Madagascar: The Greatest Adventure You Haven't Had Yet

Rustling with bug-eyed lemurs, shy geckos, giant moths, and other freaks of nature, this island in the Indian Ocean will give up its secrets if you’re willing to be patient.
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Photo by Alistair Taylor-Young

“You’re looking in the wrong place,” Claret whispers.

Our guide—a young local, or Malagasy, and a skilled naturalist—has stopped under a copse of Aramy fruit trees in the forest of Nosy Mangabe, part of an archipelago off Madagascar’s northeast coast. Beneath the dark canopy, vines corkscrew around bulbous trunks and palms burst up like giant shuttlecocks from the dense foliage underfoot. With every step, I sense an invisible audience of animals listening, though our presence is drowned out by the incessant scratching of cicadas and patter of light rain.

“Higher. Can you see it?” he says, pointing past me. “It’s looking straight at you.”

I’m more mesmerized than scared. In Madagascar, unlike other African countries I’ve visited, I’m not prey. There are no lions or buffalo to kill me, not even venomous snakes. But there are spectacular freaks—a giant moth with a tongue as long as a table fork, a mouse lemur so small it can fit inside a teacup. It’s why I’m here: to explore the pristine pockets that make this exotic island worth all the difficult indirect flights. Nosy Mangabe is a special reserve next to Masoala National Park, or “the eye of the forest.” The area is a honeypot of unique species and home to the endangered aye-aye, a bug-eyed lemur once thought to occupy an evolutionary niche between a squirrel and a woodpecker. The Malagasy believe that seeing an aye-aye in broad daylight is unlucky; others say that if an aye-aye points its bony finger at you, you’re marked for death. None of that has kept them from being poached.

I search the trees for an eye, tail, or feather, and am on the verge of giving up when I spot a pale-bellied gecko as long as my forearm suckered to a branch. It’s a curious, corpselike creature with skin like Gollum’s, a tail shaped like a caterpillar-chewed leaf, and a queer gimbal eye.

A Coquerel's sifaka.

Photo by Alistair Taylor-Young

Long after Madagascar splintered off from the original supercontinent, Gondwana, 165 million years ago, it was the evolutionary freaks that thrived: the reptiles that could cross the ocean on a driftwood raft and the solitary oddballs—twig-mimicking snakes, tiny lemurs, a leaf-nosed bat. Claret tells me how, on a recent trip with four Swiss scientists, they found 20 new species of frog. That’s the point of Madagascar: the dazzling fecundity of a biogeographical aberration. In this unique environment, even time feels skewed, as if the twin processes of evolution and extinction are happening simultaneously. In a museum in the capital city of Antananarivo lies the skeleton of a 10-foot-tall flightless bird that used to lay a two-gallon egg. On the grounds of one lodge, the bones of a dwarf hippopotamus have just been uncovered. Compared with the zoo of the Galápagos Islands, where crowds of tourists trip off the boats, Madagascar is an empty Jurassic Park. On our forest walks in Masoala, I bump into only one other traveler, the American wildlife biologist Dorsey Burger. Still, he warns that the country’s logging, mining, and slash-and-burn agriculture are encroaching on the region’s flamboyant biodiversity. I ask if there’s still enough left to save.

“Yes, but it’s declining,” he says. “You’re doing the right thing by coming now.”

It’s Sunday in the town of Maroantsetra, across the water from Nosy Mangabe. I walk by a Protestant church, where the congregation spills out onto the steps. Girls in white polyester dresses and cheap Chinese shoes sit with their hands folded neatly in their laps. Hymns fill the air, seeming to lift the pink balloon that a group of boys are playing with in the dusty courtyard. I’m offered slices of fresh pineapple by women selling food to locals, including bowls of hot rice.

Madagascar, the Indian Ocean’s largest island, is incredibly poor. According to UNICEF, 91 percent of the population lives on less than two dollars a day; in the country’s south, the UN says, some 1.5 million people are facing food insecurity because of a severe drought. Though natural resources—among them titanium, nickel, copper, and precious gems—have been heavily exploited, and rampant deforestation has caused the island’s distinctive red earth to bleed into the sea, there is little evidence of profits flowing back to the people. Meanwhile, the political system is as fragile as the ecology: Madagascar was destabilized when it won national independence from its French colonizers in 1960, then debilitated by two decades of socialist economic isolationism and a run of presidential coups. Because of the poverty, the cities have an edge—as I watch the sun set over Antananarivo from its highest hilltop, I feel the eyes of pickpockets on my back. But in remote areas, the rural Malagasy are friendly and immensely proud of their culture, an ethnographic patchwork of distinct tribes that formed from early Austronesian settlers and Bantu people from mainland Africa. Here, Christianity and animism exist side by side. The faces of locals seem more Polynesian than African, while the voices toggle between Malagasy and French.

In spite of the dicey politics, with the last coup back in 2009, Madagascar is flickering with optimism. New investment is flowing in, including a multimillion-dollar resort, Miavana, on the northeast island archipelago of Nosy Ankao. At $2,500 a person per night, Miavana is trying to join the global superleague of private island resorts, says my trip’s architect, Will Bolsover, who has been bringing travelers to Madagascar for 20 years. “Miavana will make this country a truly luxury destination.” Thierry Dalais, Miavana’s French-Mauritian developer, puts it another way: “I think Miavana can take on the best of the Caribbean, except Madagascar has lemurs in the trees.”

The pool at Anjajavy Lodge.

Photo by Alistair Taylor-Young

Miavana’s villas—a scattering of 14 sharp-edged steel-and-glass structures—feel fresh and modern, but, above all, unlikely in a country where existing lodges tend toward the eco-rustic. No precious woods were used in construction, just recycled composites. The stone walls of the resort’s main building—that surround the restaurant, a gallery called the Cabinet of Curiosities containing a pygmy hippopotamus skeleton, and a large elliptical pool—are carved by hand: hundreds of thousands of pieces hewn and then chiseled into place by a local workforce. (Some 95 percent of the 450 adults living on Nosy Ankao are employed here.)

The main hotel is set to open by May, after a delay owing to materials held up in port customs. If I’m visiting too early to judge the polish of a hotel striving to be among the best in Africa, I can see, at any rate, why the developers fell in love with this raw frontier. Taking off from the beach outside my villa’s terrace, in one of the choppers that will be used on Miavana’s flying safaris, we pass over a mangrove estuary veined with silver rivulets and land on a flat-topped pin of rock to take in a canopy of forest flowing off all sides. Then we flip over to another island, Manamphao, to picnic on fresh sashimi in a grove of palms that back a shell-laced beach where we snorkel around jewel-toned corals. In the morning, we hike a rocky limestone outcropping that overlooks an array of sinkholes and cliffs; later, when it gets hot, we descend through the forest and lie down in the mouth of a yawning cave beneath the Ankarana Massif, where we watch a flock of swifts come and go.

There are moments on this trip when I feel echoes of the African continent to which Madagascar was once perhaps attached: The creamy sand beaches resemble Mozambique’s coastline across the channel; the watery pans on the island’s northeast bring to mind Botswana’s Okavango Delta; the silver-bark baobabs against the sky suggest the spectral silhouettes of the Kalahari. Then there is a sudden dissonance in the topography, particularly in chaotic rock formations called tsingy, their sharp peaks formed out of eroded limestone. Sometimes the tsingy are red, other times they’re salt white or sinister Mordor-gray. Even in daylight, they have a haunting presence, like dancing ghosts.

Perhaps they are ghosts. The Malagasy talk about the dead in the present tense, as if their ancestors are still alive. Every seven years, the Mirena and Betsileo people—two of Madagascar’s highland clans—“turn the bones” of their forebears, rewrapping the corpses in a white silk shroud while sharing family news with the deceased. This custom is unique to Madagascar. So, too, is the folklore: Sacred trees can’t be touched; earthquakes are whales bathing their young. Close to Anjajavy le Lodge—a rim of elegant beach bungalows on the northwest coast of the island—I paddle a kayak into a sandy grove framed by cliffs and enter a small cave, the crypt at the back of this natural cathedral. Inside lies a clutch of human skulls on the rocks.

At first I hesitate, as though I’m trespassing, a tremor crawling up my spine. But I also like the feeling of the unknown­. A medicine for leukemia is derived from the Madagascar periwinkle. Maybe the forest hides cures for more: Could the human coma be unlocked by the fat-tailed dwarf lemur, the only primate to estivate for seven months of the year? Madagascar leaves you with the sense there is something left to be found.

A local fisherman.

Photo by Alistair Taylor-Young

It’s 7 p .m. when we head out again with Claret into the dark to look for the creatures of the night: fossa cats, dwarf lemurs, Madagascar red owls. I’m nervous, jumping at the crack of a branch underfoot or the squelch of wet ground. A web, strung across the path, snags my face. Ten minutes pass before we reach a dense thicket with a canopy that locks out the moon. Claret tells me to be still, then slowly raises his flashlight. There, 20 feet above me, the beam catches two big round orbs of orange. For a full minute, the creature looks at us and we look at him, with his huge, bat-like ears and long curved fingernails.

If the leaf-tailed gecko is the Gollum of the forest, the aye-aye is its Edward Scissorhands. In my previous travels, I’ve spotted the rare Siberian tiger in the Russian taiga, and have watched African wild dogs bring down an impala just outside my tent in Botswana. But this encounter is different. The aye-aye just stares back, as confused by the sight of me as I am of him. Instead of reaching for my iPhone, I simply register his every blink.

“You’re lucky,” whispers Claret. “Very, very lucky.”

At one point last century, the aye-aye was thought to have gone extinct. Maybe Madagascar’s luck is turning.

Later, as we leave the forest, Claret breaks a leaf off a branch.

“Sorry,” he says.

“For what?” I ask.

“I always say ‘sorry’ when I hurt the forest.”

A leaf-tailed gecko.

Photo by Alistair Taylor-Young

Into the Wild: Guide to Madagascar

The Fixer to Use
I traveled with Will Bolsover at U.K.–based Natural World Safaris, whose new 10-night northern circuit incorporates some of the island’s key species—sifaka, leaf-tailed gecko, aye-aye, and red-ruffed lemur—as well as its game changer: the private island lodge of Miavana, slated to open in May. Madagascar is a year-round destination, though it’s best to avoid cyclone season, which lasts from January to March.

Where to Stay
At press time, 14 two- and three-bedroom villas were being completed at Miavana along a three-mile sliver of beach on this island in the Nosy Ankao archipelago. It will have world-class game fishing and reef diving along with helicopter safaris—the resort runs two Robinson R66s—that can access mainland forests and the Ankarana cave system. I have no doubt Miavana’s ambition will match the resort’s principal competitor, North Island, in the Seychelles—by the same architects, and until now arguably the best beach add-on there is to an African safari. But it will need time to merit the price tag: Trees need to grow, fishermen take time to retrain as butlers, and the island has to recover from the extensive build.

With these caveats in mind, you can combine a five-night stay at Miavana with stops at two existing hotels. Anjajavy le Lodge is a fairly priced, family-friendly beach hotel on the western coast (with a lemur-peppered garden) where Christian Louboutin and Bill and Melinda Gates have vacationed. Masoala Forest Lodge is more basic, comprising safari tents in stilted bungalows near the island’s largest primary rainforest (where I saw the aye-aye). It is my new Africa favorite, run by a maverick South African sea kayaker who is raising his two kids here.

How to Get There
Air France connects major U.S. airports through Paris. South African Airlines connects through Johannesburg, and Kenya Airways through Nairobi. It’s a three- to four-hour flight from these mainland airports to Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo.