What I’ve learned about Madagascar


I know cartoons aren’t real (except for Scooby Doo of course) so my expectations for Madagascar didn’t really include singing lemurs and wise-cracking penguins, but I did imagine that it was quite different than it really is. It’s very difficult to get the real scoop on this country since Google maps will NOT give you driving directions and you probably have never met anyone who went here for vacation. The only way to get information is to show up. Honestly, once you show up its still difficult to get information. The tourist infrastructure is close to nonexistent.

First, I imagined this country to be an impenetrable jungle navigable only by machetes or an Indiana Jones style plane. The plane part might be somewhat true, but the jungle is not.Most of Madagascar’s trees have been chopped down for firewood, furniture, export or just to make room for their zebu cattle or rice fields. Much of the countryside I’ve seen is savannah or rolling hills with scrub that might just as well be west Texas or Utah.  There are sections of rainforest but they mostly occur on the east side of the country.

Secondly, I expected the native people to look similar to the peoples of southern Africa. In reality, there’s 18 different distinct tribes that all look different from each other. One theory concludes that the island was originally settled by Indonesians. Not only can you see the Asian influence, but also Arab, black, Indian and maybe some ethnic groups that are endemic to this island nation.

Thirdly, I knew that you could fly from one side of the country to the other, but I thought you could trust the airline schedules to some extent. You really never know if or when Mad Air (as it’s been nicknamed) will ever even fly at all. You could conceivably wait for days or weeks for a flight. Roads are your next option but some of them are impassable if it rains, or so bad that you’ll need a 4 WD. Throw in village traffic, closed bridges, cattle wandering in the road, police checkpoints and a serious lack of gas stations, what might be an hour drive someplace else can take 3 or 4 hours. 

I expected the food to be awful. Is it? Well, yes and no. A typical Madagascar hole-in-the-wall offers three choices: fish, zebu or chicken usually accompanied by flavorless rice. The fish is  served whole, head and all, so the small ones are not a good choice since they’re  full of bones. A big fish can be tasty. The chicken rarely looks good and the zebu is dark and leathery. Meat is not sold by the cut. It is zebu. You have no idea which part of the cow it comes from or the serving size.  However, if you find a good restaurant, you can have a huge grilled lobster for $8, creme brûlée, great pizza and even carpaccio for a fraction of what you’d pay in the U.S. Dining out is one extreme or the other.  It’s usually pretty easy to see from the cleanliness, presence of menus and number of animals inside the place.

I was disappointed when I arrived in Australia and didn’t see a kangaroo for weeks. It’s kind of the same thing when it comes to getting into contact with Madagascar’s most famous mammal, the lemur. To see a lemur in the wild, you need to be in a reserve where they are protected and not afraid of being eaten. Malagasy people have no issues with serving a nice delicious lemur for supper and there are numerous dogs everywhere keep them wary and away from  villages. The guides have a pretty good idea of these primates’ appearance schedule and can help lure them near with a piece of banana, one of their favorite foods. There’s lots of strange chameleons, lizards and frogs, but you need to be pretty observant to find them since some change color to blend in with their surroundings.

If you have a week you’ll be hard pressed to get around much of the country. You’ll have to choose an itinerary that focuses on the north, west, south or east. It will take a week just to see the highlights of each region so it’s best to look at some photos and decide what you’re most interested in. I chose the north and although it’s around 600 miles to get to Diego Suarez, it took 25 hours of straight driving to get back to Antanarivo.

There are several highlights to see once you’ve gotten past the first 8 hours from the capital. There’s the reserve at Ankarafatsika which has a lake full of crocodiles, an amazing canyon that looks a little like Bryce in a Utah and nice walks through the deciduous forest where you can spot some endemic flora and fauna..and lemurs of course.

Around 3 hours further north you reach the cacao and vanilla plantations which are quite interesting if you’d like to see the origin of where the two most popular ice cream flavors in the world originate. You can see entire families hacking open the pods on the side of the road and putting the fruit covered beans out in the sun to dry and ferment. Vanilla exists naturally in Madagascar, but the vanilla that most plantations grow is the Mexican variety.

The number one destination in the north is Nosy Be, which is Malagasy for “big island”.  Nosy Be is a good hub for discovering trips to neighboring reserves, lemur parks, scuba diving and has some nice restaurants and hotels. We took a speedboat to Nosy Comba, which is famous for it’s lemur population. The beach is beautiful and it’s got a very relaxed vibe. It’s a quaint little island with no cars and is a great place to chill out and take a walk. There’s great shopping and none of the hard core sales that you get in most touristy areas. It’s almost surprising the lack of attention that people pay to you while you’re visiting.

From Nosy Be, another 4 hours drive or so north brings you to Ankarana National Park. It’s a big park full of a complex of caverns, animals and it’s most famous draw, Little Tsingy. A tsingy is  a stone forest  that has been turned into jagged peaks by acid rain and other forms of erosion. It’s a bizarre formation that only exists in a few places around the world. Adventurers can hike the many trails in this park. Just 30 kms from the northern part of this park is Amber Mountain, one of Madagascar’s only rainforests on the western side of the island. It has it’s own set of tsingy that are reddish in color but a little difficult to get to. Once you leave any of the main roads, you are going to need a four wheel drive to get anywhere.

The next stop on the northern itinerary is Diego Suarez. This little port town has a lot of energy and is connected to the capital with an airport that has intermittent flights with the capital. The beaches on the north coast are emerald green and I suppose that’s where the name of it’s most famous beach, Emerald Sea, comes from. It’s windy in this part of the country so many travelers end up here to learn kite surfing and sailboarding. The kite surfers appear to actually be passing up speedboats with such strong gales. Most of the bungalows on the north coast are only accessible by 4 WD.

So, there you have it. My week long adventure in Madagascar. It’s been difficult, slow traveling, rewarding, interesting, frustrating, educational, and full of great and not so great moments. I recommend it if you are patient, interested in some of the most interesting biology in the world. have time, or want to take up kite surfing. If you’re looking for a relaxed Cancun vacation, you’re looking in the wrong place!

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