You might want to make the Parc National de Masoala one of your main goals in Madagascar: there is nowhere else like it in the country, or indeed perhaps on earth. Along its western side, the park is dominated by steep, north–south mountain ridges, and in places the rainforest rises almost straight up from the shore to misty heights more than 1000m above sea level in the space of a few kilometres. The park’s western districts have the highest rainfall in Madagascar, recording an average of 6000m, or more than six times the UK’s rainfall.
Masoala National Park was founded in 1997 with close support from the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society and Zurich Zoo, and at 2400 square kilometres is Madagascar’s biggest and most remote protected area, covering much of the Masoala peninsula. Heavily encroached by illegal logging, it still contains vast swathes of primary rainforest tumbling down the steep hillsides and right over golden beaches along the shore of the Baie d’Antongil. There’s a dazzling super-abundance of flora and fauna here, including more than a hundred species of palms, 76 frogs, 72 reptiles, 85 birds and ten species of lemur.
March, April and August are the wettest months and September to November the least rainy. The best time to visit Masoala is roughly from the end of August to December, ideally October or November. It still rains frequently during these months but the dry spells are much longer and the sea calmer. Access is difficult and needs some planning and flexibility: only one road even comes close to the park, and most visitors arrive by boat from Maroantsetra, either independently, or having booked one of the lodges that provide boat transfers. The rewards are a true sense of adventure and exploration in an exceptionally beautiful environment, with almost limitless opportunities to see some of the world’s most outstanding animals and plants in their natural habitat.
Along the coast
Most people arrive by boat along the beach near the tiny hamlet of Ambodiforaha, where there’s a cluster of tourist lodges stretching for a few kilometres along the shore. From behind the lodges, there are several routes into the park, including the Circuit Varignena, which starts at an almost imperceptible break in the wall of jungle just past the northernmost lodge, the Petit Relais de Masoala. It’s also a fine 3km walk along the coast from the Petit Relais to Tampolo Point. At low tide you can walk much of the way on the beach itself, where natural beachcombings (no oil or plastic bottles here), ranging from contorted bamboo roots to delicate flower blooms, add to the pleasure, though there’s also a trail through the forest just a few steps above the high-tide mark which provides welcome shade when it’s sunny. Along the way there are several streams, some easily fordable, others requiring use of the community-operated pirogue-ferries that stand by to carry passengers from dawn to dusk (no charge).
South of Tampolo Point, a 7km string of beaches borders the Tampolo Marine Park, a superb area to snorkel, but only accessible by chartering a boat for the day from one of the lodges.
Hiking in the interior
The only access to the interior of the Masoala rainforest is on foot, and this is hard-core hiking county: the paths up through the forest are often steep and narrow, covered in mossy boulders and slippery roots. There are rushing, picture-postcard streams to cross, decked with dripping foliage. The atmosphere is so humid that, despite temperatures in the high 20s, your breath mists in front of your face and steams up spectacles and camera lenses. It’s exactly like being in a tropical butterfly house. Water drips constantly from the foliage above, and every few hours there’s another downpour, interrupting the sun’s efforts to illuminate the understorey – and making photography, in the half light, very challenging. Biting flies (though happily few mosquitoes or leeches) add to the ambience. All the while, however, your discomfort is allayed by the continual distraction of a multitude of life forms, from leaping lemurs to birds in the undergrowth, frogs in tree ferns, chameleons and snakes in the vines overhead and a profusion of insects and other invertebrates all around you.
The forest giants whose buttress-roots you scramble over include 30m Canarium trees (ramy in Malagasy, the traditional source of timber for dug-out canoes) and endangered Dalbergia rosewoods (D. maritima and D. baronii), while the lower storeys of the forest are a complex ecosystem, with more than a hundred species of palm and 155 types of fern, as well as many orchids and other epiphytes and climbing lianas. A new species of locally endemic carnivorous pitcher plant – the dangerous-looking Nepenthes masoalensis – was recently discovered here, and hitherto unknown plants and animals from Masoala are described every year.
Larger animals to look out for include: the easily seen and very distinctive red ruffed lemur (Varecia rubra), a very vocal fruit-eating lemur which is endemic to the Masoala peninsula; the white-fronted brown lemur (Eulemur albifrons); and the very rare brown-tailed mongoose (Salanoia concolor), a fluffy-tailed diurnal hunter of the forest floor. Walking after dark, you may well see the eyes of a Masoala fork-marked lemur (Phaner furcifer) or, if you’re very lucky, the locally endemic Masoala woolly lemur (Avahi mooreorum) or Masoala sportive lemur (Lepilemur scottorum), both of which were discovered as recently as 2008. More than a dozen species of bats take to the night skies, including the huge Madagascar flying fox (Pteropus rufus) – often seen before sunset, flying off to feeding areas.
Birds of Masoala include the highly endangered Madagascar serpent eagle (Eutriorchis astur) and the rarely seen Bernier’s vanga (Oriolia bernieri), helmet vanga (Euryceros prevostii) and scaly ground roller (Geobiastes squamigerus).
As many as half of Madagascar’s estimated 400 species of frogs are thought to live only in Masoala, many of them completely unstudied, so that next to nothing is known about their breeding habits. Stand by any stream for a minute or two and you’re likely to spot several attractive species – hopping over your boot, gulping on a rock or on a shiny leaf, or kicking through the water.
Insects are legion, but the lepidoptera stand out: of more than 130 species of butterflies and moths, Masoala has at least five known only from the peninsula. The stunningly coloured, fast-flying sunset moth (Chrysiridia rhipheus) can often be seen flitting through the tree blossoms over Ambodiforaha beach.