Mad about Madagascar

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

David Attenborough loves its exuberant wildlife, but this island in the Indian ocean has much more besides lemurs to offer, reveals Kate Eshelby

Madagascar wears an unexpected coat: like its many chameleons it constantly changes its appearance from African to Asian. Waves of rice paddies and primary-coloured pousse-pousse (hand-pulled rickshaws) masquerade as Asia but the copper-red soil reminds you that this enormous island once belonged to a very different continent.



Sir David Attenborough returns to this extraordinary country in a new BBC series starting tonight. It's a place that has long fascinated naturalists – not least because of all those chameleons (it's home to about half of the world's species). It is also home to that strange family of primates, the lemurs, which can be found here – and only here. The lemurs are old-world primates, animals that died out everywhere on the globe except for Madagascar, a chunk of land which floated away from would-be predators millions of years ago. But lemurs are far from Madagascar's only claim on the attention of visitors.



Antananarivo, Madagascar's capital, is unlike any other African city. Ripened green rice-paddies lap at the ring of hills around the city. Church spires sprout from the hilltops and bright Creole houses peep down. Vintage French cars (Madagascar was formerly a French colony) zip along steep cobbled roads. And red-brick farmhouses, reminiscent of rural France, sit on islands in the middle of paddy fields, where buffalo wade in the water and rickety rowing boats float.



One of the city's finest sights is the flight of long steep stairs leading to Avenue de l'Indepéndence, along which market sellers demand a moment of your time. "Buy vanilla?" one lady offered, thrusting armfuls of pods towards me. The smell was delicious: pungent and sweet. Here vanilla sells at a fraction of the price it fetches in the UK. Other vendors had big bunches of flowers, cinnamon and baskets of locally grown lychees for sale.



I was staying at a delightful guesthouse called la Varangue, near the President's Palace. It felt a little like boarding in the home of a likeable aunt. The rooms were full of collections of oil lamps, antique irons, copper kettles, gramophones and coffee grinders. The scent of chocolate permeated the hallway. The chef here is known for his scrumptious chocolate sculptures, and the food was world-class and exquisitely presented.



From the capital, my guide Rako drove westwards along the RN7. To see this vast island in all its glory, this impressive road is the ideal conduit. It crosses the backbone of the country, and is Madagascar's version of Route 66. Both highways pass frontier cowboy towns, prairies, desert, canyons and giant rock boulders, before ending at the beach. But Madagascar's beach has crazy-looking baobab trees, and Madagascar's road is mellow to drive, with each twist revealing a new colour.



We passed hills cocooning villages and families travelling in wooden carts pulled by humped zebu cows. Antsirabe was one of the first towns we encountered: here, there was an almost constant pitter-patter of fast-moving bare feet as men darted around pulling passengers in pousse-pousse. Everyone rides these rickshaws, from school children to a nun I saw climbing aboard in full headdress.



From Antsirabe, the RN7 runs out of the hills and dips into thick rainforest: much of it formed by Ranomafana National Park. Here, I stayed in a bright and airy room at Setam Lodge. That evening the light and views over the forest were ravishing; I walked through the neighbouring village, fringed with rice paddies, past a gleaming river glittering with sunlight.



Mist whispered from the trees in the morning, and a walk up a steep trail rewarded me with my first glimpse of lemurs. Before humans arrived on the island, there were lemurs as large as gorillas here. Smaller, red-bellied versions flashed through the forest, their long tails flying out as they performed gravity-defying leaps. Rare golden bamboo lemurs also inhabit these forests – and I was lucky enough to see one close up. He sat just metres away, eating bamboo. The way he clutched the stem and tore off outer sections with his long fingers looked just like a human eating sugar cane.



Walking on, I passed a German lady in Wellington boots, who had been living in the park for a year researching frogs. 'There are so many species here, and many more still remain undiscovered," she said excitedly. "But the tragedy of Madagascar is how quickly the primary forest is being destroyed." Because of tavy, a traditional (but illegal) slash-and-burn technique, much of Madagascar's forest is set alight annually for planting rice. Deforestation is a major problem here.



Back on the road, men wearing straw hats wandered along with enormous herds of zebu. They were heading for Ambalavao, which holds the country's biggest weekly zebu market. It's held on a plateau on the outskirts of the town, surrounded by mountains. Ambalavao itself was beautiful, with plenty of old gabled houses and wooden carved balconies.



Then the road twisted into southern Madagascar, which is hot, dry and desert-like. Here Isalo National Park unfolds its space and savannah, like Madagascar's own Arizona. I stayed at Jardin du Roy, which lies inside the park. It is sunk into a basin of rocks and is impressively camouflaged. The simplicity of its exterior is almost monastic, yet this hides chic and luxurious interiors.



Beyond the hotel there are miles of park. Water cascades from the jungle above and bright light skips across the rocky overhangs. These grottos and jungles are isolated within steep canyons; stumbling upon them is like finding your own enchanted world. Above, the landscape is straight out of a Western. After a day of walking I sat up on one of the rock plateaus to admire the panoramic surroundings. As evening fell, the sky turned red and the yellow sandstone flashed bright gold.



And then Rako drove onwards to my final destination, the coast. Here I stayed at Ifaty in Le Paradisier, a small hotel with individual thatched cottages spaced out along the beach and an infinity pool that seemed to end in the sea. Each morning pirogues like pond skaters would glide by, and women would come to collect cockles from the beach. Behind the long stretches of deserted beaches were groves of baobabs, their distinctively squat silhouette like no other tree. They are topsy-turvy, with fat trunks topped by a frenzy of branches. Another oddity, in this most peculiar land.





'Madagascar', narrated by David Attenborough, starts tonight at 8pm on BBC2.



Travel essentials





Getting there



The writer flew with Kenya Airways (020-8283 1818; www.kenya-airways.com) which flies three time a week from Heathrow to Antananarivo, via Nairobi. Rainbow Travel (020-7226 1004; www.rainbowtours.co.uk) can tailor a similar itinerary to the writer's.





Getting around



The writer booked her car and driver/guide through Remote Rivers (00 261 20 95 52 347; www.remoterivers.com).





Staying there



La Varangue, Antananarivo (00 261 20 22 273 97; www.tana-hotel.com). Doubles start at €70, room only.



Setam Lodge, Ranomafana (00 267 24 310 71; www.setam-madagascar.com). Doubles start at 91,000 ariary (£27), room only.



Jardin du Roy, Isalo (00 261 20 22 351 65; www.lejardinduroy.com). Doubles start at €90, room only.



Le Paradisier, Ifaty (00 261 32 07 660 09; www.paradisier.net). Bungalows start at £80 per night





Red tape and more information



British visitors require a visa, which can be obtained on arrival at Antananarivo airport for €60.



The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Arts and Entertainment
TV Review: rSabotage, a major meltdown and, of course, plenty of sauce
News
newsVideo for No campaign was meant to get women voting
News
A photo of Charles Belk being detained by police on Friday 22 August
news
News
i100'Geography can be tough'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Louis van Gaal looks dejected after Manchester United's 4-0 defeat by MK Dons on Tuesday night
sport
News
Actor, model and now record breaker: Jiff the Pomeranian
Video
News
REX/Eye Candy
science
News
i100
News
Down time: an employee of Google uses the slide to get to the canteen
scienceBosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
Arts and Entertainment
Amis: 'The racial situation in the US is as bad as it’s been since the Civil War'
booksAuthor says he might come back across Atlantic after all
Extras
indybest
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 200th birthday of Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
News
i100
News
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Jim Carrey and Kate Winslett medically erase each other from their memories
scienceTechnique successfully used to ‘reverse’ bad memories in rodents could be used on trauma victims
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed
tv
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Graduate Sales Executive / Junior Sales Exec

    £18k + Uncapped Commission (£60k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Sales Exe...

    Web Developer / Software Developer

    £25 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Web Developer / Software Developer is needed ...

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Day In a Page

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?