Before coming to the Red Island, I knew nothing about Madagascar, except for its quirky lemurs and chameleons (let’s admit it, even that I’d learned from the animation movie). Remote and isolated, Madagascar is a hidden paradise little known to the outside world – making it all the more fascinating and alluring for me. I knew I had to get to Madagascar soon, before it gets discovered by others. This summer as we traveled through Madagascar, I found myself falling in love with this unique island.
To tell this love story, I’m sharing with you these interesting facts about Madagascar first – perhaps then you’ll be in love with Madagascar too…
1. Madagascar is the world’s fourth largest island.
La Grand Île ranks fourth on the world’s biggest islands – after Greenland, Papua New Guinea and Borneo. Plunked in the Indian Ocean, it measures over 1,600km on its longest axis and 570km along its widest points. It coastline stretches over 5,000km of wide beaches and coral reefs. With such a massive land area, Madagascar features very diverse and distinctive terrains and habitats: ranging from volcanic mountain chains (highest peak at 2,876m), central highlands to the humid rainforests in the east, dry sandstone cliffs in the west and bizarre karst forests in the north.
2. Madagascar is home to hundreds of species of animals found nowhere else on Earth.
Having been isolated from the African continent 165 millions years ago, Madagascar’s bizarre animals and extraordinary plant life have been evolving ever since. Today, there are over 70 species and sub-species of lemurs in Madagascar, while 16 have been wiped up since human’s arrival. The newest species of lemurs was discovered as recent as 1985. There are also over 346 species of reptiles found nowhere else besides Madagascar – including the world’s biggest chameleons (Parson’s chameleon) and smallest (dwarf chameleon of Brookesia). Plant life is as equally impressive here: over 6,000 species of endemic plants are found here, including the bizarre spiny octopus-like trees and the bottle-shaped baobab trees that seemingly have their roots in the air.
3. The Malagasies have have closer roots to Southeast Asians than Africans.
Although Madagascar is separated from mainland Africa by the narrow Mozambique Channel, it is a world away. Its people, the Malagasies, are descended from Indo-Malayan seafarers who’d arrived here on the Indian Ocean trade route over 2,000 years ago. Even today, their cultural similarity to Southeast Asians is obvious: their staple food is rice (they eat it at least 3 times a day) and their language traces back to Asian roots. When talking to a Malagasy, be sure to remember that they do not like to be referred to as Africans, they are simply Malagasies.
4. Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world.
With an annual GDP per capita of €652, Madagascar has been constantly ranked one of the poorest countries in the world. After its independence from the French, it struggled under the leadership of one incompetent government after another. A series of civil unrest and political chaos ensued. When ex-yogurt peddler Marc Ravalomanana took over as the president in 2001 (introducing new currency, rules and reduced the country’s foreign debt by $20 billion), Madagascar’s future looked bright. Unfortunately, he’s been ousted from office and the country is sliding back into political chaos.
5. Madagascar was a French colony.
Madagascar was given its name by Marco Polo, who was the first European to report its existence. Although the Portuguese arrived next in the 1500s, it was the French who colonized the island and declared French the official language. In the 1890s, the French set out to suppress the Malagasy language and all British influence. Madagascar finally gained its independence in 1960 although the French influence can still be observed from its cuisine (common to find pastries and baguettes all over the country) and architecture, especially in Antsirabe. While most people in the city speak French, you’ll find it hard to get by in the countryside with any other language besides Malagasy.
6. Madagascar does not enjoy tropical climate (at least not the whole of it).
Although the entire island of Madagascar lies in the tropics, not all of the isle experiences warm, tropical climate, contrary to most people’s beliefs (including mine). As it’s so large, it experiences different climates simultaneously. In winter (May to October), it can get rather cold in the central highlands, with temperatures as low as 0degC around Antananarivo and Antsirabe. But once you wind your way down to sea level in the west (Morondava, Ifaty, Isalo), it is usually hot and sunny all year round. The rainforest in the east often receives wet and overcast weather. During our one-month trip through Madagascar, we packed everything from thick winter wear to singlets and flipflops.
7. Most Malagasies are animists – they believe in their ancestors, taboo and magic.
Although the predominant religion in Madagascar is Christianity (introduced by missionaries), most of them still believe strongly in the magic powers of their ancestors. Even modern, urban Malagasies regard the deceased relatives as part of the family. Many of them bury the dead in coffins placed high up in caves and on the cliffs (to bring them closer to ancestors in heaven). During the ‘turning of the bones’ ceremonies, you can see families dancing with the dead relatives and taking photos with their bodies.
8. Only 11% of the country’s roads are paved.
Traveling in Madagascar takes time – not only because it’s a huge country, but also because of its underdeveloped and poorly maintained infrastructure. According to the World Bank Indicators, only 11% of the total roads (30,968 miles) are paved. Most of the roads we traveled on were either extremely bumpy or potholed and muddy. During the rainy season, many of them are impassable, forming huge obstacles to travel. When we drove from Belo-sur-Tsiribihina to Tsingy de Bemahara, the 100km distance on an unpaved, bumpy road took over 4 hours to cover. Most car rental agencies only allow car hire along with a driver.