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Published: July 21st 2011
I arrived in Madagascar for an 11-day trip in July (2011) with Zina from Za Tours waiting for me. After taking some money from an ATM we were off. With the conversion rate of 2000 Malagasy Ariary to one U.S. dollar you feel rich getting 400,000 Ariary from the ATM but it’s also hard to find somewhere to put your newfound “brick” of money. Zina and I headed south for about 5½ hours to the Artisan Hotel in Ambositra. The ride through Antananarivo (Tana) was definitely eye opening including all the people on the streets and the huge soccer games going on (a Sunday ritual as I learned). The poverty and poor living conditions of the people is also evident immediately when going through the city. Driving was a bit harrowing as not everyone seems to follow the same rules and even more importantly people still walk on the roads after dark. This is made worse by the fact that there are no lights around the road and the highway is also the main route of transportation for everyone and everything. And most everyone walks. So, it was a long drive of curvy roads in the highlands while dodging other cars,
people, and zebu, the local cattle that are found nearly everywhere. And you can’t simply pull over and take a break at a McDonalds (of which there are none in Madagascar) or anywhere else for that matter. In addition, we had the periodic stops by “police” at the beginning of many villages or random spots in the road. Luckily they did ask for money on this journey. However, a few days later in Fianarantsoa we were not so lucky and they coughed about 6000 Ariary out of Zina for “coffee.” Apparently, as you go further south these payments become more frequent and more costly. Also of note are the taxi brousses that dominate the road. These are minvans that are packed with people basically sitting on top of one another and with the roof full of luggage and supplies to be delivered. Many of the taxi brousses go at crazy speeds tipping around corners as they are top heaving from their load. After seeing many of these in action I decided that I had made a good choice in hiring a touring company (a first for me) to do the driving. The Artisan Hotel was pretty basic but did include
hot water showers and pretty good food at their restaurant. It was here that I had my first of many Zebu steaks.
The next day we got up and headed for Ranomafana National Park. Before heading out of Ambositra, Zina dropped me off at a “cybercafé” to check my email. It took about 15-20 minutes to get onto my email and I was able to successfully send one short message letting people back home know that I had arrived safely. Internet service is very hard to come by in Madagascar. My only real opportunity to access the web was at the cybercafé in Ranomafana and my hotel in Tana. In Ranomafana I stayed at the Ihary Hotel that had little bungalows next the river in the village. The showers were pretty basic but the rest of the room was nice and the breakfasts were probably the best I had during the trip – including excellent guava juice. I would recommend against the tilapia for dinner though. Also, I had no problem with mosquitos here or anywhere else for that matter during the trip.
I was fortunate to have great guides at all 3 national parks. Guides are compulsory
in Madagascar and getting a good one is important. Here I had Diamondra who had been working for the park for 12 years after some work as a photographer. This is a great combination for a guide as he was able to spot wildlife, set me up for the best views, and also offer advice on getting the best picture (especially during the night walks). I did an afternoon walk and a night walk with Diamondra followed by another walk the next day that went from early morning through midafternoon. The first creature we encountered was a small leaf gecko that looks just like a tiny brown dead leaf. It is an amazing creature that blends right in with its environment. Luckily I saw two more on the trip. Another gecko that amazed me in this park was the flat-tailed leaf gecko that was larger, coming in around 8 inches. It had positioned itself on the side of a tree trunk and matched a blend of colors and textures until it was undecipherable from the tree itself. In fact, I took the first picture of it just based upon where Diamondra was pointing because I couldn’t see it. Only after
it rose up slightly could you see the contours of its body. These are the type of creatures that make Madagascar truly unique.
The big draws for Ranomafana are the golden bamboo lemurs. I was able to see these little guys both days along with brown ruffed, red-bellied, and mouse lemurs and the Milne-Edwards sifaka. I am very partial to the sifakas – beautiful creatures that are acrobatic and unbelievable as they fly through the trees. They have large hands that them grab branches and feet that help the “stick” to the trees. We waited out three sifakas who were lounging in a tree. Once they awoke we had an opportunity to race through the jungle behind them until they all came about head high in a small valley. There we had great viewing and photo opportunities in close proximity. I was beaming after this because this was why I went to Madagascar! We were also lucky enough to see a troop of brown lemurs all jump their way past us and land on the path. It was a unique opportunity to see lemurs on the ground. I learned that the key to getting these enhanced experiences was simply
to be patient. If the lemurs are sleeping high in the trees it might be beneficial to just wait them out until they begin to move.
The Ranomafana night walk was up along the road between the village and the national park. In Madagascar you cannot do night walks within park boundaries. During the walk the guides hovered around an opening in the brush that is apparently a popular passageway for mouse lemurs (or they just put bananas there to draw them out I’m not sure). There I got the opportunity to see the little lemurs bopping around from branch to branch. You have to be fairly quick with the camera as they are pretty evasive. We also saw a number of brilliant green chameleons on the road. I learned very quickly that there is a high level of expertise that a good guide has. I would generally consider myself a pretty observant person when it comes to spotting wildlife however, the guides I met on this trip made me really understand the other level at which they work. At home in their environment they are fast and accurate in spotting even the most hidden creatures. The advantages of
getting a great guide are many, the downside is that they draw other tourists and guides our way because they can spot more things, explain more about the environment, and help position people for the best viewing locations. Needless to say, my guides drew this sort of attention.
On a food note, if you are traveling to rural destinations such as Ranomafana or Ampijoroa be aware that there are not typically grocery stores or supermarkets anywhere near. Instead open-air markets are typically the option and most do not have refrigeration for things such as meats, cheeses, milk, and so on. So, most of my eating on the trip was done at the hotel or bungalow where I was staying.
On Day 4 we headed further south to the Anja Reserve to see ring-tailed lemurs. I really enjoyed the long rides we had through the highlands of central Madagascar. The landscapes were beautiful with some, especially around the Anja Reserve, reminding me of parts of the western U.S. Before arriving at Anja we made a quick stop in Ambalavao to see the largest zebu market in the country that occurs on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. This was a great experience
getting to walk around the zebu and potential buyers on a picturesque plateau on the edge of the town. It was well worth the stop. The Anja Reserve was where I got the opportunity to experience ring-tailed lemurs, something I have wanted to do since I was young. Hiring a local guide is compulsory here also. However, I am afraid to say the quality of my guide here paled in comparison to those I had at the national parks. Furthermore, the need for a guide here appears to be minimal as I was surrounded by a large family of ring-tails within minutes of entering the reserve. I spent a couple hours just watching them go through their routine. The most hilarious occurrence was something that still makes me laugh every time I think about it. When the sun would come out from the clouds and shine down on the lemurs they would stop immediately and extend their arms out so that their chest was fully exposed to the sun looking like they were in some sort of meditative ritual. Only seeing this in person could do it justice. The location of the reserve is also very scenic as it sits
at the bottom of a large rock mesa. The guides can take you to a scenic overlook of the surrounding area while you are there. After the reserve, it was a long drive then back to Fianarantsoa for an overnight at the Tsara Guesthouse. Tsara offered one of the two fanciest rooms that I enjoyed on the trip and would have been even more enjoyable without the dogs that were barking in a neighboring room. Breakfast here was also good.
Days 5 and 6 were spent driving back to Tana and then on to Ampijoroa to visit Ankarafantsika National Park. The drives allowed for picture taking of people, villages, and landscapes along the way. Plus, it was a time to soak from Zina much knowledge about Malagasy life and culture. We stopped for a couple hours along the way in Antsirabe to get a pizza at the Malagasy chain called Le Gastro Pizza, to check out a grand but neglected hotel in the main avenue left from French colonial days, and to stop at a small local candy house. I cannot say that I would travel to Madagascar for a pizza but the passion fruit juice that they serve
with the pizza at Le Gastro is very tasty. The candy place was a small outfit in a house where I had my very own personal candy-making demonstration. I purchased a number of bags of the candy that was similar to sweet rock candy. Antsirabe is also the rickshaw (or pousse pousse) capital of Madagascar and you will see the streets flooded by them all with their own unique names on the back. My favorite hotel on the trip was on our stop in Tana at the Rova Hotel. Here I actually had in-room wifi access and this made my night! Also, the room was the best on the trip. They don’t serve dinner though so I ventured to the nearby Zebu restaurant for a somewhat marginal zebu steak.
I settled into my place at the Ampijoroa bungalow on the sixth night. The great thing about this location is that it is actually inside the park. We even saw a brown lemur scurrying around in the treetop next to my bungalow after dark upon our arrival. The bungalows are nestled up along a lake with the main hiking trails just across the road behind the park headquarters. Unfortunately, they
don’t have hot water so I was doing some dancing while showering for two days while my en suite gecko looked on. My guide here, Heretiana, took me on a morning walk on Day 7 on the trails behind the park headquarters. Ankarafantsika is known for it’s birds and we saw a paradise flycatcher and blue vanga along with many other types. Luckily, we also got to peek in on a noctural sportive lemur and saw some wooly and brown lemurs. But the real treat for me here was getting to watch the chestnut coquerel sifakas that hang out near the campground and park headquarters. I spent a good portion of the afternoon just watching them. It was also entertaining when two families “met” in the trees at the border of their territories over the road and did some posturing. In Ankarafantsika you don’t even need to go into the park to get a good show. In fact, I could see the sifakas in the campground while I sat outside and ate breakfast. A short sidetrip that was worth taking was to walk back on the side of the lake to see the stand of giant baobab trees that are
the tallest in Madagascar. However, the birds needed to maintain the reproduction of the trees have gone extinct so these will be the last of their kind. On our Day 7 nightwalk we saw mongoose lemurs in a tree in the campground and then headed down a path near the lake where we saw chameleons and mouse lemurs. Apparently I was lucky in seeing both a male and female rhinocerous chameleon that night.
The next day, Day 8, I was taken to the airport in Majunga by a different driver and guide. Before that though they took me by the largest (circumference) baobab tree in Madagascar that sits downtown near the ocean. I then caught a flight to Tana where my new driver Nzara picked me up to go to Perinet. Interestingly enough we didn’t even have to go through a metal detector to get on the Air Madagascar flight. Ominously, Nzara mentioned that the 3 ½ hour road to Perinet was the most dangerous in the country. About an hour into the drive we came upon a child who was still laying dead but covered in the road after being hit by a truck. On the way back
we saw a large beer truck splayed out upside down in the road after crashing just a few minutes before. The road is one that is full of curves and truck traffic from the coast and it worsened by poor sight lines after dark.
My last destination, Perinet, was one of the busiest destinations for tourists due to its vicinity to Tana. My lodging was Hotel Feon’ny Ala. It had nice bungalows with hot water that abutted next to the national park. I had a great guide here, Willie, who started me out with a hike in one of the two primary parks, Mantadia. Mantadia is the more untouched and less crowded of the two and requires a slow 11k drive over a very bad dirt road to get to. It is also the park where you are less guaranteed to see wildlife. In fact, we saw very little wildlife for the first half of our morning with the exception of a fleeting view of a grey bamboo lemur. However, we were then fortunate to see a family of diademed (or golden) sifakas. Many people consider these to be the most beautiful sifakas in Madagascar (I am somewhat partial
to the coquerel sifakas but they are all beautiful!). We spent quite a bit of time watching the sifakas and also the mother with a very cute little one in tow. We also saw some wooly lemurs before leaving. After the long drive out I was able to stop at the well-known Vakona Lodge for lunch and a visit to their lemur island. Lunch was ok but I’m not sure it worth the 30,000 Ariary I paid for it. As a side note, most meals like Zebu steak and a side of rice or fries would cost between 10,000 – 15,000 Ariary. I then paid 12,700 Ariary to visit Vakona’s nearby lemur island. To get there a guide takes you across a narrow body of water where encounter tame lemurs within a minute or two walk. The guides bring along a banana to feed them and they then end up on your shoulders waiting for a bite. They had one black and white ruffed, one diademed sifaka, and a large number of brown lemurs and grey bamboo lemurs. It was strange seeing lemurs this tame but it was also quite entertaining to get to interact with them and hold them.
I came out of there smelling like a lemur but it was a great experience that I might never have again. I had wondered how lemurs felt and they are quite predictably very soft. Day 9 ended with a night a night walk and Willie’s uncanny eyesight being able to spot all sorts of critters. We saw a couple mouse lemurs, chameleons (including a Parson’s), and many frogs. Day 10 was a morning devoted to the Perinet national park that is home to one of Madagascar’s most famous creatures, the indri. The indri is the largest lemur and also the only one that is not able to live in captivity. They are known for there incredible sounds that carry for many kilometers through the jungle. To hear them crying out in their families is truly an unforgettable experience. The national park seems to be quite thick with lemurs. On more than one occasion we saw a group of diademed sifakas traveling through the jungle with a group of brown lemurs. We spent time with two families of Indri including one mother with a baby. We also saw three more wooly lemurs huddled together in a tree. I was fortunate to
get directly under the Indri when they gave out the loud cries and also got to watch them flying from tree to tree. After our walk Willie found some crickets near the park headquarters and fed them to some nearby chameleons who shot their long tongues out to snatch them.
Day 11 was spent traveling back to the airport in Tana to catch a plane leaving the country. The trip was a great experience. I came to see the wildlife but also loved seeing the people and getting a glimpse of village life. Also, the landscapes on the island are not to be overlooked. It seems that Madagascar’s tourism infrastructure is growing but is still in its adolescent stage. There are a number of places including Masoala and areas on the north and west coast that I would like to visit if I were to return. I feel privileged to have gotten to see so many creatures that exist only on this one island. If you get the opportunity to visit Madagascar I would definitely recommend it but would also recommend doing some careful planning for getting around the country and identifying exact locations/parks you want to visit.
A copy of my itinerary is here if you are interested: Day 1
( July 10): Mauritius - Antananarivo / Ambositra
On arrival from Mauritius at 13.40, drive staright to Ambositra ( approx. 6 hours'drive). Overnight at Artisan Hotel, B.B Day 2
( July 11): Ambositra - Ranomafana
After breakfast, drive to Ranomafana national park. Introductory walk into the woods in the afternoon. Ihary Hotel, B.B Day 3
( July 12): Ranomafana
Spend the day at Ranomafana N.P; home to 12 species of lemurs. Ihary Hotel, B.B Day 4
( July 13): Ranomafana - Fianarantsoa via Ambalavao
Leave for the city of Ambalavao. 30 minutes afterwards, you reach the village community-run park of Anja where you will see the "zebra on the tree-top": the iconic ring-tailed lemurs. Afterwards, you drive back and overnight in Fianarantsoa. Night at Tsara Guesthouse, B.B. Day 5
( July 14): Fianarantsoa - Antananarivo
Spend the time driving to Antananarivo through the scenic highland landscapes. Overnight at the lovely Rova Hotel, B.B. Day 6
( July 15): Antananarivo - Ampijoroa
Leave Antananarivo for the deciduous forest park of Ankarafantsika ( approx; 7 hours'drive). Stay
2 nights at Ampijoroa bungalow, F.B. Day 7
( July 16) :Ampijoroa
Explore the Ampijoroa to see the chestnut coquerel's sifaka among others. Day 8
( July 17): Ampijoroa - Majunga / Antananarivo - Périnet
After another walk, drive to Majunga where you check-in for the Air Madagascar flight MD 821 to Antaanarivo, departing at 15.55. On arrival in Antananarivo at 17.00,
drive straight to Périnet. Stay 3 nights at Feon’ny Ala, B.B. Day 9
( July 18): Périnet
Visit the special reserve of Indri at Analamazaotra.Possibility of coming across many other lemur-species such as the common brown lemurs, the bamboo lemurs, the woolly lemurs and so on and so forth. Day 10
( July 19): Périnet
A day set aside for the excursion to the pristine primary rainforest of Mantadia, home to the golden diademed sifaka just to name one. Day 11
( July 20): Périnet - Antananarivo - Mauritius
Proceed back to Antananarivo and check-in for the outbound flight to Mauritius MK 289, departing at 15.25.
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