Northern Madagascar: the perfect destination for self-drive

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Why the north of Madagascar is the perfect destination for a self-drive adventure

by Charlotte Van de Sande

Hi! We are Ries and Charlotte, two Dutchies with a huge passion for travelling and who are always hungry to discover more of the world. So, we decided to quit our ‘normal jobs’ and travel the world. All of our adventures are being documented on the travel blog ‘Charlotte Plans a Trip’.

After seeing much of Europe, Asia and Oceania, we felt it was time to see more of Africa. Our trip through Africa started with two months of road tripping through Madagascar. A terrific way to get to know this beautiful country! In this blog we will tell you more about the north of Madagascar!

So, Madagascar it is - your next holiday destination! Now it’s time to plan your route and set an itinerary. Most people visit the south and road trip the RN7, but is that all Madagascar has to offer? Definitely not! In this blog, we will tell you why the north of Madagascar is the way to go!

Off the beaten path - hardly any other tourists!

The 21 days we spent road tripping in northern Madagascar, we hardly met any other tourists! We had the national parks all to ourselves, walked for kilometers on beaches with only Malagasy kids playing in the sea and were always welcomed with open arms by the locals. I will never forget the moment I was standing in the sea, when a cute little girl, who could hardly have been any older than three, wearing a pink dress started shouting “Bonjour madame vazaha, Bonjour madame vazaha!”. Freely translated, this means “Hello madam outlander”. She looked so happy, and kept jumping up and down at the fact that she had seen a vazaha, a foreigner. I could not do anything other than laugh at her happiness and wave back!

Roadtrip Madagascar - Kids playing at the beach of Nosy Bay

With the exception of Nosy Be, the north of Madagascar is much less touristy than the south. We loved the feeling of being true explorers in an area not many outsiders had walked before us. Another advantage of being in a place still undiscovered by tourists: the locals are genuinely happy to see you. You can have a positive impact on the community, by engaging in responsible tourism, staying in local hotels and eating at local restaurants – giving back to the local economy.

Unlike other, overcrowded, coastal destinations, you won’t find any pushy sellers on the beaches or in the streets. When shopping at local markets in northern Madagascar you actually get fair prices, and Malagasy people love practicing their French and English conversational skills with you!

Unique national parks!

There are so many beautiful national parks in northern Madagascar, all of which are fairly accessible. If you’re into hiking, there are some great trails you can take through the parks – they range from easy to difficult, so you can find the best hike for you, whatever your level. Most of these hikes are accompanied by a local guide, who will be able to tell you everything you need to know about the bountiful nature and wildlife surrounding you.

So what is there to see and do in the national parks of northern Madagascar? Well, you can visit Ankarafantsika National Park for its Baobabs and a huge canyon. In the more northern Ankarana National Park, you’ll walk on wooden bridges across stunning grey Tsingy (limestone pinnacles) and visit caves full of bats, crocodiles and the occasional human skull! Spot rare lemurs, chameleons and beautiful crater lakes in the Amber Mountain and last, but definitely not least, visit the Red Tsingy, a natural monument of pink sandstone created by erosion. We wandered for hours through this last park, just the two of us. Unbelievable there were no other tourists in this impressive park! At the beginning of the track, we walked past some small Tsingy, but the further we went, the bigger they got. Around every corner a new natural miracle arose. The Red Tsingy is definitely one of our favorite national parks in Madagascar!

Roadtrip Madagascar exploring the Red Tsingy on a self drive adventure

Deforestation is a huge problem in Madagascar, particularly in the north. Most erosion happens by human touch; local tribes burning the forests to make way for rice fields and grass for their zebu. The environmental effects of this are exacerbated by people cutting down trees for wood to cook with. Today, roughly 95% of the original forest in Madagascar does not exist anymore, with more than 40% being cut in the last 50 years.

By visiting Madagascar’s national parks and paying the park fee, you will contribute to both nature conservation and to the local community. You can make even more of a positive impact by hiring a local guide, staying in the nearby villages, and sleeping in local hotels. This kind of responsible tourism creates jobs, providing food and income for the surrounding community, and enabling them to send their kids to school where they will learn about the origin and outcomes of erosion and how to prevent it. Other benefits for the environment you’ll be contributing to include more sustainable ways of living for the local community, like using gas burners instead of wood fires for cooking. Supporting the local economy is the best way to do your part for conservation.

Car hire and camping with rooftop tent with Roadtrip Madagascar 

Beautiful beaches

Some of the best beaches we have ever seen are located in the north of Madagascar! Near the big town of Diego-Suarez (Antisarana), you will find the beach town Ramena located on a kilometer-long golden stretch of sand. We fell in love with the slow pace of life here so much that we decided to stay for four days. Don’t forget to visit the three bays for truly remote beaches that you’ll have all to yourself. We did this by car, passing a small military base and driving over some rough terrain. It was lucky that we were driving a 4x4, since we almost got stuck more than once! Pausing for a bit, we stood near the lighthouse overlooking the ocean, while below us waves were breaking on the cliffs. Suddenly, a big shadow appeared at the water surface. A huge turtle had come up the catch some air. After looking a bit around, it dove back under. For us, those moments are truly unforgettable!

The beaches at the islands of Nosy Be, Nosy Iranja and Nosy Komba are not only famous for their white sand and turquoise sea, but you might even encounter some cute dolphins, a humpback whale or some sea turtles while snorkeling!

Take your Roadtrip Madagascar rental car to Nosy Be Island

A bit further south, located 550 kilometers northwest of Antananarivo, lies the breezy hot town of Mahajanga. This city is popular with expats in Madagascar, who enjoy the bustling beaches and abundant surrounding nature. By accident, we found a cute restaurant in Mahajanga serving the best seafood we ever had! At Chez Madame Chabaud, I ate, for the first time ever, a stingray!

Amazing weather and a short rainy season!

Get lost in lush green valleys full of palm trees and tropical plants with flowers blooming overhead. The sun is warm, but not too hot, and the sea is a nice temperature for swimming. The north of Madagascar has a warm climate which is lovely throughout most of the year. The dry season in northern Madagascar is relatively long compared to that of the central and eastern parts of the country, with most rain in December, January and February. The fact at the rainy season in the north is so short makes it an ideal travel destination all year round, so worth a visit in the low season, when there are even fewer tourists. 

With all its greenery, the north of Madagascar needs regular watering, so the dry months are not without the occasional shower. These short showers are actually quite pleasant, as they cool everything a down a bit. Most of the rain we encountered happened overnight. For me there is nothing cozier than lying in our tent, listening to the sound of the rain on the roof of the tent, knowing that we are dry and warm inside!

The north of Madagascar is very different from the far south of Madagascar, the driest part of the country, with fewer plants, butterflies and flowers.

Camping in Mahajanga Madagascar

Driving in the north of Madagascar

To drive to the north of Madagascar, start in Antananarivo, then take the RN4 up to Ankarafantsika National Park. After visiting this breathtaking park, get onto the RN6 all the way to Diego-Suarez. The RN4 is in pretty good condition, but be aware that the further north you go on the RN6, the worse the road conditions get. It is definitely drivable and makes for a great adventure - just make sure to allow enough time. Enjoy!

You can roadtrip through the north of Madagascar and visit most of the places described in this blog in just nine days (one way). To get started on your northern Madagascar adventure, check out the Northern Route itinerary. You can also read more about Charlotte and Ries’s roadtrip here, and in Dutch here.

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