Far from Antananarivo and far from each other, the towns and natural attractions of western Madagascar take a little perseverance to reach. This is a vast region, amounting to almost a third of the island’s land area, stretching from Majunga in the north to Morondava in the south, and covering the traditional regions of the Sakalava people: Boina or Boeny to the north and Menabe to the south. Much of it is broad, rolling savannah and farmland, with scattered patches of much-reduced dry forest, featuring huge numbers of baobabs, and large mangrove swamps towards the coast. Dozens of streams and rivers meander westwards from the interior, flooding and shrinking with the seasons.
Continue reading to find out more about...
The great wildlife and landscape draws of the west are the easy-access deciduous dry forests of Parc National d’Ankaranfantsika, the remarkably animal-rich Kirindy Private Reserve, reached via the famous Allée des Baobabs, and the otherworldly “stone forests” of the vast Tsingy de Bemaraha plateau. The Bemaraha plateau is cut through by the snaking gorge of the Manambolo River, which opens up a dramatic landscape of limestone formations rising sheer from the river valley. Like the Tsiribihina River, further south, the Manambolo is navigable by kayak and riverboat, and both rivers are popular for multi-day river trips. The west also has some seductive and expensive coastal hideaways, combining tropical beach allure with wildlife attractions – the best-known being the exclusive Anjajavy l’Hôtel, north of Majunga.
The climate in the west follows Madagascar’s familiar pattern of a hot, rainy season roughly from December to April, and warm, dry weather from May to November. While most of the island’s rain falls on the east coast, meaning the west is overall much drier, travel is still difficult here during the rainy season as roads turn to mud baths and river ferry docks are submerged. Most tourist hotels and wildlife lodges are closed from December to April. The early part of the rainy season in November is, however, a popular time to visit: greenery sprouts everywhere and the warmed-up wildlife is in reproductive mode.
The RN4 South to Antananarivo
The RN4 road from Majunga to the Parc National d’Ankarafantsika twists and turns to begin with as it crosses the dry hills around Berivotra. American palaeontologists have leased a great escarpment on the south side of the road where a tributary of the Betsiboka has carved into the rock, exposing a rich array of dinosaur fossils – many of them new species. Some 44km southeast of Majunga, if you’re independently mobile you can stop at the side of the road and you’ll quickly find the evidence – fascinating and sizeable lumps of fossilized limb bones, some showing the hollow structure of the dinosaur’s bird-like ancestry. The impressive carnivore Majungasaurus was found here. On the north side of the road, 6km further east, a set of signboards explains the area’s importance for dinosaur research – and the importance of not disturbing the fossils.
East of Berivotra, as you come down onto the plain, the road straightens out and, following the broad Betsiboka valley upstream, you pass the turning to Marovoay (reputed to be the hottest town in Madagascar; market day Friday), before entering the Ankarafantsika forest. Some 40km southeast of Ankarafantsika, the RN4 meets the RN6 from Diego Suarez at the market town of Ambondromamy (main market on Tuesday).
Less than 90km further south, Maevatanana – a large town on the upper Betsiboka, with a BOA bank with an ATM – is a common meal stop. After Mahatsinjo, 110km further south, the RN4 starts to climb in earnest, switchbacking up onto a high ridge. The temperature and scenery change very quickly and you’re soon in a landscape of grassy hills dotted with conifers and interspersed with farm plots and rice paddies – the typical highland landscape.
Katsepy and around
Facing Majunga across the estuary lies the seaside village of KATSEPY – a busy weekend getaway for Majungans with daily ferry services, several popular beachfront restaurants and one good place to stay.
The most compelling reason to make the trip to Katsepy is to see the very accessible crowned sifakas (Propithecus coronatus) and mongoose lemurs (Eulemur mongoz) that live in the forests in the Antrema forest, below the Katsepy lighthouse 7km north of Katsepy (3km along the earth road to Soalala, then 4km along a track to the north). You could walk alone, but there are always locals to guide you.
Madagascar's Northwestern Coastal Hideaways
Around 100km northeast of Majunga, on the remote Anjajavy peninsula and beyond, some of Madagascar’s loveliest exclusive beach resorts have been set up, most in recent years. The best known, Anjajavy, with its idiosyncratic approach combining conservation and careful client-cosseting, is much older and something of a model for others along this coast. Independent travel in this region is very hard – most visitors arrive by private aircraft direct from Antananarivo, though some lodges also organize boat transfers from the Majunga area.
Parc National d’Ankaranfantsika
Spread across the hot hillsides between the Betsiboka and Mahajamba river valleys, the Parc National d’Ankaranfantsika straddles the RN4 road between Madagascar’s central highlands and the northwest coast. Majoring on western dry deciduous forest, and scored by well-cut, sandy trails, this 1360-square-kilometre park is a joy to visit, and relatively accessible – although there are a few steep sections: don’t assume this will literally all be a walk in the park.
There are more marked seasonal differences in the dry forests than in the rainforest parks of the east: during the dry season (approximately May–Nov) rain is rare, temperatures drop a little and many of the large trees shed their leaves. Many reptiles and amphibians, and some of the smaller mammals (including the fat-tailed dwarf lemur) enter hibernation. While you can’t expect to see as much fauna, visiting is comfortable at this time of year and it’s a real pleasure to walk the soft, leaf-strewn footpaths, and to be able to see through the much-reduced understorey, making forest birding much easier. The most impressive time to be here, however, is shortly after the rains have broken in November, when greenery sprouts in every direction and amphibians, reptiles and birds are all noisily mating and egg-laying. From December to April, the rainy season, while lush and full of life, can be uncomfortably humid and is inevitably full of insect life, not all of it the kind you appreciate: bring bug spray.
Most visits focus on the forest station at Ampijoroa, located next to Lac Ravelobe on the main RN4 highway. The village of ANDRANOFASIKA is 6km further southeast along the highway in the Tana direction, just outside the park boundary, and has basic shops and services. The easiest guided walks are conducted in the forested areas of the park, just southwest of Ampijoroa forest station, and night walks take place along the park boundary near Andranofasika.
The park’s main vegetation – more than 820 species of plants – is a tangle of deciduous trees, shrubs and lianas (climbing plants), rising to a canopy of 15–20m, with some bigger emergent trees, especially baobabs. On the south side of Lac Ravelobe, close to the forest station and the road, are stands of Adansonia madagascariensis baobab. You can get most of the way to them by car. Look out for the katrafay tree (Cedrelopsis grevei), whose wood is used in building and the bark oil as an anti-malarial. As the sun goes down, and at night, look out for the ghostly white flowers of Hypoestes leucopogonata (a new plant species first identified in 2015 by a botanist at the Missouri Botanical Garden from photos taken for the research for this guide). The fluorescent blooms of this plant attract moths, and local children think of the fluffy flowers as phantoms.
The forest has a grid-like network of trails marked by points metriques at 50m intervals – helpful if you get separated from your guide while tracking something interesting. The trail known as the Circuit Coquereli loops though these woods, a walk of 3–5km which takes two or three hours.
Ankarafantsika is good fossa habitat: an Australian researcher set camera traps around the forests and Ankarokaroka Canyon and counted 25 individual fossas in the area. However, don’t expect to see the beast itself: guides who have worked here for years have never seen one and the closest you’re likely to come is the common discovery of pale fossa scat on the trail.
Most of the park’s lemur action is experienced on the forested southwest side of the RN4. During the day, you’d be unlucky not to see the dapper Coquerel’s sifakas (Propithecus coquereli) with their two-tone chocolate-and-cream coats, either moving through the canopy in their ceaseless quest for food – a very wide range of plants and leaves – or bounding, kangaroo-like, across the trail. The young are born in June and July and spend a month clinging to the mother’s belly before moving to her back in preparation for a life spent largely in a squatting position. The park’s other diurnal lemurs are the rather pointy-faced brown lemur (Eulemur fulvus) which often comes to the forest station, and the somewhat similar but smaller, greyer and shyer mongoose lemur (E. mongoz or dredrika in Malagasy).
Currently, night walks in the park are not permitted, meaning nocturnal species are less often seen, but if you’re out in the forest first thing in the morning, you may spot just the face of the nocturnal Milne-Edwards’ sportive lemur (Lepilemur edwardsii), poking out of its tree hole. Late in the afternoon, you may see another nocturnal lemur, the western woolly lemur (Avahi occidentalis), huddled in a cluster of two or three in a tree fork. They’re easily identified by their unkempt-looking coats, pale faces and the dark rings around their red eyes – looking as if they have indeed been up all night.
If you’re keen to see other nocturnal lemurs, note that some of the guides do night walks along the wooded bank of the stream on the west side of Andranofasika village. You have a very good chance of seeing both kinds of mouse lemur – the grey Microcebus murinus and the locally endemic golden-brown Microcebus ravelobensis – though it’s very hard to tell them apart. Through the rainy season and into the beginning of the dry season you may also see the relatively slow-moving fat-tailed dwarf lemur (Cheirogaleus medius or matavirambo in Malagasy), which habitually hibernates through much of the dry season until the start of the rains.
The forest birdlife is diverse, with the trails often alive with flitting forms. Pairs of stately Madagascar paradise flycatchers (Terpsiphone mutata) and crested drongos (Dicrurus forficatus) sometimes perch obligingly on lianas. Keen birders won’t need reminding to look out for the rarest of Madagascar’s unique vangas, Van Dam’s vanga (Xenopirostris damii) and the very local, furtive and largely terrestrial white-breasted mesite (Mesitomis variegata), which has one of its strongholds in the tangled woods of Ankarafantsika. Around Lac Ravelobe, you may see the Madagascan fish eagle (Haliaeetus vociferoides) and Madagascar coucals (Centropus toulou) foraging through the bushes for chameleons, of which they are the biggest predator.
Reptiles and insects
Reptiles and amphibians are most abundant during the rainy season, though a few Nile crocodiles, Madagascar’s only species, can be seen all year round in the lake, and are particularly prominent as the waters recede at the end of the dry season: take care. Locally common chameleons include the horned (Furcifer rhinoceratus) and leaf-like dwarf (Brookesia decaryi), found only here and in nearby localities in the Majunga hinterland.
Insect life varies through the year: a fascinating dry season species is the walking flower – the nymphs, or immature adults, of a creature called the flatid bug (Phromnia rosea). Wearing coverings of curious, white, waxy extrusions, like little Afghan coats, the nymphs live in bumbling colonies covering the low branches.
If you have more than a few hours at Ankarafantsika, a visit to the Ankarokaroka Canyon, cut into the grassland in the southwest of the park, is highly recommended. It’s best to drive the 5km from the forest station before dawn and get dropped off, watch the sun rise over the red and yellow sandstone fissures from the rim of the canyon, and then walk down into it before it gets too hot (3km round trip, allow 2hr). You can then walk back through the forest to the forest station (3–4km).
The canyon was formed some 350 years ago after a bush fire and heavy rains enabled erosion to start. Subsequent oxidation caused some sandstone levels to harden, forming layers that erode differentially. A dizzyingly diverse and otherworldly display of stalagmite-like sandstone pinnacles, known as lavaka – ranging from tiny ones the size of a mushroom to towering spires – now fills the floor of the canyon and provides perches for banded kestrels (Falco zoniventris).
The Angonoka Project
Ankarafantsika is the headquarters of one of conservation’s unsung success stories, a captive breeding programme for the rarest tortoise in the world, the ploughshare tortoise (Astrochelys yniphora), or angonoka in Malagasy, named for the spur that projects from the lower shell used by the males in courtship battles. The last coastal scrubland habitat of this sizeable reptile, the remote Baie de Baly National Park near Soalala (150km southwest of Majunga), where just a few hundred survive, is under critical threat from habitat destruction. The status-symbol pet trade, where they change hands for thousands of dollars, is also decimating their numbers. At Ankarafantsika’s closely guarded facility, funded by the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, you can watch the tortoises and their attentive keepers – but only through the high fence.
As well as being the end point for boat trips along the Tsiribihina River, BELO-SUR-TSIRIBIHINA – 98km north of Morondava – is where most travellers pick up transport north to the Tsingy de Bemaraha. It’s also the location of the traditional mausoleum of the Sakalava kings, a football-pitch-sized compound surrounded by a wall and fence of white-painted stakes, which you pass by on arrival into Belo from Morondava. The actual relics are kept in the ossuary in the middle, and aired roughly every eight years for the colourful ceremony of fitampoha, similar to the highlands’ famadihana ceremonies. The next fitampoha should take place in 2020.
Belo-sur-Mer and around
A tiny seashore town, 90km south of Morondava and cut off from the mainland for up to five months of the year during the rainy season, BELO-SUR-MER is one of the west coast’s biggest traditional boat-building centres, specializing in the large dhows known as boutres. Snorkelling in the translucent waters is good here, although the diving is not what it used to be and the Mozambique Channel’s strong tides can be treacherous.
Parc National de Kirindy-Mitea
Belo is the main access town for the recently opened Parc National de Kirindy-Mitea, a 700-square-kilometre zone of dry woodland (including some very dense stands of baobabs), extensive tidal wetlands and mangrove swamp. Like Belo itself, the park isn’t easy to get to, and having paid for your entry and organized transport and guiding (via the national parks office in Morondava), you’re likely to be the only visitor. Key bird species include an endangered, endemic west coast duck, the Bernier’s teal (Anas bernieri) and an endemic subspecies of the greater flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber roseus).