Ian in particular was keen to visit Madagascar as part of our southern Africa trip. But his research suggested that independent travel around the island was problematic, so we booked a two-week group tour organised by Explore, starting on 26th September. We actually arrived in Madagascar on the 24th, which gave us time to visit the capital city of Antananarivo (known as Tana) which was not covered by the tour.
Impressions of Tana
According to our guidebook: ‘From the right place, in the right light, Tana is one of the most attractive capitals in the developing world’. This may be true, but in our experience it is also one of the most frustrating. The problem is that there is a constant heavy stream of traffic, and as the streets are narrow this makes travel a very slow and painful process.
And walking is no easier. Following our usual practice, we had booked a hotel in the city centre, so we could explore on foot – or so we thought. In fact, the streets and passageways are complicated, and finding your way around (even with a map) is extremely difficult. It didn’t help that the reception staff at our hotel (who provided the map) were unable to show us with any degree of accuracy where the hotel was (two people pointed to totally different locations).
In any case, walking around the city can be a nightmare, as the pavements (if they exist) are crammed with people and stalls, and the only alternative to fighting your way through is to walk in the road, at heavy risk of being run over. We were constantly harassed by hawkers and children demanding money.
Ambohimanga is a sacred and historical site, used for rest, relaxation and burial by the kings and queens who united Madagascar into a single country. We were originally scheduled to visit it on our tour, but were told before it started that (owing to a change in flight schedules) this would not be possible. It seemed sensible therefore to visit on our free day in Madagascar, before the tour started.
The hill-top village of Ambohimanga is only 21 km from Tana. We were assured by our hotel receptionist that there were no buses, and we would therefore need to take a taxi, which would be very cheap. We discovered that every element of this advice was wrong. We took a taxi, which was certainly not very cheap. It took ages to get there, owing to the clogged streets and slow-moving (almost stationary) traffic.
We did enjoy our visit, however. It was good to get out of the city, and Ambohimanga is an interesting if not particularly extensive site. Moreover, there are great views over the surrounding countryside.
Contrary to what we had been told, there were no taxis available for our return journey, but there were plenty of buses – the local minibuses, known as taxi-brousses. We travelled back to Tana is one of these. It was crowded and certainly not luxurious, but it was incredibly cheap. It was also nostalgic for us, as taxi-brousses are the equivalent of Ghanaian tro-tros, in which we travelled many miles when living in that country. Although the journey was slow, we were back in Tana in time to visit the rova, or Queen’s Palace, which is still being restored (or rebuilt) following a serious fire in 1995.
The tour begins
On Thursday we took a taxi to the airport, to meet our leader Armand and the seven other members of our tour group: a young man from Australia, and six women from England (two friends, and four travelling solo). Owing to an accident, the traffic was even worse than usual, and it took us the rest of the day to get to Andasibe, our first destination.
Andasibe is in the east of Madagascar. We stayed there for three nights, and during that time we did three rainforest walks (one at night) in the Andasibe-Mantadia National Park. The main aim was to see lemurs, plus other animals and birds. We had mixed success. On our first walk we caught glimpses of a few lemurs which were high in the trees and difficult to see or to photograph (especially as they move very fast). However, there was a real highlight when we were able to observe two diademed sifakas rolling round on the ground in playful combat, apparently unaware of our presence, or at least totally unconcerned.
Another morning walk resulted in no sightings at all, which was frustrating, especially as we had had a long and uncomfortable journey getting to that part of the park. But on our way back we stopped at Lemur Island, a sanctuary for lemurs which have been kept as pets. They are so tame that they will take food from visitors’ hands, and land on their shoulders. It is not the same as seeing them in the wild, but a great experience nevertheless.