Hilly and multifaceted, FORT DAUPHIN (pronounced colloquially in the Antanosy dialect as “Faradofay” or even “Farady”, but officially known as Taolagnaro) is a complete surprise. Well off the usual tourist routes, with no easy road connections to the rest of the island, this is a breezy, subtropical port where forest-cloaked mountains rise steeply above brackish lakes, and the old town centre shelters behind an indented peninsula, sprayed by the surf of the southern Indian Ocean and fringed by glorious beaches.
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Fort Dauphin was the first French toehold in Madagascar, named after the future King Louis XIV in 1642 by settlers from the Compagnie des Indes Orientales. Today, with its mix of squalid poverty and manicured streets (in parts you could be in a French provincial town), Fort Dauphin reflects its colonial past, a wealthy new cosmopolitanism, and the austerity of the hard-pressed deep south of Madagascar, with its steady migration of rural migrants to the towns. Many here are looking for job opportunities with Rio Tinto’s huge titanium mine on the outskirts of town, run by a local corporation called QMM, or at the new port of Ehoala.
For visitors, there’s plenty to do and some excellent places to stay. There’s a fine, equable climate too, with lots of sunshine. The rains are heavier from November to March and there are scattered showers through the rest of the year.
Fort Dauphin has two main centres – the milling shanty town bisected by the road from the airport, and the sleepier administrative quarter near the old port.
The town beaches are the gorgeously sheltered Libanona Plage on the west side of the peninsula, which gets busy at weekends, and the surfers’ Plage Monseigneur on the east side, which is much more exposed. Plage Ankoba, west of Libanona, also has good surf but can be dangerous. There are several other beaches around the peninsula, and the Talinjoo hotel has a virtually private cove of its own.
The Baie de Lokaro
Lokaro, some 25km northeast of Fort Dauphin, behind the four-peaked peninsula you can see on the horizon, is a perfect 1.5km triple crescent of golden sands backed by dense coastal forest and sheltered from the ocean by rocky outcrops. The craggy islet of Nosy Lokaro is joined to the far end of the beach at low tide. The Baie de Lokaro is the top out-of-town getaway for wealthier locals and expats, though there is nothing in the way of infrastructure – you need to bring all provisions and water. Several hotels in town, including the Lavasoa and the Talinjoo, have simple beach annexes at Lokaro, though these tend to function at weekends, or when booked, rather then being open all the time.
Parc National d’Andohahela
Fort Dauphin’s local “serious” park, Parc National d’Andohahela is a richly varied and mountainous patchwork of three separate districts, or parcelles, in the remote interior. From east to west these are: parcelle I, taking in 630 square kilometres of humid mountain rainforests along the Anosyennes range; parcelle III, a small transitional zone of just 5 square kilometres just to the north of the highway; and finally the 124-square-kilometre arid, spiny forest of parcelle II to the west, in the mountains’ rain shadow. After bandit attacks in the early 2000s, the park was subject to foreign government advisories for a number of years and closed in 2012. Security has improved and the park is open once again, but it is still little visited, and usually only as a day-trip with a Fort Dauphin tour operator as on-the-spot facilities are extremely limited. It is possible to camp if you bring all your supplies.
Wildlife at Andohahela can be a little thin on the ground, though lizards are plentiful enough, and there’s a good chance of seeing ring-tails (Lemur catta) and Verreaux’s sifaka. Hikes include the Tsimelahy trail (roughly 2hr), which passes through the transitional zone between humid and dry forest. You can also hike west of Tsimelahy to the village of Mangatsiaka (8km), which steadily moves out of transition vegetation and into the spiny forest typical of southwest Madagascar.