Adrift in the Indian Ocean, the size of France but with about ten main roads, Madagascar is one country where you can really escape the influence of the modern age and escape to remote communities scarcely touched by the outside world. Increasingly it is being discovered by naturalists and anthropologists as well as those who value its remote beaches.
Madagascar’s history is key to its development. The island split from Gondwanaland before big predators had developed. Instead of primates Madagascar developed lemurs, a gentle, unaggressive near-monkey, whose nearest relative lives in South America. There are more than 50 species now, but all have gentle hands and soulful eyes.
A stunning 90% of Madagascar’s flora and fauna are endemic, found nowhere else in the world. These are protected in National Parks where rugged hikes are needed to track rare species and in private reserves where, to appeal to the French market, the lemurs are fed from the table and almost tame.
Its isolation also shaped the island's culture. The human gene pool arrived by boat from about 500BC, crossing the Mozambique Channel from Africa and drifting across the Indian Ocean from Southeast Asia and Austronesia. Here they blended and divided into 18 different tribes, each with its own language and beliefs.
Village life is conducted under a strict set of taboos and traditional beliefs. The island’s musical traditions also developed independently: each region has its localised types of music, keenly followed live and on bootleg VCR tapes. Two hundred years of French colonisation have overlaid a thin (but fervent) layer of Christianity and basic cooking skills but never threatened local cultures and beliefs.
All this and natural beauty too. Straddling climate zones Madagascar has rocky wastes of spiny desert, patches of montane and tropical forest, intensively-farmed cool highlands and vanilla-scented lowlands basking in year-round warmth. Life continues offshore: cross the golden-sand beaches and join the lateen-rigged wooden fishing boats: below the surface are little-dived coral reefs and big pelagics.
Learn some French – but don’t get too fluent. The Malagasy are generally friendly but open up once they realise you’re not from France: most cordially dislike their colonial overlords. Only the young have had the opportunity to learn English and – unless you’re prepared to tackle one of the 18 regional dialects – communication relies on a broad-vowelled version of school-room French.
Climate varies extremely across the island. The cyclone season tends to be from February to March. During the winter months (April-September), the country is dry; September can be very windy in the south. Tourist numbers are highest in August and over the Christmas period, despite December bringing the most rainfall. October-November tend to be fairly warm with little rain, so this is an ideal time to visit.
Ivato International Airport (TNR) is 12km from Antananarivo.
The most common road transportation is by taxi-brousse; these minibuses seat about 15 but can become very packed. Coach service MadaBus has fewer routes, mainly between the major cities, but is much more comfortable. Hiring a car can be expensive but this allows more freedom in road travel.
Air Madagascar connects Antananarivo to major coastal areas around the island and discounts are available if you enter the country with the airline. A good rail service, FCE, runs between Fianarantsoa and Manakara on the east coast. Passenger-carrying boats are available along the west coast and to nearby islands.
Hotels can be found at a variety of costs but tend to be reasonable. Even budget hotels are likely to be clean and comfortable. Camping is available in national parks – make sure you bring a self-standing tent as it’s likely to be on a wooden platform with nowhere to drive in the tent pegs.
Rice is a staple of the local diet, often served plain with chicken - there's always a dish of very hot chilli paste on the side to liven it up. Notable Malagasy dishes include romazara (a ginger-flavoured meat and vegetable stew) and ravitoto (shredded manioc leaves with fried bread and coconut). Tourist hotels tend to mimic French cuisine and baguettes are available everywhere. A few small vineyards produce Malagasy wine, though it often comes with a pretty fiery aftertaste: imported wines can be found in cities.
Consult your GP or travel health clinic to check the appropriate vaccinations and malaria prophylaxis: malaria is a major risk in Madagascar. Protect yourself by wearing long trousers and long-sleeved shirts and cover exposed skin with insect repellent.
Sea-snakes, although venomous, are not usually aggressive; however, if you are bitten then seek medical treatment. Also be wary of large spiders. Leeches are a nuisance rather than a reason for concern; avoid against them by covering skin in the rainforest.
Until recently there has been very little violent crime in rural Madagascar, but a rise in unemployment and a loss of central government control means that even beaches and nature reserves have begun to see robberies. In large cities muggings are increasingly common and you should avoid walking in city centres after dark. Pickpockets and bag-snatchers are active in crowds, at markets and airports. Keep your important belongings in the hotel room rather than on your person.The police may ask to see your ID at any time, and though a photocopy might suffice it is best to buy a travel wallet for your passport that can be hung from your belt and worn inside your clothes. The political situation is increasingly volatile too: check the Foreign Office website for updates.
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