Madagascar, the Red Island, the Rainbow Island, the Eighth Continent, there are many names for the world’s 4th largest island. Madagascar is situated in the south western area of the Indian Ocean east of the coast of Africa about 400 km off the coast of Mozambique. The island is recognized as one of the world’s top ten hotspots for biodiversity.
Madagascar is inhabited by various ethnic groups of Malayo-Indonesian, mixed African and Malayo-Indonesian, and Arab ancestry. Five centuries before the Europeans discovered the island Malayo-Indonesian seafarers arrived in roughly the first century A.D., the Arabs followed in the 6th century to establish trading posts. Since the 16th century French and British influence left its mark under colonial rule. In October 1958 the Malagasy Republic was proclaimed as an autonomous state within the French Community and gained full independence in June 1960.
The population is around 16.5 million with a steadily increasing growth rate of 2.9%.Madagascar’s population is predominantly of mixed Asian and African origin. This intermixing has resulted in 18 Malagasy tribes of different ethnic make up. About 47% of the population has traditional beliefs which tend to emphasize links between the living and the dead. A remaining 45% hold Christian beliefs although many incorporate the cult of the dead with their religious beliefs. The remainder are Muslims.
Madagascar, due to its isolation from the rest of the world, has tremendous biodiversity and high rates of endemic species: of more than 200,000 known species found on Madagascar, more than 80 percent exist nowhere else. Unique to the island are over 100 kinds of lemurs, over 300 species of frogs, and 33 species of tenrecs, miniature hedgehog-like animals. The island is home to strange animals including lemurs (a group of primates), tenrecs (similar to spiny hedgehogs), brightly colored chameleons, the puma-like fossa, and a variety of other creatures. Sadly, due to habitat destruction and hunting, many of Madagascar’s unique animals are today threatened.
The natural vegetation of this hotspot is quite diverse. On Madagascar, tropical rainforests along the eastern escarpment and in the eastern lowlands give way to western dry deciduous forests along the western coast. A unique spiny desert covers the extreme south. The island is also host to several high mountain ecosystems such as Tsaratanana and Andringitra massifs, which are characterized by forest with moss and lichens. The Sambirano region, a northern transition zone between the western dry forest and the eastern rainforest, has many endemic species.
Because of its geography, Madagascar’s climate is highly variable. Generally, Madagascar has two seasons: a hot, rainy season from November to April and a cooler, dry season from May to October. The east coast is the wettest part of the country and thus home to the island’s rainforests. This area is also hit periodically by devastating tropical storms and cyclones.
The central highlands are considerably cooler and drier, and are the location of much of Madagascar’s agriculture, especially rice. The west coast is home to dry deciduous forests. Deciduous trees lose all their leaves during the 6- to 8-month dry season.
When rains return, these forests erupt in a sea of bright green leaves. The southwest of Madagascar has the island’s driest climate. Parts of this area can be considered desert because so little rain falls.
Current Time & Date:
Madagascar is 3 hours ahead of Universal Time Code or Greenwich Mean Time.
English is not widely spoken. Malagasy (which is related to Indonesian) and French are the official languages. Local dialects are also common. English should be spoken in most tourist establishments.
Food & Drinks:
At first glance, the cuisine of Madagascar can appear quite dull. Traditionally the Malagasy eat a large mound of rice, dwarfing the surprisingly small accompanying portion of meat, vegetables and sauce.
Tourist establishments tend to serve meals with the rice-to-accompaniment ratio turned on its head. These dishes tend to have a French influence and fries are often offered in place of rice.
Zebu (beef) steaks are usually excellent and most commonly served with a delicious creamy green peppercorn sauce. On the coast, seafood naturally predominates, including all manner of fish, as well as lobster and shellfish. Pizza is popular everywhere. Most towns have cheap Chinese eateries, which are usually reliable and popular with independent travellers.
Note that more isolated hotels tend to offer a set menu or a very limited choice to their guests. Even restaurants with an apparently extensive menu may have a rather restricted number of dishes available outside peak tourist season.
Malagasy cuisine is not usually particularly hot and spicy, but a chilli relish called sakay (in both red and green forms) is always available to liven up any dish. This ranges from merely quite hot to cataclysmically spicy, so test with caution before dolloping it on.
January 1 New Year’s Day
March 29 Martyrs’ Day
variable Easter Monday
May 1 Labour Day
variable Whit Monday
June 26 Independence Day
August 15 Assumption
November 1 All Saints Day
December 25 Christmas Day
The Madgascan currency is the Ariary (MGA; symbol Ar) = 5 iraimbilanja. Currency can be bought only at banks and official bureaux de change in hotels and at the airport in Antananarivo. Exchange rates in hotels are less-favourable than other outlets. The Ariary is a non-convertible currency and cannot be exchanged back into tradable currency. Changing small amounts, as required, is therefore advisable. Note: Malagasy Francs are no longer accepted.
American Express, Diners Club, MasterCard and Visa are accepted at top-end hotels in Tana and the provincial capitals. However, outside of the main cities cash is required. Please beware however, that you may be charged an extra 5 % mark-up on top of the price as establishments are charged a fixed percentage of their transactions.
ATMs can be found in and around the capital and in some of the larger towns. However, many of these only take visa; the daily withdrawal limit is 400,000Ar. Traveller’s cheques can be exchanged in banks and major hotels. Traveller’s cheques in Euros or US Dollars are advisable to avoid additional exchange rate charges.
Much of the healthcare in Madagascar is robust, with several hospitals and health care centres spread throughout the country. However, services are sometimes lacking, and whilst basic healthcare is free, hospitals are often woefully under staffed. Health insurance is strongly recommended; it should include cover for emergency repatriation. Private healthcare is also available.
Pharmacies are thin on the ground so visitors should stock up and pack plenty of medication for stomach upsets as effective remedies in the country will be limited. There is no emergency ambulance service on the island, although a private air ambulance service is available. Vaccinations against tuberculosis and hepatitis B are sometimes advised. Malaria is a risk in Madagascar, so do take steps to protect yourself by taking a course of anti-malarial.
You need a passport that is valid for at least six months on the day of departure from Madagascar and that has a minimum of two empty pages for your visa.
You can buy a visa for Madagascar upon arrival. United States, UK, Australian and all European Union citizens require a visa. You must pay the visa costs (55 Euros) cash. Payment should be made in Euros in cash banknotes and the immigration officers do not accept credit cards or travellers’ cheques, so you will need to have the exact amount in cash.
International flights mainly go to Ivato airport (Antananarivo), with a few landing at Fascene airport (Nosy Be).