Madagascar isn’t all about lemurs and chameleons. If it were only for its landscapes, beaches and warm seas, the island would still be one of the world’s most alluring destinations, and there’s plenty here to please adrenalin junkies and outdoor enthusiasts.
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Hiking, climbing and running
There are almost limitless opportunities to explore Madagascar on foot, whether you like a daily run or want to do longer cross-country treks or climbs. More than a century of French occupation and immersion have opened up many routes for hiking and the Malagasy are increasingly keen participants and organizers. Walking is the default way in which to explore the national parks, and multi-day park hikes, with a guide and porters to carry camping equipment and luggage, are not difficult to arrange, especially in the national parks of Andringitra, Marojejy and Masoala. If you want to walk in the central highlands, outside the parks, you’ll need to give yourself time to make arrangements: a good place to start enquiries would be the tourist offices in Tana or Antsirabe.
With its many sheer granite and sandstone rock walls, Madagascar is full of excellent climbing opportunities. Standout areas include the Montagne des Français near Diego Suarez, and the Isalo and Andringitra national parks. Local hotels have some expertise and equipment, but also contact New Sea Roc Madagascar (newsearoc.com).
Runners could join an upcoming run with the Antananarivo Hash House Harriers (madagascarhash.com) or even visit the island to run a marathon (marathons.ahotu.com/calendar/madagascar).
Mountain biking and horseriding
Mountain biking is only allowed in some areas of the national parks but cycling can be a great way to get around remoter areas where the rewards combine a mixture of culture, nature and landscape, rather than providing a more purely wildlife experience. Many hotels also have a few mountain bikes (vélos tout terrain or VTT – “vay-tay-tay”) to loan or rent for short trips. For something longer, check out Rando Raid (randoraidmadagascar.com), based in Antsirabe who also offer horseriding, or VTT Madagascar (www.madagascar-tour.com) who organize bike tours in remote parts of southeast Madagascar.
Horseriding (equitation) is offered near Tana (cheval-madagascar.com), in the Parc National d’Isalo (bit.ly/RidinginIsalo), around Antsirabe, at Sahambavy and by several beach resort hotels, including on Île Sainte Marie and Nosy Be. Local tourist offices will be helpful.
Swimming, diving and snorkelling
Broadly speaking, the best swimming areas are on the west coast: most of eastern Madagascar’s coastline is rough and dangerous, with strong currents. Exceptions include the far northeast extremity, east of Diego Suarez, which has some beautiful, sheltered spots; the west coast of Île Sainte Marie; and the gorgeous, indented coastline just north of Fort Dauphin. Sea conditions are warmest and cloudiest at the beginning of the dry season (March–April) when waters on the northwest coast typically have temperatures of 27–28°C, gradually cooling and clearing to around 23°C by September when visibility can be up to 30m. The easiest diving and snorkelling is around Nosy Be, less from the main island itself than from some of its smaller neighbours: Nosy Tanikely, Nosy Mitsio and Nosy Radames are particularly good. The reefs of southwest Madagascar, between Andavadoaka and Anakao, are also spectacular, and the waters around Diego Suarez have numerous wrecks to explore.
The archipelagos of northwest Madagascar are ideal for sailing holidays. Conventional yacht charters can be fixed up on Nosy Be, but you can also do something more in keeping with local sailing styles – sailing in a pirogue (lakana in Malagasy) or a large cargo boutre. Try Pirogue Madagascar at Madirokely beach on Nosy Be (pirogue-madagascar.com). Most larger beach hotels around Madagascar can offer windsurfing, or organize it for you. Surfing tends to be a speciality of the south, notably the areas around Tuléar and Fort Dauphin. Contact Madagascar Surf-Tour in Tuléar (madagascar-surf-trip.com) or Hôtel Lavasoa in Fort Dauphin, who also do kitesurfing (lavasoa.com). The other key spot for kitesurfing is the Mer d’Émeraude, near Diego Suarez (emeraudekite.com). Kayaking and rafting can be pursued on larger rivers such as the Namorona, Tsiribihina and Manambolo.
Traditional and spectator sports
Several traditional sports are still popular in Madagascar. Moraingy, a bare-fisted combination of boxing and kick-fighting between two opponents, comes from the Sakalava country of western Madagascar and can be seen on weekends in the dry season. A Malagasy version of kung-fu became hugely popular in the 1980s, and kung-fu self-defence clubs, combining the idolizing of Bruce Lee with Christian-traditional spiritualism, were a serious threat to the Marxist dictatorship of the time. The French brought pétanque (boules), which is widely played on any patch of flat ground. Cockfighting is also very common. A popular, bloodless animal sport is a kind of rodeo or bullfight called savika, held in Betsileo country, especially around Fianarantsoa. A furious young zebu bull is released into the arena and the contestants simply have to hang on to it as long as possible. Holding the hump is considered best, but in some contests clinging onto the tail also counts.
Of sports with more global appeal, football has the biggest following, though the best players tend to emigrate to France. Ajesaia and AS Adema are the country’s best-known teams, both from Antananarivo. Rugby experienced a surge of interest after the national team, the Makis, won a historic victory against South Africa in 2005 and is still very popular. The four-yearly Indian Ocean Islands Games (Jeux des Îles de l’Océan Indien) is a regional Olympics, featuring the full range of sports. It circulates among the four nations, next taking place in Réunion in August 2015, Mauritius in 2019 and Madagascar in 2023.