Monthly Archives: January 2017

I first visited Madagascar 15 years ago.  Despite the fog of time, my memories of that first trip to the Red Island remain strong and vibrant.  Seeing my first lemur – a Ringtail at Berenty.  First hearing the haunting call of an Indri at Andasibe.  My first tentative steps into a real spiny forest.  It might as well have happened last week.  Madagascar is so different, so unique and so impactful a place to visit, that the memories are etched very vividly.

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Madagascar is also one of those places which improve with the passage of time.  As the months and years slip by, one’s recollections of a trip there change for the better.  Gone are the memories of the bad roads, long distances, stuff that doesn’t work. And in sharper relief are the impressions of lemurs, endemic birds, reptiles, truly magical forests and of course the amazing people.

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My over-arching impression after a longer second visit in September last year?  Madagascar hasn’t really changed much and it is still a truly strange and wonderful yet mildly maddening country;  definitely not for everybody.

Strange? Absolutely. Madagascar is often associated with Africa, having split off the African mainland some 165 million years ago, yet it is very unlike Africa in almost every way. It is not for nothing that Madagascar is often referred to as the Eighth Continent.  Strange trees, strange plants, even stranger animals, and almost everything you see found only in Madagascar.  So different on so many levels.

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Even though Madagascar is associated with Africa, it is nothing like Africa.  It feels much more like somewhere in Asia – maybe Cambodia – judging by the facial features of the people, the clumps of banana trees and the many rice paddies which are tucked away into the valleys and hillsides.  Madagascar’s French colonialist past is all too clear in the shape of many of the buildings, the French words and phrases you will hear spoken and the aging Citroens and Renaults trundling around Tana and the other cities.  Now fast being replaced by Chinese cars.  A sign of the times.  Another not so great relic of Madagascar’s French colonial history?  The dense layers of bureaucracy which most visitors thankfully only encounter upon entering and leaving.

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Wonderful? Undoubtedly. If you’ve ever wondered what it must have felt like to be Darwin, walking around the Galapagos completing the Natural Selection puzzle, Madagascar will appeal to you.  Spend a few days there and you cannot fail but see Darwin’s theory of evolution come alive in front of your very eyes.  Look at a white-headed vanga and then – maybe just minutes later – observe a sickle-billed vanga fly by.  Practically the identical bird except for the marked difference in bill adaptation.  The one with a stout conical bill, the other one similar in general appearance and shape but with a massive decurved bill.  Clearly adapted to probe crevices and holes for spiders and crickets and other insects. Evolution in its purest form.  It is estimated that the sickle-billed vanga split from the white-headed vanga somewhat more than a million years ago.

The same is true of Madagascar’s multitude of lemur species.  They are simply stunning. It took me all of 15 seconds to fall in love with the first species of lemur I ever saw which was the Ring-tailed Lemur, at Berenty, on my first visit.  Subsequently I have seen many other species, some quite rare and difficult to find but even the most common of these animals are exceptional.  They are mostly arboreal so be sure to take a pair of quality binoculars with good light-gathering properties as you will often be observing animals in the gloom of a forest interior.  The pay-off?  Great views of unique, fascinating creatures and simply amazing birds.

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Maddening?  Unfortunately yes.  Madagascar can be a frustrating place to visit because of the lack of infrastructure.  On almost every level, it is the antithesis of our rushed, over-scheduled and convenience-seeking existence.  In Madagascar there seems to be not much in the way of a sense of urgency.  Things happen when they happen which is not always according to schedule.  In cities and towns the roads are often congested, the traffic sometimes chaotic.  In some areas the accommodation options leave much to be desired and things we take for granted like hot water and decent lighting are not reliable.  The language barrier doesn’t make it any easier – it definitely helps to have some French. Be patient, smile and re-orient yourself to not be as hyper-critical as you would be in a more developed, more sophisticated environment.  You will be amply rewarded.

There are encouraging signs, though.  For one thing, there is more understanding of the plight of the country’s endemic animals and over the last 20 years, the number of national parks and the size of areas under conservation have grown significantly.  So there is definitely hope for the future! Put Madagascar on your list of places to visit soon and you can be a part of a brighter future for this much-maligned and very much side-lined country.  Madagascar needs responsible eco-tourism probably more than any other country in the world.

WALKING

There are no mega-fauna such as in Africa so naturalistic pursuits in Madagascar are safely – and best – done on foot.  Take your best walking shoes – or better yet a decent pair of boots – a walking stick and get ready for the most fascinating trip you may ever take.  No chance of being charged by a buffalo so you can totally relax on foot and take it all in.  I would rate many of the trails inside the national parks such as Mantadia and Ranomafana as moderately strenuous.  You don’t have to be super-fit to enjoy Madagascar.  Even so, it would not be a good destination choice for someone with mobility issues or a person who is not capable of walking up and down steps or willing to undertake an occasional scramble along an uneven trail.

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BEST TIME TO VISIT MADAGASCAR

When to go?  Any time from about April through December would be good; the two best months are likely September and October; the latter particularly for birders as many birds are getting into breeding plumage then.  Birds are more likely to perform territorial and courtship displays and are more vocal then.  Hence easier to identify than in the winter months.  In the late fall & summer months from about October onward you will be dealing with some heat and humidity in lower-lying areas, and mosquitoes where there is water around.  From January through the end of March is cyclone (aka hurricane) season so don’t plan a trip then.

A FEW PRACTICAL NOTES

In late September 2015 I arrived in Madagascar to find Tana Airport just as I had left it 15 years ago in 2000:  rundown and outdated, but functional.  Even without a semblance of a line, the free visa issuing process wasn’t too time-consuming and the baggage was delivered more rapidly than the last several times at Oliver Tambo Airport in Jo’burg.

Exchanging US$200 leaves one with more than 600,000 Ariary in A10,000 notes.  Each of them being worth about US$3.00 with the current exchange rate being about 3,000 Ariary to the Dollar.  Definitely get some smaller denomination bills as the A10,000 bills are not widely used.

Initially, the big discrepancy in the value of the local currency versus the US Dollar or Euro leads to under-tipping.  It is not considered OK to leave a 10%  tip for a bar bill or any other minor expense.  Better to tip the equivalent in Ariary what you ordinarily would tip in US Dollars.  So for a couple of beers leave A3,000 (about US$1) as a tip, not 10% or even 20% of the bill which would be the equivalent of about 10 or 20 cents.

Food and beverages are cheap in Madagascar – we rarely paid more than US$7.00 for a dinner entree; a local beer is less than a dollar, about the same price as a liter of water.

Just like 15 years ago, Antananarivo had that typical dusty, spare look of poverty.  Just about every building is seemingly in need of a good coat of paint.  And as before, the street traffic was nothing short of chaotic – even on a Saturday morning.  The narrow 2-lane asphalt road from Ivato into downtown Tana also happens to be the main route, National Route #1.

THREE THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

Poverty. Traffic.  Tipping.   If you are going to be traveling to Madagascar, better get ready to deal with them.

Poverty is impossible to ignore or avoid. It is visible in the eyes of the street children of Tana, in the shacks you see along the Great South Road, in the threadbare clothing of the kids at Anakao.  Madagascar is likely the world’s poorest country if you exclude the ones involved in the on-going conflict.  What to do about it?  Go and visit the place.  Tourism is one of the few bright prospects in Madagascar’s otherwise bleak economic future.  Your presence there creates jobs, feeds and educates children and helps safeguard the country’s dwindling natural areas and wildlife.  Yes, the thought of other people suffering is unpleasant but don’t let it dissuade you from visiting the country.  Many of the kids are not dressed like their counterparts elsewhere in the world but they do not lack for joie de vivre and they will benefit a lot more by having tourists visit their country than not.

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Traffic can be maddening and persistent, and always unpredictable.  Just like in Nairobi or Dar-Es-Salaam you might run into a traffic jam at any time of the day or night.  There are few rules of the road & traffic lights and stop signs are scarce and routinely ignored.  I would certainly never attempt to self-drive in Madagascar under any circumstances.  On the positive side heavy traffic inhibits speeding so while road trips can be frustrating, the pace is fairly sedate.  As anywhere, we recommend spending more time in fewer areas so you won’t find yourself on the road every day.

Tipping?  Confusing and anxiety-inducing.  Not because the amounts required for tips are excessive.  They are anything but.  The issue with tipping is knowing who to tip and having the correct small-denomination bills to use as tips.  So be sure to get some smaller bills when you exchange money at the airport on arrival.  Who to tip?  Your tour guide of course: about US$10 per traveler per day; about US$5 per traveler per day for the driver.  Also tip at restaurants (10% of the bill is fine, but leave a bit more on a small check), porters (the equivalent of a dollar is ok), and housekeepers. It is not necessary to tip taxi drivers.

It is mandatory to make use of the services of local guides in the national parks.  Their services can be pre-booked (which will be the case on a trip organized by us) or they can be hired on the spot.  The fees vary depending on the circuits chosen in each park.  If the guide stays with you the entire day – which we would recommend – you can work on his/her fee being about US$50.00 per day.  This amount to be split by the number of participants in your group.

Here are some impressions and notes about highlights from my most recent Madagascar trip.  The photographs are but a pale reflection of the vivid reality that is Madagascar, but they are better than words.  So for this trip report we will try to keep the words to a minimum.

ANTANANARIVO

Driving from Antananarivo Airport (TNR) into downtown Tana sets the scene perfectly for what is to follow.  Sitting in the front seat of the minibus next to the driver, I was again – like the first time – mesmerized by the kaleidoscope of color, movement, activity and structures which slide by the window on practically any drive in a town or city environment in Madagascar.  The people all seem to be going somewhere mostly on foot but also by bike, motorbike, mini-bus or small private car.  With an occasional large vehicle incongruously pushed into a narrow alley.  There are endless small shops and stalls alongside almost every road, selling practically anything one can think of from furniture to livestock, motorcycle parts to freshly prepared, local delicacies.  I wanted to try some but was dissuaded by our expert birding guide Bruno Raveloson, who thought that my western stomach would not be able to handle some road food.  Next time.

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It took a good 40 minutes or so to get to our hotel, the Hotel Chalet des Roses in the Haute Ville area  – Antsahavola quarter.  The location is good, being close to various embassies including the US Embassy, and a short walk to the main Tana market, Independence Avenue and various nightlife attractions.  None of which we patronized on our most recent visit.

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The Hotel Chalet des Roses is a quaint small hotel (44 rooms),  tucked away on a quiet road.  The rooms were basic but functional, it was quiet enough, the WIFI worked (don’t expect blazing fast broadband), and the staff was friendly and helpful.  Some of them struggled with English.  As I said earlier, a bit of French goes a long way in Madagascar.  The meals in the attached Italian restaurant were good and cheap (by US standards).  The (not included) continental breakfast was strange (more cake!) and the order form with lots of options and boxes to be ticked, was confusing.  You’ll get it right the second time around.  All in all for what you pay the hotel is perfectly adequate for a night or two in Tana.

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I did go for a short run on the day of arrival and somehow found my way to a small park overlooking the city, the Jardin Antaninarenina.  It was quite lively with families and young people enjoying the views and some refreshments.  A less welcome aspect of running in Tana was being followed around by random strangers (just for fun!) and street urchins.  A couple of them did eventually pose for a photograph, though.

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ANDASIBE-MANTADIA

The drive from Tana to Andasibe seemed shorter and less daunting the second time around.  Our Boogie Pilgrim driver was competent and careful and I never once felt uncomfortable about speeding or inattentiveness or anything else.  Always cautious and defensive.  We made a couple of stops en route, the most interesting one being at an old, rather dilapidated but still fully functional iron bridge over the Mangoro River.  It was everything you’d expect from a bridge in Madagascar.  Rusting away quietly, narrow with no space for pedestrians, and a narrow-gauge railroad track right next to the auto roadway.  We were fortunate to see an old and rather antiquated train set roll by, while we were scouting around for Madagascar Pratincoles.  Which we did not find.  We did have some good interaction with some of the local inhabitants resting up under the trees nearby.

The Andasibe-Mantadia forest complex is likely Madagascar’s most popular forest destination, for several reasons.  It is relatively easily reached from Tana on a good road; there are several accommodation options to fit every budget, good restaurants and some wonderful forests with well-maintained trails to explore.   But mostly it is about the lemurs.  The most impressive of all of them – the Indri Indri – can be seen here quite easily.  They are noisy – the call of the Indri is near unforgettable – and conspicuous due to their size and black and white coloration.  But never easy to photograph due to the pesky back-lit conditions.  Better to put the camera away, pick up the binoculars and observe the stunning athleticism of these powerful animals as they jump gracefully from one branch to the next or from one tree to another.

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There is of course a lot more to Andasibe-Mantadia than the Indri.   There are several other lemur species including the stunning Sifaka.  Also tenrecs (a type of hedgehog), chameleons including Parsons, the biggest of its kind in Madagascar, some simply stunning birds, beautiful scenery, orchids and water-lilies, fascinating insects, reptiles.  I could go on.  Definitely plan on spending three nights here to do the area even a modicum of justice.  The walks – particularly in nearby Mantadia Forest – are time-consuming and if you are looking for some of the rare bird species rushing around is not going to do it.  Also it takes an hour or so to get from Andasibe to the trailhead at Mantadia; it is about 10km along a pretty dreadful road.  I think I picked up 5,000 steps on my Fitbit.  Driving.

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For keen bird-watchers there are many highly sought-after birds to be found and seen at Andasibe-Mantadia including the blue coua, Madagascar wood rail, various vangas, the velvet asity, sunbirds, the quite superb pitta-like ground roller, short-legged ground roller and many others.  We did not miss many of the local specials due to the skills of our Boogie Pilgrim birding guide, with the assistance of an excellent local guide.

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Our accommodation for the three nights there, the hotel Feon’ny Ala is quite basic but what it lacks in charm it makes up for in location.  Right where you want to be, close to the Andasibe park entrance.  The restaurant was good and popular and the local beer like the Three Horse brand tasty and inexpensive.

In summary Andasibe-Mantadia simply cannot be omitted from a first Madagascar trip – and it is well worth a return visit after an absence of several years.  The primary forest of Mantadia is gorgeous to behold and the thought that so little of this habitat remains in Madagascar is depressing.  One morning, in search of a couple of endemic water birds, we came upon a small, pristine lake tucked into a quiet glade, right at the edge of the forest.  Not a major landmark or well-known sight, yet so striking that we all stopped talking.  We simply stood there and looked at the beautiful reflection of the trees and sky in the crystal clear water, with some ducks dabbling in the background, realizing that we were sharing a special moment in an extraordinary place.

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RANOMAFANA NATIONAL PARK

From Andasibe, we drove back in the direction of Tana and then headed south along the N-7 route which was in much better shape than most of the roads I had encountered years ago on my first visit to Madagascar.  About 6 hours later – with some stops along the way – we checked into the pleasant Chambre de Voyageur in Antsirabe.

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In a safe setting, which felt like an oasis from the busy main road a couple of blocks away, the first thing one sees is the lush garden which surrounds a large natural water feature. The rooms were on the smallish side but comfortable enough; there was hot water and the set menu dinner was excellent. A big bonus: friendly management.  I went for a run the following morning along the main route, watching the TukTuks lining up at hotels and other spots, with local resident and kids waiting for buses to take them to work and school.

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After a light breakfast we resumed driving south, making a short stop at a horn manufacturing factory along the way.  Then it was on to Ambositra where we observed wood carvers in action.  After a pleasant lunch at the Artisan Hotel we completed the rest of the 6-hour drive along the N7 to Ranomanafa National Park.

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There were some rough spots along the road here but as we turned east from the N7 towards Ranomafana the quality of the road surface improved.  Which is just as well because the road becomes quite hilly and winding from the turn-off, all the way to Ranomafana.

For the next several miles we drove up and down one hill after another and negotiated a series of sharp bends, with all of us except the driver admiring the nice scenery dropping down to a river below us, to the right.  We drove through the town of Ranomafana to the hotel where we would spend the next 3 nights.

The Hotel Manja & restaurant were disappointing, to put it mildly.  It really had no character; the rooms were large but sterile, the bathroom inadequate and there was nowhere to put one’s clothes.  The restaurant food was mediocre at best, either over-cooked (shrimp) or under-cooked (tough chicken).  Fortunately there are better accommodation options in Ranomafana such as the Setam Lodge where we enjoyed a nice lunch one day.

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What Ranomafana does not have in the way of great hotels, it makes up for by the spade-full in atmosphere, setting and bio-diversity.  The primary protected forest area is gorgeous, green and lush but also quite challenging with major changes in elevation.  So be prepared for some long hikes along fairly steep uphills and downhills, fortunately with well-maintained stone steps pretty much everywhere.  If you go stomping around in the forest interior you may pick up a few leeches.  They are icky but harmless and easily removed.   None of our party of 4 visitors – who stayed mainly on the trails – got any on us.

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Together with Bruno, our local guide Jean Chris and his assistant worked quite hard and over the course of 2 days at Ranomafana we did see some fantastic birds, several new (for the trip) lemur species and a few fascinating insects and reptiles such as a Giraffe-necked weevil, more chameleons including exceedingly tiny ones and a couple of cryptic-colored geckos.

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If you are intent on exploring all aspects of its natural history Ranomafana is a most rewarding place; for people simply rushing from one lemur sighting to another it may be disappointing as the lemurs are spread out and often high in the trees.  In the high season there are many other visitors around, particularly on the shorter trails.  So get a good guide, take your time and walk well beyond the 2 or 3-hour circuit to make the most of it.

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We did just that and were amply rewarded with some of the best lemurs of the trip.  Ranomafana is well-known for its bamboo lemurs including the Great Bamboo lemur and the recently discovered Golden Bamboo lemur.  Red-bellied lemurs and Milne-Edwards Sifaka can also be seen.

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ISALO NATIONAL PARK

From Ranomafana to Ranohira – the gateway to Isalo National Park – entailed another long but gentle drive, back along the winding great south road, NR7.  We passed the city of Fianarantsoa, stopped in Ambalavao and eventually made our way to the Anjah reserve, a community-based project where a large and seemingly thriving colony of ring-tailed lemurs can be observed.  These striking red-eyed lemurs with their long and boldly ringed tails are unmistakeable and without a doubt the best known of the lemur family.

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After a light lunch we pushed on and made it to our overnight destination, the quite lovely and surprisingly good (for Madagascar) Relais de la Reine.

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This luxury hotel and its sister property the Jardin du Roy are spectacularly located among bold sandstone outcrops which form the foothills of the Massif Central (mountain range).  Spending one night here was an itinerary planning error: it left absolutely no time to visit Isalo National Park, which is why people travel to this area.  We had to be content with exploring the Colorado-like terrain around the two hotels, taking a couple of gentle hikes in the area in search of Benson’s Rock Thrush, among others.  Not being able to spend any time inside Isalo National Park was clearly a mistake, one that will not be made on any other trips we book in this area.  Even so we needed somewhere to stay en route to the coast and there is no better spot than the Relais de la Reine. A convivial bar (try some of the local gin), excellent food and quite comfortable (no air-conditioning) stone cabins made for a welcome change from the sub-standard accommodation at Ranomafana.

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ZOMBITZE FOREST & TULEAR

Well rested, we continued the journey southward along the NR7, spending a couple of hours or so looking for more special birds and lemurs at Zombitze National Park, a small dry forest reserve right along the main road.  This pocket park is spectacular yet its diminutive size is a stark reminder of what has already been irretrievably lost. One can only imagine what the area once looked like, many decades ago.  A great, spectacular forest must have covered the entire area.  Then came people. Who immediately commenced with deforestation for building materials and charcoal.  Plus they brought with them zebu cattle who are prime habitat destroyers.  Catastrophic habitat loss ensued.  Sad as it is to contemplate the relentless destructive force of unchecked human intrusion, exacerbated by lax local regulations and no coherent conservation strategy, at least it is not all totally gone.   It is still possible to enter into the interior of this beautiful forest with baobabs, rosewood, aloes, strangler fig and many other fascinating plants, and to imagine for just a minute or so that nothing has changed.  But not for long.  Observe a pre-historic looking Giant Coua clambering through the vegetation and reflect upon the fact that it and its habitat, the result of millions of years of evolution, are in real and imminent danger of being wiped out in a matter of decades.

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We only spent a few hours at Zombitze but it was a worthwhile and delightful spot.  Among the special bird species of the forest were several striking couas, notably the Crested and the previously mentioned Giant Coua.

IFATY

From Zombitze it wasn’t far to Tulear, where we enjoyed a pretty good lunch at Chez Alain, a French restaurant specializing in zebu steak.  It was delicious and the garden setting was quite pleasant.  Just too many flies!

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In the afternoon we drove along the coast – back on a dirt road – making several stops for shorebirds en route to Ifaty Beach where we would spend the next two nights at Ikotel.  Unfortunately this turned out be another sub-standard hotel with bare-bones rooms and a completely uninspiring lounge-restaurant with very limited menu choices. By this stage of the trip one of the participants clearly had had enough of Madagascar.  Her exasperated sighs – when confronted with another ‘strange’ food item, or contemplating another uncomfortable night behind a dodgy mosquito net – were a source of concern.  As I said in the introduction:  Madagascar is not for everyone.  Come with a wide open mind, a taste for the strange and unusual (both food and experience) and above all a good measure of forbearance, patience and the ability and willingness to shrug off minor inconveniences.  You will love it.  Expect everything to be just like in the USA?  I don’t even have to say it. Just don’t go.  Of course that applies only to this type of relatively low-cost overland tour.  Fortunately Madagascar has several deluxe properties in all the main tourism centers so it is possible to put together an itinerary which will suit even the most fastidious and demanding visitor.

With an enthusiastic crew of local guides on hand we entered the small Reniala Reserve early the next morning.  This is what Madagascar is all about. This simply bizarre spiny forest is definitely unlike anything you have seen before.  Stunted baobabs, sinister looking didiereas and various other weirdly formed, knobby, spiny plants and trees simply saturate the flat sandy terrain. You literally have to duck and dive your way around some positively dangerous-looking specimens.  In all there are about 2,000 plant species here, many of them endemic.

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Reniala Reserve is a paradise for bird-watchers and ably assisted by the local guides who ran ahead to find the local specials, we were soon marveling over some very rare endemic species, such as the long-tailed ground roller, the sub-desert mesite, the red-capped coua and the blue vanga. There are about 65  bird species in total within  the reserve. I have been interested in birds for more than 30 years and have birded widely in Africa and the USA.  My first glimpse of the long-tailed ground roller will remain as one of my most memorable sightings ever.  In this strange, weird setting this ethereal ground-dwelling bird with a diagnostic sky blue patch on its wing looks like a dainty version of North America’s desert-dwelling Roadrunner.  Superb, fantastic.  It is easy to run out of superlatives when talking about any of Madagascar’s four ground-rollers but this one takes the cake.

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ANAKAO

Our last few days in Madagascar were spent at Prince Anakao Resort, which in many ways typified and encapsulated the entire Madagascar experience. Different, striking, even exhilarating in measure but often with minor blemishes and unexpected ‘left field’ moments. Unquestionably memorable.

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Anakao is a fishing village stretching along a pretty white sand beach about 40 kilometers south of Tulear.  The relative isolation of the village and the fact that it is sparsely visited has helped to preserve the traditional lifestyle of its estimated 3,000 Vezo inhabitants.

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Getting there was worth the price of admission.  Late one morning, having been transferred from Ifaty to Tulear by road, we spent perhaps 40 minutes or so cooling our heels in a waiting room belonging to the boat operator who would take us to Anakao Island.

From there, we were bundled into a different vehicle which set off a breakneck speed – for no apparent reason – to a restaurant which we assumed was close to the point of embarkation.  Not having an exact time-frame we ordered some coffee and the ubiquitous  French breakfast cake and chatted to the German-born owner-manager who was quite a character.

Somewhat later we were told to walk down to the edge of the bay, where an ‘only in Madagascar’ scenario unfolded.  Our large and powerful motor boat could be seen anchored in the shallow waters of the bay, about 300 meters or so from the wooden jetty.  How to get from the edge of the water into the boat?  By oxcart of course.   Indeed.  Much to our astonishment first one and then another oxcart approached the jetty, rippling their way through the calm waves of Tulear harbor.  We were unceremoniously bundled into the back of the carts, looking at each other in disbelief as we tightly gripped the edges.  A crack of the whip and we’re off, our nervous laughter mixing with the sounds of the oxen splashing their way through the surf amid exhortations from the wranglers who somehow managed to keep them going in the right direction.

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The almost hour-long speed boat ride which followed was almost anti-climactic.  It was not without interest, though.  First, we stopped at another jetty where more passengers boarded the boat.  This time in a conventional manner.  Then we were handed life jackets which everyone donned.  A minute or so later the skipper opened the throttle and soon enough we were powering our way along and over the swells, next stop Anakao.  The disembarkation there involved removing one’s shoes, rolling up trousers and splashing through the shallow water onto the beach.  All in a day’s fun.

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Prince Anakao Resort is one of a few hotels strung out along the coastline of Anakao beyond both ends of the village. Consisting mostly of simple beach huts, the Anakao hotels provide a low-key beach experience for visiting tourists. In the early morning hours, many pirogues can be seen sailing into the open ocean for fishing trips, returning with their catch during the afternoon in ones and two or sometimes small clusters.

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Living up to its Malagasy heritage, the Prince Anakao excelled beautifully in some ways and fell totally flat in others.  The cooking was nothing short of sublime.  The owner-chef turned out some ridiculously fantastic seafood dishes, no doubt making use of fresh locally caught fare.  The desserts were no slouch either.  Alas, the property never could get hot water going in my room over the space of two days.  Even moving to a different room didn’t fix the problem.  We also had major issues with WIFI availability which was sporadic at best with electricity issues seemingly pervasive.  Did it matter in the long run?  Not at all.  This is Madagascar…

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Over the course of two wonderful days at Anakoa we enjoyed the food and wine, walked or ran along the beach and some of us went scuba diving.  Apparently quite successfully so.  All of us also piled into a boat one morning for a visit to nearby Nosy Ve Island, specifically to see the breeding colony of red-tailed tropic birds.  These elegant tern-like birds could be seen perched and flying at close range; we stood on one high spot for a good 15 minutes or so as one after another came flying by, sometimes seeming to hover before letting the wind sweep them away, the conspicuous red tail-feather putting them squarely in the unmistakable category.  We looked for but did not find the enigmatic Crab Plover which apparently likes the small deserted sandy islands around Nosy Ve.

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On our last afternoon in Anakoa I took the camera and spent an enjoyable couple of hours or so photographing the children of Anakoa, one of its best attractions.  Slender and healthy looking with beautiful skin tones, they were happy to pose for the camera, scampering for a prime spot and keen to stand in front of a fishing boat or with the village in the background.  Even a few passing family groups stopped momentarily for their portraits to be taken.  Despite their sometimes threadbare clothing and lack of material things, they looked content and happy and the closeness of familial bonds was easy to discern.

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A third trip to Madagascar is in the planning stages; this time around we will likely visit the west (Morondava), the northwest and also go in search of the elusive Aye-Aye.


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