NWS Harry explores Madagascar

Harriet Reeves

25 May 2017

DAy 1: Arriving in Madagascar

After what certainly qualifies as the most sleepless flight of my life, what a joy it was to step down the ladder at Antananarivo Airport to feel the warmth and smell the scents of tropical paradise!

To be fair, the lack of sleep was the fault of some poor soul being deported back to Nairobi, not of Kenya Airways who did everything in their power to assist us, despite the flight being totally sold out.

Anyway, onwards and upwards! On arrival, after figuring out the mind-boggling immigration maze of counters, I was greeted by the very smiley ‘Pham’ who was to be my guide for the next few days. Pham, myself and our driver ‘Lebala’, made headway getting out of the city during the rush hour traffic. These guys have the best hand-eye coordination I have ever seen, manoeuvring the 4x4 through the narrowest and busiest of streets. Time was tight, as we had to get through the rush hour traffic and make the three hour car journey to Anjozorobe before sunset. The tarred road was great for the most-part, though it was home to the odd pot-hole that could easily swallow one of the local Nguni cattle. I mostly stared out of the window at the stunning lush scenery, beautifully simple houses that reminded me of Hanoi, Vietnam, and the beautiful churches that dot the predominantly Christian-worshipping area.

The final 10km to Anjozorobe are within the forested/farmed area and the road is rough dirt (clay really). I could tell Lebala was nervous but he handled the road’s challenges like a champion. Finally arriving to my home for the night, Saha Forest Camp, we were greeted by two friendly young men that showed us the 500m or so along the edge of the rice paddies to the lodge, where dinner awaited.

Spotting three chameleons direct from the main communal verandah before my delicious 3-course meal (chocolate pancakes included) topped off a wonderful end to a rather horrendous 36 hours!

DAY 2: Exploring Anjozorobe

This morning we headed into the depths of the Anjozorobe forest corridor on a nature walk with a local guide. The walking is not easy, with oh-so-many steps cut into the steep jungle-clad hills, it isn’t for those with dodgy knees. Both fortunately and unfortunately, the weather wasn’t at its best, drizzling à la England. This was good in that the walking was tough at times and the drizzle cooled us down, but unfortunate in that all of the wildlife took cover!

Despite the lack of wildlife, we still had a very enjoyable three-hour trek, with our guide teaching us about pepper plants (did you know red pepper was a parasitic vine like ivy?!) and citronella, as well as sandalwood trees and orchids!

We did enjoy a hearty territorial call from a troop of Indri lemurs, but sadly they were out of sight on the opposite slope of the valley.

We decided to head back to Tana soon after an early lunch as the rain was threatening our chances of handling the 10km of dirt road out of Anjozorobe. After stopping to buy a huge roll of peanut paté rolled up in banana leaves, we re-entered Tana, where after a quick spot of shopping (it turns out I am great at giving advice but hideous about listening to it and had horrendously under packed) I checked into my next hotel, the pretty Le Combava and proceeded to spend the remainder of my afternoon writing blogs.

Day 3: HEading South...

Today I enjoyed the delights of Air Madagascar. Notorious for delayed departures, they did not disappoint, but the scenic flight from Tana to Tulear was worth the wait. With friendly staff and a brand new, massive and therefore empty plane, Air Madagascar are a great airline, if only they could get some damn clocks that work…

You really get a sense of the shifting ecosystems as you fly south, with the lush green mountains threaded by glistening rivers and streams giving way to flatter land, to ribbons of sand, where rivers flow during the cyclone season.

On arrival in Tulear after my hour long flight, I met my new guide (Harry) and driver (Dodo) and after grabbing a quick bite for lunch, we were on our way to Le Paradisier for a site inspection (spoiler alert: it is beautiful). We just had time for a quick visit to the Reniala Reserve spiny forest where I learned from my extremely knowledgeable guide about Baobabs, flamboyant trees (apparently they’re not cactuses, despite looking like a cactus).

We encountered species like the night gecko and sub-desert mysete bird and I learned how the dipterycarpae spiny trees always point south (despite it being the direction the wind prevails!).

I must say, I feel a little shattered, but as I was nursing a gin and tonic overlooking the ocean from my hotel Dunes des Ifaty, the head waiter pointed out a lemur to me.

My first lemur. I love the south.
See Les Dunes de Ifaty

We began to head east along the infamous Route Nacionale 7 today. For some unknown reason, I have always been a little prejudiced against the RN7 route. Don’t ask me why, because I literally have no idea. I haven’t even stepped foot on the road before. I know, bonkers.

I have so far spent one day travelling along this route and I have already totally reversed my opinion on this bumpy, narrow road flanked by numerous nomadic villages or gem-rush wild west towns. We first stopped off at the arboretum at Antsokay. Sure, the plants have been put there rather than all occurring in that spot naturally, but there is something so wonderful about the spot that you can’t miss a quick visit. My guide ensured he pointed out all wildlife, from birds to spiders, chameleons and geckos to a snoozing hedgehog inside a log. After lunch in their lovely restaurant we hit the road again, travelling through scrubland that eventually turned to savannah grassland – I half expected to see a giraffe or rhino strolling along in the distance.

As you travel, you come across numerous tombs for the local Mahafaly Tribe, with each huge tomb housing just one person, and images depicting the deceased’s hobbies and interests painted on the side. Eventually we climbed a hill to the forested area of Zombitze – an important piece of protected forest as it represents both tropical and deciduous forest, all on a dry, sandy substrate. The forest is home to the Verreaux’s Sifaka and the endemic Zombitze sportive lemur, of which I caught a male and a female trying to nap. One can also find numerous reptiles; I came across the green gecko, again endemic to the forest, and several chameleon species. I was reluctant to leave to be honest, especially as my guides were working so valiantly to find me the sifaka, but we still had an hour and a half drive to my hotel for the night, Relais de la Reine near to Isalo National Park, and the sun was getting low.

Tomorrow, Isalo National Park

DAY 5: Isalo National Park

The Isalo National Park, Madagascar’s oldest, is absolutely stunning. I spent the morning exploring the Namasa trail within the national park with a local guide. The trail follows the Namas canyon, reaching two idyllic waterfalls and natural pools - one blue, one black - where you can swim. Every fibre of my being was calling out for a swim in this beautiful spot, but I got stage fright, being there alone with my very lovely but male guides. Still, the gorge itself helped to keep me cool – a marvellous feat as the temperature on the top plateau is scorching. 

As I walked through the dry deciduous tropical forest I couldn’t help but come across wildlife, be it butterflies, dragonflies, leaf-insects, lizards, lemurs or birds. We came across a troop of ring-tailed lemurs at the picnic ground one quarter of the way along the trail. They were 100% wild, but years of less-than-responsible individuals feeding them titbits of food has meant that they are very habituated and one can get very close. While it was amazing to see them up close in a wild setting, there was something in the lack of challenge that detracted a little. Much more heart-in-mouth was my encounter with my very first Verreaux’s sifaka, who we bumped into on our way back from the canyon when walking through the forest. She was originally quite high in the tree close to the path, but due to their inherently curious nature, she just kept coming closer. We backed off originally, but she continued to come within a foot of where we sat, so in the end we just sat and enjoyed the moment (well, 30 minutes or so) until she got bored and jumped into a tree further in the forest. 

It was a breath-holding, 'can’t believe my luck' experience. And as the universe usually affords me such luck with wildlife sightings (I have lived in Africa for years and am yet to see a leopard in the wild there), my phone objected to the huge video I took of the entire encounter and had a bout of sun stroke, losing all of my footage! 

The rest of the day was spent checking out the local hotels for all of you, working out which is best for what etc. 

After all, I am working (apparently!)

Day 6: ranomafana National Park

Isalo National Park and Ranomafana are really very far away from one another. We left early this morning so that we could take advantage of the many stops of interest along the way, to stretch our legs and prevent me from napping the entire way!

First stop was the small village of Ihasy, which was experiencing its zebu market and whose goods market we explored. I am a shopper when abroad and predictably came out with a beautiful rug for my front room at home and some baskets, all for the princely sum of about £7.00. And that was me paying double the asking price because it seemed very low for these beautifully handwoven items!

Next stop was Anja Community Forest. With assistance from oversea NGOs, this community project was set up to protect the forests at the base of the ‘three sisters’ mountains, whilst providing an alternative source of income for the local community. And a successful project it is; the forest is home to over 700 ring-tailed lemurs, making it an excellent spot for a walk to experience them in a less artificial setting than the greedy ring-tails at Isalo. The forest is also home to a lot of chameleons so I was happy, snapping away with my macro lens.

After a quick stop for lunch and a tour of a paper-making workshops in Ambalavao, we eventually arrived into Ranomafana National Park, where I will spend the next two nights. Harry and I took to the roadside at dusk with our local guide Stefan for a night walk in search of chameleons, leaf-tailed geckos and the nocturnal brown mouse lemur. Although, the leaf-tailed gecko is still proving elusive to me, we were hugely successful with our chameleon sightings (encountering over 20 of different sexes, species and colouration) and we even came across the furby/hamster of the trees, the brown mouse lemur. Cute!

Day 7: Lemurs, lemurs, lemurs!

Kianjavato is a project set up six years ago to study the ecology of four lemur species (black and white ruffed, red-bellied brown, greater bamboo lemurs and the elusive aye-aye). As Natural World Safaris are one of the projects supporters, I was lucky enough to spend the morning at their research centre and reforestation project, about an hour away from Ranomafana.

As they studied the lemurs, what became apparent was the need for wildlife corridors to link up the various ‘island’ populations to allow for population expansion and genetic flow, therefore the project set up an enormously successful reforestation project, spread amongst 14 tree reserves in the local area and employing many local people.

My visit began with a very hot walk up the humid and steep hillside into the primary rainforests. Some of the individual lemurs have been fitted with radio-tracking collars, which helped hugely with finding the groups. As a nocturnal species, the aye-aye predictably proved elusive but we encountered black and white ruffed lemurs, red-bellied brown lemurs and even ended up surrounded by a troop of greater bamboo lemurs as they fed, groomed and quarrelled amongst themselves!

Following our jungle trek, we returned to the project HQ where I had the opportunity to chat further with the volunteers that conduct the data collection under the supervision of a local biologist. I was also given a tour of the tree nursery and get to plant my own tree sapling – a voapaka tree.

Due to some unexpected free time this afternoon, my guide Harry offered me some time to relax at the hotel (potentially as he saw how hot and sweaty the morning’s walk had made me). However, I refuse to come to Ranomafana without actually going inside of the park. So with just an hour and a half left of opening hours, we picked up my local naturalist guide Stefan and set off in search of the golden bamboo lemur. Due to Stefan’s excellent knowledge of the park and its inhabitants, we were hugely fortunate and enjoyed half an hour hanging out with seven golden bamboo lemurs before bumping into a couple of locally endemic Ranomafana grey bamboo lemurs! I hit the trifecta in one day! Hats off to the expert guiding all around.

Day 8: antsirabe

Today has been a quiet day on the wildlife front as we drove to the cultural town of Antsirabe, famed for its hot springs. Along the way, we stopped for lunch in the wood carving UNESCO world Heritage site of Ambositra – their skill is truly incredible, designing all kinds of handicrafts and objects d’art (or as my Mum would say, ‘dust collectors'!) – each to their own! 

As we arrived into Antsirabe in the late afternoon we had some time to explore the city and learn about various recycling community projects where crafts are produced for tourists and city dwellers, with items such as salad spoons formed from Zebu horn and miniature bicycles made from a collection of items including tin cans, brake cables and old (unused) saline infusion sets! The local people's entrepreneurial spirit is certainly something to admire.

Day 9: andasibe

Another long day of driving – around 7 hours in fact, although we did stop at a brilliant market in Antananifatsy along the way to stretch our legs. I had been searching for a couple of baskets ever since I arrived and much prefer buying from local markets to the ladies who produce stuff at the tourist market. The market was massive, vibrant and, most of all, friendly! I finally found what I was looking for – a traditional reed basket used in the region for fishing, which (if I can somehow get it on the plane) will be my new laundry basket!

We also made time to stop at an aluminium recycling workshop where I observed a fascinating demo on how the local people meltdown anything aluminium and create items such as useful pots, all the way through to ornate decorative items.

Finally having arrived into Andasibe, I had time to check in to my digs, the Andasibe Hotel, and a quick settle-in before donning my head-torch and heading out on a night safari in Mitsinjo Reserve – a private protected area run by a local NGO. Tahina, my guide, led us through the forest, with many incredible sightings: from the typical wishlist species such as the Goodman’s mouse lemur, hairy eared dwarf lemur and a large female Parson’s chameleon enjoying a snooze; all the way to the more obscure, such as a snoozing sunbird, a forest cockroach and a hatching butterfly! It was a fantastic way to get back on the wildlife horse after a couple of days doing little else but driving.

Day 10: Andasibe

This morning we started our day with a bang! Exploring the forest clad slopes of Anilamazaotra National Park. Famed for its resident Indri Lemur population (the largest extant lemur species), we soon found a troop of five, though not before spending half an hour following a large group of common brown lemurs. 

My local guide, Nestor, was faultless. He listened to my wishlist for sightings and did his level best to provide for me, all the while ensuring I didn’t miss anything else too. 

After spending some time with the Indri, we moved on to give other onlookers a view, leaving in search of the next largest species of the park, the diademed sifaka, spotting numerous birds and chameleons along the way. When we found the sifaka, I suspect all the other tourists were over with the Indri, as I had the most incredible close encounter with the sifaka all to myself. I actually ended up surrounded by the primates with them jumping through the trees less than a foot above my head! It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and we stayed with the troop until they crossed a small river and out of reach. 

As we left the park, Nestor started gesticulating wildly to me – he had found one of my wishlist, a giraffe-necked weevil. These crazy looking insects have long fascinated me, but I was worried I would be too late in the season to see them, therefore a big ‘yay!’ was in order! She was a female, likely to be starting the process of laying and protecting her eggs, by rolling up the leaf in which the eggs are laid like a spring roll. After laying she will likely soon die, as she wouldn’t survive the winter, but her eggs will, safe in their leafy spring roll, be ready to hatch when the weather becomes warmer. 

During the afternoon, duty called and I went to explore the various hotel options in this area for you, our wonderful clients, when Nestor rang my guide Harry with a cryptic, 'come here asap' message. Intrigued, we finished our meetings and went to meet him along the lane to the national park entrance. He had only gone and spent the entire day since he left us at Anilamazaotra searching for my number one wishlist species, a leaf-tailed gecko. This was not anticipated and he did this entirely because he wanted me to have the best trip possible – such is the quality of our hand-picked local guides! And it still took me ages to see it – this animal has one of the best disguises in the animal kingdom, with its body looking as though it literally melts into the tree on which it sits! So amazing!

day 11: Andasibe

We also made time to go to the local ‘Lemur Island’. I was in two minds about going, as in general I am not a fan of keeping wild animals in captivity and even less so of them being used as tourist props. It is however a popular request from prospective clients, and I can’t exactly advise fairly if I have not been. So, go I did, and to be honest, I still don’t know how I feel about it. The animals are rescued from the captive wildlife trade and as they were raise as pets, they cannot be released fully into the wild.

Therefore they reside on a series of small islands separated by rivers in the forest and are assisted with food from their caretakers. So far, so good. The issue comes when you have guides encouraging the lemurs onto the backs and heads of screeching tourists so they can get a photo, much like I did. 99% of the fibres in my body are screaming ‘avoid, avoid, avoid!’, but the other 1% cannot ignore the fact that without the revenue gained from the visiting tourists, these lemurs may have had a far worse fate. They don’t appear to be over (or under) weight, and only bother the tourists once they smell ripe bananas or hear the keeper whistle. They appear calm and comfortable despite the screeching tourists, and they can escape to the trees whenever they wish – there is absolutely no forced human interaction – just encouragement in the form of banana treats, so is it so bad?

The lemur island certainly won’t make you feel like you have seen wild lemurs, and does not in any way replace a truly wild encounter with these wonderful primates, but I think it is a relatively harmless additional activity. Just please, if you go and a lemur jumps on you, don’t screech, they won’t hurt you, they just want the banana that the keeper is dangling above your head…

Day 12: anjajavy

Taking a 1 hour 45 minute flight from Tana in a Cessna 208 caravan, me and two other guests, Nico and Maryke from the Netherlands, finally arrived at the beautiful Anjajavy.

Located on the north coast, taking up an entire peninsular, Anjajavy is by far the best hotel I have had the fortune to stay in thus far.

On arrival at their airstrip just off the turquoise blue waters of the Mozambique Channel, you are greeted by a lot of smiles, waves and a refreshing cold towel before jumping into the jeep for the 15 minute drive to camp, spotting tsingy, dry deciduous forest and mangrove forest along the journey. Not much however prepares you for the view once you actually enter the hotel, with a beautifully laid out breakfast overlooking the garden, infinity pool and glittering sea beyond. It is simply stunning.
 

Despite the unwavering call to sit back, relax and take a snooze under the palm shades on the white sandy beach, I am here to explore just what Anjajavy (an offer our clients other than the obvious luxury and beachside setting!).

So, I make the most of my time, exploring the Sakalava caves during my first afternoon. The caves are within the fossilised coral tsingy, and are home to many glistening stalactites and stalagmites, columns and of course, bats. The cave is home to two species, the leaf-tailed-nosed bat and a small pygmy bat. The bats weren’t the only wildlife to be found however, as we came across a black collared snake as we walked back to the lodge. In the evening, before a delicious grilled fish dinner, I went out on a night walk with the lodge's expert naturalist, joined also by the lodge’s two conservation science students studying the fossa and working on an aye-aye reintroduction project. It was an incredibly successful night walk, with sightings of five mouse lemurs (including the golden brown and the grey), a Milne-Edwards sportive lemur, sleeping chameleons and magpie-robins, and a lot of ginormous hairy-legged crabs, who came out of their burrow at night to feed on the dead leaf litter of the forest. 

See Anjajavy Lodge

Day 13: Anjajavy

The next day, after a ridiculously comfortable and deep sleep, I went out in the cool of the morning to explore another nearby cave that is home to a semi-fossilised skull of an extinct lemur species. We also explored the nearby trails, where I had the opportunity to see the grey baobab trees, including one over 600 years old!

With some time to relax, I took advantage of the free kayak hire and took myself off to explore the coastline. The main beach is bookended with coral tsingy, and behind those there are numerous secluded bays to discover. The paddling was just the right side of challenging, so I felt like I had had a good workout but didn’t feel completely out of my depth (so to speak). Every Wednesday afternoon the chefs put on a cooking class for those that would like to join. We tried our hand at 'Boatamo' (coconut and rice flavour sausages rolled up in banana leaves) as well as a delicious Malagasy prawn and rice curry. It was great fun and an opportunity to learn something that we can go home and share with friends and family.

In the evening, before a beautiful poolside dinner (they try to change the location of evening meals each day), we were treated to a very interesting talk from one of the conservation students about the resident sifaka species, the Coquerel’s sifaka.

Speaking of which, one of Anjajavy’s pièce de résistance is ‘Tea at the Oasis Garden’. Every afternoon at 5pm they serve tea and cake in the beautifully designed garden, which is surrounded by trees that the Coquerels sifaka just adore. And taking advantage of the sifaka’s feeding habits, you can come and enjoy your cup of locally grown tea (cinnamon tea for me – yum!) sit back in your deck chair and just watch one of the greatest shows on earth – the Coquerels sifaka troop, quietly feeding on their natural food, grooming and playing as the sun starts to set. Unbeatable.

Day 14: ANjajavy - Antananarivo

Today I get my own private plane as I am the only one leaving camp. I must remember to stress to my bosses next time how terrified I am of flying… 

The plane today is a PAC750XL – it feels tiny, with room for eight passengers and everyone gets a window seat. To be fair, the two dashing pilots are doing a fine job of flying this particular tin can, but really?! 

With a 20 minute flight to Antsohihy to refuel, we are now back in the skies and en route to Tana… 

You will be pleased (I hope) to know that I survived the incy wincy plane, and actually got used to it being moved around by the differing air pockets – perhaps it is going to help to cure my fear of flying?! 

On arrival back in the ‘big smoke’ that is Tana, I met my guide Andre and driver (another Dodo) and we set off to explore the characterful and charming hotels our clients can stay in the centre of the city’s old quarter. There are a few excellent choices so be sure to ask if you have an interest in staying in a quirky but beautiful colonial hotel!

Day 15: Tana - Nosy Be

This morning I took in a tour of Madagascar’s capital city, guided by the ever enthusiastic Andrey. Beginning in downtown Tana, we took in the beautifully designed railway station (sadly now a shopping centre) and Independence Avenue, before continuing up the hill to the administrative region of midtown, home to the ‘twin steps’ and presidential office.

Last but not least is Uppertown, or Old Town – the area that the original village was set upon. 

Though this affluent area of the town is home to beautiful architecture and the Palais d’Andafiavaratra, the main drawcard is ‘Le Rova’, or Queen’s Palace. 

The royal enclosure holds palaces of varying ages, royal tombs and a Catholic church. The palaces themselves were burned down in 1995, and only the stone façade now remains. Though restoration work was initiated, it is currently on standby (reason unknown). This area is the perfect spot for learning about Madagascar’s history.

After an educational morning, I headed back to the airport, this time to catch my flight to an island off of Madagascar’s north coast, Nosy Be. With a last minute diversion to Mahajanga to collect passengers, we made it to Nosy Be just as the sun was setting over the Mozambique Channel. 

Day 16: Nosy be - Nosy Komba

With an early-ish boat transfer from the harbour just outside of Hell-Ville, Nosy Be’s capital, I made my way by boat to the next island across, Nosy Komba. The speedboat ride took about 15 minutes. 

My lodgings for the next two nights, the unique Tsara Komba (one of NatGeo’s “unique lodges of the world”), is located on the south of Nosy Komba, away from the busier area of the island and overlooking the Madagascan mainland. 

The island itself is covered in verdant green jungle vegetarian, and, like some of the other local islands, is home to the endemic black lemur, as well as a huge array of reptiles. Indeed, before I had even enjoyed my welcome drink of fresh papaya juice, I had spotted 2 grass snakes, a couple of skinks and a very cute green day gecko.  

My villa is breath-taking. Located at the highest point of the property, it has an incredible view out over the azure Mozambique Channel, as well as benefiting from the sea breeze too. 

The 90 square metre villa comprises a bedroom and bathroom (designed beautifully, of course), as well as a large covered veranda and an open veranda, allowing you the choice to avoid the sun’s glare if you wish. 

Most activities are best enjoyed here in the morning, so I did a bit of exploring and made use of the free-to-use kayaks during the afternoon.

Day 17: Nosy Komba

This morning I headed out early with my guide Josh for a spot of snorkelling at the nearby Tanikely Marine reserve. The reserve surrounds an island of the same name and I enjoyed a short walk up to the lighthouse for a view across much of the Archipelago. The island is also home to a troop of common brown lemurs, who were snoozing in a tree as I walked past. 

However, the real highlight was exploring this underwater world, home to more fish than I can remember. It was like every fish was wearing Joseph’s technicolour dream coat. 

With two sites to explore, one which has experienced heavy coral bleaching due to El Niño a couple of years ago, I came across huge moray eels, parrotfish, angelfish, wrasse, spiny, urchins, sea cucumbers and, best of all, a hawksbill sea turtle enjoying its breakfast. I have never observed a turtle in the wild before, so it is accurate to say I was totally overwhelmed by the experience. 

After a couple of hours in the water, it was time to return to the lodge, and I made the most of the glass-like nature of the sea by going for a quick spin on the paddleboard. 

I have now finished my delicious three course lunch and am wondering what to do next - perhaps a quick dip in the sea and a snooze…?!

Day 18: Nosy Komba - Ankarana

This morning I bid a sad farewell to the laid back eco luxury of Tsara Komba, taking a boat to the mainland port of Ankify where I met my new guide, Resa, and driver, Eric. Resa is a wonderfully bubbly young woman who somehow manages to juggle being a wife and mother to two small girls whilst guiding clients all around the country – a job you can immediately see she is very passionate about. We had originally intended to visit the Millot Cocao Plantation just outside of Ankify, but due to a large group of Frenchmen having booked it up for a last minute visit, we were unable to do so. I am more interested in wildlife anyway, so on we travelled, to the Iharana Bush Camp located just outside of West Ankarana National Park. Along the way, we stopped briefly at a small hamlet to speak with the women and children, and as always, I ended up paying most attention to their lovely dogs…

On arrival at IBC, I had a couple of hours to enjoy lunch and relax on my verandah while we waited for the heat of the day to dissipate – it gets very hot here! Our afternoon hike was to be on the private Iharana Park (West Ankarana is currently inaccessible due to a bridge being washed out by the cyclones earlier in the year). As we got going, climbing up the craggy limestone pinnacles, my local guide Joe pointed out plants and wildlife, always ensuring I ‘mind my head’ when the path became narrow or low. Included in the hike was some caving in a 600m cave filled with crystals, stalactities, stalagmites and the tiny Miniopterus manavi (long-fingered bat), flying around our heads as we walked and scrambled through. As we exited the cave and climbed, hiked and scrambled up the pinnacles, we eventually came to a couple of viewpoints, arriving at one just in time for a spectacular sunset, with the warm glowing light bouncing off the limestone.

Despite being primarily made up of rock, this park is remarkably rich in flora and fauna, from bats to beetles we saw everything, including the common brown lemur, three hog-nosed snakes, and (drum roll please….), two individuals of the tiny Brookesia confidens (leaf chameleon), which reach a mere 1-2cm in length and are almost impossible to see – I don’t know how Joe did it!

Day 19: Ankarana - Amber Mountain

Today we rose early and drove the hour or so to East Ankarana National Park. Here, the tsingy are less varied in height than in West Ankarana/Iharana, giving the appearance of a ‘tsingy sea’. The tsingy here are reached via long walks through the mercifully flat and shaded dry deciduous forest. With incredible geological formations including a huge sinkhole, miles of cave systems and of course the tsingy, Ankarana East is an interesting spot to visit. The wildlife was pretty good too, we came across Sandford’s Brown Lemurs in a mating pair, as well as the ‘King of Camouflage’, a leaf-tailed gecko. 

The icing on the wildlife cake, however, had to be the moment I managed to ‘serenade’ a young male crowned lemur. I appear to have picked up more language skills than I realised, as in an effort to get his attention to take a photograph, I tried to mimic a call I had heard in the forest. 

It turns out that this call was uncanny, and it is the call used by individuals for mating (it is mating season). Needless to say, I quickly got his attention and before I knew it he was rushing down the tree from the canopy, coming right down to the floor only a metre or two from where we stood. The poor chap looked a little confused and embarrassed once he realised I was not in fact a beautiful female crowned lemur looking to seduce him. The lemurs here are not tame at all, they are not supplement fed or baited, so having such an intense experience with a fully wild lemur was absolutely breathtaking. A real ‘heart-in-mouth’ experience!

Somehow I managed to ride the wave of happiness all the way to my hotel for the night, in the centre of the quiet town of Joffreville on the slopes of the Amber Mountain National Park – this being despite the 4 hour car journey on some of the worst roads I have ever, and certainly hope to ever encounter! Forget hiding a zebu/Nguni cow in those potholes, you could hide the Honda CRV we were driving in them!

Day 20: Amber Mountain - Miavana

A bright and early start this morning as I went to meet by guide, Angeluc, for some exploration of the beautiful rainforest of Amber Mountain National Park (even the name sounds beautiful and romantic!).  Angeluc (along with his twin brother Angelin) is arguably one of the best naturalist guides in Madagascar. He has worked with the BBC, National Geographic and is highly sought after by pretty much every wildlife researcher here, so needless to say, I was in pretty good hands! This volcanic region is densely forested and home to crowned lemurs and Sandford’s Brown lemurs, as well as a huge diversity of reptiles, amphibians and insects.

Within 5 minutes of our hike up an old forestry track, we had a huge female hog-nosed snake fall out of a tree right in front of us, followed by observations of baby chameleons, geckos and wonderful plantlife, most notably the diverse array of orchids and huge bird’s nest ferns. We encountered a mixed group of crowned and Sandford’s lemurs, with the female crowned lemur taking charge of the interspecies group and leading the way. We also explored some of the stunning green lakes and waterfalls that characterise this wonderful park. 

As we came to a campground usually used by academics on field trips, we even came across a leaf-tailed gecko, well hidden in a hedge, and not one but three individuals of the species Brookesia tuberculata (Mount D’Ambre Leaf Chameleon)! All in all, a great morning.

Having wolfed down a delicious but quick lunch at a local hotel, it was a mad dash to the airport in Diego Suarez (about 45 mins) for my helicopter flight to the brand new island resort of Miavana, located on Nosy Ankao. The scenic flight to the hotel took around 40 minutes, and Hein, our pilot, ensured that he pointed out areas of interest as we went, including the red sandstone tsingy and even a manta ray gliding through the water just on the edge of a deep sea wall. We landed like rock stars, right on the beach in front of our villa, and were welcomed by the wonderful Miavana team – they have got customer service well-honed here! The team make the resort feel like your home, and my personable butler is witty and always happy to see to your every need with a beaming smile.

Day 21: I think I am in paradise

Scuba diving is included in the price at Miavana, so I would be a total fool not to take advantage of this opportunity. Despite having only dived once before (over a decade ago!), the resident diving guru, Chris, came and met me over croissants this morning to discuss how we would best get me under water to see the fishies safely. Chris was reassuring and we decided to go for a beach dive, only to 5 metres, but plenty deep enough to see some wonderful marine life here.

So there I was, at 9:30am, donning the ridiculously heavy air tank (how is air so heavy?!) and joined travel writer Tim and instructor Chris in a dive, just off the beach from the main restaurant area. I must admit, it took me a few ‘first attempts’ as I struggled to get used to breathing underwater, but Chris was ridiculously patient with me and eventually I was so mesmerised by the trevally fish cruising ahead of me that I forgot to panic about breathing! 

The diversity and volume of fish and coral, molluscs and cucumbers that we found was astounding seeing as we were so close to the main area. I found it totally captivating and think I will now be a scuba diver for life. 

In the afternoon, after a sumptuous three-course lunch overlooking the ocean, I was taken out to explore Nosy Ankao on the quad bike with head guide, Simon. I was surprised and pleased to see that the original village constructed by seaweed farmers is still present and inhabited, with the church manned by one of the resort staff and the school remaining open, allowing the resort staff to have their children stay on the island with them – a rare luxury for staff working in the hospitality industry. With dense forests of leadwood trees and an old abandoned lighthouse, not to mention the picturesque bays and coves, there is a whole host of things to explore on the island, and more paths through the forest are planned too.

Rounding off my final day in paradise, I took full advantage of the free spa services before enjoying a wonderful evening by the ocean.

Day 22: Do I have to leave?

This morning I woke with a heavy heart as it was time to leave Miavana and Madagascar. I woke early, enjoying a walk on the totally empty beach while the sun rose – I even spotted a stingray hanging out in the shallows!

We had an early chopper flight back to Diego Suarez to meet our flight back to Tana. 

During the helicopter flight, Hein spotted a huge pod of manta rays, and we were able to drop closer to see them in detail as they cruised along, mouths wide open to collect their breakfast. 

On arrival back in Tana, I had time for a bit of last minute shopping, so headed to the craft market to burn through my remaining ariary (easily done).

And so it is, that in just over 3 weeks, I have rekindled my love of adventure in this wonderfully quirky country. One certainly needs to have a more laid-back attitude for travel in Madagascar, and be able to ‘go with the flow’ as certain things can crop up that may drive you mad otherwise, such as constantly delayed flights, bad roads, occasionally questionable food, bugs etc. However, if you can see past that, and actually even embrace it as part of the experience, Madagascar has so much to offer in every way. If you are in any way intrigued, call me and we can have a chat about it, I am potentially more eloquent in real life!

Thank you Madagascar, you are wondrous.

Over and Out.

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Comments

Katie

27/5/2017 4:56 PM

Brilliant blog Harriet, what an amazing experience that must have been! Definitely added to my wishlist!

Elaine Henley

27/5/2017 3:05 PM

What a wonderful blog that has me desperate to book on one of your group travels in 2018!!! This was always on the bucket list- but is now a priority....

Oliver

16/5/2017 10:18 AM

Sounds incredible Harry! The red island certainly doesn't fail to deliver, makes me want to go back again. Olly

Arabella @ natural world safaris

4/5/2017 6:27 PM

Wonderful blog Harry, reminds me of my Madagascar adventures. Can't wait until the next update! Keep enjoying the magical country - Abs

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