May 2010: Madagascar for years was on top of my bucket list simply because one of my main motivations in travel is wildlife and unique landscapes and Madagascar is spectacular for both. But because it is too expensive to get to compared to Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa, it receives far fewer visitors. This was also the reason why it took me so long to go. There were few flights into the country and ones that did fly were well north of 2000USD. When I found a flight for 1400USD I didn’t blink an eye and I booked it. Another reason why I wanted to go sooner than later is because the forests and wildlife of Madagascar are under a lot of pressure from rampant deforestation with only 10 percent of the forest remaining and it being one of the poorest countries in the world means conservation is not a priority.  Sadly, one of my most constant travel mantras is I better go now before it is gone, and this was no exception for Madagascar.

 
 

 

 

My Itinerary

 

Madagascar is just too big and incredible to visit in anything less than a 2-week trip and even 2 weeks doesn’t do it justice. Plus, the people speak Malagasy and I do not, and the roads are in poor condition, so I knew travel was going to be slow and rough. I decided to focus my efforts on the southern half of the country and return to see the northern half in the future. This was my trip itinerary in Madagascar that I did on a solo trip:

Day 1
Arrive (Antananarivo) at night Air France.
Hotel Chevel Blanc

Day 2
Depart Air Madagascar at morning to Toliara.
Taxi/4×4 shared transport to Ifaty village along a sandy pot-holed road.
Snorkel/dive the reef by boat
Reniala Nature Reserve/spiny forest desert.
Stay at beach bungalow

Day 3
Visit Reniala Nature reserve and Ifaty beach
Diving
Accommodation Ifaty beach bungalow

Day 4
4×4 shared transport/taxi from Ifaty to Toliara
Arrange trek in Toliara for Parc National Isalo
Hotel in Isalo

Day 5
Isalo trek
Canyon of Nymphes, waterfalls, Maki canyon, Rats canyon, village
Camp near village

Day 6
Isalo Trek up the ridge and into the Savannah.
Camp inside the park.

Day 7
Isalo Trek
Camp beside a canyon with waterfall.

Day 8
Isalo Trek
Piscina Naturalle (natural pool)
Canyon des Singes
Camp

Day 9
Trek Isalo
Depart Isalo
Hotel in Toliara

Day 10
Air Madagascar flight to Antananarivo
Hotel Sakamanga

Day 11
Travel to Andisabe National Park/Mantadia National Park by bus. Hotel Andisabe
Night trek
Accomodation-Hôtel Feon’ Ny Ala

Day 12
Andisabe National Park hiking
Hôtel Feon’ Ny Ala

Day 13
Mantadia National Park
Hotel Feon’ Ny Ala

Day 14
Return to Tana by bus
Hotel Sakamanga

Day 15
Depart Tana to San Diego via Joburg, Paris and Atlanta.

 
 
 

 

 

My route in Madagascar

Spiny Desert

The Spiny desert was one of my priorities during my tip. The Spiny desert in the south of Madagascar is arid like all deserts but was makes it unique is that it is rich in endemic vegetation. It is one of the most biodiverse deserts in the world and not only is the vegetation unique, but it is bizarre looking octopus, baobab trees covered in spines for protection from grazing animals. It is also a great place to see chameleons, snakes, tortoises and other wildlife like ring tailed lemurs. But like many of the world’s most amazing wild places, it is deemed a wasteland by the local people and despite its natural wealth only 8% is protected and the rest is quickly being deforested for grazing and other mono crops. The bushmeat industry is also taking its toll on the wildlife especially on tortoises being targeted for their demand in Asia.

To get to the Spiny Desert  I flew from the capitol, Anataranivo (Tana) to Toliara via Air Madagascar. Then I immeditaley traveled from Tulear, a busy impoversihed duty town to ifaty village via a sandy pot-holed road in a 4×4 public transport bus packed with locals. Ifaty, located on a beaituful beach was a paradise with no resorts and no mass tourism. Ifaty was a small fishing village on ehe edge of the spiny desert with cheap guesthouses, many run by French people but still reatining a local feeling. I chose Ifaty mainly because it was near the Reniala spiny desert reserve, a protected area with incredible wildlife and vegetation. I spent 2 nights in Ifaty Beach Bungalow.

 

 

 

Sunset from Ifaty beach

I loved the village of Ifaty. It was the perfect little laid back Malagasy village on the beach. The people were very friendly, and the village was beautiful. The homes were traditional thatched roof houses with stick fences. There were no paved roads. Roads consisted of sand and people traveled on foot or via ox carts.

Sometimes I would hop on an oxcart to get around Ifaty village

What I also loved about Ifaty is that even though it could have easily of been overrun by tourists and a backpacking scene it wasn’t. It was definitely a village for the locals and at night when I went out to the village bars, it was all locals in the bars and no foreigners. One bar was very lively and full of people, mostly men. When I entered, I discovered what all of the yelling was about. The bar was full of men watching two men in a Moraingy match, the Malagasy kick boxing martial art. it was an awesome scene. Homemade hooch was being drunk while men waved their fists in the air, screaming, money was being wagered on the fighters and it was hot and humid inside. This was the perfect bar. The fight ended soon after I entered and soon everyone in the bar turned towards me and few men even started to point and at me and one raised my hand. I knew what they were asking right away. They wanted me to fight. I towered above the fighters and to the Malagasy men, what could be more exciting than to have a foreigner in a fight. It would be guaranteed to bring more bets. I thought about it for a few minutes and my competitive self-thought I would win  because I was a lot bigger but from what I saw earlier, the fighter were small but quick and strong and there would be a good chance that even if I won I would lose because I could easily break a nose or worse in a fight like this and I still had two weeks left on my trip so I politely declined to the offer and the crowd pelted me with a chorus of boos in response. I watched one more fight and left and the next fighter was a much bigger guy leaving thankful that I opted to not fight but later on I did learn to regret not fighting. After all I travel for experiences in the end and that would have been an experience I would never forget. 

 

Boabab Tree in  Reniala spiny desert reserve

While in Ifaty, I spent most of my time exploring the Reniala spiny desert reserve. This patch of spiny desert was still vast and stretched unbroken for as far as I could see and hopefully it would stay this way for a long time.  Reniala was my happy place and I spent hours in the morning and afternoon each day exploring it and each time I would discover a new creature or amazing plant. I loved the spiny desert, and its vegetation was one of the most unique I have ever seen in my travels.

 

Desert tortoise

Bottle trees

Sunset Over Bottle trees

Huge Madagascan hissing cock roach that hissed every time I touched it. It was slow and instead of running away would hiss if touched.

Huge Madagascan hissing cock roach that hissed every time I touched it. It was slow and instead of running away would hiss if touched.

Snake I found in the spiny desert

Me with Someone’s pet lemur in Ifaty 

Getting to Isalo

from Ifaty, my next destination was isalo national park. To get there I had to take the 4WD bus public transportation back to Toliara and from there a long 5-hour shared van taxi trip to isalo that involved a few breakdowns where everyone had to push the car to get it started again. The scenery along the drive was incredible and I wish I could have been able to get out of the car and take photos in several spots but there were also some towns we passed through that had a reputation for lawlessness and gem smuggling of rubies, and sapphires and this is big business in these parts attracting all kinds of criminals and petty thieves that have targeted tourists on occasions. I had to change taxis in some of these towns and had a chance to get out and meet some of the friendly smiling locals, but I also had to fend off gem salesmen who expected that I was in town to purchase gems.

 

Passengers pushing shared taxi to get it started

Friendly village girl

Wooden wild west looking houses with French influence-lakalak town-a wild west gem town with saloons, cowboys, and prostitutes. The blue building was a saloon/hotel. The front was the bar with bottles of some toxic looking home made rum for sale in crates. 

Beautiful village girl. The peopleof Madagascar are a mix of South indian and African descent.

Women in the market with a bark extract on their face for sun protection and cosemtic purposes

Trekking in Isalo National Park

Once in isalo, I found a guesthouse and quickly began searching the village for guides and I organized a 5-day trek into isalo national park along with food and logistics for the trek. I had all my camping gear, so it was an easy to task. I hired a local guide and cook who doubled as a porter to carry our food, which included a live chicken that hung upside down from his backpack. I couldn’t bear to watch the chicken be tortured anymore so I demanded that he butcher the chicken and eat it on our first night camping. he also carried a plastic bag of eggs which somehow, he managed to keep from breaking during the trek.

 

Cook carrying live chicken for our trek

The trek began by walking through some of the rural farming villages and meeting the Bara Tribe people. Life in these villages has changed little over the centuries. To the Bara the high cliffs of Isalo National par are sacred, and they place their burial sites high up in the crevices of the rock faces. The funeral occurs after the corpse has had some time to decay and then a family member will climb to the cliff and retrieve the remains, bring them to the village and the village will have a huge celebration of the person’s life. Once the celebration is over the remains will be returned to the cliff and placed back inside the crevice.

 

Oxcart common form of transportation

Small cluster of homes

Bara woman collecting grass for animals

Bara woman

Men making alcohol

Me showing villahe kids photos ofthemselves

Bara woman with face tatoos

Every night we camped in the wild by ourselves. We would have a small campfire and the cook would make a nice meal usually of rice and meat and vegetables and drink some homemade alcohol that my guide bought in the Bara village. Wild camping is also when I had the most encounters with wildlife. The most common visitor was the biting green ants which always showed up within a few minutes of the first morsal of food falling on the ground and they showed up in force. They would amass around the food particle carrying off to their queen viscously attacking anything in their path including me and their bites stung like hell. Other visitors were scorpions, praying mantis, walking sticks, chameleons and lemurs. In one campsite ring tailed and brown lemurs invaded my campsite to steal our food and they were just as pesky as camping with racoons back home. I left my tent open for 30 seconds and a lemur managed to get inside, and I had to quickly chase him out. The brown lemurs were the worst and the most troublesome.

Wild camping

My guide in his traditional straw hat and I drinking home made alcohol on my birthday at the campsite

Isalo National Park is mostly a plateau of grassland forming above cliffs and canyons. The forests where much of wildlife is found along the edges of the cliffs and canyons with spring fed streams run through these canyons. I spotted my first ring tailed lemurs and sifaka as I entered the forest into one of these cliffs. lemurs have traditionally been off-limits or fada a Malagasy word for taboo to eat for the Malagasy people. For this reason, lemurs are not afraid of people, and it is easy to get fairly close to them before they hop away. Sadly, the culture is changing and with mass poverty people are starting to hunt them for food.

Lemurs are mostly found in the trees by day and then at night they hide in the cliffs in crevices from their chief predator the fossa, a large cat like creature but is not a cat and more closely related to the mongoose. The are nocturnal and hunt lemurs at night. I didn’t see one during my trip, but it didn’t mean that they weren’t present.

Forests formed along the cliffs that rise to form a plateu of  grasslands

Sifaka

Chemelion

Canyon leading into a jungle rich with wildlife

Ring tailed lemur

Me swimming in the cold freshwater springs of one of the jungle canyons 

A very venemous scorpion

Walking stick insect

Elephant foots plant

Huge orb spider

Ring tailed lemur

Brown lemur

We walked long hours through the grasslands where there were no trails. I loved this part of the journey even though there was less wildlife. The golden hue of the grass flowing in sync in the wind was beautiful especially in the late afternoon sun. 

Walking in grasslands

Preying mantis

On the last day of the trek we walked long hours exposed to the hot sun in the grasslands but the reward for doing so was great. A depression in the grassland appeared out of nowhere and the grassland gave way magically to a rich green jungle oasis with a large pool of turquoise green water that is what I imagine the garden of Eve to resemble. The water was fed from a spring that came straight of the ground via a series of small waterfalls and it was refreshing and cool. I jumped in and for an hour I was transformed back to my childhood, and I was in complete bliss splashing and jumping into the water. The best part of it all was i was the only one in the water and like the majority of the trek in Isalo, I just didn’t see many other people. After my swim, I be-grudgingly returned to the grasslands and resumed my trek out of Isalo national park back to the town of Isalo.

Natural springs

View of the Natural springs from the grasslands above

Rainforests of Madagascar-Andisabe National Park

From Isalo, I traveled to Toliara and flew to tana via Madagascar Airlines on a very turbulent flight through a violent thunderstorm. I spent one night in Tana in guest house run by a French man and the next morning I set off via the long journey via public bus to Andasibe National Park to see the giant Indre lemurs. I stayed in a guest house on the edge of the rainforest reserve which made it easy for me to search for animals anytime I wanted. One of my highlights of my trip was observing the huge Indre lemurs the size of large dogs from only 20′ feet away in the trees and their ear shrieking loud calls. They also are fiercely territorial, and I watched a few of them kick box each other in the treetops. Indre lemurs can only be observed in the wild. All efforts to bring them to zoos have failed and they have died because no one knows exactly how to duplicate their feeding habits because they require a wide assortment of different leaves to feed on. Besides the Indre lemurs there were lots of chameleons and geckos of different sizes and some had incredible camouflage and I was only able to see them when a ranger pointed them out to me.

Indre lemur

Eerie high pitched shrieking of Indre lemur

Indre lemur

Gecko blending in with tree branch

Chameleon 

Gecko blending in with tree

Colorful gecko

Large chameleon

Smallest chemelion

About an hour walk from my guesthouse was the town of Andisabe, a wooden village where the people lived in squalor, but it was a fun place of friendly people and in the evening, I would walk there and drink beer at the lively bars that blasted loud Malagasy music from speakers. One strange bar was full of small children wildly dancing to the music.

Small village of Andisabe

One night when I was 2o minutes away from my guesthouse and walking along the jungle road in the dark to Andisabe village to have dinner and drink some beers, I came across a huge 8′ long Malagasy boa on the road. I had left my camera in my room, and I couldn’t live without a photo of the beautiful snake. A Malagasy man on a bicycle just happened to pass by and I waived him down. he was friendly and approached me to see what I wanted and when he noticed the snake before me, he almost panicked. Snakes are fada or bad luck to most Malagasy people and to be avoided. The man didn’t speak English, but I managed to explain to him in sign language that I needed him to stop the snake from fleeing into the rainforest until I could return with my camera to take a photo. I promised him 20USD worth of Malagasy money for his trouble. The man reluctantly agreed. I borrowed the man’s bicycle and peddled as hard as I could back to my guesthouse to get me camera and then back again to where the most was standing with a big stick to prevent the snake from leaving. But to my surprise he wasn’t alone anymore. A small gathering of 10 or so villagers stood by his side all giggling and laughing from a distance as I returned. The whole spectacle of this moment must have been fascinating to them and sure enough he did his job well and the snake was still present allowing me to get my photo and I paid the man making him very happy. 20USD was a lot of money in these parts.

Giant Malagasy Boa

Mantadia National park

I read that the rainforest of mantadia was mostly primary original forest with the largest trees and most intact ecosystem but it was further away and required traveling on bad 4WD dirt roads so it would be an expensive trip. I decided to hire a jeep and go anyways, and I am glad I did. The rainforest was wild and with a ranger I hiked into the forest spotting all kinds of amazing wildlife which included rare, endangered lemurs that were just simply adorable and from only 10′ away. We also spotted and heard Indre lemurs but the Indre in mantadia were far away and harder to observe.

Road into Mantadia

Red Bellied lemur

Beautiful mushrooms

A snake I picked up that bit me. Lucky it wasnt poisonous.

Waterfalls I swam in

Diademed sifaka

From Mantadia I traveled back to tana via a bus and onwards to home via the longest single flight I have ever been on-17 hours from Johannesburg to Alanta via Delta Airlines.

 

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