Friday, 18 May 2012

A whistle-stop tour through some of Madagascar's incredible national parks


Without a shadow of a doubt, it's Madagascar's sensational national parks that make a trip there unforgettable. Vast and beautiful, with incredible diversity of landscape, they are also well-managed. Guides are compulsory everywhere, and consist of local men and women whose love for the environment is obvious. We were particularly impressed by the divisions in place within the park boundaries - some areas are open to tourists, with habituated Lemur groups, whilst the greater parts are often out-of-bounds, allowing the wildlife to roam freely without human interaction.

During our time in Madagascar, we visited five parks - Andasibe, Tsingy de Bemaraha, Isalo, Anja Reserve and Ranomafana. Very different and with their own charms, here's a short guide to each and our own impressions:

Andasibe

Of the heavily forested national parks, Andasibe was probably my favourite. From the relaxing jungle lodge accommodation nestled right on the boundary to the park, to the friendly and extremely knowledgeable guides, you could easily spend a week here and never run out of things to see. The park is home to both diurnal and nocturnal lemurs, and we spent a great evening after dark hunting for the tiny Mouse lemur, whose small face that peeked out at us from a large cluster of bushes we would never have spotted if not for the sharp eyes of our guide.


There's no way, however, to miss the large Indri, the real attraction of the park, whose loud calls penetrate the early morning silence and travel up to 3km. Most active in the morning, we hiked high into the park, batting away mosquitoes, to watch them eat and play in the canopy. There are a number of troops in a relatively small territory - we saw two quite close to each other. Standing right underneath them, their calls were loud and piercing, echoing and filling the air around us with sound.


The beautiful Diademed Sifaka, arguably the most stunning species of lemur, are also relatively large and easily spotted near the Indri. They elegantly leapt from tree to tree, their golden fur lit up by the early morning sun dappling through the leaves.

We also spotted white, brown and dwarf lemurs during our time in Andasibe, as well as a range of frogs and chameleons (including Parson's chameleon, the world's largest). Despite the close proximity to Antananarivo, there were relatively few visitors, and we only ran into a few other people during our visits.


Tsingy de Bemaraha

I've already written about the Tsingy national park here, and our disastrous journey to reach it. Although exhausting and at times downright unpleasant, I am very grateful to our guide for pushing through and insisting that we kept trying, as I would have definitely regretted not spending time amongst these incredible monuments to nature.


The sharp spikes of limestone soaring high were dramatic yet appeared so delicate, the maze below fun to explore (although I'd recommend skipping breakfast in order to squeeze through some of the smaller gaps!)

Although hot and very sweaty, it's a great feeling to stand atop one of the viewing platforms, looking out over a sea of pale grey stone.


Isalo

Isalo is certainly unlike any of the other parks we visited, and was my favourite overall thanks to sheer number of things to see and do. It was a completely unexpected couple of days - when we'd imagined what the national parks in Madagascar would be like, images of thick forested jungle or lush green plains floated through our head. What we hadn't anticipated was high views across vast rock canyons, peering down on the town from the edge of sheer drops and hidden waterfall-fed pools of cool, dark water.


There was plenty of forest too, with more brown lemurs and also possibly the most recognisable species, the sociable Ring-tailed. To read more about our visit to Isalo, check out my post devoted to the park here.


Anja Reserve

Although Anja is a tiny private reserve compared to the much, much larger national parks in Madagascar, it often features on routes because of the large colony of ring-tailed lemurs it protects. Although the lemurs are easy to spot and willing to pose for photos (well, were happy to sit in the branches whilst I snapped away anyway...), the small area the reserve occupies means that all the visitors tend to congregate in the same patches, and it can get a little more crowded. However, 'crowded' in Madagascar generally means 5 or 6 people, so not actually very crowded at all...


We were warned about one small scam at Anja - you pay your guide by the hour, at a fixed rate, and guides have been known to try to convince visitors to stay 'just a few minutes' longer, so that they arrive back 5 or 10 minutes over the allotted time, and have to pay for another hour. We checked our own watch to make the most of our time, but bearing in mind that this was the only scam we heard of during our whole time in the country (Madagascar was definitely one of the most honest, hassle-free countries I've ever travelled to), the small sum charged hourly wouldn't have been a great loss.


Ranomafana

Ranomafana national park was definitely one that makes you gasp when you first approach it. Set at high elevation in central Madagascar and thickly forested, the trees seem to reach up into the lower-lying clouds and fast flowing water crashes below. Even our hostel was built into the steep hillside, resulting in a climb of many steps to reach our room (why do we always end up in places with steps?!).


The park itself was the busiest we explored - this seemed to be a result of the single path which leads through the main sections of the area, as once we ventured further in and off the beaten track the groups disappeared. I did find it a little difficult to keep my cool at the beginning though - there were a number of groups entering at around the same time when a small troop of Golden Bamboo lemurs, the highlight of the park, were spotted. Instead of keeping a reasonable distance, groups starting jumping off the path and crashing into the trees, shouting 'over here!' and 'Oh my god!' in very loud voices, sometimes encouraged by their guides. Not surprisingly, the lemurs took one look at the hoard and dashed back deeper into the forest. We were very impressed by our guide, who quietly took another guide aside and told him off, and eventually the lemurs returned, if a little more hesitantly.

The real highlight of the day came later. We'd spotted Red-bellied lemurs playing in a patch of trees, and our guide suggested waiting a while to see if Red-fronted brown lemurs, who are often in the same area, would make an appearance. After 15 minutes they was no sign, but we weren't in a hurry and asked to remain a little longer. Suddenly, a small brown face peered down out of the leaves next to our heads, and a red-fronted body gradually edged forward curiously.


We stood still as he or she poked their nose up to our faces, before retreating back slightly, and returning a few seconds later, this time accompanied by several friends. They took turns coming up to us, sniffing and reaching tiny hands out, before jumping back again. When I pulled my camera out, they swiped at it and stuck their faces into the lens (resulting in some particularly blurry pictures of brown furry blobs). Eventually they got really brave, and started gently licking our hands before finally getting bored and leaping back into the forest. It was an incredible experience, and really demonstrated what a little patience can bring!


Madagascar's national parks were absolutely stunning, and I only wish we'd had more time to visit others. The lemurs were just as cute and numerous as we'd hoped (which still didn't stop me taking hundreds of photos every time we spotted a new one - just in case it was our last chance...), and all our guides friendly and accommodating. I can't recommend seeing them highly enough!

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