We arrived in the capital of Madagascar, Antananarivo (Tana as the locals say) around 10pm and were greeted by our driver Jonathan. When compared with Mauritius, the 2nd most developed country in Africa after Seychelles, you can feel the difference the moment you walk off the plane. This feeling was heightened as we drove into Tana, a developing city that can look sketchy in broad daylight and worse in the dark. Luckily $40 goes a long way for a night in Madagascar and we felt completely at ease once we arrived at our very nice hotel. Madagascar is ranked 26/53 out of African nations on the Human Development Index in the “low human development” group, behind places like Tanzania and Nigeria and just ahead of Rwanda and Uganda.
Our driver picked us up the next morning around 9am and we hit the road. Getting out of Tana was a long, enlightening 2 hour ordeal. For a Sunday morning, it felt as though all 1.5 million residents of the city were out roaming the narrow streets. It definitely felt quite crowded and the standard of living was visibly quite low, with a long stretch of plastic tents along the river serving as the city’s “low-income housing.” Once we got out of the city, we stopped for gas and I realized across the street some young kids were playing rugby! Our driver said it was quickly becoming one of the most popular sports; this is made possible by the small amount of equipment required to play, making it relatively low cost.
We stopped for lunch at a small “hotely” (fast casual restaurant) along the way and spent a whopping $6 to feed three! Our introduction to Malagasy nature took place at a reserve established by a Frenchman to preserve many of Madagascars most endangered species. This allowed us to see species we would not otherwise see based on the limited geographical area we could cover in 5 days. By far the best part was feeding chameleons grasshoppers on a stick from a distance and watching their tongue stretch out around 2 ft to retrieve their snack. Let me tell you, if humans could do that Casey and I would have fought a lot more at the dinner table.
We arrived at our hotel in Andasibe National Park in the late afternoon–a quaint bungalow in the rainforest. We had some time to relax before our night walk with a local guide. We saw around 4 different types of night lemurs, chameleons, frogs, and to my dismay a big snake. Our biggest surprise was the amazing smell of all the eucalyptus trees lining the road! It blew us away how strong the smell was just passing them. Afterwards we ate dinner at a local restaurant where I had Zebu–the Malagasy version of our common cow.
The next morning we were up bright and early for our trek through the National Park. Andasibe is most famous for being home to Indri–the largest species of lemur–however, it is a haven of biodiversity for many of Madagsdcar’s endemic species. Depending on the source, 80-90% of species in Madagascar are ONLY found in Madagascar. On our 3 hour walk we certainly didn’t even begin to see the tip of the iceberg. Try and spot the animal in this picture!
It is completely beyond me how our guide was able to spot this leaf-tailed gecko perfectly camouflaged against this thin tree. Our first lemur experience was with common brown lemurs when a family of 5-6 leaped down to surround us! At this point, this was quite a thrill.
We continued on our mission to find Indri; they are not only the biggest species but also the loudest. Out guide had an audio recording of their call on his phone which he used to try and find them. Sure enough, they replied louder than ever and we were able to trace the family shortly after. Watching the lemurs jump between trees was, without a doubt, the coolest part. They are extremely mobile, as if they have lemur fitbits counting their leaps!
Another very cool insect we saw on our journey was the widely-studied giraffe weevil, characterized by it’s long neck. The neck is used by males to fight for the right to mate with a female and by women to roll a leaf tube nest for their egg; how typical!
After the national park, we visited Vakona Island–a small lemur reserve for those that weren’t as lucky as us in Andasibe (true wilderness). It also gave us the chance to get up close and personal with the lemurs as we fed them their all-time favourite snack, bananas!
We then hit the road for a couple of hours to reach the Eastern town of Manambato. The last stretch of the drive to the coast was a pretty treacherous 4WD track that few normal cars would survive. I had gathered from my research on Madagascar that renting a car was widely considered to be unsafe. That sentiment was confirmed at every step of our journey and the public bus system (“taxi brousse”) looked no better! We finally reached our destination and boarded a boat for the last leg of our journey to the Palmarium Reserve, our hotel on a remote island for the next 2 nights.
We were welcomed with drinks in the lovely main lodge and shown to our private cabin overlooking the lake. It was not long until we had company! The island is home to 7 species of lemurs that have become quite friendly with humans over years of stealing bananas! We enjoyed a lovely first dinner with our guide; for our first night, we were the only guests at the hotel, so we had the place to ourselves.
We had an eventful breakfast with countless attempts by the resident lemurs to steal a slice of our breakfast. They are quite relentless creatures. This was quite novel and hilarious for us, but we could tell it was a tiresome uphill battle for the staff trying to chase them away. Afterwards, we set out on a 2hr tour of the reserve.We began with the many species of palm and trees growing on the island–cinnamon tree, eucalyptus, aloe, and cacoa to name a few. Next, we said hello to the resident turtles that unfortunately don’t stand a chance in the race for any fresh fruit.
Of course, we spent the majority of time playing with lemurs! We saw a number of species we had not already had a chance too, including the Coquerel’s sifaka–the species of Zaboomafoo, my childhood TV lemur idol! This lemur is special because, unlike other lemurs, it jumps on its two hind feet when travelling on the ground rather than walking on all fours. It is also more comfortable with the ground than most lemurs; generally speaking, they act as if the ground is hot molten lava and avoid it at all costs.
We got a chance to get really up close and personal with the indri and even stole a kiss!
The last really cool plant we saw was a carnivorous plant called a Pitcher Plant based on on its shape. The plant produces a sweet liquid that sits in the base of the “pitcher,” insects are then lured inside the tube by the scent and trapped in the sticky liquid!
We spent the afternoon by the water reading in the sun and taking a dip in the lake. We did get period rainfall quite often, as we were still in the tail end of rainy season. It really wasn’t bad, as it was usually brief and followed by hours of clear skys! It turns out the lemurs weren’t the only hungry animals on the island, as Nick woke up in the night to loud noises of geckos/lizards breaking into some German candy in our bags. Afraid to wake me and sound the alarms he waited until morning to inspect and they had actually ripped a hole through the mesh in his bag, broken through plastic, and devoured 3 kinder bars and a pack of gummies! We had one last breakfast with the lemurs bright and early and paid of food/drink tab ($130 for 2 dinners, 2 breakfasts, 1 lunch, 1 bottle of wine, and a couple of drinks)!
Our last days was spent mostly on the road back to Tana, as it took us around 7 hours of driving to return. I think under-developed infrastructure is one of the most challenging constraints of travelling in a developing country (especially on a time constraint); though the road we were mainly on was 2 years old, the condition was so-so and the route is very indirect. Not to mention, the largest storm in the last 15 years had torn through the country a week and a half prior to our arrival. Small landslides and fallen trees blocking half the road periodically were the most visible sign of the damage; however, we had met a couple of European volunteers in a small village who were there for the storm and said that they had never feared for their life before in the same way. Luckily, the drive is quite scenic–especially in the highlands closer to Tana. There are many rice plantations amongst the lush greenery.
We ate our last dinner at the hotel restaurant, which was excellent and prepared for our 430AM pickup to return to Mauritius.
Without a doubt, Madagascar is a country I must return to. It is simply not possible to skim the surface in 5 days. I am keen to come back and hike in Tsingy de Bemaraha, as well as see the Baoabs on the West Coast! Most importantly, Madagascar gave me a much needed dose of culture shock after I had been feeling like it had been too long since I had left the comforts of Western civilization. I think it is very healthy to see firsthand how the less fortunate (more than) half of our global civilization lives; unfortunately, it can be easy to forgot how lucky we really are no matter how hard we try. If you do not see first-hand how other people are living their daily life, it is difficult to truly appreciate how good we have it. Some elements of standard to living missing in Madagascar are very obvious–no shoes, primitive shelters, masses of people doing laundry in the brown river based on a lack of running water. Some are less blatant: when we were driving, there seemed to be a lot of children in school uniform walking on the road around 12:30 on a weekday so I asked our guide what the hours of school were; he explained that in the countryside, there are not enough schools and children often walk hours to reach their school, so children attend either a morning or afternoon session of school while children in the city are attending school for a full day–talk about an unfair advantage. Not only do these experiences instill gratitude, they also inspire action to close these significant opportunity gaps. As a very small initial step, I finally used an amazing platform I’ve been meaning to try for a very long time Kiva. Kiva is a non-profit micro-lending platform where users can lend borrowers in developing countries money to start businesses, go to school, etc. and get paid back in the time specified on the loan. Myself and 2 others financed Domoina from Madagascar’s $200 micro-loan to purchase inventory for her small business.
Until next time Madagascar!