A brief guide to Madagascar

Source: Globetrotter Travel Guide – Derek Schuurman and Nivo Ravelojoana (2011 Edition)

Lying between the Equator and Tropic of Capricorn, Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world after Greenland, New Guinea and Borneo. It is a land of dramatic contrasts and has long been renowned for for its exceptionally diverse landscapes, flora and fauna as well as the intriguing culture of its people – the world’s only Afro-Asian nation.

Often referred to as the Great Red Island because of its red clay soils, Madagascar splintered off from the super-continent Gondwana between 120 and 165 million years ago. This facilitated the gentle evolution of its animals and plants in a protective environment largely free from predators.

Man probably arrived in Madagascar only about 2000 years ago by means of outrigger canoes from Southeast Asia and Africa. Separated into many tribes, sub-tribes and innumerable clans, the roughly 22 million Malagasy are united by language and an intriguing culture.

Madagascar’s climate is surprisingly diverse emphasising the concept of a mini continent rather than just a single island. The bulk of the country lies within the tropical zone. Moisture-bearing trade winds from the Indian Ocean ensure year-round rainfall in the east while the mountainous backbone prevents the same applying to the west.

It is this backbone that our intrepid riders will be exploring. In the winter months when the event takes place, temperature at night regularly goes as low as 3oC while the days are mild, even temperate.

About 85% of Madagascar’s population lives in rural areas – agriculture has been a mainstay of the economy. Rice, the staple diet, accounts for about half the country’s agricultural output, with cassava, sugar, maize and coffee being the other significant crops. Cloves, cotton, tobacco and tropical fruit are grown for export. Madagascar is the world’s largest producer of vanilla accounting for half the international export market. Currently the main exports are vanilla, seafood, cloves, petroleum products, chromium, fabrics and coffee.

The traditional religion of the Malagasy is based on reverence of the ancestors or razana. It is best known through the practice of the bone turning ceremonies when the remains of a selected relative are exhumed, passed amongst the guests and filled in on the latest developments. These are intense occasions including much celebration. The Malagasy call the soul ambiroa. It can separate from the body in the dream state and leaves forever at death. At this point it becomes razana which is immortal.

The Malagasy follow a vast, complex system of beliefs pertaining to all aspects of everyday life. Fady are not taboos as commonly thought but beliefs related to actions, objects and social events. As a vazaha (foreigner), the riders will need to be sensitive to avoid offending people.

For more reading, the Globetrotter Travel Guide provides an excellent profile of the country, its people, its history, culture and the various regions and tourism attractions.

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