Marvellous Madagascar - Antananarivo to Isalo

October 04, 2015  •  1 Comment

My trip to Madagascar had been a long time in the making.....many years of wishing to see the "Big Red Island", sometimes called a living natural history museum or a Noah's ark or the Eighth Continent. My strong desire to see this incredible island stems from the fact that it is one of the world's most amazing biodiversity hotspots with 90% of its animals and plants found only here and no where else. Sadly, my feeling of urgency to see it soon stems from the fact that Madagascar's diverse ecosystems and unique fauna and flora are threatened by the pressure of the rapidly growing human population and other environmental threats. Indeed deforestation, as the result of felling for exotic timber, charcoal, slash and burn cultivation and grazing, has already rendered 90% or more of this island a barren grassland where once it was covered by forest.

I spent many happy hours researching the trip by reading every book I could find on Madagascar! I particularly enjoyed those written by imminent scientists and conservationists like Alison Jolly and Patricia Wright. These really gave me an idea of what a complex country Madagascar is with a tumultuous, unique and interesting history, culture and people. It also made me realise how challenging the conservation and political landscape is there.

Madagascar homework

My time to visit this unique place had finally come after years of waiting and wishing and months of planning, homework and organisation. It was very difficult to narrow down the huge list of places we wanted to see to those which were realistically possibly within our time frame.....oh to have more time and more money, soooo many amazing places to visit! In the end we narrowed our list to eight national parks and the associated logistical travel......The organisation was made vastly easier and more enjoyable due to the capable and enthusiastic help of Danica Wilson from Encompass Africa. Although warned about the unreliability of the logistics in Madagascar and having built extra time into our itinerary for issues like plane delays and cancellations, no one really expected a full blown strike from Air Madagascar just before we left with all aircraft grounded for over a month! This necessitated the change of a large part of our itinerary to avoid the 5 internal flights we had booked to get to all the places we needed to go! Thank goodness for Danica who was an angel and reorganised everything just days before we left....although it was a rather more stressful lead up than I had hoped for but nonetheless everything was done in time and off we set for our grand Madagascan Adventure!

After an epic 32hr journey we arrived in Antananarivo, our mood somewhat dulled by exhaustion but nevertheless excited to begin the adventure! Revived by a good night's sleep, some excellent french pastries (one of the good legacies of the french influence over the country!) and Madagascan hot chocolate we were ready to depart for our flight down to Toliara in the deep south of the country where we would be met by our guide and set off to explore the Big Red Island! 

 

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Antananarivo

 

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The rice paddy fields of Antananarivo

Flying almost the length of the island on the 3 hour charter flight necessitated by the Air Madagascar strikes was incredible! We saw so much more of the island from the air because our tiny 3 seater Cessna flew at a much lower altitude than a commercial plane. We passed over the high altitude plateau, high mountains, the hilly spine of the country which from the air looks like the land has been crumpled by a giant fist! Sweeping plains intersected by wide braided sand rivers flowing into the sea. The majority of the land is just grassland after the terrible deforestation and deep red gashes of erosion stand out like wounds in the hill sides. Close to Toliara we started to see the dry deciduous forests forming patterns of shades of grey, green and brown below us. Then we flew over the large and elaborate tombs near the town and touched down on a deserted runway.

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Flying over the hills and rivers of central Madagascar with the smoke haze from the slash and burn and the erosion from the hills into the river visible.
 

 

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The rivers cutting through the hills of Madagascar

 

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A huge braided sandy river
 

 

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The dry deciduous forests in the south of Madagascar
 

 

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The Fiherenana River near Toliara
 

 

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The approach to Toliara
 

 

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Our tiny little Cessna!
 

At Toliara we met our guide Mana and, to our surprise (we hadn't expected a driver too!), also our driver Tojo, two of the most lovely people one could hope to meet and who made our journey so amazing. After loading our gear into the four wheel drive (most of mine was camera gear!) and a quick spot of lunch we set off for the drive to Isalo National Park. I don't think one ever forgets the first few hours travelling through a new and unique country, everything is different and interesting and exciting! I took so many photos out of the car windows as we drove through villages filled with children playing by the sides of the road, prehistoric looking long legged chickens with their chicks and village dogs. We passed big herds of Zebu cattle tended by the local Barra people, evidence of slash and burn, charcoal sellers, markets, zebu carts, the local Taxi Brousse (these overloaded, smoke belching vans take the place of buses in most areas Madagascar) and old trucks and cars also making their way along the sealed by often potholed national route 7 (the main "highway" of the country that runs from Antananarivo to the deep south). 

 

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Typical scene of the road passing through a large village 

 

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Large Zebu herds being transported by road on foot to market, they may take many weeks or months to get to their destination.....

 

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​Whizzing past the grassland and hills of the Southern Madagascan countryside 

 

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Zebu resting calmly in front of a fire started to burn off grass in order to induce it to grow green shots for the cattle. A practice very damaging to the environment.

On the way to Isalo we stopped off at Zombitse National Park and I could barely contain my excitement on out first expedition into a Madagascan National Park! The Zombitse forest is a dry deciduous forest and because we were there in winter time it was very dry and there was not a lot of leaf cover, just thick scrubby and quite bare bush but beautiful nonetheless! We walked along the winding pathways with Mana scanning the bush while our park guide trotted off to scout for animals. It wasn't long before we saw our first lemur, a most gorgeous and very surprised looking Zombitse Sportive Lemur. He looks so surprised because being a nocturnal lemur they are almost blind during the day time when they rest in tree hollows and branches. When they hear a noise they just stare towards the noise with huge wide eyes trying to figure out what it is but not really able to see you which makes them look rather shocked and horrified. So exciting to see our first lemur, I can hardly describe the feeling of amazement! 

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Hubbard's Sportive Lemur (Lepilemur hubbardorum) or the Zombitse Sportive Lemur

 

On our walk through this forest we also saw an Oustalet Chameleon, the biggest of Madagascar's Chameleons which can grow to an amazing 70cm long! I could hardly believe my eyes seeing this huge Chameleon, I didn't realise they got so big!


Life Safari Blog-14Life Safari Blog-14 Oustalet Chameleon or Giant Chameleon

 

We also saw other lemurs (Verreaux's sifaka, more Zombiste sportive lemurs and Red-fronted brown lemurs) as well as many birds (Crested drongo, Green sunbird, Lesser vasa parrot, Greater vasa parrot, Cuckoo roller, Pied crow, Madagascar buzzard, Madagascar bush lark, Madagascar kestrel, and Broad billed roller)....not a bad start!

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Hubbard's Sportive Lemur (Lepilemur hubbardorum) or the Zombitse Sportive Lemur

 

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Madagascar Kestrel

 

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Verreaux's sifaka

 

Once I could be dragged away (no mean feat!) we drove the rest of the way to our lovely accommodation near the edge of the Isalo National Park. There we enjoyed a lovely dinner with Mana and Tojo and a well earned rest before the next stage of the adventure....visiting Isalo NP the next day.....stay tuned for the next instalment!


Comments

Sam Jewel(non-registered)
Madagascar is just an amazing place, such unique animal species are there.
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