Madagascar is known as the “land of the living fossils” because it is home to 5% of the world’s plants and animals, many of which occur only in fossils. Among the numerous animals, birds, and insects found in this beautiful island of golden beaches, palm trees, volcanoes, grassy plateaus, and forest reserves is the lemur, a primate exclusive to Madagascar. The lemur resembles the monkey in form and habits but has large eyes that glow at night, which makes for quite a sight when they jump from tree to tree at night. Some of the people in Madagascar believe the lemur is inhabited by the souls of dead people. Also exclusive to Madagascar are several bird species, colorful flowers, and ancient varieties of flora that have long disappeared from others parts of the world. And more than two-thirds of the earth’s chameleons call this island of more than 225,000 square miles their home. In terms of biodiversity, Madagascar is truly one of a kind.
Geographically, Madagascar consists of one big island and several smaller adjacent islands. Its main island is the fourth largest in the world and sits in the Indian Ocean some 250 miles across from the southeast coast of Africa.
The people of Madagascar call themselves Malagasy. According to local legend, the island was originally settled by the Vazimba, a race of white pygmies. They were displaced by Polynesian migrants, however, from Indonesia sometime around 500AD. In the 9th century, ancient ruins suggest the Arabs began establishing a presence on Madagascar as well and helped set up trading posts in the island’s natural harbors. It is believed that the Arabs either brought Bantu slaves over from mainland Africa, or the Bantu tribes came over of their own accord. Today, the island is a melting pot of races and cultures, comprised mainly of the Merina, Betsileo, Betsimisaraka, Sakalava, Tsimihety, Antandroy, Bara, and Mahafaly. There are also small communities of Europeans, Indians, and Chinese.
Madagascar is divided into six major tourist regions. The northwest is the country’s agricultural region where rice, peanuts, cotton, and tobacco are grown, mainly on the soils along the great rivers.
The north is mountainous and dominated by the Tsaratanana Massif, which is the highest mountain range in Madagascar. It reaches as high as 9,450 feet. The region is also forested and touched by plains.
The south is desert-like and quite dry. Many of the rivers that run through the south dry out during certain parts of the year, but then become torrid rivers during rainy season. Irrigation has allowed the south to be used for livestock grazing and corn cultivation.
The central plateau is mountainous and has altitudes that reach more than 3,300 feet. The plateau slopes off in the east rather sharply, but more gradually in the west. Coffee, corn, and rice are grown in these elevated areas.
The east coast is comprised of rainforests and receive the lion’s share of the country’s annual rainfall. Vegetation thrives in this region and coffee, vanilla, and rice along with tropical fruits are grown here.
The west is a full of slopes that end in a flat plain once it reaches the sea. The weather is extreme in the west, alternating between heavy rains and severe aridity. Erosion has left the interiors almost uninhabited. The coastal plain in the west is more Mediterranean-like and features four major rivers.
Madagascar’s main attraction is probably its impressive nature reserves and national parks. One of them is the Tsingy de Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve, which is inland from the west coast. It features mangrove swamps, rocky limestone peaks and needles, and undisturbed forests and lakes – where endangered species including various lemurs and birds live. There are also volcanic regions like Ampefy, which itself is graced with geysers and gorgeous waterfalls. The gulf across from Antseranana in the northern tip of the island features waterfalls, grottoes and lakes scattered in its rainforests. Another notable nature reserve is Perinet, which is home to the indri, a tail-less lemur, and various orchids. The Montagne d’Arbre is yet another national park that is famous for its lemurs and orchids. It is dominated by a mountain that rises 4,900 feet high. On the east coast, the Ivolina Zoological Park and Botanical Gardens offers a diverse array of colorful flora and fauna.
Madagascar is also known for its diving in destinations like Nossi Bé, Nossi Mitsio, Tanikely, and Nossi Radama. You’ll find excellent beaches and coral reefs in Toliara, Ile Ste-Marie, Ramena, Anjohibe, and Nossi Lava, which also provide opportunities for water sports like fishing and sailing. River-rafting is popular in the Highlands in the eastern region. Be careful on the east coast, as there have been problems with sharks.
Madagascar is also famous for its lively markets, including the Bazary Be in Toamasina and the Zoma Market in Antananarivo. The Zona Market, in particular, is held daily and is the second largest in the world; you’ll find more arts and crafts than you can stomach.
Madagascar has served as an important Arab trade center since the 9th century. Some believe the mythological bird of great size, the great roc, which has been mentioned in Sinbad tales might have been large birds that once roamed Madagascar’s skies. The first Europeans to visit Madagascar were the Portuguese in the 16th century. The French, Dutch, English, and Portuguese soon tried to set up colonies and trading posts and oust the Arabs. The French were the only ones successful in establishing a colony.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, various kingdoms in Madagascar emerged including the Merina, Betsileo, Betsimisaraka, and Sakalava. Andrianampoinimerina tried to unite the kingdoms during the 19th century but was unsuccessful. In 1885, the French managed to force a protectorate on Queen Ranavalona III, and then took over the island entirely in 1896. Madagascar did not gain full independence from France until 1960.