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Mad about Madagascar

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.