Western Madagascar Travel Guide

AS A COUPLE
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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.

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.

Antrema forest

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.

Flora

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.

Fauna

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.

Lemurs

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.

Birdlife

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.

Belo-sur-Tsiribihina

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).

Majunga

It may be the capital of the Boeny region, the country’s second port and its fifth biggest town, but there’s no question Mahajanga (Majunga) is a bit sleepy: the huge Louis Dreyfus textile factory, a couple of kilometres out of town on the Tana road, has been dormant since the corporation closed it down in 1996, and townsfolk these days seem most interested in keeping out of the heat, sampling their district’s thirteen varieties of mangos and walking along the Corniche at sunset.

First impressions of the town aren’t encouraging: dusty and potholed sums it up – or muddy and potholed in the rainy season. Majunga sprawls across a flat snout of land, with the ocean and beach on one side, and a somnolent river port, washed by the red flow of Madagascar’s biggest estuary, the Bombetoka, on the other. If you’re flying to Madagascar from Europe, these muddy meanders, carrying the highlands’ precious topsoil into the sea, are quite likely to be your first sight of the country from 10,000m above.

The main reason to come to Majunga is to leave again in order to visit Parc National d’Ankarafantsika, two hours’ drive to the southeast. Wildlife tourism could take off in the immediate area if the transport links were better: there are rare lemurs at Katsepy, impressive cave networks at Anjohibe (see Information and tours) that are world-famous among cavers and rich fossil dinosaur deposits at Berivotra.

Brief history

Majunga started life as the main settlement of the Boina people (an offshoot of the Sakalava) in the mid-eighteenth century. It was the island’s biggest slave port for nearly a hundred years: thousands of Indian, Arab and Comorian families settled and intermarried here and their eight mosques are scattered across the town. Majunga was formally annexed by the Merina in 1824, but since the end of slavery in 1895, with the arrival of the French (who used Majunga as a beachhead for their colonization of the island), only fishing, mangrove-pole-cutting and a trickle of trade have kept the town afloat.

Majunga’s era as an economic backwater may be drawing to a close, however: recent oil finds in the Mozambique Channel look set to bring rapid development to the area over the next few years and an energetic Englishman, Peter Hanratty, has set up a local chamber of commerce and started a biofuel project, growing jatropha in degraded land shared with livestock.

The Corniche

Majunga splits into several distinct neighbourhoods, and the relatively swanky quarter behind the oceanfront Corniche is certainly the most attractive. Watch a balloon-seller at work here among the crowds as the sun goes down, or a just-married couple posing for photos in front of the famous and gargantuan vieux baobab tree (an African baobab, Adansonia digitata), and you may start to see why many middle-class Antananariviens choose to make Majunga their seaside home from home.

Morondava and around

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.

Morondava

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.

Flora

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.

Fauna

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.

Diurnal mammals

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.

Nocturnal mammals

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.

Birds

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.

Reptiles

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.

Baobabs

There are nine species of baobab tree, seven of them found in Madagascar (mostly in its drier parts) and six of them endemic to the island. The common African baobab (Adansonia digitata) has spread widely across the island and its huge bulk makes it unmistakeable, but it’s the profusion of baobabs confined only to Madagascar that makes the group so fascinating.

The genus is named after the French explorer Michel Adanson, who remarked from the banks of the Senegal River in 1754: “I perceived a tree of prodigious thickness, the like of which I do not believe was ever seen in any part of the world”. There are several well-known myths attached to baobabs, all of them variations on the idea that God grew tired of this disruptive tree that wouldn’t stay planted and marched around the countryside, so he replanted it head first, with its roots poking into the air. These charming stories are however outdone by the fascinating natural history of the trees.

For baobabs, environment is all: in well-watered areas they grow tall, but they remain stunted in the harsh tsingy zones where a 3m specimen may be 100 years old. Even in the best conditions, they are notoriously slow growers, taking decades to reach a good size, and prone as tasty saplings to be eaten by zebu or goats before ever fruiting. Once established, however, they’re very robust, with their thick, pulpy flesh almost immune to the bush fires that consume so many other species, leaving the baobabs standing when the rest of the forest is long gone. That said, without having specialist knowledge, they can be quite hard to identify, especially when standing alone.

Madagascar’s baobabs are in leaf between the start of the rains, usually in November, and April or May when the dry season begins. Four of the species – the tall, straight Adansonia za and much smaller A. rubrostipa (both from the west), the more northern, multi-shaped A. madagascariensis and the moisture-loving A. perrieri from Montagne d’Ambre – flower during the rains, producing huge, fleshy blooms. The flowers open at dusk and are mostly pollinated by Madagascar’s giant hawk moths, whose nectar-sucking tongue can be more than 20cm long. The localized Adansonia suarezensis in the far north, and the west’s giant Adansonia grandidieri (the baobabs at the Allée des Baobabs) flower in the dry season and are pollinated by various species of bats, as well as fork-marked lemurs (Phaner). Strangely, although the sherbet-like pulp of baobab fruit is good to eat, there are no living animals that do so, leading botanists to speculate that the job of seed dispersal might have been done by an extinct giant lemur (such as Archaeolemur, which died out around 1200 AD).

Which leaves the baobabs of today relying on humans to disperse their seeds – and protect the vulnerable seedlings. Although baobabs can live for hundreds of years, they don’t have tree rings, so a baobab’s age is hard to measure, but most botanists think the six endemic species will die out in the wild unless huge efforts are made to protect them. Their commercial value may come to the rescue: as well as the bark being used for rope, the fibre as a water source and for thatch, the fruit, seeds and even the leaves are edible. Indeed the very high vitamin C content of baobab fruit has made the dried and powdered fruit a popular dietary supplement. And Homeopharma, Madagascar’s national chain of homeopathy and herbal remedy stores, sells baobab seed oil that people swear by as a skin rejuvenator.

People of the west: The Sakalava

Western Madagascar is dominated culturally by the traditionally pastoralist Sakalava, who are known – if it’s not unfair to try to summarize their culture in a few words – for their love of their zebu, for their music (the nervous jangle of the 6/8 salegy rhythms are their lasting legacy) and, unlike the Merina and some other groups, for not digging up and reburying their ancestors.

The Sakalava’s name is a Malagasy derivation, meaning “people of the valleys”, a reference to the rivers that meander across their dry cattle pastures. A more dubious etymology has it that the name originates in the Arabic sakaliba and Latin esclavus – “slave” – though these words originally referred to the once enslaved Slavic populations of eastern Europe. It’s a measure of the sensitivity around race and cultural origins that such a derivation could be stamped on this large and diverse ethnic group. Much of the Sakalava population does indeed have a partly African slave and immigrant background, the old Sakalava capital of Morondava itself once being a big slave port that traded with the Swahili coast of East Africa.

The Sakalava kings and their subjects came to be associated with the extremes of wealth and divergent social hierarchies that accumulated with the slave trade. For centuries they dominated the west, conquering by force, absorbing, enslaving and intermarrying with less powerful groups such as the cave-dwelling Ankarana and Vazimba, who may have been the first humans on the island, presumed to have sailed from what is now Mozambique. With the arrival of proselytizing, industrializing Europeans in the nineteenth century, the slave trade was banned and then slavery itself was abolished. At the same time the highland Merina rapidly came to control most of the old Sakalava kingdoms, with the exceptions of Menabe (capital: Morondava) and Boina (capital: Majunga). French colonial rule suppressed Merina dominance and relatively elevated the Sakalava and other coastal peoples.

Sakalava subgroups who probably had a former separate ethnic identity include the town-dwelling Muslim Antalaotra, many of whom trace their origins to the East African coast and Arabia, and the Vezo fishing and seafaring people, who make a livelihood from the sea. Western Madagascar also has an important population of people with Indian ancestry, known as Karana, who played a key role in the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century slave trade.

The Tsingy de Bemaraha

The huge Parc National de Bemaraha and its far-flung northern extension, the Réserve Naturelle Intégrale du Tsingy de Bemaraha, are located on Madagascar’s most extensive plateau of tsingy or limestone karst pinnacles. The two protected areas are located on the 5000-square-kilometre Bemahara plateau, an immense limestone slab that stretches north from the banks of the Tsiribihina River for more than 200km towards the northwest coast. It’s a region that competes for remoteness with the most inaccessible parts of the island, incorporating a landscape of spectacular strangeness that is home to a host of endemic plants and animals. In recognition of its uniqueness, it was the first region in Madagascar to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As well as vast areas of needle-like limestone pinnacles, eroded to such an extreme extent that they resemble a stony forest, some 850 square kilometres of the 1570-square-kilometre protected area is actual forest – deciduous dry woodland in the more exposed areas, with moisture-loving ferns and other vegetation tucked into the crevasses between the outcrops. The Bemaraha plateau is cut clean through its middle by the deep gorge of the Manambolo River, near the small town of Bekopaka, on the southern boundary of the national park. The southern boundary of the plateau itself is effectively formed by another river – the Tsiribihina – with its own spectacular Tsiribihina Gorge.

Trails in the national park range from an hour to two days. From just outside Bekopaka, the most frequented entry point is the Bekopaka Gate, which gives access to the Petits Tsingy trailhead. The other entrance is at the Grand Tsingy trailhead, about 17km north of Bekopaka on a rough track

The tsingy experience

The climbing and steps required in many of the areas of the park can be quite steep and some of the gaps between the rock faces are narrow. Even the relatively easy hikes near Bekopaka in the Petits Tsingy can be quite challenging, especially if you’re short or a little broader than average. Furthermore, swaying aerial walkways and stretches of via ferrata (where you wear a harness that’s provided to secure yourself to a safe cable route fixed to the rock face) make Bemaraha a park that’s only really suitable for fit and adventurous visitors. But it’s emphatically worth the effort: from the belvédères or viewpoints, there are some stunning panoramas.

The first few minutes in the tsingy can be quite disorientating: the huge limestone shards that make up this natural environment may make you feel like a particularly clumsy ant trying to walk through the bristles of a hairbrush. The towering peaks and walls of limestone are as alien as a hall of mirrors. But there are routes through this geological maze, where erosion has cut so deep that ribbons of soil at the base of the rocks provide narrow pathways, often crammed with vegetation and scattered with frog-filled rock pools.

At the base of the tsingy, springs burst out and run into the Manambolo River, which also provides boat access to fascinating bat-filled caves, some of which were once used as cemeteries by the Vazimba. Claustrophobia-sufferers need to be prepared for a tight squeeze.

Wildlife

Lemurs found in the park include the all-white-with-a-black-face Decken’s sifaka (Propithecus deckenii), one of the least known of all the large lemurs, and the locally endemic Cleese’s woolly lemur (Avahi cleesei), the only primate named after a member of Monty Python, honouring the actor John Cleese for his film work in support of lemur conservation. While Cleeses are hard to find, Decken’s sifakas are quite widespread and you’re likely to see them on the forest trails or from a boat trip on the Manambolo.

At least a hundred species of birds are found in the park, though actual birdwatching in the tsingy can be quite difficult. The going is easier for herpetologists, who can find Guenther’s as well as Henkel’s leaf-tailed geckos (Uroplatus guentheri and U. henkeli or seseke in Malagasy) and the remarkable spiny chameleon (Brookesia perarmata), endemic to the Bemaraha, where it is known locally as ramilaheloka.

Tsiribihina and Manambolo river trips

Descending one of these two big rivers on a three- to five-day trip is a popular option for travellers with plenty of time. River trips are normally feasible between May and September, but as water levels drop towards the end of the dry season, navigation gets increasingly slow and difficult. After the start of the rains in November, flash floods and the rising waters rule out the trip until the following year. Various vessels are used for the trip, including traditional pirogue canoes, modern kayaks and rafts, and larger river craft with on-board facilities and canopies to protect you from the extremely hot sun.

You normally camp on the riverbank – check what bedding will be provided. Meals and bottled water are included; other drinks are extra. It’s important to note that in recent years there have been a number of attacks on overnight tourist camps, especially on the upper Tsiribihina, usually by cattle rustlers chancing their luck in pursuit of an alternative source of revenue. Tourists have been seriously injured in these robberies, so you should check out the local situation in advance before committing to the trip.

The Tsiribihina

On this, the larger of the two rivers, the voyage is around 140–150km, depending on sandbanks and the precise route taken through them. It starts at the landing stage (embacadère) at Masiakampy, a tiny village on the Tsiribihina 35km south of the town of Miandrivazo. Most tours, however, start in a group vehicle at the start of the surfaced RN34 244km further east at Antsirabe on the central plateau. The trip ends near the coast, at Belo-sur-Tsiribihina.

The Manambolo

The more scenic of the two trips starts at Ankavandra (look out for the British NGO Hoveraid, which has its headquarters here, and whose little hovercrafts scud around the sandbanks of the river), about 200km west of Antananarivo via Tsiroahomandidy – a very long day by taxi brousse or a slightly shorter, more comfortable one in a tour company’s 4x4. After passing through a spectacular canyon in the southern part of the Tsingy de Bemaraha, the trip ends at Bekopaka, leaving you perfectly positioned to explore the national park.

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Andy Turner
8/29/2020
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