13th May – 10th June 2018
Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world and sits off the south-easterly coast of mainland Africa across the Mozambique Channel. Despite it being an island it is surprisingly large and transportation is very slow, the worst we have seen during our year of travel. It is very poor with 93% of people living on less than US$2.00 a day and majorly lacks any good modern infrastructure.
What I enjoyed about our one month in Madagascar was that despite the poverty the Malagasy people are very kind and they have a very beautiful country. Madagascar isn’t full of churches or temples, ruins or palaces, instead it is covered in amazing national parks full of flora and fauna that are endemic to Madagascar. During our time we visited the mid-altitude rain-forests of Ranomafana, watched the sunset at the iconic Avenue of the Baobabs, climbed Pic Bobby the second highest mountain in Madagascar and of course saw loads of lemurs.
When we left South East Asia a few months ago we thought we were saying goodbye to rice fields and typical Asian cuisine and yet as soon as we arrived in Madagascar we realised that this country was not so different from the Asian continent. We soon learnt that this is because the origins of the people who first inhabited Madagascar are not from mainland Africa as geographically expected but from Indonesia. This means that the visual ethnicity is very diverse across the country; skin colour varies as well as facial shape and other physical features. The Malagasy people also eat rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner something again considered very Asian. Since first inhabited the country has had a long and interesting history including pirates, trans-Atlantic slavery, colonisation by France until 1960 and then full independence.
Food and Drink
Zebu, a type of cattle, form an important part of Madagascan culture. They are almost sacred, and within specific tribes they may be sacrificed or stolen as part of ritualistic tradition. They are also vital for the agricultural society as they pull ploughs and transport people and goods to market. These cattle however also appear on the menu and Zebu steak can be found throughout Madagascar, we often paid as little as £2.50 for steak and chips. It’s rare that you can get such a good quality and tasty piece of meat for such a low price in a third world country.
Traditional Malagasy Food
There is a variety of very local Malagasy dishes that people eat frequently. We tried these often but found it difficult to distinguish a favourite dish. There was romazava, ravitoto, henanomby (beef), hen’akoho (chicken), hernan-kisoa (pork) or tondo (fish) all with rice. One reason we found it hard to choose a favourite was because each dish was very different each time we had it and it became very hard to distinguish the difference. When we ordered the Malagasy food we generally came to expect some kind of stew with poor quality meat but for cheap price. It’s perfect for the budget traveller but it must be said that it wasn’t the most gourmet dinner.
Street Food Breakfast Snacks
Madagascar didn’t have as much street food as we had found elsewhere in the world, they did however have some very very cheap breakfasts. Every morning freshly made doughy snacks appeared outside every ‘hotely’ and on most street corners in small glass cabinets. These deep fried snacks weren’t the healthiest of breakfasts but for as little as 2p per snack we really couldn’t complain.
As you may have noticed from our extensive travel statistics when in a new country we love exploring all the possible forms of transport. So when we heard there was a single train remaining in Madagascar from the time of the French colonisation we knew we had to get on for a ride. The train line runs from Fianarantsoa, in the centre of the country, down to Manakara, on the east coast. The journey is scheduled to take 9 hours however it frequently takes 12 hours and sometimes if your really unlucky takes 24! We decided that instead of risking losing a day of our life on the full train journey that we would instead travel to Andrambovato, the sixth stop on the line and only three hours of scheduled journey time away.
When we got off the train in Andrambovato we instantly knew we had made the right decision. The station was perched on the edge of a hill and had stunning views over the remote countryside. The village was not accessible by road and so the people who lived here had a very self contained life and relied on the train whenever they wanted to leave the local area. We spent a lovely two days here at Chez Andreas’ Guesthosuse. Andreas himself spoke Malagasy, French and almost no English but he was extremely welcoming. On the first afternoon he took us on a hike up to a spectacular viewpoint on the mountain. On the second day we walked down the hill to a larger village where we met hordes of children, saw people distilling rum and watched men constructing new mud houses. I would highly recommend this stop for people looking for an authentic local experience.
Andringitra National Park
This national park just south of Ambalavao is often skipped by travellers but actually offers some fantastic multi day hikes away from the crowds. Rich and I organised a three day trek with JB Trekking, a local company based in Ambalavao with an office handily located next to the taxi brousse station. We trekked with our guide Rivo and two porters who carried our food and camping equipment. The park is most famous for Imarivolanitra Peak, this peak is more commonly know as Pic Boby and was actually named after the dog who was the first to reach the summit during the first expedition. It is the second highest peak in Madagascar and provided some fantastic 360 degree panoramaic views above the cloud level. Rivo was very knowledgeable and we spent a lot of the time picking his brains and learning about the Malagasy culture through him.
Ranomafana directly translates to ‘hot water’ in Malagasy however most people who visit this area don’t go anywhere near the naturally occurring hot springs. This is because the mid-altitude rain-forests found in Ranomafana National Parks are home to 11 species of lemur. During our 6 hr day hike we managed to see 5 of the 7 daytime lemur species as well as chameleons, a ring tailed mongoose and a praying mantis. The cute lemurs are fascinating and are surprisingly not at all bothered by the continual groups of tourists taking their pictures. On top of our day hike in the national park we also spent a fun morning kayaking down the river and an afternoon relaxing in the hot pools.
Things we learnt
- Madagascar was a French colony from around 1890 until 1960. This meant that the second language after Malagasy was French rather than English and we knew this would be an added challenge for us after relying on our native English throughout the rest of the trip. We both learnt French in school until the age of 16 and we found our basic understanding of the language very useful
- The country has a surprisingly large amount of western toilets rather than the more common squat toilet found in most third world countries. Despite their presence we both felt there was a severe lack of toilet seats! During our whole month in here I can only remember one or two toilets that had a complete, fully functioning toilet seat.
- Madagascar has some amazing national parks and this is often the main reason people visit this stunning country. With this however came quite a high price tag for the budget traveller. Recently national park entrance fees tripled, with Isalo (one of the main national parks) now costing £15 per person per day and on top of that you must also always trek with an official guide. Guide fees can however be spilt between a group so if you are a solo traveller its worth giving yourself a bit of extra time to find some other people to team up with.
Top three phrases/words
- Hello – Salam (or Salama, Manawhona, Moolra Sara, Ahcourie, Ahcourie Abi in other local dialects where we visited)
- Slowly slowly – Mora mora (Madagascars unofficial moto)
- Delicious – Matsiru
Travel Statistics for Madagascar
Beers drank: 19.5 (each)
Beds slept in: 22 (each)
Bribes paid: 0
- Plane: 1
- Minibus: 16
- Train: 2
- Boat: 7
- Taxi: 8
- Car: 11
- Rickshaw: 1
- Pedal Rickshaw: 1
- Zebu cart: 1
Spending in Madagascar
Currency: Malagasy Ariary
Currency Conversion: £1 = 4371 MGA
Number of days in country: 28
Breakdown of spending (together) –
Food & Beverage: £223.06
Total (together): £2,382.56
Total (per person): £1,191.28 incl. flight to UK
Total (together): £1,663.22
Total (per person): £831.61 excl. flight to UK
Average Daily Spend (together): £59.40
Average Daily Spend (per person): £29.70 excl. flight to UK