Sample Safari is a regular column designed to give you an insight to the range of safari options available throughout Africa. In this edition, Derek Schuurman reports on a whirlwind tour he undertook to some of Madagascar's prime wildlife hotspots.
The essence of Madagascar is diversity, and this giant life raft features everything from primeval rainforest jungles to a semi-desert quite reminiscent (superficially) of that found in Mexico. But as diverse as Madagascar is, it is also enormous and that, coupled with its modest road network, means the most sensible way of reaching its many attractions is by air. Conveniently, Air Madagascar serves a network of 59 domestic airports, so access to the most remote outposts is made somewhat easier. In just over a week, it is possible to take in one site in each of the island's main floral/climatic zones-the eastern rainforests, the southern semi-desert and the tropical deciduous forests of the western plains.
Recently, I completed such a circuit with Unusual Destinations and their Madagascan ground handler, Za Tour. Essentially this meant travelling to each region separately, using Antananarivo, or "Tana", the capital, as a centre point.
Day One: Antananarivo - Perinet (Analamazaotra) Private Reserve
Descending to the Ivato International airport, one of Madagascar's most in-your-face lowlights screams out from below: the island's chronic environmental degradation. When flying over the central highlands it's very difficult to imagine that, in a short space of time, you're actually going to be exploring widely differing habitat types during your stay.
On my arrival, ace Malagasy guide and proprietor of Za Tour, Nivo Ravelojaona, whisked me out of the airport and we set off for our first destination, the upland rainforest of Perinet (Analamazaotra). After long-haul international flights in particular, this is the best place to use as your first stop because getting there involves a simple three-hour drive along good roads. Much of this is through mountainous terrain, winding passes taking you through countryside checkered with emerald rice paddies. Wildlife and endemic flora are virtually non-existent until you reach the montane rainforests to the east of the town Moramanga, where Perinet is situated.
It was late afternoon when we arrived at the 810ha reserve, and after leaving our luggage at the upmarket, Swiss-run, Vakona Forest Lodge, we eagerly set off into the rainforest with local guide Henry-John Nirina leading the way. Nirina is one of many capable guides who are part of a local guides' association.
Because we were there in October (the austral spring), wildlife was on top form. Nirina froze suddenly and pointed out some adorable grey bamboo lemurs which, on Madagascar, essentially occupy the niche taken in Asia by pandas. Regarding us for a while, the first lemurs of our trip melted back into the sea of green.
Drizzle began to fall, but Nivo advised us to remain in the forest because rainforest wildlife remains as active during inclement weather. "Besides, it takes lots of rain to make a rainforest flourish," she added.
Having seen a number of the island's "small-scale marvels", we returned to the Vakona Lodge where, in thoughtfully-decorated surroundings, we dined on "poulet au coco", a delicious chicken in coconut milk which is cooked to perfection in many Malagasy eateries.
After dinner, we set off on walk no. 2, but this time not much more than a brief stroll armed with flashlights. I think it is only really at night in the rainforest that one actually realises that Madagascar is Chameleonsville. Lordie, they were there in all their glory, from chihuahua-sized Parson's chameleons to the tiny nose-horned and Brookesia (stump-tailed) chameleons, all of which first reflect white in torchlight.
There were also innumerable frogs-in fact Perinet claims a world record number of frog species among similarily-sized forests. In less than an hour, we happened on four species of nocturnal lemur, from diminutive mouse lemurs to the goggle-eyed woolly lemurs which, I am told, are among the laziest creatures on earth. At the end of a packed day and much travelling, we hit the hay in comfortable bungalows, safely under mosquito nets.
Day Two: Perinet Reserve - Antananarivo
Part of me wanted to murder our local guides when they woke us at 05h30 in order to have us back in the rainforest for the dawn chorus. Hastily, we wolfed down the obligatory continental breakfast of croissants, baguettes, fruit, juice and potent coffee and sped off back to the reserve for our first hard-core dose of diurnal wildlife.
If wildlife is what draws you to Madagascar, be sure to be in any forest as early after daybreak as possible-then things are the most active. But to be honest, one of the most memorable moments to be had in Madagascar is walking TOWARDS the Perinet rainforest at dawn. Hearing the spine-tingling, whale-like calls of the indri troops as they signal to one another while the mists lift off the canopy is awe inspiring. Pure magic. Seeing these baboon-sized primates-the largest extant Malagasy mammals-is virtually guaranteed as they are well habituated. (Take care not to stand directly underneath them though, for the indris have been known to pee on unsuspecting tourists.)
Something else which is special about your indri sightings in Perinet is the fact that they won't happen elsewhere in the world: like many other Malagasy specials, these animals cannot survive in captivity.
For a couple of hours we worked Perinet, using well-mapped trails into rainforest-clad slopes. The birding, in particular, was spectacular. But if you really want to clean up the lists, spend an extra day in the area and visit the nearby Mantadia National Park, a 10,000ha rainforest wonderland holding some very rare endemics.
Our time, however, was more limited, so, when the rainforest quietened down, we returned to Vakona Lodge, enjoyed a dip in the sparkling pool and in the afternoon drove back to Antananarivo.
Nivo timed our return journey so that we clocked in at the upmarket Hotel Gregoire, which has two of the city's best restaurants. From the extensive menu, I chose ravitoto, a dish of pork and manioc leaves. Nivo chose more conventional zebu kebabs which, I must say, looked mouth-watering. Most dishes in Madagascar are accompanied by generous servings of rice (vary), the national staple food (but you can request chips instead). We washed our meals down with Lazani' Betsileo, a pleasant rosé wine made in Fianarantsoa province, further south. Dinner was completed with delicious desserts including Crème brulée, rich chocolate mousse and fruit sorbets.
Day Three: Antananarivo - Fort Dauphin - Berenty Private Reserve
The Malagasy semi-desert, which accounts for much of the island's southern portion, is bizarre. In terms of climate, you couldn't go more opposite to that you'd have experienced in the damp eastern region: here it barely rains and droughts are not infrequent.
By Boeing 737 Air Madagascar flew us down to Fort Dauphin (Tolanaro), a town on the far southeast Malagasy coast. Fort Dauphin's setting is picture postcard material. The surrounding beaches are sweeping white sand corridors whilst, at the back of town, high mountains hold the remaining southernmost rainforests.
But as our purpose was to reach the Berenty Private Reserve, Madagascar's most publicised protected area, we didn't hang around to check the town out. At the Fort Dauphin airport we were met by representatives of the French-owned hotel Le Dauphin, whose proprietors also own Berenty Reserve. (It follows that you must stay in the Le Dauphin or its sister hotel, the Miramar, if you want to visit Berenty.)
In a new minibus, we jolted off westwards on the 80km stint along passable roads to Berenty. A plus for visitors to Berenty-and to its equally impressive but cheaper rival reserve Kaleta / Amboasary-Sud-is the variety of stops en route. You'll see things like a "cemetery" of the Antanosy tribe, carnivorous pitcherplants, then, in the Ranopis mountains, a slope covered in the endangered Triangular palm, the only plant to have triangular symmetry. After the Ranopis mountains you'll enter the "spiny desert", which the Malagasy call the "androy". This stretches for as far as the eye can see. Here, the tall "finger trees" (Didieraceae) stand like sentinels among much bushy Euphorbia.
Mirages hovered over the road as we missioned along in murderous midday heat. Finally, after traversing a ghastly sea of sisal, we reached Berenty. Within minutes, no, seconds, we were almost surrounded by wildlife, particularly confident ringtail lemurs, which hang around the campsite and even enter bungalows of the Gîte de Berenty ecolodge.
A quick nosh of zebu fillets, French salad, chips and fruit salad was followed by a walk into Berenty's dry gallery (tamarind) forest at the River Mandrare. Needless to say, the wildlife was spectacular and just as I remembered it at the nearby (and very similar) Amboasary-Sud reserve. That night, after dinner at the lodge restaurant, I lay in my bungalow listening to Madagascar nightjars, Madagascar scops owls and noisy white-browed owls cavorting into the wee hours.
Day Four: Berenty Reserve - Fort Dauphin
Our after-breakfast morning walk into Berenty was a highlight. In the trees, cuddly Verreaux sifaka lemurs sat soaking up the early morning sun while ringtails and brown lemurs pottered about on terra firma. It doesn't take long to figure out why Berenty is such a visited place-and photo opportunities are marvellous.
Around lunchtime, after thoroughly combing through the gallery forest and spiny bush, we left for Fort Dauphin because we were keen to relax on one of the island's most scenic beaches, Libanona. The flora at this beach renders it rather Mediterannean in appearance and checking out the rockpools is always rewarding. Swimming is safe, though I wouldn't dare put my foot into the ocean anywhere else around Fort Dauphin-the population of tiger sharks is a bit too healthy for comfort.
That night at hotel Le Dauphin, we pigged out on gigantic langoustines prepared in a hallucinatory garlic sauce. Also on the menu were avocado halves, stuffed with crab salad. For dessert, I chose the national favourite, banana flambée-peeled bananas cooked in lethal Malagasy white rum.
Day Five: Fort Dauphin - Antananarivo
Today, being principally a travelling day, we were able to sleep in (hallelujah!). We had a leisurely continental breakfast and left for Fort Dauphin's airport for the return flight by 737 to Antananarivo. On the programme for the afternoon was a tour of the capital, which culminated in a visit to the national zoo, Parc de Tsimbazaza. There, you can see seriously endangered species like the Madagascar fish eagle (only 200 pairs left), the tiny Madagascar teal (perhaps only 500 pairs left) and the outrageous aye aye lemur. The aye ayes emerge at dusk, and I think it's worth flying to Madagascar solely to spend a while studying these strange primates.
For dinner we selected the restaurant Le Grill du Rova, which is nestled on a cliff overlooking the city, near the "rova" or Royal Palace. The extensive menu includes Malagasy and continental dishes. Its setting and ambience make it deservedly one of the most popular eateries in Antananarivo. Service is super-friendly without being obtrusive. Once again, we spent the night in the Hotel Gregoire.
Day Six: Antananarivo - Morondava - Kirindy Forest
The final leg of our whirlwind tour was a visit to western Madagascar's hot, wide lowlands, which hold the last stands of tropical dry deciduous forest.
Descending to Morondava's quaint airport, you quickly realise that this is serious baobab country (six of the world's eight species are unique to the island). Three endemic species are represented in the Morondava basin and from the air one sees thousands of these statuesque giants dotting the countryside.
People from the stylish seaside hotel Royal Toera were on hand to meet us at the airport, and had us at the hotel in no time. From there, our objective was to drive up to the fascinating Kirindy ("Swiss") Forest, 60km north of town by sand road. This 10,000ha tropical dry forest is thick with endemic wildlife and actually holds a world record for primate density among forests of comparable size. In this case, we're talking lemurs, which are represented here by several species.
But Kirindy is also of note because it is the island's top spot for nocturnal wildlife viewing. For this reason, we chose to stay for the night in the basic campsite. This has kitchen and shower facilities and very rustic huts with single beds and "mozzer" nets. Here, as in the other reserves, you'll need a good flashlight with spare batteries.
After sunset Kirindy comes alive as its denizens emerge from their daytime hideouts. Terrain is flat and most paths broad, so moving around is not hard. Chances of seeing things like the endangered giant jumping rat, various spiny tenrecs, the fosa (Madagascar's largest predator) and an assortment of lemurs, are excellent. One of these is the Pygmy mouse lemur, the world's smallest primate. When we were there, researchers had trapped one for study purposes, and we were able to appreciate the tiny stature of the 45g adults.
Our marvellous guide, Joachim Theophile, also a teacher in Morondava, set about showing us a wealth of weird and wonderful things peculiar to his home turf.
Meals in the campsite are simple, quite often cooked at the hotels in Morondava and brought to the forest. We dined on chicken, zebu steaks, rice and baguettes, along with salads. For dessert they whipped up banana flambée, to my delight.
Day Seven: Kirindy - Morondava
My memories of the early morning walk in Kirindy are a hazy blur of lemurs (especially red-fronted brown), odd birds like crested couas and garrulous sicklebill vangas, and a plethora of reptiles and remarkable plants, many of which our guide told us have medicinal properties or are held sacred by the local people.
We then returned to Morondava. En route we visited Menabe Sakalava craftsmen, who make the infamous erotic carvings which they place on well-concealed burial tombs. Seeing such carvings where they actually belong is very difficult these days, because so many were stolen by unscrupulous tourists. But the craftsmen will sell newly-made examples to the few tourists who visit them.
Knackered after all our travelling, yet on quite a high from our collective wildlife sightings around the country, we spaced out for the afternoon at the Royal Toera hotel's swimming pool. Here we savoured cocktails like the deceptively lethal "punch au coco", a godsend in the heat of western Madagascar. In the evening we visited the rustic old hotel Village Touristique les Bougainvilliers where, at the sea-facing restaurant, we feasted on prawns, calamari and fresh linefish. The view over the shimmering Mozambique channel added to the sublime ambience.
Day Eight: Morondava - Antananarivo - Europe
Our Madagascar round trip had essentially come to an end. The flight back to Antananarivo arrived in good time, allowing us a last-minute shopping spree at the artisans' market near Ivato airport. There, we stocked up on souvenirs such as locally-made clothing, spices, recycled-tin cars, raffia works and other bits and pieces for those back home. In a week we had explored one site in each of the island's chief climatic zones and taken in a realistic spectrum of Malagasy flora and fauna. We had seen so much diversity, yet we had experienced only a tiny sliver of the giant island continent.
· Price per person, sharing (twin or double room): £987.
· Price includes: Malagasy visa, all domestic Air Madagascar flights, domestic airport taxes, all airport assistance and transfers, all excursions to reserves and places of interest with vehicles, fuel, English-speaking guides, permits/entry fees and local reserve guides. All hotel nights are on a half-board basis (dinners and breakfasts included).
Published in Travel Africa Edition Eleven: Spring 2000 Text is subject to Worldwide Copyright (c)