Having lived and breathed Madagascar for 10 years, Jenman African Safaris ex-product manager, Rebecca Marshall, was extremely excited to talk to us about the magical destination, and how it stole her heart. After the interview it truly felt as if we had spoken about a place that exists between imagination and reality, a definite adventure for the bucket list.
Q: How would you describe Madagascar?
Madagascar is the most exciting and beautiful country – totally different to anything you have ever experienced before. It’s both stylish and rustic – boasting its own fascinations full of colour and character. The country is still in the beginning stages of developing tourism – but this is actually its greatest charm, wearing its heart on its sleeve.
Q: What is your first impression on arrival?
Arriving at the capital’s airport, Antananarivo, you have a 45 minute drive into the city. The drive itself is an experience, immediately meeting the character of the country as you traverse down thin little main roads past topsy turvy houses. Vast views of lush green rice paddies are a bold contrast to the earth coloured buildings – the housing materials made of natural resources and soil. The scenery and energy are vibrant, as is the destination of the capital city.
Antananarivo (Tana) is a bustling, colourful centre filled with local flare. You are confronted with the wonderful and fascinating reality of Malagasy lifestyle, full of ambience. Local tradesmen line the streets selling their wares and skillsets, the city charming in its authenticity. The artisanal markets are a must-see – a buffet of flamboyant crafts from lace table cloths, colourful straw bags, wood decoupage – all locally made. You are whisked away into the rhythm of Tana, setting the theme of curiosity for the rest of your Madagascan adventure.
Q: Having travelled around the entire country – which places stole your heart?
There are just too many to choose from – each with its own unique appeal. One would perhaps be Ranomafana National Park – accessed by driving through Ambositra, the centre of Madagascar’s wood carving industry. The landscape is dominated by rice fields, pine forests, eucalyptus trees and rocky mountains, dotted by houses with ornately carved wooden balconies and brightly coloured shutters. We arrived at our accommodation just past dusk, with evening descending and the night sounds of rainforest creatures filling the air. We were filled with excited anticipation being able to simply sense our surroundings, arriving in a place you can’t see yet. The air was thick with moisture, we felt encapsulated by the rainforest.
We woke to find ourselves on a plateau above the national park, right in the thick of trees, a panoramic view below. Madagascar is known for its lemurs, however, the biodiversity of the forest is simply spectacular – varieties of frogs, birds, the giraffe-necked weevil, orchards, succulents and baobabs – breathtaking. All national parks in Madagascar are explored on foot, allowing you to truly immerse yourself in this wilderness wonderland.
Another special spot for me was the Ile Sainte Marie – a very long and very thin strip of tropical beach and turquoise sea. The island is 7km wide and 58km in length – and on the north end – whales.
Q: What was one of your most memorable experiences?
Andasibe National Park. We head off on foot with our guide to see the famous lemurs – and in particular – the indri species. The indri are the largest of the lemurs, and Andasibe is the only place you can see them in the wild. Akin to big teddy bears, with no tails, these lemurs spend their time up in the canopy, calling to each other across the trees. They make the most unbelievable sound, an eerie frequency through the forest, echoing between the trees. That is something that has never left me – the sound of the indris.
A side note of advice – do not attempt to hire your own car to drive to the various national parks. There are very few road signs and most vehicles are not particularly roadworthy. Find a reliable operator (such as Jenman) and rely on your driver and private guide for local knowledge and directions. Everyone speaks French or Malagasy – so local knowledge is key!
Q: What is the culture of Madagascar?
The people of Madagascar are an interesting mix of African and Asian – with the friendly and welcoming qualities of both. Their culture is an interwoven web of fascinating and diverse beliefs, with the population predominantly Christian or Catholic. However, the people have not forgotten their traditional ways, and remain to give homage and celebrate their deeply rooted animist beliefs, attributing living souls to plants and animals.
One ritual that stuck with me was the ‘Turning of the Bones’ or ‘Famadihana’ – a festival attended by the whole village where an ancestral tomb is opened, and the body exhumed. Some bones are donned with clothes and join the dance party, as well as asked for advice and blessings. This is to ensure the dead do not feel forgotten and keep the Madagascan ancestry alive. Truly a fascinating experience and one very unique to the Malagasy culture!
Q: Which tour would you recommend to best experience the country?
The 1000 views of Madagascar is hands down my favourite tour. Two weeks of exploration and adventure through a variety of landscapes – from the city, to national parks as well as island hopping. The itinerary includes various aspects of the culture, biodiversity as well as pure tropical paradise. Do it!