Madagascar the easy way: Tips for your trip is written by Jacob Gowland Jørgensen
The hidden land
Say the name and pictures of funny animals and ancient trees pop up. Or cartoon characters, if you have enjoyed the cool animated films. But how is it really down there on the world's fourth largest island? There are not very many Danes who have actually been there, and although tourism is growing, they only get 1/4 visitors compared to little Denmark, so it is not so easy to get a clear picture of life on the island .
Madagascar is a country on the edge of the world, where life - for better or worse - is still as it was many years ago in most other places. Original and original.
I had heard rumors of an infrastructure that was somewhere between bad and non-existent, political problems and a lot of other crap that one often hears about African countries. I had given up traveling there several times - mainly because the airline tickets with Air France were too expensive and it seemed too unmanageable to throw myself over the country. But now it was time to travel to Madagascar.
I got a good offer and could also see, among other things, that the airline tickets had become quite sensible, because all of a sudden there were more companies covering Madagascar, so now it cost no more to travel there than to Thailand. So I dropped the November runny nose and the early Christmases and threw myself into a plane on its way to Madagascar. On a trip I really did not know what to think about. And maybe because my real idea of the country was so vague, traveling in Madagascar also became a very different experience.
The Asian connection
Madagascar is in it Indian Ocean and belongs to Africa, but it can be a little difficult to see when you land in the capital Antananarivo, just called Tana. Because here most descendants are from Indonesia, and it is clearly seen.
I landed on a peaceful Saturday afternoon. It was December 1st, and Santa hats and Christmas items were sold in the streets, while we drove to the hotel by a brand new road and finally meandered into the old center by the station and the colony buildings. At the front desk stood a little lady who was like cheated out of the nose of the people I remember from Bali, and she spoke lovely English with a twist of French.
Tana is located in the highlands of central Madagascar, so even though I was on a tropical island in early summer, it was only 23 degrees, and from the hotel terrace I could enjoy the view of the hills and the sound of big city. People, church bells, cars.
While I eat, the sweetest little one arrives gecko-like cousin passing by, taking care of the leftovers. Now I'm on my journey in Madagascar, the land of funny animals.
The guidebook stated that Tana is one of the most attractive cities in Africa, but let's just state that the city standard on those edges is in a completely different category than most other places in the world. But yes, there is a large center with slightly abandoned colonial buildings, and a krea-neighborhood with restaurants and old townhouses, and then there are many cool and beautiful places when you enter behind fences and gates. Much can be said about French colonial history, but they have managed to leave clear and positive traces in both the aesthetic and gastronomic, and it is not so bad.
I met in the evenings with the people from all over the world that I was going on a trip with. We ate the local cow, a zebu that tastes excellent if just cooked for a 2-3 hours. The horned and sinewy cow is to that extent a symbol of both prosperity and traditions, and you will hardly find a restaurant that will not just honor the cow by making a special dish with it in the center.
Route Nationale 7 in Madagascar
The country's reportedly best road runs from Tana to Toliara - also called Tulear - on the coast in the southwest, and along it there are nature experiences galore.
If you are a tourist, there are only quite a few options for transportation, for the local mini-bus, one Taxi Brousse, is obviously for small people who do not have legs. In other words, hell on wheels… There are also a few long-distance buses that do not stop where you want.
So you can join a group or even rent a car. It is now not recommended to drive yourself, because life is lived along the road, so there are always children, chickens, zebu or other in / on the road, so travelers usually end up renting a car with a driver or take a group, where you drive in a modern, small bus. Flying domestically also works reasonably well with the company that thankfully is no longer called Mad Air anymore but now goes by the name Madagascar Air. Reportedly, they should have a tendency to be delayed, but I did not experience that myself now, and they have a good route network on the island.
Before we drove out on Route Nationale 7 on our way the nearly 1000 km to the south, we visited a small zoo park where local animals had been rescued from humans and accidents and now lived a carefree life on a beautiful natural plot sheltered by the river. The lemurs are the kings of Madagascar, but the first animal I fell head over heels for was now a chameleon who rolled his eyes wildly and sat with his fine tail set up in a spiral.
And when we looked closely, we could see even more chameleons all around. The enthusiasm was great, because now hold up where it's a fun built animal.
The cameras clicked until the attention shifted quickly up towards the trees, where a pair of unusually cheerful cat lemurs jumped around. The animal is probably better known as a ring-tailed lemur - or King Julien in the Madagascar cartoons - and they sat a meter in front of us, gnawing and glaring at us. And then it happened; that which has clearly given inspiration to the dancing and over-cheeky King Julien: One jumped down and jumped elegantly and powerfully forward - sideways. Because that's what they do now, and it looks pretty fun.
We greeted several kinds of chameleons, geckos and lemurs on the way out and were thus well equipped to spot their wild cousins in the open air.
Our guide told us on the way forward that it is actually wrong to call the lemurs half-monkeys; it is more accurate to call them pre-monkeys. There have also been lemurs in Africa, but they have been outcompeted by the primates while surviving in Madagascar because there are no large predators. And that these pre-apes fill several roles in the animal landscape, which can clearly be seen in their names, where shapes and colors we know from eg foxes, mice, martens and other small animals are part of completely unique combinations found only in lemurs in Madagascar.
Madagascar - the kingdom of animals
It is said that gorillas the size of gorillas may have lived on the island, but they are now extinct, which is unfortunately a fairly current part of the story. We drive on the fine, paved road towards the Ranomafana National Park among beautiful rice terraces that are some of the most beautiful man-made landscapes I have seen in the world. The problem is just that there was forest before and that wildlife is under pressure. Forests and shrubs are burned off and made into fields, and endless amounts of wood are used to cook on old-fashioned wooden stoves.
Madagascar is developing into an ecological disaster, even though 80% live off the land. The population density is quite low in the country, but in places where the soil is fertile and there is not much light in the evening, you get the heat and entertainment in other ways, so it is not unusual for rural families to have many children. Just like in the countryside in Denmark once. And it also pushes the natural areas.
The level of education is low, and changing politicians make sure that corruption goes its way and that the funds from the resource-rich country do not reach the population. The production is at such a basic stage that one can hardly imagine it. Some of the raw materials are not even exported to e.g. South Africa, but to other developing countries, which then export it further in their own name; eg is some of the tea from Kenya originally from Madagascar. Ie. they are at the very end of the value chain and today are unfortunately also one of the poorest countries in the world. At least measured in kroner and øre.
Fortunately, there are a host of local and international initiatives that are making such a difference. A little helped by a couple of hurricanes that a few years ago zigzagged across the island and created major landslides where the trees no longer held on to the ground, thus making it clear in many places that current practice is unsustainable.
We bumped into privately run schools, kindergartens, replanting organizations, orphanages, agricultural training, solar stove NGOs and much more that bodes well for the country's future so they do not make all the mistakes we have made in the past. Several of the organizations also have smaller hotels as part of their income, and we stayed at them several times and saw in practice some of the work that is being done. Quite impressive. And then we met a proud rural population who were probably poor in money, but had profits and joy, and lived in and with nature.
The great rainforest of Madagascar
I wake up early. It's just over 5 o'clock, but it's already getting light.
I walk out onto the patio in front of the cabin and look out over the rainforest, which looks exactly like it is: A cornucopia of plants and life on rolling hills with rushing rivers hist and piste. Supernaturally beautiful.
We go out into the national park and easily find various fine animals, including the bamboo lemur, which was first discovered 30 years ago. They sit there right in front of us, munching merrily on a giant bamboo, while occasionally jumping up to look out and then coming back again. They do not feel threatened. This is their home.
We can feel that we have switched to a new climate zone, because it is warmer and more humid here, but with a bottle of water and a breeze from time to time, it is destined to endure. The national park is part of a larger UNESCO site in eastern Madagascar, as the amount of unique animals and plants here is towering. And not least a beautiful and accessible area.
Anja was in Madagascar
On the way further south is a small "nature reserve", called Anja. Here, the locals have decided to protect the lemurs instead of fighting with them around the square, and then they show around and tell about the ring-tailed inhabitants.
The first lemur we see quite demonstratively turns its rear “brown eye” towards us while the tail slaps down. But the next ones are more curious, so we get half an hour with the fine animals. There is a young lemur that thinks there is too little walking in the tree, so it jumps around and tries to push the slightly older ones who are taking a lunch break while a baby peeks out from his mother's back. They braid tails so that the zebra stripes sparkle.
No lemur dancing today, just curious glances and calm.
Savannah and cliffs in Isalo
We continue our journey south in Madagascar as the landscape changes. Rock formations and small mountains appear on flat plains as we drive down from the hills of the highlands. We have reached the Isalo National Park and the highlight is “The rock window”. A slightly random hole in some rocks, but the colorful rock formations with the savannah in the background are simply picture-perfect.
Now it is not mainland Africa, so there were no giraffes on the savannah. Here, on the other hand, was a landscape from the time the world was born.
We took 100 pictures but nothing can capture that place just before sunset. Because we were there at the start of the low season, we almost had it to ourselves too.
The next day we repeat the success in the area and drink sun-downers on a cliff in the middle of the wild landscape. The weather is dry and clear, slightly cloudy and 23 degrees and we can not get our arms down over how wild a place it is. We see a hotel that is in the middle of it all and where all rooms have a view of the cliffs. Wild.
We drive back to our cozy hotel and I tumble over in my cabin while sniffing the scents of the ornate flower garden the hotel is located in. I wonder if Isalo might be one of the most beautiful places I have seen on the planet? In any case, it enters the top 5 together with, among others, Iguazu and Talampaya in Argentina and Ngorongoro in Tanzania.
Traveling in Madagascar's baobab country
Western Madagascar is like traveling in a completely different country. As we drive down towards the coast, it gets warmer and the locals get darker skinned. Here live tribes who originally come from, among other places, Mozambique, and who are cattle breeders. The colonial town of Toliara on the coast could just as well be on the other side of the havet. And yet. Because there is a different atmosphere. More smiles. More calm. More organization. And, not least clearly better food.
Madagascar is in the spice belt along with e.g. Reunion og Mauritius, so vanilla, pepper, cinnamon and a wealth of tasty unknown fruits are grown here, which can be bought as freshly squeezed juice everywhere. They also put them in rum, the fruits, and are sold for no money as an aperitif.
We had lunch at a large restaurant by the water and paid 30-40 DKK for fresh well-seasoned fish dishes served with a smile - with our feet in the sand and a little crisp vanilla or lychee rum. Ahhhh…
Then we were ready for one of the highlights: the Baobab. There is a “Baobab Avenue” in Madagascar, but it is difficult to access, so we drove to a forest on the coast, where they are also found, at the beach resort of Ifaty north of Toliara.
There are 8 different kinds of the thick-bellied tree that looks like it has been turned upside down and the roots stick up in the air instead of branches, and 6 of them are found only in Madagascar. They grow in fairly dry areas, so we walked on a path through bushes and shrubs with cactus, aloe vera and other hardy plants, and suddenly it was standing there: Our new friend, the baobab.
It's the kind of tree you feel like hugging, so we did. Although we had to be five people to reach all the way around the oldest; a 1200-year-old tree that majestically reigned in the middle of it all. It started its tree life when the Vikings boarded the longships! It can hold huge amounts of water in its bulky rumen and can therefore cope with the hot periods. It was a nice little forest with many different kinds of trees and birds and even a little snake. The snakes on the island are not dangerous to humans, and it hurried away.
We had been given a tip that we should remember water, because we were down by the coast in the warmest month of them all, and I therefore took my little pocket thermometer with me to just keep up. 35, 36, 37, 38, 39 degrees we reached and we sweated like waterfalls before reaching out again. It was still 10 o'clock in the morning. It was better out by the water - there was a breeze and the otherwise very warm sea cooled down a bit. But I must admit that that night I missed an air conditioner for the first time - or that the cabin we lived in was right next to the water.
I was looking at my new handmade souvenir: A copy of the love baobab: A baobab that winds around itself like two lovers in the woods. I had just seen it in the woods, and they could be bought in many places in Madagascar, but this was where it was. In the baobab forest at Itafy.
Rajaonarimampianina - Madagascar
We flew back to Tana on time and had to find the long trousers and a thin sweater in the cool evening air when we stayed at “Hotel Le Bois Vert” - Hotel Den Grønne Skov - where we quickly forgot that we were in the middle of a large city. We talked about how much easier it had been to travel in Madagascar than we thought. How many amazing and cozy hotels there were that cost a fraction of what they would have cost elsewhere. And how smiling and helpful people were. Such more than usual peaceful and interested. Yes, and good at languages - with a mix of French and English words you got quite far.
Unfortunately, their own language is unreasonably difficult to remember, as many of the names are completely literal, and therefore become laaaange. Antananarivo means "City of Thousands", and was originally named something even longer, and the president has the interesting honor of having the longest surname among heads of state in the world. His name is Hery Rajaonarimampianina…
Traveling to Madagascar can undoubtedly be a really demanding destination if you choose some smaller destinations away from the main roads. But if you want to experience Madagascar's unique nature and culture in the easy way, that is also possible.
The main season is from September to mid-November, and if you can just experience part of the country, which is recommended, you can also choose for example April and the summer months. Just remember that if your trip is to go to Madagascar during the summer months, it may well snow a little in July in the highest areas, and the rain may fall in eg January. So choose the time according to which parts to visit and see to get going to one of the most original and experiential communities found on the planet.
Have a good trip to Madagascar.
What to see in Madagascar? Sights and attractions
- Antananarivo - also known as Tana
- Ranomafana National Park
- Anja nature reserve
- The rock window
- Baobab Avenue
- Tsingy of Bemaraha
RejsRejsRejs was invited on the trip by the Madagascar Tourist Board and Le Voyageur Madagascar was in charge of the trip. All positions are, as always, the editorial staff's own.