If you have kids, you probably know quite a lot about Madagascar and may have watched the hilarious movie of the same name more than once. But there’s a lot more to this beautiful country than you may have seen on screen.
You may also know that Madagascar is the fourth-largest island in the world (after Borneo, Greenland and New Guinea) and that its diversity of landscapes from desert to jungle and rocky mountains to baobab forests is amazing. But you may not have known this staggering statistic: 80% of its flora and fauna exists nowhere else on earth.
How did this happen?
Well, once upon a time, when the world was comparatively new, the mega continent of Gondwana covered much of the southern hemisphere. Then about 160 million years ago it broke apart, with Africa going one way and India the other, leaving a large chunk orphaned in the middle of the Indian Ocean. That’s Madagascar – a living laboratory of eco-diversity, unchanged for millennia.
It’s been a haven for explorers, scientists and naturalists for many years and it’s a paradise for tourists. If you want a taste of one of the world’s most exotic destinations, where you’ll meet Madagascar’s most charismatic creatures – the enchanting lemurs – and discover golden, unspoilt beaches, friendly people, superb food, world-class scuba diving and snorkelling, plus enough adventure activities to exhaust even the most hyperactive adrenalin junkie, hop on a plane headed to the island of Nosy Be (pronounced bay) off Madagascar’s north-west coast.
Then slow down: “mora, mora” – as the locals say – “slowly, slowly”.
Once a French colony, today Madagascar is a melting pot of Asian, European, Chinese and Indian cultures and the delicious food reflects this mix, although the French influence is strongest – think freshly baked baguettes, aromatic coffee, tasty soups, fresh seafood and mouthwatering desserts.
A good base for your holiday of a lifetime is the comfortable and elegant Vanila Hotel & Spa. Situated right on the beach, it combines laidback Madagascan charm with French chic. The airy rooms, which all have private verandahs, are spacious and comfortable, and if you can drag yourself away from the idyllic beach with its sun loungers, palm trees and fresh juice and cocktails on tap, you can relax beside one of the hotel’s three pools set amidst lush gardens overlooking the impossibly blue sea. Take time to browse in the tiny shop on site where you’ll find some of the island’s best arts and crafts, or indulge yourself with a massage of endemic essential oils at the onsite spa, where you can also pop in for a complementary spa bath any time you wish.
There’s so much to see and do in Nosy Be, but a visit to the lemurs must be your number one priority.
When my guide Claudio collects me from the hotel and tells me we’re heading for nearby Lemuria Land, my heart sinks. It sounds like the worst sort of tourist trap or commercial zoo.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
This lovely little natural reserve is home not only to free-roaming lemurs of all kinds, but also to a number of intriguing chameleons, fat crocodiles and some water birds. It’s set in the middle of the gnarled and twisted ancient trees of a centuries-old ylang-ylang plantation, whose frangipani-type flowers are processed into expensive and therapeutic sweet-smelling essential oils. If you visit on a Monday, Wednesday or Friday you’ll see the local ladies selling their sacks of flowers and during the rainy season (January to the end of March) you can watch the distillation process. Be sure to buy some oils as they’ll cost you a fortune if you buy them home.
But you’ve come to Lemuria Land for the lemurs. Nothing can prepare you for these enchanting creatures – and I’m someone who has been to the Amazon rainforest, the Galapagos Islands, the snowy peaks of the Himalayas, and the water wonderland of the Okavango.
I walk into the reserve with Claudio and stand still. Suddenly silky paws caress my cheek and a wet little nose burrows into my neck. Two bright eyes make contact with mine. A critically endangered, black-and-white ruffed lemur has chosen to sit on my shoulder. She turns to one side and I see a mini replica of her on her back. A little further away, two brown lemurs are eyeing me, hoping for some of the bananas Claudio has thought to bring along.
There are eight species of lemur in the park and you’ll find it difficult to tear yourself away from these confiding little creatures, although the vibrant blue of the panther chameleon with its rotating eyes is also captivating, as are with the wild boars and giant Seychelles tortoises. It was also the last place I expected to see a white-faced whistling duck, so familiar to us in South Africa. Claudio reminds me that lemurs are the world’s most endangered animals, with 90% of them threatened with extinction in the next decade or two.
Another more challenging, but worthwhile way to see lemurs is to visit the nearby protected Lokombo Nature Special Reserve. It’s accessible only by sea where you’ll discover ylang-ylang and vanilla plantations, waterfalls and hiking and quad-bike trails.
Paddle your own canoe (with help if need be) to the island and hike through dense primary forest accompanied by a knowledgeable guide who’ll spot black lemurs and others, which are not at all skittish and go about their grooming routines quite unperturbed by visitors.
Water sports reign in Nosy Be and you can choose to go deep-sea fishing, scuba diving (whatever your skill level) with turtles and thousands of technicoloured tropical fish or just snorkel mora mora off any of the lovely beaches.
If you ever get tired of the seascapes, gorgeous sunrises and awesome sunsets, then head inland for a game of golf on the scenic 18-hole course built on former sugar cane fields, where you can enjoy a swim in the pool and a bite to eat after your game.
If you have a fistful of dollars and want to experience Madagascar’s newest 5-star resort, head for the recently opened Miavana Island Sanctuary on the private island of Nosy Ankao, off Madagascar’s north-eastern coast. Located in a protected area, surrounded by pristine coral reefs and harbouring turtles and lemurs, the 14 air-conditioned villas with private pools facing the ocean provide the ultimate in sophisticated luxury while still preserving the ambiance and biodiversity of the area.
Another luxury escape can be found at Constance Tsarabanjina on the island of Tsarabanjina, just an hour’s speedboat ride from Nosy Be. This is barefoot Robinson Crusoe-style luxe, where you’ll stay in a palm-fringed chalet on the beach, and be cossetted and pampered by the ultra-friendly staff in right royal fashion. The food is outstanding and the talented chefs use as much fresh, local produce as possible. If you love seafood you’ll be in seventh heaven. Expect prawns, line fish, octopus, mussels – whatever the ocean is offering that day.
One day I take a boat trip and we go far out to sea to do some bird-watching. Three huge monolithic rocks of silver basalt with deep caves and impressive overhangs rear up from the ocean depths. They’re home to colonies of brown boobys, northern gannets, white-tailed tropicbirds, and frigate birds. Amazingly, on one of these isolated rocks we spot a resident barn owl, no doubt lured there by the abundant supply of nestlings to feast on.
One lazy tropical afternoon, the resident marine biologist gives me a bath-plug-size baby hawksbill turtle to return to the sea. She always rescues the few hatchlings that don’t make it from their deep sandy nests to the waiting ocean and nurtures them in a tub until they’re two to three months old.
But my hatchling was land-bound. Every time I put him in the gentle surf he turned around and made for the sandy beach.
And who can blame him? You won’t find a better island paradise than this part of Madagascar.
Fly to Nosy Be and Antananarivo with SAA’s partner Airlink. Visit: www.flysaa.com
- Vanila Hotel & Spa: www.vanilla-hotel.com
- Miavana Island Sanctuary: https://safari-index.com/lodge/miavana-island-sanctuary-madagascar
- Tsarabanjina Resort: www.constancehotels.com/en/hotels-resorts/madagascar/tsarabanjina