Unwinding in Madagascar
Madagascar is roughly the size of France but boasts a diversity of landscapes and animals like nowhere else on earth. Lemurs, rainforest, desert and baobabs epitomise the island. Located off Africa’s east coast, Madagascar is just a four-hour flight from Johannesburg International airport. We spoke to Tarisai Mhishi, Senior Tour Consultant at Jenman African Safaris, who explored the eight continent, as it is informally known, for the first time.
Flying over Mozambique, Madagascar lies nestled in the Indian Ocean. “My first impression of Madagascar was that the airport feels like a bus station. It’s small and it immediately becomes clear that you’re in a third, or fourth, world country.”
Navigating the airport
Antananarivo is a mouthful so most people call the capital city of Madagascar “Tana”. This bustling city is the starting and end point for all visiting tourists. Tarisai gave some tips in navigating the very basic, somewhat dilapidated, airport and its procedures.
- Visa costs 27 Euro for 2 – 10 days
- Preferably have Euros on hand or exchange at the airport (the Bureau de Change is outside the arrivals building but permission is given to travellers who did not bring Euros with them to exchange there)
- No South African Rands accepted
- Make sure you get your visa stamped by the police
- If you’re being collected by a tour operator or guide, they are not allowed inside the building and are waiting right outside.
- Beggars hang around outside the airport, so have loose change on hand for persons carrying your luggage.
“We drove to the hotel which took long as Saturdays are extremely busy. The main road is full of vendors. Everyone is selling something like baskets or fruit. And because there are no robots, there’s always traffic.”
Tips for flying with Air Madagascar
“The next morning, I left for the airport at 5:00am as it is recommended that if you’re flying with Air Madagascar to be at the airport 2 – 3 hours earlier.” The airline is famous for not following schedules, which can be frustrating for tourists, due to a limited fleet.
“If you booked a domestic flight for the next day, ask the hotel reception staff to enquire with Air Madagascar by 10pm because that’s the only time Air Madagascar can ascertain if the flight is operating or not.”
South East Madagascar
The 1:15 hour flight from Tana to Fort Dauphin is followed by a 3.5 hour road transfer to Mandrare River Camp. “Because of the bad road condition in Madagascar, you don’t measure travel in kilometres but in time,” says Tarisai.
A guide accompanies visitors from Fort Dauphin to the way to the lodge. “I drove through villages, and learnt how the local tribes live, how each tribe builds their houses – some use the Travellers Palm while others use bricks.”
Malagasy people are deeply religious. “We drove past tombs that look like little houses made of brick and painted in colours.” Many of the tribes bury their dead in sacred forests while others build houses and bury them there.
Mandrare River Camp is surrounded by fibre plantations which is owned by a European company. Mandrare, the river, is the source of life for the surrounding tribes. They swim, bath, and drink from it; and their cattle use it daily. The Mandrare River Camp is enclosed by trees and it’s built on an arid, sandy area.
“I was welcomed with cold towels and a drink. But the wow, for me, was when I got to the tent,” says Tarisai her eyes sparkling. “The Honeymoon lodge where I stayed is ridiculously big with a huge bathroom, two open showers and unique tree trunk interiors that function as towel hangers”.
With exceptional food and personalised service, the camp caters for couples or families by providing a vehicle and guide for each group. “It was positive to have such a knowledgeable guide. Andreas is an encyclopaedia and he paid attention to detail. He immediately asked if there were any animals that scared me so he could be careful what to show me. At the end of the trip, he told me that one day he spotted a snake on a tree and as he was aware of my snake phobia he didn’t say anything.”
Surrounded by the extremely traditional community of Ifotaka Village, guests at Mandrare are informed about the cultural norms and rules that they need to adhere to.
- Cows are sacred and represents the Malagasy’s livelihood so respect towards the animal must be shown.
- Children can marry at 16
- A man’s livelihood is defined by the number of cattle of he owns, therefore young boys herd cattle to earn money to buy their own cows so that they can be defined as real man in the Malagasy society.
All forest walks are accompanied by a community member as the forests are sacred for them. “Locals know the forest, lemur habitats and where best to spot them,” says Tarisai.
The first walk took place by the Ifotaka village, small and primitive, located by the Mandrare River. “Here kids still run up screaming to say hello because they’re not used to tourists,” says Tarisai. “In Madagascar, most properties are surrounded by villages. It’s a very unique thing.”
The Gallery Forest, a flat area covered with trees where it’s impossible to see the sky, is on the other side of Mandrare’s river where a large number of ring-tailed lemurs can be spotted. Guides remind visitors not to point at anything or pick anything as the Malagasy believe that their ancestors live in these natural spaces. This walk is great for elderly travellers as the area is even.
The Spiny Sacred Forest was an altogether different experience – steep and filled with tombs. “It was a different type of walk, more of a cultural experience,” she says.
Bush dinner at Mandrare
“Admittedly I was a little bit scared at the bush dinner. It’s so dark! But the natural setting was lovely – they didn’t try to create another world but worked with the landscape of the area. There were lanterns all over. Beautiful!”
Getting to Manafiafy
A short flight from Tana gets you to Fort Dauphin. “It’s a developing town due to the black sand mine that’s opened there. There’s a tar road that’s been built by the mining company and for the first time I saw road markings and road signs in Madagascar,” says Tarisai.
Manafiafy Beach and Rainforest Lodge is situated closer to the coastline, cool and green, with many of the villages relying on the fishing industry for a living. “I was welcomed by a drink and cold towel. What blew me away is that you can see the ocean from your bungalow or the restaurant,” says Tarisai.
Set on Madagascar’s south east coast, Manafiafy Beach and Rainforest Lodge is made of six bungalows on the edge of the forest and just a short walk from the ocean in a sheltered bay.
Sunrise boat trip in the mangroves
“We went early in the morning with Ernest, a young and energetic guide, saw local fishermen, canoe, women on the side of the river fishing. We also saw two crocodiles but the incredible thing is that there’s never been a crocodile attack. The villagers believe that they are the true residents of that area and protected by their ancestors. So, it’s not uncommon to see young boys fishing in the river with crocodiles close by.”
Drive to Andasibe
Due to the poor road network, the only way to get to Andasibe is to drive back through Tana. It’s a winding road in a mountainous area that leads to St. Marie which is the commercial port of Madagascar. There are lots of trucks who use the road and the curves can be a bit nauseating for the one or other person.
Andasibe Mantadia National Park is located about 150 km east of Antananarivo in eastern Madagascar. The park is busy and a favourite attraction for locals too. “The trees are very tall and the Indri Indri, which are the largest lemur species, hide up top. Our guide for this part of the journey was Vola, a young Malagasy woman, who provided us with a lot of information on the long drive. One important observation: Malagasy drivers are the best drivers and navigate the gravel and winding roads without road signs really well – and you know you’re in safe hands.
Spotting the aye aye’s
We drove to Akanin’ny Nofy from Andasibe which is a 4-hour drive on a snaking road through the mountains. The last stretch of Ankin’n Nofy is accessed by a 1-hour long boat trip from Manambato.
I stayed at Palmarium Hotel located by the Ampitabe Lake. All bungalows face the beach and are basic but clean with a rustic charm.
The following morning we took a boat trip across to Palmarium Park for another nature and wildlife encounter. In Madagascar you can’t avoid interacting with locals – especially on village walks – and so I got to drink the water from a palm fruit that we purchased from a villager.
After sunset we embarked on a night walk to spot the Aye Aye lemurs who are almost extinct due to their appearance. “Yes, they are very ugly but interesting creatures. The guides put out coconuts for them to eat, allowing visitors to see them in the bushes.”
The next morning we headed back to Tana on an 8-hour drive and spent the evening at the Belvedere Hotel located in the city centre. Wow, what a trip – Madagascar is truly a life-changing adventure.
If you’d like to go on an adventure yourself, then have a look at our top tour that explores the highlights of Madagascar.