Microsoft word - travel notes on madagascar.doc
Madagascar My Experience
Madagascar is the fourth largest Island in the World which broke away from Africa millions of
years ago and like Australia and as a result the flora and fauna proceeded down a separate
pathway with an estimated 80 – 90% of species being unique. Indeed new species continue to
be discovered and an expeditionary team were excited about the possible discovery of a new
species of Blind Cave Fish when we were there.
Madagascar is a very poor country with about 80% of the population living without electricity or
piped water, even in the capital Antananrivo[Tana]. Tourism is in its infancy which has both
positive and negative implications but if you have travelled in countries Turkey, India, Egypt, Sri
Lanka etc you will be pleasantly surprised.
The capital itself also was unique in my experience as it sprawls over an area of several miles
with what seems a collection of towns separated by vast areas of Paddy Field and a causeway
road connecting them. This is a mountain capital at about 3.500ft and built between 12 hills.
Now the old king had it really sorted out as he had 12 wives, installing one in a Palace on the
top of each hill. He would spend his time visiting the 12 wives in turn but the journey between
the hills in those days took several days, which means he probably visited each one once a year
and they could not get together and nag him.
In the centre there is a large lake with a massive monument – the tomb of the Unknown
Soldier. Madagascar took part in WW1, supporting France, which is something new to me. This
tomb is much larger than any other I have seen. Also on top of the hill overlooking the main
capital is the Palace of Justice. Justice was quick; the condemned were simply thrown over the
cliff outside the Courtroom, no time for the appeal!!!
You cannot fly direct but there is a good service by Air France via Paris or Kenyan Airways from
Heathrow via Nairobi. Flying time is about 11 hours in total. Kenyan Airways has a modern
What to do when you get there
The main reason you would want to go to Madagascar is for the unique wildlife and a number
of tour companies can arrange a programme. As Madagascar is so large with a diverse habitat
and quite a way from Tana you will need 4 weeks to get a proper overview. We had 2 weeks
and split this between a week of touring and a week at a coastal base. Advance planning is
essential and we took a personalised tour operated by a local tour company via a UK provider.
The forest in Madagascar has been systematically destroyed by the population by slash and
burn techniques, therefore wildlife is under serious threat and primary forest a good distance
from Tana. Forest has been destroyed for two reasons because the people do most of their
cooking with charcoal and trees need to be cut to produce this and forest is cleared to provide
grazing for the local version of cattle – the Zebu. They say there are more Zebu than people in
the country. Wherever you go you will witness burning, but I was not as depressed as I was in
Borneo when we drove for hours through Oil Palm Plantations to get to the wildlife.
The ground agent provided all the arrangements we needed with English speaking drivers and
tour guides – it was a first class service – and it was very personal because there is no mass
tourism and they just want to please you and give you a good time.
The ground agent we used had their own Hotel just 5 minutes from the airport. The
International Airport is not busy with only about 20 flights daily, therefore not a noise problem
being close to the airport. Due to the poor road infrastructure, virtually no railway and the
vagaries of Air Madagascar internal flights, time needs to be spent in Tana which serves as a
distribution centre for all tours. The only options for moving around are by Air or Road. Air
Madagascar has a modern fleet of planes but there are not many flights, they also have the
strange policy of issuing a time table and changing it a couple of days before your flight. Our
two internal flights changed by about 12 hours, therefore confirmation the day before is
By third world standards the cars are modern with many 4x4’s, but don’t look too closely at the
tyres as there is a flourishing trade in second hand bald tyres. Centred from Tana we were
provided with a good 4x4 with a good driver. However if fly to another district the car quality is
not quite the same and consistent with third world expectations. There are not many roads, but
there are not many cars by our standards or what you have experienced before. The whole
country has about 50 main roads, therefore once you get on a road there are no side roads, you
basically go from A to B. Traffic in Tana is the busiest and with few roads of B class quality only
and no traffic control you might expect a nightmare but the only queue we got in was in Tana
and this sorted itself in about a couple of minutes. The road surface quality was very good in
comparison to other countries visited in the third world and driving standard high with vehicles
not speeding everywhere, therefore I felt quite safe.
I would advise against even considering driving because whilst there are not many roads there
are no road signs. We met a couple from Sweden who were doing a three week tour driving
themselves. Their plans hit the buffers before they started as the first hire car broke down after
50 yards and the replacement had an electrical failure before they got out the car park. With a
laid back attitude of the locals they were still stuck at base several hours later when we left
having lost the first day of their holiday. We have E – mail addresses so we will get the full story
go out and walk at night, even a couple of hundred yards. This is not because you are
going to be mugged but street lighting, where there is some is liable to fail as there are some
power cuts. There is great danger of tripping or falling in the dark and you would not find a
comfortable trip to hospital with a broken leg. Some of the ‘roads’, even in the capital are dirt
tracks. Walking with a torch is possible but there exists a risk in the shadows as with anywhere,
anyway why bother when a short taxi ride is only 60p.
Food and Health
You need to check with your doctor before you go but as a veteran traveller I am always
covered with the old jabs. You will need anti – malarial protection and insect repellent but
personally I still got a good hammering from the local insect population, however not
everybody does. Bottled water is imperative as I doubt if there are any purification plants. The
local beer is good and cheap and drinks such as Coke and Sprite readily available from roadside
stalls. The local ‘hooch’ is potent rum which they put into bottles with either cinnamon of
vanilla. However, beware because at over 60% proof it has one hell of a kick.
The local food and quality is another pleasant surprise as it was when we went to Vietnam,
both Madagascar and Vietnam were French colonies into the 60’s and where the British left
their legal system and driving on the left in former colonies the French left their Bread and
Cuisine. Restaurant menus are in French and the food is of a good quality and safe to eat,
providing you do not go commando and eat from the roadside stalls. Food in good restaurants
is quite cheap and you can have a 3 course meal and a couple of beers and get change for a
tenner, so why risk from more dubious sources.
The food is always freshly prepared because of the lack of processed food and preservation
techniques like refrigeration. There are numerous roadside vegetable and meat stalls because
the locals will have to shop every day. Nothing is wasted but I did find the delightful pile of
chicken guts a step too far as cuisine. It is also surprising that most vegetables are exactly the
same as we get in our own local markets like carrots, beans, leeks, onion, tomato, garlic etc,
however the fruit is tropical and very tasty with the mangoes, pineapple,bananas etc. Also
surprising was the flower market where most flowers and pot plant being those you would
We even ate the salads served with the meals and came home with un-opened packs of
Imodium – not a loose motion in sight.
However there was one particularly painful health issue. As all food was prepared freshly,
there was no salt used in cooking and we both got bouts of cramp after a couple of days. This
was due to lack of salt and losing salt through perspiration. The simple remedy was to always
add salt to the food we ate.
On the coast the seafood is very good, we ate lunch a few times on the beach which was freshly
prepared – of course. They are very particular about lunch and lunch planning here; to the
point where you say can we just forget lunch.
The best seafood is the crabs which are very tasty and a decent sized Lobster [treble] the size
you get in the UK], was less than a tenner.
The best policy is to just get away from it all like we used to do before internet and mobile
phones and relax. I got a mobile phone signal but found my phone would not work properly so I
forgot it. In fact it never worked until I got home. Internet access is difficult but IF YOU HAVE TO
I was able to gain access after a week using the Hotel’s own computer. The cost was quite low
but connection painfully slow with keyboard totally different.
As this is a fledgling tourist destination post cards were a challenge to get hold of but once I got
some I saw many more. The bigger challenge is to find stamps and then to post them. I finally
got to the local post office in a place called Helleville on the Island of Nosy Be after about 9
Credit cards are not readily accepted therefore old fashioned cash is required. There are cash
machines and a Bureau de change at the Airport where they accept the £ sterling. You can also
find cash machines in the main towns but if travelling to outside areas the cash needs to be king
and whilst you hotel might change Euros or £’s the rate will be pretty poor.
You need to be careful on how much you change as the money cannot be changed back but on
the other hand you do not need to be caught out. I managed to come home with only 5,000
This is a cheap country so you do not need large amounts but it might seem that way as
Tipping, Begging, Pedlars
This is one of the plus points of this destination, because tourism has not taken off therefore
expectations of the operation of Mr Tipsy is something you don’t need to worry about once you
get away from the Airport. However the service we received and the pleasure the people gave
makes you want to give them a tip, whereas in other countries I do so reluctantly. Again you
need to bear in mind the correct level of tip. The average wage is only £1.50 per day which is
only 4,500 ariary, therefore the tip I worked out was 1,000 ariary. In reality we got such
tremendous service from guides I went to ‘make your day’ levels rather than a token, even then
There was no begging from the locals despite the fact they were very poor, but they all say
There was plenty of the usual range of handicrafts etc to buy, so many I don’t know where they
can possibly sell them all. There was no pestering beyond a little light banter here and there. I
have a houseful of such offerings from around the world and got just a couple of mementos. If
you are buying, bargaining is part of the game as is agreeing any taxi fares you need to pay.
Religion and Culture
The main religion is Catholic but this is only the tip of the iceberg. The dead are highly honoured
with wakes lasting several days. The cemeteries are elaborate in the towns on a scale I have not
seen before. The elderly are deeply respected but with and age expectation of about 60 you
don’t see many senior citizens. There are also a number of sacred places even whole Islands.
The locals can get excited if you photo them without permission [not that I did, except from
distance], therefore it is best to ask first.
The local past time is Cock Fighting in impromptu arenas being set up around towns and
The local people are a delight and are very pleased you have come to see them. They provide
an excellent service and you can have tremendous fun talking and joking with them. French is
the western language spoken which is a problem as I have very limited French but we had no
trouble finding someone to speak English with. Even when they only spoke French we had great
fun teaching them English which they were very keen to learn. When we left Hotels the staff
came out to say goodbye and one of the guides made a ‘thank you’ speech. We even had one of
the staff sitting down with us trying to do crosswords and reading from a book – which he did
The reason to go to Madagascar is the unique nature this place has to offer and as we only saw
a snippet of what this country has to offer another trip to the South of the country is required
First of all there are no nasties, except mozzies, to hurt you; the largest animal is the Fossa a
large fox size predator related to the Otter family. These are rare and actively dealt with by
farmers as they kill the chickens. I saw a couple but these were caged in a reserve. The only
snakes are constrictors and walking through the forest easy as you are not going to get attacked
and you can hold on to the trees to avoid tripping over roots because these have no
spines[which is something I noticed]. Now this was in the East and North West – it is different in
The stars of the show are the Lemurs which like most of the wildlife are threatened by loss of
habitat. The government has woken up to this fact late in the day and now there are designated
reserves to preserve what little primary forest which is left. All this depends on the co-
operation of the local population to restrain from slash and burn and whilst there are severe
penalties, you have to catch someone first. Also once the forest is burnt it is gone. The people
out in the country basically have nothing so their own survival will take precedence unless
replacement by eco-tourism gives them a better life. There were 59 species of Lemur but 9
have become extinct and a further 10 critically endangered – we are at the 11th hour. Reserves
are in two forms, those areas set aside by the government and those in private ownership.
This does provide a good balance because in the private reserves the inhabitants are not fearful
of people and you get literally ‘hands on’ in a way we have never experienced before. Lemurs
are very friendly and gentle, but don’t touch their tail as it is very sensitive. They love bananas
and gently take your hand and guide it to their mouth so they can eat the piece banana. Their
hands are very soft and they do not bite.
On the other hand the wild forest provides a trek along the paths with your guide who will ask
you to wait whilst he goes into the jungle to find the Lemurs, he may be gone some quite time
but will return and guide you ‘off trail’ through the forest to find the Lemurs. Again the Lemurs
are not afraid of humans and once you are in position they will come down to investigate you,
they can also be called down. Our personal guide was quite exceptional and in the end he found
species of Lemur to order. There were several groups trekking through the forest but we
seemed to always get the Lemurs first and spend some quality time before others turned up. All
in all we saw 11 species of Lemur with the stars of the show being the Indri indri, the largest of
the Lemurs with a particularly remarkable call [called singing]. We were able to get within 20 ft
of the Indri and because of the slope we were at eye level, our guide then played their ‘song’ on
his mobile and set them off singing which is a definite song cycle to announce territory to other
groups and last several minutes with all members of the group [6 -8] joining in. The other stars
were the Safacas or famous Dancing Lemur, of which we saw 2 species.
The Lemurs in October/November have their babies, which they carry on their backs as they
leap through the canopy above. The Safacas are particularly curious and if you keep still they
Obviously there are many other animal groups which are unique like the Chameleons we saw
and again were encouraged to get ‘hands on’ at a private collection, it was the only way we
could see as many species without extensive travel. We also found chameleons on roadside and
There were also loads of plants not seen anywhere else and as a botanist it was the Cycads and
Pitcher Plants which held particular personal interest. Also I have never seen before as many
Travellers Trees, which seemed to be of ‘weed’ proportions. A number of trees were in flower
giving vibrant shades of red, blue and yellow.
Madagascar is the 71tst country I have visited and it goes towards the top my list as a
destination. There are many unique features in this country which only starts with the wildlife. I
was lucky enough to go to Turkey before they ruined the Aegean Coastline with hotels and to
Hurghada in Egypt when there was only one hotel. Madagascar is raw and natural, mass
tourism could change it and make it less delightful if it takes off. It is best to go earlier rather
than leave it if you want to see it as it really is. Luckily enough Ronald McDonald nor the Colonel
Sanders have discovered it yet – let us hope it stays that way.
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