MADAGASCAR

Madagascar

Introduction

Madagascar is a beautiful, large island located in the Indian Ocean, off the South-East coast of Africa and separated from the mainland by the Mozambique Channel. It is the fourth largest island in the world and is perhaps most famous for its spectacular nature and wildlife. Indeed, it is surprising to note that 80% of its plant and animal species cannot be found anywhere else in the rest of the world, and the country itself is home to 5% of all the plant and animal life there is in total globally.

Though Madagascar is one of the world's poorest countries, it has a thriving tourism industry because of its unique landscape of rainforests, mountains and crystalline rocks, and the unusual creatures that live there such as lemurs and fossa. Madagascar is also rich in culture, evidenced in its vibrant history and customs. The inhabitants of Madagascar are called the Malagsy and they are renowned for their friendliness and overall hospitality. Their pleasant demeanour is just one reason why tourists love their time on the diverse island, and explains the old Malagasy proverb: "They who drink the water from the Manangareza river always come back to Madagascar".

  • Currency - The Ariary (gradually replacing the Malagasy Franc which is still used in some places)
  • Time Zone - GMT + 3
  • Language - French, Malagasy and English
  • Telephone Services - +261 (International dialling code)
  • Emergency Numbers - 17 (Police)

Climate

The climate in Madagascar is varied depending on which part of the island you visit and the time of the year.

Generally, the coasts are hotter and wetter, with average temperatures ranging between 21C and 26C. On the East and North-West coasts, there are winds all year round and heavy rains, particularly from May to September (which is winter time for Madagascar). Though the central plateau remains unaffected, it still gets monsoon winds from April to October. The driest part of Madagascar is in the South which has a desert climate from not getting much rain.

Generally it is thought that the best time to visit the island, particularly for viewing wildlife, is between September and November, when much of the island remains unaffected by rains, winds and extreme temperatures.

Things to do and see

Madagascar's tourist relies heavily on its many unique protected national parks. For those who are unsure about travelling alone, there are frequent tours which take place, particularly from Madagascar's capital of Antananarivo, referred to as "Tana" by the locals.

Particular wildlife hotspots for nature enthusiasts include the Perinet park in Mantadia, a nature reserve only three hours away from Antananarivo, which covers around 810 hectares of area. This park consists mainly of rainforest in which you will find many unique creatures such as the Indri, the largest of the lemurs but without a tail. Lemurs are perhaps the most famous animals of Madagascar as there are over 40 species of them within the country alone. This park also holds a world record for the number of frog species it is home to, and also contains other creatures such as birds and reptiles.

Another beautiful natural park to visit is the Ranomafana National Park, which has a spectacular white river running through it called the Namorona River. It is the walking place of choice for both residents and tourists alike. Most of Madagascar's rainforests are located high up on the plateau. However, there is one remaining lowland rainforest which is the Masoala National Park, east of the town of Maroantsetra. It boasts its own diverse array of plants and creatures, and has an interesting relief because it even falls onto the sea.

For those who are more interested in beaches, you will find plenty of clean unspoilt ones all around the coast. Perhaps the best place to go, is Madagascar's most famous holiday resort of Nosy Be, which is about an hour away from the capital of Antananarivo. Nosy Be is a picturesque island that is surrounded by other smaller islands. It contains great sands and exotic perfume plants.

Another relaxing place to go is Ile Ste Marie, a tropical island located off the east coast of Madagascar. This could be described as every beach lover's paradise with its miles of white sandy beaches, palm trees, coconuts, lagoons and coral reef. It is also perfect for watersports enthusiasts with diving, fishing, surfing and swimming all on offer.

Finally, those who prefer town life or would like to see the best of Madagascan culture, the capital of Antananarivo is unmissable. Antananarivo is a city on three levels which has a distinctly French flavour. It is full of markets, bars and contains sites such as Le Rova (The Queen's Palace), the National Museum of Geology (which contains wonders such as an impressive large skeleton of an elephant bird), and various botanical gardens.

It is also worthwhile going to northern Madagascar's largest city of Antsiranana. Here you will find interesting colonial architecture, an abundance of markets full of bargains, and many restaurants which are perfect to relax in after all the exploring you'll do. Furthermore, as well as great restaurants and shops, the city has genuine natural beauty, being surrounded by mountains and with scenic views of the bay.

An unmissable demonstration of Malagasy culture can be seen by attending Hira Gasy, a popular form of entertainment unique to Madagascar since 1789 when the people of Madagascar would perform for the king in return for food. A Hira Gasy performance has several themes such as weddings and trade, expressed through acting, dancing and singing. You can see these performances if you are part of an organised tour or during a festival. It is also very likely that you will stumble across a traditional performance in a town or village.

Travel

Because Madagascar is an island, the only way to gain access is by boat or plane. Fortunately, there are many easy transport links to the country. The best way to get to Madagascar is undoubtedly by plane: there are numerous flights that go to Madagascar from many parts of the world. For example, Air Madagascar, the island's own airline operates four direct flights between Paris CDG and Antananarivo (Madagascar's capital) each week, and it is therefore easy to get a connecting flight when travelling from the UK.

Madagascar is quite large so, even within the island, travel by plane is probably the best option, especially for long distances. Air Madagascar serves 29 domestic airports located throughout the island.

For those who wish to travel by train, Madagascar has three rail lines, which are not as reliable. Currenly only two of the railways are active: these are from Antananarivo to Antsirabe, and Fianarantsoa to Manakara. It is worth bearing in mind, however, that because the networks are quite old, breakdowns are frequent. Generally, the trains aren't very efficient or comfortable, but they are cheap and a great way to admire the Madagascar landscape. Most natives travel locally around the country by taxi, with frequent service in all main regions.

Accommodation

The best places to stay for both budget and luxury travellers is undoubtedly in Madagascar's hotels, of which there are very many to suit different types of travellers. For example, an ideal hotel to stay in for a backpacker is Irianja Guest House in the centre of Antananarivo. Comfortable rooms are available for just over 20 euros. Slightly more expensive but still ideal for the budget traveller is the Ramada Hotel which is excellently located within town as well and will give you a great taste of culture with its restaurant serving many Madagascan flavours.

For those who are looking to stay in something other than a hotel, you can get great tent accommodation at the popular site of Tsara Camp Madagascar. This is situated about two hours away from the capital in a scenic and surreal-looking location in the highlands of the Fianarantsoa Province, near the Andringitra National Park, surrounded by granite boulders. It is a great tourist location as well, as it is situated near Madagascar's highest accessible peak.

Health care issues

Madagascar is generally considered to be a very safe place to visit. However, there are various precautions you must take. For example, Madagascar is a malarial region, particularly in coastal areas, so it is important to try and prevent insect bites by wearing long sleeves and carrying repellent. It is also advisable to take anti-malarial tablets before you visit. Cholera is present in some of Madagascar's water, particularly during the rainy season from December to April, so it is advisable never to drink unpurified water. Bottled water is widely available as an alternative. Basic hygiene should also be strictly observed at all times.

In case of a medical emergency, most of the hospitals are located in Antananarivo. If complex surgery is required, however, you will probably have to be evacuated to South Africa. As with travel to all other countries abroad, it is vital that you get travel insurance before you leave. You may have to pay for the full treatment then and there, and then claim afterwards for reimbursement, since direct payment through the insurance company may not be accepted.

Useful Links

Air Madagascar - The best way to get to Madagascar by plane.

Madagascar Tourism Office - The official site for tourism in Madagascar. It is a useful site, though only available in French at present.

Rainbow Tours - The UK's biggest tour operator for tours within Madagascar and other African countries.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office - Travel advice about travelling to Madagascar.