Madagascar Travel – Need-to-know:
Madagascar is unique. There is no place on earth quite like it. The wildlife alone is incredible, unique and much of it endemic and endangered.
Add to that curious cultural customs, friendly and unassuming people, diverse landscapes and everything from a private island to the most humble villages I’ve seen in Africa. Madagascar tops my favourite destinations! Here are a few myths de-bunked and some useful info before you travel here:
1. SIZE Madagascar is the 4th largest island in the world. It is huge and there’s much ground to cover on any trip.
2. WILDLIFE Perhaps the better question here is, ‘What isn’t endemic to Madagascar?’ With endangered lemurs and chameleons, snakes, birds and flora and fauna that can only be found in Madagascar, it’s the crucible of prehistoric wildlife. With the island breaking off from mainland India and Africa millions of years ago, the wildlife has simmered and evolved over this time to become special unique species, much of which is endangered.
3. LANGUAGE The local language is Malagasy (with different dialects throughout the country) and the people are also known as Malagasy. French is widely spoken. English is little-spoken but some speak enough to get by. I got by on ‘Franglais’.
4. FLIGHTS Travel here direct from Paris and Milan or via Nairobi or Johannesburg, as I did.
5. TRAVEL Travel through the country is best done with a driver-guide. It is not advisable to hire a car. You’ll see why when you bump along every inch of road covered in huge and dangerous potholes.
6. TIME OF YEAR In my opinion, May-June is an excellent time to visit as it is shoulder season – this means fewer crowds (though this is very relative in terms of tourism in Madagascar) and comfortable weather (not too hot not cold).
7. INTERNET I have had wifi access in most hotels and lodges I have stayed in. Prior to my visit, I was warned there would be little or no internet connectivity. I have had wifi in most places. It’s not the strongest connection but I’ve barely had the time to use it in any case.
8. INFRASTRUCTURE The infrastructure in Mada is challenging but not impossible. There are ‘national highways’ criss-crossing the country. They are long journeys heading in each direction, but utterly worthwhile for the vastly varying landscapes, villages, cultures, colours, wildlife and ethnic tribes en route.
9. CURRENCY Ariary is the locally used currency. It’s roughly 3200 to 1€. Euros can also be used but not everywhere. Also Ariary is the best currency to use for tipping. The best place to change currency is at Ivato international airport in Tana.
10. TIME Madagascar is +3 GMT on the clock. But Constance Tsarabanjina private island is +4 – the beauty of a private island is, of course, setting one’s own time clock!
11. AFFORDABILITY Madagascar is very affordable. Even the lodges and hotels considered ‘luxury’ are reasonable and accessible.
12. LUXURY There are luxury hotels and lodges, but they are in keeping with the surrounding and setting. Don’t expect grand 5*. Do expect charming colonial boutique properties with loving sweet service. They don’t always get it right but the desire is there and the service staff are kind and willing.
13. CLOTHING In terms of clothing, I’d avoid anything revealing. Mid-length skirts and dresses are fine but due to the risk of malaria, it’s better to be covered up at night. During the day, you’ll feel more comfortable travelling around the country in natural linens and light loose materials that are casual and more conservative. You will need to take anti-malarial medication and would be need a Yellow Fever vaccination certificates I enter the country, if you’ve travelled to any countries that have it.
14. TRIBES There are 18 different ethnic tribes throughout the country. Each has its own set of customs and traditions and sub-language. Many of these traditions can be surprising and seem unusual to the visitor. They’re fascinating and important to respect and understand.
15. CUSTOMS It is forbidden to point at tombs, which dot the vast countryside of Madagascar. This is the sort of invaluable information that a guide can give you.
16. SAFETY Mada is safe. But not at night, due to threat of petty crime. Poverty is widespread and deeply permeates the country.
17. POVERTY Majority lives in stark poverty. Once you understand this, you’ll better understand why beggars and hawkers do hound tourists. Here’s a useful phrase which ensures they leave you alone ‘Chi chi voular’ translated as ‘I have no money.’ Spoken fast, they’ll assume you know the local lingo and are therefore not a tourist – it works to some extent.
18. ROADS Infrastructure is challenging but not impossible. There are ‘national highways’ – some have been significantly improved in the past 10 years whilst others have more potholes than tarmac.
19. INTERNAL FLIGHTS Internal flights are sketchy, to put it diplomatically. Try to keep them to an absolute minimum. Air Madagascar is unreliable, to say the least. I had a flight that was delayed then cancelled only upon check-in at the airport! There’s a reason locals call it ‘Air Mad!’ This can be frustrating when travelling on a tight itinerary, as most visitors here do, to see as much as possible of the cast country in a limited amount of time. (Most itineraries are 2-3 weeks.) For those financially-able, private charter flights and helicopters are available. Asisten Travel is a locally-based tour operator that can arrange these at short notice, such as when my flight to Morondava was cancelled. I was placed on a private charter flight out within 2 hours.
20. WHY MADA? Travel through Mada is undeniably eye-opening. Heartbreaking destitution and poverty are well-documented and made worse by the fact that there is little hope for the future for many. But I see hope in the growing ‘middle class’ who are hungry to learn and improve their skills. Tourism is a lifeline but is in its infancy. People like my guides on the ground are the future of the country. Passionate about land and people, conservation and bettering their skills, they are the ones to watch – the ones who can make a difference, little by little but stronger together.
21. TOP EMERGING DESTINATION Mada is undoubtedly one of the most amazing countries I’ve ever visited in terms of cultures, (18 different ethnic tribes in ‘Mada’), natural wonders, wildlife, flora, fauna, friendliness and natural beauty. Madagascar has got it all and flies straight into the top spot of my favourite destinations. Ever.
22. PHOTOGRAPHY As a photographer, I was overwhelmed by the general joy on the faces of people I photographed. Most do not mind and are thrilled if you show them their picture afterwards. Through remote villages, I was asked if I could give them their picture to keep so keeping a Polaroid would be a fantastically rewarding idea. Very few will ask for money or sweets. Soap is a rare commodity in the countrysides and people are overjoyed to receive it. I buy it in big quantities and hand them out liberally. In villages, it’s tradition for women to have 7 boys and 7 girls, each! Where they walk 20kms to fetch water, soap is inconceivable. They value it greatly.
23. MUST-VISIT I’ve seen 800 yr old baobab trees, dancing endangered lemurs, met Zebu stealers and witnessed some of the most curious traditions on the planet as well as stayed in one of the most beautiful private islands off the coast of Mada (Constance Taara)… For anyone interested in total diversity, intrepid adventure and ultimate relaxation all rolled into one trip, Madagascar has to be No 1 on the wish list.