I have been reading and posting on Fodors for more than 10 years, but I have been truly terrible about writing trip reports, typically because I feel like I don't have much to add beyond what has been posted by others (and also laziness on my part). However, I have just returned from a fantastic trip to Madagascar and Rwanda, and although there is a quite a bit of information both here and on other sites re Rwanda, I could find very little recent/up-to-date information re Madagascar when I was researching the trip. Thus, I promised myself that I would write a trip report right away, before the memories fade and before I start focusing on my next trip. I just returned 4 days ago and am still experiencing some pretty intense jet lag, so apologies in advance for typos/rambling/etc . . .
I traveled with a close friend/colleague with whom I've traveled frequently over the years. We're both middle-aged women who are in decent shape, but I would not call either of us particularly athletic. I'll provide more detail below re how we ended up in Madagascar, but for anyone reading this who is contemplating a trip there, my advice is to GO! It can be a bit intimidating given how little information exists, and how little information there is re reputable guides/drivers, etc . . . . I've provided information below re the companies we used, and I'm happy to answer any questions re the guides/logistics/etc . . . .
This was originally supposed to be an “all gorilla” trip, with 6 days in the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville; as distinguished from the Democratic Republic of Congo) to visit lowland gorillas, followed by 4 days in Rwanda. We booked through Africa Adventure Company (based in Florida), in part due to their good reputation and in part because they were one of the few operators who handled both Rwanda and Congo. Several months after we booked the trip, we were informed that the company operating the Congo camps (Wilderness Collection) would no longer be operating the camps as of the end of April. We were told that the Wilderness Collection also provided the charter planes needed to reach the camps, and did so at a subsidized cost, so while the Congo Conservation Company continues to own and now operate the camps, we were told that we would need to charter our own flight to get there, which would be cost prohibitive. This was a huge disappointment, and I hope we can find a way to visit Congo in the future.
In any event, we had already booked our international airfare and wanted to avoid the fees associated with changing it, so we put our heads together with AAC to figure out an alternative. We did a “standard” safari a couple of years ago (Kenya and Zimbabwe), and my friend has also spent time in South Africa and Botswana, so we wanted to do something a bit different . . . and decided on Madagascar! AAC quickly put together an itinerary that fit within our original schedule. I should note here that AAC was great to work with and was a great choice for us, given that we were combining more than one country, and especially given that we were forced to make a major change just two months before the trip. They also came to our rescue when we faced a major logistical issue part-way through the trip thanks to Air Madagascar . . . but more on that later.
We have United FF Miles and therefore needed to travel with United and/or a Star Alliance partner. Our routing was pretty good, albeit long: LAX to Heathrow on United; Heathrow to Johannesburg to Antananarivo (“Tana”) on South Africa Air. We arrived in Tana, the capital of Madagascar, mid-afternoon and were met at the airport by a representative from Za Tours, a Tana-based company that AAC chose as our local operators. The airport in Tana is quite small, and it took only a few minutes to get through immigration and to get our bags. For US citizens, visas are free and are obtained on arrival. We also successfully obtained some local currency (ariary) at the airport ATM.
After leaving Tana with our guide, Roddo, and driver, Parany, we traveled approximately 3.5 hours east to the Vakona Lodge, which is located near the Andasibe Reserve and was our home for 3 nights. The drive was quite scenic, although we were both exhausted and had trouble staying awake. The Vakona Lodge was lovely – we each had a stand-alone bungalow with a huge bathroom, outdoor sitting area, and the typical amenities. The setting of the Lodge is stunning – you are basically in the middle of the rainforest. The one downside is that everything was a bit damp, and the rooms had a bit of a mildew smell. We were visiting at the very beginning of the dry season, and there had been quite a bit of rain just before we arrived; our last day there was dry and sunny, and the mildew smell dissipated quite a bit, so I’m guessing it wouldn’t be too noticeable later in the dry season. The rooms themselves were spotless, the restaurant/common area was fantastic, the staff were friendly and helpful, and the location can’t be beat, so overall, I would recommend Vakona Lodge.
We were up early the next morning for a visit to the Parc National de Mantadia/Mantadia National Park, a huge area of primary rainforest, and one of the only places to see/hear the fabulous Indri lemur. To get there, you travel about an hour on an unpaved, extremely bumpy road, but the scenery is fantastic. In addition to Roddo, we were accompanied by a local guide, Dezi (I didn’t ask either Roddo or Dezi to write down their names, so I’m sure I have the spelling wrong for both; the other guides/drivers I specifically asked). We did the Tsakoka circuit, which is one of the longer circuits in the park, and the terrain was pretty challenging – lots of ups/downs and tromping through rainforest, often “offroading,” as we came to call it (ie, not walking on marked paths). That said, they payoff was huge. Within 15 minutes, Dezi had spotted a group of diademed sifaka, who were absolutely beautiful. Over the next 3-4 hours, we saw some terrific plants and animals, especially birds, including a collared nightjar and a rare Madagascar pygmy-kingfisher. We often heard the Indri’s distinctive call, but they eluded us until the end of our visit, when we finally found a group of them high above chewing on some leaves. They were worth the wait, but unfortunately, we only had about 5 minutes with them before they moved on. Fortunately, the following day we would have another chance to observe them in Andasibe National Park.
We were both exhausted after the visit to Mantadia, but I highly recommend visiting, if for no other reason than to see the amazing primary forest. We saw only 4 other people in the park during our time there, whereas Andasibe was much more crowded. There are some shorter circuits in the park, and you can take your time/go slowly if need be. One thing I would do differently – both my friend and I forgot to tuck our pants into our socks, and we also didn’t think to wear the gaiters we had packed for Rwanda. As a result, we were both bitten by leeches on our ankles. They are small and not dangerous in terms of carrying diseases, but the bites really, really, really itched for at least a week.
That night, we did a night walk with Roddo and Dezi near the village of Andasibe. We saw a Goodman’s mouse lemur, a woolly lemur, and a fantastic Parson’s chameleon (the true highlight of the night walk, in my view).
The following day, we spent the morning at Andasibe National Park (Roddo and Dezi accompanied us again), where we saw a grey bamboo lemur, common brown lemurs, and more Indri! The Indri are really magical and captivating, and it's humbling to spend time with them while knowing that this is literally the only place on earth they exist (Indri have not successfully been kept in captivity and are extremely endangered). We also had some good bird sightings, including a blue coua. The terrain in Andasibe was, in large part, much easier to manage than Mantadia, but the park was a bit more crowded and consisted largely of secondary forest. We visited “lemur island” that afternoon, which is run by the Vakona Lodge and has a variety of lemurs (black and white ruffed, brown, bamboo, and apparently one diademed sifaka that we did not see) that have been rescued and can’t be released into the wild. You can feed them bananas, and both the brown lemurs and the black and white ruffed lemurs will jump on you (especially the brown, who are not at all shy and are shameless about grabbing bananas). I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I really enjoyed it, both for the opportunity to interact so closely with the lemurs and for the great photo ops. We also walked through the village of Andasibe, which we really enjoyed.
The following morning, we sadly left the Vakona Lodge and headed back to Tana for one night before flying to the west coast. We easily could have stayed a 4th night, but I think 3 nights was sufficient to cover the “highlights.” We made it to Tana in time for lunch, and we ate at the Lokanga Boutique hotel, which was fantastic. If I ever return to Tana, I will stay there. We did a brief city tour that afternoon, followed by a little shopping at a handicraft collective, and then checked in to the Palissandre Hotel for one night. It was clean, had a nice restaurant, and wonderful staff. We were pretty underwhelmed in general with Tana (to me, it seemed pretty charmless), but to be fair, we weren't there for very long.
NEXT INSTALLMENT: Kirindy and Morondava – more lemurs and baobabs
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