Well, I’ve been back from Madagascar for 2.5 weeks now and it’s only been lately that I feel like I’m back into the rhythm of things. This post is about the trip itself, and then I”m going to put up a second post listing general tips, facts, prices, etc. Sara and I grew very frustrated with both the Bradt and Lonely Planet books because both had conflicting information! In one book, village A was north of B, in the other, village A was south of B! I also feel like there just isn’t enough information on traveling in Madagascar, so I hope these will help anyone else planning a ‘backpacker’ style trip there. Anyway…
Not surprisingly, Madagascar was amazing! Maybe except for Antananarivo (Tana for short)– it is so smoggy and polluted there that both Sara and I had sore throats within minutes of walking around outside. We arrived late at night, meeting with Andry the following morning to hammer out details of our private driver hire through his company, Madagascar Tour Guide. Considering we only had 16 days to hit as many of the national parks as possible, we thought it would be worth it to spend a little more on a driver (35EUR/day split between us) instead of trying to get around on taxi-brousses. That method of transportation is unreliable to say the least, as anyone that has traveled in Africa can attest to. The route we decided to do was along national road RN7, one of the few national roads that you actually don’t need a 4×4 to drive on. This was our route:
We spent most of the first day driving south to the village of Ambositra and stayed at Hotel Artisan, which I highly recommend! A bungalow with two beds (one in the loft area) was 55,000Ar or 26USD. We continued on the next morning after a cheap, very satisfying European-style breakfast. Our first park stop was a short hike at Ialatsara Lemur Forest Camp, which led through some farmlands before the actual forest area. The trackers here operate similarly to the mountain gorilla trackers in Rwanda– they all communicate via radio and span out ahead of the guides. Our first lemur sighting of the trip was the Milne-Edwards Sportive Lemur! We also saw a few small chameleons (the second smallest ones, before they discovered the species that can fit onto a matchstick) and crab-spiders with large, elaborate webs. They have an option to camp there overnight as well, but we decided to drive on to one of the big parks, Ranomafana. This park is bisected by a paved road, along which the village of Ranomafana is found. Prices here were a little more than Ambositra. Up until this point, the drive along RN7 has been super windy– Sara and I both got motion sickness, which is very rare! The road is less insane after Ambositra.
(Milne-Edwards Sportive Lemur at Ialatsara)
We signed up for a night walk with our Ranomafana guide, which was just along the paved road (they used to have night walks in the park but there were too many tourist accidents). The guide explained that since the pavement holds heat, a lot of cold-blooded reptiles come down there at night. Even just walking along the road, we saw so many different types of chameleons, a ground boa and even a brown mouse lemur. Spotting the reptiles/lizards aren’t so much an issue of how rare they are– it’s how good your eye is. They are EVERYWHERE! We started the Ranomafana day hike as soon as the park opened (to avoid the heat and to catch animals at a higher activity level). The hike first starts as steep steps down to a river, before climbing back up to the peaks via different side trails. They are mostly narrow dirt paths, but there is some scrambling through dense brush depending on where lemurs are when they’re spotted. If they’re not busy munching away on leaves, they’re leaping from tree to tree. The wildlife here is similar to Ialatsara since they are in the same area, but it is at a much larger, wider scale. We got to see a red giraffe-necked weevil and a tiny leaf-tailed gecko; its camoflage was so good that we were staring at a branch that had maybe 3-4 green leaves and 2-3 brown leaves..? Neither of us could spot it after several minutes, and were in disbelief when the guide traced its outline for us!
(tree boa in Ranomafana at night)
(find the leaf-tailed gecko!)
After Ranomafana, the plan was to spend the night in Fianarantsoa. Sara and I decided to keep driving on for another 1.5 hours to Ambalavao. Fianarantsoa is insanely huge, crowded, noisy, dusty– it was so disorienting after having stayed in small villages for the previous 5 or 6 days. On our way to Ambalavao, we stopped at Lazan’i Betsileo Vineyards– yes, Madagascar produces wine! We took a tour (Sara was the French translator since most people in Madagascar only speak that and Malagasy), and then had a tasting. They produce a large variety of wines in their 1960’s equipment, including a “grey” wine which is apparently white wine that has been aged extra long. We spent the night in quaint little Ambalavao at a place that had algae coming out of its tap and frogs that appeared in the bathroom (we’re assuming they came out of the tap).
(beautiful landscape at the vineyard)
At this point, since we were both getting over a cold, we decided to finish driving all the way to the east coast before hitting the parks coming back up to Tana. So, we spent the next day driving to Tulear, a large-ish city that serves as the entry point to a village called Ifaty– that is, if you have access to a 4×4 to take you on national road RN9 or are willing to deal with the taxi-brousses. The locals live in simple thatched huts that are fenced off with upright branches in between all the resorts for rich, older French tourists. It’s a very stark contrast. Ifaty is also where you can visit Reniala Spiny Forest and the Tortoise Village, which is working to breed several species of endangered tortoises. Reniala Spiny Forest has several trails that lead you around to different types of trees, including bilbaob trees. The trails are on flat sand, so no hiking boots are necessary. We had lunch on the beach at one of the restaurants before heading back to Tulear.
On our drive from Tulear back up north to Ranohira, we stopped by Zombitse-Vohibasia National Park. This park isn’t one of the big popular ones, but it’s still worth checking out especially if you’re interested in birds. Our guide spotted a Hubbard’s Sportive Lemur and it took us a few minutes to actually SEE it– we have no idea how he spotted it! We also drove by Ilakaka village, the hub of the sapphire trade. My Bradt guidebook described it as a Wild-West town, with prostitutes mingling with hired security with villagers risking their lives going into the mines for a chance of finding a sapphire that could potentially take care of them and their family for the rest of their lives. In fact, our Reniala Spiny Forest guide used to work in the mines and told us that several of his friends had died. Have any of you ever watched Blood Diamond with Leonardo DiCaprio? Do you remember the scene when he pops a diamond out of his tooth and sells it in town? That’s exactly how Ilakaka looks/feels like. Out of curiosity, I asked to stop. Our driver Bio recommended that we go to the village of Sakaraha instead, since it was a little more safe. He took us to this “shop” which had several men hanging back near the entrance, two plastic lawn chairs in front of a vinyl-covered desk with another chair behind it. A sleazy Sri Lankan man came out and started showing us cut and uncut stones. We left after a horrible attempt to rip me off. I don’t regret going– he still talked to me and showed me some of the stones he had.
When we arrived in the pseudo-desert town of Ranohira (which really is in the middle of nowhere, it’s probably only there because it’s the jumping-off point for Isalo National Park), we booked a 3-day trek with Momo Trek complete with porters and meals, and decided to stay at one of his bungalows that night. The Isalo area used to be full of rivers but now it is arid and airy, with massifs coming out of the ground every few miles. I should point out that the Bara people believe that pointing with your finger is fady (taboo). You can point with your middle knuckle instead. Anyway, the next morning we took a 4×4 to the trailhead and began a very steep, difficult ascent up a canyon face. There was barely any cover from the sun, plus this was at some elevation (not a substantial amount, but enough to notice!). This was the Canyon of the Monkeys. We camped that night in a valley and showered under a natural waterfall. We met two girls– one Malagasy with a French teenager. Apparently, France has a program that judges or parents can enroll disenchanted teens in, which pairs them with a local Malagasy mentor for 6-9 months. The next day’s hike was a little easier, going by the Piscine Naturelle and ending in Namaza Camp. This is the campsite where families of ring-tailed lemurs meander through the campsite and mingle with visitors. Sara and I had plopped down overheated and exhausted at one of the stone benches and were about to dig into some delicious pineapple slices (those things were like ambrosia at that point), when a ring-tail jumped onto the bench! They were like aggressive squirrels that I’m sure you’ve experienced before when picnicking at a park at home! The last day was really fast, walking from Namaza Camp back to Ranohira.
(beginning of our Isalo trek)
On our way back up, we stopped again at Ambalavao, but stayed at a place that had a great shower (with no frogs or algae!), Bougainvillees. It was so nice!! Near the top of my list for Madagascar accommodations. Our next stop was Anja Park, which is actually a co-op run by the village. There wasn’t much wildlife to be spotted except for another family of ring-tails, but it was so much fun, scrambling up and down huge boulders on all fours!
We had to stop in Fianarantsoa to exchange more money (only Ariary is accepted everywhere), and got totally screwed by the exchange rate. Andry had warned that the further you get from Tana, the worse the rate gets. The trade-off is space, surprisingly. Their largest note is 10,000 Ar and that’s only about 5USD! Our original pile of 1000USD (which we got an outstanding rate on through Andry in Tana) came out to be $2.1 million Ariary which was at least 3 or 4 inches thick. You may have heard that there has been political tension– the last presidency was kicked out in a coup and is now ruled by a self-proclaimed leader who no one acknowledges. There are police and military checkpoints at every other village (even if it only takes a minute to drive through the entire village), but I’m not sure if that was always the case or if it started since the coup. People are not happy with the situation. When we were leaving Fianar (seems like there’s nicknames for every big town), we drove through a student protest full of teenagers that had walked out of class. Oh and I think there was a cockfight about to start at the gas station we stopped at.
From Ambositra, we drove to Andasibe-Mantadia National Park. This is actually two parks, the much larger one being Mantadia. We encountered no notice of this in all our online research, but MANTADIA IS CLOSED INDEFINITELY thanks to the huge cyclone earlier this year! Lame, especially since we had planned on spending several nights here since there were so many trails in Mantadia! Andasibe has three trails, but the third one covers the first two anyways. Andasibe is popular because of the largest existing lemur, the Indri indri. Besides their size and the lack of a tail, another distinguishing feature is that instead of grunts and shrieks, the indri sing. It’s very eerie– almost like whale song. They sing in the morning to call to their family and to protect their territory. At this park, we also saw the colorful Diademed Sifaka (sifakas are like larger lemurs) the Eastern Wooly Lemur and the Common Brown Lemur. And of course, so many chameleons! We also went for a night walk along the road, but at this point, we were chameleon’ed out. There was supposedly a mouse lemur, but no matter how hard the guide tried to point it out with his two different colored flashlights, we just could not spot it.
Mitsinjo Park shares the same area as Andasibe, and is actually run by a local NGO. Their goal is to protect the endemic flora and fauna of Madagascar and one way of doing that is by slowly removing invasive/introduced trees and replanting native trees once they’ve grown enough in their tree nursery. It really is an impressive organization. Our Mitsinjo guide spoke great English (probably the best English speaker out of all our guides!) and was genuinely interested and invested in his cause. Still not convinced that Mitsinjo is worth checking out? They have something that Andasibe doesn’t– the territorial line that splits two families of indri! During our hike, one of the families was leaping through the trees above us to take up arms after sounding the alarms! (The territory-alarm sounds similar to their regular call, except it goes on for longer.) Our guide found another species of leaf-tailed gecko, this one much larger than the Ranomafana one. He tested us and gave us a minute to find it– we stared at that two foot long part of the tree trunk but managed to barely spot it! I’m still not sure where its tail ends though, even if I stare at the picture.
(just a tree trunk?)
We decided to splurge and stay at Vakona Lodge. What a beautiful place!!! They have their own private reserve with several trails (a lot of them were closed because of cyclone damage as well, since this is closer to Mantadia than Andasibe), a crocodile farm with a tree boa you can handle and some tortoises you can feed flowers to, a pair of caged fossa (kind of sad)– they even have a private island, Lemur Island. It’s called that because it’s full of habituated lemurs that were donated as ex-pets that run and jump all over you! They’re mostly the common brown lemur, but there are a few black & white ruffed lemurs. They seemed to be the more mellow species, but both loved plantains (and also, the salt from dried sweat– agh!!). There is a family of ring-tails on another small island; they don’t like to be pet, but they’ll clamber on you.
(so mellow– black and white ruffed lemur on Lemur Island)
Our flight out of Madagascar wasn’t until 1am so we spent the last day roaming in and near Tana. We checked out the ruins of Ambohimanga, where the emperor used to live a few centuries ago, then onto Ilafy to visit a small museum that focused on the different tribes of Madagascar where we befriended some teenagers studying to be guides. Back in Tana, we had lunch near the prime minister’s palace, which contained some artifacts of the queen that survived a huge fire that occurred not that long ago. Our last two stops of the day were the croc farm near Tana which was also a zoo and an orphanage, Akany Avoko.
I would suggest that if you’re out in an area with any kind of forestry or shrubs, keep your eyes and ears peeled! You’re bound to spot something, like…
… a bumbling lowland tenrec
… or Parson’s chameleon!