Inspired by nature and wildlife documentaries (ok and maybe an animated feature film), we knew we wanted to visit Madagascar on our round-the-world honeymoon trip. What the documentaries don’t show you is how hard it is to get anywhere. Our travels in Madagascar were a literal road trip in the truest sense of the word.
- Days 1-2: Antananarivo
- Day 3: Andasibe National Park
- Days 4-6: Driving to Tsingy National Park via Antsirabe, Morondava, Baobab Alley
- Day 7: Tsingy National Park
- Days 8-9: Kirindy National Park
- Days 10-11: Drive Morondava to Ranomafana National Park via Antsirabe
- Day 12: Ranomafana National Park
- Days 13-14: Reserve Tsaranoro
- Day 15: Isalo National Park
- Day 16: Drive Isalo National Park to Ifaty
- Days 17-19: Ifaty
- Day 20: Antananarivo
Dates: September 19 – October 8, 2018
As I sit down to write about our time in Madagascar, I’m already exhausted. We went on some fantastic hikes and saw the cutest lemurs, chameleons and geckos. However, we spent most of our time in the car, riding from one place to the next with our (wonderful) driver-turned-friend Rojo. Of our 20 days in Madagascar, 11 of them involved at least 3 hours of driving, mostly on unpaved roads.
By the way, pretty much all travelers in Madagascar must have a private driver to get around (if they aren’t on a group tour). Public transportation is limited, and even rental car companies require you to hire a local driver. We booked our trip with Madagascar Touring, and would recommend them in a heartbeat!
While we saw and did many interesting things, I can’t say that Madagascar is “fun”. It’s definitely not comfortable. Of course, comfy fun is not the reason why we travel. Madagascar will probably forever be one of our most interesting and challenging travel experiences.
When we arrived in Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital city nearly three weeks ago, I wondered what we’d gotten ourselves into.
The traffic and the exhaust fumes that accompany it make even Los Angeles feel efficient and clean. Vehicles share roads with market stalls. Heads of lettuce for sale sit on a cloth sheet on top of the pavement next to makeshift shelves of second-hand electronics. Zebu (a type of cattle) pull wooden carts under the whip of their owners. Dodging it all as you walk down the street requires careful planning of each step you take.
It’s the most overwhelming confluence of urbanity and agriculture I’ve ever seen. And honestly, I couldn’t handle it.
When our guide gave us the opportunity to get about 20 km outside of the city on our first day to visit the historical royal palace in Ambohimanga, I was stoked!
The scenic drive took us past expansive farms and men making clay bricks (a major product here). We arrived at the top of a small mountain, breathing in the fresh air.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2001, the 1788 palace for King Andrianampoinimerina (hell of a name) is unique from any other palace I’ve visited due to its rustic simplicity. It’s honestly more like a small wooden house, and the interior is a single room with a lofted sleeping area for the king.
Next door, Queen Ranavalona I’s elegant summer palace stands in colorful contrast to the king’s. Though it’s 200 years old, the rooms still have the feeling that the Queen has only just stepped out for a moment. There are plates and cups on the table, of course placed there by the site’s preservation team. They’ve succeeded in capturing what life would have been like there.
The next day, we left Antananarivo to head northeast to Andasibe National Park. I was so happy to get out of the city and to be able to breath fresh air. I genuinely struggled with the air quality in Tana.
Along the way, we stopped at a private wildlife reserve (honestly more like a small zoo…) called Peyrieras Reserve. We generally don’t like to visit places where animals are kept in captivity, but the reptiles here seemed healthy at least. Plus, I have to admit it was really cool getting to see all of the different chameleons.
That night, after settling into our cabin, we went to the outdoor restaurant to play a game of cards before our evening walk in the National Park. While we were sitting there, we saw several people all looking in the same direction, cameras in hand. We went to check it out and saw what had caught everyone’s attention! There were common brown lemurs playing in the trees!
We were so excited to see our very first lemurs in real life! Watching them hop from branch to branch reminded me of a cross between a squirrel and a monkey. They’re truly adorable little creatures.
Once the lemur we were watching hopped further back into the woods, we returned to the other side of the restaurant. We noticed several people standing around 4 or 5 lemurs on the ground, and then we realized why. One of the other tourists was feeding the wild lemurs bananas. I was so sad to see this because feeding wild animals teaches them to come into human areas in search of food versus collecting food the natural way in the forests. It turns wildlife into pests and can mess up their natural diets and socialization patterns.
The tourist’s excuse was that one of the hotel staff told her to do it. This made me even sadder to hear. It is a good example of how far Madagascar has to go with regards to growing into ethical wildlife tourism. This is something we saw a few times during our time in this region (more on that later).
We soon met up with our local guide for our evening walk through Andasibe National Park, where we saw short nose chameleon, a leaf tail gecko, a woolly lemur and a small chameleon, as well as the tiniest frog the size of a thumbnail.
Our guide also told us about how the hospital next to his home is haunted and how he and his family hear sounds coming from there often. He says he’s tried to contact Ghost Adventures, the best TV show out there about finding ghosts in different locations. It turns out it’s his favorite show, and I geeked out about this because it’s also one of mine. It was exciting to me to meet someone all the way in the middle of Madagascar who likes the same show I do.
He was our guide again the next morning on an early walk to spot more lemurs. As we walked through the forest, our guide told us about the plants and insects. He shared interesting information but we all knew it was mostly passing the time before we found any lemurs.
Then, we heard a loud shrieking call reverberate through the treetops. Our guide looked at us, his eyes instantly wide, and said, “Indri!” as he simultaneously turned his body and began to run down the trail.
We followed him with curious excitement. Indri lemurs only live in this region of Madagascar. They are the largest species of lemur, and if you’re lucky you can hear their call, which can travel 3km through the forest.
It was only a short jog before we found the indri lemurs, who were sitting high in the tree tops, their fluffy white and black fur giving them away against the green leaves.
For several minutes we got to stand there alone and observe them. It was a special experience.
Eventually we had to leave the indris behind in search of more wildlife. Another guide in the forest had called him about some diademed sifaka lemurs he’d spotted.
When we arrived, many other tourists were also observing them. While not as serene as our indri spotting, this one quickly became much more exciting.
Two of the sifakas had hopped off of a tree and were play wrestling on the leaf-covered ground right in front of us. A ball of grey and orange, they tumbled around unperturbed by our presence.
Meanwhile several more sifakas were playing in the trees, leaping from branch to branch over our heads. It was all such a spectacle that even our guide was taking pictures on his phone. “You’re very lucky!” he told us.
Vakona Wildlife Reserves
After our exciting morning in Andasibe we returned to the hotel for lunch. Rojo then drove us to the next place on our itinerary, the Vakona wildlife reserves.
The “Lemur Island” there put us in a bit of an ethical gray area. All of the lemurs here were previously in captivity. Some have been released back to the wild, but many live on this large island.
Visitors to the island must have a guide. When you walk the trail, the lemurs (mostly common browns) hop on your head and shoulders, using you like a tree as they go from one side of the trail to the next.
This would be “ok”, since these lemurs are moving on their own volition and have been habituated to humans all their lives. The problem is that the guides often bait the lemurs by holding bits of banana over the visitors’ heads.
Tim and I both try to be responsible travelers, especially when it comes to animals. This place gave us mixed feelings.
✔️The lemurs live in a large, open-air habitat that reflects their natural environment
✔️They used to be in caged captivity before this reserve bought them, so this is a big step up
✔️Bananas are part of the lemur’s natural diet
✔️The reserve does release some back into the wild
❌It’s never great to feed wild animals or use food as bait
❌The reserve is not consistent with their release program
❌Lemurs don’t swim, so they’re basically trapped on the island
All this said, the lemurs didn’t seem bothered by being around humans, or visibly stressed. Of course, animals manifest stress differently than we do so it’s hard to say.
I did some research online, and even a woman with a degree in animal behavior couldn’t say for certain whether this place was completely “good” or “bad”. In the end we decided that it was a step in the right direction for these lemurs, since they were no longer living in cages at least. That said, this place clearly uses the lemurs for financial gain and doesn’t have solely the lemurs’ best interest at heart.
While I felt uncomfortable with this aspect of the “reserve” and wouldn’t recommend it to others because of the questionable ethical line, I did have a very memorable experience there that I’ll never forget.
We were on a small canoe exploring the island (which, to Vakona’s credit, is very large and the lemurs have a lot of space to roam). We arrived to an area where a few ringtail lemurs was sitting on the shore.
I’ve always loved ringtail lemurs ever since I was a little kid, after a trip to the National Zoo in Washington, DC with my dad. He had bought me a stuffed animal ringtail lemur (which I thought was a monkey).
My dad passed away 2.5 years ago and I knew when I saw the ringtails that he would think that was something special.
Our guide steered our boat up to the shore so we could get a closer look. Unbaited, several of them of jumped on our canoe and on to my head. Two in particular began profusely licking my hat, for no apparent reason at all. Even our guide was confused.
They sat on my head, licking all the while, for several minutes before losing interest and hopping away. I teared up unbeknownst to anyone as we left the lemurs. My dad would have thought that was just the coolest thing, and part of me wished he could be there to experience this. Then, Tim said, “Maybe they were kisses from your dad.”
I like that idea a lot.
So, animal ethics aside, I did have a special experience at this place. My emotions about it as a whole are obviously complicated, but most things are not cut and dry anyway.
The next branch of the Vakona reserve was much easier to make a decision on. The Reptile Farm is literally that, and there’s a sad caged fossa (large cat-like mammal that eats lemurs) too. I can say without any qualifications that that place is not worth visiting.
The next day, we began 3 days back to back of 8+ hour drives. Not only do I not have any photos from the first two days, I can’t even remember what the landscape was like or any stops we made along the way. I know we spent the first night in Antsirabe, a smallish city southwest of Tana.
On the second day of driving, we did stop and visit a river where locals mine for gold. It’s a very manual process, and it can take several people working together over a week to earn just $40 USD collectively.
It was also during this drive that we began to understand how impoverished the people of Western Madagascar are. Far away from any large town or city, they have limited access to modern material goods. Their homes are small one-room mud structures, and most of their possessions are second-hand or homemade.
Rojo explained that from here on out, we should hold on to our plastic water bottles after we drink all of the water from them to give to the locals. They use them to store water from the rainy season, as well as preserves, medicines and anything else you would store in a container. Health concerns about BPAs aside, these bottles are cherished multi-use possessions for these communities.
While most places in the world are drowning in plastic litter, the people living in rural villages in dry, dusty Western Madagascar are thirsty for plastic bottles and anything else they can re-purpose to make sure their lives a little easier. You don’t find much trash there, because everything has a use.
Morondava and Belo-sur-Tsiribihina
After a long, hot day of driving we arrived in the coastal city of Morondava for a night. Then, early the next morning we were on the road again.
This last day of driving was, at least, interesting. We turned off the paved road and onto a dirt one. We’d be taking this road the next 10 hours until we arrived at Bekopaka, the base town for Tsingy National Park.
Along the way, we stopped by Baobab Alley. This stretch of road is famous for the dozens of towering baobab trees that line either side of it. It’s definitely the best place to see baobabs in Madagascar, as far as we could tell from the places we visited.
From there it was a dusty drive to the town of Belo-sur-Tsiribihina, halfway to our final destination. This small town brings in many tourists, almost all of whom eat lunch at the alleged Michelin-quality Mad Zebu restaurant. The food was very good, and I think probably the best meal we had in Madagascar (perhaps tied with the foie gras restaurant we had lunch at a few days prior).
At Belo, we had to wait until 2pm for a military convoy to escort the tourist vehicles the rest of the way. This is routine for this leg of the journey due to past violence in the region and doesn’t mean it’s inherently unsafe at this point. That said, we’d heard unverified claims that a tour guide and his client were injured (or maybe killed?) just a few months ago.
Our military escort rode in our vehicle, with his rifle at his side. Far from intimidating, he and our driver chatted and laughed the whole way.
Once out of the convoy zone, we took a rest near a small village. Dozens of children flocked to our cars, asking for bouteilles (bottles) and bons-bons (candy).
A small group of boys came over to us. One pointed at Tim and pulled at his own lip, indicating that he was curious about Tim’s lip piercing. He showed the curious group the hoop, and since he was wearing a loose tank top, he even showed them his nipple ring. I’ll never forget their shocked faces, or how they ran off to get their friends and came back gesturing for him to show them again!
Back on the road, we had two ferries to take. This isn’t your usual car ferry, though. Instead, two large pirogues are fastened together pontoon style, and wooden boards are laid on top, creating a raft. Two additional boards serve as a temporary ramp for cars to get on and off the raft.
Bekopaka & Tsingy National Park
Eventually we arrived in Bekopaka around 8pm. We quickly showered, ate dinner and got to bed to rest up for the next day’s activities (which were the reason we came all this way to begin with).
Our morning started with a leisurely pirogue ride down the Manambolo Gorge. We got to explore caves and see the tombs of ancient Vazimba people who originally settled this region around 500 BCE.
Then, in the heat of the day, we rode an hour to the main event – hiking the Grand Tsingy in the Tsingy de Bemaraha national park.
Parc National des Tsingy de Bemaraha feels like another planet due to sharp limestone pinnacles known as tsingy.
This stone forest is surprisingly easy to explore, considering how hard it was to reach. Hikers wear a safety harness and hook into the fixed cable route that navigates through the spires. Every group has a guide. Between the guide and the fantastic infrastructure of the trail, the hike feels very safe, even when crossing a shaky suspension bridge.
The hike starts through a forest, where we saw two species of lemurs – Decken’s sifaka and the sportive lemur.
Then, we hiked into a cave where we quickly at lunch. Navigating the narrow tunnels of the cave required a little bit of crawling at times, creating an Indiana Jones feeling of adventure.
Then, once through the first cave, we clipped into the series of ladders and cables to climb up to the top of the spires. We even got to cross a tall and intimidating suspension bridge. I was scared at first, but once on it I felt very secure and enjoyed the thrill.
The hike ended with a climb down into another cave, and then back out to the forest. On our way out, we saw two ringtailed mongoose and a black and white ruffed lemur.
The 4 hour hike is truly a lot of fun, and unique from anything else I’ve ever seen.
The next day, we drove back down the dusty road towards Morondava for about 8 hours. We didn’t go all the way to Morondava, though, and instead spent the night at a rustic cabin in Kirindy Forest.
We went on a night walk through the park with a local guide, and we were lucky to see the tiny gray mouse lemur, the red tail sportive lemur, countless birds and big spiders, and a long, thin snake slithering his way around the bare branches of a tall bush. It was mesmerizing and terrifying.
The next morning at breakfast, two fossa (big cat predators who eat lemurs and other mammals) sauntered by. This was exciting to see, since the only other fossa we had seen yet was in captivity at the Vakona reptile park (I don’t know why he was in a reptile park…).
After breakfast we ventured out for our morning walk in the forest. We again saw a red tail sportive lemur (rare during the day), Verreaux’s Sifaka, brown lemurs and five mongoose (also rare to see!).
Departing Morondava by Military Escort
After our walk we headed back on the road to Morondava, again driving by the Baobab Alley. Our plan was to return there for sunset later that night since it’s only 20 minutes driving from the town. Our plans were thwarted, however, by an outbreak of riots in the region that made the area dangerous to travel through.
The riots protested the release of a man from jail who had stolen a zebu (cow-like animal with a hump like a camel). In this impoverished region, a zebu can be a family’s entire livelihood. Stealing one is no small offense.
As often happens with riots anywhere in the world, rioters began looting and robbing passing vehicles. They would cut down trees to block the roads, forcing vehicles to stop. Then, they would break into the car and grab everything they could.
Because of these events, Rojo wasn’t sure if we’d be able to get out of Morondava the next morning as planned. He attended a town meeting to figure out the plan. We would leave early on the morning in a military convoy.
The next morning, we prepared for the drive by hiding our valuables (passports, electronics and money) in hidden compartments throughout the car. We tied all of our bags together to make them difficult to grab and run off with. And then we set out to join the convoy in the middle of the town, hoping for the best. Rumors of several thefts, and even the stabbing of an Asian tourist, kept us on edge.
It took several hours to organize the convoy and we didn’t even end up leaving until after 8am. We got out onto the dusty road, passed villages where life seemed business as usual, and then had to turn around when some of the drivers ahead of us realized it was unsafe. It seemed we didn’t have a large enough police escort.
We returned to the city, where it took several more hours to arrange a sufficiently large military police escort. Uniformed men with rifles loaded into trucks. One truck led, another took the rear, and several others drove between and alongside the regular cars.
It was a tense, scary drive. At one point we slowed down to a near stop and heard the distinctive pops of shots being fired. Just a few cars ahead of us, a soldier was firing into the bushes. We do not know what he was firing at, or the outcome.
Tim and I sat low in our seats with our windows up for the duration of the ride. Rojo teared up a few times, out of a mixture of fear, worry about his young son, and disappointment in his country.
“They are taking my beautiful country and ruining it, ” he said. “And why? We didn’t do anything. Why do they attack us?”
Finally we made it out of the danger zone. The entire convoy pulled to the side of the road to celebrate, decompress and make sure everyone was accounted for. There was clapping, high fives and a lot of smiling. It was as if a big weight had been lifted off of everyone. I’ve never seen so many people all light up cigarettes at the same time before – clearly people had been very stressed.
About a half hour down the road, our rear passenger tire went flat. A few other cars pulled over to help us change it. I hate to think what would have happened to us had the tire gone flat while in the military convoy. We would have been perfect targets.
Our time in Western Madagascar was complicated to say the least. The baobabs were beautiful, the Tsingy otherworldly, and the wildlife in Kirindy exciting to see. Even so, I can’t recommend it to others. The 4 hour hike in the Tsingy is not worth the three days it takes to reach (through a region known for civil unrest).
The stress of being escorted out of the Morondava by military police, and seeing shots fired on the way, was just too much to justify a half-day hike, some trees and lemurs (which you can see elsewhere on the island).
I hate saying this, because it’s definitely a special place and the people we met were really kind. Plus, the region is severely impoverished and an increase in tourism could be a great boost to their local economy. At this time, though, it just isn’t safe. Even our guide said he doesn’t think companies should be taking people there right now – it’s an election year so things are particularly heated.
I’m glad we went and saw it. I would have wondered about it otherwise. But, the fatigue and fear hung over us the following days, making it harder to enjoy the even more beautiful places we saw in the central and southern regions of the country.
Ranomafana National Park
The next few days are a little blurry to me as we drove east towards the central region. We were so tired and coming off of the anxiety of the previous days.
After two days of driving we arrived in Ranomafana National Park, a lush, green mountainous region where we would have the opportunity to see several rare species of lemurs.
Rojo arranged for the man who discovered the golden bamboo lemur with a US researcher in the 1980s to be our local guide. Sadly, I can’t find his name in any of the websites about this lemur, but if course Dr. Patricia Wright is named on each of them…
For our evening walk, we primarily observed the brown mouse lemur, who habitually comes to the trees alongside the main road every night for, you guessed it, bananas. It makes me sad to see how animal tourism in Madagascar can’t seem to get away from feeding wild animals. While we of course enjoy seeing the animals, we feel guilty being part of the motivation for local guides to feed them.
The next morning, we went on a nice long walk in the National Park in search of the golden bamboo lemur and the greater bamboo lemur, both of which are critically endangered.
The first group of lemurs we found were the Milne Edward sifakas. After a while of meandering the forest and spotting various birds, including the rare magpie robin, we finally found a line golden bamboo lemur.
He was sitting high up in the tree branches, eating his breakfast. We had to share the view with basically every other visitor in the park, but we were still happy to see him. Plus, it was very cute seeing our guide’s pride when he said, “This is my lemur!”
After a while, we continued our walk in the forest. Then, we got really lucky. We spotted another golden bamboo lemur sitting on a branch. This time, we were the only people there and we got to enjoy watching him eat without being bumped into by anyone else.
In the brush right next to him, we then found two greater bamboo lemurs, also eating. Tim and I were able to walk into the bush and observe them fairly closely for a long time. It was a very special experience.
Anja Community Reserve and Tsaranoro Reserve
The next day, we hit the road again, bound further south into what is, in my opinion, the most beautiful region of Madagascar. With valleys and mountains all around us, and a perfect clear blue sky above, it felt like the stress of the west had finally lifted for good.
We stopped by Anja Community Reserve. On our hike here, we not only saw dozens of adorable ringtail lemurs (and babies!), but we also got to hike up into the rocky caves, some of which were used as ancient burial tombs.
Then, we made our way down a dirt road to a perfectly serene spot in Reserve Tsaranoro called Camp Catta. The views were simply stunning, with mountains and cliffs all around us, and more ringtail lemurs playing in the trees. Our cabin was cozy and comfortable, and the Madagascar wine, while not very good, helped us relax even more.
The next morning we went on a hike into the Sacred Forest and then to the neighboring village. It was so beautiful and peaceful. Part of me wished we had just come straight here when we got to Madagascar so we could spend a few nights and do some of the bigger hikes in the region. If we ever come back to Madagascar, this is where I’m coming.
Isalo National Park
We spent the afternoon back on the road to drive further south to Isalo National Park. The road was scenic and smooth – a sharp contrast from the many rough roads we’d traversed.
The hotel we stayed at near Isalo was really nice. We had a comfortable cabin, and the dinner menu was top notch. By 9pm, the sky was so dark we could see the Milky Way.
The next morning, we went on a guided hike through the national park. The hike was pretty easy, though there were a few steep sections and little shade. The views were, of course, worth it all. We did a big loop that started on the trail to Natural Pool and then onto a second adjoining trail called Namaza.
On the first half of the hike, we saw bugs that look like twigs, plants that reassembled little baobab trees, and even a few scorpions. The highlight, though, was the amazing sandstone formations that reminded me so much of the Bungle Bungles of Purnululu National Park in Western Australia, that I had to immediately dig up my pics for comparison.
Eventually, we arrived at a natural pool with a small waterfall. We enjoyed the spot all to ourselves for a few minutes and then continued on.
On the second half of the hike, we trekked into a canyon. Lush green foliage lined the stream running through it. Once again, I thought of Western Australia. This time, everything reminded me of our crazy gorge hikes to hidden swimming holes throughout the Kimberley.
After our hike we had lunch, and then returned to our hotel for a relaxing afternoon.
The next day was bittersweet. It was our last drive with Rojo, which meant we’d be saying goodbye to him when we arrived to our destination, the beach town of Ifaty.
On the way, we visited the Spiny Forest, where we saw spiny plants, a lizard with a spiny tail, and a spiny hedgehog.
Then, when we arrived at our beachfront hotel, we had to say our goodbyes to Rojo. After having spent 20 days and going through some pretty intense experiences together, we felt like he had become our friend. He’s a genuinely wonderful guy and I hope he has a long and successful career guiding people around Madagascar.
We spent the next three days relaxing at the beach. We drank pina coladas, ate good food, played with the resident pups and took walks on the beach.
It gave me plenty of time to reflect on our experiences in Madagascar. This is one of the more complicated countries I’ve visited. The wildlife and hikes are amazing, and the people are warm and kind. But the wildlife tourism teeters on the line between ethical and not, poor roads make travel days longer than they need to be, and civil unrest threatens the viability of continued tourism to one of the country’s most famous destinations.
Madagascar is a country with an abundance of potential. Still in their tourism infancy, I believe that the Malagasy people can meet that potential. It won’t be easy, though, and they definitely have some work to do. I don’t expect to go back anytime soon, if ever (it’s a difficult place to reach and a once-in-a-lifetime kind of destination). I do, however, look forward to hearing from Rojo and others who travel there about how Madagascar evolves and changes, as well as how it stays the same.