Situated several kilometres off the coast of Mozambique, Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world, and is host to an incredible display of ecological diversity, with an array of species, 90% of which can only be found on this island.
This ecological diversity can be partly attributed to the vastly changing climate across the country, and due to its geographical isolation for millions of years. With highlands running down the centre of the country, weather systems coming in from the east are ‘blocked’ leading to wet weather in the central east regions, while the west remains very dry. This can be noticed observing the landscape in general with fertile, tropical forests in the east, and dry grassy plains in the west and desert like landscape in the south.
Madagascar has a hot wet rainy season from November-April, and a cooler dry season from May-October. During the wet season, there are often destructive cyclones that can cause significant damage to infrastructure and homes, and the effects can be visible during much of the dry season.
90% of the people here live on less than $2 a day, and according to the World Bank, Madagascar has the 11th lowest GDP in the world, and the 30th lowest Human development index (HDI) in the world.
Madagascar is split into 22 regions, and 18 different tribes or ethnic groups, each of which has their own individual cultural identities and practices.
Madagascar has two main languages: Malagasy and French. Everyone speaks Malagasy and most people speak at least a little bit of French, although this is rarer in more rural regions.
The main profession in Madagascar is farming, and this is visible travelling through the countryside filled with rice paddies in the summer, and potato, onion, and cassava fields in the winter. Wherever you go there will also be many ‘zebus’, the cattle that are farmed for their milk, and meat, also used as draught oxen.
Madagascar is filled with an abundance of natural resources, such as precious stones, gold, and precious wood.
In cities, there are several ways of getting around. Many taxis are available in the capital city, and are often very old cars such as Citroën 2 cvs. For shorter journeys, the best option is to take a cyclo-pousse, or a pousse pousse, transport that is emblematic of Madagascar. There are local buses within the city and taxi-brousses available for longer distances, which is the cheapest option for getting around, but are very uncomfortable and can attract pickpockets.
The Malagasy cuisine is often very simple, comprised of rice (vary) and an accompaniment (laoka). The accompaniment can be made up commonly of zebu (the local cattle), chicken, pork, fish, or vegetables, cooked in a spiced and seasoned sauce. Locals eat rice three times a day, although most restaurants will offer alternatives. Local restaurants are called ‘hotely’.
Ecology and Wildlife
Most famously Madagascar is home to lemurs! There are over a hundred species of lemur unique to the island, but the three most common lemurs you are likely to see, are the common brown lemurs, the white headed lemurs, and the ring tailed lemurs. They are beautiful, athletic creatures that rule the island, and can be seen everywhere.
Although this is one of the most popular sights to see, there is much more to the wildlife than just lemurs, with numerous unique creatures thanks to its geographical isolation for millions of years.
In the south western region, the appearance of the unique Baobab tree becomes more common, often described as being upside down trees, because of their branches that look like roots. The famous ‘allée de Baobab’ is made up of a row of around 20 of these gigantic trees, each over 2000 years old.
The diverse selection of wildlife can be best seen when visiting the numerous national parks across the country.
One can choose to walk around during the day and/or during the night to see the nocturnal creatures such as the famous fossa, micro lemur, or nocturnal chameleons.
Madagascar has over 365 endemic reptile species, and is home to half of the world’s chameleons. Geckos are also very common, varying from being colourful, to blending in as much as possible, such as the leaf tailed gecko, nearly impossible to distinguish from a dead leaf.
In the rainy season the tropical forests are filled with hundreds of species of frogs, snakes, and lizards.
Savika is a certain form of bullfighting, practiced by the betsileo ethnic group. It is a way for young boys to prove their manhood, and can be used for courtship. Unlike western forms of bullfighting, the sport is not about torturing the zebu, but is a dance expressing the mutual respect and love between humans and zebu. In rural regions, zebu are a sign of wealth and this tradition demonstrates the bond between the people and their cattle.
The Malagasy people have a respect for their dead, and believe in the power of their dead ancestors. Every seven years a family member’s remains are dug up and reburied, accompanied by a celebration and a feast that in some regions can last several days. Because of the large size of the families, these exhumations can happen several times a year. Because of this respect for the dead people, there are actions that are considered taboo or ‘fady’ in specific regions, for example in the west of the country it is considered fady to point. Some areas are considered fady for foreigners and should be avoided.
Sights we recommend:
Tsingy de Bemaraha nature reserve
Ranomafana national park
Kirindy national park
Allée de baobabs
Andasibe national park
Madagascar is a third world country, and so infrastructure will not be the same as in Europe. A sense of adventure must always be adopted when travelling here.
Some people have problems with the change in food, and experience sickness, however this is often due to not remaining hydrated, and not maintaining adequate personal hygiene, washing hands etc. Madagascar is a high-risk country for malaria, so it is suggested that you bring anti malarial tablets with you and to visit a doctor beforehand to discuss any appropriate vaccinations.
Visas are available for up to three months, depending on the country of origin from either the embassy or in the airport. The 30 day visa is normally 25 euros but this is subject to change.
The national currency is the malagasy ariary, which is a closed currency. It is therefore necessary to bring preferably euros or dollars, to exchange at the bank or in a private exchange service. There are many cashpoints in large towns, where it is possible to withdraw ariary.
Care must always be taken with your belongings, and there are many pickpockets active, especially in Tana, and in busy places such as markets.
During the dry season, it can get cold in the highlands, temperatures dropping to as low as 6 degrees, so it is advised to bring a few extra layers.