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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.'
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.
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.
Madagascar is currently made up of 6 provinces.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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There are some fine places in Madagascar where you can enjoy the fine white sandy beaches, fringed with palms and local bars. Nosy Be 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. Anakao in the southwest is a tiny beach village, but more remote; it has beautiful white stretches of sand as well though.
Isalo National Park is a national park in the Ihorombe Region. The park is known for its wide variety of terrain, including sandstone formations, deep canyons, palm-lined oases, and grassland. The closest town is Ranohira, and the closest cities are Toliara and Ihosy.
Isalo National Park was created in 1962 and has been administered by Madagascar National Parks authority since 1997. The Bara people have traditionally inhabited this area, a nomadic people subsisting on cattle (zebu) farming. This area has a tropical dry climate with seasonal rainfall.
A local guide is required for visitors entering the park, and guides and porters can be hired in Ranohira. Treks in the park can last from several hours to a week or longer. The park includes several natural swimming pools which are popular among tourists, and are excellent sites to see the Benson's Rock Thrush. The main threat to this park comes from illegal wildfires set in the park. The wildfires limit the extent of forest and maximize grasslands used by cattle.
Marojejy National Park is a national park in the Sava Region of northeastern Madagascar. It covers 55,500 ha and is centered on the Marojejy Massif, a mountain chain that rises to an elevation of 2,132 metres. Access to the area around the massif was restricted to research scientists when the site was set aside as a strict nature reserve in 1952. In 1998, it was opened to the public when it was converted into a national park. It became part of the World Heritage Site known as the Rainforests of the Atsinanana in 2007. Despite its rugged terrain, poaching and selective logging are still persistent problems, particularly since the start of the 2009 political crisis in Madagascar. Mining, slash-and-burn agriculture, and wood collection also pose threats to the park and its wildlife.
Masoala National Park, in northeast Madagascar, is the largest of the island's protected areas. Most of the park is situated in Sava Region and a part in Analanjirofo. Created in 1997, the park protects 2,300 km2 of rainforest and 100 km2 of marine parks. The Masoala peninsula is exceptionally diverse due to its huge size, and variety of habitats. Altogether, the park protects tropical rainforest, coastal forest, flooded forest, marsh, and mangrove. Three marine parks protect coral reefs and a dazzling array of marine life. Three marine parks are included in the Masoala National Park: Tampolo in the west, Ambodilaitry in the south, and Ifaho in the east. These are among the most interesting marine environments in Madagascar and are superb destinations for kayaking and snorkeling. In June 2007, Masoala was designated as a World Heritage Site as part of a cluster of parks that represent the biodiversity of the eastern rainforests of the country. The other national parks included are Marojejy, Zahamena, Ranomafana, Andringitra, and Andohahela. All visits to the park must be accompanied by an official park-approved guide. Detailed information on arranging trips is available from the National Park or guide offices in Maroantsetra and Antalaha.
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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 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.
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The Malagasy people celebrate New Year’s Day along with the rest of the world from midnight on December 31 through January 1. Family visits, eating out and street parties mark the occasion.
Alahamadi Be is Madagascar’s traditional New Year’s Day, which takes place in March and lasts for two days. Crowds hit the street in celebration, homes are decorated in lights and friends and family visit to wish eachother well. Traditional music and dance plays a part in the festivities.
Also held in March on the 29th, Martyrs’ Day commemorates the 1947 rebellion against French colonial rule which eventually led to Madagascar’s independence after thousands of lives had been lost. The day is a public holiday in which the dead are memorialized for their sacrifices.
The most important Christian festival of the year, Easter falls either in March or April, and is marked by religious services at Madagascar’s many churches and cathedrals.
The Santabary Festival is ancient in origin, and takes place in late April/early May to give thanks for the year’s first rice harvest. Eating, drinking, traditional music and dance are all part of the celebrations, and local customs vary across the country.
Labour Day, held on May 1, is a national holiday, with city folks taking the time to visit the countryside and beaches for picnics and a day of relaxation.
Independence Day in Madagascar is June 26, a national holiday which commemorates the country’s final shaking of colonial rule. It’s celebrated all across the archipelago with feasting, drinking, music, and dance.
The carnival atmosphere of Feria Oramena held in June focuses on Madagascar’s favorite seafood, lobsters. Shows, exhibitions and lots of fish dishes are enjoyed by all.
The Fisemana festival, held by the Antakarana people, is a purification ritual taking place every June. The customs go back centuries and are performed by local soothsayers.
This traditional event, known as the turning of the bones, is a three-month family-oriented ritual beginning in June in Madagascar. The bodies of recently-passed family members and ancestors are taken from the crypt, re-dressed in silk shrouds and reburied.
This much-loved July event is a traditional form of entertainment in Madagascar, first seen in the 18th century. Competing players perform a five-themed spectacle of oratory, dance, music, drinking and eating contests amid much merriment.
Held in September at the Hell-Ville Stadium on Nosy Be Island, the Donia Music Festival is a combination of Malagasy music, sport and cultural events. The festivities last for a full week and draw in over 40,000 spectators.
October’s Maddajazzcar is a massive, two-week long celebration of jazz held in venues all over the capital. International musicians, singers and thousands of visitors attend the events.
The second major Christian festival in Madagascar, Christmas is a time of church services, Yuletide parties and family festivities across the country.
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.
Being an island, the only way to get there is by plane and by boat.
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.
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.
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.
The only serviceable railway line at the moment is the one from Fianarantsoa to Manakara to the east.
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!!!
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.
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!
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.
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.
Madagascar is not a place where traveller's can easily find work. Local unemployment rates are high as well.
There is a university in the capital.
Learn some Malagasy. The single best thing you can do to have a fun and safe trip is to speak the local language. There are a number of guidebooks you can buy to learn Malagasy, or alternatively you can ask someone to teach you. Just a few words will make all the difference.
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.'
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.
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.
There is no safe tap water so be prepared with bottled water, which is usually easily obtainable. The only other option is ranon'apango (RAN-oo-na-PANG-oo) or rice water (water used to cook rice, which will therefore have been boiled). It's particularly important to plan ahead if visiting rural areas. It is worth taking with you some chlorine tablets, which can be used to make the local water drinkable.
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.
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.
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.
There are internet cafes in most major towns but dont expect broadband!
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.
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.
Ask baluba a question about Madagascar
I have recently returned from travelling around Madagascar on my own so if you need any advice at all, I would be happy to help.
The best advice I can give is.... GO! It is a truly amazing country and the people are just fabulous.
Ask goodgift a question about Madagascar
I am from this country and I have travelled throughout this country.
I can give you accurate information about how to travel here.
Ask beppe a question about Madagascar
I spend some time there for fun so if you need some info contact me !
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