MADAGASCAR: Ankarana National Park

When telling people we were off to Madagascar, there were two typical responses: a puzzled ‘why?’ or an excited ‘are you going to see the penguins?’! I accept that it is perhaps an unusual destination and, to confirm, there are no penguins, but I thought I’d explain what drew us to it.

The short answer is the wildlife. The long answer is that Madagascar’s biodiversity is entirely unparalleled and truly spectacular. Around 95% of its reptiles, 92% of its mammals and 89% of its plants are endemic: they live there and only there. Much of it is endangered so, sadly, the clock is also ticking for anyone who wants the chance to explore it. At a glance, the wildlife may not appear very varied – you’ll see a lot of lemur, reptile, bird and frog repetition in my photographs – but when you dig deeper you realise the incredible diversity among those creatures.

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There are 101 species of lemur – nocturnal and diurnal – ranging from tiny, ridiculously cute mouse lemurs to noisy, metre-tall indris. The 400ish types of reptile consist not only of colourful, camouflaged chameleons and geckos but also snakes, skinks, lizards and crocodiles! There are almost 300 bird species including blue vangas, red-breasted couas and olive bee-eaters; water birds and birds of prey; and the crested drongo who can imitate them all. And I read that there are 300 species of frog with another 250 awaiting formal classification!

So if, like us, you’re content spending your days striding through national parks hour after hour, eyes keenly searching for movements in the undergrowth, ears on high alert for the slightest rustle in the trees, then Madagascar is the place to visit. As I mentioned in my previous post, we also took great pleasure in ticking off everything we saw in our field guide: perfect for our ordered nerdiness. It is also fantastically geologically diverse with rainforests, dry forests, spiny forests, red and grey tsingys, mangroves and rivers to explore.

Having said all that, it’ll come as no surprise how tough we found our decision to cancel our next activity – an overnight camping trip to Marojejy National Park, known for its rainforested mountains, its silky sifakas (large, beautiful white lemurs) and its inaccessibility. It was meant to be the most adventurous aspect of the trip. We’d flown on a little plane from one remote area to another and we were all ready to organise our guide, a cook and some porters to help with our expedition but, without our luggage, our plans had to change. We had no sleeping bags. No leech socks. No waterproofs. No warm clothes. We were gutted… and stuck in Sambava for three days with nothing else to do. I mean, as our first experience of a typical small Malagasy town, it was interesting enough for a short stroll around, and we even managed to buy a change of clothes that we haven’t sent to the charity shop now we’re back home! But even its own tourism office can suggest few attractions beyond heading to Marojejy National Park!

So, reluctantly, we adapted to a different pace and decided to try our best to relax, regroup, and focus some efforts into hounding the airline about our luggage. Here are a few photos of the town including roadside stalls (fruit, vegetables and sofas!), the beach and a little bit of wildlife too.

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And we also took a tour around a coconut plantation, learning about their cross-pollination process…

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…before moving on to a factory which produces coconut oil.

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We also got up close and personal with a few very tame lemurs, supposedly rescued pets – one decided he wanted to snuggle up against my ankle!

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After all that loitering about and nothingness, finally we had good news. A week after we’d said goodbye to our rucksacks at Heathrow, they had made their way round the world and across the country to this little town. We took a tuktuk to the airport to reclaim them. Here we are, delighted!

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Our third and final internal flight was to Diego Suarez which is the northern-most tip of the island. For a three-week itinerary, a little air travel is practically unavoidable on this, the world’s 4thlargest island, due to the condition of – and sometimes the non-existence of – the roads. As an example, to drive this part of our route, we would have had to hire a 4×4 and driver (costing many hundreds of pounds) and spend about 24 hours on the road, or alternatively take at least two days using public transport! So in this case, flying was the most economical in both time and money terms.

Once in Diego Suarez, it was a 5-hour ride on a taxi-brousse to our final destination, Ankarana. Taxi-brousses come in many forms but are generally mini-buses. In this area, they were ancient, battered and tiny. You can flag one down on any road, but it’s generally advisable for tourists to board at a bus station. The snag is that they only leave when full so you can be waiting around for some time. We thought ourselves fortunate when ours set off about half an hour after we got on it but the full horrors of the journey were soon to become clear. During the ride, we must have stopped twenty times at least – no exaggeration. Sometimes for fuel. Sometimes for a passenger to get off or on. Sometimes for a long period of time while enormous quantities of unaccompanied cargo are loaded onto the roof. Sometimes for a toilet break for those lucky enough to be near a door. Sometimes, at a village, for passengers to purchase grilled meat, baked goods, peanut brittle and psychedelically-coloured, rebottled drinks through the windows. Sometimes for the driver to buy a bunch of khat leaves to chew – a mild amphetamine that does nothing to calm his propensity to stop on any whim, as you might imagine! Our twelve-seater on this journey, at one point had 26 people in it – zigzagged along the seats at all angles. It’s uncomfortable, it’s very hot, and it’s loud (due to a USB stick of Malagasy music of varying quality interwoven with 90s power ballads and Ed Sheeran generally), but it is certainly never dull!

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Anyway, we eventually arrived at a guest house near to Ankarana National Park. We’d done rainforests and now we were onto uniquely Madagascan grey tsingy rock formations and dry forest.

Our guide the next day was Jafar and with him we hiked in the sweltering heat for seven hours solid!

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We were, however, rewarded with a lot of wildlife. I’ll start with the birds – a crested coua, a newtonia, a few Madagascar paradise flycatchers with wonderful long tail feathers, a blue vanga, a common jery and a hook-billed vanga.

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These cool little critters, that looked like fluff, were called flatid leaf insects:

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There were also lemurs of course: a family group of Sanford’s brown lemurs first, followed by the most ridiculously adorable sportive lemurs which, being nocturnal, were tucked away in holes in the trees, peeking at us far down below. I’m pretty sure we’d woken them up but apparently they don’t have eyelids so their eyes remain open even when asleep!

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There were plenty of giant day geckos around and one mossy leaf-tailed gecko snoozing.

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I enjoyed the panther chameleons here too – I just love looking at them close up!

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We saw a snake but can’t work out exactly what kind it was as there are a lot of brownish stripy snakes in the area:

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Part of the trail led us to a cave. We descended an incredibly steep set of steps and were instructed to leave our bags and water bottles at its mouth out of respect for the spirits of the ancestors who reside there. Apparently, in the 1800s, when the King of Antananarivo was trying to oust all the other regional kings, the cave was a hideout for this area’s royal family. It’s consequently very well-respected and revered by the local people. As we climbed upward, further into the cave, Jafar called upon the spirits, telling them we came in peace and asking permission to explore further.

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Inside were thousands of bats. I’m not a fan but I guess I’m happier seeing them in their habitat than having them in mine as has happened a couple of times before! The noise and the smell were quite overwhelming as we – respectfully of course – clambered over rocks, shimmied around stalagmites and ducked under stalactites.

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Back out in the fresh air, we headed for the tsingy which is the name given to the unusual ridged limestone rock formations for which Madagascar is famous. I was a bit dubious about seeing them because rocks didn’t sound as enticing as forests and reptiles but actually the sight was really impressive. I loved the greys and the shapes and enormity and the weird and wonderful plants that have made the rocks their home.

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Rickety bridges have been strung across some of the crevasses. Our only sit down of the day was cut short to 10 minutes due to the one-way nature of the bridges and our guide not wanting us to get stuck behind a selfie-obsessed tour group!

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The last thing we saw before we left was an enormous, circular waterfall… without the water… revealing its ancient fossil secrets:

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After 15km – 25276 steps – we were exhausted but, with no time to lose, we got straight back on the road, heading for our next destination, the island of Nosy Be. Until next time…

If you’re interested in catching up on my first two posts, click for Masoala National Park or Nosy Mangabe.

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