Few Expectations but High Rewards in Madagascar

Once in a while, you just pack your bags and go on a whim that it will be a great trip. It’s a bit like going to the movie theater knowing little more than the title of the movie. The advantage to this strategy, is that you have few expectations; therefore, few disappointments.  The disadvantage, you will miss out on something great or not be fully prepared. But hey, this was Africa, there is only so much planning and preparing that you can do once the proper clothes are packed and all valuable camera & electronic equipment is secured in the carry-on bag.   I am happy to report, another African country has proven its worthiness as a great travel destination.

We were greeted at the airport by our courteous driver-guide who would be with us for most of the next 17 days. Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world and the best way to see it is with a 4WD vehicle. Our itinerary included visiting the four national parks, Andasibe, Ranomafana, Isalo, and Kirindy with a few relaxing days on the white sandy beaches of Morondava and Ifaty.

For me,  the acme of the trip was seeing the lemurs. From my first sighting I could not get enough of their cleaver antics and big marble size eyes. The ancient authors Virgil & Ovid mentioned the Festival of Lemuria during which “ghosts” referred to as “lemures” were exorcised. As an analogy to these ghosts from Roman mythology, the name “Lemur” was given to the entire species due to their nocturnal habits & noiseless movement at night, reflective eyes, and ghostly cries. Scientists believe there are over  80 lemur species, new species are still being discovered by primatologist.  [Check out this NG video of a new discovery.] Lemurs vary in size, the smallest being the mouse lemur and the largest being the Indri which looks like a very large black and white teddy bear. The Indri are considered to be sacred with folktales adding to their enchantment. One story told to us by our guide was about  a boy who went into the forest to collect honey, was stung by bees, and fell from a tree.  An Indri caught him and carried him to safety. From what I have learned about animals, I tend to believe this is true and not a myth.  To see the Indri you need to visit Andasibe National Park. Once there you will hear their haunting, yet beautiful whale cry. [Watch this video to see the Indri and hear their cry.] Each national park we visited had lemurs to observe. When visiting a national park we were always accompanied by a park guide, this is very important since they know how to find the lemurs and sometimes carry bananas that the lemurs love. Our park guides also provided night walks at Andasibe and Ranomafana and were excellent chameleon spotters during the day and night. If seeing a lemur is on your “must see and do” list, then Madagascar is the only place where you can see them in the wild. [Read here to learn why.]

At one time almost every inch of the African continent was a European colony. Madagascar was a french colony from 1890-1960. Today French is still widely spoken by the educated Malagasy.  French food, including the bread, is widely served. You can also see the French influence in the housing architecture. In the highlands you will see many brick houses containing columns and west-facing verandas. Train stations and churches look as though they were taken from a French countryside.

Traveling around the country it felt like a large melting-pot of cultures. Indeed this is true because today’s population  is a mixture of Austronesian (origins from Borneo), North Indian, Arab, Somali and Bantu settlers. I enjoyed looking at the various hair styles and clothing worn by the women in the regions we visited.  The most interesting tradition practiced all over the country was the ritual of washing laundry by a river then stringing it among the rocks and plants to dry. Our guide told us that many believe that washing clothes by the river washes away their sins.

Madagascar has an incredible diverse landscape. Each travel day I enjoyed watching the terrain change from cultivated fields, to dense rainforest, and into a sandy desert. In the highlands many of the hills are terraced like those in southeast Asia to support the number one grown crop, rice. The south contains large grassy plateaus with the occasional granite domes to complete a Georgia O’Keeffe setting. For most tourist, the Avenue of the Baobabs near Morondave is an incredible sight in the morning and evening. Then when you need a little relaxation, there are long white sandy beaches with lovely bungalows next to the Mozambique Strait.

Madagascar is still off the beaten path for most travelers, but well worth the trouble. Because we missed seeing the lemurs do a dance, we just might have to go again. To see what I mean check out the following video, then I think you will agree, Madagacar is a ‘Must See’ destination. [Dancing lemurs video.]

To see images from my trip to Madagascar, visit my photography website: http://ginalrodgers.com/ginalrodgerswebsite/images/madagascar/index.html

Travel Tips:

  • For photographing lemurs, a small island at Andasibe was ideal for photographing and feeding the Brown and Ruffed Lemurs. The best opportunity for photographing the Ring-tailed lemur was at the Anja Reserve and a camp ground in Isalo National Park.  Remember to always focus first on the eyes and make sure you are using a fast shutter speed. I believe they move too quickly to use a tripod.
  • If you don’t speak French, a French phrase book or a French translation app will come in handy.
  • Make sure to bring along your favorite hiking shoes. The national parks can be wet and dusty.
  • For charging your electronics, bring along your plug adapters used in France and most of Europe. [Madagascar plug outlets.]
  • Madagascar is a very poor country. Our guide highly recommend not carrying our good cameras when we left our hotel in the capital, Antananarivo. A cheap disposal camera that you can buy in any grocery store is one way to take pictures worry free. (We never had a problem in the rest of the country.)
  • I’m a vegetarian, and never had any trouble finding food to eat. Pizzerias are in abundance in Antananarivo and Antsirabe. Sometimes hotels have a set menu. If I told them I was a vegetarian they were happy to substitute the meat on the menu.
  • We did not drink water from the tap, but always felt that the food was safe in the restaurants. Try and buy your bottle water from the small shops on the street. They are half the price of those sold at the hotel.
  • Many hotels provide free wi-fi.
  • On our last day in the country, I decide I must have one of those unique Madagascar folding wooden chairs. No problem, our driver took us to the craft market in Antananarivo. Everything from vanilla to wooden chairs could be found in this open market. Don’t forget to barter, I was able to get most items that we bought at one-third of the original asking price.
  • Do you like gems, over 50% of the world’s sapphires come from Madagascar.  Ask your guide for the best place to buy. I bought my gems from Chez Joseph in Antsirabe.

Our tour operator:

Jenman Tours – I would highly recommend this company. We had an excellent driver-guide. He spoke very good English, always kept us safe, and was able to answer all of our questions. He kept his Toyota Land Cruiser in perfect condition for the entire trip.  The company also arranged very comfortable and nice accommodations.

Ruffed lemur in Andasibe National Park

Ruffed lemur in Andasibe National Park

Bamboo lemur Bamboo lemur

Verreaux’s Sifaka in Kirindy National Park

Chameleon

Chameleon

Typical styled home in Madagascar containing columns and west-facing verandas.

Georgia O’Keeffe setting

Church in Ambositra

Church in Ambositra

Avenue of the Baobobs

Avenue of the Baobobs

Sunset at Avenue of the Baobabs

Sunset at Avenue of the Baobabs

Drying clothes near the river.

Drying clothes near the river.

The author with the lemurs in Andasibe National Park

The author with the lemurs in Andasibe National Park

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