Exploring Africa: A Trip Report from Madagascar, CAR and Congo by NWS David

David Gutiérrez

11 Sep 2018

Destination Specialist David gives us a day-by-day account of his exciting adventures in Africa.

Day 1

After a long travelling day, I finally arrived into Antananarivo, Madagascar, which turned out to be as chaotic as expected, but equally fascinating. The afternoon today is one to rest and recover before starting our safari tomorrow, and what better way to do it than spending some time in the hotel’s swimming pool and spa. A short walk in the surrounding area gives a first impression of the wonderfully chaotic city that is Antananarivo – I couldn’t be happier to be here.

Day 2

Today we started off with an early wake-up, and after a tasty and abundant buffet breakfast we proceeded to our cars, which were waiting for us to start the long drive to Palmarium Reserve. The first hour of the drive is only to cross the city, and then five more hours through the Malagasy countryside, one tiny village after another.

On the way, we enjoyed a tasty picnic lunch overlooking the beautiful rainforest of the island, before heading to the boat that would take us to our destination for the next two nights, the Palmarium Lodge and reserve. Right upon arrival we had our very first lemur interaction – a couple of black-and-white ruffed lemurs seemed to be waiting to greet us with their distinctive cry. 

That night we had one of the most special wildlife encounters of the whole trip, a night visit to Aye-Aye Island, probably the best spot in Madagascar to watch the very shy and nocturnal aye-aye lemurs. What used to be a peninsula was transformed by the locals into an island as a sanctuary for this critically endangered species, and now four families of semi-habituated aye-ayes inhabit this little island. Every night, a few coconuts are placed in specific spots of the island’s forest, and a small group of people accompanied by several guides wait in the dark so they can see from a distance how the lemurs descend from the canopy to eat the fruit.

Day 3

Today we explored the wildlife-rich Palmarium Reserve. We were able to arrange a late breakfast, which was much appreciated after the long travelling day the day before. Meals at the lodge are an experience in themselves, not only for the quality of the food (which is delicious), but also for the beautiful location of the restaurant overlooking the lake as well as the company of our black-and-white ruffed friends from the night before, who would jump over you to steal your bread and fruit if you weren't careful.

We started the hike with our own private local guide, Mario, who has been doing this for seven years and has the ability to spot the tiniest creature in the farthest branch of the tallest tree. Most of the time I thought he was joking when he stopped and pointed, but invariably every time we found a little chameleon, or a frog, or a gecko, or some other animal.

Walking around the reserve is an easy hike, quite relaxing and a fantastic introduction to the world of the lemurs and the unique Malagasy wildlife. There might not be as many different lemur species in Palmarium as in other national parks on the island, but due to the fact the forest is composed of low trees, you get to see the lemurs much closer than in other parts of the island. In total, we spotted seven different species of lemur, several panther chameleons and a variety of tiny frogs.

That evening, we were lucky to enjoy another visit to Aye-Aye Island, and even though we had heavy rain for a little while, it was well worth getting wet to see the little guys one more time.

Day 4

Back to the early wake-ups, we were sad to say goodbye to Palmarium, but at the same time very excited for our next destination, Andasibe and Mantadia National Parks, which comprise the second-largest extension of protected rainforest in Madagascar.

Looking out from the car on your way there, you can already see how the landscape is different from Palmarium: the trees are taller, the vegetation is denser and the terrain is much more rugged. It is not only bigger, but also more crowded than our previous destination. Being only three hours away from the capital, Antananarivo, the national parks of Andasibe and Mantadia are some of the most visited in Madagascar.

We will visit the parks in the following days but for today, we enjoyed a short hike in one of the community reservations, in search of our first completely wild and unhabituated lemurs. It doesn’t take long before we see the first family of brown lemurs leaping from branch to branch close to the park entrance.

Sightings in this area are very different than in Palmarium, but I would say they are even more special. While it is true you see them much more briefly and farther away here, you have the feeling that you are seeing them in their true habitat, and behaving exactly in the way they would if there was nobody around; as a wildlife enthusiast, that is more exciting to me than having them come to steal bananas from your breakfast table.

After some more hiking, we also spotted a group of beautiful indri and a second family of brown lemurs – not a bad reward for a 2-hour walk! Completely satisfied and tired after another long day, we finally made our way back to our lodge to relax for the evening.

Day 5

This was our first full day spent within the Andasibe region, and we used it to explore the beautiful Mantadia National Park. With several different trails of varying difficulties, Mantadia is home to a wide array of wildlife, including several species of lemurs and plenty of amphibians, reptiles and birds of all kinds. The trek we chose took us on a 4-hour hike up and down throughout the hilly landscape of the park, ending at a beautiful viewpoint almost on top of a hill with a breathtaking view of the valley below.

Something I loved about Mantadia is that it is so large and has so many different tracks that even if there are several groups in the park at the same time, more often than not you’ll spend the whole day without seeing or hearing anyone except those in your group. What you do see in abundance are lemurs (especially if you have guides as good as we did). Today we tracked two different families of golden sifakas, a family of indri and a group of brown lemurs.

Once we finished our trek, we had a quick but reinvigorating picnic lunch and drove back to our lodge to get ready for the night walk. As soon as the sun went down, we began our night activity and drove back to the forest community reservation (where we walked the first afternoon) and turned on our headlights and torches to look for the nocturnal wildlife of the park. While the experience wasn’t perfect since the area was more crowded than we expected, it was all worth it when we spotted chameleons, frogs, geckos, a mouse lemur and even the glowing eyes of a woolly lemur in the dark of the night.

Day 6

Our sixth day on the island was fully loaded with activities, but the highlights were without a doubt our morning hike in Andasibe National Park and the night walk in the more secluded Eulophiella Private Reserve.

After breakfast, we drove about 10 minutes from our lodge to the national park formerly known as Analamazaotra, which was officially renamed in 2015 to Andasibe (the name of the closest town to the park) in order to boost tourism, since the original name was too difficult to pronounce for tourists. This is the most popular park in Madagascar, and felt slightly more crowded than the day before. However, due to the fantastic work of our guide, we were able to once again walk through the most secluded parts of the park and still enjoy fantastic lemur sightings away from the main group's path.

There is something unique about walking alone in this park and hearing the different groups of indri lemurs communicating with each other from many kilometres away – their powerful, distinctive cry breaking the forest’s silence is one of the sounds that I will never forget. The best moment of the day was probably when our guide was able to track a female indri carrying her little baby on her back. We then watched the little one playing around with her mother for a while.

After dinner, we headed out for our second night walk, in this case a much more enjoyable experience. Approximately 45 minutes away from the lodge, Eulophiella Private Reserve was everything we were hoping for. Completely alone in the forest this time, we were able to locate a few chameleons, frogs and lizards, and a very rare hairy-eared dwarf lemur. 

Leaving the best 'til last, we finished our wildlife experience in Madagascar’s Eastern Rainforest spotting a mother woolly lemur with her baby, something quite unusual for nighttime, since they tend to be more protective of their cubs due to the fear of nocturnal predators like the fossa.

Day 7

With a mandatory wildlife break for today, we packed up our things early in the morning and said goodbye to Madagascar’s eastern rainforest, a part of the island that not only has been our introduction to Malagasy wildlife, but has also given us the fantastic opportunity to learn about the wonderful people of this country and their customs and traditions. Our next destination will be Ranomafana National Park, another very popular wildlife destination in Madagascar, with a quick stopover in Antsirabe, often referred to as the cultural capital of the island.

Along the way we could see the gradual change in the landscape, from the vibrant green of the rainforest to the farmlands, the rock formations, the hills and the deep red soil of the high plateau. The drive is not a short one – about six hours – but the fairly good condition of the road and the excitement to see the other side of the country made it much more pleasant than previous journeys.

Around two hours before arriving, we stop in at a local community to enjoy a demonstration of the artisanal aluminium pot casting which is traditional in the area. Using recycled metal from old engines, broken computers and other sources, the artisans produce beautiful ornaments and cooking instruments in a completely traditional way (no machines involved) that they sell in the local market, as well as exporting to places all over Madagascar.

Day 8

It's a second driving day in a row as we make our way to Ranomafana National Park. After our late arrival yesterday, we were all excited to have some time to explore the city of Antsirabe, the second-most populated in the country. It certainly didn’t feel like a big and chaotic African city, in the way that Antananarivo did days ago, and with all its handicraft and artisan shops, it was the perfect place to shop for gifts or souvenirs to bring back home.

After all the shopping and exploring was done, we finally made our way to the mountain rainforest landscapes of Ranomafana, our destination for the next three nights. Practically hidden in a valley between the peaks of Madagascar’s central mountain chain, you are almost caught by surprise when within a couple of turns in the road, the scenery changes drastically from the dry rocky landscape of the high plateau to a luscious rainforest.

The forests of Ranomafana are comparable to Andasibe and Mantadia, but with the added element of a mountain landscape, which makes the view even more impressive (if possible). With all the excitement of a new beautiful destination to explore, but also being quite tired after two days of driving, we opted for an early dinner and used the evening to prepare for the adventures that the next two days would bring.

Day 9

We woke up today with another day full of activities ahead of us. In this case, three different hikes and plenty of opportunities for tracking the multiple lemur species, most of which we hadn’t seen yet. The morning started with an early wake-up, and after a large breakfast it was a short drive to the main entrance for our first hike – a 4-hour trek to the heart of the park.

We started off by tracking the highly endangered bamboo lemurs, of which there are two varieties in Ranomafana: the greater bamboo lemur (also present in other Malagasy forests) and the extremely rare golden bamboo lemur. Once again, we count on the tremendous expertise of our extremely knowledge local guide, in this case almost a celebrity in this area. As it turns out, he accompanied Dr Patricia Wright, the first American researcher who studied this forest when it wasn’t yet a national park, back in 1984-86. With her, they discovered the existence of the golden bamboo lemurs, unknown until then. After spending several years studying the area, they were able to transmit the idea of this forest’s invaluable ecological value to the authorities, and Ranomafana was included in the list of Madagascar's national parks in 1991.

After a challenging trek, we were able to spot greater bamboo lemurs and black-and-white ruffed lemurs, but unfortunately not the golden bamboo lemur. In any case, the hike couldn’t have been better and we are all delighted with the experience. 

Later that day we had an afternoon trek in the highlands of the park (where we tracked Milne-Edwards' sifakas and red-fronted brown lemurs) and a short night walk to see the elusive mouse lemurs, in addition to plenty of nocturnal frogs and chameleons.

Day 10

For our last day in the Ranomafana area, we drove around two hours to the Kianjavato Lemur Research Centre, where we learned about their wonderful research and conservation efforts. Before reaching the research centre, and with the company of Kianjavato trackers, we set off for some lemur tracking in the community forests that are used by the centre for their research.

This trek was probably the toughest one so far, since there are no trails or paths of any kind, and we had to make our way through dense vegetation and over steep hills during heavy rain. The lemurs at Kianjavato are not habituated to human presence, but a few of them carry radio collars and this is the way the scientists track them. We were lucky to get a close view of a group of greater bamboo lemurs (which according to the trackers doesn’t happen very often) and also saw more black-and-white ruffed lemurs.

After the hike, we enjoyed lunch in the research centre before the head of the project explained the wonderful job they do in the area. The work of the scientists and volunteers in the centre not only involves lemur research, but also an ambitious reforestation project. The numbers are quite impressive – in the last few years they have planted over 2 million individual trees and hope to keep planting around 500,000 per year until they are able to connect the four isolated patches of forest that make up the reserve. They then hope to create a protected national park, where before there was nothing. What is even more impressive is they have achieved all this with the involvement of the local community and the schools of the area, making them a vital part of the project success, and therefore ensuring their commitment to the protection and development of the forests.

Our last activity at Kianjavato was for each one of us to plant our own tree, contributing in this way to an amazing conservation project.

Day 11

Today we made our way to Isalo National Park, which will be our stop for the next three nights. En-route to Isalo, we enjoyed two interesting visits, the first one to the wine-producing region (yes, Madagascar also produces wine) of Ambalavao. Unfortunately, the wineries were closed on Sundays, so we couldn’t visit the production area. However, we were able to find a couple of Ambalavao’s rudimentary wine shops and even taste a few of their wines before leaving.

We also stopped in Anja Private Reserve, a community forest situated halfway between Ranomafana and Isalo, where we had our first contact with the characteristic Ring Tailed Lemurs that inhabit the drier areas of the South West part of the island. Following lunch, a ‘short’ two hour walk in the reserve, led by our expert guides, gave us the chance to spot plenty of these charismatic animals, and even take some very close-range pictures of the main group.

Continuing on our way to Isalo, the four hour drive from Anja allowed us to see one more landscape change from the low tree and conifers forest of the high plateau, to the vast savannah-like open spaces of South Western Madagascar, and the massive sandstone and granitic formations, with their impressive canyons and cliffs. This is probably the most impressive scenery so far.

Day 12

Our first morning in Isalo welcomed us with a beautiful sunrise over the sandstone hills. We were off to explore the National Park and enjoy a light trek over its canyons and hills. Unfortunately the area has been reduced considerably due to a big wild fire that burnt 80% of the park last summer. Although the fire wasn’t completely devastating, I could see its effects almost all the way from Anja, even with low grass and small bushes starting to grow again. Thankfully, there are still parts of the park where the fire didn’t reach, and even though the loss of wildlife hasn’t been properly measured, many of the animals were able to find cover and relocate to these areas.

Our three hour hike through one of the main canyons in the park was a beautiful one, following a little stream upwards to a waterfall and a couple of natural pools, always flanked by the tall vertical walls of the canyon. Only a few of us decided to defy the cold temperature of the water and dive into one of the pools for a quick swim, while the rest sat down for a rest, enjoying the beautiful scenery.

Day 13

This morning we visited a nearby park with a completely different ecosystem and its own varieties of lemurs and other wildlife. Zombitse National Park is a gallery forest situated around one and a half hours South West of Isalo. Our drive there was pleasant and we even passed through Ilakaka, a town which is the heart of the sapphire production in the island. These sapphires are only found in Madagascar and were discovered in the area around 1995. Since then, the town has grown from a 10 houses village to around 60,000 people.  I could see the river was crowded with local people searching for the stones, almost reminding you of the American gold rush in the 19th century.

On arrival at the National Park, we enjoyed an easy three hour walk. Zombitse is a large flat surface of gallery forest (something between the green canyons of Isalo and the desert-like spiny forest of the South-West), home of a wide variety of wildlife, and especially good for bird-watching. On our walk, we were able to find the famous Verraux’s Sifakas and two species of sportive lemur (one of them actually called Zombitse Sportiff Lemur), as well as many species of birds, chameleons and other small wildlife. After a picnic lunch in the forest, we drove back to Isalo for our last night there, and some of us used the free afternoon for a last hike in the park, following the well signposted trails starting at our hotel, and heading to the nearby canyons.

Day 14

Most of today was spent travelling. After getting up before dawn, we sat on our bus for the four hour drive to Tulear, the main coastal town in the South West of the island, a city with a domestic airport that allows easy access from the capital to the spiny forest and beach areas of this part of Madagascar. This morning was also my time to say goodbye to the group that had accompanied me during the last two weeks of my travel, and that had contributed to this wonderful experience.

After dropping me at a hotel near Tulear airport for my flight, I finally arrived back to Tana, from where I will be flying to Antsiranana tomorrow to start the next part of my trip.


Check back for more details on the rest of David’s trip.

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Comments

Tristan NWS

6/9/2018 11:05 AM

Love the chameleon shot!!! Enjoy mate!

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