Madagascan marvels: reefs, rainforests and red-ruffed lemurs

Madagascan marvels: reefs, rainforests and red-ruffed lemurs

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By Alison Roberts
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Gerald Durrell likened Madagascar to “a badly presented omelette”, observing that “like all the best omelettes, well or badly presented, it is stuffed with goodies”. He wasn’t wrong. The world’s fourth-largest island packs a huge ecological punch: 80 per cent of its flora and fauna is endemic, from lumbering, goggle-eyed chameleons to giant jumping rats and lolloping lemurs, and most of it is harmless and easy to view up close. Often overlooked in favour of higher-end destinations, such as the Seychelles and Mauritius, Madagascar is a great option for an adventurous Indian Ocean break; the terrain is incredible, the pace of life mora mora (“slowly, slowly”) and cultural life revolves around a fascinating system of ancestral worship and fady (taboos).

The patchwork of misty rainforest on the island’s east coast makes for a great introduction to the country, offering guaranteed lemur sightings and coral-strewn waters. Domestic security has improved since the country’s 2009 coup – Britain has announced the reopening of its embassy in the capital, Antananarivo (known locally as “Tana”), in 2013 – but you’d still do well to check the latest advisories before you travel. Below are our suggestions for a relaxed two-week visit.

Masoala National Park

Perched in the far northeast of the island, Masoala National Park is the country’s largest protected park and most diverse primary-rainforest area, unique for its combination of forest and coast. Soaring trees with oversized buttress roots covered in creepers and orchids reach all the way down to exquisite, sandy beaches, where humpback whales appear in the water and volcanic rock formations scatter the shore. Accessed by a flight and boat trip from Tana, the national park isn’t easy to get to, but it’s undoubtedly worth the journey.

 

All photos by Alison Roberts and James Morris

Of the string of remote lodges that run along the coast here, Tampolodge is arguably the best-placed: it sits on a fabulous beach, and adjacent to the beautiful Tampolo river estuary. Here you’ll spend your days walking with a dedicated guide who will help you spot handsome red-ruffed lemurs, enormous, vividly coloured Parson’s chameleons and, if you’re lucky, the cartoon-like, blue-beaked helmet vanga – a real prize for keen twitchers. Between day and night walks, you can cool off with a snorkel along the edge of the nearby marine park, which is inhabited by stingrays, dolphins and lionfish. Or you can take a trip to the nearby small island of Nosy Mangabe, where you’ll be in with a chance of glimpsing the curious aye-aye, a distinctive-looking lemur with saucer-sized green eyes and tarantula-like fingers. 

Andasibe-Mantadia National Park

Just a three-hour journey east from Tana, you are guaranteed to see troops of indris in Andasibe National Park. These toddler-sized lemurs have bear-like faces, long, powerful, black-and-white limbs for springing through the trees and a piercingly loud, echoing call that sounds like air escaping from a giant balloon. Don’t miss the excellent night walks around the fringes of the park, when well-informed guides direct your torchlight to the glowing eyes of tiny nocturnal mouse lemurs, as well as sleeping chameleons with curled tails. Neighbouring Mantadia National Park, which has even fewer tourists, is the best place to witness the stunning diademed sifaka, a lemur with vivid red eyes, auburn-and-white fur and an elegant gait. Vakona Forest Lodge is the most comfortable accommodation option in the area, and has its own river island where you can hold and feed affable ex-pet lemurs.

Antananarivo

Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo, will almost certainly be your first point of entry and it’s likely that you’ll return here between each leg of your journey too. A patchwork of paddy fields, colonial buildings and clay houses, Tana is a pleasant place to explore on foot and do some shopping. Home to an increasing number of fine-dining restaurants, the city is a mouthful in more ways than one, offering excellent French-influenced cuisine, as well as local specialities, such as hearty zebu steaks. It is also home to a good crop of historic, boutique hotels, such as the Pavillon de l’Emyrne, which offers guests a free daily massage, and the exquisite Lokanga Boutique Hotel, which affords spectacular views over jacaranda-fringed Lake Anosy.

Antananarivo, Madagascar