Lemurs, Beaches and Waterfalls

Stephanie Fagerstrom

27 Sep 2017

discovering the wildlife of madagascar and zimbabwe

I’d like to start by saying that I LOVE planning vacations. My friend Jo and I met at university while studying abroad in China and discovered our shared love of travel. We discovered we made a good team so, while our friends started getting married and having babies, we began travelling the world. We’ve travelled to Istanbul, London and Kyoto, but when we thought about tackling Africa I knew I’d need some help. Enter stage right – Natural World Safaris (NWS). I sent in a request for information on tours of Madagascar and met Oliver. 

Oliver is FAN-FREAKING-TASTIC! From the beginning, he was very intentional in learning about us: what we liked, how we travelled, things we were looking for.

With the inevitable back and forth of planning the itinerary, we booked what looked to be an amazing trip.

Preparing for a three-week journey is no joke, especially when you plan to pack everything into a carry-on. NWS did a wonderful job helping us prepare for the trip ahead. With comprehensive documents detailing everything from clothing requirements, money suggestions, VISA issues, and general information on the places we’d be visiting, we were able to pack with little worry. Oliver was in touch right up to the day of departure with answers to questions, information about last minute changes, setting our expectations, and final tips and tricks.

Arriving in Madagascar

Getting to Madagascar from the Pacific Northwest of the US is a process! 50 hours of travel later and we arrived in Antananarivo (Tana for short). We were met by Stephen and our driver, who would be travelling with us for the duration of our time in Madagascar. We exchanged a few dollars, grabbed our luggage and hopped in a car for the 4 hour drive to Andasibe National Park.

I have never been so happy to see a bed and shower in my life! Overall, the hotel was great, with clean rooms, hot water and wifi in the restaurant. The food was good and there was mosquito netting in our room, so I was happy. 

Andasibe National Park

We were up and out the door before 8am, heading out to meet our local guide Zaka for a tour of Andasibe National Park. We trekked through the jungle for a good five hours that first day and saw so many beautiful things. Now when I say “trek”, I mean more “meander”. Zaka was very methodical about walking through the jungle. It was slow, the trails were easy enough for the out-of-shape Americans to manage, and we were able to see quite a lot. There was a point during the day where we made a mad dash through steep, dense forest to get to a troupe of rare lemurs, but we survived! 

Zaka and Stephen were thoughtful in asking about our interests and following through with information throughout our excursions to keep us occupied as we looked for wildlife. We saw half a dozen varieties of lemurs the first day, several gorgeous birds, and learned a lot about the flora and fauna of the rainforest.

Park #2 in Andasibe

The next day the skies opened and Mother Nature gave us a lesson (or five) on what “rain forest” really meant. We had some raingear that ultimately did very little, but had a pretty good time nonetheless. Stephen adjusted our schedule for the day because the park we were supposed to visit was closed due to monsoon damage. I have no idea where he took us, but it was just as beautiful as the previous day. Zaka met us, took a look at our “attire” and tentatively asked how we felt about rain. 

Jo and I looked at each other and in concert said “it’s a rain forest…”. He smiled, said “OK!”, and off we went. 

WE GOT WET. It took a while to track down any of the 5 animals we were looking for because the rain had them starting the day a bit later. We heard the indri call, found a giant chameleon and spent a substantial amount of time watching a troupe of bamboo lemurs enjoying breakfast in a bamboo bower.

Once we checked off everything from the list, we said goodbye to Zaka and headed off to a lemur sanctuary to meet a few of the residents up close and personal. Apparently when the government outlawed keeping lemurs as pets there were a number that couldn’t be re-introduced to the wild. Consequently, sanctuaries had to be established to house them all. We got to meet several different species and feed them bananas. TOTALLY WORTH IT! As the rain was still pouring, we got even wetter, but I was so hyped from the experience that it didn’t matter. Jo was not quite as happy with tame lemurs jumping all over her, but she’s a good sport.

Journey to Palmarium

We set out on our journey to the next destination – a man-made island on the eastern coast of Madagascar. Getting there was a bit of a journey, let me tell you, and boy did I get car sick! Madagascar smells pretty pungently of fuel in most of the main cities and road ways. Couple that with windy roads and crazy (but very safe) driving and it’s the perfect recipe for nausea. If you every travel to Madagascar – pack motion sickness drugs!

We stopped at a fruit market on the way and saw some VERY interesting produce. Apparently, oranges are green and limes are orange in Madagascar. Soursop is a marvellous thing and a number of other oddities made for quite an enjoyable break from the car. The last hour of the drive was the best part. My stomach was under control, thankfully, and we turned off the highway onto the bumpiest road I have ever been on in my life! It took us a full hour to drive 6 kilometres. 6 kilometres! It was like an hour-long rollercoaster – it was AMAZING! An hour-long boat ride through breathtaking canals later and we arrived at the lodge! 

Palmarium

I’m going to start by saying one thing – MOSQUITOS! Bring the heavy duty chemical stuff people, or be prepared to cover every inch of your skin. In spite of the crazy, blood-sucking vermin, this was a favourite of mine! The hotel was pretty rustic, but beautiful. There was electricity in the morning and at night and the water for the shower/sink was heated by wood fire. There was a set menu for each meal which was good sometimes and a bit difficult at others.  

Having said all of that - there were so many lemurs and, as they were semi-tame, we were able to FEED THEM ALL! I was in HEAVEN! Jo enjoyed herself, but was happy to let me feed most of the animals. The funniest part of that day was when we were watching a beautiful white and red sifaka (Coquerel's sifaka). It was sitting on a tree limb, eating a banana, when the limb broke and fell on Jo’s head. 

Both lemur and human looked at each other in stunned surprise before recovering and moving on. Quite hilarious!

The first night we took a short boat ride to a neighbouring island for a chance to meet some of the more reclusive residents of the area – a troupe of aye-aye. Can I just say – odd creatures. We walked through pitch dark and spindly trees that made me feel a bit like Alice when she’s shrunk and walking through Wonderland. The caretakers of this island leave out coconuts in the evening to draw the aye-aye out so visitors can take a look. They are silent as they walk through the trees, but with special lights from our guides we were able to see without damaging the poor things’ eyes. Very cool to see and a great introduction to Palmarium. 

Nosy Be

The next stop on our journey was Tsarabanjina Island and to be honest, getting there was a bit rough. It took us 11 hours of driving to get to Tana because there was an accident on the highway. More car sickness ensued before we were able to crash at our hotel for the night. A very long and hot flight to Nosy Be the next day, followed by an unexpected overnight stay in Manga Sao and we were ALMOST there! 

Our stay in Manga Sao was, to use an American colloquialism, LEGIT!

I mean serious luxury. Amazing food, breathtaking accommodations, beautiful scenery and a wonderful and friendly staff. We spent the next morning lazing in the sun and reading before catching our boat ride out to Tsarabanjina. 

Tsarabanjina

This was a treat! Oliver – you spoil us!

Apparently, your money goes a lot farther in Madagascar than in most places, so we were able to afford a bit of luxury in paradise. We lazed on white, sandy beaches, went scuba diving with our fabulous instructor Ricardo from Akio Dive Center, and snorkelled off the beach in front of our bungalow. We ate fantastic food, had a fascinating lecture from the local staff on the history of Madagascar, and watched a rolling sea storm from the comfort of our beds. Magic. Absolute magic. 

Off to Zimbabwe

After our glorious stay on Tsarabanjina, we started the long and involved process of getting to Victoria Falls. We had our first and only snafu of the trip on our arrival in Johannesburg, but Oliver came to our rescue. One of the things I love about NWS is the app they have you download before you leave on your trip. This app has all your travel details, info packets, itineraries, and emergency contact info downloaded and available at all times. When we got to Johannesburg, we grabbed a shuttle to our hotel only to discover we had no reservation. 

Now – don’t panic! This was no one’s fault. It was a computers glitch and Oliver saved the day. Here we were at 7pm after a full day of travel, with grumbling and empty stomachs, and apparently no hotel reservation. I grabbed my phone, opened my app, found the emergency contact number and dialled. Who should answer the phone but Oliver! I think that was more coincidence than anything, but it was so lovely to hear his voice! He got in touch with the local company who had booked our reservation, they worked with the hotel and within 40 minutes we were up in our room with dinner on the way. We ate, slept and were back in the air the next day on our way to Victoria Falls.  

HWange National Park

One of the things I appreciated most about this trip was being met by “guides” every place we went. We didn’t have to worry about figuring out where to go, what to do, how to get from point A to B, because there was always someone waiting for us, with our name on a placard, ready to herd us to the next stop.

When we arrived in Victoria Falls, customs took over 90 minutes to get through. Brutal! As a tip – if you need a KAZA Visa (it lets you travel between Zambia and Zimbabwe) make sure you ask for the visa by name. I forgot and asked the gentlemen processing visas for “the one for both Zambia and Zimbabwe”. He proceeded to sell me a “Dual Visa” which is NOT the same thing. A Dual Visa allows you to leave Zimbabwe and come back with no problem, but you still have to pay for the visa to get into Zambia at the border. Pain in the rump. Luckily we didn’t end up needing to go to Zambia, but it would’ve been nice to have the option to pop over without the fuss of needing to get a visa. 

Ok – on to the good stuff!

This, by far, was my favourite part of our trip!

From Victoria Falls, we hopped on a small plane and flew 45 minutes south to Hwange (pronounced hwangay) National Park. This was REMARKABLE! We arrived at the airstrip to the sensational view of 60+ elephants and two dozen giraffes at the watering hole at the end of the runway. How many times can I say amazing? We drove 45 minutes to Somalisa Camp, dropped our stuff in our STUNNING “tent” and took off for our afternoon game drive. We saw EVERYTHING! Zebras, ostrich, lions, kudu, giraffes, elephants, and even a leopard later in the week.

Our guide, Lewis, was wonderful. He was incredibly knowledgeable and so affable. The entire staff at the camp was delightful. The food was great. The camp was superb.

The whole thing was more than we could’ve asked for or imagined. I definitely would HIGHLY recommend staying there. The coolest part about the camp was the watering hole a few yards off the main deck/lounge area. Originally there was a pool for guests near this natural watering hole, but the elephants took it over so it was left to the animals. Consequently, you could be sitting in a lounge chair on the lower deck and have an elephant walk right up and grab a drink less than 10 feet from you. I mean, who gets to experience that?!

We were sad to leave, but we had one more stop on our very long journey. We said goodbye to Somalisa, jumped back on the plane and headed back to Victoria Falls. 

Victoria Falls

Victoria Falls was definitely something I enjoyed, but I will admit I was tired and ready to head home by the time we arrived. We stayed at a lodge on the Zambezi river. I will say the lodge was my choice, not Oliver’s, and I think I would have preferred the hotel he chose over where we stayed. The River Lodge was beautiful and luxurious, but catered more to guests over 60. Our “tent” was lovely and the food was good. I think that is probably the best way to describe the hotel – just not to our taste. It was stunning and amazing and I think anyone would be thrilled to stay there, but it was just a bit off for Jo & I.

Having said that, the activities we booked were marvellous. The first night we went on a river cruise, which was stunning. We saw a fair number of hippos, a few giraffes and kudus on the shore. Watching the sun set on the river was awe-inspiring. 

The next day we went on a tour of the falls and did some shopping. Our guide, Caspar, was great and gets a gold star for the tour he gave us. My one piece of advice about the falls – start at the end and work your way to the beginning (especially if you are there in the dry season). The tour takes about two hours and the second half of the tour is in straight sun – no shade at all. When it’s 35 degrees (95 F) at the start of the day, you definitely want to end with shade. Caspar had us start by walking straight to the Vic Falls bridge (which is at the end of the route). The last few photo op sites are also in straight sun with no shade. You can imagine how nice it was to spend the last 45 minutes of the tour walking through forest, with the mist of the falls showering you with cool water after having boiled in the sun for the past hour. Now imagine if we had done the reverse, when it was even hotter? 

The next day we booked a Canopy Tour, Flying Fox and lunch reservations at the Lookout Café through Horizon Tours. Definitely worth the $95. The Canopy Tour is a series of zip lines in the canyon below Vic Falls and the Flying Fox is a giant zip line across a larger part of the same canyon. You get harnessed in, take a running leap off a platform and fly like superman over a very deep chasm. We ended the day with warthog and ostrich skewers at the Lookout Café before heading back to the hotel. A game drive later and we were ready to crash for the evening.

All in all, well worth the time, effort and money and I will treasure these memories for years to come.

We flew back to Johannesburg the next day, stayed overnight at the Peech Hotel (best food of the entire trip!) and took off for the very long journey home the next day. 

Final Thoughts from the Trip

  • I can’t say enough about Oliver and the wonderful job he did in planning our trip.
  • Try the food, even if you’re uncertain. 
  • Learn how to say “hello”, “thank you” and “goodbye” in the local language – it’s always appreciated.  
  • Bug spray, motion-sickness pills, and electrolyte powder are your friends, so bring them along! 
  • Don’t be afraid to save up for a once-in-a-lifetime journey, no matter your age. 
  • It’s ok to be grumpy, but still remember to be kind. 
  • Try to foster an attitude of “why the hell not”, I highly doubt you’ll regret it.

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Comments

Oliver

28/9/2017 12:55 PM

Wow great photos and what a trip! Thanks for the blog and the kind words so glad you and Jo had such a good time.

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