13 Facts About Madagascar You Perhaps Didn’t Know

Matt Wise

Matt Wise

Senior Africa Travel Designer

While the world is truly a marvellous place wherever you may choose to go, Madagascar is surely one of its many highlights. With a diverse array of wildlife  and a multitude of ways to enjoy the great outdoors, you will never be short of things to see and do. Getting around is an adventure in itself; as is getting there.

It is important to remember that Madagascar is one of the poorest nations in the world. While its people are incredibly friendly, remember, they are not to be treated as tourist attractions and you must always remember to travel responsibly.

Here are some of the most interesting facts that many of us probably weren’t aware of about the country, because no, Madagascar is not just the title of a film.

The facts about Madagascar

Madagascar wasn't discovered until 500AD

Madagascar isn’t like other countries in that it hasn’t had people living there for thousands upon thousands of years. We are all familiar with the sometimes brutal colonisation of other parts of the world, but this stunning island nation is different. When we say that it was discovered just 1,500 years ago, we mean it. There is no evidence of any indigenous people living there prior to settlement in around 500 AD, which poses fascinating questions about why and how it came to be overlooked by so many different civilisations.

The first homo sapiens appeared on the African continent itself some 300,000 years ago. But, perhaps due to its distance in the ocean from the mainland, it took a whole lot longer to find this incredible part of the world!

It's the fourth biggest island in the world

For a country that isn’t talked about a lot in popular culture, and a country that many people don’t get to visit, it’s actually huge. Most people aren’t aware, but Madagascar has the power to make the UK look absolutely tiny in comparison.

It’s 587, 712 square km in size, to be precise, which means that it comes in just behind Greenland, New Guinea and Borneo. However, when considering just island countries, it’s second only to Indonesia (and Australia doesn’t count, because apparently it’s classified as a “continental landmass”).

It has a larger population than Australia

Ask the majority of the United Kingdom to tell you something about Madagascar, and they might soon fall flat on their face. However, most people know a little something or two about Australia, despite the fact that fewer people live there! In fact, there are around 26 million “Malagasies”, as they are known, which makes Madagascar a more populous place than many countries in our collective consciousness.

They’re not indigenous people, so where did they all come from? There have been successive waves of immigration from all over the Indian Ocean. Many can claim their heritage in South East Asia, by way of Indonesia and other nearby countries. It’s a real cultural melting point, which is part of the appeal.


It's technically part of Africa

While it lies 250 miles or over 400 km off the East Coast of Africa, it is actually part of the African continent, because this is the place with which it is closest to in proximity.

However, as you’ve already seen, the people and cultural customs are not too similar to those typically living in other African countries. However, as there is no “typical African”, this actually means that the people (typically of Asian heritage) who live there have found their own place in a continent known for being so amazingly diverse.

It has a spiritual side

While there are large numbers of Christians, Mormons, Muslims and Catholics in Madagascar, the majority of the Malagasy people follow their own unique religion which can trace its roots back to the sheer fact that the nation is such a melting pot of people.

The creator in this religion is known as Zanahary or Andriamanitra, and they are genderless. The creator can bless or punish its people accordingly, and so the followers try their best to not offend them. As in some other religions, there is a strong focus on the relationship between the living and those who have passed on, and ancestors are honoured because they are believed to be the link between those on Earth and the Supreme God itself.

That means that the people are constantly trying to impress their ancestors as well, hosting ceremonies called famadihana which involve opening family tombs and re-wrapping the dead in the most joyous of celebrations. The tombs housing the dead are often far more elaborate, intricate and valued than the houses the people themselves live in. These tombs are cultural landmarks, but they must always be shown respect. Even on the island, people of all faiths are united by this.

There is a surprising amount to do

This island has it all. If you’re an active person, you won’t be short of activities to get stuck into, from hiking to diving, climbing, biking and more.

And for those really looking to go off the beaten track, try off-road driving or heading to national parks in regions so secluded that you’ll need to access them by private plane. The sheer solitude of such places will certainly give you bragging rights!

Prefer to relax on your travels? The island caters to this as well, with an abundance of laid-back beaches with hammocks set up on them; ideal for those simply in need of a break.

There was once a crazy Queen that ruled the island

Tyrannical royals aren’t anything new in the history books, but admittedly, people tend to sit up and take notice more when the brutality comes from women – it’s simply more rare.

During the 1800s, Queen Ranavalona ruled over Madagascar, ruthless from the very start. She killed those who got in her way, and grew paranoid, killing even those who dared not. Later, she attempted to eradicate Christians from the island, and this cold vendetta was what earned her a reputation as the world’s most murderous woman (potentially of all time). She hated the British, she hated the French, and she callously used her own people in slave labour. The people were afraid, but she maintained order by poisoning them. If those people died, they were “guilty” of whatever they were accused of.

Over this cold, 33-year reign, the population cut drastically by half. Thankfully, these days, Madagascar is far more civilised. But you can still see the remains of her palace, the Rova of Antananarivo, in the capital to this day.

It is "megadiverse"

This is not a colloquialism; in fact, Madagascar has been deemed “megadiverse” by Conservation International. Many of the species on the island are found literally nowhere else on the planet. Theories suggest that this is because of the lack of human influence. We weren’t there for thousands of years, and so we haven’t had as long to disturb them. Only 17 countries worldwide have this classification.

To further highlight its uniqueness in this respect, it is said that 5% of all known plants and animals can be exclusively found here. You’ll find just about everything weird and wonderful! As an example, half of the world’s chameleons live here, as well as dozens of species of lemur, the island’s signature animal. The film Madagascar wasn’t quite telling the truth though, suggesting tigers, giraffes and hippos live there, when they actually don’t.

Birdwatchers can also enjoy the country, and you might catch some of the world’s most elusive species here, such as the long-tailed ground roller.

In terms of plant life, the island is famed for its distinctively shaped baobabs as well as a plethora of orchids and spiny forests of the desert south.

It is home to some impressive World Heritage Sites

From burial sites to nature spots, Madagascar seeks to preserve its incredible attractions. The Royal Hill of Ambohimanga is 500 years old and hosts a whole ensemble of sacred places within a city and burial grounds. It is a sacred spot for rituals, and many people make pilgrimages here from around the world.

The rainforests of the Atsinanana are protected as well, and many rare species of primates and lemurs call this region home. There’s also the Tsingy de Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve, which covers a huge portion of the west of the island and can only be seen to be believed. You can’t pass it, which means it’s relatively unexplored. Its unique geology features caves, canyons and a labyrinth of limestone.


It was once a pirate haven

Just like many places off the African coast, pirates absolutely loved Madagascar. The absence of European influence here for years and years means that the island was a safe haven for them, and they especially loved Ile Sainte-Marie, just a few kilometres off Madagascar’s east coast.

In fact, this was referred to as “the island of pirates” on maps at the time, during the 1700s. Up to 1000 of them took shelter here, eating the local fruit and mixing with the local women. They were gone by the time the French took over the island, although there remains a very famous pirate cemetery to this day – and the island belongs once more to Madagascar.


Men and Women wear many of the same clothes

If you think about it, a lot of clothing is only gendered in the West because our societies have deemed this appropriate. However, both men and women can and do wear the same items of clothing in other parts of the world, and Madagascar is indeed one of them.

Lamba is the traditional garment worn by the people here, which is a sort of rectangular cloth which is then wrapped around the body. Different designs of clothing is worn for different occasions; much as it is here.

Bare Knuckle Boxing is a national sport

While we don’t recommend trying this at home, Moraingy is a form of bare-fisted combat sport, and many of the people on the island take part. To outsiders, it can seem brutal, but it’s a part of local culture which should be understood.

The people here are actually very harmonious, and see this as a regimented way of approaching direct combat. It is an organised spectator sport where people can pay to sit in outdoor rings surrounded by grass huts and palm trees. Just as you might expect at football matches in the UK, people are in great spirits while watching, often singing and cheering along.

The violence is gratuitous, but participants enter willingly. Up until recently, it was mostly men taking part, but now women are getting involved as well.


It is a great place to take a holiday

This final fact may well be subjective, but in recent years, this is certainly true. Alongside vanilla exporting, tourism contributes massively to the local economy, and there are plenty of places to enjoy a luxurious experience of the island.

The most expensive destination is the smaller island of Nosy Be, however, it is the most popular destination for travellers because of the fantastic resorts. Crystal clear waters and exemplary service make this the ideal destination for honeymooners and intrepid adventurers alike.

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