The isolation of the substantial East African island of Madagascar – and the unique wildlife that’s resulted – has earned it the nickname ‘nature’s design laboratory’. In amongst the wind swept coastlines you’ll find a natural pick a mix that includes incredible wildlife like baobab and octopus trees, chameleons and geckos, and playful lemur monkeys. In fact, the images of escaped animals Disney has bought to our screens under the same name as this astonishing island are probably doing it all a dis-service.
The nation’s other trademark is pirates; not in the modern-day Somalian sense, but in the ancient, rum-smuggling and treasure-stealing sense. In the 17th century, an estimated one thousand of them were resident on the island’s east coast, and left behind hundreds of rotting wooden wrecks as a reminder. You can visit them on dug out Pirogue canoes, which glide smoothly through the sparkling, sandy waters.
Hilly capital Antananarivo is a shambolic looking city, spread around the shores of a dirty lake and victim of a vicious overcrowding that’s led to a very African bustle. Peruse the markets for sickly sweet sugarcane juice and Malagasy cheeses, or try to spot a cart pulled through the city by the humped zebu cow. It’s the national parks that really draw the tourists, though, and Madagascar has three or four enormously trendy options.
In the Parc National de Ranomafana you’ll find endless valleys of lush rainforests, vibrant orchids, the carnivorous pitcher plant and stripy tailed lemurs hot-footing across gushing waterfalls. The parrots, countless reptiles and splashing whales of the Masoala Peninsula are unforgettable, while Morondava is home to the ‘avenue of baobabs’, where you can hire a quad bike and blast your way down the muddy, bottle-tree lined path. Elsewhere you’ll find tribal villages where locals ritually dance with the dead, and the realms of magic and taboo still have an unrelenting grip.
Visiting Madagascar’s not without its risks: a volatile political backdrop means checking the latest before leaving home is always recommended. When you arrive and start mixing with the locals - clad in vivid fabrics and white henna – or drifting around the countryside eying trees and animals that look like they belong in the most imaginative of cartoons, you’ll quickly forget the dangers.