek is a total of 22,000AR but for a 6-8hr trek the cost is 60,000Ar. There are several campsites on the edge of the park and there is accommodation in Ranomafana village. Nobody is allowed to stay in the park after dark.
If you are going out of the park by taxi-brousse then there are up to 20 that stop at the park entrance each day before noon and you can go to Fianarantsoa (Ar5000, 3hrs) from there or if you are dropped there then taxi’s to the east coast will stop in Ranomafana village if you ask. There will also be plenty of tourists with cars passing that you can hitch a lift.
Anja Community Reserve: This small park right on the side of the RN7 just south of Ambalavao town is worth popping into for a few hours. This park has a big community of semi-tame ring tailed lemurs (and mosquito’s) so getting close-up photos is relatively easy. There are also chameleons and other wildlife in Anja. This community reserve is run by the local community to create jobs with guides, porters etc and the money from the reserve has helped to build schools and local facilities.
There is a small 2hr loop or a longer, more difficult, 5hr loop that includes a great panoramic view from the top of the mountain. Camping is possible in the park for Ar 6,000 but make sure to keep food and equipment locked away from the lemurs! Entrance fee is Ar 7,000 and a guide for 2hr circuit is Ar 10,000 (for 1-2people) and Ar 20,000 (1-2people) for the big circuit.
On walking out of the park with the guide I noticed there were a huge amount of grasshoppers on the path and grass. With every step there must have been 10 of them jumping out of the way. I asked the guide “There are a lot of grasshoppers, what do they all eat? He replied “The people of the village” and continued to walk. They must be scared out of their wits!
Isalo National Park: As you continue south the landscape gets browner and parks like Isalo are a change from the jungle of the highlands. The park is a combination of grassland, sandstone formations and canyons and is only a short jump for Ranohira on the RN7. This park makes for excellent easy trekking especially if the weather is nice with a chance for a dip in the small waterfall and pool (Piscine Natural) an hour away from the entrance. Isalo does not have as much wildlife as some other parks but there is still several lemur species such as ring tailed, sifaka’s and brown lemurs and 14 nocturnal lemurs you may spot sleeping during the day. Sifaka’s are the lemurs that run by jumping sideways which is very strange and if you’re lucky you may spot them doing this. Chameleons and insect abound and hopefully you will be lucky enough to spot a stick insect. They are almost as good as the leaf tailed gecko for camouflage. As the name suggests these foot long insects look identical to a stick including growth rings and all! As usual there are lots of endemic plants such as elephant’s foot and palm trees.
The park office is in the small village of Ranohira where you can organise a guide. Entry is Ar25,000 for one day and AR37,000 for 2 days and a guide as always is compulsory. For a full day a guide charges Ar25,000. Ranohira is very small town where you can grab your grilled beef on the side of the road and toasted nuts for desert and then sit on a plastic chair a few feet away from the main road and sip beer watching the world go by and chameleons tightrope walking on the telephone wires. Once it gets dark the road is quite so this is not a dangerous occupation but what is dangerous is carrying water back from the well which all local women do. Very young girls trying to carry full buckets of water without letting them spill can lead to a few disasters. There is one good hotel in Ranohira that has plenty of accommodation and there are several campsites in the park.
Tolieara (Tolear): This town on the Mozambique Channel is the end of the line for the RN7 and almost 1000km from Tana and like any bigger town it has tourist section or square and the town is fairly dire outside that. As Toliara is on the sea there are several nice but expensive hotels close to the sea and several beaches. There are also a few nice restaurants and bars that you can while away an afternoon. Some attractions are a museum in the small university and a sea museum on Route de la Porte. There are lots of pousse-pousse (a manual tuk-tuk) that offer to bring you anywhere all the time but one of the best places to go which is about 12 kilometres out of town towards the airport is the Arboretum d’Antsokay.
Arboretum d’Antsokay was created by a Swiss botanist and tries to show off the fauna of south west Madagascar. There are over 900 species of plants and the guided tour is very good. There is even a mouse lemur on site we spotted sleeping in one of the trees. The size of your hand with huge eyes for seeing in the dark. There is also a good restaurant on site. Entry is Ar10,000 www.antsokayarboretum.org
Antananarivo to Morondava and Tsingy de Bemaraha
Another very popular tourist trail is Morondava with the Avenue de Baobas and the amazing attraction of the tsingys. The big towns on the west coast are Mahajanga and Morondava but there is no road between them so to go by road you would have to double back to Antananarivo. Many tourists get a boat down the Tsiribihina River then head to the Tsingy de Bemaraha and on to Morondava on a tour. This tour is only available from May – Nov in the dry season. There is only a dirt track between Bemaraha and Morondava so once it is wet then the roads are impassable.
Tsingy de Bemaraha: No matter where you come from the tsingys are spectacular. They occur in a few places in Madagascar but in Bemaraha they are the tallest. Almost half the species in the park are found only in the park and not even in the rest of Madagascar! The lemurs can jump from razor sharp rock to knife like rocks without any problem. If you get there by yourself then you have to spend a few days to see the sights. There are several treks to do such as the Petit Tsingy and Big Tsingy loops which are both half days with rope bridges and spectacular gorges. The Anjohimanintsy trail is a 2 day trek where you sleep in the park.
The park is only open from April to November because of the rain and accessibility. To get there a tour down the Tsiribihina River or Manambolo River (ends in the park) is a great option or if you are driving you can go from Morodova to Belo de Tsiribihina and then on very bad roads across the Tsiribihina River by ferry (can take a long time) and onto the park. From Tana you can go north west on bad roads and end up in Antsalova and then onto Bekopaka. Both of these journeys can be done by bush taxi but make sure you have lots of time (and a cushion for your @ss) to do it in. Entrance to the park is Ar 25,000 for one day and Ar 37,000 for two days. Guides again charge depend on the route
Morondava: Admit it, the only reason you came here was to see the baobabs?? It’s not the only place with the baobab tree as they are dotted all over the south west of Madagascar but it is the only place that has an avenue of them. 20km outside town is the spectacular sightseeing attraction of the Avenue de Baobab. A very weird looking tree that grows over 30mtrs high is great for photos at sunset. These trees may look upside down and lifeless but if you were over 800 years old you probably would be a bit slow too!
Morondava is a relaxed town and a nice temperature most of the year with the usual markets and great views. As well as the baobabs there is Kirindy Forest, Mangily tombs and a zebu market that takes place in Analaiva every Wednesday 25km away.
Antsiranana (Diego Suarez)
Antsiranana is one of the nicest towns in Madagascar. It is set up the very north of the island inside a huge sheltered lagoon which made it a very important port back in the day. The lagoon is surrounded by large hills and the Sugar Loaf guards the bay before it enters the Indian Ocean which makes the scenery more spectacular. This colonial town is well set up for tourists with lots of shops, hotels, bars, restaurants etc. Popular attractions in the immediate surrounds of Antsiranana are:
- Ramena Beach: A bumpy taxi ride around part of the bay which brings you to a relatively empty beach where there are restaurants on the shore where you can dine while watching the locals pull their fishing nets in from the shore.
- Emerald Bay: A small shallow and empty bay that turns from turquoise to a light blue. A perfect place to sit back and relax. Very few facilities.
- The Three Bays:3 beautiful bays that can be reached by car (4 x 4) or sea. Sea is the best option.
Although Antsiranana is a very nice town, the best part about it is the parks that are very close to it. Montagne d’Ambre (Amber Mountain), Ankarana and the Red Tsingy’s are well worth the trip to Madagascar alone and are all relatively close to Diego Suarez.
Amber Mountain National Park (Montagne d’Ambre)
This relatively small park is one of the most diverse in Madagascar because of the change of altitude within the park. Amber Mountain ranges from 800-1500mtrs which means conditions are perfect for life with warm air of the lowlands and the cool air of the sea meeting to provide rain and plenty of waterfalls. The park has a huge number of endemic species and carnivores such as the fossa and mongoose. On the more cuddly scale there is the brown lemur, crowned lemur, bamboo lemur among others with lots of butterflies, birds, insects and the king of disguise – the leaf tail gecko. This guy is unbelievable, even in photos of him on a branch people don’t know where he is! The world’s smallest chameleon is also here. It’s the same size as your little finger.
The park has well marked trails and is the only park in Madagascar where it is not compulsory to have a guide (but remember you will not spot the leaf-tailed gecko without one!). It’s possible to climb to the top of Amber Mountain in a long day if you want to see the spectacular views. There are several short walks that can be done of which most pass at least one spectacular cascade.
The park is only 30km south of Antsiranana with the best time to visit being Sept – Nov with rain still being a possibility. Cyclone season is Dec-Mar and should be avoided at all costs. Joffreville is on the edge of the park, 3km from the entrance, and bush taxi’s leave the bottling factory in Antsiranana for there regularly. The driver will drop you to the entrance if you ask and agree a price. A normal taxi costs around Ar40,000 for a 40min ride. Entry is Ar 25,000 for 1 day and 37,000 for 2 days. A guide’s cost will depend on the trek you do but will be about Ar 25,000 for a half day trek.
Ankarana National Park
Continuing south passed Amber Mountain on the RN 6 you reach probably my favourite park in Ankarana National Park. It almost gets boring saying that another park has incredible biodiversity but this one does. Its most spectacular feature is the razor sharp rocks known as tsingy. The rock is limestone and has been eroded away by heavy rains over millennia to produce pointed knife like pieces of rocks. They are the same type of tsingy that is in Bemaraha National Park further south except the tsingy in Ankarana take up a much larger area. Although Bemaraha are slightly higher, they are huge in Ankarana so don’t let that stop you going. The park contains one of the largest cave systems in Africa and the Ambahibe cave hold a huge amount of wildlife also. Millions of bats (14 species) and then huge spiders such as tiger spiders and tarantulas (I very nearly stepped on one as all you can see is exactly where your torch is shining) and the world’s only cave living crocodiles (luckily I didn’t nearly step on them!)
Ankarana is a great place for trekking with so many attractions and sightseeing points. I would encourage anybody going to try and do a longer trek where you get so see all the main sights in the one go. The large single day circuit from Mahamasina takes around 6-7hrs although it is possible to do several smaller, shorter circuits that see only a limited number of the big attractions. It is also possible to traverse the whole park in 3days as there are several entrance points namely Matsaborimanga (north of park, impassable during wet season) and Amboandriky (on west side of park, requires 4 x 4)
If travelling by public transport then the easiest way is taxi brousse that travel regularly from Diego Suarez to Ambilobe (Ambilove) and this passes by Mahamasina village but make sure to ask the driver as it is easy to miss. There is basic accommodation in Mahamasina if the campsites in the park are not for you. It gets very hot in March and April but May – Nov is the best time to visit as it is dry season.
Tsingy Rouge (Red Tsingy)
These very strange formations are worth the 2hr journey from Diego Suarez. They are called tsingy but although they are a similar shape they are not the same as the razor sharp limestone found in Bemaraha and Ankarana National Parks. Firstly they are red but secondly they are made out of hard sand inadvertently caused by human deforestation. When the forest on the surface was removed then the heavy rains washed away the soil leaving these pillars of sand in big canyons. There are large chameleons to be found on the bushes near the canyons and several lizards but overall it is only the Tsingy Rouge to be seen. They are very strange formations that take as long as you want to enjoy them with no major walking treks to be done.
The last 20min of the journey is very off road on a red soil track and you are likely to encounter zebu pulling carts and farmers growing tobacco on it. It is strange for such a famous sight that they don’t have any sort of gravel track going to it. Again May – Nov is the best time to go.
This big island, as the name means in Malagasy, is made of sandy beaches, emerald waters and rolling hills is a perfect place to relax and spoil yourself. The island offers plenty of lemurs, diving, trekking, biking and lounging. Despite being the biggest tourist attraction in Madagascar the amenities and hotels in general are nice but are reasonably basic on Nosy Be but for some people this is part of the attraction.
Hell-Ville is a decaying colonial town that is the economic centre of Nosy Be where you can drink coffee while breathing in the scent of vanilla on the street. The lazy market is a good place to watch the goings on where lots of vegetables, fruit and fresh fish are sold.
Most of the beach tourists head west to Ambatoloaka where you can sip rum and eat coconuts while looking at the turquoise waters. This is one of the busiest spots on the island and has the most nightlife. Beside it is Ambondrona Bay that is not frequented by visitors. Well worth a visit if you want to get away from the other ‘vazahas’.
Lokobe National Park is a short ride from Hell-Ville and is the only reserve in Nosy Be and is home to the rare Black Lemur. Again there are many species of chameleon and others there. Most hotels and any tourist agency will do this trip. You can also go on your own to the entrance at Ambanoro as it is only 10km from Hell-Ville.
Need to know
You can arrive by boat to Nosy Be from Ankify on the mainland by a small speedboat if on foot for Ar 25,000 (30 min) that start at 7.30am or if you have a car you can take the slower ferry.
Nosy Be (Dzaoudzi) also has daily flights from Antananarivo with Air Madagascar (www.airmadagascar.com) that often stops at least once and usually in Mahajanga or Diego Suarez on the way. There are also flights to Nosy Be from Corsair from Paris with Corsair (www.corsair.fr) and Air Caraibes (www.aircaraibes.com) or from Reunion with Air Mauritius
Practicalities – About Madagascar
€1 = 2,820 Malagasy Ariary, US$1 = Ar 2,150
- Language – Malagasy, French. French is widely spoken by the general public and so there are a lot of French tourists. English is spoken by hotels, tour operators, restaurants but not by the general public.
- Bus – There is not any dedicated bus company but taxi brousse (bush taxis) are plentiful. They are very cheap but you just need patience to get where you want to go.
- Flights- International airports are in Antananarivo and Nosy Be (Mayotte Dzaoudzi) with several airlines. Air Madagascar, Air France, Kenyan Airways, Corsair, Air Caraibes, Air Mauritius and South African Airways. When flying into Madagascar try to avoid using Air Madagascar because their punctuality is brutal.
- Internally within Madagascar only Air Madagascar flies and they have a reasonably extensive network to all the big cities with the hub at Antananarivo.
- I have done a fair amount of flying in my time and Air Madagascar are the worst airline I have flown with. Of 4 flights I had with them, 2 of them were cancelled and 2 were severely delayed. They treat you very well, put you up in 4 star hotels with dinner but you still are not where you planned to be. Once when there were ‘technical difficulties’ they even flew an empty plane south for 2 hrs so all passengers could continue their journey.
- Accommodation – $20 per night for an average double room (double that in Nosy Be)
- Beer – 1litre (1.75pints) of beer costs between $1 and $2.
- Visa: All foreigners must get a visa for Madagascar. A tourist visa last for 30days and can be got before entering Madagascar (takes 24hrs) or on arrival in the airport. Your passport must be valid for at least the following 6 months. In my experience there was no major delays getting the visa but I came from Nairobi so the whole flight did not have to get visas.
- Population of Madagascar: 22.0 million
My Photo Gallery of Madagascar
Map of Madagascar
|Rova-Queens Palace, Antananarivo|
Fort-Voyron, Antananarivo Renivohitra, Antananarivo, Madagascar
|Avenue de L'Independance, Antananarivo|
Avenue de L'Independance, Antananarivo, Madagascar
|Ranomafana National Park|
Ranomafana, Fianarantsoa, Madagascar
|Anja Community Reserve|
|Isalo National Park, Ranohira|
Ranohira, Fianarantsoa, Madagascar
|Avenue du Boabab, Morondova|
Avenue du Baobab, Morondava, Madagascar
|Antsiranana (Diego Suarez)|
|Amber Mountain National Park (Montagne D'Ambre)|
Amber Mountain, Antsiranana Rural, Antsiranana, Madagascar
|Ankarana National Park|
Ankarana Reserve, Diana, Antsiranana, Madagascar
Sadjoavato, Antsiranana, Madagascar
|Lokobe National Park, Nosy Be|
Lokobe Reserve, Diana, Antsiranana, Madagascar
|Tsingy de Bemaraha|
Tsingy de Bemaraha NP Reception, Antsalova, Mahajanga, Madagascar