Forget Hollywood fripperies, Madagascar is like no place else on earth. In fact, all things considered, it barely qualifies as part of Africa: the two are separated by hundreds of kilometres of sea and 165 million years of evolution – long enough for Madagascar’s plants and animals to evolve into some of the weirdest forms on the planet. Nowhere else can you see over 70 varieties of lemur, including one that sounds like a police siren, the world’s biggest and smallest chameleons, and the last stomping ground of the elephant bird, the largest bird that ever lived. Near Ifaty in Southern Madagascar you will see forests of twisted, spiny ‘octopus’ trees and in the west, marvel at the bottle-shaped baobabs, especially the Avenue du Boabab near Morondava. And be on the look out for the carnivorous pitcher plant found around Ranomafana, there are over 60 varieties of them. Not for nothing is Madagascar regarded as the world’s number one conservation priority.
And the people are no less interesting: arriving here some 2000 years ago along the Indian Ocean trade routes, they grow rice in terraced paddies, and speak a language that has more in common with their origins in Southeast Asia than with the African continent. Their culture is steeped in taboo and magic, imbuing caves, waterfalls, animals and even some material objects with supernatural attributes. Hill peoples live in traditional multistoried brick houses with carved balconies and, in some areas, dance with their dead ancestors in the ‘turning of the bones’ ceremony.
Throw in a soupçon of pirate history, coastlines littered with shipwrecks, great regional cooking, some of the world’s longest place names, and unfailingly polite and friendly people, and you’ll experience a refreshing take on the overused ‘unique’ tag.