The highlands of central Madagascar – often called the Hauts Plateaux, although they are mostly anything but flat – stretch from north of Antananarivo far towards the south of the island. The region, which ranges in altitude from 800m to more than 2000m above sea level, includes dramatic granite mountain ranges, lava ridges and outcrops. While there’s very little indigenous natural forest left, the human landscape is captivatingly beautiful, with deep valleys filled for hundreds of years by terraced rice fields and characteristic rows of traditionally built houses, and the interest never wanes as you travel through the region.
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Covered in this section are the most compelling parts of the island’s centre: the busy provincial agricultural town of Antsirabe; the historical city of Fianarantsoa; the rainforest gem of the Parc National de Ranomafana; and the ring-tailed lemur reserve at Anja near Ambalavao – all of which can easily be reached along the RN7.
Coffee, tea and wine
The well-watered central highlands region, with its marked seasons, provides ideal conditions for many crops.
On the region’s eastern slopes, in areas cleared of mid-altitude rainforest, between 20,000 and 30,000 tonnes a year of coffee – mainly robusta and a little arabica – is grown on farms and small plantations. Ambatomenaloha, southwest of Antsirabe and Anjoma Itsara, northwest of Fianarantsoa, are centres of small-scale arabica production, but in many parts coffee trees are harvested like a wild crop, and their beans roasted for home use. As well as the commercial varieties, Madagascar has more than 50 species of wild coffee, many with very low caffeine and some not yet named. There’s a coffee research station at Kianjavato, midway between Ranomafana National Park and the coast, where you can see many of them.
The Sahambavy tea plantation, some 22km east of Fianarantsoa along the Fianar–Côte East railway line (but a 40km drive along a circuitous route), was started from scratch in the 1970s, using Kenyan tea bush cuttings. It produces around 500 tonnes a year on its five square kilometres, representing nearly all of Madagascar’s tea production. Tea bushes thrive particularly well in areas with high rainfall and acidic soils, so rainforest clearings are ideal. Factory and field visits are possible.
Wine is perhaps the most surprising of Madagascar’s stimulant crops. Wine grapes, planted originally by French Jesuit priests, are important in the district around Fianarantsoa and Ambalavao, where the country’s best-known vineyards – Lazan’i Betsileo, Soavita, Clos Malaza and Domaine de Lovasoa – are all found. Together with several other small producers, they make about 10 million litres a year for the local market. Unfortunately, little if any Malagasy wine even reaches supermarket plonk standards and few of the best restaurants and hotel dining rooms serve it. The problem seems to be that the growing season is dry, while the ripening season coincides with the hot, wet austral summer. The harvest takes place in February, by which time the grapes have spent many weeks being gently steamed. One new producer may be onto something: Clos Nomena at Ambalavao has been experimenting since 2001 with noble grape varieties from France, rather than the usual international hybrids. Since 2011 they have been producing the first vintage wines in Madagascar – much more expensive, but worth seeking out.
Ambatolampy to Antsirabe
The first large town south of Tana, AMBATOLAMPY was a traditional Merina iron-smelting and forging town and is still associated with metalwork and crafts – and nowadays souvenirs. For much of the way north and south of the town, clusters of crafts sellers gather every few hundred metres along the roadside, with each metier concentrated along a particular stretch: basketry and raffia-ware, brightly painted metal toys, even statues of the Virgin Mary. The stalls of musical instruments are particularly appealing (more so if you’re about to fly home), with nicely made local violins, banjos and other instruments on offer for around 20,000–40,000ar.
South of Ambatolampy, the twisting RN7 highway follows the meandering Onive (“In the Middle”) River, showing off picturesque rural scenes in every direction: verdant lime-green, jade and emerald-tinted rice paddies at every stage of growth; steep, hard, red hillsides brimming with iron oxide; and rows of neat, multi-hued houses, their upper-floor window frames blackened by wood smoke from years of kitchen fires. On the highway, as well as the usual mix of heavy trucks and crammed taxis brousses, children and whole families push laden trolleys (varamba) and ride them helter-skelter downhill. Up to the west, you can see the looming mountains of the Massif de l’Ankaratra, an ancient volcanic range whose peaks occasionally get snow, and which still bubble with a little activity in Antsirabe’s hot springs.
Parc National de Ranomafana
The Parc National de Ranomafana (meaning “warm water”, after the area’s hot springs) is, after Andasibe-Mantadia, the easiest major rainforest national park to reach from Tana. Sprawled across the ridges and valleys of the upper Namorona River basin, and centred around the small town of Ranomafana, its thick tangle of trees and plants is bathed by a constant flow of moist air drifting up from the Indian Ocean, helping to make this 435-square-kilometre park one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. More than 1025 species of trees and other plants have been recorded here to date, spread across several distinct domains from lowland rainforest, through mid-altitude to highland rainforest, ranging in altitude from 500m to 1300m.
Ranomafana’s faunal assets are equally impressive: more than 130 species of reptiles and amphibians, 114 species of birds (roughly half the island’s total) and no fewer than twelve species of lemur are found here, and the park is grouped with other eastern rainforest parks to form UNESCO’s Rainforests of the Atsinanana World Heritage Site in Danger.
The best times to visit are April to May and August to December, though if you want to kayak or raft on the river (which can be organized with a highland tour operator), you should visit roughly from December to April. Although on average it rains here two hundred days every year, the heaviest rainfall comes in the hot season (Dec–March); temperatures cool down in the drier austral winter, and many nocturnal species hibernate in June and July. August, when it begins to get warmer again, sees the start of the spring breeding season, which runs until November. Note that on rainy days, which occur even in the so-called dry season, lemurs and many other animals can be quite elusive while they take shelter.
There are four main districts at Ranomafana, with trails of varying lengths cut through them: on the north side the districts of Vohiparara and the much larger Soarano; and on the south side the popular Varibolo area and further south the much bigger Varijatsy.
Most visitors head down into the Namorona valley from the park visitor centre along the old Talatakely trail, crossing the new steel and concrete “Pont Aureus” footbridge, and walk some of the Varibolo footpaths. There are many kilometres of trails here, ranging from slightly arduous to quite hard-core – but such is the richness and diversity of the wildlife around you that as long as you’re reasonably fit and have suitable footwear, you’re not likely to notice how strenuous the experience is until the next day. If you are planning several days here, go easy to begin with. As ever, it’s worth making an early start by getting permission from the park warden in town and buying your ticket the day before.
Night walks, since the ban on them by the park authorities, are confined to stumbling along the grassy verge of the RN25 with your guide and a flashlight, mostly in search of chameleons and frogs. Unfortunately, this is a relatively busy road and mouse lemurs and trucks don’t mix well.
Stony Brook University New York’s extraordinary Centre ValBio, the park’s showpiece research base which opened in 2011, has a radical but sensitive design, bringing visitors into close proximity with the forest, without having destroyed any of the environment in the course of its building. Founded by the renowned primatologist Patricia Wright, it promotes research into the rainforest ecosystem and works with the community on sustainable development. You can visit and get a tour of the facilities, but you need to call or visit in advance to book.
At the old thermal baths, on the south bank of the Namorona River, there’s a public outdoor swimming pool heated by the hot springs which is popular with locals. You might also investigate the hot baths and treatment centre, though they are often closed.
As soon as you cross the rushing Namorona River, you are very much in the park. But it’s worth pointing out that some areas were cultivated only as long ago as the 1980s and much of the vegetation is recent secondary growth. One attractive but invasive exotic tree, the strawberry guava (Psidium cattleianum) is everywhere and if you’re here during the May/June fruiting season you’re likely to see lemurs right away: the fragrant guava fruit are a popular seasonal staple for lively red-bellied and red-fronted brown lemurs (Eulemur rubriventer and E. rufus) and for the handsome southern black-and-white ruffed lemurs (Varecia variegata editorum) which have been studied extensively and are quite easy to see. These lemurs also eat the fruit of indigenous wild coffee and its many relatives (Coffea, known as kafeala in Malagasy), though not the beans inside.
Giant tree ferns are common at Ranomafana (their trunks traditionally used for building) as are many species of orchids. The other key plant in the park is bamboo, or rather eleven species of bamboo, all endemic to Madagascar, including the giant bamboo (Cathariostachis madagascariensis), one of the biggest species in the world.
Lemurs and other mammals
The twelve species of lemurs at Ranomafana have made it a key location for primatologists, who have one of the country’s foremost research stations at the park. Although the local Tanala people have long practised tavy – slash-and-burn agriculture – in the region (and successfully avoided falling under Merina rule, only losing their independence to the French), lemur-hunting wasn’t a major activity in this area, even before the park was created in 1991.
There are three species of bamboo lemur alone. Giant bamboo makes up much of the diet of the distinctive golden bamboo lemur (Hapalemur aureus, known as bokombolomena or varibolomena in Malagasy), first described as recently as 1986. Around 65 individuals in around fifteen different groups live in Ranomafana, to which they are almost entirely restricted. They feed from 6am to 9am, which is the most likely time to see them, moving deliberately through the forest, with occasional bursts of leaping between the vertical bamboo stems. Curiously, golden bamboos are highly tolerant of cyanide, a normally highly toxic chemical that builds up in the bamboo. The guides can usually find the golden bamboo lemurs, but you’re much less likely to be gifted with the sight of the exceedingly rare, back-from-the-brink-of-extinction greater bamboo lemur (Prolemur simus or varibolomavo in Malagasy), which is much larger and has ear tufts.
One unusual diurnal lemur you do have a good chance of seeing is the large and gregarious Milne-Edwards’ sifaka (Propithecus edwardsi), a dark-coated, fluffy-headed denizen of the canopy, often seen clumped together in a jumble of limbs and tails high in the branches. This lemur, of which at least 4000 of Madagascar’s total population of perhaps 9000 live in Ranomafana, has been studied intensively by the ValBio researchers, and several Milne-Edwards’ groups are habituated to unfamiliar visitors.
Mammal life isn’t confined to lemurs: the long-legged and rather beguiling eastern red forest rat (Nesomys rufus) often makes an appearance on the trails, keeping two wary eyes open for a local predator, the handsomely marked fanaloka (Fossa fossana), which despite its scientific name is more like a genet or civet – and very partial to rat.
Key Madagascan endemics of the forest include a tiny terrestrial rail, the local and elusive slender-billed flufftail (Sarothrura watersi); the brilliantly plumaged pitta-like ground roller (Atelornis pittoides); the exceedingly secretive and rare brown mesite (Mesitornis unicolor); the shrike-like Pollen’s vanga (Xenopirostris polleni); and the short-legged ground roller (Brachypteracias leptosomus), which you may spot – or more likely your guide may spot – perched on a low branch in the understorey, obligingly motionless for low-light photography. Also look out for the velvet asity (Philepitta castanea): the male of the species turns out smartly for the breeding season in shiny navy-blue-green, with fleshy turquoise trimmings, like a little turkey wattle, on his head.
Reptiles and amphibians
Herpetology enthusiasts will be enraptured by Ranomafana. Tree frogs perch, gulping, on branches above streams (the larger, creamy blue-throated specimens are called white-lipped bright-eyed frogs, Boophis albilabris). The undergrowth abounds with leaf-tailed geckos, including the unnerving and ragged-looking satanic leaf-tail (Uroplatus phantasticus), and its cousins the mossy leaf-tail (U. sikorae) and giant leaf-tail (U. fimbriatus). Roadside night walks reveal sleeping adult chameleons on every other branch and vulnerable hatchlings no bigger than a safety pin, clinging to the tips of leaves, eyes shut tight, instinctively poised to detect an approaching snake. Ranomafana’s standout chameleons are the handsome double-nosed O’Shaughnessy’s chameleon (Calumma oshaughnessyi) and the diminutive short-nosed chameleon (Calumma nasutum), with its comical, blue-tinted, Pinocchio-like proboscis.
As ever, the forest is full of invertebrates, from mundanely unpleasant leeches (prevalent in the rains: keep your trouser legs tucked into your boots) to some of the world’s most inexplicably evolved insects – like the preposterous giraffe-necked weevil (Trachelophorus giraffa), a brilliant red bug as big as your thumb tip that is particularly common here. The males use their outlandishly long, black necks to fight for mating rights, like anglepoise lamps jousting, while the sturdy and more sensibly necked females make leaf nests from which a single grub will emerge.
Madagascar’s third-biggest town, with a population of at least 160,000, FIANARANTSOA – often shortened to Fianar – was founded in 1830 as the Merina empire’s southern capital, although the location was originally a Betsileo village. In many ways like a smaller version of Antananarivo, Fianar has distinct districts at different altitudes: down at 900m, the lower town or Basse Ville, where you arrive, is full of hustle, diesel fumes and trade; in the architecturally fascinating old town of Haute Ville, 300m higher up, the streets are pedestrian only; in between, the more humdrum mid-town Nouvelle Ville neighbourhood is largely devoted to administration and banks and is crisscrossed by broad streets. This is where the tourist office and main market are located.
In practical terms, Fianar is more of a stopover than a travel hub. If you’re heading south, this is where the dry country begins; if you’re going north, it’s where the central highlands atmosphere is fully established. Hardy souls braving the Fianar–Côte Est railway will note that it’s also on the edge of the rainforest escarpment dropping down to Manakara and the Indian Ocean.
The name Fianarantsoa means “Where the best is learned” or “Place of good learning” depending on your translator: either way, it has long been associated with education, and particularly with the kind of academic and moral improvement that the Merina elites believed they could impart to their local Betsileo subjects. Missionaries from Britain, France and Norway found receptive audiences here when they arrived in the nineteenth century and the town is still studded with churches: there are six in the old town alone. The French used it as their base of operations for the whole south of the island after 1895.
The Final–Côte Est railway
One of the last two remaining services of the once important Madagascar railways, the Fianar–Côte Est, first opened in 1936, runs a steadily reducing passenger service (now twice weekly) in each direction between Fianarantsoa and Manakara on the coast. In theory trains depart from Fianar at 7am on Tuesday and Saturday and from Manakara at 6.45am on Wednesday and Sunday. In practice, the only sure way of knowing when the train is departing is to be on it when it leaves. You may get information about the current state of readiness at the station at either end, but their guess will more than likely be just as good as yours. Seats in the decrepit first-class compartment (second class is not recommended) cost 25,000ar, with a compulsory 15,000ar reservation fee, and can be bought at the station ticket offices. If the train is delayed and you have to cancel, you can get a full refund: but get a proper written receipt to that effect when paying.
In theory, the train should arrive on the evening of the same day. In practice, it rarely reaches the other end until late at night or early the next morning (the scheduled departures from Manakara are optimistic given the usual arrival time from Fianar). Go prepared with food and drinks, mosquito repellent, and a well-charged flashlight or head torch. You can buy snacks along the way (indeed sampling the various items for sale at every one of the sixteen remote village stops en route is one of the highlights) but many villages are far from the roads and have little infrastructure, so don’t expect to find cold drinks.
The 170km route takes you through dense rainforest past waterfalls, and the photographic opportunities in the villages can be excellent if you’re well positioned. However, frequent breakdowns, unexplained stops, lack of lighting, inadequate toilets, and the fact that more passengers seem to get on than get off at every stop, means that even if you managed to depart in the morning more or less on time, by late afternoon you’re likely to be facing a long and dauntingly uncomfortable night.
Even if you’re only pausing in Fianar for a break and a bite to eat, the alleys and houses of the Haute Ville – also known as the old town, or Tanana Ambony – make for a captivating, and surprisingly panoramic, walk. Vehicles have to be parked in front of the Ambozontany Cathedral at the foot of the main staircase-lane that runs up the old town hill. To avoid hassle, and to be informed along the way, it’s a good idea to take a good guide. It’s only a ten-minute walk up to the crown of the hill, where multiple beautiful old houses are in various states of repair, some actively being restored and lived in, others invaded by weeds (in 2008 a private American non-profit, the World Monuments Fund, included the old town of Fianar as one of the 100 most threatened historical sites in the world). Many of the houses have brick columns supporting their first-floor ornamental balconies (or lavarangana).
A thirty-minute promenade along the cobbled pathway takes you right around the hilltop. Look west and you’ll see Lac Anosy (copied from the lake of the same name in Tana by Queen Ranavalona I, who moved her court to Fianar in 1830), a popular late afternoon strolling area for locals. Past the 1859 Antranobiriky church at the summit you’ll reach a dusty school playground, where a plaque commemorates this as the site of the nineteenth-century Merina rova. A low fence of brightly painted stakes still symbolically protects the site along its western boundary.
Ambalavao and around
Vehicles arriving from the north plunge down the road to AMBALAVAO, with the valley spread out beyond and the peaks of the Massif d’Iandrambaky poking up dramatically on the horizon. The town makes a good base from which to stock up if you’re heading into the Parc National d’Andringitra. Otherwise, you don’t need to stop here for long, but the town’s crafts workshops are accessible and worthwhile, and its famous old Betsileo houses, with their ornate verandas known as lavarangana, are very photogenic. Ambalavao grew as a mixed Merina and Betsileo centre of trading and crafts, powering the Merina empire’s economy with zebus, silk and of course rice – and then under French colonial rule with tea and wine.
The normally sluggish Mananatanana River, a meandering headwater of the great Mangoky that flows west into the Mozambique Channel, occasionally bursts its banks in the rainy season, and the bridge 5km west of Ambalavao is sometimes damaged or even destroyed, leaving hundreds of vehicles stranded on both banks, and Madagascar effectively cut in half: there is no practical way round.
Madagascar is home to some of the world’s most spectacular silkmoths, perhaps most dramatically the resplendent-looking, yellow and purple comet moth (Argema mittrei), with its 20cm wingspan and dramatic “tails”. Like all butterflies and moths, silkworms – the caterpillars of silkmoths – turn into chrysalises, with one striking difference: before pupating and dissolving into a soup of DNA to metamorphose into an adult flying beauty, the silkworm secretes silk to form a cocoon to protect the chrysalis. It’s the silk from the cocoon, boiled and separated, spun into thread and woven, that produces silk cloth.
Central Madagascar’s tapia forests are the natural habitat of one of the most productive of these moths, the borocera (Borocera cajani or landibe in Malagasy), whose silk was traditionally used to make burial shrouds – a use of cocoon silk laden with symbolism. Tapia is the Malagasy name for Uapaca bojeri, a highly fire-resistant, olive-like tree related to the southern African sugar plum. In November and December, millions of cocoons are collected from the tapia forests in a harvest tradition hundreds of years old. These forests yield not only the raw material for silk production but also a useful protein supplement in the form of the chrysalises, a popular snack.
Despite being highly fire-resistant, the tapia forests are fast diminishing, and the cocoon supply decreases year on year. In recent years, several local organizations have partnered with NGOs – including Feedback Madagascar and Ny Tanintsika at Soatanana and SAGE at Ambohimanjaka, both west of the RN7 near Ambositra – to plant thousands of tapia saplings to help boost silkworm numbers, develop techniques for farming silkworms and market the finished silk overseas.
Many workshops dye their silk with natural colourings, including turmeric, beetroot, rice mud, bark, and the green leaves of passion fruit vines. Some production is left au naturel, to show off the burnished bronze colour of wild silk. You’ll also come across the less expensive white or pale-golden-cream-coloured silk produced by the domestic silkmoth (Bombyx mori), which is farmed on mulberry leaves.
One silk product that may never become an object of commerce is spider silk cloth. In the nineteenth century, a few items were made from the strong, lustrous, super-light silk of Malagasy golden orb spiders (Nephilia madagascariensis), using an ingenious device that harnessed a captive spider while its silk was wound onto a reel. In 2012 a British silk specialist and a fashion entrepreneur (w godleypeers.com) revived the technique, going on to present an exquisitely embroidered golden cape to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and an equally fabulous shawl to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Each garment was made from the silk of more than a million female golden orb spiders that were trapped and released by a team of eighty local helpers over the course of three years.
Réserve Villageoise Anja
The Réserve Villageoise Anja, 11km west of Ambalavao, is a community-run forest reserve, incorporating the towering granite sugar loafs of the Massif d’Iandrambaky (“Three Brothers”), a swathe of boulder-strewn forest and the margins of a small dam lake. The mountains are sacred to the local Betsileo, who still visit burial sites in the rocks and for whom hunting lemurs is fady. Anja’s groups of ring-tailed lemurs have thrived and expanded in this northernmost extent of their range in eastern Madagascar – and the people of the local community, who have partnered with the World Wildlife Fund to maintain the reserve, benefit directly from tourists passing up or down the RN7.
You will certainly see ring-tails here; but to get the most out of a visit, it’s a good idea to organize payment and guides the evening before, spend a night in Ambalavao, and visit as early as possible after dawn. Ring-tails waking after a cold night in the trees are a delightful sight as they adopt their characteristic “sun worship” squatting poise, with arms outstretched to absorb the rays and ready their metabolisms for a morning of eating fruit, bark, sap and leaves. They’re particularly entertaining once they’ve warmed up, and especially if they have babies, which are characteristically the subject of great interest among other females. The young are born here a little earlier than usual for ring-tails, typically in early August, and twins are relatively common. The guides at Anja are good at locating the most photogenic subjects – and the best vantage points. If your timing is lucky, a mid-morning return to the road via the lake yields the sight of dozens of ring-tails scampering down to the shore to drink.
Ring-tails aside, Anja is productive for birders, who can look out for red-billed teals (Anas erythrorhyncha) on the lake and the dramatic Madagascar harrier-hawk (Polyboroides radiatus) circling for an opportunity to take a lemur.
As well as the shorter, wildlife-watching hikes (from 1 to 3hr), if you have suitable footwear you can do a much longer trek, including some scrambling, to reach one or more of the summits of the three domes: at around 1300m, they’re some 400m above the plain below.
There is a campsite at the reserve (2000ar per person), plus a snack bar and restaurant.
The unmistakeable ring-tailed lemur, which has become Madagascar’s trademark, is an unusual species in its own genus, Lemur. Lemur catta (or maki in Malagasy) – named catta for their cat-like mewing – is the most terrestrial of all lemurs: they spend many hours foraging on the ground, playing among the rocks and in some areas even sleeping in caves. This is a lemur of the dry regions of southwest Madagascar, with scattered populations found across a swathe of the island between Morondava and Andohahela National Park. Although ring-tails were traditionally hunted in some areas, they have clung on in districts with sacred associations, where hunting them is fady. Strictly diurnal, and omnivorous in diet, they appreciate the leaves and fruit of tamarind trees more than anything else, but they’re also partial to grubs and will happily raid crops if the opportunity arises.
Ring-tailed lemurs live in highly territorial, mixed male-female groups of around twenty individuals. Their world is dominated by scent: they mark their group ranges by rubbing branches with their genital regions and males have an arm spur to scratch branches, which they then anoint with scent glands located on their forearms and shoulders. Rival males also rub scent onto their tails and wave them at each other in “stink fights”. As with a number of lemur species, ring-tail society is dominated by females and the males compete annually for mating privileges in violent “jump fights” in which rivals slash each other with their canine teeth. Females are in oestrus for just a few hours on one day of the year, and mating occurs over the course of a couple of weeks at the end of the rainy season.
Ring-tail babies are born four and a half months later, and grow up fast, shifting from belly-clinging to back-riding in a couple of weeks. Roughly half of them perish in their first year, being taken by snakes, fossas and birds of prey – and in a bad year, falling victim to drought. Ring-tails are prone to rapid swings in population, but they are resilient animals and their status is relatively secure.
There’s a Wednesday crafts market in the town centre. The famous zebu market (the country’s second biggest after Tsiroanomandidy) starts before dawn on Wednesday and continuing until Thursday morning. Cattle from the south are trucked or walked here to be sold and then transported – or walked – to Fianar and points north.
Top image: Fianarantsoa © Pierre-Yves Babelon/Shutterstock