Madagascar was among the most difficult solo trips I have ever planned.
I visited Madagascar for just under two weeks in April 2017. Not a big fan of large sprawling cities, I did not linger in the capital of Antananarivo (commonly referred to as “Tana”), limiting myself to a few walks in the centre, a nice dinner and a day trip to the surrounding countryside.
For the rest of my trip, I followed the well-trodden route around the country’s famous sights. I flew to Morondava on the western coast, where my rental car and driver were waiting for me. From Morondava, I visited the Baobab Alley for the celebrated sunset views – possibly a single best known attraction of Madagascar. I continued overland to Kirindy Forest Reserve (where I spent 1 night), Antsirabe (1 night), Ranomafana National Park (2 nights), Isalo National Park (2 nights) and Ifaty (1 night). I then caught the flight from the nearby Toliara airport back to Tana where I spent my final night in the country before departing the next day.
Sunset over the spectacular Baobay Alley was unforgettable
I travelled a total of 1,400+ km on the road – which, amazingly, represents but a fraction of Madagascar’s territory. It is, after all, the world’s fourth largest island and the second largest island nation.
As you can guess, mine was a fairly rushed trip and careful planning was paramount. When I started planning my visit, I found little practical information online or in print about travelling solo in Madagascar on a limited schedule. The ubiquitous Lonely Planet guide – my usual first reference to a new destination – was surprisingly thin for the size of the country and generally weak on concise practical information.
I hope the below information will help all of you out there planning a solo trip to Madagascar.
MADAGASCAR: WHEN TO GO
Madagascar has a huge territory with varying climates. The island’s recurring seasons can be distinctly split into two: the dry season from May to October and the wet season from November to April. While most visitors maintain that the best time to visit Madagascar is during the dry season, I chose to visit in the “shoulder” season in April, and encountered very few problems. The weather stayed sunny and warm except for one evening in the rainforest of Ranomafana – and, given it was a rainforest, I had almost expected rain at some point.
Using a banana leaf as umbrella in Ranomafana. Stylish and practical!
Travelling at the peak of the rain season (January to March) can be difficult. Roads may get flooded or become an impassable, dirty mess, while many tour operators take a well-deserved break. April is when rain generally stops but some parts of the country (such as the coastal route from Toliara to Morondava) remain difficult to reach after the abundant rainfall. May and June are probably the best months to visit (though, again, I had a blast in April) as the tourist season is in its nascence and prices remain low.
During July and August, many visitors from Europe and North America descend onto Madagascar (especially its beaches), and hotel prices generally rise. This is the coolest period of the year and certain kinds of mammals and reptiles hibernate and cannot be easily seen. September and October are once again fairly good shoulder months to visit, while November and December bring hotter temperatures, increasingly more rain and a risk of cyclones from the Indian Ocean.
To sum up, I found April a nearly perfect month for a visit. The temperatures were comfortably warm, and sometimes hot, during the day, but I found the humidity of the western coast somewhat on the high side. I also experienced one rainy evening and a cloudy morning during two weeks. Next time, I would like to visit Madagascar in May – before the summer crowds arrive but after the risk of rain and the heat have all but passed.
Ladies pulling out fishing nets in Morondava shortly after sunrise
MADAGASCAR: HOW TO GET THERE
Madagascar being an island, your safest bet is to arrive by air (there are no scheduled sea crossings to Madagascar from the African continent). Most international flights arrive at Ivato International Airport near Antananarivo. The only direct connection from Madagascar to Europe is to Paris, served by Air France. Major airlines serving Madagascar from the African mainland are South African Airways (from Johannesburg), Kenya Airways (from Nairobi) and Ethiopian (from Addis Ababa).
When I book air tickets I am usually not solely driven by the price. Firstly, I have “Silver” status with British Airways and try to fly everywhere with the oneworld alliance airlines – trust me, some perks go a long way on an exhausting multiple leg journey. Secondly, I am prepared to choose a more expensive flight if it brings a substantial improvement in comfort such a shorter connection and not leaving in the middle of the night. Finally, I sometimes like to incorporate a specific stopover en route, and the cheapest option may not fly there.
One of many ring-tailed lemurs at Anja Community Reserve
The cheapest flights from London to Madagascar I could find were on Air France via Paris and cost EUR 900. I had little interest in a Paris stopover or Skyteam miles, and spent a substantial time looking for an alternative. Not many airlines fly to Madagascar to begin with; I initially considered Nairobi, Addis Ababa, Johannesburg or Mauritius as a stopover (the list pretty much summarises international destinations with direct flights to Madagascar), but each had one or another issue. Nairobi and Addis Ababa fell away as I am not a fan of big chaotic cities and needed to pay for an eVisa for Kenya. Johannesburg looked interesting, but my mind was simply not set on it. Mauritius would have been perfect, but the flights were prohibitively expensive.
It was then that I turned to the tiny dot in the ocean with direct flights to Madagascar: Seychelles. Air Seychelles is partly owned by and has a codeshare with Etihad, a large international airline with a hub in Abu Dhabi. I could easily get from London to Madagascar on a combination of Etihad and Air Seychelles flights, stopping over in the Seychelles en route and returning to London in one go in the end. I would be flying mainly overnight on both legs, which is something I prefer to maximise holiday time. The only disadvantage was that Etihad did not belong to any major airline alliance (it has its own), but, with several days in the Seychelles to look forward to and swift return connections, I was prepared to overlook the fact.
To summarise, my return flight cost a whopping EUR 1,300 – more than I once paid to visit New Zealand substantially further away – but the combination of a great stopover, convenient schedules and my previous excellent experience with Etihad made this a perfect choice.
MADAGASCAR: WHERE TO GO
I am particularly interested in wildlife and nature in most places I visit. For my Madagascar itinerary, I included as many national parks as possible. There are dozens of national parks and protected areas in Madagascar, each normally renowned for a particular set of species to observe. I ended up visiting the following:
- Isalo National Park (Madagascar’s best known park featuring a sandstone massif perfect for hiking)
- Ranomafana National Park (rainforest with many kinds of birds and lemurs)
- Anja Community Reserve (small community-run park with numerous ring-tailed lemurs)
- Zombitse-Vohibasia National Park (dry forest housing nearly half of Madagascar’s endemic birds)
- Kirindy Forest Reserve (vast forest known for Madagascar’s only predator, fossa, and rare nocturnal kinds of lemur)
Red-fronted lemurs can be easily seen in Isalo National Park
Eager to discover as much of Madagascar’s flora as possible, I also visited two places not formally recognised as national parks but well known to visitors: the so-called Baobab Alley and the Antsokay Arboretum. The Baobab Alley near Morondava is probably the country’s single best known attraction, and rightly so: watching the sun set behind a wall of stunning baobabs was one of my life’s most memorable experiences. The Antsokay Arboretum is essentially a botanical garden with an impressive collection of some 900 plant species from different corners of the country. Started by a Swiss enthusiast in 1980, the park is a botanist’s heaven and a must-see attraction in the vicinity of Toliara.
There are countless other national parks all over the country. I focused on the above few because they all lie conveniently on the series of motorways connecting Morondava with Toliara (RN35, RN34 and RN7 – the country’s main artery). I chose to travel on roads of reasonable quality for most of my trip, because the rainy season had only recently ended while I had to travel quickly from one place to another.
Rice paddies stretch almost the entire way from Antsirabe to Ranomafana
Interested in Madagascar’s history, I also made sure to include a day of exploring the surroundings of Tana. I visited two royal hills: Ambohimanga and Ilafy. Recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ambohimanga is a place of significant cultural importance to Madagascar’s earliest inhabitants, the Merina people. It houses a royal fortress (“rova”) on top of a hill with sweeping views of the surrounding countryside. It is a perfect day trip from the busy Tana.
Embracing the breath-taking countryside scenery in Ambohimanga
There were numerous attractions in Madagascar that I missed. If and when I go back, I would like to dedicate some time to the north (travel overland from Tana to Antsiranana and relax on the beaches of Nosy Be and the quieter Nosy Komba), the very south (explore the remote Taolagnaro with even quieter beaches and great national parks in the area), the east (travel on the notorious RN5 all the way to Maroantsetra, a seaside town frozen in time) and the west (travel the long and slow off-road route from Toliara to Morondava). One thing for sure though: there is plenty in Madagascar to keep one occupied.
MADAGASCAR: HOW TO GET AROUND
It is important to be realistic about Madagascar’s driving distances. Madagascar is roughly the size of Ukraine, with roads leaving a lot to be desired. Only about 10% of all roads are paved, and some become impassable during the rainy season. As a result, it is important to factor in some extra time to explore Madagascar without unnecessary stress. Especially given the cost to get there, the country deserves plenty of dedicated time. I would start with three weeks, though the island’s key attractions can be visited in two weeks (anything less is simply not worth it).
A good way to save time is to take domestic flights. I took two flights on Madagascar’s national airline, Air Madagascar (lovingly and aptly nicknamed “Air Mad”): from Tana to Morondava in the beginning of my trip and from Toliara to Tana in the end. As advised, I made sure to leave enough time between my domestic and international flights: a lot of travellers have complained about last-minute delays and poor customer service, but I did not experience any problems. Granted, the airline did change the departure time for each flight at short notice, but they contacted me by email and by text beforehand, and the amended itineraries actually suited me even better.
The major problem with domestic flights is that they are expensive. Air Madagascar essentially operates a monopoly, and even short flights tend to cost EUR 200-250 one-way; certainly not a budget option. The flights also tend to depart from and return to Tana, while connections between different regions are rare. I would have liked to fly from Toliara to Nosy Be or Morondava to Taolagnaro, but it simply wasn’t possible. Since changing in Tana would have cost too much time, I had to skip those destinations altogether.
The surroundings of Ivato International Airport largely house rural communities
Madagascar’s ground public transport options are limited to the so-called “taxi-brousse” (literally, a “bush taxi”). A taxi-brousse is essentially a minibus operating on long- and short-haul routes in the country, with wildly varying degrees of comfort depending on the age of the vehicle. Taxi-brousse are notoriously unreliable and delays and breakages are common. While travelling from Morondava to Antsirabe, I was approached by a European couple asking for a ride as their taxi-brousse had broken down; they had been on the road since 4am. I was heading the other way, but, luckily, they were able to hop on another taxi-brousse a while later.
A no-less impressive variation of taxi-brousse is a “camion-brousse” (amusingly, a “bush lorry”), which is basically a taxi-brousse on steroids. Imagine a massive lorry on colossal wheels, with wooden benches arranged for the passengers and masses of luggage piled on top, swaying from side to side as it negotiates another bump on a coastal dirt road. Such vehicles are mainly used in areas suffering from poor road conditions, especially shortly after the rainy season.
The advantage of taxi-brousse is that they are cheap and can be a fun way to explore the country in the absence of a rigid schedule. I know I would have enjoyed meeting the locals aboard a taxi-brousse, even if the driver’s tendency to stuff his vehicle to bursting point was sometimes a sore sight for the eyes.
Here is one of the less comfortable taxi-brousse in action
HIRING A PRIVATE CAR
Surprisingly, some means of public transport that are staple in the developed world are absent in Madagascar. You will not find the familiar passenger coaches or trains. In the absence of a taxi-brousse, you therefore have two options: join an organised tour or hire a chauffeured car from a local operator.
I opted for the latter option and could not stop congratulating myself on my decision. I loved being able to make last-minute changes to the itinerary, exploring attractions at my own pace and being one-to-one with wildlife (travellers on an organised tour I kept running into had to share a single lemur for photos). I greatly appreciated having the car to myself and not having to fight over a window seat on a daily basis. A pronounced introvert, I also valued not having to force myself to interact with people out of courtesy.
Driving in the Madagascar countryside is a peaceful experience
Renting a car did cost me a LOT of money though. I originally opted for the most economical 4WD on offer, a Hyundai ix35, quoted to me at EUR 700 for 12 days (discounted in the low season). I was later upgraded to a larger Nissan for the same price, and appreciated the extra space. The problem was that fuel was not included in the rental, and the Nissan option proved a lot more expensive than I expected. I must have spent some EUR 500 on fuel for the travel distance of c.3,000km.
All cars are based in Tana and, if your drive originates or ends elsewhere, you have to pay for the rental (and the fuel) for the car’s travel from or to Tana. Therefore, while you may be saving time taking a domestic flight to meet your car near a popular attraction, you are effectively paying double as your car is simultaneously travelling to meet you.
Another important factor to consider is that you will be spending a lot of time with your driver. I was extremely lucky: my driver Rivo and I became quite close, sharing family photos and having many a laugh on the road. Above personal dynamics, safety is paramount: please make sure that the driver has good references and is not known for drink-driving. Remember also that most car rentals in Madagascar include driver’s services in the price as (rightly so) most foreigners are not trusted to navigate the country’s roads by themselves.
My driver Rivo belongs to the Merina tribe, descended from Malaysia and Indonesia. It shows!
CHOOSING A LOCAL OPERATOR
After settling on my itinerary, I asked several Madagascar-based operators to provide car rental quotes. I received four quotes in total, and, taking into account the operator’s reputation, chose Ramartour. I can highly recommend Ramartour: a smaller local establishment, the company gave me plenty of flexibility to plan my own hotels and itinerary, and was priced very competitively (second lowest among my responses). They also showed by far the best responsiveness.
The total price may sound like a lot but was actually an excellent deal. The driver’s services and four airport transfers in Tana were included (the latter are often charged separately by other tour companies). While my rental car was travelling from Tana to Morondava, I was given another car (and another driver) to take me to attractions around Tana for no extra charge. And, having summed up my total expenses, I was still substantially below the price charged by tour companies like Intrepid and G Adventures for a comparable trip. Given the increased comfort, travelling solo and being fully in control, it was the right choice for me.
Baobabs look spectacular at any time of day
MADAGASCAR: WHERE TO STAY
I found it very easy to plan accommodation in Madagascar. I was able to pre-book accommodation for most nights through major booking sites (I usually use Booking.com) and rarely paid more than EUR 20-25 per night for a single occupancy room in a mid-range hotel. Hostels are not my scene anymore but are extremely affordable in Madagascar at EUR 8-10 a night.
The hotels where I stayed were a bit of a hit-and-miss. In Tana, I was initially pleased with my stay at Maison Lovasoa, a small establishment in a beautiful villa a short walk from Analakely market. However, on my last night in the country, the room I was given sorely disappointed me: simple appliances in the room were falling apart, the shower had been clogged up and leaking everywhere, and staff seemed oblivious to some fellow travellers upstairs being drunk and apparently entertaining local ladies.
View over Antananarivo from Haute-Ville
While hotel listings were decent for major hubs, the choice of hotels in some locations (like Ranomafana) was limited. Contacting the hotels directly did not work (they wouldn’t return my messages), and I involved Ramartour to help me with reservations for several nights. All hotels booked for me by Ramartour were of a higher standard than I am used to (as well as pricier, though by no means luxurious), and I cannot complain about any of them. I particularly recommend Chez Maggie in Morondava for its excellent beach location and spacious huts.
In Ifaty, I treated myself to a stay at Bamboo Club hotel. Right by the beach, my hut was perfect for watching the sunset and strolling by the sea. It was also a 5-minute walk from a family-run beach restaurant serving simple meals with a great view. I paid EUR 35 for the night at Bamboo Club, which was a great deal: there are far pricier establishments in the area.
I enjoyed sitting on my hut’s terrace in Ifaty watching the sunset
MADAGASCAR: WHAT I COULD HAVE DONE DIFFERENTLY
My major mistake in planning a trip to Madagascar was misjudging its driving distances and only allocating 12 days for such a vast country. As always, I managed to rush it enough to cover a lot of territory in a short time, but would have preferred to travel more slowly and visit additional attractions on the way. As nice as Seychelles were, I should not have planned a stopover and should have instead found a way to get straight to Madagascar and start covering ground. I would certainly have had time to incorporate a visit to another part of the country, such as Taolagnaro or Nosy Be.
As already mentioned, I would also have preferred to visit in May or June and enjoy cooler temperatures. The reason I came in April was to overlap with public holidays around Easter. However, this is a minor point as I did not experience any inconveniences in April.