Life’s a 'gasy
Africa’s ready-made Eden Project with nature evolving at its own pace, unabated. Castaway from the mainland into the Indian Ocean, Madagascar is famous for a wide variety of endemic plant and animal life. It’s also home to people originally from Indonesia and the African continent, who became distinct tribes with a mix of Malayo-Indonesian and African-Arab ancestry.
Being the fourth largest island in the world, Madagascar is quite a lot bigger than can be comprehended, but we all know now that the world maps we saw at school weren’t accurate. With a landmass of 587,713 square km, it is more than double the size of the United Kingdom. With little infrastructure and poor roads, exploring different parts of the island of Madagascar takes a good while.
We had only 9 nights, just enough time to visit the tropical rainforests of Andasibe (closest rainforest to the capital, Antananarivo or ‘Tana’) and head south with Air Madagascar on a 2-hour flight to Fort Dauphine, a drier region just below the Tropic of Capricorn. Using Tana (Antananarivo) as the transport hub, we spent three nights there, accommodating our arrival, departure and bridging between the two other regions in our itinerary.
Day one: Arriving in Antananarivo
Tana’s International Airport – Ivato- is small, but surprisingly, has a number of national carriers offering scheduled departures from the likes of Nairobi, Addis Ababa, Paris, and me from Johannesburg with SAA on a three-hour flight.
A quick heads up for beach bums - SA Airlink is now offering direct flights from Johannesburg to Nosy Be’ in the far north, which is an ideal seaside getaway.
Arriving at Ivato, passport control involves three or four different hoops to jump through, but visa issuing is relatively swift. Be sure to have 25 Euros (or equivalent USD) to hand over for the visa which is applicable to all visiting nationals.
Once luggage is collected, it’s a good idea to buy some local currency in the airport. Do shop around for the best rate and steer clear of the touts by using an official Bureau de Change - some change a variety of world currencies but some are restricted to USD and Euro. At the time of writing (May 2017) 1 ZAR bought 190 Areiarey.
Tour guides and drivers are not allowed to wait inside airports in Madagascar, so if you are being met, your person will be waiting just outside the airport’s main exit. Expect porters and begging children (all perfectly harmless) vying for your attention all the way to your vehicle – thankfully the only time on the trip that this was a hassle.
There are a number of hotels near the airport in the suburb of Ivato, which are convenient for early and late flights as the journey into central Antananarivo can take 2 hours in traffic. Tana has no rush hour to speak of but seems permanently congested. A pulsating mass of traffic around the capital relies only on the patience of drivers, roundabouts and traffic police to control the persistent flow of cars, buses, motorcycles, bicycles, rickshaws and all other manners of transport to keep it moving. There’s not a single traffic light in site and pop up shops and vendors adorn any available space to peddle their wares along the streets.
Historically, Tana is the capital of the Merina people, the largest ethnic group of the city’s estimated 1.3 million inhabitants. Combining the surrounding urban areas brings this total metropolitan population to nearly 3 million. All 18 Malagasy ethnic groups, plus Chinese, Indians, Europeans and other origins, are well rooted in the capital.
We eventually make it to our destination, the Ibis Hotel, which has clean comfortable rooms, hot shower, soft bed with fluffy pillows and a comfy duvet, just what is needed after a day’s travelling.
The Ibis has a decent restaurant and bar, but we decide to explore Antananarivo at night, following a recommendation to dine at the Cafe de la Gare restaurant. Housed, unsurprisingly in the historical central train station, the establishment is replete with typical colonial European grand architecture. The restaurant, frequented by a mix of tourist, locals and expats, has a superb menu, service and even local entertainment.
Day Two: Antananarivo Tour and on to Andasibe for a night walk in Analamazaotra Special Reserve
We check out of the Ibis after breakfast and enjoy a city tour of Antananarivo. Divided in three, the lower, middle and upper parts, it’s a mishmash of French colonial and Malagasy architecture.
The city is dotted with agriculture, industry and enterprise: rice paddies, chicken coops, grazing Zebu cattle, makeshift fish farms, handmade brick factories, every inch is sustaining a livelihood somehow.
Our guide talks us through the history to the present day and tells an all too familiar story of an African city struggling to keep up with the demands of its ever-expanding population.
Afterwards, we stop at the Jambo supermarket to grab some snacks and supplies for the journey east to Andasibe.
The NR2 road is tarred, but full of potholes. The endless dips, turns and bends make the 142km journey between five and six hours. This is the main route to the coastal port city Toamasina, also called Tamatave. We must have seen a dozen broken down freight trucks and sometimes when navigating through smaller villages, these vehicles can be seen squeezing through the narrow streets. Others plying this route include the long distance taxi buses (taxi-brousse) bush taxi, plenty of bicycles, and other makeshift forms of transport.
This stop offers great photo opportunities - getting close to a wide variety of chameleons, snakes, frogs, bats and even a type of local hedgehog, called a Tenrec.
After about an hour, we continue on, arriving at Andisabe Hotel in the late afternoon, to freshen up before our night walk along the fringe of the Analamazaotra Special Reserve, which forms part of Andasibe-Mantadia National Park of Madagascar.
We see plenty of nocturnal wildlife: Mouse Lemur, Woolly Lemur, Crab/Kite Spider and different frog and chameleon species. Our local guide is an expert in finding these small and often difficult-to-spot critters. Combined with the excitement of exploring at night, this makes for a fun activity.
Our hotel offers a selection of local and European style evening meals, but the favourite is the Zebu steak with Madagascan pepper. Our guide diligently briefs us on the next day’s activities, before we retire.
Day Three: Andasibe Rainforest
In mid-May we are lucky with the sunny weather, Andasibe is a rainforest, so wet weather is expected at any time of year. This often comes in short bursts that just as quickly disappear. We follow sage advice: wear good shoes, as the terrain will be muddy, pack a raincoat, wear comfortable long pants that can handle getting wet and use mosquito repellant – a must for exposed skin - as well as sunblock and a hat.
After breakfast and a short drive to the park's entrance, our knowledgeable local Malagasy guide – fully conversant in English, meets us. The rainforest suffers cyclone damage and one section of the park in the area we were visiting had just re-opened. Repairing paths and bridges looks like hard work with limited tools, but access to natural materials is plentiful.
Our quarry for the day is the Indri indri, the largest of lemurs. This primate has a head-and-body length of 64–72 cm, a weight between 6 and 9.5 kg and is famous for loud, distinctive songs.
In the forest, guides communicate via cell phone and it doesn’t take long to spot a pair of Indri indri. The walk entails some bundu bashing off the path, following their howling call. Photography is challenging, with low light, lots of branches, limited space on the ground between trees and other tourists, jostling for a good view. The lemurs are also roving around for food, making it tricky getting good pictures, whilst dodging the droplets of water from above.
The 3-hour walk affords the would-be David Attenborough's sightings of the Common Brown Lemur, the Diademed Sifaka and discoveries of ant nests in trees, due to the very wet conditions.
After a rest, we enjoy an 11km ride on mountain bikes trucked in from Tana that make light work of the bumpy road and hills, to Vakona Forest Lodge where we ate delicious lunch.
The afternoon excursion to Lemur Island is another highlight. Tourists can get close to a variety of lemur species as the private sanctuary only accessible by paddleboat. There are mixed reactions about this type of animal interaction but for the untrained eye at least, there appears no undue stress caused to the lemurs that are coaxed with treats of fruit towards the human visitors.
It is a great photo op and chance to see a wide variety of Madagascar's lemurs up close.
We return to the lodge before sunset for dinner and agree it’s a perfect place to be.
Day 4: Rural Life in Madagascar
We begin our day with a cultural walk through a nearby village to experience the life of the rural Malagasy.
For more about Madagascar, check out Dan's Adventures in Madagascar Part II which chronicles Day 5 to 9 of his trip or see Unspoilt Madagascar: Beautiful Beaches, Wildlife & Unique Cultures.