The delightfully named Parc National de la Montagne d’Ambre (Amber Mountain National Park), which protects a huge, extinct shield volcano that last blew its top around two million years ago and now peaks at 1474m, is one of Madagascar’s oldest and finest natural areas. Created in 1958, it is loved and venerated by local people as much as by passing visitors, and its crater lakes, waterfalls and dark rainforests teem with life (many species remain to be discovered) and combine to make a strong impression.
The higher slopes of the mountain receive around 3500mm of annual rainfall, similar to parts of eastern Madagascar; most of this falls between December and March, though no months are really dry. Around the Station des Roussettes, a clearing in the forest that forms the main human focus in the park, it rains much less often between May and October, but the park averages 6–10°C cooler than Diego, so although it’s humid you’ll need some warm layers, especially in July and August. Harmless leeches tend to be a problem in the wetter areas and during heavy rains. Mosquitoes can strike at any time: be prepared.
Unfortunately, there were two armed robberies in the park in late 2013 – incidents that received international attention and briefly became the subject of travel warnings. They seem to be have been isolated cases, however, and at the time of writing, the local view was that a repeat episode was unlikely.
Route de Montagne d’Ambre
The Route de Montagne d’Ambre, off the main RN6, is a narrow road built by the French, overhung by foliage and climbing slowly through hills and farmland. It soon becomes very potholed, allowing for careful inspection of the nearby bushes (regularly bejewelled by colourful day geckos and poised chameleons) as your vehicle crawls past. Climbing the mountain you pass through abrupt changes of scenery, from dry grasslands and farms to permanently moist rainforest, over the space of just a few kilometres. The dense vegetation around Joffreville, the park’s main town, signals your imminent arrival. The tarmac ends here and only good 4x4s can make the final 3.5km along the (usually) wet-earth and rock track up to the park entrance: in the wet season, without your own vehicle, you’ll almost certainly have to walk this last stretch.
There’s little substance to the straggling ex-colonial hill station of JOFFREVILLE, founded in 1903 at the village of Ambohitra, though there are a few crumbling old ruins from the days of the colons flanking its broad, cobbled, two-lane avenue. These include a single general store and, near the top, a hideous abandoned tower block that turns out to be a former “École Normale”.
While the forest footpaths are often slippery, some of the motor trails are in good condition, and this is one of the most vehicle-accessible of Madagascar’s parks. There’s an easy circuit of (mixed-use) driving and walking trails looping around the Station des Roussettes (roussette: fruit bat), taking in a lake and three waterfalls (cascades), making a park visit of anything from a few hours to a full day straightforward and very rewarding.
Ten minutes’ walk from the forest station is the Lac Sacrée, a deep crater pool with a viewpoint looking across to a tumbling waterfall, where local people traditionally leave offerings to the spirits of the ancestors they believe are now confined to these remaining forests. A short walk to the north, following the stream valley, brings you to the Cascade Antankarana – a fine veil of water over a fern-draped rocky hollow. If you have all day, you can follow the Voie des Milles Arbres (“Thousand Tree Way”), and the Circuit Grand Cascade, and you’ll eventually reach the Cascade d’Antomoboka.
A two-hour round-trip walk from the forest station will take you to Lac Mahasarika or Petit Lac. Four more lakes lie higher up through the forest to the south, but the terrain is much steeper and heading up here is only possible if you’re fully equipped to camp out. The second lake, Lac Grande, is a half-day hike for most people (assuming you’re stopping frequently along the way) and marks the start of the climb to the main caldera at the mountain’s peak, less than 1km to the west.
An arboretum as much as a conventional national park, Montagne d’Ambre features many named trees along its paths, and a good number of them – such as Japanese cedars, Brazilian araucarias and water-sucking gum trees from Australia – are foreign exotics planted in the colonial period in agro-forestry trials. The botanical highlights, however, are the indigenous tree ferns, lianas and Dracaenadragon plants growing among the rosewoods and specimens of Canaria madagascariensis – the tree whose aromatic resin gives the park the amber for which it’s famous.
The Amber Mountain is a reptile paradise: you can see half a dozen species of chameleons alone in your first hour in the park, including the wonderful nez-bleu (the blue-nosed Calumma boettgeri), the splendid panther chameleon (Furcifer pardalis) and no fewer than four species of tiny ground-dwelling Brookesia that live only on this mountain.
The mountain’s diurnal lemurs include crowned lemurs (Eulemur coronatus), with their neat grey coats and orange head markings, and Sanford’s brown lemurs (Eulemur sanfordi), which have grey faces and males with rather untidy white beards and ear tufts. Both species have some relatively habituated troops, and there’s something slightly unnerving and child-like about the way the stocky Sanford’s lemurs clamber through the branches and watch passers-by. The mountain has seven nocturnal lemurs, including the noisy and very mobile Montagne d’Ambre fork-marked lemur (Phaner electromontis), and is also rated highly as a spot to see some of Madagascar’s native carnivores, though the worm-eating falanouc and ring-tailed mongoose can prove almost as elusive as the aye-aye – you might be lucky if you sit out quietly at dawn or dusk around the campsite in the park. Since there seems little prospect of night walks being allowed in the near future, these animals have the forest to themselves – for more chance of spotting them visit the private reserve at the Domaine de Fontenay, where you can walk whenever you like.
Birds and insects
The park’s bird count numbers more than seventy species, including the exceptionally rare and vociferous Madagascar fish eagle (Haliaeetus vociferoides) and the beautiful Madagascar crested ibis (Lophotibis cristata). But the avian star is the Amber Mountain rock thrush (Monticola erythronotus), endemic to this forest: the male, with his blue head, has a beautiful song.
Aside from the insects you would prefer to avoid, the park is home to some impressive swallowtail butterflies, easily seen as they break through shafts of sunlight, but hard to photograph in their ceaseless flight.