The world’s fourth-largest island is packed with wonders, and nowhere more so than on its less populated west coast, a region of otherworldly wildlife and bewitching landscapes.
From my vantage point in a small field beside the Avenue of the Baobabs, Madagascar’s iconic trees appear almost cartoonish in the late-afternoon sun, with bulbous trunks and crowns of root-like branches that look like they were drawn by Dr. Seuss. Children race up and down the packed-dirt road that cuts through the grove, laughing as they kick up plumes of red dust in their wake. I share their glee. But mostly what I feel is a sense of wonder. Ten years, after all, is a long time to wait to see a tree.
I first learned about these baobabs a decade ago while watching an episode of BBC’s Planet Earth. I was transfixed. The world’s largest succulents, baobabs can be found in mainland Africa and Australia, but most species are endemic to Madagascar, whose flora and fauna have evolved in almost uninterrupted isolation since the island broke away from what became the Indian subcontinent 85 million years ago. More than 100 species of lemur are among the indigenous fauna, as are the panther chameleon, the tomato frog, the catlike fossa, the elusive nocturnal aye-aye, and the marvelously named satanic leaf-tailed gecko. And that’s just the tip of the island’s biological iceberg—more than 600 new species have been discovered here since the turn of the millennium, mostly plants but also fish, amphibians, insects, reptiles, and mammals.
And then there are the trees at the Avenue of the Baobabs. These are Adansonia grandidieri, or giant baobabs, the largest of them all, rising as tall as 30 meters above the ground. After 10 years of imagining what it would be like to actually lay eyes on them, they do not disappoint. Nor does my guide Herilala fail to mark the occasion with a story.
From Southeast Asia, the best route to Madagascar is via Johannesburg, from where South African Airlink operates daily flights to Antananarivo. Morondava, the west coast’s gateway town, is a 10-hour drive from the capital for those who wish to rent a private car and driver; otherwise, it’s a one-hour flight on Air Madagascar.
Where to Stay
Lokanga Boutique Hotel
Antananarivo; 261-34/ 145-5502; doubles from US$140.
Palissandre Côte Ouest
Nosy Kely, Morondava; 261-20/955-2022; doubles from US$158.
Ecolodge de Kirindy
Kirindy Forest; 261-32/401-6589; doubles from US$40.
Le Soleil des Tsingy
Bekopaka; 261-20/222-0949; doubles from US$110.