South-west Madagascar - Toliara and its surroundings including the spiny forest

March 09, 2020  •  Leave a Comment

If you are in search of sun, sea and sand during your Madagascar road trip, make sure you make some time to head down to the south-west of the country where the RN7 comes to an end. Here you will find beautiful palm-fringed beaches, small fishing villages as well as the unique desert habitat known as the spiny forest that has formed as a result of heat and drought, creating a dry, dense jungle of spines, thorns and trees with swollen trunks, adapted to survive in this extreme environment.

Arboretum d'Antsokay

Probably the top attraction in the area, this botanical garden was established by a Swiss botanist in 1980 and is a great place to visit and learn about the spiny forest of Madagascar and its flora and fauna. It contains a collection of approximately 900 species of plant native to the area, of which most are endemic (about 95%). The grounds are very well-maintained and you have the option to wander around by yourself or take a guided tour. I would recommend a guided tour to make the most of your visit here. The guides are very knowledgeable and speak good English; they will introduce you to many species of plant found in the spiny forest such as baobabs, succulents, EuphorbiaPachypodium and the botanical family Didiereaceae (octopus trees) which can only be found in this region of Madagascar. We learnt about the various plants special adaptations and medicinal properties as well as which plants to avoid due to their toxins. In amongst the thickets you can spot a number of animals including green-capped coua dashing through the undergrowth, warty chameleons camouflaged within the scrub, Madagascar cockroaches, snakes and the iguana-like Merrem's Madagascar swift basking in the sun. There is also a small museum collection at the end where you can see rocks, fossils and even a full size elephant bird egg, reconstructed from many small egg fragments found in the local area. Just outside the arboretum is a small gift shop with locally-produced crafts as well as a nice little restaurant.

Reniala Reserve, Ifaty, MadagascarReniala Reserve, Ifaty, Madagascar Warty chameleon at  Arboretum d'Antsokay, Tulear, MadagascarWarty chameleon at Arboretum d'Antsokay, Tulear, Madagascar

The arboretum also run regular night walks where you can observe a number of nocturnal species associated with the spiny forest. Chat to a member of staff in the ticket office in advance to check the times and meeting point for these (we met outside the restaurant there since the ticket office closes in the evening). On the night walk, we hadn't even entered the arboretum yet when we saw our first brown mouse lemur darting through the trees above the entrance, and that was shortly after our guide said that they are quite rare and we probably wouldn't see one so we felt very lucky! This was followed by a variety of other wildlife including warty chameleons perched in the bushes, numerous fat-headed geckos and Madagascar cockroaches.

Spiny forest at night, MadagascarSpiny forest at night, Madagascar Mouse lemur in the spiny forest of MadagascarMouse lemur in the spiny forest of Madagascar

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Head about 27km north of Toliara to reach the small resort of Ifaty, a great place for snorkelling and bird watching. Reserve Reniala, a small protected area of spiny forest just a 10 minute drive from the centre of the town, is the ideal place in the area for birdwatchers to go, particularly if you are hoping to tick some rare endemics off your list. The sub-desert mesite and long-tailed ground-roller are the most sought after species in the spiny forest, being found nowhere else in the world but here. Other species you are likely to see here include crested drongo, Madagascar bee-eater, souimanga sunbird, red-capped coua, Archibold’s newtonia, Thamnornis warbler, Madagascar hoopoe and various vangas. It's best to visit first thing in the morning when birds are most active (and before it becomes too hot). Just make sure you arrange with a guide the day before to ensure the reserve is open when you arrive and someone is available to take you around. There are also tortoises near the Reniala Reserve; Village des Tortues helps protect and conserve the endangered endemic spider and radiated tortoises. Here you can take a guided tour and learn all about these rare species and their conservation, worth a visit if you are in the area.

Radiated tortoises at Village des Tortues, Ifaty, MadagascarRadiated tortoises at Village des Tortues, Ifaty, Madagascar Sub-desert mesite at Reniala Reserve, Ifaty, MadagascarSub-desert mesite at Reniala Reserve, Ifaty, Madagascar

Water activities

With a long stretch of coastline at Toliara, there are plenty of opportunities to undertake activities in and around the sea. In particular, from Ifaty you can go out snorkeling and scuba diving at the large coral reef just off the coast. This reef stretches a huge distance of over 450km along the south-west coast of the country and is the fifth largest coral reef in the world.

This region is also particularly good for whale watching during their migration through the Mozambique channel. Plan your visit between mid-June to September to observe this amazing natural spectacle. We enjoyed fantastic views of humpback whales slapping their pectoral fins, lobtailing and were even lucky enough to watch one breach right in front of our boat! As if that wasn't enough excitement, we even spotted a brief glimpse of Risso's dolphins passing by.

The sunsets are also very beautiful off the coast of southern Madagascar so be sure to stick around to watch the sun set over the Mozambique channel.

Sunset at TulearSunset at Tulear Humpback whales off the coast of Ifaty, MadagascarHumpback whales off the coast of Ifaty, Madagascar
Ifaty beachIfaty beach Malagasy sunset with local fishermenMalagasy sunset with local fishermen


Head south of Ifaty to observe yet another interesting and unique habitat; the mangroves. These habitats are predominantly found in tropical regions of the world and are able to survive in highly saline conditions, being located in the coastal intertidal zone. This ecosystem plays a very important role; they protect shorelines from waves, currents and storms and minimise the effects of erosion by stabilising coastlines as well as having the ability to store huge amounts of carbon. In addition, these trees and shrubs provide a habitat for many species and here you will have another opportunity to observe a range of wildlife including wetland birds, crabs and the unusual mudskippers. These fish have evolved the ability to survive both in the water and on land with well-developed pectoral fins that act as legs for moving or skipping on land and even means that they are able to climb onto low branches of trees. Visit the Honko Community-Based Mangrove Reserve, just 15km north of Toliara and take a wander along the boardwalk with a knowledgeable guide and learn all about this fascinating habitat while helping the local community and contributing to mangrove conservation projects.

With plenty of restaurants, hotels and activities about, south-west Madagascar is well set up for tourists. We stayed in a lovely Air BnB villa - Villa Claire, located just 15km south of Toliara at the end of a dirt track so you will need a 4x4 to get to it. However, it is well worth the journey; the stunning villa is clean and spacious with a large infinity pool, fantastic grounds comprising many plants typical of the spiny forest as well as direct access to the beach. Also, the hosts are very friendly and helpful and have a very cute cat and dog who are just as friendly. I would highly recommend staying here! 

I hope you have a very relaxing stay in southern Madagascar!

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