Take a journey through the island country and discover all its charms: from intriguing cities and lush landscapes to vivid wildlife.
Swirls of cloud wrap around imposing granite peaks that have gently been weathered by time. The skyline changes as the crisp mountain air moves: turrets of rock visible one moment, gone the next, as new forms emerge from the mist. It's a beautiful metamorphosis of earth and sky. The one constant in this evolving early-morning landscape is the vegetation below the cloud line: tufts of shrubs and grasses that cling to oases of soil gathered in the shallow creases of rocks. Here, sharp eruptions of copper and yellow and silver leaves are echoed by soft splatters of lichen - orange, grey, green.
"Welcome to the Lunar Landscape," our guide Naina Robert smiles as we set our backpacks down, and I am mesmerised by the vast panorama of this other-worldly place.
"Lunar Landscape" is the colloquial name given to a small section of the 300-square-kilometre Andringitra National Park, in the highlands of Central Madagascar. The park, which is about three-quarters of the way "down" the island and around one-quarter of the way inland from the east coast, is characterised by abrupt cliffs and dramatic bald massifs; it's accessible only on foot, and the hiking here is exceptional.
"These mountains form a barrier between two very different ecosystems," Naina explains as we rest on a granite slab of the Lunar Landscape. He launches into details of the rainforests further south in the park that are home to 12 species of lemurs, and how the rainy side supports cultivation of rice and sugarcane; that in the northern foothills outside the park, the Betsileo people have carved spectacular terraces that channel water through the rice fields while over in the drier west, he adds, the Bara people farm and graze their cattle on open savannah.
Although it's not yet 9am this high-altitude (2122 metre) Lunar Landscape has already soaked up some sun and the granite oozes warmth into my tired legs. Popular here is the four-day round-trek to Pic Boby, Madagascar's second-highest peak, but as my partner and I have only two days in the area we've opted for a 36-kilometre overnight hike across the park's striking northern flank. The trails are steep, and my legs are grateful for the rest.
This hike in Andringitra marks the physical turning point of our 500-kilometre journey southwards through the intriguing highlands of Central Madagascar. From here we head north, back to Antananarivo, and as I look across the rumpled mountains that stretch out beyond us - a view so different from the one I looked across yesterday, and the day before, and even just an hour ago - I am struck by how exceptionally varied this country is. This is an island that seems to change with almost every kilometre travelled and, after almost one month on the road here, I know it would be futile to make any assumptions as to what lies beyond what I have seen.
It's a well-known fact that Madagascar is a biodiversity hotspot that is vastly different from the rest of the world. Once at the centre of the Gondwana supercontinent, Madagascar separated from India 88 million years ago and, as a result of its geographic isolation, more than 90 per cent of the island's wildlife is not found anywhere else on earth. The "Eighth Continent", Madagascar is sometimes called for all its differences from other places, but a journey across the country reveals just how diverse the island is within itself.
Our trip began in Antananarivo, Madagascar's capital. It's an intriguing city. Remnants of the French colonialists (who controlled the country from the 1890s until 1960) are still visible in Tana's architecture and the city's hillsides are clustered with multi-storey houses that have red-tiled roofs, little balconies and wooden shutters. It looks distinctly - quaintly - European but then it's overlaid with urban grime and that vibrant determination so typical of an African town. There is a palpable sense of survival here, too, and neglect: the world's fourth-largest island is also its fourth-poorest nation and life here, for too many, is hard.
The Route Nationale 7 (RN7) is the pock-marked highway that runs south from Tana for 470 kilometres to Ambalavao - not far from where we sit now in Andringitra National Park - and then it turns southwest and heads another 460 kilometres to Toliara on the coast. It's often said that the RN7 is the best stretch of road in Madagascar but the state of the country's roads is notorious, and this is hardly a claim to be proud of. The journey along it, however, is fascinating.
Not long after the RN7 exits Tana it begins to wind around hills and through valleys that have been carved into terraced fields of rice and cassava. It's a feature of the landscape that soon becomes familiar but not any less picturesque, as the terraces create a patchwork of contours that echo in almost every shade of green. Scattered on hillsides are clusters of neat two-storey houses that have been crafted from bricks handmade from the deep-ochre earth; along the roadside in small villages women sell pineapples and guavas that have been carefully piled onto woven grass trays. We shared the road with wooden carts laden with harvested rice and pulled by hefty zebu cattle, men on bicycles hauling astounding loads of charcoal, and in some villages our driver was forced to ease his 4WD into a gentle crawl as crowds at weekly markets mingled on the RN7.
Our first destination was Antsirabe. This small city, quite pretty in its old centre, was once a retreat for the French who were drawn to the thermal hot spring landscaped into a spa. It was a stylish destination back then and while the thermal baths are still open and busy, its appeal to travellers has dwindled. The majestic Hotel des Thermes, where Morocco's late King Mohammed V lived while in exile in 1954, remains open and we stopped in to look around this landmark - stuck in the time-warp of its glory days - while taking an informal cyclo-pousse (cycle rickshaw) tour of Antsirabe. As with many other towns in Central Madagascar cyclo-pousse and pousse-pousse (rickshaws) offer an affordable, popular mode of transport and there are hundreds of these colourful vehicles on the roads.
About 15 kilometres outside Antsirabe there are two lakes, Andraikiba and Tritriva. Andraikiba is the larger of the two, mildly developed for recreation with a handful of market-style souvenir shops and cafes, but it was Tritriva that held the most intrigue for me. This deep-emerald crater lake, surrounded by a forest of conifers, is shrouded with legend and fady (taboo).
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While there are 18 ethnic groups in Madagascar and Christianity is the dominant religion, a common cultural thread throughout the country is fady. The taboos will vary widely from family to region to place - one cannot bring pork here; or wear red there; or eat onions; or, in that specific place, mention a particular word. We spent a day walking through a farming region of the Merina people, close to Antsirabe, where family tombs are dotted around the landscape. You cannot point a finger at the tombs, our guide had said in a hushed voice, or wear a hat when you're near them.
Further down the RN7 the next "big" town is Ambositra, where we stayed either side of a three-day walk through the remote and very picturesque Zafimaniry region. Out here, in a mountainous area once densely forested, woodcarving and marquetry are skills that have been passed down through generations and Ambositra's Rue de Commerce houses a stretch of souvenir shops that deserve far more than a cursory glimpse. The furniture, art and sculptures are, however, a beautiful result of the intense deforestation that has decimated Madagascar for decades. Landsat images show that from the 1950s to 2000 forest cover decreased by 40 per cent, and a further 25 per cent from 2000 until 2020. Pressure from Madagascar's increasing population (which in 60 years has exploded from 5.1 million to almost 29 million) and small-scale but widespread slash-and-burn agriculture are said to be the main culprits.
As we travelled the RN7 we saw pockets of invasive wattle and eucalyptus trees (popular for making charcoal) and endemic tapia trees, but it was only when we reached Ranomafana National Park, 130 kilometres south of Ambositra, that we found large tracts of unspoilt forest. The mountainous park, which is enveloped in tropical rainforest, was proclaimed in 1991 when American primatologist Dr Patricia Wright rediscovered the golden bamboo lemur, endemic to southeast Madagascar, here. The park is accessible only on foot and it was exhilarating to walk for hours and scour the forest canopy for lemurs. There are 12 species here (with a 13th expected to be added to the list once it's been formally classified) and we were thrilled to see five of them - including the golden bamboo lemur, which is one of the most endangered mammals in the world.
The next time we saw a lemur we were inundated by them - and by then we'd relaxed a few days beside the peaceful lake at Sahambavy and explored the remarkable hilltop old town of Fianarantsoa, where 150-year-old buildings rise from cobbled streets. Further south from Fianar is the old market town of Ambalavao - where the RN7 turns southwest and heads for the coast - and just outside that is what is probably Madagascar's best destination for seeing lemurs.
Reserve d'Anja is a hugely successful community-run park that is home to more than 600 ringtail lemurs. The primates are well habituated and swing through the trees and nibble on vegetation right above visitors' heads, and we had fantastic opportunities to watch them up close during our walk there. The reserve cradles some of the magnificent granite boulders that are so iconic of this part of Madagascar - and walking beneath, between and on top of them, and dawdling through the forest searching for chameleons, is a memory I'll always cherish. It's a comfort to know that the people who live around the park are well invested in ensuring its success, and each of the 744 community members who're directly involved with Reserve d'Anja are committed to planting 15 trees every year, in order to extend the habitat of the lemur population.
This reserve is a 15-minute drive from Ambalavao, a small but captivating frontier-like town. Here, old colonial buildings carry a layer of red dust, zebu-carts rattle through the streets and, on Sunday afternoons, groups of people gather near the elaborate red-brick Catholic church to play petanque - a popular sport in Madagascar. But perhaps what really gave Ambalavao its Wild West atmosphere was the zebu market, held in the fringe of town every Wednesday and Thursday, and said to be the largest on the island. These beasts are vital to farmers, particularly those who live in regions where even sturdy 4x4s now battle to traverse the roads.
As we rest on the rocks of the Lunar Landscape, road conditions are far from my mind. Deep in the distance - far, far beyond what Naina says is an endemic palm forest and out across a wide valley of rolling hills - there rises a steep M-shaped slab of granite. It's the Tsaranoro Massif, Naina tells us, the best rock-climbing wall in Madagascar, and it will take us the rest of the day to walk to our camp near its base. If I've learned anything these past 500 kilometres it's this: although I can see our distant destination, I should set expectations aside - because with almost every kilometre travelled, this island changes.
First stop: Antananarivo
Antananarivo's architecture lingers from colonial times, creating the impression that you're wandering the streets of an old French town, but with an intriguing African twist. It's a visually interesting city, but Madagascar's poverty is distressingly evident, notably in the sheer volume of beggars and the frequent warnings to leave valuables in your hotel room. That said, there are some interesting places to visit.
1. Musee de la Photo Madagascar
This museum in Tana's old Haute Ville quarter houses a collection of historic photographs and shows short films covering various aspects of Madagascar's history and culture. If you watch all the films, it's a good introduction to the country. There is a chic cafe, with good city views. facebook.com/MuseeDeLaPhotographieDeMadagascar
2. Analakely Market
Tana's Analakely Market (open daily) must be the largest market in the country. Here people sell everything from fresh produce to homeware, fresh baguettes and old tools. Carry small denominations if you plan to shop.
The city's rova (palace), built in the mid-1800s for Queen Ranavalona I, is perched atop Tana's highest hill. The palace was gutted by fire in 1995 and has been partially restored, but remained closed in May 2023. Guides at the rova gate offer an informative walk around the hilltop.
4. Ambohijatovo Garden
This pretty, redeveloped park offers some peace within the centre of the city. It's been landscaped with plants from around the island - many of them endemic to Madagascar.
5. Fondation H
A centre for contemporary African art in central Tana, Fondation H runs various programs that include exhibitions, artist studios, a library and restaurant. It's a gorgeous old building - even if you're not into art, come here for a peaceful pause. fondation-h.com
6. Soho Rooftop Lounge
Enjoy a sundowner at Soho, the rooftop bar at Radisson Serviced Apartments. It has lovely views of the hillside colonial-style buildings that are so characteristic of Antananarivo. radissonhotels.com
Getting there: Qantas flies to Johannesburg, from where you can take a three-hour Airlink flight to Antananarivo.
Need to know: Most hotels accept payment in cash only (ariary or euros). English is not widely spoken.
Getting around: We hired a vehicle and driver through Livabe Tour (WhatsApp: +261 34 280 1108) and also used an Antsirabe-based driver called Jochelin (WhatsApp: +261 34 034 8516). We arranged our walk in Andringitra with Ambalavao-based Foudia Trekking, who also do cycle tours (WhatsApp: +261 34 849 6479).
Plan your trip: In the writer's experience, making independent travel plans for a trip in Madagascar is a time-consuming challenge. Outside of Antananarivo very few hotels use online booking platforms and contact information (when it can be found) is often unreliable. Most travellers book their trips through agencies, who take care of all logistics - a sensible option if you don't have much time (or patience) for planning.
Take a tour: Several tour companies offer guided itineraries to Madagascar, including Intrepid, World Expeditions and Explore Worldwide.
Must-reads: Muddling through in Madagascar by Dervla Murphy: "Everything about Madagascar is surprising" - Dervla's travels across the island with her 14-year-old daughter.
Maverick in Madagascar by Mark Eveleigh: A journey on foot through the wilds of Madagascar, in search of the legendary Vazimba people.
The Sloth Lemur's Song by Alison Richards: A research scientist uncovers Madagascar's fascinating past and uncertain present.
Explore more: madagascar-tourisme.com/en/
PLACES TO STAY
In Antananarivo: Maison d'Hotes Mandrosoa is a boutique hotel in a charming old house with pool. A double room, with breakfast, is around $55. booking.com
In Antsirabe: Sustainability is central to business at Souimanga, a cosy five-room hotel. Double room from around $50. souimanga-hotel.com
In Ranomafana: Setam Lodge has lovely rainforest views. Around $45 a night. Book via your guide/agent.
In Ambositra: L'Artisan Hotel offers comfortable lodging. Book via your guide/agent. Double rooms from around $32 a night.
In Fianarantsoa: Tsara Guest House is a charming boutique hotel in a historic building. Double room from around $36 a night. booking.com
In Ambalavao: Betsileo Country Lodge is a comfortable country-style hotel with a pool and striking view. Double room from $95 a night (including breakfast). betsileocountrylodge.com