A jaw-dropping, wildlife-rich hotspot, Madagascar is truly one of the most fascinating places on earth and home to some of the weirdest and rarest animal species in existence.
But it’s not just a naturalist’s dreamland: there are also splendid beaches; world-class sites for scuba diving, surfing and kitesurfing; opportunities for rock climbing and caving; river trips; and spectacular scenery, not to mention a warmly welcoming people with interesting beliefs and cultural practices.
Flora and fauna is the big draw though, with between 80% and 90% of species in Madagascar found nowhere else on earth.
It is worth dwelling for a moment on why this is the case. Madagascar is a huge island – the world’s fourth largest – but it is also the oldest. That’s to say it has been separated from continental landmasses for longer than any other island. Evolution has been at play in this tropical paradise, largely isolated from outside interference, for many tens of millions of years.
Madagascar provided a blank canvas for evolution to experiment with diverse new forms of life in the near absence of large predators. And experiment it did.
One single ancestral lemur exploded into the dozens of species we see today (not to mention many more that have already become extinct). Nowadays Madagascar is the exclusive home of around a quarter of our planet’s primates, yet there are no monkeys and no great apes – just lemurs. And they exist in glorious variety: more than one hundred different species and subspecies – big and small, nocturnal and diurnal, social and solitary, adorably cute and downright freaky.
The lemurs’ story is played out across the animal groups: there are several hundred types of frog, dozens of bats, over a hundred snakes (mostly small and all harmless) and almost half of the world’s chameleons (including the smallest and largest). And for botanists the story is similar: more than 200 different palms, over a thousand orchids, 75% of all baobab species, the list goes on...
It is not just the diversity and otherness of Madagascar’s wildlife that makes it special for visitors; the animals are also overwhelmingly safe. Tourists can freely wander in the rainforests and other habitats of Madagascar without fear of being stalked by a tiger, charged by an elephant or bitten by a rattlesnake. Aside from a few rarely encountered scorpions and crocs, there’s hardly anything to hurt you at all.
Madagascar is divided along its middle by a high plateau. Lush rainforest runs in a band down the eastern side, while drier deciduous forests lie to the west. In the far south is the unique arid spiny forest, home to the island’s wackiest plant life. Giant baobab trees populate the western regions.
A mix of influences provides telltale evidence of the Polynesian settlers, Arabic presence, Bantu tribes-folk and European arrivals of the past, all of which have culminated in a fascinating cultural melting pot that puts the icing on the cake of one of the most unique destinations in the world.