Madagascar is truly one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Its wildlife and climate are two attractive features and the people on the whole are very welcoming and friendly. However, even the shortest trip can be instantly ruined if your safety is compromised at any point. It costs a lot of money to travel to the country and you will be devastated if you have to cut your trip short following severe illness or involvement in a dangerous situation. Here are some tips to make sure you stay safe and well during your trip to Madagascar.
Before leaving the UK
There are some basic things you can do before leaving the UK to help safeguard your health and safety. Firstly, check that your travel vaccinations are up to date and consider investing in vaccinations for some of the nastiest diseases, including rabies. Make sure your luggage is as difficult to rob as possible. Invest in suitable locks and clearly mark your name and address on the side of your baggage. Make several copies of your important documents, including your passport, airline tickets, credit cards and travellers’ cheques, and leave all valuables safely in the UK.
It sounds obvious to say that you should thoroughly clean your hands after going to the toilet. However, whilst you are staying in Madagascar you will need to wash your hands throughout the day in order to stay safe and well. The money used in Madagascar can be extremely dirty so you should clean your hands whenever you handle it. Furthermore, cleaning your hands should become a habit whenever you shake hands with somebody. It is a simple fact that some people are not as hygienic as you so it is best not to take any risks.
Invest in dry soap before you leave the UK. This negates the need for water and can be used at any time during the day. Furthermore, stock up on wet wipes before you arrive in the country and use these at numerous points throughout the day.
It is never safe to drink the water in Madagascar. Before drinking it or using it for cooking or washing hands, you will need to use some form of purification product. A product called ‘Sur Eau’ is readily available across the country and costs approximately thirty pence for a full bottle. Add the appropriate amount to a bucket of dirty water before stirring well and covering for half an hour. The water will then be clean and ready to drink. However, if you want to be doubly sure that the water is clear of numerous nasty diseases, you could boil it for approximately twenty minutes. Let it cool down and even consider filtering it through a sieve if you have one at your disposal.
You can also buy water purification tablets prior to leaving the UK. Lifesystemsoffers water purification tablets which use either iodine or chlorine. Unfortunately, these tablets can make the water taste rather disgusting, so think about purchasing some water neutralising tablets at the same time. These should remove the smell and taste caused by the iodine or chlorine.
During your stay in Madagascar, you need to be particularly careful when it comes to eating. Even if you are staying in the most luxurious hotel, remember that the water used to wash the fruit and vegetables is still dirty. Never eat fruit or vegetables that have not been peeled, cooked or washed thoroughly with solution which can treat dirty water. If a posh restaurant serves you a well-cooked zebu steak with chips, do not give in to the temptation to eat the sliced tomato on the side of the plate. Avoid food which may not have been refrigerated or kept in adequate conditions. You should always be wary of cold buffets offered by some of the country’s top hotels.
Street food can, perhaps surprisingly, be one of the safest options during your stay in Madagascar. Even the smallest of rural villages will have tiny street stalls which grill skewers of meat on demand. However, a certain degree of caution and common sense should still be utilised and you should certainly stay away from food which has not been freshly cooked, including samosas and spring rolls.
If you are preparing food in your own accommodation, try to stick to basics which will not upset your stomach. Your stomach will obviously be accustomed to English food and not exotic African cuisine so be very careful, particularly at the beginning of your trip. Rice, noodles and pasta should be available in most towns and villages, and remember to thoroughly boil any water before using it to cook food.
Finally, never even consider eating ice cream in Madagascar. Whilst it can look tempting and just the thing needed to cool you down after a long, hot day, it is unfortunately an extremely risky food. Homemade ice cream is the worst offender but factory-made ice creams can also cause horrible stomach upsets if they are not stored properly by shops and supermarkets.
Staying in a rural village
During your travels in Madagascar, you may end up spending some time in a rural village. Upon arrival, you should introduce yourself to the local mayor and the ‘president of the people’. The president is usually responsible for individual residential roads whilst the mayor is responsible for the wider community. You may then be introduced to the local people as well as officials such as teachers and the police.
At this point you should try to take the mobile phone numbers of some of the town officials. Try your best to get the number of a policeman and attempt to form some sort of friendship. You will then feel comfortable relying upon the force if you encounter a dangerous situation during your stay. If you do not make formal introductions upon arrival, you may be viewed with suspicion by the local people and this can lead to dangerous situations.
If you plan on staying in the village for more than a few days, make sure your accommodation is located next to the accommodation of a local, preferably one who speaks some English. This local will be able to help you with basic problems including electricity or water issues and will also deter anyone looking to cause trouble. There is nothing worse than finding yourself in a dangerous situation with nobody around to help you.
Obey common sense during your stay. Always check that you have locked all doors and windows and, if your accommodation is in a locked compound, ensure the outer gate is always secured, particularly at night. It is never a wise idea to leave your accommodation after dark and you should only do so in a real emergency. If you do need to travel in the evening, take a rickshaw. Rickshaws are available in most small villages and towns. You should also alert a local person and ask them to raise the alarm if you do not return within a sensible space of time.
Never walk or hike in rural areas without a local person accompanying you. Remote areas can be particularly dangerous in Madagascar as ‘zebu bandits’ patrol the hills and mountains. These bandits are a particular problem in central areas of the country. If you do go for a walk with a local who is aware of the safe areas in the region, never have any valuables on display. Even the decision to wear a humble watch can lead to a dangerous encounter.
If you are backpacking around the country, the likelihood is that you will have to travel by taxi-brousse at some point. There will usually be numerous vehicles headed for the same destination but departing at slightly different times. It is therefore advisable to give the respective vehicles a quick check before you make your final decision. You will undoubtedly be placed under pressure by drivers trying to make you choose their taxi-brousse but just ignore them and take your time. Some of the vehicles will be in terrible condition and it is not uncommon for mirrors or windows to be missing. Pick a vehicle which does not look too bad, even if this means waiting slightly longer to depart.
The roads in Madagascar are relatively unsafe but you have to put your faith in the driver. Bear in mind that the speeds may seem dangerous to you but the drivers are familiar with the roads and the conditions. Before you board the taxi-brousse at the station, your driver will automatically take your backpack and place it on the roof. Every piece of luggage is tied together with ropes along with sacks of rice and boxes of chickens. However, if it is not too bulky, insist on taking your backpack in the vehicle with you. It is common to see items falling off the top of vehicles and theft is a problem at taxi-brousse stations.
If you do end up placing your backpack on top of the taxi-brousse, make sure you get out as soon as possible when you arrive at your destination. The driver will climb up on to the roof and throw the backpacks on to the ground and, if you are not there to claim it, someone else could run away with it. Never place money or valuables in a backpack that is at risk of being transported on top of the vehicle.
It is important to make sure that you carry your passport with you at all times during your travels around Madagascar. This is particularly important whilst you are travelling in a taxi-brousse. Your vehicle will stop several times during the journey to be checked by the local police force. More often than not, a policeman will notice your presence and ask to see your passport. If you do not have it to hand, you will have to pay a fine. Although most policemen in Madagascar are friendly, some are not so accommodating and failure to show your passport could lead to an unpleasant situation.
If you decide to take a taxi in Madagascar, keep your bag at your feet at all times. Do not leave it sitting on your lap because thieves will be able to smash the window and steal it in a very short space of time. Furthermore, always agree a price with the taxi driver before starting your journey. This will avoid a potentially tense situation at the end of your ride.
Safety in the large cities
The safety issues you will encounter in Madagascar are similar to those found in any other country. Pick-pocketing is a real problem in large cities and you should always be careful when carrying a rucksack. Thieves will not think twice about slashing your bag with a knife and stealing the contents. Consider carrying your rucksack on your front so that you can see it at all times. Wear a money belt under your clothes and make sure it is not at all obvious.
Here are some tips to help you avoid robbery during your stay in a city:
- Keep your valuables in the hotel safe and put them in a sealed envelope. You will then be able to see if anyone has tampered with the envelope.
- Make sure you lock all doors and windows. Consider wedging a chair under the door handle as soon as it gets dark. Put an object on your windowsill so that you will hear if anyone enters your room through the window at night.
- Carry a small wallet containing some cash in case you are forced to give it away in a tense situation.
- Never walk in a large city by yourself. Try to stick with other people and, if you decide to make a purchase in the street, nominate one person to keep watch at all times.
- Carry a personal alarm and do not hesitate to set it off if you feel vulnerable. It will deter thieves and alert others of your need for help.
Whilst some visitors to the capital of Madagascar fall in love with the city, others become the victims of crime and leave with an extremely bad impression. There are certain areas which should be avoided at all times. The Avenue de l’Independance is populated by beggars and children well-rehearsed in the art of picking pockets. Avoid this road after dark and keep your wits about you if you need to go there during the day. Do not walk down the street eating food or drinking anything as this is bound to attract unwanted attention from beggars.
Traffic is also a major issue in this area and taxis and other vehicles will not bother stopping for you, so take your time whilst crossing the road. If you need to go out at night anywhere in the city, always take a taxi and never leave the hotel on your own. Another area to avoid is the taxi-brousse station. This is a hectic area which will make you feel extremely vulnerable. The area around Antaninarenina and Isoraka is plagued by beggars and should be avoided at night.
Many tourists are attracted to the magnificent market located in Tulear. This market is famous for selling lambas but also attracts beggars and opportunistic thieves. Always make sure you keep your money out of sight and do not flash your cash around whilst making purchases. The taxi-brousse station is also fairly dangerous so hail a taxi as soon as you get off the vehicle.