The main and obvious focus point of Central Madagascar is the country’s capital, Antananarivo. Together with Isalo National Park, it constitutes the area we call Central Madagascar.
Possessing a population of 1.3 million, Antananarivo is a melting pot of cultures, and while travellers stay for just the day, before travelling out to Isalo, it deserves more of our time and propensity for adventure. Antananarivo is designed in a ‘V’, with both sides of the town meeting in the middle where the palace is. Typically, Analakely and Tsaralalana, which is the lower part of the town, is a place with local food outlets and shop fronts and the upper part of the town, Antaninarenina and Isoraka, is where to go for fine dining cuisine, museums, jewellery shops and craft boutiques.
Historically, it has an enormously rich past, with a litany of rulers, kings and tribal leaders vying over time for the top spot. Before the French colonised in 1895, the island was ruled by three Merina kings, one of which ruled Antananarivo and built a large palace at the highest point surrounded by the rice paddy fields. Towards the end of the 18th century, King Radama I of Ambohimanga – then a more powerful city set in a strategically more beneficial location – overthrew and sacked Antananarivo before moving his base here. At a later stage and after the French conquest, when the island’s royalty was Queen Ranavalona, the palace was very much the focal point for activities in the city, including the rock cliffs, more horrifyingly known as ‘the place of hurling’, this being where Christian martyrs often met their fate at the hands of the queen.
In the present day, Antananarivo has been called one of the most beautiful capital cities in the world. It is full of colour and is scattered with red clay houses, which form the backdrop to euphorbias, steepled churches from the colonial era, and the city’s palace, which sits on top of a hill, overlooking purple bougainvillea and mauve jacarandas. Green and brown paddy fields are managed by its farmers up to the edge of the city. Zebu carts are pulled along the dusty roads. Colourful clothes lie drying on the hillsides and edge of the canals.
Meanwhile, Central Madagascar’s other big pull, Isalo National Park, lies approximately 430 miles from Antananrivo. Sacred to the Bara tribe, who have used the deep canyons of the national park as a burial site for hundreds of years, Isalo was established as a national park in 1999 and has since become a popular site for trekking and hiking. Apart from the area’s natural beauty, the park is home to a genus of lemur from the family Indradie, colloquially ‘sifakas’, known onomatopoeically after their alarm calls ‘shi-faks.’
Whilst Isalo National Park most obviously offers guests the chance to see sifakas, one of the main draws are a combination of its native flora – including local aloe and pachypodium plants, which are an alien-looking genus of succulent plants – and its geological rock phenomenon in the form of Tsingies. Tsingies are a structure of karstic rock found across the island, which are formed when acidic water runs between cracks in the limestone, eventually eroding it into large dramatic spikes. These Tsingies are one of the many things that make Madagascar a much-coveted destination and in particular Isalo NP.