Madagascar: The wild one

If the Maldives is the pampered princess of the Indian Ocean islands, Mauritius the chic mademoiselle and the Seychelles the English madam, then Madagascar is the adventurous gypsy, writes Kate Turkington.

Madagascar had a cataclysmic birth when, about 160 million years ago, intense plate tectonics broke up the continent of Gondwana and Madagascar started its slow drift south-east, away from the shores of Africa to become an orphan stranded between India and Africa.

It’s the fourth-largest island in the world (after Greenland, New Guinea and Borneo) and the oldest, but although it was peopled as early as the 7th century, it was only when the intrepid Portuguese arrived in the 1500s and called it Ile Saint Laurent that Madagascar became known to the wider world.

Because of its splendid isolation, Madagascar remains a kind of parallel universe where animals, birds, insects and reptiles flourish amid spectacular landscapes. It’s astonishing to think that 80% of the species that exist there are found nowhere else on earth.

SEE: Airlink adds seasonal flights to Madagascar

Vanila Hotel and Lemuria Land

I stayed for two nights on the northwest island of Nosy Be, one of Madagascar’s top tourist destinations, at the elegant Vanila Hotel, which combines French chic with Madagascan laid-back charm. Situated on a beach of powdery sand, rooms are airy and spacious, and there are three lovely swimming pools, lush gardens and a great restaurant.

The population is a melting pot of Asian, African, European and indigenous cultures, and is very religious.

The Vanila Hotel partners with Nosy Be Original, an excursion company that offers experiences across the island from horse riding, quad biking and golf, to beach picnics and trips to other islands in the archipelago.

One of the highlights of my trip (and it will be one of yours, I guarantee) was a visit to Lemuria Land, the home of some of Madagascar’s unique fauna and flora. Claudio, my guide, showed me the ylang-ylang plantations, where the jasmine-like flower is harvested to make an essential oil used in aromatherapy and for perfumes such as Chanel N° 5. I’m reminded that Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world when I see young women selling 5kg bags of the flowers to the on-site distillery for about R8 a bag.

But then we came across the lemurs – ah, the lemurs! They are what many people come to Madagascar for – such gentle, beautiful creatures with soft, soft fur and silky hands and feet. And, like so many other visitors, I fell in love immediately.

Constance Tsarabanjina Island

It’s an hour-long boat ride to the tiny 35-hectare Constance Tsarabanjina Island, 70km or so from Nosy Be. A private island comprising 25 thatched wooden bungalows, and a beach bar and restaurant, it’s surrounded by dazzling coral reefs, millions of tropical fish, surfing hawkbill turtles and endless vistas of the Indian Ocean – it’s barefoot luxury on steroids. You’ll sleep in a wood and thatch cabin facing the Indian Ocean and be lulled to sleep by the waves breaking under a shimmering moon and billions of stars.

Dress is so informal here that all you’ll need are a couple of swimsuits and shorts, some light cotton tops, a sun hat and flip-flops. Because of the island’s remoteness, the talented chefs at Tsarabanjina use as much local produce as possible. Fishermen bring in their catches daily, from buckets of prawns and crayfish to big fish such as kingfish, capitaine and snapper. You can also try your hand at fishing, dawdling along in a boat with a hand-held line and a friendly crew, or even deep-sea fishing, where you can do battle with a fighting tuna or a barracuda.

A dazzling dive

When you go snorkelling, either off the beach or from a boat, expect to see some of the world’s most dazzling marine life, including the Picasso triggerfish, melon butterflyfish, Moorish idols, hawksbill turtles, manta rays and octopus. Even if you’ve not snorkelled before, it’s easy to learn in these calm waters. The diving is even more spectacular, and divers come from all over the world to probe the pristine reefs in this protected marine area.

Walk along the beach to a tiny thatch hut on the rocks and enjoy a massage; take a walk around the island (it’ll only take an hour); go birdwatching on Fish Eagle island and other rocky islets; visit Ankarea desert island with the unique Madagascar baobabs; stroll round a fisherman’s village; or take part in a turtle release.

Rescued baby turtles that didn’t survive the hatching are picked up and cared for by Elena, Tsarabanjina’s assistant manager, who is also a qualified marine biologist. When the babies are a couple of months old, guests may carry them back to the sea, swim out with them and send them off on what will hopefully be a successful life journey.

Written by: Kate Turkington
Published: 6 November 2016
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