Exploring Madagascar

Oliver Greenfield

20 Nov 2015

Day 1 & 2 Antananarivo & Tulear

Ever heard of goosebumps in thirty degree heat? Well thats what I experienced on arriving in Antananarivo, excitement of the adventures to come were at an all time high. I was unsure of what to expect from this exotically named city but what I found surprised me. It’s certainly a melting pot of cultures and style but what I wasn’t quite expecting was the river of green rice paddies that seems to flow through the city. It was a nice surprise to see the colourful Jacaranda trees in full flower, immediately making me feel at home and reminiscent of my time spent in South Africa.

Today I flew down to the south west coast and the town of Tulear, once used by the French as one of the main ports connecting Madagascar to the African continent. You can see and feel the African influence immediately, the music blaring out of the many roadside stalls has the rhythmic beat you hear all over the mainland.

From Tulear we took a short drive north up the coast and stopped at the Honko Mangrove Conservation project. Honko recently won a gold award for best wildlife conservation at the 2015 Responsible Tourism Awards. The initiative was founded in 2007 to protect the threatened mangrove forests. The forests have been cut down by the local villagers as they used the wood to make charcoal. Over 50% of the original mangrove forest had been cut down before the project began. Since 2007 Honko has replanted nearly half of the area that was originally damaged. Philemon, who was our guide, is the guardian of the mangroves and works very closely with the volunteers at Honko and the local communities to educate them about the importance of this ecosystem. The project is not only set up to help protect the mangroves but also has helped local women set up small weaving businesses of their own where they sell their hand woven products from bags to hats. This is a fantastic project that is doing invaluable work and most deserved of its success. Not to be missed!

Further up the coast we passed the many small fishing villages with the men heading out in their small pirogues for days at a time to get past the reef and get to the best fishing spots. Tonight I am spending the night at Les Dunes in Ifaty which is a lovely reed thatched property with sea view rooms looking out on to the Mozambique channel.

Day 3 Ifaty - Isalo

An early start this morning to get to the spiny forest before the sun turned the temperature up. As the name suggests the spiny forest is full of plants with spines, but not cactus as you may at first think. Instead the name derives itself from the Didiereacea family, which have small leaves and spines but are a woody plant as opposed to the succulent cacti. Also known as the spiny thicket, it is one of Madagascar’s seven eco-regions and covers this southern and south-western area. The area is also famous for its Baobabs; the private reserve I was visiting had lots of great examples of these rather peculiar trees.

The birdlife in the thicket is also prolific with my first sighting of one of the endemic Coua species, the running Coua. Throughout the day I saw three of the total six species, including the Green Capped Coua and the Giant Coua.

As we left the coastal town of Tulear we paid a short visit to the Arboretum, a very interesting collection of plants from all over this southern part of Madagascar and fascinating to learn about all the medicinal and in some cases toxic uses of the trees. It was here that I got to see my very first lemur in the wild and at 10am in the morning I was very surprised it was a nocturnal Reddish Grey Mouse Lemur. This is a tiny species and I think it was rather surprised it had been spotted by my eagle eyed guide, as it was hiding away in the thick branches of a tree with only its big eyes to give it away.

From here we started our drive northwards along the RN7 towards Isalo. On the way we stopped for a walk around Zombitse National Park. This park contains a transitional forest, meaning that this is where the spiny forest of the south and the rainforests of the north east meet. 

The park is most well known for its sightings of the Verreaux Sifaka, also known as the dancing sifaka.

The park also has some endemic bird species such as the Appert’s Greenbul. I couldn’t believe our luck when we saw both of these within 15 minutes of entering the park and not just fleeting glimpses! The Appert’s Greenbul was patiently incubating its eggs in its nest, while posing perfectly for the camera. The Sifaka were being rather lazy, but I wasn’t going to complain as it gave the perfect opportunity for some great shots. Further along we spotted the nocturnal Hubbard’s Lemur, which was making a daytime appearance due to the heat being too much for it to sleep.

As I watched this lemur I noticed a small hand grab its neck, shortly followed by a tiny face squashed between mother and tree as it tried to see what was making such a racket outside. As we neared the end of our walk I was more than thrilled with the outcome of our visit, however it was not to end there. We heard a grumbling in the tree above and as we looked up spotted a Red Fronted Brown Lemur seemingly unimpressed with the proximity of a Giant Coua on the same branch. What followed was a rather amusing tussle of who should take dominance of said branch, with eventually the lemur making a big leap to a nearby tree and a dash to catch up with its group and the Coua looking rather pleased as it called out its triumph.

From Zombitse we continued our journey to Isalo and almost immediately the scenery abruptly changed gone was the semi scrubland that had dominated most of the journey so far, opening up to a vast grassland not to dissimilar to that you might find in somewhere like the Serengeti. This stretch of road was also dominated by a few towns that had sprung up due to the discovery of Sapphires in the region, giving a feeling of the Wild West and its gold rush.

Approaching Isalo the scenery again dramatically changed with the sudden sandstone outcrops that rose before us out of the grassland. We arrived at the hotel in time for a nice relaxing massage and a delicious dinner, what better way to end a lemur filled day and whet the appetite for the day to come exploring this stunning landscape.

Day 4 Isalo National Park

Before I tell you about the adventure of today I must apologise, as I have so far failed to mention my two exceptional travel companions. Firstly there is Miahy my extremely knowledgeable, passionate and forever smiling guide. Secondly Mparany my patient and reliable driver, without him who knows where I may have ended up!

Those that know me, will know that I am not the most pro-active person for exercise, I have always got some kind of an excuse for not joining the gym and for the last few weeks it has been this trip, not sure what it will be when I get back! Anyway having said this I do like a good walk and that’s just what I got today. Setting off early we went and met our guide for the day, Rowland. What this guy doesn’t know about the flora and fauna of the park isn’t worth knowing!

The walk started with a short ascent to the top of the escarpment and some fantastic views out over the plains below. Rowland is a member of the Bara tribe who live in this area of Madagascar, some of their customs are very similar to those practiced by many African tribes. Here your wealth is shown by the number of cattle (Zebu) you have and young men have to prove their worth to marry by stealing someone else’s Zebu, so proving to the family of his wife-to-be, that he can provide for her. Although Rowland assured me that so far this has only happened in his dreams.

The Bara use the natural caves in these sandstone hills to bury their dead and each family will have two burial resting sites. One being a temporary one where they will lay the body to rest for a few years. After this time they will open up the tomb and remove the bones and take them back to their village to clean them and have a big party to celebrate that person’s life once more. How long this party lasts depends on the family’s wealth but they have been known to go on for a week or more! At the end of the party they will take the newly cleaned and wrapped bones back up into the hills and to the final resting place which is higher up than the temporary tomb and can involve some pretty demanding rock climbing; in some cases without ropes.

We continued our walk stopping to take in some of the spectacular views at every turn of the track. The scenery gave me the feeling that I had travelled far back into the age of the dinosaurs, when these rocks were being formed, but maybe this was just an influence of watching too much Jurassic park as a child.

The temperature was soaring quickly and there was the promise of cooling off in a naturally formed swimming pool to look forward to, so on we went. However upon reaching said pool I felt like it was mirage as it was less of a pool and more of a beach. It had been filled with sand washed down by the recent rains, Rowland informed me that this never used to happen but unfortunately there was a huge bush fire several years ago that ripped through a lot of the park and destroyed the plant life and as a result of this the level of soil erosion has increased dramatically causing this sand build up. Not to be defeated we carried on our walk with the promise of two other pools to cool off in. This part of the walk took us across some open plains and up onto the crest and then to the top of the gorge we were to descend down into.

Here the walk got a bit tough and the knees took the brunt of it as we descended, the promise of lunch spurring me on. With a sense of relief we reached the bottom and there laid before us was our picnic lunch table, including table cloth, and an ice cold bottle of coke, that lasted mere seconds as I thirstily drained it. What was to follow was a lovely picnic lunch of the Malagasy staple of rice and Zebu and it tasted heavenly. I was also briefly paid a visit by a ring tailed lemur that could obviously see that it had no chance of getting any of my lunch and soon scarpered before I had the chance of snapping a picture. Rowland didn’t stop for long as he was constantly pointing out different things to me including a tree boa and ground boa; what a pleasure to see snakes when you know they are not venomous.

From here we walked up the gorge a short distance to the two other natural swimming pools, the black and blue pools. It was absolute bliss to finally sink into the cooling water of the blue pool and afterwards relax on the sun baked rocks. 

However this wasn’t the end of our walk so we set off again to see what wildlife we could spot and not too far along we encountered two male Oustalet chameleons having a fight for dominance. Although it may be hard to believe from these generally sedate creatures, the fight was very vicious. We also got our bird spotting hats on and were successful with the endemic Benson’s rock thrush, also two males fighting to impress a female (there must have been something in the air up there today), Madagascan Kestrel, Crested Drongo and many others.

We finished our walk in time to pay a visit to ’The Window of Isalo’ for some sunset pictures, which were quite dramatic as a storm was brewing in the distance. However with some sore legs and just a little bit of a sunburnt neck it was time to get back to the hotel, the Jardin Du Roy, and reflect on a thoroughly informative, spectacular and enjoyable day.

Day 5 Isalo National Park - Ranomafana

Where I sit writing this couldn’t be more different from where my morning began. 

We left the sun-baked and dry sandstone outcrops of Isalo behind and continued our journey northwards. Firstly through vast grasslands and then gradually rising up into the highland eventually reaching our destination of the rainforest of Ranomafana. 

Just before lunch we reached the small reserve known as Anja. This is a small area of forest, 87 hectares, that the local village communities have decided to protect. This reserve started in 2001 and had a population of 150 ring-tailed lemurs, his has now grown to over 400. All proceeds from the reserve go to the maintenance and then directly into the local community. All of the guides also come from the local area. 

Within the first few minutes of entering the forest we spotted our first group of lemurs, all of which were quite contentedly having a midday nap. 

We carried on into the forest and found another group which had a couple of rather boisterous youngsters in the group. The ring-tailed lemurs generally give birth between late August and late October. As this gives the young ones the best chance of survival as at this time one of their biggest predators in the form of snakes are generally still hibernating. We sat and watched this group for a good 15 minutes as they went about their daily routines, one of which is licking rocks. This gives them nutrients and minerals that are missing in their diets and help neutralise any of the more toxic plants that they may have eaten. 

As we left the RN7 for Ranomafana the heavens opened as if perfectly timed to welcome us to the rainforest. Luckily, by the time we reached the village and Karibo Hotel the heaviest rain had moved on, allowing us to do a night walk. This was a great opportunity to spot plenty of chameleons, frogs and of course nocturnal lemur species. We waited patiently for the smallest lemur species in the area, the brown mouse lemur, to make its nightly appearance from its day time hiding place. This particular lemur must feel like quite a celebrity as no sooner had it popped its head out the camera shutters were going coupled with plenty of oohs and aahs as it jumped from branch to branch. The number of chameleons we saw certainly didn’t disappoint with 7 different species seen within about 50 metres.

Day 6 - Ranomafana

Today’s objective was to seek out the bamboo lemurs, in this case the Golden and the Greater Bamboo lemurs. Ranomafana National Park is well known as being home to these two species, unfortunately in the case of the Greater Bamboo Lemur it only has two individuals left and they are father and daughter and so the end of the line for this species here in the park. 

As the park is so big, 87,000 hectares, Miahy not only organised a local guide for me but also a lemur spotter, who set off at a pace to check the areas where the lemurs are most often seen. We followed in his trail stopping to look at the smaller things as we went, such as the deceptive snout-nosed chameleon and Madagascar giraffe weevil. After a while we could hear the distinctive call of the ground roller to one side of the path. Each of us stopped, listening intently to try and pinpoint its location. Just then my guide heard the call of the golden bamboo lemur and off we dived into the forest the other side to the location of the ground roller. After some ducking and diving under bamboo and vines we came across a small group of lemurs as they went about getting their breakfast. After a while of watching them go about their business my guide called some of the other guides to let them know we had found this group and then we waited for other visitors to arrive before moving on. 

We carried on our walk up and down over the hillside. Not long after, my guide received a call from another guide and with a quick change of direction we were off through the forest again. 

The next time we stopped I was face-to-face with one of only two greater bamboo lemurs in the park. 

The daughter was sat perhaps two metres from me happily munching on a bamboo shoot while her father sat below both completely unperturbed by our presence. To say I couldn’t believe my luck would be an understatement. 

This lemur species are territorial so it is not like they will roam over the entire park but still the territory is quite large to make it a little bit like looking for a needle in a haystack. Following on from this fantastic sighting we saw a black and white ruffed lemur, this species likes to spend its time mostly up in the canopy and this individual was no different, so not the easiest to get great photos of but a pleasure to watch. 

After all of this excitement in the park we jumped back in the car and headed off east to the village of Kianjavato and the Kianjavato lemur project that NWS sponsors. Here I had a tour around the facility and saw just one of the nurseries for forest plant species they have set up as a big part of the project is reforestation. One of the main aims is to set up two lemur corridors to connect the remaining parts of forest. After the tour we headed into the forest where the project is conducting its lemur research. They have collared individuals of three different species, the Greater Bamboo Lemur, the Black & White Ruffed Lemur and the Aye Aye. As it was still too early for the Aye Aye we set off in search of the other two species. The Greater Bamboo Lemurs are thriving in this forest we saw three separate groups. One of these groups was very happy with our presence and allowed us to watch them for quite a while. The group consisted of 13 individuals including 4 young, one being only 10 days old.  It is great to see such success happening in these protected areas and to see the direct the positive effects that tourists are having here.

Day 7 Ranomafana - Tana

We left Ranomafana this morning just the same as we arrived, in the rain. So far my luck seems to be holding out and the rain seems to strike on travel days, keeping my fingers crossed this continues. 

The drive today took me through a few large towns/cities. First was Ambositra which is well known for being a centre for crafts with marketry and weaving being prevalent. The next city was Antsirabe considered to be the agricultural heartland. As you near the city you are surrounded by farms, rice paddies as far as the eye can see, interspersed with other crops and even some fruit orchards. Antsirabe is also an industrial town with a few big factories, textiles, tobacco and soap being the main ones. 

The final large town before Antananarivo is Ambatolampy. This town is known for its aluminium wares. Although Madagascar does not have its own source of aluminium the residents of Ambatolampy take used aluminium items and turn them into cooking pots and the like. 

Arriving into Antananarivo just after 6pm I got to experience the Tana rush hour. Which can make you glad of the relative orderliness of the M25, with no traffic lights at junctions and seemingly no order as to who goes first. 

So my journey North along the RN7 has come to an end, it is a fascinating and stunningly beautiful cross section of this great red island. Tomorrow I will fly south again, but this time to the south east and the city of Fort Dauphin, the Mandrare river and the Ifotaka forest community reserve.

Day 8 Tana - Mandrare River Camp

Today was to be my second experience of Air Madagascar, also known at times as Mad Air. Again it couldn’t have gone smoother. My destination was Fort Dauphin on the south east coast but first we stopped in Morondava on the west coast. This area is probably most famous for the Avenue Des Baobabs, from the window on the plane I could see that the landscape was dotted with these odd-looking trees. A short stop here to pick up more passengers and off we set again to Fort Dauphin. 

The scenery as you come into land at Fort Dauphin is nothing but stunning, rugged mountains on one side and turquoise blue ocean on the other, my idea of heaven. I was met by Andreas my guide from Mandrare River Camp and we departed on our drive to the camp. The camp is about 100km from Fort Dauphin however the drive takes about 4 hours. I know this seems a rather ridiculous time for quite a short distance, but you haven’t seen the road. You can’t even describe it as badly potholed as it is just one mass of potholes. However don’t be put off as every bump and jolt is absolutely worth it to get to this stunning camp. I was kept entertained on the drive by Andreas as he informed me not only about the different vegetation we were passing through but the different beliefs and culture of the local people here.

The accommodation at the camp is in safari-style tents overlooking the river, it's absolutely idyllic setting with plentiful birdlife around the camp. 

No sooner had I arrived than we were off again to head to the Ifotaka community reserve. This is a spiny forest reserve set up by the local community. The idea was to do a night walk here and see if we could spot any of three nocturnal lemur species which are resident here. With a full moon up in the night sky it was the perfect evening to be walking around the forest. 

Within the first few minutes we had spotted a mouse lemur and could hear some sportive lemurs calling. 

However the sportive lemurs proved rather elusive as every time we got near to their call they would go silent and were nowhere to be seen in the trees. This continued right until the last few minutes of the walk, when there above us was the lemur that had been giving us the run around. 

Back at camp I was greeted by a beautiful view of the full moon across the river from my tent.

Day 9 Mandrare

Thursdays and Saturdays at Mandrare are market days at two of the nearby villages. So as it was a Thursday I set off to the local village of Ifotaka after breakfast to have a wander around the market. It proved to be a fascinating visit as this is not some tourist market but a proper village market, with people coming from far and wide to trade their goods. There was everything on sale from clothing to livestock. The market provides a great opportunity for a catch up with many groups of people gathered under the shade of the tamarind trees having a good gossip about the goings on in their communities. The experience seemed far more enjoyable for these villagers than my weekly trip to the supermarket thats for sure.

After the market I was driven a short distance to where we would cross the river to reach the sacred canopy forest we would be walking in. In this area many of the forests are sacred, as this is where the tribe in this region bury their dead. The forest we were to walk in is not still in use as a burial ground but you must still obey three rules - not to remove anything from the forest, no toilet breaks in the forest and no pointing with a finger (a rather difficult one to remember, and so resulted in me walking around with clenched fists). As you enter the forest you see a few zebu skulls hanging in the tree. If one of the rules is broken it is tradition that a zebu is sacrificed to appease the ancestors.

The forest is predominantly made up of large tall trees, such as the tamarind, and so provides a lovely shady walk. There are two species of diurnal lemur that have made this their home, the ring-tailed and the Verreaux's sifaka. Once again, within minutes we came across our first species, this time the ring-tailed lemur. We sat and watched the group for quite a while as they were grooming and seemed to be getting ready to move on to forage. Then they were off jumping from tree to tree then onto the ground and back up to the tree, all in the search of food. While trying to keep up with them we saw a white browed owl perched close by who was taking quite an interest in them. 

This species of owl is nocturnal but this time of the year is mating season and they will become daytime active. The owl was far smaller than any of the lemurs in this group but it decided to give a hunt a go anyway. No surprise to say it failed quite dramatically with the lemurs standing their ground and the owl making a swift exit. With the temperature rising even in the shady forest and no sign of the sifaka we decided it was time to head back to camp for lunch.

As I had been out of luck to see the sifaka earlier I decided to spend the afternoon back in the spiny forest of the previous afternoon to try my luck there. It didn’t take long until my guide had located a rather boisterous group of them all chasing each other through the trees with their giant leaps. Eventually they decided on a place to come to rest. I spent quite a while watching them, all the time willing them to come down onto the ground and perform their famous dance, for which they are known as the dancing sifaka. It is due to having much shorter arms than their legs that they have taken to do this two legged almost sideways hop and skip rather than use all fours like the other lemur species. 

As the sun started to descend down to the horizon my guide suggested we move on from this area of the spiny forest and head towards a group of baobabs for a sundowner. I didn’t need much persuading on this idea. Arriving at the baobabs there was already a table and chairs set up with an array of nicely chilled drinks on offer. So with a local Malagasy beer in hand, I settled in to watch the sunset and learnt how to make fire without the use of matches, something I have failed many a time at and which the guys from the lodge made look very easy and the bush tv was soon blazing away.

Day 10 Mandrare - Manafiafy

This morning I faced the prospect of the bumpy road back to Fort Dauphin with an additional two hours to get to my next destination. The drive back to Fort Dauphin proved to be quite thrilling. Big black clouds seemed to close in on us from all sides as we tried to beat the inevitable downpour of rain. It was no surprise that the clouds won and we were soon surrounded by a wall of water with people running in all directions to find shelter. The potholes soon turned to ponds and the remaining road into a river but still, my driver was undeterred and ploughed on through. 

Our timing was perfect as we reached Fort Dauphin at lunchtime and also the end of the rain. The chosen location for lunch was a beachside restaurant serving the most delicious food straight out of the sea, heavenly. But no time to sit and admire the view for too long as the beach at Manafiafy beckoned. The scenery on the drive east from Fort Dauphin to Manafiafy is completely different to that going to Mandrare and again provides a wonderful distraction to the condition of the road. Here we were passing fields of pineapples and pitcher plants with a backdrop of towering mountains. 

Again the drive is absolutely worth it as Manafiafy is without doubt a small secluded piece of paradise. 

Each bungalow is set far apart and with direct beach access. The beach is stunning and being in a bay protected by rocks the sea is calm perfect for swimming, which was the first thing I did.

After my refreshing swim it was time to head into one of the two rainforests here for a night walk. We started out just before sunset giving us a chance to see some diurnal lemurs aswell as the nocturnal ones. As always in the rainforests you have to do as much listening as you do looking, and it was the calls of our first lemur that gave away their location. Another new species for me this time with the brown collared lemur. After only a short few minutes gazing up at them they were off leaping through the trees and try as we might we couldn't keep up. As the darkness grew Ali, my guide, told me it was time to start the competition as to who could find one of the smallest species of chameleon first, the elongate leaf chameleon. No prizes for guessing it wasn’t me but my local guide who won the day, of course as soon as one was spotted they seemed to be all over the place just like waiting for a bus. 

Our nighttime hunt didn’t end there as we still had the nocturnal lemurs to find, these being the south eastern woolly lemur and the dwarf fat tailed lemur. Once found the woolly lemur was happy to pose for the camera and was perhaps as inquisitive of us as we were of it. However the dwarf lemur was far too busy to stop and pose for a picture as it foraged for its night time feast. It was all over too quickly and it was back to the lodge for a delicious dinner and an early night drifting off to the sound of the waves lapping against the beach yards from my bungalow.

Day 11 Manafiafy

With the first rays of sun brightening my room I couldn’t resist an early morning swim before breakfast. Having passed plenty of pineapples growing yesterday I had high hopes for fresh pineapple at breakfast and I wasn’t disappointed.

Once breakfast was devoured, a motorboat pulled up on the beach and my guide and I jumped in for the short trip across the bay for a walk in the second rainforest surrounding the lodge. Starting the walk surrounded by bright red hibiscus it didn’t feel much like a rainforest, my guide explained that they were planted by the previous French owner along with some monkey puzzle trees. As we climbed up the hillside the humidity rose and we entered into the rainforest. Ali had been telling me how last week he was lucky enough to of found a Madagascan long eared owl's nest complete with chick. So we headed off in that direction to see if we could get a sighting. Along the way we were joined by some collared brown lemurs jumping through the canopy above us.

We reached the nesting site, seemingly a pile of twigs precariously perched in the fork of a tall Pandanus. The forest around was eerily quiet suggesting the presence of the owls however we couldn’t locate them. On the ground all around the nest was the evidence of the owls presence, with clumps of fur and bones scattered around. We sat patiently listening for any telltale sounds or movement but it was not to be our lucky day and so with some reluctance we moved on. 

We eventually reached the beach again and an area called ‘the aquarium’, another bay sheltered by rocks providing crystal clear calm waters. Donning our masks and snorkels we went straight in and were greeted by a myriad of colourful fish of all shapes and sizes. We spent a fair amount of time exploring this secluded cove and discovering all its inhabitants. 

On the way back to the lodge we stopped off at the local village to see the fishermen as they came back in with their mornings catch. This was a hubbub of activity as people from villages far inland flocked down to the beach to bargain for the best deal and with baskets full of fish they started their trek back inland. 

Later on in the afternoon it was time to get back on the boat for a birdwatching trip into the mangroves, here our main quarry was to be the malachite kingfisher. As we entered into the mangrove and began spotting some birds the camera came out and I realised what a rookie error I had made by leaving my memory card back in my laptop in the room. So of course it goes without saying that for the rest of the trip we were spotting plenty of beautiful birds including lots of kingfishers all taunting me with perfect photo opportunities. The memories will just have to suffice and I actually think I got far more out of the trip by putting the camera away and not just concentrating my attention through a camera lens.

Day 12 Manafiafy - Fort Dauphin

Today it was time to tear myself away from the beach and rainforests at Manafiafy, this was made a little easier by the light rain and grey clouds that had moved in overnight. Thankfully the journey out seemed quicker and less bumpy. As it was a Sunday we passed lots of villages with either people on the way to church dressed in their best or already packed-full churches in mid service with the roofs being lifted high by the singing. 

Just before reaching Fort Dauphin I stopped off at Nahampoana reserve. This is a small private reserve that used to be a botanical garden and is now home to several species of lemur and is well known for providing some great photo opportunities. Unfortunately my luck didn’t hold out here as the heavens opened on my arrival. I didn’t let this put me off and I had a wet but enjoyable tour around led by Alphonso a very keen and excitable guide. Alphonso was determined to find the lemurs for me, which he did however the lemurs were not playing ball and were all huddled up high in the trees - and I couldn’t really blame them! After this it was into Fort Dauphin and my accommodation for the night and time to dry off.

Day 13 Fort Dauphin - Antananarivo - Andasibe

Today would be my third and final flight with Air Madagascar and after several time changes to the original departure time, all went very smoothly again (with the new earlier departure time actually working out well for me). 

On arriving in Tana, Miahy was there to meet me and we jumped straight into the car and set off towards our destination of Andasibe. The drive took us out to the east of Tana on a windy road back up through the highlands. Once again this is a rich agricultural land, however this does mean that the environment has paid a price here as huge areas of forest have been cleared to make way for all the fields. The closer we got to Andasibe the more I noticed the scorched hill sides, the slash and burn technique of farming unfortunately seems to be far too popular in this area. The idea behind this is that just before the rains start people will burn areas and then plant them with seeds. once the rains hit the burnt areas have a sudden increase in growth and provide a good crop. However this will only produce one decent crop and after that the soil is very infertile and so people just move onto the next patch of forest. This is a completely unsustainable way of farming but many people believe it is their right to do it as their ancestors before them did. 

Andasibe is probably most well known for being the home of the indri, the largest species of lemur. The indri have a very distinctive and eerie call and this is the call that greeted me as I arrived into the village. Something I can only liken to the sound of whales, a truly fantastic sound. An evening in the rainforest can only mean one thing, time for a night walk. Torches in hand and covered in mosquito spray we set off to see what delights awaited. 

Our first find was a short-horned chameleon who was waiting patiently for any unsuspecting insect to come within tongue shot.

A little while later my guide picked up some eyeshine in a nearby bush which, with further investigation, revealed the extremely cute Goodman’s mouse lemur. It seemed like we had woken it early from its sleep as it was struggling to keep both eyes open. Although it didn’t take long for it to wake up fully and jump off further into the bush looking for some food. 

We were also lucky enough to spot two separate furry-eared dwarf lemurs who were far too busy to stop long enough for a photo. All in all a successful evening followed by dinner at the lodge an early night in preparation for my day in the Analamatroza special reserve and Mantadia National Park and my search for the indri.

Day 14 Andasibe

Having heard much talk of the indri and my appetiser yesterday afternoon of hearing their call, it was with much excitement that I set off from my hotel this morning on my quest to see them for myself. I started my morning in the Analmazotra special reserve, located just by the village of Andasibe. A relatively small reserve that is known to have three family groups of indri that are quite used to the presence of humans.

Before hearing the morning call of the indri it was the call of a bird that captured my local guide's attention and he was soon in conversation with it as he mimicked its call perfectly. Within moments the lovely blue coua hopped out from its hiding place on a branch to investigate what was going on. However, before I had a chance to get my camera ready he had determined that we were just impostors and the pretty female coua and hopped right back to its hiding place not to call again to us!

We carried on deeper into the forest until my guide kept on stopping and listening, to what, I could not quite work out. Finally, he stopped and declared "the indri are here". I still had not heard a thing and couldn’t quite work out how he knew this with such certainty. But sure enough above our heads was a family of three indri, parents and young one. I later learned that the noise my guide heard was a very soft grunting/humming noise that they use. We stayed with this family for around 45 minutes perhaps but they were so captivating it seemed a mere few, all the time it was just our small party of three. However the indri did not stay still as they moved through the trees with us at times struggling to keep up. I couldn’t blame them for wanting to keep moving as they had a good few horseflies buzzing around them - I could feel their pain. Eventually they did settle down enabling me to get a really good look at them. The indri are the largest species of lemur and also the only species not to have a long tail, instead have a very short stubby one. Unfortunately, during all my time with them this family did not treat me to being present when they made their call, but the rest more than made up for that. 

The indri is only one of twelve different species present in this forest, six diurnal species and six nocturnal. The next lemur I saw was again a new one for me, the diademed sifaka, an absolutely beautiful species with markings of almost golden fur hence the name. As we got to the spot where they had be found, some of the youngsters were being particularly playful with a bit of rough and tumble, while others lazed in the trees one in particular seemed to have a found a particularly comfortable spot, almost like a hammock. 

Unfortunately time was against me and we had to make a quick exit from this forest to make our way to Mantadia National Park. This is a huge national park made up of primary forest, meaning that it has not previously been damaged by de-forestation and you are able to see many fantastic examples of the Palissandre tree, a species of rosewood, that would otherwise have been cut down. 

Again the park is well known as a place to see the indri, however due to its size and being a little further away to Andasibe it is a lot more wild and you may have to work a bit harder to see them, but it all makes for a great adventure. We started off by climbing up the hillside to a view point out over the forest, this gave me a great impression of how the surrounding countryside should have looked had de-forestation not occurred on such a huge scale already. At the top of the hill it all seemed a bit quiet and my guide informed me that being just after midday it is more likely that the lemurs would be back down the hill having a bit of a siesta. Although a lovely day (weather-wise) time was playing against us as even back down the slope the lemurs were proving elusive. So we decided to concentrate some time on the smaller things like the golden orb web spider (I seemed to be walking through plenty of their webs!) and the different lizards and frogs we could find. We did have another sighting of a pair of diademed sifaka, but they didn’t want to stay around our company too long and were soon off through the trees. 

Getting back to my hotel in the evening I was exhausted but absolutely thrilled with the day's events and adventures.

Day 15 Andasibe - Palmarium

When I have had time on my trip here in Madagascar, I have been reading a book called the Aye Aye & I by Gerald Durrell, a very entertaining read as suggested by some of my colleagues. In the book he writes about his trip in an effort to save some of the more endangered species of the country, with one of them being the aye aye. Unfortunately, the aye aye is seen as a very bad omen by many Malagasy and is often killed when found too close to someone's home. Today was my chance to see this mysterious animal. 

First there was the task of getting to Palmarium, a journey which by my past travel days was relatively short and involved a boat trip through part of the Pangalanes Canal system. This a network of canals and lakes on the eastern coast of the island and was originally built by the French for the transportation of spices up and down the coast by avoiding the rough seas of the ocean, which is just a mere hundred metres or so away. The boat trip was an interesting ride as we passed a few small fishing villages and saw the many different techniques the local people use to catch the fish. 

We arrived at Palmarium lodge just in time for a delicious lunch of grilled prawns. The lodge sits in a small reserve of the same name, the reserve is there to protect a small section of the eastern coastal rainforest. The reserve plays home to many different species of lemur, such as the indri, crowned lemur, black, common brown, diademed sifaka and a few hybrid’s between the common brown, black and the crowned lemurs. 

Just after 5pm we boarded the boat again for the short trip to the island of the aye aye. The island was actually built by Palmarium and the local villagers who took two years to dig a big trench to separate it off and so create a protected area for the aye aye. There are six resident aye aye here and all have been rescued from areas where they would certainly have been killed. Their diet consists of a mix of fruit and insects. Before the creation of the island, the area was lacking in fruit-producing trees, so the community planted a few different species to help to feed the aye aye. However, while these trees mature the community provides a small amount of food for the animals. So, with a basket of delights, we set off into the middle of the island and with a few coconuts set in the forks of trees we sat and waited to see if the aye aye would join us. 

Now for those of you who may not know what an aye aye looks like or even is then it is quite possibly one of the strangest looking animals on the planet. Probably one of the easiest ways of describing it is as a gremlin - I am sure the movie must have been based on the looks of these animals. 

They really do have to be seen to be believed. As it got darker it didn’t take long for one to sniff out the coconut and make its way down. I was informed the aye aye have very sharp front teeth that they use to bite through the shell they then use their very long bony fingers to scrape out the flesh inside. Soon we were joined by three more all doing the same thing. We only used one source of light so as not to disturb them too much and only kept it on for a few minutes at a time. They are truly fascinating animals and I could have watched them all night (but you cannot stay too long with them again to keep disturbance to a minimum). It was great to see such hard work being done to help this species and I felt very privileged to have been able to see them.

Day 16 Palmarium - Antananarivo

My last full day on the red island, I can’t believe how quickly my time has gone here. So, with my last opportunity for lemur spotting we set off early into the reserve. The photo opportunities here are fantastic as the lemurs are very used to the presence of humans and will come quite close. We heard the indri start their morning call and rushed to see if we could locate them while they were still calling but it wasn’t to be my lucky day again. My guide also pointed out the presence of the carnivorous pitcher plant, which seemed to attract a gecko that was hoping for an easy meal on the insects attracted to the plant. Close to the lodge we spotted a beautiful female crowned lemur with her 10 day old baby safely tucked in. 

Too soon it was time to board the boat for the start of my journey back to the capital. We stopped in a small town for a lunch break and I thought it about time I tried the local Malagasy cuisine and so, at a very popular restaurant with the taxi drivers (always a good sign I was told), I soon got stuck into a big plate of yellow rice with meat and vegetables and it was delicious, only regret being I hadn’t been eating it earlier on my trip. 

Back in the car and the drive to Tana gave me plenty of time to reflect on what has been a fantastic trip through this fascinating country. It has been great to see all the hardwork that is being done by people to try and protect the remaining natural habitats that are so important for so many endemic species.

Comments

Rachel

2/12/2015 11:30 AM

I'm loving this, looks like you're having an incredible time in Madagascar - bring on Botswana!

Will Bolsover

27/11/2015 4:30 PM

Fantastic write up and great images - glad you are having fun and making the most of it Ol!

Arabella

26/11/2015 9:30 AM

Reminds me so much of my time in Madagascar. A really well written blog Olly! Can't wait for more updates, especially as you head down to Mandrare and Manafiafy.

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