Visiting Andasibe in Madagascar; Home of the Indris

Mike Godfrey

22 Nov 2016

Arriving in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar

It must be a good sign when you start smiling in the arrivals hall. No need for electronic passport recognition here, just a queue snaking backwards and forwards under the low roof of an old wooden building. The wide bodied Air France jet hadn’t manoeuvred into position for a flexible walk-tube to be attached but nor had a fleet of buses been sent out to meet us. We just drove right up there. 

The queue moved along at quite a lick and before long we too were motioned to a wooden box where a friendly woman in uniform stamped our passport. She then pointed us to another queue. Here three people sat behind a desk issuing visas at 27 euros a go. All three seemed involved but it wasn’t obvious what their different responsibilities were. Then another queue. This may sound irritating but it wasn’t, actually it was quite good fun. I’ve still no idea what this one was for but the queue approached a wooden box-come-office and a man on either side invited you to go this way or that. We went left and handed over our passports yet again to a hand thrust out of the office. It seemed to get passed left and right as it made its way to the back of the office where stood a very big man in uniform. A group of tourists was gathered round him and as passports were disgorged he called out the name printed on them. Actually he called out something similar to the name on the passport. 

There was much mirth, including from the man himself as travellers thought they might have recognised their names and made themselves available for inspection.

Next step was the usual trial of getting your luggage off the carousel without crippling anyone while everyone stands right up against the side of the carousel. At least there was no wait for it. It had only travelled about 30 yards from the plane!

Our driver was waiting and greeted us with a smile. There was, of course, a crowd waiting as we emerged from the hall, there always is. Usually, despite people stopping where it’s not helpful to greet their friends and family, there is a clue about how to get through the awaiting throng. Here there was none. I’m a rugby league man myself but I have seen things similar to this in rugby union and I’m sure there must have been a ball in there somewhere. Our man made a path where there wasn’t one and we were on our way.

The whole process hadn’t really taken very long and was much more entertaining than anything a modern airport hub has to offer.

Once in the vehicle and on our way we had another surprise. There was no grand impressive sweep of highway, rather we were on the sort of back road to an industrial estate that I’ve only ever been on when my Sat. Nav. has decided to punish me for ignoring its advice earlier in the day. Only five minutes later we arrived at our hotel and, it being nearly midnight, headed for bed thinking of the next day’s adventures.

From Antananarivo to Andisibe

We were on our way to Andisibe. Our driver, and Malala our guide, had met us after breakfast. Turning out onto what had been a virtually deserted road just the night before we found that the morning rush hour had brought about a very different situation. No need to worry though, as after about 100 yards our driver, escaping the traffic, turned down what looked to be a dead end. Of course it wasn't and we weaved our way down alleyways and across pathways, round the back of small houses and before long we emerged onto a road flanked by flooded paddy fields. People were working up to their knees, and oxen were pulling ploughs, and yet we were within a mile or two of the centre of Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar.

This road was now much clearer of traffic and for a while we made good progress as the paddy fields passed us by on either side. Our driver wasn't finished with his local knowledge however and soon, as the paddy fields ran out and we came to a more built up area, he plunged down another narrow passage and then up a hill, all the time crowded on either side by small shops selling fruit and vegetables which we could almost reach from inside our car. The streets were thronged now with locals going about their daily business. Very few Madagascans look very African because mostly they're not. The books say Polynesian, our guide said from Malaysia and most people we spoke to offered something different again. Intermarriage has made it tricky to be sure. Malala said most people thought she looked Mexican and so she did but I think she said it to tease us. Butchers’ shops were much in evidence and we passed within feet of hanging carcasses and entrails. A local favourite is zebu, oxen-like beasts with large horns. We found it on most menus but to be honest, although perfectly palatable, it can't compete with an Aberdeen Angus. Then again how many Aberdeen Angus can pull a cart?

The purpose of this route was to avoid the centre of Antananarivo and by skirting round it reach the A2, the main road to our destination. Once on the A2 we made good progress. The road was in good condition and there was only light traffic. At first we passed more paddy fields but then they became less frequent as the road became not quite so flat. We passed through a couple of towns, one of them full of brightly painted bicycle trishaws. All this time we were aware that Madagascar had been totally forested until a few hundred years ago. We were making our way to Andisibe because the forests that could support the unique wildlife of Madagascar had been reduced to a few outposts and that was one of them.

As we approached Andisibe more and more huts alongside the road had bags of charcoal stacked outside them for sale, the fruits of chopping down yet more trees. Much of the original forest had been replaced here by eucalyptus, totally alien to Madagascar and not suitable for its wildlife, but quick growing. Even so hillside after hillside was totally stripped of trees.

Arriving Andasibe ready to explore

After nearly four hours we were approaching Andisibe and Malala suggested that we stop for lunch before going to look for lemurs in the nearby forest. We stopped at Marie’s. Marie was, and still is, a famous guide who has diversified by opening a restaurant and nearby souvenir shop. Marie’s was full of both tourists and guides having something to eat before continuing their adventure. On the journey down I had asked Malala if we could stop to pick up some water which we did at a shop attached to a petrol station. I decided to buy a bottle of beer and settled on the best known brand ignoring Malala’s advice that another make was better. Marie’s restaurant sold both so we were able to compare. Malala was right. “I know” she said when I admitted my mistake. A sandwich was less than £3 but we saw one arrive at the next table and it was about three feet long, far too much for us. We decided to share a spaghetti Bolognese for about the same price but couldn’t even get through that, good as it was.

This break was only about half an hour and the entrance to the rainforest was just five minutes up the road. Just as at Marie’s, everyone seemed to know Malala who introduced us to our local guide and we set straight off. The going wasn’t too bad and it hadn’t rained for a couple of days so it wasn’t very slippery either. There was some mild climbing to be done from time to time however, and if leaving the track, the undergrowth could provide quite a battle. For a time we saw very little. Our guide would leave us from time to time as he saw signs of something but generally it turned out to be elusive. After a while he struck out on a new path as if for a rendezvous...

It seems that lemurs tend to have a pattern of behaviour and late in the afternoon the indris, the largest extant lemur species, liked a certain part of the forest. Sure enough, after a while he stopped and pointed up into the trees. At first I could see nothing but then there was a crash and a branch swayed violently as an indri landed on it. We climbed a thickly forested bank and became aware of first three then four and five indris, some not very high up. They hung in the branches eating leaves, looking around and from time to time, leaping across to other branches. Suddenly some were very close and we moved to get a clear view around the many trees and branches. Then they started their remarkable calls. It is often said to sound similar to the call of the humpback whale but since I have never heard humpback whales I couldn't comment. It is a call that can be heard two miles away and, when you are within ten yards of them, you can see why. Back and forth went the calls between this group and another in a different part of the forest. The indris themselves grow to nearly a metre high and can weigh up to ten kilos and yet they throw themselves through the trees with utmost confidence ignoring the humans so captivated by them.

We had had two long and tiring days travelling but the reward was well worth it.

Discovering Andasibe

The next morning we heard them well before we saw them. We had entered the park after a breakfast which owed much to Madagascar’s history as a French colony. There was a little fruit juice but essentially it was a distraction from the coffee and croissants, possibly the best croissants I’ve had outside of France. In another era the only thing missing would have been a couple of gauloises. The plaintive cries of the indris weren’t meant for us but they made it easy for us to find them and once again we revelled in the experience of being immersed in nature which continued as if we weren't there. There were two other small groups of visitors watching the spectacle and before long we left them and went to look for the other lemurs to be found in the forest.

The undergrowth in secondary forests like this one can be thick and some of the growth sinewy and as strong as cable which makes it difficult to negotiate. We found the diademed sifakas in what seemed to be a family group at the top of a small incline. Getting a good shot through the tangle of undergrowth required edging round trees and climbing down steep slopes before climbing back up again as they teased us by jumping around. Next year I will be seventy and four years ago I had two stents put in my heart. If you urgently need hip or knee surgery perhaps you should think twice and stick to the path but my wife and I managed perfectly well and were rewarded with wonderful views of this animal considered by many to be the most beautiful of all the lemurs.

Find out more about Andasibe

We spent the afternoon sitting on our balcony back at the lodge watching the many birds come and go. By late afternoon the Madagascar bee-eaters were back on the branches they had been occupying the previous day. They would swoop round in a circle before returning to the same spot with an insect in their beak. We would then see and hear them knocking the insect against the tree to break off the sting before swallowing what was left.

Once it was dark we set off for our night walk. Our vehicle took us back to Marie’s before leaving us and heading two miles up the road to wait. Without the guide I can confidently predict that we would have seen nothing at all. Our torches raked the undergrowth on either side of the road but it was only the guide who would point to a chameleon or a tiny frog on a leaf. Having seen the impressively sized indri earlier in the day it was extraordinary to realise that the tiny nocturnal mouse lemur which we glimpsed briefly was closely related. It was very small indeed and scampered off like its namesake once it was picked out by our torches.

Negotiating primary forest

Primary forest is so called because it has never been destroyed unlike secondary forest which may have suffered fire or some other form of destruction before growing back. So far we had been in secondary forests but the next morning we travelled for two hours beyond our usual spot, climbing up a track higher and higher to reach the Mantadia forest, an almost pristine primary rainforest and for the first time it was indeed raining. The tracks were actually easier to negotiate despite being slightly wet and the forest itself was beautiful. We knew it would be more difficult to spot lemurs and so it proved. The beauty of the vegetation made up for it as did the knowledge that we were standing in a landscape that had existed for centuries. Before we left though we found a small group of black and white ruffed lemurs which we hadn’t seen before.

On our way down, heading for lunch at Vakona Lodge, we were aware that we were to enter a different world. Perhaps the opposite end of the spectrum from the untamed primary forest. If anyone missed a lemur experience in the forests they could make up for it here. Vakona Island is effectively a zoo without bars. Crossing over in a canoe takes no more than a few seconds and the first thing you see is tourists, plenty of them, with lemurs climbing on their shoulders. It gets better though. A canoe ride takes you past various islands populated by lemurs and affords a good view of diademed sifakas, black and white ruffed lemurs, common brown lemurs and even ring-tailed and bamboo lemurs, (neither of which are native to these parts).

Our return to Antananarivo the next day included another similar experience to Vakona island. Although we had seen some chameleons and geckos on our night walk they are difficult to spot and this part of Madagascar clearly had far more to offer than we had seen. After a couple of hours of driving we pulled off the main road and went up an unprepossessing track. This was 'Madagascar Exotic' in Marozevo. There was quite a collection of reptiles and amphibians but the most remarkable set of exhibits were in a large enclosure which we entered through a gate in the wire walls.

The chameleons we had seen previously were quite small and, in the torchlight, lacking the colours we had expected. The chameleons here were very different. Some were massive, some tiny, some brightly coloured and others dark.

They, and the geckos were astonishing and I suspect we would have had to have been in Madagascar for a long time to see anything like them in the wild.

Whilst always uneasy about animals in captivity I was enthralled. I even allowed one to be placed on my arm and was astonished by the strength of its grip. Were the owners of this place plundering the forest or helping conservation? Did this educate and help attitudes to the remarkable and unique wildlife of Madagascar or deprive it of dignity? I don’t know the answer but I was captivated by what I saw.

Back in the car and by mid-afternoon we were in our hotel in the capital, our adventure to Andasibe over but with memories of many remarkable and unique creatures.

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