By Ross William, Contributing Editor
Madagascar is a dream destination which offers a unique opportunity to witness aspects of nature not found anywhere else. The Island of Madagascar is the fourth largest in the world and 5% of all known plant and animal species are exclusive to this wonderful island. With its lush rainforests, tranquil beaches, and adventure filled deserts, Madagascar is the ideal destination for lovers of nature and the great outdoors.
A trip to Madagascar is certain to provide a lifetime of cherished memories, but making the most of your visit can be somewhat challenging and potentially expensive. The island is large and the roads are dismal so it helps to arrive with an open mind, a little background knowledge and a full sense of adventure.
Preparing for your trip
For visits of 90 days or less tourists of any nationality can go to Madagascar on an initial tourist visa. This visa can be obtained at the airport on arrival to the county or at your nearest Madagascan embassy for $25. You need to ensure that you have at least six months left on your passport beyond the final date of your intended visit. If you need a visa for longer term visits then you should enquire at the consulate.
Bear in mind that English is not widely spoken in Madagascar, although it is now officially the third language on the island. The patriotic Madagascan people are rather proud of their Malagasy language and culture and it is the spoken language of around 98% of the population. However, having previously been under French rule, some of the residents have a good understanding of the French language. If you don’t have time to get familiar with the Malagasy language, then a basic knowledge of French should help you to get by.
Getting in on the cheap
The island of Madagascar is well served by flights from around the world either through non-stops flights from places such as Europe and Africa, or connected flights as needed if traveling from the US. The costs associated with getting to the island will vary greatly depending on where in the world you are traveling from and what time of year you go.
The price of travel to Madagascar will be at its peak between July and August which coincides with the European holiday period and the fact that more people will be flocking to the island. It is also a good idea to avoid the Christmas and Easter period as prices are known to skyrocket during these times too. Air Madagascar is among the cheapest carriers, but even then you should expect to pay around $800 dollars at the bottom end.
Carriers such as Air Madagascar do sometimes offer specials for flights to Madagascar such as 50% off tickets however. These offers are periodic and you will need to do some digging in sites like Travelaureate.com to find them. Contacting the airlines directly can sometimes reveal hidden money saving gems.
The Madagascan road network is notoriously bad so fortunately there are a number of other travel options available for getting around the island. One of the quickest and best ways to connect to the various cities throughout Madagascar is via the air and Air Madagascar serves a number of different destinations. If you utilize the company for your international flight then you can benefit from the 50% reductions on tickets on your internal flights.
Another option is to take the train, which is not particularly comfortable or fast, but it is cheap and enables you to admire the Madagascan scenery. First class travel by train will set you back 25,000Ar (approximately 10€). It is a good idea to book a first class seat because 2nd class can become extremely crowded and there is no option to book a seat.
The low grade road network is probably the most inexpensive way to get around the island. Travelling this way is likely to take a lot longer than you may think, but if you hire a four wheel drive vehicle the problem can be reduced. Hiring of such a vehicle may only really be cost effective if you are travelling in a group and can share the costs.
Dealing with the locals
Malagasy is the language spoken by pretty much everyone on the island and the locals will appreciate any attempt by foreigners to learn and speak their language. While there are many different dialects across the country, the Merina dialect is thought to be the Official Malagasy, so that would be a good place to start when looking to brush up on the language.
Not only is Madagascar known and well-loved for its unique animal and plant species, it is also home to lots of unique beliefs and customs. As you travel through the island you will encounter several distinct cultural groups each with their own customs and etiquette. It is a good idea to get a basic understanding of these customs so that you can avoid offending anyone.
This is only really a problem when visiting rural areas where the locals have built strong and devout adherence to certain taboos. These can concern things like certain forbidden foods such as turtle, pork or lemur, while others may include not swimming in certain lakes or wearing a particular color of clothing. In general you should always ensure that you show respect to elders, seek permission before taking photographs where possible, and respect the wildlife. This type of thing is universal throughout the island.
One of the country’s most popular attractions is the Ranomafana National Park. It was established in 1991 and extends over some 415km of mountainous terrain. The park is home to the fascinating golden bamboo lemur, an animal that enjoys chomping on bamboo shoots that contain cyanide, something which would be lethal to the health of other animals. The most scenic part of the park is the eastern section where you will find a number of delightful streams making their way through thickly forested hills.
The visually stunning Tsingy de Bemaraha is one of many hidden gems in Madagascar, but it is not for the faint of heart. Tsingy is a forest consisting of a vast collection rugged limestone peaks. The so called stone forest is an area that is made up of treacherous terrain and filled with challenging rope bridges and fauna. It is an adventurous getaway from civilization and a must see for holiday-makers looking for something a little different.
If you prefer to get your adrenalin rush closer to sea then you should schedule a trip to the island of Sakatia where you will be able to indulge a little spear fishing. Some amazing marine life can be spotted in this region including killer whales (orca) and hammerhead sharks. If you are feeling super brave there is also the opportunity to free- dive.
Madagascar is a relatively safe place to visit, but as always it is a good idea to respect some basic safety principles. Do not wonder around unfamiliar areas late at night and refrain from exhibiting signs of wealth at any time. In addition to that you should try to always carry small bills around with you, aside from potentially attracting criminals with large bills you could also cause offence to the trader when paying with a large bill if they do not have change.
The word for thief is pronounced “pun-gul-ah-tra” and you should be prepared to shout this if a robber targets you. This is likely to attract help from the locals in apprehending the crook. Be aware of the words for tourist too, “vazaha” or “vazongo”, which could alert you to the fact that people are talking about you. THE END
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