Madagascar has no parallel: an extraordinary storehouse of natural and cultural riches, it makes experienced travellers question what it means to say a country is unique. Separated from Africa and Asia at the time of the dinosaurs, animal life here has evolved in a startling myriad of forms, creating a profusion of endemic species found nowhere else on earth. Humans were not part of that process: they first colonized this huge island less than 2000 years ago, when it was a primal Eden, inhabited only by its bizarre and marvellous zoological cornucopia. As biologists discover more and more about this remarkable place, calling it the eighth continent barely does it justice: second planet seems more appropriate.
Routinely treated as a part of Africa, Madagascar’s distinctiveness is apparent from the moment you arrive: in the glinting lakes and rice fields; the brightly painted, double-storeyed, balconied houses; the rickshaws and zebu carts; and above all in the people themselves, with their Austronesian features and jangling, guttural language, spoken throughout the island.
Madagascar is not Africa: this is a country of the Indian Ocean. No amount of travel in Africa can prepare you for the beauty of the local architecture, the elaborate tombs that sometimes seem to outdo the houses of the living, or the famadihana exhumation ceremonies that – literally – give the dead a party once every seven years, allowing people to come face to face with the deceased. Very quickly you discover that while elements of Malagasy life – love of cattle, traditional clothing, bush taxis (taxis brousse) – seem to derive from Africa, the people live in a world dominated by spirits and elaborate cultural rules derived from very different roots on the other side of the Indian Ocean.
Equally, no African safari can prepare you for the intimate thrill of crouching among the rainforest foliage as lemurs float through the branches just above your head, while a chameleon stalks along a twig at arm’s length, a chaotically coloured frog gulps at your foot, and implausibly shaped insects do battle on a nearby leaf.
Some aspects of the Malagasy experience are sadly – globally – familiar: environmental destruction is an ongoing and desperately serious problem here. The old practice of slash-and-burn agriculture – exacerbated by corporate plantations – has reduced a vast proportion of the ancestral forests to a barren, scrub-covered steppe of ochre earth and dust, and the annual rains sweep more and more of the increasingly Red Island – as it is sometimes known – into the sea.
Nevertheless, where the natural vegetation remains, Madagascar’s landscapes often present entrancing tableaux. Dripping emerald rainforests, baobab trees like giant windmills towering over the savannah, and crazy outcroppings of limestone pinnacles, like a million wonky Gothic church spires, compete for your attention as you move north and south and through the island’s climatic zones.
If the national parks can look like some artwork created by Roger Dean for a particularly intense Yes album cover, the human landscapes are equally captivating: in the highlands, a thousand shades of green dazzle from the terraced rice fields, framed by dykes of red earth; water-filled nursery paddies reflect a cerulean blue sky and towering granite mountains, daubed by the pastel images of rows of multicoloured Hauts Plateaux houses.
On the east coast, you’ll find golden beaches framed by huge boulders and palm trees, lapped by the bath-warm Indian Ocean – and pummelled by annual tropical storms. Out to the west and south, rolling plains of dry savannah and range lands are interspersed by dense and alien spiny forest and carved by broad meandering rivers.
And the practicalities of travel itself? This guide goes into plenty of detail, but the most important message is to give yourself time. Madagascar is vast, and most of the roads (such as they are) radiate out like spokes from the capital, so getting around needs planning, and you’ll probably need to include some internal flights. Happily, hotels and restaurants, road transport, park entry fees and park guides are all inexpensive: and when you do get to your destination, up some remote track in the bush, or off a tiny airstrip on an offshore island, the rewards – in the form of the wildlife and the welcome from your Malagasy hosts – are great and lasting.