Hubert Burda Media

Island in the Sun

A visit to the Eighth Continent is so much more than a travel experience. It’s a life-changing voyage.

Madagascar is the land of the trailblazer — souls drawn to sheer uniqueness and remoteness. The name alone conjures flashes of prehistoric wildlife, beguiling beaches and deserted rainforests. Cast adrift in the Indian Ocean, having separated from the mainlands of India and Africa more than 100 million years ago, isolation has proved fertile breeding ground for the evolution of its kaleidoscopic wildlife, which exists only in Madagascar today.
King Julien, leader of the lemurs and his Hollywood clan in the DreamWorks animation Madagascar, turned the country into a household name — a playground for the wondrous; a delight of dancing and singing lemurs, camouflaged chameleons, screaming lizards, frogs, 1,000-year-old trees, snakes and a culture steeped in legend and lore.
The fourth-largest island in the world is an ethereal pilgrimage for wildlife-lovers and naturalists, guaranteeing that once-in-a-lifetime trip. Gigantic ancient baobabs in the West, swirling stepped rice fields of the central highlands, semi-arid deserts of the south with leaping canyons and twisted rock formations, lush wildlife-filled tropical rainforests and sun-drenched empty beaches are all betrothed to a gloriously undeveloped setting. The undersea of the Indian Ocean is a world of endless coral amid crystalline turquoise waters, inhabited by whimsical marine life, while the surface is dotted with pirogues and stained-sail dhows; local fishermen drifting miles from land in the Indian Ocean. Look again and you may spot a speck of a distant remote island.
A speedboat whisks me off the northern mainland, reducing popular beach destination Nosy Be to a dot in the distance. Powering into the hazy horizon of the Indian Ocean, I watch as a bleached blonde island — Constance Tsarabanjina — appears out of the skyline like a milky hologram. Tsarabanjina means “beautiful vision” in Malagasy. I see why.
Situated north-west of Madagascar in the Mitsio archipelago, Constance Tsarabanjina is an exquisite private island with an emphasis on nature. The sandbar and restaurant have a barefoot policy, the latter serving divine meals of fresh local ingredients and line-caught seafood. The island is a tiny haven, a fleck amid transparent waters and surrounded by coral reef for endless diving and snorkelling with rays, turtles, sharks and a rainbow palette of fish. Individual beachfront bungalows are set aback and nestled in lush greenery, replete with outdoor hammock and terrace. A luxury all-inclusive plan takes care of every need.
I idle away hours either kneaded to the motion of the ocean at the delightful beachfront spa or reading in my hammock. A day off-island is spent aboard Tsarabanjina’s private yacht sailing the archipelago. The sumptuous surrounds of the Indian Ocean shelter Mitsio island and neighbouring tiny uninhabited islands, where I snorkel for hours. A hidden highlight comes in the shape of gigantic tubular outcrops jutting out of the sea into the sky. Organ Pipes is Madagascar’s very own version of Ireland’s basalt columns Giant’s Causeway, which feature on the Unesco Heritage list. But here, it is on an islet in the Indian Ocean. The deposits form a vertical wall, having resulted from a sudden volcanic eruption and rapid sedimentation. Buried on-land is an array of fossils dating back 400 million years. Evenings on Tsarabanjina can be private, with secluded beach barbecue dinners arranged for couples, or spent mingling over sunset cocktails on a hilltop or gathering at the beach for local dance and music. Every August to November, breaching humpback whales make a guest appearance. (More than 7,000 of them migrate to Madagascar from the Antarctic to breed and calve each season.)
With the island nation’s 4,800km of coastline, 450km of coral reef and 250 islands, you’re spoilt for choice of wild and exotic sands, where people are a rarity. But the main draw is the wildlife. Tracking over 100 species of lemurs is an adventurous highlight.
Three hours east of the bustling capital city Antananarivo, Andasibe-Mantadia National Park spans thousands of hectares of rainforest. My guide isn’t one to stick to trails. Luckily, I’m game. At the distant eerie echo of lemur song, he’s off like a gunshot in pursuit of the sifaka and black-and-white ruffed lemurs, disappearing through thicket so dense I lose him. “This way. Come quick! It’s a baby,” the urgency in his call engages my flight function, as I attempt to trace my guide like a GPS. The lemur call echoes through the forest like a ghostly cry, confusing the tracker. We switch direction and I launch over fallen logs, sliding between thick gnarled vines and hanging twisted stranglers. Lemurs move fast and keeping track in the blinding vertical maze of trees is an assault course. I soon find my guide gazing upwards into rocketing canopy. There, I spot the most beautiful large ruffed lemur. Peering from its lap is a days-old baby with bulging liquid eyes gazing into mine. In that moment, all memory of the arduous prologue is erased. Nearby, we’re entranced by troops of sifaka lemurs parading through the treetops. Spotting the critically endangered bamboo lemur — with its tiny body and attractive face — is a delight. On the treetops, brown lemurs sneak from tree to tree picking fruits, noticeable only through the cracks between leaves.
After lemur elation, my eyes switch focus to the forest floor. The most surreal creature is the mossy leaf-tailed gecko. Blending beautifully into the tree bark, the lizard takes on its exact colour and texture.
The most vivid creatures are the panther chameleons. Painted a rainbow of invigorating shades, it is amazing that they can be so well-hidden — spotting one is impossible without professional eyes. We watch as one snaffles a cricket whole and we can even hear the crunching. Nesting inside the long spiky leaves of a traveller’s palm hides a pandanus tree frog. Most visually stunning is the comet moth, with its spotted golden wings. Walking back, we spot two butterflies mating, their fanned wings reflecting browns, blues and whites.
Travelling around this dream destination requires careful planning. To avoid continual delays and domestic flight cancellations by Air Madagascar, your best bet is to charter private flights, which is also an invaluable way to see the island. If you’re lucky, the pilot may even treat you, as he did me on my birthday, to sweeping low breathtaking views over the Avenue of the Baobabs, a national highlight of Madagascar. This is where baobab trees (also known as bottle trees or upside-down trees) line the dirt road between Morondava and Belon’i Tsiribihina in the Menabe region. Imposing in stature, these ancient trees reach heights of 30m.
Upon landing, I’m whisked straight to the Avenue, where a glowing fireball casts molten shades onto 1,000-year-old hulking baobabs and their elephantine trunks. It’s a visual I’ll never forget. Carrying firewood on their heads while wrapped in colourful flowing materials, rural villagers make a stunning portrait. This is the heart of Madagascar. At sunset, I’m led towards a decking, which has been sealed off, with a private butler waiting with champagne and canapés.
My plush base in Morondava is the dramatic beachfront Hotel Palissandre Côte Ouest, just 30 minutes from the Avenue of the Baobabs. Villas are positioned on a gloriously wild and barren white-sand beach on the Mozambique Channel. Peppered with driftwood and shells, framed by natural lagoon and dotted by local fishermen, this beach is rugged and undeveloped.
A charter plane south leads to Isalo National Park, which is home to stunning scenery seen nowhere else in the country. It is the original Jurassic Park, with towering sandstone spires nestling leaping canyons along wildly eroded plateaus, all dating back to the Jurassic era. Steep ridges are riddled with jagged edges and sudden drops. Hiking the massif uncovers dramatic warped rock formations and surprising wildlife amid the barren desert wonderland. The scenery evolves to lush greenery clinging to slanting slopes; home to the ring-tailed Verreaux’s sifaka and brown lemurs. We spot them scaling a sheer rock face, striking against the granitic boulders with their long bushy black-and-white striped tail outsizing their body. Their devil-red eyeballs hold my gaze as I observe.
For me, Madagascar has been a complete one-off with its inimitable wildlife, luxurious beaches and thrilling landscapes that appeal to all the senses.