Mary returns to Madagascar

Madagascar can be a challenge, there is no doubt about that. Whenever we discuss it as a possible destination, we are always quick to mention the poor roads and unreliability of the internal flights. Plans being changed whilst you are in the country is almost a sad inevitability. Nevertheless, it remains an incredibly rewarding place to visit and it is truly like nowhere else.

When I first visited six years ago I was enchanted by the landscapes, the wildlife and the people and after my recent two weeks in the country, this is still the case. Some things have changed however and for the better.

I arrived on Ethiopian Airlines from Addis Ababa and in spite of the plane being full, the process of going through a mandatory health check, buying a visa, passing through immigration, collecting baggage and changing up some money was remarkably efficient. From wheels on the ground to getting in my transfer vehicle was less than forty minutes. Things should improve further with the opening of a new international terminal sometime next year. Thus far only the Pope has been allowed to use it!

The capital Antananarivo, or ‘Tana’ for short, is still a bewildering mixture of heaving market places, appalling traffic with toxic fumes, elegant boutiques and exclusive restaurants worthy of a European capital city. Accommodation standards seem to have improved and I enjoyed a return visit to the modernised Palissandre Hotel and also stayed at the small and sophisticated Maison Gallieni, which is owned by, and shares a building with, the Monaco Consulate. The characterful Lokanga and the Pavillons de L’Emyrne are both housed in historic buildings in the colonial Haute Ville but both need to come with a warning as these hillside buildings have a lot of steep stairs!

The biggest difference on this trip was the ability to access a remote corner of the island without relying on Tsaradia, the notoriously unreliable national airline.

Madagascar Classic Camping have two camps in the south of the island and operate a shared charter flight, thereby removing the uncertainty of what time a scheduled flight will depart, if it departs at all.

Landing at Ifotaka airstrip gave me a swift reminder of the different mind-set required when exploring Madagascar compared to some of the more remote areas of mainland Africa.

Even in the most remote of tourist destinations you will come across people going about their everyday rural life. For me it was as much a part of the experience as the wildlife and I embraced it, but it is worth remembering that Madagascar does not offer a pure wilderness experience. Rather, it should be viewed as a destination that offers unique wildlife and a rich tapestry of cultures.

The airstrip which is a two minute drive from Mandrare River Camp, is in the heart of a 33,000 hectare sisal plantation. The plantation is not without controversy as swathes of spiny forest were cut down to originally plant the sisal back in the 1930’s, it is not a product from which the local people will ever benefit, and none of the five owning companies are Malagasy. However no further land has been sacrificed to the plantation for over sixty years and the plantation does provide some form of employment to almost 80% of the local population

Mandrare River Camp has a lovely location overlooking the same named river and is the closest you will find in Madagascar to a southern African style safari camp with comfortable tented accommodation, hosted meals at a communal table and a very sociable ambiance.

Madagascar is an active destination, with the majority of activities being undertaken on foot, and I soon had my boots on to visit the nearby spiny forest. Having spent so much time in mainland Africa and understanding the dangers that are heightened after dark, it felt completely counter intuitive to be departing on a walk just as the sun set but the night walk was a great way to see the diurnal species settling down for the night and to spot the nocturnal species which in the spiny forest include the white footed Sportive lemur and the tiny mouse lemurs which you could fit in a tea cup. The spiny forest is dominated by the towering Octopus trees which look slightly ungainly as they lean towards the south in an effort to garner moisture from the prevailing winds. In daylight they look odd but as dusk turned into night they become almost unworldly, throwing long shadows which in combination with the incessant call of the Scops Owl, made for quite an eerie environment. Any discomfort was quickly forgotten however as we began to concentrate on spotting the reflecting orange eyes of the lemurs peering out from the bush and, in my case anyway, relying on my guides superb vision to spot the chameleons which seemed to me to be part of the plant. It was a surprisingly rewarding walk with a great spot of a grey and brown mouse lemur.

The spiny forest is equally as interesting in the daytime with particularly good early morning birding but the following morning I headed in the opposite direction to the beautiful gallery forest.
It was bit like walking in an enchanted forest dominated by impressive tamarind trees. Here we came across two of Madagascar’s most iconic species which are endemic to the region. We had a lucky sighting of the Verreaux’s Sifaka, the famous dancing lemur, as they generally prefer the spiny forest but the stars of the morning were the iconic Ringtail lemurs who, once the sun had warmed them up, were a hive of activity; foraging for food, grooming, marking territories, fighting and playing. They were constantly scurrying, climbing, leaping and a joy to watch.

Aside from the wildlife, this is a fantastic area for learning about some of the fascinating culture of the country. A visit to the sacred forest is an eye opening insight into the local Antondroy tribes’ attitude to death and how they believe that their ancestors communicate with them and influence their actions on a day to day basis.

They say if something is good enough, it will be worth the effort of getting there and this was certainly the case with reaching Manafiafy, Mandare’s sister camp, on the east coast of the Island.

I travelled by road, initially from Ifotaka to Fort Dauphin and after a quick stop for lunch, onward to Manafiafy and it is no understatements to describe the roads as some of the worst I have ever experienced. It is possible to take a charter flight as far as Fort Dauphin, saving about three and a half hours but the worst of the road conditions will still await you with the last 50 kilometres taking approximately three hours. My journey was lengthened by a blown out tyre and torrential, and very unseasonal, rain but in spite of everything I enjoyed the trip. The changing landscape from endless sisal plantations to the transition forested mountains and finally reaching the lush, verdant rainforests was fascinating. So too was the change in character of the locals. The Antondroy tribe in the south, known to be one of the islands most fearsome tribes, are actually happy, gregarious and quick to engage and laugh. By contrast the Antonosy are said to fear everything and everyone and are much more reserved when meeting outsiders. Put in a little effort however (a smattering of French goes a long way) and you will be rewarded with a shy smile and a genuine interest in your life.

As the rain had curtailed my activities on the day of arrival, Ernest, my guide at Manafiafy Beach and Rainforest Lodge, made it his mission to arrange as many activities as possible in one day. I would certainly not be suggesting that anyone on a holiday actually does this, but in one jam packed day I was up and out for an early morning birding boat cruise along the mangrove channels followed by a hike through the rainforest where we spotted a family of nocturnal woolly lemurs who sleep with their eyes wide open; slightly unnerving and adorable at the same time. We detoured to the lookout point with views or the bay arriving just in time to see a humpback whale breaching in the distance (they are generally migrating along this coastline from mid-July to mid-November). The hike finished on the glorious and untouched ten mile beach where we stopped for a quick spot of refreshment at a spot where clients will often have a picnic lunch and spend time relaxing and swimming. No such luxury for me as we headed to the village of Manafiafy to watch the fishermen land their catch and enjoyed the ensuing bartering as the catch was sold. Negotiating a good price for fish is a serious business and any one transaction can take up to an hour to complete. After a quick lunch I was out again and this time to a protected area of forest where up to 500 giant fruit bats roost. As soon as they heard us the flying foxes took to the air and circled overhead initially communicating noisily with each other and then somewhat eerily, in almost total silence, at which stage I did have to remind myself that I was not in some Hitchcock horror film.

As the sun set we headed back into the rainforest for a night walk during which we saw plenty of woolly lemurs which were now wide awake but most exciting was seeing the tiny Antonosy brown mouse lemur which was only discovered last year.

It was a manic and yet exhilarating day which showcased the fantastic variety of activities available here. The alternative of course is to spend your days relaxing by the beach, swimming in the sheltered waters and enjoying the occasional cocktail, which is exactly what a lot of people will do when making Manafiafy the last stop on their trip.

All roads in Madagascar, whether physical or hypothetical, end up in Tana and when combining different areas in such a vast country you will inevitably need to spend at least one night in Tana. Le Relais des Plateaux is ideally located only ten minutes from the airport and is without doubt the best option when just passing through and wanting to avoid the awful traffic in Tana.

The road north to the village of Andasibe is one of the better ones and the inclusion of this area is almost a foregone conclusion as it is one of the few areas remaining which has some element of primary rainforest (Masoala and Ranomafana National Parks being the other areas). Andasibe-Mantadia National Park is comprised of two special reserves, Analamazoatra and Mantadia, which are the only places in which you can spot the Indri-Indri, the largest of all lemurs whose plaintive call is often likened to whale song.

As Analamazoatra has much easier access from the surrounding lodges (Mantadia, Vakona and Andasibe Lodges are all within easy reach of the park) it tends to be the busier of the two parks so it is definitely worth the extra effort of going to Mantadia as well. Here, in addition to the Indri there is the chance of seeing the Black and White Ruffed lemurs and of course an exceptional array of birdlife. Heavy rain added spice to my morning hike as conditions were pretty slippery but it was hard not to appreciate the beauty of the park with its dense woodland, sparkling clear rivers and waterfalls. We had a good sighting of a small group of Golden Sifakas but the memory I take away with me is of the lemur I didn’t actually get to see but certainly heard, the Indri. It is hard to say how many there may have been as their calls seemed to reverberate all around us and through the forest. At its crescendo the spine tingling call cuts right through you and it is not something I will forget in a hurry.

There are six circuits of differing length and difficulty, ranging from a relatively easy two kilometre hike to the full day ten kilometre hike which is not for the faint hearted. A lovely way in which to finish any day in Mantadia, if time allows, is the easy ‘Swimming Pool’ trail which leads to a natural pool at the base of a small waterfall which provides an excellent spot for a refreshing (and potentially bracing) post hike dip.

Finally, I headed to the Nosy Be Archipelago, a perfect destination for some R&R at the end of a busy trip exploring the ‘island’ or , by making use of the direct flights between Johannesburg and Nosy Be, as a relaxing beach stay after a safari in Southern Africa.

The island of Nosy Be itself does not hold that much appeal; it feels hectic and chaotic and is home to several large hotels that service the huge Italian market. Get on a boat however and head to one of the smaller islands and it’s like a different world. The waters of the Mozambique Channel which provide seasonal homes to humpback whales and whale sharks, are warm and crystal clear making this a haven for divers, snorkelers and anyone who just wants to splash around in the shallows.

The tourism sector in Madagascar has definitely made some progress since my last visit but even so patience and a sense of humour are still packing necessities. The rewards though make it worthwhile with so much endemic wildlife, incredible landscapes and a rich vein of culture throughout the island.

Mary visited: Maison Gallieni, Pallisandre Hotel and Spa, Hotel Colbert, Lokanga Hotel, Le Pavillon de l’Emyrne, Mandrare River Camp, Manafiafy Beach and Rainforest Lodge, Le Relais des Plateaux, Andasibe Hotel, Vakona Lodge, Mantadia Lodge, Eulophiella Lodge, Tsara Komba and Sakatia Lodge.