Madagascar is the world’s 4th largest island and famously referred to as the world’s eighth continent, due to its distinctive ecology that has allowed a unique and endemic island to evolve.
After splitting with India over 88 million years ago, Madagascar is now part of the African continent and lies off the South East coast of Mozambique. Here are 7 reasons why you should visit this extraordinary country.
1. The Flora
Madagascar is home to almost 15,000 plant species, and over 80% of these are endemic to the island and found nowhere else in the world. The spiny forests of the south are home to countless shrubs and trees from the Didereaceae family – all brutally spikey, hence the forests name. Orchid lovers can have a field day looking at the 860 species, of which 650 are indigenous, as well as the worlds eight Boabab species (6 are endemic) and the 165 species of palm trees that can only be found in certain regions of the island.
2. The dramatic geography
Jungle, dry forests, deserts and xeric shrublands, high peaks, escarpments and plateaus, swamps and lagoons – Madagascar has it all. For the size of the island, Madagascar has an overwhelming amount of stunning and diverse landscape.
3. The people and The Culture
The 22 million inhabitants of the island are a mix of African, Arab and Indian origin and make up the Malagasy ethnic groups. A supremely welcoming and warm pre-disposition makes travelling and interacting with locals a delight. Many, especially in the South, have yet to be truly touched by western society, and therefore, profound cultural experiences can be found everywhere. Due to their unique identities, the ethnic sub-groups of Madagascar adhere to their own set of beliefs, practices and ways of life while holding onto a few core cultural features that creates a strong Malagasy identity.
Traditional religions are practiced throughout the country expressing a very strong link between the living and the razana (ancestors). Celebrations are rife and welcomed by all for a variety of occasions and the festive atmosphere is always accompanied by the traditional musical entertainment, a Hiragasy troupe.
4. The Coast
Miles and miles of stunning coastline wrap around the island. Species of palm trees line the waters, with traditional wood carved canoes either hiding between the shaded trees, or are seen trawling the crystal waters by fisherman. Fresh oysters are always an option on any beach, opened by a rusty knife and served with a homemade spicy sauce. The Indian Ocean provides the perfect accompaniment for swimming, snorkelling and some laid back, mellow surfing.
5. The Transport
By sea or water, Madagascar provides some entertaining transport options. For lack of any public transport, small canoes are used for light travel through lagoons and swamps, larger square paddle boats are utilized when the load is heavier, say a flock of pigs, and sheep lorries are a commonly used, and the most comfortable, form of road travel. Be prepared to relax and take in the views, because these means of transport will take you nowhere quickly.
6. The reforestation
Over 90% of the islands unique forests have been lost to the traditional agricultural practice of slash and burn. There are now an abundance of organisations working with local people, and large areas of now uninhabited land, to try and educate alternative practices and reforest large areas. Indigenous tree nurseries are commonplace, especially in the South, where thick jungles and spiney forest regions have been affected the most.
7. The Wildlife
As with the flora, Madagascar’s fauna is exploding with indigenous wildlife. The absence of monkeys has created a niche for lemurs – all 103 species of them!. The island is the only place in the world where these fun loving creatures can be found. 60 of the 300 bird species are also endemic to the island, as well as the 240 reptile species that have evolved. Madagascar is home to two thirds of the world’s chameleons species, as well as a plethora of endemic invertebrates; butterflies, spiders, dragonflies……the list goes on and on!
All photographs © Kate Pettit