What is the terrain and geography like in Madagascar?
The east coast of Madagascar is virtually a straight line facing the Indian Ocean. The western coastline, facing the Mozambique Channel and Africa, is more contoured. A spine of mountains running the length of the island from north to south creates a distinct geographical division between the east and west. Along the crest of this ridge lie the central highlands, a plateau region ranging in altitude from 2,450 to 4,400 feet above sea level. This central ridge is punctuated by higher mountain massifs in three areas: by the Tsaratanana Mountain massif in the far north; by the Ankaratra massif in the central area south of the capital, Antananarivo; and by the Andringitra massif further south.
The central highlands are characterized by terraced, rice-growing valleys nestled among barren hills. Here, the crust of red laterite that covers much of the island has been exposed by erosion, showing why the country is known as "the Great Red Island." Toward the east, a steep escarpment leads from the central highlands down through a strip of dense rain forest to a narrow coastal plain. The Canal des Pangalanes, a chain of natural and man-made lakes connected by canals, runs parallel to the eastern coast for some 300 miles.
The descent from the central highlands toward the west is more gradual, and is characterized by remnants of deciduous forest and savannah-like plains. In the south and southwest, these plains become quite dry, and it is here that one finds the unique spiny desert and famous baobabs.
In the north of the island, the Tsaratanana Mountain massif (at 9,468 feet, the highest point in Madagascar) separates Diego Suarez, one of the world's great natural harbors, from the rest of the island.
Madagascar's geography creates many climatic subdivisions. The coastal climate is hot and tropical, with the east coast receiving the most rainfall (more than 160 inches of rain in Maroantsetra.). This is due to the effect of moisture-laden trade winds off the Indian Ocean as they encounter the steep escarpment of the Madagascar coastline. The east coast is also most affected by the cyclones which periodically hit the island, often causing extensive damage. East coast temperatures reach an average high of 85° in the summer and 72° in the winter.
On the west coast, precipitation levels drop off from north to south. There are desert areas of the deep south which receive only 2 inches of rain per year. West coast temperatures are generally several degrees warmer than the east coast temperatures.
The central highlands, where the capital Antananarivo is located, have a more temperate climate. There are two primary seasons; the rainy summer season, which lasts from approximately November through mid-March; and the dry season, from mid-March through October. In (southern) summer, there are periods of rain almost every day, often in the late afternoon. Cyclones, which can affect the coastal areas, do not reach the highlands, but their influence can cause extended periods of rain. The average daily high temperature in summer is in the mid 80's, with a hot mid-day sun alternating with the periods of rain. Nighttime lows average in the low 60's.
The shoulder months of April, May and September, October are very pleasant, with little rain, blue skies, and daytime highs in the 70's. In the (southern) winter months of June-August, the skies are often sunny and daytime highs can reach the mid-to-high 60s. However, there are also chilly days which are overcast and windy with daytime highs in the 50's. Nighttime lows in winter can drop into the 40's in Antananarivo.