Far out on the west coast, the town of Morondava has some compelling assets nearby that draw visitors from across the globe. Foremost among these is the iconic Allée des Baobabs, or Avenue of the Baobabs, just a short drive out of town (arriving by plane, you’ll see the big baobabs as you descend, looking like stumpy wind turbines on the flat plain among the fields of sugar, cotton and rice). Further north is the less well-known Kirindy Private Reserve, the only place in Madagascar where seeing a fossa can almost be guaranteed.
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MORONDAVA – the early nineteenth-century Sakalava capital before it was absorbed by the Merina empire – used to be a remote backwater. But a new road connecting it to Tana was completed in 2012 and now this small town, the capital of the Menabe region, has a lively atmosphere and more hotels and restaurants than you’d guess. With its recently surfaced main street, Morondava seems slightly cleaner than the average Malagasy city – and it’s also a little pricier.
There are no specific attractions in town itself: the broad beach of white sand is a magnet for visitors from Tana, though it also serves as a working fishing beach and ad hoc toilet, so it can’t be wholeheartedly recommended. For a more unspoilt strand, check out Kimony beach, an 8km drive north of the town centre, turning north just west of the airport. You could walk there along the shoreline (5km), but there’s a creek halfway along, which may or not have a pirogue ferry in attendance.
Most of Morondava’s hotels are along the seafront lane that follows a former island, Nosy Kely, now joined to the rest of town. Coastal erosion is a serious problem here, with the northern seafront frequently awash at spring tides, and offshore sandbars forming and dissolving all the time.
The Allée des Baobabs
Do an image search for “Madagascar” and (among all the ads for the Disney animation) it’s a magnificent stand of Grandidier’s baobabs (Adansonia grandidieri) that appears first on your screen. Just 20km out of Morondava, this iconic 2km natural avenue forms the central focus of the Aire Protégée Monument Naturel Allée des Baobabs, a 3-square-kilometre area managed by the Malagasy organization Fanamby to protect more than three hundred of the species. Known as renala (“mother of the forest”) in Malagasy, the lofty baobabs reach heights of more then 20m, towering above the mix of scattered bush and farmland that makes up the present-day landscape. Fifty years ago, indigenous dry forest was the natural vegetation here: nearly all of that has been cleared or burned, leaving the resilient baobabs like sentinels standing on the plain. Close-growing pairs of baobabs tend to wrap around each other, creating delightful baobabs amoureux, or “baobabs in love”. There’s a famous pair just fifteen minutes’ drive north of the ticket office.
The best time to visit is sunrise or sunset, when the slanting light shows the baobabs at their best and you can often photograph their reflections in the neighbouring shallow ponds. Although including the visit en route to or from Kirindy Private Reserve seems a good idea, you can only achieve that by missing the evening or dawn walk in Kirindy. Most people therefore make a special trip to the baobabs from Morondava. Indeed some visitors fly in just for these photos, and it’s rare to have the place to yourself, especially in the evening when a crowd of several dozen visitors, local craft sellers and children is quite normal. If you’re looking for a more personal communion with the trees, a pre-dawn raid in the rainy season offers a better chance.
Kirindy Private Reserve
Formerly a Swiss forestry training station and now an active German primate research base, Kirindy Private Reserve is a gem. This 120-square-kilometre tract of deciduous dry forest is one of Madagascar’s truly outstanding natural areas – a fauna and flora hotspot that rivals the best in the country. It’s particularly strong on nocturnal lemurs, for in these tangled woodlands live six nocturnal species, alongside two diurnal lemur species and the rare and strange giant jumping rat. There are also some outstanding birds, including the sickle-billed vanga and white-breasted mesite, and a higher concentration of fossa (Madagascar’s apex predator) than anywhere else on the island – possibly because of the high concentration of nocturnal lemurs.
Perhaps the best month to visit Kirindy is November. As in Ankarafantsika, everything is green after the first rains, the small lemurs, lizards and frogs emerge from hibernation, and there’s a profusion of reproductive activity. But it’s very humid, and increasingly so as the heaviest rains set in from December and peak in January or February. The benefits of being here in the dry season are cooler temperatures at night and dry daytime heat, and improved birdwatching visibility through the dense understorey. You’ll find few reptiles and amphibians about, however.
It might seem surprising that the nearby Andranomena – a 64-square-kilometre special reserve between Kirindy and the Avenue of the Baobabs – isn’t equally attractive a habitat, but sadly Andranomena has been massively degraded in recent years.
Among the star attractions are three species of endemic baobab tree: the giant, umbrella-branched Adansonia grandidieri; the very common, bottle-shaped A. rubrostipa; and the fat-trunked A. za. Those descriptions are typical, but baobabs are notoriously individualistic and sometimes comical in appearance: the specimen endowed with an improbably phallic, stumpy branch at the perfect height for a selfie seems to be on every guide’s route. Another tree that’s relatively common here is the endangered ebony, Diospyros aculeata, with its characteristic star-shaped base, whose occasional broken trunk reveals the black heartwood inside the pale outer sapwood.
Kirindy’s mammalian denizens are why it’s so special – particularly one, the fabulous fossa, whose combination of feline slinkiness and an almost prehistoric set to the muscular legs make a sighting one of the most compelling wildlife experiences you can have in Madagascar.
Even if you’re unlucky in terms of seeing a fossa, you’re not likely to leave Kirindy disappointed. By day the trees shake with small troops of beautiful white and grey Verreaux’s sifakas (Propithecus verreauxi), here at the northernmost extent of their range, and the lower levels and forest floor are visited by inquisitive and charming red-fronted brown lemurs (Eulemur rufifrons), some of them so tame they’ll practically lick your camera lens as they investigate what morsels you may have brought (best not to do so). Also on the ground, you’re very likely to see a narrow-striped mongoose (Mungotictis decemlineata) mincing along a forest path. Late in the afternoon, and often at a good height for photos, you’ll frequently see the orange eyes of red-tailed sportive lemurs (Lepilemur ruficaudatus, or boenga in Malagasy) staring at you from their tree holes, with their characteristic, long upper canines poking, vampire-like, over their chins. Even once awake after dark, the “sportive” moniker seems inappropriate, as they lethargically work their way from branch to branch picking and munching on leaves.
At night, the trees are alive with lemurs – shrill and hyperactive pale fork-marked lemurs (Phaner pallescens, or tanta in Malagasy) streaming through the higher branches, and tiny mouse lemurs – grey (Microcebus murinus), and Madame Berthe’s (Microcebus berthae), the latter discovered here in 1992 and only found at Kirindy – hopping and bouncing through the twigs and leaves, often lower down where they can be easier to photograph than the tanta. Telling these mouse lemurs apart can be tricky: Madame Berthe’s is more reddish than grey, and with a weight of only 30g it’s the smallest primate in the world. In contrast, Coquerel’s giant mouse lemur (Mirza coquereli) is on a different scale and, appropriately therefore, in a different genus: this omnivorous, squirrel-sized primate, with a short snout and bat-like ears, is ever on the move, scampering through the branches and as happy to pause for fruits and tree gum as to grab insects and small vertebrates on the run. In the rainy season, you might also see the slower fat-tailed dwarf lemur (Cheirogaleus medius; kelilbohoho in Malagasy), whose tail serves as a fat store for dry-season hibernation.
Night walks often take place a couple of kilometres east of the forest station. If you have a driver, he will wait on the forest road while you walk, accompanied by your guide, into the woods towards the seasonal Kirindy River, which flows parallel to the road, only about 400m to the south. Remember your head torch: this is one place in Madagascar where a good flashlight is indispensable.
Back at camp after a night walk, it’s well worth staying up for a visit by one of the local pairs of extraordinary giant jumping rats (Hypogeomys antimena), rodents the size of a large rabbit that come into camp to sniff out scraps of fruit and vegetables. Kirindy is the heart of the tiny range of this highly endangered mammal, which lives in strict monogamy: pressured by habitat destruction into this small area, its slow rate of reproduction and predation by fossas and domestic dogs makes its future very insecure.
Among Kirindy’s birds, the sickle-billed vanga (Falculea pallata) is a standout species: flocks of these dramatic-looking locksmiths of hidden insect life flap noisily through the understorey, prising the bark from tree trunks and probing for grubs and bugs with their long, tweezer-like beaks. On the forest floor, look out for the very localized, terrestrial white-breasted mesite (Mesitornis variegatus) and the splendid, sapphire-blue eye mask of the giant coua (Coua gigas), a long-tailed skulker the size of a chicken.
If you’re a reptile enthusiast, you’ll find the reserve’s herpetofauna rich and exciting. By day, chunky spiny-tailed iguanas (Oplurus cuvieri) catch the rays on tree stumps (though their presence in the winter is only notable by their tails poking defensively from their hibernation tree holes), while shy Brookesia chameleons (Brookesia brygooi) creep nervously through the leaf litter and huge Oustalet’s chameleons (Furcifer oustaleti) walk hand over hand up the lianas. At night, the forest floor crackles with the passage of fat ground boas (Acrantophis madagascariensis) and lissom colubrid snakes (Madagascarophis colubrinis) on the trail of delicate, pastel-coloured big-headed geckos (Paroedura picta), gulping as they step carefully through the dead leaves. In the lower branches, look out for tree boas (Sanzinia madagascariensis) and tree geckos (Blaesodactylus sakalava).
Fierce hidden backside – the Fossa
Like a cross between a cat and a mongoose, and the size of a small puma, Cryptoprocta ferox is a savage, arboreal hunter. The first part of its scientific name means “hidden backside”, referring (disappointingly) to its unique, flap-covered anus. The fossa’s genitalia are, however, memorably spectacular – the male possessing a large, spiny penis supported by a bone, and the female a similarly disproportionate and spiky clitoris. The annual fossa mating season at Kirindy happens almost like clockwork, between November 5 and 20, with each female in heat occupying her favourite branch high in the forest, where she remains for hours, locked together with one noisy suitor after another.
Out of the breeding season, you still have a good chance of seeing a fossa as one or two individuals regularly come to Kirindy Camp to forage for food. Staff feed them meat scraps dangled from a pole, luring the creature up a tree in order to demonstrate the fearsome strength of its formidable splayed feet and semi-retractile claws, as it climbs up and down with svelte agility, balanced by its long tail. Small children need to be kept well away: fossas are brazen and utterly instinctive predators.