Madagascar is marvellous, but its timid and ragtag looking lemurs weren't quite the star turn I'd expected...
Kicking back at the Irhana Bush Camp. Photo My Bathroom Wall
I saw my first lemurs in the Amber Mountain National Park. There were maybe ten in the troop, swaying on branches right in front of me. But it wasn't the thrill I'd expected after travelling 9,000km to the impossibly exotic-sounding island of Madagascar.
They looked like toys made from leftovers and they're as timid as squirrels. Yes they can peel fruit quickly, but they're not as entertaining as Orangutans, as exciting as Chimpanzees, or as humbling as Mountain Gorillas.
Madagascar's star turn is its lemurs, but as with Disney's now-famous animation, perhaps both have obscured an island that has drifted from our consciousness like it drifted from the African continent some 165 million years ago.
Its sprawling capital is Antananarivo - an edgy crumbling city of two million people. Few locals looked African, and my guide Laliana explained that most Malagasys are descended from Indonesians who sailed across the Indian Ocean hundreds of years ago, and so the Malagasy language is in the Malayo-Polynesian group.
Madagascar got its independence from France, but in the north it was the Portuguese who arrived first, way back in 1543. I took a two-hour turboprop flight to Antsiranana, which is still known locally as Diego Suarez after the explorer (or more commonly, just 'Diego'). It's a ramshackle town with stout colonial buildings, a lighthouse, a tuna-canning factory, tremendous energy and more than a little charm.
Most tourists stay along the giant bay for the kite surfing, but I was driven 25 kilometers south to Joffreville; a colonial era outpost of houses on a hillside by the Amber Mountains National Park.
Strolling the cobbled main street - actually the only street - I heard sweet singing floating from a church, and was greeted with "Bonjour Monsieur" by lads returning from the fields. In a shack selling eggs, tomatoes and beer, I was asked to dance by an elderly lady. I fear my efforts not to offend made the royal tour gyrations of Prince Charles look hip.
The homely Lichi Lodge. Photo My Bathroom Wall
The five-room Lichi Tree Hotel tops the town and is owned and run by a pony-tailed Frenchman called Herve. A former NGO worker, he told me over home-cooked beef stew that it was built in 1902 as a summer residence for the colonial governor, Marshall Joffre. Herve lives on site and opened his dream project in 2008, with lush gardens, lots of local carvings in the rooms and a Moroccan themed lounge/bar area off the dining room.
It's only four kilometers to the national park's entrance, but the dirt road is in a shocking state. I saw one cattle cart being helped by villagers to escape the worst crater, and even our Land Cruiser was strained.
On the humid rainforest walk, leaves drip-drip-dropped with moisture and the air smelt of wet soil. My naturalist guide Philippe showed me an adult Stump-tailed chameleon the size of a kidney bean, the astonishingly effective camouflage of a leaf-tailed gecko, and a downy Madagascar Scops Owl asleep in a tree.
He told me that locals threaten their misbehaving children with nighttime kidnapping by lemurs, and that the ones I had seen were Sanford Browns. He also explained that Lemurs lived across Africa; then monkeys evolved with bigger brains and powerful bodies and wiped them out - except on Madagascar, which sailed (slowly) into the safety of the Indian Ocean to preserve many unique species.
"Eighty percent of Madagascar's flora and fauna are endemic," said Philippe, who then told me all about his wildlife documentary filming with Martin Clunes, ("a very good man, very kind, very generous").
A Renault negotiating the N6 'highway'. Photo My Bathroom Wall
The National Road N6 sounds reassuringly M1-like, but it's not. It took three hours to cover 120 kilometers to the Ankarana Special Reserve, as the road hasn't been repaired since it was first laid in 1999, except for villagers who fix the worst potholes with loose stones and beg passing drivers. The going rate is 500 Ariary - about a penny.
Closer to the reserve the scenery grew dryer; with sweeping plains and brooding hills that resemble South Africa's Highveld grasslands. We turned off onto a dirt track and passed palm-thatched villages where everyone waved enthusiastically and children yelled "Bonjour Vazaâ" (hello white).
Arriving at the delightfully chilled Iharana Bush Camp was a treat. It's a rambling wood-built lodge beneath a fat thatch, scattered with carvings and large cushions. It looks across a lake to 200-meter high cliffs, rock walls that blaze in fiery oranges and reds at sunset. Best enjoyed with an icy bottle of THB beer.
Next morning we drove to the 'tsingy cliffs' a high ridge of stone pinnacles that were once coral formations on a prehistoric seabed. Guide Arthur took me into a gash in at the base of the rock.
He was perfectly insouciant; wearing a T-shirt with FBI on the front, translated as 'Fabulous Bachelor Inside' on the back, and a flimsy head torch - frankly I was nervous. No garishly illuminated stalactites, no classical music or gift shop. In fact there was no lighting or pathway at all, and nobody else. Just me, Arthur, two pathetically underpowered torches and eight kilometres of interconnected darkness.
I wound my torch frantically and babbled, following along the sandy floor, gingerly squeezing through clefts, inching along ledges and clambering over boulders. We found stalagmites and stalactites, rock ceilings 35 meters above us, and cooking pot shards from tribes that hid here during times of fighting 200 years ago.
When Arthur said it was too difficult to go back the way we'd come, I stopped babbling and tensed further.
Thirty exhilarating minutes later we emerged into a canyon where orange-whiskered Crowned Lemurs were performing arboreal acrobatics. Seeing them unexpectedly, they seemed more suited to their otherworldly home.
Hell I even liked them for a moment.
The whole lemur themed adventure was real and raw, like everything in Madagascar. There are decent small hotels enough for touring, but out in the countryside it's visceral and at times difficult, but it makes for cracking frontier-feeling experiences.
|Despite the grinding poverty in much of the country, Madagascar feels a safe place to travel through, providing you keep your wits about you. Travelling with a tour operator will ensure a level of quality in your local guide and accommodation.|
|If you chose wisely there are some super places to stay in the country, but I can't overemphasise the shockingly poor infrastructure. It pays to be patient and flexible in Madagascar, and not to cram too much into one trip. Road journeys are long and bone-crunching, with the exception of the more heavily touristed routes closer to the capital.|
The main gateway airport to the country is the Ivato International Airport in Antananarivo. Air Madagascar flies to Guanzhou, Johannesburg, Marseille and Paris. Other options include Air France to Paris, Air Seychelles to Mahe, Air Mauritius to Mauritius, Comores Aviation to Moroni and Anjouan, Ethiopian Airlines to Addis Ababa, Corsair to Paris and Saint-Denis de la Reunion, Kenya Airways to Nairobi, and Turkish Airlines to Istanbul. Air Madagascar also flies domestically to 10 destinations, including Nosy Be.
|Always check your government's travel advice before booking, and check that your travel insurance is valid in this country. See here for the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice.|