More to Madagascar than lemurs

Suki Warden

15 Dec 2015

Arriving in Madagascar

As we descended into Ivato Airport a deforested landscape with a patchwork of rice fields came into view, spotted with small towns and eventually, the colourful capital of Antananavario (Tana). I was greeted at the airport by my guide with smiles and a warm welcome.  "Salama" he said as I was reminded of the similarity to "salamat" and "shalom". After picking up my luggage and exchanging USD for ariary, we set out en route to my hotel (the Pavillion De L'Emyrne), a short distance but nearly a full hour’s drive away.  There was heavy "rush hour traffic" which I am told lasts all day!

Much of the drive is scenic with the road paralleling a river, alive with activity. 

There were people fishing, women doing laundry and the grassy area between the river and the road is covered with colourful clothing set out to dry. The nearby rice fields (irrigated from the river) are spotted with a few long horned zebu in each plot, breaking up the clods of earth.  We pass local markets and stalls along the way and finally arrive in the tiered capital with long narrow winding streets, steep hills and bougainvillea if full bloom.

Pavillion De L' Emyrne:  Lovely architecture, friendly and helpful staff. I am shown to Rm 14 which is a very large room with an adjoining private veranda. There are plenty of outlets to charge my batteries and the room is clean, tastefully decorated and spacious.  On the down side, the veranda backs on to a noisy street below and because it is open air, mosquitoes were a problem at night. The other hotel rooms have the same charm, albeit are smaller, quieter and have no access for mosquitoes. 

There is a recently opened restaurant which is delightful and well managed. The meals I had were French cuisine with a nice Malagasy twist to them - lovely! The local teas were delicious. The restaurant manager is most gracious in sharing her recipes. I was able to get several recipes of my favourite dishes they prepared. It is safe to explore the town on foot or by taxi (beige vehicles); show the usual precautions and don't wander out alone at night.

Road trip along Highway 2 to Andasibe

It is drizzling with rain today and the temperature is 77 F. The road is paved, the local scenery tell-tale of a slash and burn type of agriculture. There are many road side stands selling charcoal made from eucalyptus trees. We pass areas that are hard hit from the seasonal cyclones that cause flooding and significant home destruction.  I am told the people in this region often flee to higher grounds during these times seeking refuge in churches, with friends or in temporary shelters.

Late morning we stop at the Andasibe National Reserve for a brief forest walk. I find myself snapping photos at every turn.

After lunch at a road side restaurant ($7 USD) we arrive at Vakona Forrest Lodge. It's 4 p.m and I am anxious to settle into my bungalow for a short rest. 

By 18:00 I'm off for an evening walk with a local guide, William who is locally referred to as "the son of the forest."  I was pleased to find his nick-name well deserved as he was passionate about the sustainability and diversity of Madagascar's rainforest and its inhabitants.  He knew the Latin names of species (flora and fauna) and often the English common names as well. (I should note that he was familiar with the common names in both Malagasy and French as well).

Masoala

He should have been a photographer. When it came to lemurs, William had a keen camera-angle sense (including lighting) and would position me for the best "kodak moment" experiences. My primary interest in the forest was to see the variety of insects, amphibians and other small animal life and not necessarily lemurs.  I found it helpful to express this to my guides, as the assumption is generally that tourists come to see the lemurs.  

This morning we leave by boat headed for Masoala Peninsular.  We stop midway for a picnic lunch and a nature walk in the nearby forest in Nosy Mangabe. Day time temperatures in Masoala were in the high 70s/low 60s at night. No rain. 

The beach seemed to stretch as far along the coast as the eye could see.  

Just in from the beach lies the secondary forest spotted with small villages.  It's a brisk 45 minute walk before entering the primary forest.  The terrain offers hikes to accommodate almost anyone, from very simple to very challenging. Each day I was able to fit in three full forest walks, rich with endless diversity, taking short breaks for meals or a relaxing swim.  The earth in the primary forest is soft and loamy and the air rich with oxygen. There is a stark absence of mosquitoes, sand flies or other biting insects and I am told there is no malaria or dengue in Masoala, no poisonous snakes, dangerous wildlife and no sharks near the beaches or shallow reefs.  This was also the first rainforest I had been in that I was not bothered by leeches.

The elusive "tomato frog"

My time in Masoala flew by and each moment there proved to be rich and memorable. It would be easy to spend a full month there, going deeper into the forests as the abundance of insect and animal life there seemed boundless.

Late this afternoon a sudden storm blew in.  We watched as the blackened sky, moved across the bay onto shore in a matter of minutes. The lodge staff immediately went into action, securing boats and any objects that might be damaged or swept away in the high winds; tent flaps on all the bungalows were zipped shut by invisible staff to keep our belongings dry and intact for us. It was an impressive group effort and well executed. Kudos to the management!

Later that evening I was given the bad news that all Madagascar flights the following day had been cancelled. I had been scheduled to leave the next morning and after the boat ride across the bay, was to take two connecting flights taking me back to the capital of Tana. I had previous knowledge of Madagascar Air's rather unreliable reputation but hoped that the flight cancellations would not put too much of a damper on my scheduled "full day of shopping" in Tana before leaving Madagascar.

The lodge managers were kind enough to offer me the option of extending my stay for another day or leaving the next morning and spending the next day in Maroantsetra where my guide promised he would find the elusive "tomato frog" for me to photograph. The decision was easy. The next morning we took the several hour boat ride across the bay, and upon arrival was given a room to stay.  We ate a brief lunch and then took off through long streets lined with market stalls, selling everything from vegetables, meat, bicycles to second hand clothing, until we reached the end of the town in a more residential area.

A difficult country to leave

Making our way back we were met by the local guide with great news. She had gathered up my belongings and said that there was a private chartered plane waiting at the airport that could take me directly to the capital if I wanted. Once at the airport, I met the pilot and co-pilot, boarded the 3-seater and was treated to a most enjoyable and scenic flight into Tana, arriving a full half day ahead of schedule.  Communication with this company was excellent. I was met at the airport and asked how I would like to spend the afternoon. I had heard about a strip of stalls selling handmade crafts not far from the airport and asked to be taken there.  My guide agreed to help me with the bartering if needed. His name was Lova ("Love with an A" he told me). Lova worked as a journalist when not guiding and had interesting insight into Madagascar's political and economic situations. He also had a marvellous sense of humour and an unusual tolerance for my shopping. I spent long periods of time in each booth, carefully looking over every object, playfully bargaining for the best deal, and getting to know to merchants as much as one can in a short amount of time. We spent the better part of 5 or 6 hours shopping here and I wondered how Lova remained so pleasant despite having been here so many times before with other tourists. He laughed and said his fiancée shops like I do and feels these outings are a good exercise for future happiness.

I returned to the Pavillion De L'Emyrne for my final stay. This time room 5 which was smaller but lovely and quiet. The last day we combined a city tour with some shopping in local boutiques that had been recommended. I was surprised to find the prices of the beautiful fossils, (especially the ammonites and some of the local crafts we had seen the day before), were not significantly higher in the boutiques. The boutiques did have the advantage of carrying some higher quality items and contemporary art/crafts that I did not see in the markets. However, because the boutiques’ prices were fixed, I missed having the interaction with the local merchants that I had had the day before.

We left for the airport early, giving us a comfortable margin in the sometimes unpredictable hold ups in the rush hour traffic.  We arrived in good time, but the lines were long and check-in could have been confusing without my guide along. 

Madagascar was a difficult country to leave.  It's a country whose history is tumultuous, whose infrastructure is weak, whose people are poor and faced with extreme hardships and whose natural resources are rapidly being depleted.  Yet, it is also a country rich with unique animals and plants, diverse landscape with protected areas - (some of the most beautiful in the world where the forests meet the ocean), well managed ecotourism, but most of all, the warm and charming nature of its people.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the excellent job Natural World Safaris did with the selection of the areas I visited.  They responded promptly to all of my questions and concerns, made helpful suggestions, proved to be a wealth of information and kept me updated with any changes. 

They were the most pleasant staff to speak with while remaining sensitive to my limited vacation time, my restricted budget and my interests of focus when designing this itinerary. The guides they provided me with were of the highest calibre, were excellent naturalists and showed a genuine interest in making this a most memorable trip. NWS exceeded my expectations...the guides exceeded my expectations, Madagascar's diversity in flora and fauna exceeded my expectations. For anyone who's interest is visiting rainforests around the world as mine is, Madagascar is a "must see".

If you would like our destination specialists to help organise a tailor-made Madagascar safari for you, please do get in touch!

Comments

Oliver

20/12/2015 3:30 PM

Yay Mom!!

Will Bolsover

16/12/2015 2:30 PM

Lovely write up for a fantastic destination!

Carina

15/12/2015 4:30 PM

Loved reading your account of your journey Suki. Thanks so much for sharing. Great sighting of the aptly named' tomato frog!

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