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Madagascar

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Travel Guide Africa Madagascar

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Introduction

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tramonto

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Some 400 kilometres off the coast of mainland Africa, Madagascar measures up to be the world's fourth largest island. Due to its size and remoteness, Madagascar's wildlife is unique, varied and very, very abundant. The island is an ideal habitat for lemurs, chameleons, geckos, aloes and delightful flowering plants. No wonder it has been named one of the world's most ecologically rich nations. Despite some bad habits in the way of forest destruction in the past, Madagascar is seeking to maintain its wonderful natural treasures. Eco-tourists, cross your fingers.
Excellent beaches and a unique culture (everything about this place seems to be unique) round out its attraction.

There are a lot of local customs or fady (taboos) in Madagascar's everyday life. Check before eating pork in some places or pointing with an outstretched finger. Places will include anything royal, tombs, monuments or places where the 'ancestors' are believed to still live, this includes the 'Tsingy.'

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Brief History

As part of East Gondwana, the territory of Madagascar split from Africa approximately 160 million years ago; the island of Madagascar was created when it separated from the Indian subcontinent 80 to 100 million years ago. Most archaeologists estimate that the human settlement of Madagascar happened between 200 and 500 AD, when seafarers from southeast Asia (probably from Borneo or the southern Celebes) arrived in outrigger sailing canoes. Bantu settlers probably crossed the Mozambique Channel to Madagascar at about the same time or shortly afterwards.

The written history of Madagascar begins in the 7th century, when Muslims established trading posts along the northwest coast. During the Middle Ages, the island's kings began to extend their power through trade with their Indian Ocean neighbours, notably Arab, Persian and Somali traders who connected Madagascar with East Africa, the Middle East and India.

European contact began in the year 1500, when the Portuguese sea captain Diogo Dias sighted the island after his ship separated from a fleet going to India. The Portuguese continued trading with the islanders and named the island São Lourenço (St. Lawrence). In 1666, François Caron, the Director General of the newly formed French East India Company, sailed to Madagascar. The Company failed to establish a colony on Madagascar but established ports on the nearby islands of Bourbon and Ile-de-France (today's Reunion and Mauritius). In the late 17th century, the French established trading posts along the east coast. France invaded Madagascar in 1883, in what became known as the first Franco-Hova War seeking to restore property that had been confiscated from French citizens. In 1895, a French flying column landed in Mahajanga (Majunga) and marched to the capital, Antananarivo, where the city's defenders quickly surrendered. After the conclusion of hostilities, in 1896 France annexed Madagascar. The 103-year-old Merina monarchy ended with the royal family being sent into exile in Algeria.

In 1947, with French prestige at low ebb, the Malagasy Uprising broke out. It was suppressed after over a year of bitter fighting, with 8,000 to 90,000 people killed. The French later established reformed institutions in 1956 under the Loi Cadre (Overseas Reform Act), and Madagascar moved peacefully towards independence. The Malagasy Republic was proclaimed on October 14, 1958, as an autonomous state within the French Community. A period of provisional government ended with the adoption of a constitution in 1959 and full independence on June 26, 1960.
In 2006 the country experienced an attempted coup.

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Geography

At 592,800 square kilometres, Madagascar is the world's 47th largest country and the fourth largest island. The country lies mostly between latitudes 12°S and 26°S, and longitudes 43°E and 51°E. The prehistoric breakup of the supercontinent Gondwana separated the Madagascar-Antarctica-India landmass from the Africa-South America landmass around 135 million years ago. Madagascar later split from India about 88 million years ago, allowing plants and animals on the island to evolve in complete isolation. Along the length of the eastern coast runs a narrow and steep escarpment containing much of the island's remaining tropical rain forest. To the west of this ridge lies a plateau region in the center of the island ranging in altitude from 750 to 1,500 metres above sea level. Thee central highlands are the most densely populated part of the island and are characterized by terraced, rice-growing valleys lying between grassy, deforested hills. To the west of the highlands, the increasingly arid terrain gradually slopes down to the Mozambique Channel. Madagascar's highest peaks arise from three prominent highland massifs: Maromokotro (2,876 metres) on the Tsaratanana Massif is the island's highest point, followed by Boby Peak 2,658 metres on the Andringitra Massif and Tsiafajavona 2,643 metres on the Ankaratra Massif. To the east, the Canal des Pangalanes is a chain of man-made and natural lakes connected by French-built canals just inland from the east coast, running parallel to it for some 600 kilometres. The western and southern sides, which lie in the rain shadow of the central highlands, are home to tropical dry forests, thorn forests, and deserts and xeric shrublands. Presumably due to relatively lower population densities, Madagascar's dry deciduous rain forest has been better preserved than the eastern rain forests or the original woodlands of the central plateau. The western coast features many protected harbors, but silting is a major problem caused by sediment from the high levels of inland erosion carried by rivers crossing the broad western plains.

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Provinces

Madagascar is currently made up of 6 provinces.

  • Antananarivo
  • Antsiranana
  • Fianarantsoa
  • Mahajanga
  • Toamasina
  • Toliara

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Sights and Activities

Much of Madagascar's landscapes and unique biodiversity is protected. There are about 5 strict nature reserves and dozens of national parks and wildlife reserves. You can spend months of exploring. This is just a shortlist.

Ranomafana National Park

Flying Lemur

Flying Lemur

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Ranomafana National Park is located in the southeastern part of Madagascar and was established in 1991 with the purpose of conserving the unique biodiversity of the local ecosystem and reducing the human pressures on the protected area. It consists of large densely forested hills. The main attraction here is to spot animals and plants you won’t find anywhere else in the world. Wildlife includes many species of Lemurs (semi-monkeys). Plants, flowers and trees species are numerous and there are hardwoods, tree ferns, palms, mosses and colourful orchids. Over 100 bird species have been recorded as well, 60 of which exist only in Madagascar. The crystal clear waterstreams plunge into the rushing Namorona River which forms the heart of the park.

Tsingy de Bemaraha

Tsingy de Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve is one of the highlights of the country and is on the Unesco World Heritage List. It consists of karstic landscapes and limestone uplands cut into impressive 'tsingy' peaks and a 'forest' of limestone needles. Also there are spectacular canyons, rolling hills and rugged peaks and the forests, lakes and mangrove swamps are the habitat for rare and endangered lemurs and birds. The reserve can be visited as part of a popular trip starting in Antsirabe, heading down the Tsiribihina River, visiting the tsingy, and finishing in Morondava.

Andasibe-Mantadia National Park

Andasibe-Mantadia National Park is only about 3 hours of driving from Antananarivo on a tarmac road, making it the most accessible of Madagascar's rainforest parks. The highlight of the park is its population of habituated indri, the largest lemur, whose eerie call can be heard from kilometres away. Ten other lemur species live there too, together with colourful frogs, various chameleons, and dozens of orchid species. Though it can be visited on a day trip from Antananarivo, the park deserves at least 2 full days and nights to sample each of its areas. With good accommodation close to the park entrance, and a selection of trails within the park itself, if you can only visit one park in Madagascar then make it this one.

Beaches

Ile de Saint Marie

Ile de Saint Marie

© All Rights Reserved beppe

There are some fine places in Madagascar where you can enjoy the fine white sandy beaches, fringed with palms and local bars. Nosy Bé is one of the most popular ones, but in the north and northeast there are numerous options. The Saint Marie Islands along the eastern coastline are impressive as well.

Atsinanana

The Rainforests of the Atsinanana are on the Unesco World Heritage List and comprise six national parks which are located in the northeast of the island. These forests are important for maintaining Madagascar’s unique biodiversity, which reflects the island’s geological history. Madagascar’s plant and animal life evolved in isolation and the rainforests are important to both ecological and biological processes as well as their biodiversity and many species of primates and lemurs are very rare and endangered.

Andringitra National Park

Andringitra National Park is located in the southeast of Madagascar not far from RN-7. You can find the Boby Peak wich is the highest summit you can climb in Madagascar. There are great waterfalls and many species of lemurs and cameleon.

Other sights and activities

Flooded Avenue of Baobabs

Flooded Avenue of Baobabs

© All Rights Reserved tarmo

  • Royal Hill of Ambohimanga
  • Masoala National Park
  • Avenue de Baobabs - Morondava
  • Isalo National Park

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Weather

Madagascar has a hot and humid tropical climate, although from around 1,000 metres things become more bearable. Temperatures usually are around 30 °C during the day and still around or above 20 °C at night. Warmest months are between October and April, it is somewhat cooler from May to September, but still pleasantly warm, around 25 °C during the day. More inland temperatures are especially lower during the cooler months, with Antananarivo for example just slightly above 20 °C at daytime and dropping below 10 °C at night. These months are fairly dry here. Rainfall is most abundant during the wet season from November to March, but the eastcoast is wet year round, with at least 2,000 mm of rain here, but some areas have double that amount. Rainfall decreases towards the inland plateau and towards the west and south. The southwest only has between 400 mm and 800 mm a year. From November to March, Madagascar is usually hit a few times by hurricanes, though not whole of the island.

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Getting There

Being an island, the only way to get there is by plane and by boat.

By Plane

Air Madagascar is the national airline of the country with its base at Ivato International Airport (TNR) near the capital Antananarivo. International destinations include those to and from Bangkok, Johannesburg, Marseille, Mauritius, Milan, Moroni, Nairobi, Paris and Reunion. Air France and Corsairfly have flights from Paris and a few other airlines serve South Africa, Mauritius and Reunion as well.

By Boat

There are regular boat services from Mauritius and Reunion to Toamasina in Madagascar on the east coast. It departs approximately once every two weeks.

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Getting Around

Now considered to be a safe destination for travellers but getting around can be an adventure in itself, terrible terrible roads in most places. The main mode of transport is the incredulous taxi brousses. These however are very well organised with frequent departures to most destinations.

By Plane

Air Madagascar has a comprehensive network with regular and often daily flights to most major towns. Destinations include Ambanja, Ambatomainty, Ambatondrazaka, Analalava, Ankavandra, Antalaha, Antananarivo Antsalova, Antsirabe, Antsiranana, Antsohihy, Belo, Besalampy, Farafangana, Fianarantsoa, Fort Dauphin at Tolagnaro, Maintirano, Majunga, Mampikony, Manakara, Mananara, Mananjary, Mandritsara, Manja, Maroantsetra, Morafenobe, Morombe, Morondava, Nosy Be, Port Berge, Rincon de la Jose, Sambava, Soalala, Ste Marie, St Pierre, Tamatave, Tambohorano, ToamasinaTsaratanana, Tsiroanomandidy, Tulear and Vohemar.

By Train

The only serviceable railway line at the moment is the one from Fianarantsoa to Manakara to the east.

By Car

Car hire is possible but remember that they drive on the right so all vehicles will be left hand drive. Many of the roads are dreadful so it may be worth considering a 4x4 depending on your destination(s). Make sure you have spare tyres etc. and good breakdown cover. Some of the remote regions have no telephones and your mobile wont work so be prepared to do roadside repairs yourself if necessary. You can however, sometimes hire a driver with your vehicle who are often used to having to do a 'quick fix'. Also make sure you get comprehensive insurance. You may be a good driver, but some are not, patently obvious by the condition of some of the vehicles you see around!!!

By Bus

Taxi-brousses (mini buses) serve just about every town and are very reasonably priced. They are certainly a good way to get around if you dont want to pay for internal flights. But some of the routes are long and arduous. Try to book seats either up front with the driver or in one of the three seats directly behind. There are taxi brousse stations in every major town with various companies having their own kiosk. Look around for one with the most serviceable looking vehicles. Most will not leave until the bus is full and will usually drive around the town trying to pick up extra passengers before finally departing. On long routes, particularly overnight, a stop will be made at a small village where rows and rows of food stalls will offer you ample sustinence to continue the journey. They also make regular toilet stops (behind a bush/in a gully etc. Ladies, leave your pride at home!)

The fairly new 'Madabus' is a more comfortable option but destinations are limited to those where the roads are good namely to Tamatave and destinations along the RN7.

By Boat

There is also the option of getting a boat or pirogue to some places but check the wind is in the right direction or you could find yourself heading home!

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Red Tape

All nationals require a visa to visit Madagascar. Visas for up to three months are available at the airport. If you need to stay longer and you have bought your visa at the airport, you will have to leave the country and then re-enter. Good excuse to visit Mayotte for a night or two!
If you obtain your visa before you go, there is a possibility that you can extend it, but this could be a long process so allow yourself plenty of time before it runs out.

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Money

See also Money Matters

The official currency is Madagascar Ariary (MGA). Banknotes are in denominations of 100, 200, 500, 1,000, 2,000, 5,000 and 10,000 ariary. The old system of Francs (MGF) is still often used. Five francs equal to one ariary.

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Language

The principle language is Malagasy with a second language of French. However, the people are now starting to realise the benefits of speaking English and you will often find English speaking guides. Check though as sometimes their idea of English speaking means the ability to say please and hello.

The Malagasy people are some of the most friendly and polite you will find anywhere in the world. Expect to hear 'Bonjour Madam/Monsieur' everywhere you go, especially from young children. Take the time to talk to them, they don't always want to sell you something. 'Salama, Inona no vaovao,' pronounced 'Salama eena vowvow,' the traditional Malagasy greeting meaning 'Hello, whats the news?' will go a long long way, often resulting in fits of hysterical giggles. The reply is always 'Tsy Misy,' meaning 'nothing much.'

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Eat

You will find an abundance of eateries almost everywhere you go. In major towns and cities this can range from 'street food' to lavish slap ups in some rather exquisite French restaurants.
The patisseries at the Hotel Colbert in Tana and The Grand in Diego have cakes and chocolates to die for.

Typical Malagasy food consists of rice, which is eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner, together with braised zebu or whole tiny fish. Not for the faint hearted, you could have bits of gristle or skin floating around your greasy broth and the fish is eaten bones and all. They waste nothing! Opt for one of the better restaurants who will serve you a more tasty version. Alternatively, try Mi Sao, a delicious combination of noodles with vegetables and meat or fish. Its dirt cheap and really filling.

You can also expect to find a huge assortment of fresh seafood; Langoustines, crab, lobster, squid and all manner of fish. Beef is usually from 'Zebu', served as steak or brochettes. Pork is sometimes available but it is rare to find lamb. Bacon is non existant. Bread is baked daily and comes in the form of 'baguettes' You will get a chunk of this, or fresh croissants for breakfast, served with butter and a preserve often made out of Tamarind or the local Pic Pic.

'Street food' will consist of tiny zebu brochettes, samosas, pakoras, fried chicken, boiled eggs, coleslaw and banana fritters amongst other things. If you are on the night taxi brousse you will find yourself stopping at villages where there are endless candle lit stalls selling an alarming array of freshly cooked food and delicious coffee. All incredibly cheap.

Also readily available are vast amounts fruits and vegetables, but expect to find at least 26 pips in each orange!
Madagascar is a producer of many spices, coffee, tea and the ubiquitous vanilla.

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Sleep

Hotels can vary enormously. From a typical wooden 'shack' with no electricity and bucket showers to lavish hotels with all mod cons. Mostly though, in towns you will find reasonable accomodation with en suite hot showers. At the beach resorts most of the accomodation will be in the form of a beach bungalow with facilities varying depending on its remoteness. But even the most salubrious of these may only come with cold showers.

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Drink

In almost every bar you will find an often alarming array of bottles of 'rhum' in which are steeped anything from vanilla and cinammon to passion fruit and the local 'pic pic'. Sometimes these can be quite lethal but its always worth trying one or two!
If white rum is not to your liking, the dark, french imported Mangoustans is one of the smoothest rums you will ever taste. Cheap too, you can pick up a bottle in the supermarkets in Tana for less than US$3.
The best white rum is made in Antsirabe. Try it with freshly squeezed limes, sugar cane syrup and crushed ice.
Madagascan wine produced in Fianarantsoa is, at best, plonk. But you can get some decent French and South African wines, they just dont come cheap!
Soft drinks are readily available, Coke, Sprite, Tonic etc. but you will be hard pushed to find low calorie/sugar free versions. Tea and coffee are grown on the island and are quite superb.

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Health

See also Travel Health

There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Madagascar. There are two exceptions though. You have to have a cholera stamp (prove of the fact that you don't have that desease) when entering Madagascar. And you need a yellow fever vaccination if you have travelled to a country (7 days or less before entering Madagascar) where that disease is widely prevalent.

Still, it's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Madagascar. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also both hepatitis A as well as typhoid would be recommended.

If you are staying longer than 3 months or have a particular risk (travelling by bike, handling of animals, visits to caves) you might consider a rabies vaccination. If you do get bitten, see a doctor and you can get further injections from the pharmacy. Vaccination against Tuberculosis as well as hepatitis B are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.

Like most African countries south of the Sahara, Malaria is prevalent in the country. Don't underestimate this tropical disease and take precautions. Buy repellent (preferably with 50% DEET), and sleep under a net. You can buy malaria 'cures' as well as a whole heap of other drugs at pharmacies, but there are no guarantees that these are the real thing, so best to take all you need from your home country.

Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS. You should find that all water in hotels etc. is drinkable, but if in doubt, bottled water is readily available.

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Safety

See also Travel Safety

Madagascar is relatively safe but take all the usual precautions. No displays of wealth, keep an eye on your bags and don't walk alone at night. There are plenty of official taxis at all times and they are pretty cheap. It is highly unlikely that anyone will try to cheat you, if you get confused with the money, shopkeepers will often look at you bewilderingly and return the excess bundle of notes you have given in mistake.

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Keep Connected

Internet

There are internet cafes in most major towns but dont expect broadband!

Phone

See also International Telephone Calls

Abundant phone booths almost everywhere. You can pick up cards in most shops. Calling home can be pretty cheap this way. Mobile phones can be used in towns but rarely in rural areas. You can pick up local sim cards really cheap. Opt for Orange, they have the best coverage. Again, a cheap way of calling home. Pick up top up cards almost everywhere, available from 2,000ar to 50,000ar.

Post

You can have mail sent to you 'poste restante' but takes an eternity with the possibility of not receiving it at all. Likewise sending mail home. Postcards are ok but I have had several letters go amiss.
It is possible to send parcels but make sure you have a post office approved box, take it to the post office, then to the administative building to have the contents listed, then to customs to have it checked and sealed, then back to the post office. You can not send anything consisting of stuff made up of animals, vegetables or minerals. Better to give all your old clothes to the orphanage and take any souveniers in your bag with you.

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Quick Facts

Madagascar flag

Map of Madagascar

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Capital
Antananarivo
Population
18,600,000
Government
Republic
Religions
Indigenous beliefs, Christianity, Islam
Languages
Malagasy, French
Calling Code
+261
Nationality
Malagasy
Currency
Ariary

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