Parc National Andasibe Mantadia, Madagascar
The journey from Antananarivo to Andasibe is only 150km, but takes nearly four hours, at least two hours of which is just getting out of Tana. This kalaedoscopic capital is an exuberant melting pot of sights, sounds and smells, and the traffic jams are an opportunity for some of the best people watching in Africa. But slowly the clamour and chaos subsides and we are in the Malagasy countryside, weaving through rice plantations and rainforest.
Andasibe Hotel greets us with a languid charm. Villas are spacious and comfortably appointed – a queen bed with mosquito net in the front room, two single beds in the second bedroom, a generous bathroom at the rear. At the front of the villas, deck chairs afford a view of the surrounding rice paddies and the village at the bottom of the valley, and from here the haunting cries of the indri can be heard at dawn and dusk. While not luxurious, the villas are perfectly functional, a comfortable retreat when not out exploring the nearby national parks.
Villas are terraced in pairs across the hillside. Descending the stairs brings you to the hotel’s central reception, with patchy wifi and a television tuned to sports. The hotel restaurant is adjacent, a circular affair with large windows looking out to the surrounding forest. Indoors is lovely and seemingly preferred by nearly all the hotel guests, but a good slathering of mosquito repellent is all that is required to enjoy the outdoor decking and a view to the meandering river nearby. Here we enjoy cocktails (different but delicious) with an emphasis on local rum, and the all-inclusive three course a la carte meals that vary from bland to surprisingly satisfying (day by day and course by course). The zebu romazava (a meat stew with greens) is a flavoursome traditional Malagasy dish, delicious even though the zebu is a little tough.
Of course, we are not really in here for the accommodation or the food – we are here for the Parc National Andasibe Mantadia (Andasibe-Mantadia National Park). As the name suggests the park consists of two components being the Analamazoatra Reserve (also known as Perinet Reserve and as Andasibe Reserve) to the south and the Mantadia National Park to the north. Combined they cover some 155 square kilometres of rainforest, with Mantadia National Park the larger component of the two.
On the evening of our arrival, the lodge has arranged for a night walk with a local guide. We set off from the information centre – the night is dark (our torches are weak), the rainforest is dense and we appear to be walking along the main road, so our early expectations are realistic at best. But within three minutes of walking, our guide has stopped to point out a chameleon. I strain my eyes to peer into the dense forest, desperately trying to make out the iconic shape of a chameleon in the distant trees, until our guide chucklingly re-directs my attention to a branch not two metres from my face. There, our first chameleon sits unperturbed by our presence nor our torches, tail curled, eyeballs twirling, posing for our many photos. Eventually we move on, and in the course of the next hour (but only a few hundred metres of walking) we see many more chameleons large and small, luminescent frogs, slithering snakes, prehistoric stick insects, and yes, our first lemurs.
The following day, excited into early action by the calls of the indri, we set off to explore Perinet Reserve. It doesn’t take long to find our first lemurs – a troop of bamboo lemurs (surely one of the cutest lemurs, if not animals, imaginable) balance amongst the tall stalks of bamboo. Next are golden sifakas – after a plethora of glimpses (and very average photos) of sifakas high in the canopy, we see in the distance ahead a pair of adolescent males low to the ground. Stealthily we move towards them, pausing to take photos at 20 metres, 10 metres, 5 metres, just in case this is as close we can get. Suddenly they dash towards us, and commence a wrestling match just centimetres from where we are crouched. Seemingly oblivious to our presence, or perhaps just unconcerned, the two boys put on a WWE-esque demonstration of throws and choke-holds and bodyslams that would make any pro-wrestler proud. We watch, grinning, as they frolic on the forest floor, occasionally even rolling into to us, until suddenly there is a shrill call from up ahead. The two young lemurs lift their heads – it seems that mum is calling – playtime is over, and they leap away to join the troop.
We continue our hunt for the indri, the piece de resistance of Perinet Reserve. Continuing their calls into the morning, they are not too hard to find. The family (we are told the collective noun is a “conspiracy”) of indri are perched in the branches, their teddy-bear faces peering down at us. After sufficient photos of the "underside" of indris, we clamber up the adjacent slope, coming eye to eye with these amazingly large and cuddly looking creatures. With calls that are audible from 4km away, at this proximity their cries are piercing, with the whole group participating in wailing songs that reverberate through the forest.
Lemurs are not the only feature of Perinet Reserve – chameleons abound, as do amazingly camouflaged lizards and a plethora of weird and wonderful insects, with our guide spotting something new around every bend.
As a final treat just before we leave, a succession of sifakas leap directly over our heads from one side of the path to the other, generously providing enough opportunity to shoot a burst of photographs of sifakas in flight – classic Madagascar images.
The following day takes us to Mantadia National Park, an hour and a half drive along a bumpy, muddy, rutted road that is barely more than an overgrown track. Partway along our bouncy journey, our driver suddenly slams on the brakes, then reverses about 20 metres. Somehow our eagle-eyed guide has spotted a tiny giraffe necked weevil on a leaf as we raced past (it was literally less than an inch in length). We pile out of the vehicle to observe this bizarre insect – a feature on David Attenborough’s “Madagascar” BBC documentary, but not something we really hoped to see for ourselves. It poses resplendently for us, before shaking its wings and flying away.
Mantadia is a lovely region, with emerald rainforest and tree-ringed lakes, and almost devoid of tourists. We hike its trails, observing diademed sifakas, bamboo lemurs and black and white ruffed lemurs peering down at us from the canopies, while the forest floor contains luminescent lizards, eerie (and enormous) stick insects, giant snails and colourful beetles. We picnic by a picturesque lake filled with water-lilies, serenaded by birds and buzzed by iridescent giant dragonflies. As the regular afternoon storm rolls in, we head home and watch from our balcony as the sky turns purple and lightning pierces the gloom.
While in Andasibe, we also paid a visit to the private reserve at Vakona Forest Lodge. While we knew in advance that there were habituated lemurs here, we were not aware of just how contrived an experience this was, and there are definitely pros and cons to a visit. The private reserve is an island within the Vakona property – as lemurs can’t swim, they are essentially confined to this island, which is accessed by a canoe ride of just a few metres. When you arrive on the island, the lemurs are literally waiting, and some are clearly trained to immediately jump up and perch on your shoulder or head, with a piece of banana following as their reward. While this makes for a little bit of fun, and some great photos, particularly close-up photos of baby lemurs, it is obviously a very artificial and somewhat concerning experience. Political correctness and cynicism aside, we will admit we did kinda like walking around the island with a lemur sitting on our heads, balancing on our lens while we took photos, and you even miss their warmth, if not their smelliness, when they are gone. So saying, it did make us somewhat relieved we weren't staying at Vakona Forest Lodge itself, for although it may have been slightly superior accommodation to Andasibe Hotel, we certainly would have had reservations about supporting such a venture. But each to their own – its just wise to be aware in advance.