There were moments on the stomach-lurching drive to Manafiafy when I had to remind myself of Madagascar’s many charms. Already we had endured a bumpy internal flight on a small propeller plane from the capital Antananarivo to Taolagnaro – a once pirate-infested port on the south-east coast. From there we had begun this three-hour journey to a tiny fishing village surrounded by rainforest. The deeply-rutted track twists through small settlements and thickets of lychee trees, before crossing open grassland and a series of precarious bridges – one, our driver delighted in telling us, where a truck had come a cropper the previous week.
I’ll admit that weariness and nausea were foremost in my mind but there were welcome distractions on the way: an old car, half-submerged in muddy water, a dramatic mountain range with ominous, billowing clouds above it, a pit-stop to examine the carnivorous pitcher plants that grow on the verge-side, and then, at our journey’s end, the reward of a breathtakingly beautiful coastline. It’s not difficult to be impressed by Madagascar’s landscape and wildlife: of its 200,000 different species, more than 80 per cent are unique to the island, and its diverse habitats include rainforest, desert, swamp and coral reef. There are lemurs, chameleons, sea eagles, orchids, mangroves and huge baobab trees. And then the 3,000 miles of white sand, palm-fringed beaches, mountains, waterfalls and traditional villages. What Madagascar doesn’t have is tourists. Well, very few of them.
Last year an estimated 260,000 tourists visited (including only 621 from the UK). By comparison, France, which is slightly smaller than Madagascar, had 74m tourists.
Partly, of course, this is because getting around requires some effort – the road network is desperately limited and flight delays and cancellations are common – but largely it is due to political instability. Since gaining independence from France in 1960, Madagascar has endured a period of socialist isolation and episodes of serious unrest, the most recent of which came to a head in spring 2009 when Andry Rajoelina, mayor of Antananarivo, seized the presidency in a military coup. Visitor numbers, which had been rising, helped in part by the two popular animated Madagascar films set on the island, slumped by 31 per cent. Many foreign governments warned their tourists to avoid Madagascar, although tour operators insisted it was safe and are adamant that it remains so today.
For those who do brave a trip, however, the rewards are innumerable. We had come to Manafiafy to stay in a new luxury lodge run by Madagascar Classic Camping (MCC), founded by British expatriate Edward Tucker Brown. For the past three years, MCC has run an upmarket tented camp on the banks of Mandrare River, 120km south-west of Taolagnaro, near an extraordinary area of native “spiny forest”. Guests are put up in one of six sturdy canvas tents overlooking the river and taken on safari expeditions into the forest of huge prickly succulents. MCC’s new venture at Manafiafy, which opened in February, is similarly small-scale but more luxurious, and travellers are encouraged to visit these contrasting locations as part of their trip.
It was at Manafiafy that the French colonists landed in 1638 and attempted to establish a community before fever moved them on. The site remains wildly atmospheric: smooth rocky outcrops shelter a series of small bays with calm water and white sand, fringed with dense vegetation.
Around the prettiest of these bays, hidden among the fragrant scaevola bushes, lie six well-appointed wood and thatch cabins. Four are furnished with vast double beds and the other two are family cabins, which can sleep two adults and three children in two partitioned rooms. Each cabin has a private terrace, an indoor seating area, an en suite bathroom with hot and cold running water, and is kitted out with hefty mosquito nets. Unlike a normal hotel, meals are taken with other guests and with your MCC host in an open-sided bar and dining area at one end of the beach.
There are, of course, more accessible stretches of beach – and more opulent places to stay – but you don’t come here simply to sunbathe. Edward conceded over supper on the first night that they were still exploring the area (we were their first overseas guests) but both he and Simon Andrianiaina, our charming and knowledgeable guide, were delighted by the variety of wildlife we saw over our four-day stay. This was May and visitors could expect much more over the coming months: between July and September, humpback whales migrate from Antarctica to breed close to the shore (a 15ft platform near the lodge affords good views). September and October are best for birding and orchids are in full flower in November.
At dawn on the first morning we were taken by boat into the nearby mangrove swamps where young children were already up and fishing from pirogue canoes – the same vessels used by the local fishermen for their perilous trips out to sea. We had hardly begun before Simon spotted the snout of a young crocodile lurking by the bank. Further on, the channel got narrower and more meandering, and here our eyes were caught by large butterflies, Madagascar green-pigeons and the iridescent streak of sunbirds. By the time we returned to the lodge mid-morning, we had added a flock of crested drongos, a Madagascar coucal and several green-backed heron to our list.
Visitors can also expect to see at least one of the many species of lemur, the primate that Madagascar is so famous for, and although the more celebrated and endangered varieties are protected by reserves elsewhere, the forests around Manafiafy contain at least four types of this strange animal.
Madagascar’s lack of large carnivorous mammals is also its virtue: in continental Africa the threat of an attack often confines you to a Jeep, whereas here expeditions can be made on foot and at night. The next evening a local guide took us into a community-managed rainforest a short distance inland. For an hour we walked through the dense vegetation in sticky heat, the air thick with the chirp of tree frogs, until darkness fell. Then with our beams of torchlight sweeping through the palms and tree ferns we spotted nocturnal woolly lemurs and a pair of grey dwarf lemurs high in the canopy, jewel chameleons and giant spiders near our feet, and – to our astonishment – a bright orange pygmy kingfisher roosting at arm’s length.
A short walk away from our beach was the village of Manafiafy itself, a typical Antanosy fishing community that harbours an interesting relic of its colonial past. The locals here are unused to tourists and we were greeted by children squealing, “Vazaha” (foreigners), some of whom climbed down from a coconut palm to show us the church and then the eerie shell of a Scandanavian-style house where 19th-century missionaries were once based.
MCC takes its social responsibilities seriously: the majority of Edward’s staff at Manafiafy are employed from the local village, the lodge’s environmental impact is kept to a minimum and it uses solar power. It is defiantly low-key: no coach parties, noisy water-sports or boutiques. That said, the accommodation is spacious and extremely comfortable and the meals are delicious. Food is locally sourced, through necessity rather than eco-posturing: oranges and bananas are plentiful, vanilla (one of the country’s main exports) is used liberally, and crab salad, barbecued rock lobsters and carpaccio of wahoo were all highlights during our stay.
One concern is the weather. We were lucky (a spectacular 360-degree display of fork lightning one night threatened storms that never arrived) but close proximity to coast and rainforest means that sudden and torrential downpours can write off an entire day.
The present lack of tourists in Madagascar is both a blessing and a curse: areas such as Manafiafy still feel delightfully undiscovered and yet a thriving industry could be a lifeline. The bold environmental vision of Marc Ravalomanana, the previous president, went some way towards protecting wildlife as well as highlighting the island’s appeal.
Since last year’s crisis, however, these plans have stalled and their positive impact has been reversed: poaching of lemurs and illegal export of rosewood have once again accelerated.
It would be crude to suggest that by travelling here one can contribute towards a clear-cut solution – eco-tourism is still something of an oxymoron – but unless a responsible tourist industry can provide a viable alternative to this rampant exploitation, Madagascar’s natural treasures may soon disappear.
Laura Battle travelled with Steppes Travel (www.steppestravel.co.uk), which offers a two-week trip, staying at both MCC camps and including all meals, transfers and activities, but not international flights, from £2,999
Barefoot charm and wildlife wonders in the wilderness
Apoka Lodge, Kidepo Valley National Park, Uganda
In north-east Uganda, this national park is one of the most remote and underrated game parks in Africa, writes Joanne O’Connor. There’s only one place to stay in this vast wilderness – Apoka Lodge. It’s a 10-hour drive from Kampala but most guests fly in on the lodge’s private plane. There are just 10 rooms built of wood, thatch and canvas, overlooking the grassy plains. A walking safari to track game along dry riverbeds is one of the highlights of a stay here.
From £288 per person per night.www.wildplacesafrica.com/apoka-lodge
Serra Cafema, Kunene River, Namibia
People don’t come here just to see game. Though gemsbok, springbok and mountain zebra can all be quite easily spotted, it’s not a place for those who want to tick off the “Big Five”. They come for the sense of isolation and extraordinary desert landscapes. In the far north of Namibia, on the banks of the Kunene River, which cuts a green swathe through the Namib Desert, this intimate camp of eight thatched chalets is accessible only by a three-hour light aircraft flight from Windhoek. Activities include quad biking through the dunes and boat trips to spot crocodiles.
From £520 per person per night, including flights.www.wilderness-safaris.com/namibia_kunene/serra_cafema
Greystoke Camp, Mahale Mountains National Park, Tanzania
There are no roads within this park, so visitors travelling to Greystoke Camp on the shores of Lake Tanganyika must make the final part of their journey by dhow. But inaccessibility is all part of the appeal of this magical location. That, and the chance to see the world’s largest known population of chimpanzees at close quarters. After a morning spent tracking and observing primates, guests can spend the day kayaking, snorkelling, fishing, or relaxing by the white-sand beach.
From £288 per person per night.www.greystoke-mahale.com
Vamizi, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique
This a string of islands in the north of Mozambique is less developed than the Bazaruto islands in the south and is a haven for marine life. The most beautiful and remote of the islands is Vamizi at the northern tip of the archipelago. Guests stay in huge, airy villas spaced well apart on the powder-sand beach. It’s a high quality resort but the ethos is one of barefoot charm rather than polished five-star luxury. Kayaking, diving, sailing, windsurfing and snorkelling are available. There are private flights from Pemba (Mozambique) or Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) to the Vamizi airstrip.
From £360 per person per night.www.vamizi.com
Jack’s Camp, Makgadikgadi Pans, Botswana
Perched on the edge of the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans in the Kalahari Desert, far away from the khaki-clad hordes at the Okavango Delta or Chobe National Park, Jack’s Camp gives a sense of isolation in an otherworldly landscape. Guests stay in luxury tents with four-poster beds, Persian rugs and en-suite bathrooms. The desert is home to aardvark, oryx, springbok and hyena, but during the wet season (November to March), the landscape transforms as flamingo, zebra and wildebeest descend on the lush grasslands. The highlight of a stay is an exhilarating quad-bike journey across the salt pans with two nights sleeping under the stars among the boulders and baobabs on remote Kubu Island.
From £655 per person per night, www.unchartedafrica.com
All rates are based on two people sharing a double room, and include full-board accommodation, some drinks and guided activities