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.