Madagascar is an island to the east of Mozambique in the Indian Ocean that has a unique people and ecological system that make it a fascinating place to visit. It has always been on the very margins of African affairs, and the fact that it was settled by East Asian seafarers rather than Africans means in many ways it seems more Asian than African. Its isolation and uniqueness is such that one of Hitler’s plans during the Second World War was to move all the Jews in Europe to the island.
The French established trading posts on the island in the 17th century, which became favourite haunts of pirates for many years. During World War Two, British forces occupied the island amid fears the Japanese would use it as a staging post for an African campaign. The British returned the island to the French, who eventually declared it independent in 1958.
Malagasay (pronounced mala-gash) is spoken throughout the whole island. Given the island’s size (roughly that of Kenya) there are differences in dialects, though everyone understands each other more or less. The language is of Austronesian descent, which was bought by the Malay and Indonesian seafarers that settled the island around 2000 years ago. Theoretically, French is still an official language, although you will find that only government officials, businessmen, those in the tourist industry, doctors or those with a university education have any French; and they are equally likely to speak some English.
The Malagasy often do not pronounce the first and last syllables of certain nouns. For example, the name of the capital city is spelt ‘Antananarivo’, but pronounced ‘Tananriv’.
The unit of currency is the Ariary, although it is occasionally referred to (though not by the Malagasy) as the Malagasy Franc. As of the 27th October, 1 GBP buys 4020, 1 USD buys 2125 and 1 Euro buys 2692 Ariary. This is the only currency accepted, and although you should have no problem changing Euros or Dollars in a bank or exchange bureau, you may struggle in the countryside. Only exchange money when required, because you will not be able to sell your currency back if you don’t use it. Cash machines are rare, but can be found in Antananarivo.
Madagascar’s geography is dominated by a large plateau, which forms the majority of the island’s interior. The temperature is moderated by altitude, with low lying coastal regions averaging 25 degrees Celsius, and the highest areas averaging 15 degrees Celsius. Although the temperature doesn’t fluctuate a great deal throughout the year, rainfall does, November to March being the wettest time. There is also the possibility of hurricanes during this time.
Amber Mountain National Park is the most visited tourist attraction in the country. Madagascar’s geographical isolation has led to the evolution of many unique species of flora and fauna. Its ecosystem is so distinctive that some ecologists have dubbed it ‘The Eighth Continent’. Possibly the most famous of these unique species is the lemur, of which seven different varieties are found in the park. There are also 73 different tropical bird species to occupy those with an ornithological leaning.
A visit to the Tsimbazaza Zoo in Antananarivo is also recommended for those with an interest in nature. Lemurs, fossas and other indigenous species occupy the well kept gardens. There is a natural history museum, and an educational display describing how the natives lived in harmony with nature.
Fort Dauphin is one of Madagascar’s most stunning towns, built on a peninsula flanked by two beautiful sandy beaches. This is one of the best places on the island to sample seafood, with a particular emphasis on lobster in the town’s excellent restaurants.
There is a wide variety of crafts and traditional artisan techniques unique to Madagascar. These include pieces of cloth woven in a number of different styles, called ‘lamba’; ‘vangavanga’ are silver bracelets and ‘antemore,’ which is a way of decorating papyrus with dried flowers and leaves. If you are taking items such as these out of the country, you may require an export license. It is as well to ask at the shop you are buying from.
The majority of evening activity is found in the coastal towns, where tourists and youngsters congregate on promenades, and buy kebabs and drinks from street vendors. Among the Malagasy, it is more common to visit your relations and spend the evening with them rather than socialising in bars and clubs. For this reason, there are not a huge number of bars and clubs, even in Antananarivo.
One of the most common evening activities among holidaymakers is ‘spotlighting’, or going into the countryside to spot nocturnal wildlife.
- In Madagascar, seatbelts, motorcycle helmets and child seats are not legal requirements as they are in Europe and North America.
- If you are caught drink driving, your car will be impounded for several days and you will be required to pay a fine.
- Outside Antananarivo streetlights are rare, and you may well find roads to be in such a bad state so as to preclude travelling on them.
- During rainy season, many roads will become waterlogged and impassable except in a 4x4.
Food and Drink
The staple of the Malagasy diet is rice. This is often eaten three times a day, and is prepared in a variety of different ways. Meat is also very popular for those who can afford it. Pork, Beef and chicken are the most readily available. Dried locusts are considered a delicacy and locals find it incredible that westerners are so ignorant that they can find the idea of eating one repulsive. The impact of French cuisine was restricted mainly to cities and restaurants. You can find several high quality bistros in the capital’s hotels.
Tourist InfoMinistry of Culture and Tourism, Antananarivo:
- +261 (20)(22) 66805