News: The UD Travel Blog

Posted: 22 August 2013

A week in Madagascar

by Mark Huggins

For many years I have yearned to visit Madagascar. I have long been fascinated by its curious wildlife much of which can only be found on the 4th biggest island in the world. So it was with great anticipation when I finally arrived at Ivato Airport Antananarivo (Tana). After tackling a chaotic but typically African immigration process, I met our guide Patrick and the rest of our party and we made the short distance to the hotel. After the long flight, I quickly drifted off to sleep to the distant chorus of barking dogs.

The next morning feeling refreshed, we made our way through the heavy Tana traffic which provided a good first opportunity to witness the hustle and bustle of life in Madagascar’s capital city. Eventually we reached the outskirts of Tana and joined the RN2 (one of Madagascar’s better roads) which snakes its way East towards the important port city of Toamasina.

Our first destination was Andasibe National Park where we would hopefully experience some of the incredible wildlife of a country where species have evolved in relative isolation since the breakup of the super continent Gondwana and Madagascar’s split from India many millions of years ago. As such Madagascar is seen as a biodiversity hotspot with a reputation hard to match anywhere on the planet.

The drive to Andasibe was picturesque, the RN2 ascending gently into the highlands. We passed through a landscape of rice paddies, highland villages, and sweeping vistas. On arrival at Andasibe we visited ‘Lemurs Island’ a sanctuary where we had our first encounter with these beautiful prosimians. A short ride in a canoe took us to a forested area where Ruffed Lemurs, Common Brown Lemurs and the adorable Eastern Grey Bamboo Lemur frolic in close proximity. Later we took a stroll through the local village passing stalls selling tamarind and dried fish. Children waved enthusiastically as we crossed the bridge over the river towards the church. We strolled along the railway track passing a somewhat out of place and largely disused station building as a fine drizzle descended.

That night I tasted Zebu (a breed of cattle) which can be seen across Madagascar and is a symbol of status and revered by the Malagasy people who only eat it at special occasions such as weddings or funerals. The meat is delicious and succulent and washed down with the local Three Horse beer provided a great end to the day which was topped off by news of Jo and Ben’s engagement on arrival in Madagascar – CONGRATULATIONS!!

Next morning we were met with a low hanging mist clinging eerily to the canopy. With not a hint of a breeze I could not help but be immediately drawn in by the atmosphere of the forest. At the start of our hike we observed Chameleon at close quarters, the local guide having to point out its whereabouts due to their amazing gift of camouflage. It struck me how easy it would be to walk straight past as they observe you seemingly expressionless. Further into the forest a kingfisher watched us casually from a distance as the mist started to lift. A myriad of spiders’ webs glistened in the advancing sunlight. It was as if the forest suddenly had a new lease of life, and then we heard it – the call of the Indri, the largest of all Lemurs. Its sound is quite something and I stood perfectly still in silence to savour this most wonderful symphony echoing through the forest.

We continued higher into the forest, heart and legs awakened by the sudden increase in gradient. The climb was worthwhile. After not too long we were able to observe the teddy bear like Indri going about their daily business. We spent a glorious 15 minutes or so marvelling at them and watching their behaviour before it was time to explore further.

Our next find was the Diademed Sifaka with its long silky coat and wonderfully attractive colour. We were treated to a display of their natural grace and athletic ability, bounding effortlessly from tree to tree as we rather more cumbersomely tried to keep up.

The wildlife extravaganza culminated with excellent sightings of Common Brown Lemurs. Finally after the thrill of the prosimians we were also lucky to spot a grass snake and excitingly the Madagascar Boa Constrictor (capable of growing up to 3 metres) basking in the now warm midday sun. The wonderfully intelligent Crested Drongo looked down at us curiously as we inspected the impressive reptile.

We thanked our local guide for such an amazing forest experience and then after lunch headed back to Tana. En route we stopped at a reptile park in the highlands where we were able to view numerous Chameleon species closely. We arrived back in Tana as the early evening sunlight glowed warmly against colourful houses and shops in the Upper town and in the low town rice paddies sparkled as locals made their way home from work.

Our journey the next day was to take us South West to the coastal town of Morondava situated on the Mozambique Channel. The notoriously quirky Air Madagascar (also jokingly known as Mad Air) came up trumps and delivered us to our destination on time. On our landing approach we got our first views of the impressive Baobab trees that dot the otherwise apparently non-descript arid landscape.

We drove 2 hours North to Kirindy Forest and on arrival tucked into another tasty dish of Zebu after which it was time to explore. The vegetation was noticeably tinder dry as the dry season reaches its peak with the rains of November still a distant dream for the sun-baked forest. However conditions were to work in our favour as were able to observe Sifaka and common red bellied brown lemurs at close quarters. Strolling along a dry river bed we saw more Sifaka, one mother had a baby clinging perilously from her midriff. A handsome Madagascar Harrier Hawk perched nobly from a nearby tree. Thinking we had been lucky with our sightings at Kirindy, Jo spotted a tree full of more brown lemurs to put the icing on the cake.

The day was to end in grandstand style at the Avenue of Baobabs one of Madagascar’s most spectacular natural settings. The scene of these colossal and in some cases ancient guardians of the landscape silhouetted against an idyllic orange paint brushed sky was truly breathtaking and an absolute privilege to witness. We left as orange turned to bright pink and as darkness took over we left the magnificent Baobabs behind, spell-bound by their majesty.

The next part of our adventure took us 10 hours north to Bekopaka, the gateway to the Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park. The journey was an epic. The roads in this region are extreme, battered endlessly by extreme rain in the wet season so we were grateful of the relative comfort of the 4WD. The highlight of the journey was crossing the river by local ferry. The boarding process can only be described as organised chaos. Once on board we made our way leisurely down river. Enthusiastic children ran along the water’s edge frantically waving and then splashing into the water to get closer as we passed. After a further 4 hours along worsening roads and past isolated communities we reached Bekopaka. The sunset lighting up the distant river Manambolo River from the hotel terrace made the journey even more worthwhile. Over dinner we discussed our expectations and in my case fears of tomorrows venture into the Tsingy.

It is noticeably hotter in the West than in the highland areas of Central Madagascar and dawn broke to a cloudless sky. Our group split evenly between those that would embark on the Petit Tsingy route and the 4 of us who would embark on the supposed tougher challenge of the Grand Tsingy. We travelled by 4WD for an hour to reach the start of the walk. Having been welcomed by our local guide we were assisted in our harnesses in preparation for the Tsingy.

The first hour of the walk was a pleasant stroll through the beautiful forest, always on the lookout for Lemurs and other wildlife. This time the Lemurs remained elusive although we spotted numerous bird species including the Vasa Parrott. Then the Tsingy started to reveal its hand, slowly and modestly in the beginning, before we passed through a spectacular cave and there the full extent of the Tsingy stood imposingly before us. It was time to clip on to the safety line and start the ascent. The limestone is remarkably sharp in places eroded over millennia. With trepidation we ascended the ladders being careful to place our hands and feet in the correct places. After not too long the combination of the ascent and the heat of the day had me sweating profusely. UP we continued through the grey spikes of the Tsingy interspersed with brilliant green palms, translucent in the sun’s rays.

Finally with no little effort we reached the top of the Tsingy and our reward was a magnificent 360 degree vista over this remarkable landscape. We were informed by our local guide that Lemurs sometimes traverse the sharp limestone in search of new patches of forest. After savouring the views of this unusual environment and revelling in the momentary relief of a breeze we continued over the limestone formations eventually arriving at a spectacular suspension bridge traversing a perilous drop to the sharp abyss below. Never a lover of exposure to drops I crossed without looking down focusing instead on one of our party looking on amusingly having already conquered the bridge. Then we descended the Tsingy which at times seemed more challenging that the ascent arriving at a wonderful cathedral like cave.

Soon we were back in the forest, tired but exhilarated from the experience of the Tsingy. Just before arriving back at the vehicle our guide spotted a nocturnal Sportive Lemur dosing contently in a tree beside the path.

Back at the hotel we enthusiastically swapped tales of the Petit and Grand Tsingy agreeing that both routes had been thoroughly worth the long journey to get to this little visited area of Madagascar.

The next day we retraced our steps back to Morondava. Crossing the Manambolo River early in the morning was a delight, with warm light illuminating the huts of the villagers and the faces of women washing clothes at the river’s edge. A group of local men chatted on top of a large boulder overlooking the busy yet peaceful scene. Before arriving back into Morondava we stopped to marvel at the Baobab Amoureux where two of these magnificent trees have become romantically entwined.

Next day it was time to head back to Tana and all too quickly my last full day in Madagascar. Once again Air Madagascar had us back in on schedule. We made our way into Tana through busy Friday night traffic. That evening we strolled through the streets from our hotel to the magnificent building of Antananarivo train station. Train travel in now limited to just a few routes as the network has steadily gone into decline but the station retains all of its grandeur. After a couple of beers at the lovely bar adjacent to the station we jumped into taxis to the Upper town to Chez Mariette for traditional Malagasy cuisine and a send-off meal with the group.

My last morning in Madagascar was a joy. My driver and I left the hotel before 7am with a mission of catching Tana in the early morning light. In low light Tana in quite mesmeric, especially from the Upper Town where wonderfully colourful dilapidated old buildings abound constantly catching ones eye with their rustic charm. We stopped to see the Queens Palace (Rova) and the Prime Ministers Palace both gutted by fire in 1995 and 1975 respectively with the latter having been restored. The views over the city from the Upper town were spectacular with mist hugging distant mountains to the East.

Finally it was time to head back to the airport. En route I rolled down the window to suck in the air as we passed people preparing for traditional Saturday weddings, vendors busily setting up for the day and Zebu carts rattling along the streets.

Madagascar is a country with no end of problems. Rampant ‘tavy’ or slash and burn of the precious forests in order for the Malagasy people to feed their families and the complicated political spectrum denying the people of long overdue elections are to name but two. That said I could not help be encapsulated by my short trip to this land. Despite an economy in turmoil and being one of the poorest countries in the world I found there is no shortage of laughter as you travel through towns and villages. The wildlife seen in one short week was amazing and left me wanting more.

The highlight? Standing still in the majesty of the forest at Andasibe listening to the call of the Indri echoing all around me.

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