Even for the intrepid traveler, the island of Madagascar is rarely even “on the map.”
In fact, before the eponymous movies, most of us hadn’t even heard of it.
Tourism is just emerging, infrastructure is still being developed and roads are often – shall we say – an adventure.
For the erudite, adventurous traveler of the 21st century who is seeking a place that is out of our own world, it is hard to think of a better place.
The inconveniences of travel here fall away one by one when you see your first family of lemur, walk through your first sacred spiny forest, or visit a colorful monthly market at a remote village deep in Southern Madagascar.
Any pitfalls which have not yet disappeared are completely eradicated as you wriggle your toes in the warm sand of endless, white, soft beaches, marvel at the French-built colonial villas overlooking the endless rice paddies or scramble for your video camera to catch a dancing lemur as he leaps across a clearing no more than 30 feet from you.
Often called the Eighth Continent, Madagascar is the fourth largest in the world and was untouched until humans arrived very recently (only a few thousand years ago).
Until we showed up, the animals of Madagascar had very few predators. When we first arrived, the island was populated by lemurs the size of gorillas, crocodiles with horns, and pygmy hippopotamuses. There were elephant birds up to 10 feet tall and weighing 1,100 pounds.
Even today, the animal life in Madagascar is absolutely unique – and thrilling. Ninety-two percent of Madagascar’s mammals and 95% of its reptiles exist nowhere else on earth.
To us, that is remarkable. Species that were wiped out everywhere else in the world survived only in Madagascar.
There are 105 types of lemurs, cat-like fossa, and reptiles in every bright color you can imagine. Of 260 species of birds, over 100 are found only on in Madagascar, including the endangered Malagasy Fish Eagle. Eighty-nine percent of its plant life is found only in Madagascar. Its diverse ecosystems include lush rainforests, endangered spiny forests, cloud forests, and sandy dry forests with large numbers of the ever-so-photogenic baobab tree.
One of the most celestial landscapes in all of Africa is the Tsingy de Bemaraha, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here you will see a mesmerizing limestone plateau wrought with a delicate, frenzied, razor-sharp collection of pinnacles, known to locals as the Labyrinth of Stone.
Malagasy tribal groups – Madagascar inhabitants don’t like to be referred to as African or Asian, even though they are a mixture of both – are deeply traditional. Many, especially in the south, live in ways largely untouched by modernity.
The Betsimisaraka (“the many inseparables”) are a people whose culture has been heavily influenced by pirates (Madagascar has a long history as a pirate stronghold, matey). Their traditions prevent a brother from shaking hands with his sister, and keeps young men from wearing shoes while his father is still living.
Many Malagasy families perform ceremonies that can best be described as a family reunion: a symbolic offering of the joy of living to those who are no longer alive. In English, it is often referred to as Turning of the Bones. We prefer the Malagasy word, Famadihana.
It is probably an understatement to say that Madagascar is one of the most unique places on earth. Even your best-traveled, most adventurous friends will not have been there ahead of you (unless it was with us of course).
Sadly, much is endangered. The deeply traditional ways of life brought about by a long isolation is at risk. And the absolutely unique animal life – much of which has already vanished – that makes Madagascar, well, Madagascar.
Shake hands, not with your sister, but with Madagascar.