Forget Hollywood fripperies, Madagascar is like no place else on earth. In fact, all things considered, it barely qualifies as part of Africa: the two are separated by hundreds of kilometres of sea and 165 million years of evolution – long enough for Madagascar’s plants and animals to evolve into some of the weirdest forms on the planet. Nowhere else can you see over 70 varieties of lemur, including one that sounds like a police siren, the world’s biggest and smallest chameleons, and the last stomping ground of the elephant bird, the largest bird that ever lived. Near Ifaty in Southern Madagascar you will see forests of twisted, spiny ‘octopus’ trees and in the west, marvel at the bottle-shaped baobabs, especially the Avenue du Boabab near Morondava.
And be on the look out for the carnivorous pitcher plant found around Ranomafana, there are over 60 varieties of them. Not for nothing is Madagascar regarded as the world’s number one conservation priority.
With fascinating tribal cultures and ceremonies and an intriguing assortment of fady (local taboos) thrown in to perplex visitors, Madagascar makes for a truly rewarding experience.
In 2001 Madagascans went to the polls for the general elections. During the first round Marc Ravalomanana, a former yogurt seller and businessman, claimed victory, but Ratsiraka refused to accept the vote. Ravalomanana and his supporters mounted mass protests and a general strike at the beginning of 2002. A month later Ravalomanana went ahead and declared himself president anyway, sparking off clashes between rival supporters that nearly brought Madagascar to civil war. Bridges were bombed, and Ratsiraka’s supporters blockaded Antananarivo, cutting off its fuel and food supply for weeks.
The Supreme Court held a recount of the votes and declared Ravalomanana the winner. When the US recognised Ravalomanana as the rightful president, Ratsiraka fled in exile to Paris. Ravalomanana’s ‘I Love Madagascar’ party sealed its popularity at parliamentary elections in December 2002. The new president set about reforming the country’s ruined economy, and announced salary increases for politicians in an effort to stamp out corruption. He generally made the right noises to the World Bank, which, along with France and the US, pledged a total of US$2.3 billion in aid. They, like millions of Malagasies, are hoping that Ravalomanana, a self-made millionaire, can help to finally fulfil Madagascar’s huge economic potential.
Ravalomanana has declared his intention of breaking French cultural influence on the country, and restoring Malagasy language and traditions. His actions to date have included the repair and maintenance of many main roads, a feat that won’t be lost on visitors, and keeping armies of Malagasies employed for months.
Area: 587,401 sq km
Population: 16,9 million
President: Marc Ravalomanana
People: Eighteen major ethnic groups, including Malayo-Indonesian, African, Arab, French, Indian, Creole and Comoran
Languages: French and malagasy
Religion: Christianity and Islam
Money: Ariary US$1= 1983 Ar
GDP: US$12.3 billion
GDP per head: US$800
Major industries: Agriculture, meat processing, soap, textiles, cement, automotive assembly, petroleum products
Major trading parteners: France, Hong Kong, China, Japan, Singapore
Visa: one month, single-entry visa US$32; issued on arrival
Budget: US$25 to US$30 per day
ATMs: In all major towns
Telephone: Country code 261, international access code 00
Time: GMT/UTC +3
Healh risk: Malaria, Bilhazia, Hepatitis and Diarrhoea
When to go
Any time of year is fine for a visit except from January to March, when heavy rainfall in many areas can make some roads all but impassable, and when there’s a high risk of cyclones in the east and northeast. In general, the best time to travel in most areas is April and October/November. The coolest time to travel anywhere is during the dry season (May to October), but during this time the hauts plateaux (central highlands; which include Antananarivo) can get cold and windy, with freezing showers
The west and southwest get searingly hot during summer, but the winter months in these regions are pleasant, with blue skies, cooler temperatures and little rain. Most rain in the northeast falls from July to September; at this time the sea is too dangerous to travel by cargo boat.
Average maximum temperatures vary from about 30°C in coastal areas (higher in summer) to around 25°C on the hauts plateaux. In Antananarivo and other highland areas, temperatures during winter can drop to
10°C and even lower during the night.
Hotels and popular tourist attractions often get full, and prices go up, during the European holiday period from July to August, and during Christmas and Easter.
Attractions - Antananarivo (Tana)
Antananarivo is a bustling place with activity on every corner. Here people flood the streets, walking down the middle lanes between traffic, knocking on taxi windows, selling everything you can imagine – fruit, sunglasses, flowers, cell phones, calculators, bamboo, even live animals. Pollution from all the automobiles is nearly unbearable, and you’re bound to have an itch in your throat before too long. Motorcycles whizz by, slicing through the seemingly endless sea of cars and bodies, moving in every direction.
Madagascar has some outstanding diving and snorkelling locations, despite the environmental pressures on many of the reefs. The best opportunities are around the islands and islets surrounding Nosy Be.
The tough roads are a challenge to cycling, and cyclists will need to bring sturdy mountain bikes and a generous reserve of spares. Whale-watching is growing in popularity, and two good places to indulge are Taolognar in southern Madagascar and the west coast of Île Sainte Marie off the east coast. The hiking is excellent in many of the national parks, and opportunities for photography are, of course, unlimited.