Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Some thoughts on the fun side of Madagascar

Since I’ve mostly written you about the bad side – the hopelessness of the development efforts, the excess of poverty and disease, etc – let me take one (last) blog entry to tell you about the good side of Madagascar.
Madagascar is a country that has a ton of really impressive and extremely unique things to see. Most famously and spectacularly, there are thousands of species of plants and animals that are endemic to Madagascar and found nowhere else in the world. Several species of lemurs, chameleons, and baobabs are among the more famous examples. In certain seasons, humpback whales migrate past the coast and can be seen without even getting on a boat, sometimes with their newborn babies (these are best seen from Ile Sainte Marie and Fort Dauphin in the months of July and August).

In the north I had the opportunity (on weekends, since I was working during the week) to visit some of the attractions. I saw the beautiful beaches near Ramena (which are too windy for snorkeling in the summer months but have amazing marine life you can see at other times of the year) and I also saw, much as I wished I didn’t, the overabundance of middle-aged Frenchmen with young Malagasy women on their arms in Diego. I camped at Montagne D’Ambre NP, where bats swooped by my head as I set up my tent and I heard a troop of lemurs walk by a few feet away in the middle of the night, making their distinctive snorting sound. During the day I saw the world’s smallest chameleon, pulled a leech off of my ankle, and admired waterfalls in utter solitude. At Ankarana Reserve I saw the famous karst formations, a weird freak of erosion that has formed a field of thousands of jagged stone peaks. Near Anivorano, there is a sacred lake where the locals sacrifice zebu to the crocodiles in order to have their wishes granted, and if you go there and throw them some steak, the crocs will come right out of the water and have a feast while you snap pictures.

In the far south, you really feel like you are at the end of the world. Fort Dauphin looks like it has been abandoned, despite being the biggest city in the region. Not too far away from there is the very tasteful Nahampoana Reserve, where you can see ring-tailed lemurs and Verreaux’s sifaka (among other species) up close. The sifaka are particularly hilarious – they are cuddly-looking creatures who have a strange defect in proportionality of arm-to-leg length that means that if and when they walk on the ground they “dance,” although to me they looked more like little fencers, and they reminded me of that animated feline zorro. Or if you want you can visit the Berenty Reserve (I do not recommend), which is owned by this crazy old French guy who has tried to bring in lots of non-native species (even things like elephants, luckily vetoed by the government), including a plant that turned out to be poisonous and has resulted in balding lemurs in the reserve. His whole mindset is incredibly irresponsible and the visit is exorbitantly expensive, and yet 99% of people who come to Fort Dauphin fly in, go to Berenty, and fly out again.

You can also go to the southernmost point of the island, Cap Sainte Marie (where there is a national park and lots of turtles), or a close approximation, known as Faux Cap, a very windswept beach where you truly feel like the only person in the world. Along the way there you pass through a very unusual desert landscape, with red earth and oddly-shaped cactus, as well as the unique triangular palm tree (whose trunk is actually triangular), which is found nowhere else in the world.

Out west, you can visit the area around Morondava, famous for the Avenue des Baobabs, a road lined with huge baobab trees, each over 1000 years old. An impressive sight and popular at sunset. Belo-sur-Mer, reachable only by pirogue or 4x4 (dry season only due to river crossings) is a gorgeous, unspoiled little seaside town where you could easily disappear for weeks to unwind. Near here you find sand dunes in a national park with a lake full of flamingoes. North of Morondava is the Kirindy Reserve, a treasure trove of wildlife (lemurs, a large predatory cat called a fossa, lots of birds and reptiles, and the unique giant jumping rat) and even farther still is the Tsingy de Bemaraha – more of those karst formations, on a bigger scale.

The area around Tana, known as the haute plateau, features a gorgeous landscape of rice fields such that you might at first think you are in Asia. Not too far away is Andasibe NP, where you will find the indri, the world’s largest lemur and one you will never see anywhere but here, as they die when kept in captivity. They have an extraordinarily loud, distinctive cry that you will hear every morning while in the park. The beautiful golden sifaka can also be found here, as well as the leaf-tailed gecko, an amazing creature that is almost impossible to see even when someone is pointing right at it to tell you it’s there.

And that’s just the things that I’ve seen, but there is so much more. On the east of the country is serious rainforest, with more exotic wildlife and remote hiking. Ile Sainte Marie is supposedly an island paradise, and then there are countless other national parks, each of which houses its own unique regional species of flora and fauna, such that no matter how many parks you visit, there are always new species of lemurs and chameleons and everything else to see. And even once you’ve seen those, you still need to come back in a different season, since certain animals are hibernating at different times. Which basically means that you will never run out of things to do and see in Madagascar.

As for how to organize a visit, the country is a serious nightmare to get around independently. It’s not cheap, there is little infrastructure, and in order to see the sights in many places you will need to hire private transport. It is pretty essential to speak at least some French. The food is terrible and if you eat with the locals you’ll never want to look at rice again as long as you live. The Malagasy people are nice enough, but you wont be making friends with the locals very often as you might in other African countries. If I were to come back as a tourist, which I would love to do, I would hire a car and driver (you can’t hire a car without a driver), and I would not come alone, so as to have someone to share the costs and the experience with. 

The other disadvantage of this environment is that it discourages solo travel, and thus when you are in fact a solo traveler it can get very lonely, because there aren’t too many others like you to join up and socialize with. Plus Madagascar is so beautiful that you’ll want to share it with someone. Watching lemurs cavorting in the trees or whales spouting in the water off the coast or the sun setting behind the baobabs, is, I imagine, infinitely better with someone you care about standing next to you. So despite all the negative things I’ve written about this country, I still would recommend a visit (assuming the political situation is relatively stable, which is not a given). The country has a lot to offer, especially for the nature enthusiast, and done in the right way (and with enough cash) could make for an incredibly rewarding and romantic vacation.

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