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Madagascar is the oldest island on earth and is characterised by its unique natural history. This great mass of land, in fact the fourth largest island in the world, lies off the South-East Coast of Africa and is home to 5% of the world’s animal and plant species.

A huge number of these species are endemic and this is most likely due to the islands incredible habitat diversity. Madagascar simply has it all; from rainforests to deserts, mountain tops to mangrove swamps and everything else imaginable in-between.

One species of particular interest is the lemur and indeed Madagascar is famous for it. There are over 50 species native to the island and living nowhere else in the world. In general lemurs look like a cross between a monkey and a squirrel but appear in all manner of weird and wonderful variations. Baobabs are also emblematic of the island. There are only 8 species in the world and 6 of them are endemic to Madagascar. They are easily recognisable with their stubby branches and swollen trunks which absorb any water like sponges and help them survive dry conditions.

With the abundance of animal and birdlife on the island it is not surprising there are some top class National Parks. Three of the best are Ranomafana in the South-East, Isalo and Tsingy de Bemaraha on the Western Coast.

Ranomafana means ‘hot water’ and it was originally the springs which drew visitors in colonial days. This park is made up of rainforests, cloud forests, marshes and high plateau forests and bisected by the Namarona River which you can swim in during the summer months. Nowadays the reserve is known for its wildlife spotting opportunities. The golden bamboo lemur was discovered here but also shares the space with 11 other different species of lemur. One of the highlights of the park is Mount Maharira whose summit is covered with rare mountain top flora.

Tsingy de Bemaraha is perhaps the most impressive of the National Parks. It is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has unique geographical features.

Isalo National Park is notable for its strangely shaped formations of sandstone cut by deep canyons and eroded in weird shapes. The caves in some of the canyon walls are sacred to the local Bara Tribe and have been used for thousands of years as burial sites. If you visit this park make sure you take a trip to La Fenetre – a natural rock formation giving window to the sun and best seen at sunset. Another place to venture to is the ‘piscine naturelle’, an excellent swimming spot on one of the circular trails.

Tsingy de Bemaraha is perhaps the most impressive of the National Parks. It is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has unique geographical features – the tsingy. These oddly named formations form a collection of ‘tsingy’ peaks and are perhaps better described to those having not seen them before as a forest of limestone needles. These rocks were formed by fossil and shell deposits on the sea bed millions of years ago and have since become part of the land and been carved by rainwater over time. A series of walkways, ladders and cable ropes run between the peaks and providing stunning views. This park is by no means all about rock. In fact there is an abundance of flora and fauna here too. It’s a great place to spot red fronted and brown lemurs as well as chameleons and collared iguanids.

It’s true that most travellers come to Madagascar to observe the natural wonders but the beaches here are great too and can often be overlooked. Nosy Be is the largest of a cluster of islands in the Mozambique channel. As well as offering further chances to spot lemurs and chameleons, it is also host to some of the finest beaches in the area, fantastic seafood and hard to come by luxury accommodation. A stay on Nosy Be wouldn’t be complete without a day trip to the nearby reef ringed island of Nosy Tamikely. Here you will find a marine reserve perfect for snorkelling. A trip to Nosy Komba to see the black lemurs is also worthwhile.

Off the East Coast of Madagascar lies Ile Sainte Marie, a cliché of a tropical island with endless palm fringed beaches, white sand, luxurious vegetation and the added bonus of being relatively undeveloped. The island was a major hideout for pirates in the Indian Ocean and unusual legends are still told about them. One of the graves in the local graveyard even has a skull and crossbones carved on it! The picture perfect beaches are a great place to wind down and between May and September to whale-watch.