The “island” of Madagascar is sometimes called “the eighth continent” because of its size and unique wildlife. I had expected to see lots of lemurs, strange insects, reptiles, and unusual plant life, but not experience both the physical frailty of my own aging body and the inspiring human encounters I had with some truly dedicated people. What I saw and experienced both within myself and in the company of others is the challenging delicate balance between preserving the natural environment and meeting human needs with the understanding that both nature and human beings are dynamic. It was an exhausting trip with periods of tedium and excitement that left me feeling cautiously optimistic about our planet and its occupants. We traveled with National Geographic Expeditions.
Madagascar is located in the Indian Ocean, roughly 1,100 miles off the east coast of Africa, and is considered by geographers to be part of Africa. However, most of the population seems to have originated in Indonesia along with some migration from India and the Middle East. The people living in the southern part of the country are more African. Until recently most archeologists believed the island was not inhabited by homo sapiens until roughly 2000 years ago, but now it seems the recent discovery of the bones of extinct elephant birds with cut marks on them have pushed that date back to 10,000 years. More later on the elephant birds.
The people are still culturally tribal although the highland Merina tribe united most of the country politically in the late 18th and early 19th centuries into a monarchy. The Merina monarchy successfully fended off European colonialism until the French finally succeeded in destroying the monarchy in 1897. The country remained a French colony until 1958 and is still a Francophone country. It has had a rocky political history since the end of colonialism with periodic coups by the military not unlike many mainland African nations.
Deforestation is the main environmental concern. It’s difficult to determine how much forest has been lost since the arrival of human beings, but aerial photography shows that 40-50% of the forest cover that existed in 1950 is gone. Industrial forest exploitation began in earnest with the Merina dynasty, continued with French colonialism and is continuing today. Forest exploitation includes slash-and-burn agriculture (known as tavy in Malagasy), the creation of pasture land for cattle, logging for precious woods and building materials, charcoal production for fuel and mining for gold and precious stones like sapphires.
We arrived in the capital Antananarivo, or Tana for short, via Ethiopian Airlines after close to 20 hours in the air. We love Ethiopian Airlines. The airline now flies several times a week out of O’Hare directly to Addis Ababa where we changed planes for Madagascar. I was a little concerned about only having an hour between flights but we had no problems. The flights are comfortable with good service and good food and drink including very nice Ethiopian red wine.
Air France also flies into Tana, but we opted not to use it because it was a lot more expensive than Ethiopian Airlines and I’ve had some really bad experiences with Air France (or Air Chance as one of our fellow travelers called it) like lost luggage, bad food, and dirty bathrooms in coach. A couple on this trip didn’t get their luggage from Air France until three days after they arrived. Our guide actually had to arrange a luggage connection at a truck stop because by then we were deep into our travels. It was not a good situation. You can also fly South African Airlines.
The Tana airport is kind of a mess. A new, improved airport is being built to accommodate the growing tourist industry. But frankly, it is not the facility itself that causes the aggravations we experienced but the lack of organization to get people to queue properly. Folks basically clump, with everyone for her or himself. I started to have second thoughts about third world travel, but we made it through the visa line, the customs line and the luggage line to be greeted by our expedition leader Herilala Jonah.
One of the first things Herilala taught us was how to say “hello” in Malagasy – “salama.” For some reason, knowing that took away my airport grumpiness.
After changing some dollars into the local currency, the Malagasy ariary, we had an uneventful ride into Tana. If possible, we like to arrive a day before a tour starts to give us some wiggle room in case we have problems with a flight. Our friends Richard and Jan had arrived a half day before us via Air France. We were booked at Le Louvre Hotel and Spa conveniently located in the center of town.
A Hotel in Tana
Le Louvre Hotel and Spa was built in 1930 by engineers trained by Gustave Eiffel. It is a physically beautiful hotel with an open-air interior garden framed with the same style of wrought iron lattice work as the Eiffel Tower, although the metal used in the hotel may be steel. The garden with its staircase rises up through all the floors of the structure. It’s quite stunning.
The two times at the start and at the end of our journey that we stayed at Le Louvre, we had to have our rooms changed because of malfunctions with digital upgrades — the first time because the digital switch for the lights didn’t work and the second time because the digital lock failed. However, having written about our woes, I have to say that the hotel staff is great and accommodated us as best it could.
We arranged to meet Richard and Jan at the very pleasant bar in the lobby early that evening. After a tasting of some very good infused rums, we were off to dinner at a highly recommended nearby restaurant called Ku-de-ta. The name must be Malagasy word play on coup-d’état reflecting the recent political kerfuffles in the country. Great food with good cocktails.
We spent the next day with our friends touring some markets and the Rova of Antananarivo (the palace complex of the Merina monarchy). I don’t think our guide was particularly knowledgeable but it was a pleasant diversion with a great view of the city. Tana is actually a rather attractive city. Salama!
The Tour Commences
Early the next morning we met up with the rest of our travel companions, our expedition leader Herilala Jonah and the National Geographic expert Dr. Jonah Ratsimbazafy for a three-an-a-half hour bus ride to the Vakôna Forest Lodge on the eastern side of the island. The lodge is a gorgeous property with buildings and cottages scattered over a hilly terrain with a stream running through it.
One of the big attractions of the lodge is the Vakôna Private Park, a lemur reserve on a small island. Lemurs can’t swim, so even though the water barrier is only several yards wide it’s enough to keep the animals on the island without resorting to cages.
The lemurs are basically “habituated,” that is, they are used to human contact and aren’t afraid of us. In fact, the smaller species of lemurs like the bamboo lemur like to climb on us hoping we’ll have a handy banana to feed them. Salama, fellow creatures! Undoubtedly, a park like this is not politically correct, but it sure was a blast to have such intimate encounters with such beautiful animals.
Some are more shy than others.
We could only watch the sifaka lemurs from a distance, but it was delightful watching one “dance” across the ground. Sifakas spend most of their time in the trees and their legs are too long for them to walk on all fours on the ground like other lemurs, so they do a kind of hopping dance. It was fascinating to watch.
That evening before dinner Dr. Jonah Ratsimbazafy gave a very passionate slide presentation on the importance of saving Madagascar’s forests and thereby the lemurs. He is probably the world’s foremost expert on lemurs. He didn’t come right out and say it, but I don’t think he approves of the Vakôna Private Park.
The next day we had a long, bumpy drive to and from Mantadia National Park. It was quite muddy hiking within the park itself. Apparently there had been lots of rain a few days before, but we had consistently beautiful weather all while we were in Madagascar. It wasn’t a particularly good large specimen viewing day.
The insects were the most interesting – stick bugs, giraffe neck weevils, a huge pill bug, masses of caterpillar larvae, and lots of beautiful black and white butterflies. Among the most interesting were the highly camouflaged species. Later we would see amazingly camouflaged lizards. The highlight was park ranger John’s capture of a small black and white spiny tenrec. Tenrecs are an early form of insect-eating mammals related to hedgehogs.
Before dinner that evening, we went on a nocturnal hike to look for tree frogs and other creatures of the night. We did see some lemurs high up in the tree tops, but the most significant sighting was a spectacular Parson’s chameleon.
The next day as we were preparing to leave Vakôna Lodge, I spotted a large white sheet hanging outside one of the main walkways. It was covered with small butterflies. Called “un drap de papillion” in French, the sheet is illuminated to attract scores of moths at night and butterflies during the day. It was a great way to actually see the lovely details of these ephemeral creatures that rarely light long enough for you to admire them in detail.
I may try setting one up at home next summer!
Before departing on the bus for a long seven-hour drive to our next lodge, we had a great two-hour hike in Analamazaotra Special Reserve led by Ranger John once again, this time to see the indri lemurs. We found ourselves in the midst of a very active group and were privileged to hear their loud and amazing vocalizations. A male and female will mate for life with the female giving birth to a single infant every two years. The couple will often engage in singing duets that can last for several minutes. Their songs can be heard for miles. It was an experience I will never forget, a brief glance into a parallel universe. Salama! This link will take you to a You Tube video of indri singing, www.youtube.com/watch?v=MWc4B1ILHqo.
Dr. Jonah, our ace naturalist and lemur expert, described an annual meeting of primatologists who open the session each year with everyone vocalizing in unison like their favorite primate. Wow!
We had another long seven-hour drive the next day with a few diversionary stops along the way before we arrived at the Hotel Thermal, the eco-lodge outside Ranomafana National Park. Herilala frequently broke up the tedium of the long drives with very informative commentaries, for example, on the annual destruction leveled on the country every year by the cyclones originating in the Indian Ocean. Cyclones keep the Malagasy rain forest canopy smaller than in most rain forests.
He had a lot to say about the burial and reinternment of the dead practiced throughout the country. Honoring the ancestors is extremely important among the Malagasy people. I asked Herilala if there was a special profession of undertakers that took care of this duty for families of the departed. He said no, that the families perform all the burials and reinternments themselves.
We ended the long day with a terrific dinner. I have to say that the food was quite spectacular throughout our journey. There must be a culinary school in Tana that trains Malagasy chefs. Every day Herilala would run down the menus for lunch and dinner and we would make our selections that generally included Malagasy specialties as well as French dishes with a Malagasy twist. Lots of seafood and duck as well as zebu beef (our humpbacked brahma cows are a subset of zebu), and lots of vegetables and rice. The volume of food was generally much more than I could comfortably consume, so I would frequently just have the starter and some fruit for desert.