I check out from a rainforest lodge early in the morning, feeling that I may never get dry again.


I’ve been at the lodge near Madagascar’s Ranomafana National Park for a couple of days and (appropriately enough) it has been so consistently wet that even my case feels heavier, just through the moisture its contents have absorbed.

I travel on and by lunchtime I am in a granite landscape, at a market where the local zebu cattle are being sold. Men stand around, thin legged, leaning on sticks, forming temporary pens around the many hundreds of beasts. The two groups stand eye to eye.

By evening I am on the high savannah Plateau de l’Horombe — dry and golden and with sandstone formations reminiscent of the Kimberley’s Bungle Bungle Range.

Madagascar’s story is one of microclimates, as much as it is one of isolation.

Many millions of years ago, this 1600km-long island between us and Africa was a plateau at the heart of Gondwana — the largest continent this planet has ever seen and which included Australia and what is now the African continent. As geological plates moved and the sea level rose, Gondwana broke apart and Madagascar drifted away, still attached to India.

Then, 65 million years ago, it broke off and has since been isolated in the Indian Ocean, to become an experiment in evolution.

About 80 per cent of the species that live in Madagascar are not found anywhere else, including 72 species of lemur, which evolved as a separate branch of the primate family tree.

Its microclimates emphasise the shift in landscape, too. They are dramatic — from dense rainforest to a spiny desert dotted with cacti, to baobab trees, all within this one day.

Madagascar is, of course, a regional neighbour, and tourism has been quietly, slowly growing there.

I have been following the changes in Madagascar closely for more than a decade, weighing up its readiness as a destination. It all seemed to come to some fruition about 2010 — there had been a coup in January 2009 but things had settled; infrastructure was still a bit dodgy but improving; tourism was in its infancy.

Things have moved a little more in the past five years. Where Madagascar was all but invisible to tourists then, now there is an increasing number of companies offering travel to the island.

It’s easier to get there, too. South African Airways has daily flights from Perth to Johannesburg and good connections on to Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo.

But Air Mauritius varies between two and three flights a week direct from Perth to Mauritius and has four a week between Mauritius and Antananarivo. It currently has return economy fares from Perth to Madagascar of $1535.

Some of the companies now offering tour packages in Madagascar include:

Travel Directors was a local pioneer of travel in Madagascar, and its 21-day Pearls of the Indian Ocean includes 14 days in Madagascar. The price is from $12,950 per person, including just about all costs — all flights, accommodation and meals.

Cox & Kings has an 11-night tour called Madagascar Adventure, from $3650 per person (tour only; not including flights) which visits Antananarivo, Andasibe, Ranomafana and the coastal villages of Ifaty.

Bunnik has a 12-day Madagascar tour, following a similar itinerary but with exclusive use of a four-wheel-drive vehicle and guide, from $4995. This includes 11 nights accommodation (three and four star), 11 breakfasts, four lunches and nine dinners but not flights.

Imaginative Traveller has four tours, ranging from the 16-day Madagascar Discoverer from $4465 per person to the 17-day Experience Madagascar from $2254, prices reflecting the level of travel. Intrepid Travel’s Experience Madagascar, over 16 days, is from $2254 per person, and Peregrine Adventures’ 14-day Magic of Madagascar is from $5970. Once again, these are tour-only prices, and the difference in prices reflects the level of travel and inclusions.

SpiceRoads’ 15-day Bike and Hike Wild Madagascar offers 519km of cycling and 50km of hiking. It is for physically fit riders looking for a challenging experience. It is fully supported and costs from $4677, including accommodation, meals and bike hire.

But while Madagascar’s story is that of landscape and evolution, it is very much that of the people, too.

Andrianampoina Diary, an excellent tour guide there, is a good example.

Diary (Malagasies’ first names are written second), is a wonderful guide to the place, a musician and a young man who puts his own money into supporting and educating local children.

He’s also become a friend who stays in touch.

He wrote to me recently: “I would be very delighted to share with yourself that I have recently composed a clip song entitled Awesome Madagascar. It is now on YouTube.

“The rhythm of the music is typically Malagasy played with valiha and kabosy instruments, but the lyrics are in English.

“I just love music very much like yourself.

“Honestly, I would be keen to show people how awesome Madagascar is.”

And he’s right — it certainly is an awesome place.

-----INFO BOX----

Travel Directors: traveldirectors.com.au/tours/pearls-of-the-indian-ocean-2015

Cox & Kings: coxandkings.com.au

Bunnik Tours: bunnicktours.com.au

Imaginative Traveller: imaginative-traveller.com

Intrepid Travel: intrepidtravel.com/au

Peregrine Adventures: peregrineadventures.com

SpiceRoads: spiceroads.com

Air Mauritius: airmauritius.com

South African Airways: flysaa.com

Search YouTube: awesome Madagascar

Andrianampoina Diary: [email protected]yahoo.fr

 

© The West Australian