MADAGASCAR: Ankarafantsika National Park

At the end of my last post, which feels rather a long time ago now, we’d just left Ankarana National Park and were heading to the island of Nosy Be for a few days’ chill out. Our journey there was less than relaxing! This island is a far more touristy destination than anywhere else we’d been and the con artists were rife! The first three-hour leg was spent bouncing and bumping along, jammed into another incredibly over-full taxi-brousse but we were content enough as the views from the window were more picturesquely green and lush than the previous rides. Unsure precisely where to disembark, we weighed up our options and chose to trust the bus boy so, when we sped up to a roundabout in the middle of nowhere, we extracted ourselves from the bus and our luggage from its roof. Almost immediately, we were bundled into a little people carrier.

Soon, we reached the bustling port area. Before we’d even stopped, my door was wrenched opened by an aggressive tout who then proceeded to shout at us – competing with a mob of other touts – to persuade us to board his boat. With no information to the contrary, we accepted his promise that his boat would be next to leave. He proudly showed us to the empty vessel and seated us on the best seats before trying to con us into paying a highly-inflated tourist price. We didn’t pay it but we did have to wait for the boat to fill up. Eventually, without enough life jackets to go around, we set off. The boat journey was lovely – speeding over the water, past enticing tree-covered islands with the wind in our hair and the sun on our faces.

The deceptions were not over though. On arriving at Hell-ville port on Nosy Be, knowing we’d splashed out on a better hotel for the chill-out portion of our trip, we allowed ourselves to relax. We were relieved to spot a guy holding our names on a piece of paper and assumed him to be a trustworthy representative from our accommodation. However, we soon discovered he and his friend had merely acquired our names from the taxi driver and that they wanted to charge us approximately £9 for carrying our bags ten metres from the boat to the waiting taxi! Needless to say, we didn’t fall for that one, having had a couple of weeks to grasp the exchange rate, but I’m sure countless unsuspecting visitors are not so lucky. I would like to point out that, aside from here, pretty much every Malagasy we met was friendly, open and honest so the journey to Nosy Be was definitely an anomaly.

Anyway, a short and pleasingly uneventful taxi ride delivered us, finally, to our destination. Secluded, surrounded by palm trees and a couple of minutes’ walk from the beach, it was idyllic. PHEW!

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The next few days involved a lot of relaxing and tasty food and a little bit of diving (which was prettier and more interesting than this picture would suggest!). Bliss!

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Soon, though, we were back on the road. This journey was a mammoth one! For a price, we’d hired a kind of guide (specifically, an on-leave skipper of a British eye doctor’s superyacht with many stories to tell!) to escort us from Nosy Be, back through the tout slalom and to a taxi-brousse depot on the mainland: car, boat, taxi-brousse, cycle rickshaw.

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The main reason for this was to help us arrange to pay for a full row of seats on our next vehicle, knowing it was to be a long journey. Having waited hours in a busy market place for our minibus to fill up, we finally set off. Our chain-smoking hero of a driver with a penchant for 90s power ballads (until the middle of the night when it changed to awful thumping afro-dance music!) drove us for 13 hours on roads which were more pot-hole than tarmac with only a few stops for coffee to sustain him. Travelling for so long gave us plenty of time to enjoy every moment of the sunset and the majestic starry night sky, and even to witness an enormous crop fire striking a path through the darkness, as far as the eye could see. After Dean told me that bandits are known to kidnap foreigners in the middle of the night, we tried to keep a low profile when we stopped! (He chose not to mention that that’s in the south, not where we were in the north!)

Thanks to Google Maps, we (improbably) successfully disembarked in the middle of the night – around 2:30am – and in the middle of nowhere, at the side of a deserted village road. In the pitch black, we heaved our bags onto our backs and began to trek down the sandy roads further into the village, past the eyes of cows and pigs glinting in the moonlight, trying not to wake up too many protective barking dogs. When we reached the guest house, with its high perimeter walls, topped by barbed wire, we pounded on the metal door to wake up the night guard to gain entry! Eventually, gone 3:00am, weary and very cold, we finally fell into bed.

A mere three hours later we were up and heading for the gates of Ankarafantsika National Park! We found a guide, named Gabriel, and trekked for five hours mainly through dry forests.

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The place was great for lemurs. First, we saw some common brown lemurs, active at this early hour…

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…but they were quickly surpassed by our first sighting of Coquerel’s sifakas – enormous chestnut, black and white lemurs:

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A little further on, we encountered an adorable nocturnal sportive lemur, nestled high up in his tree hole.

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Of course, there were birds too – the crested coua; the Madagascar paradise fly-catcher (two pictures of the female then a male); the Madagascar coucal; the Madagascar magpie robin; the Madagascar bulbul (two different ones); the red-breasted coua; and the olive bee-eater.

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And then the reptiles – a baby rhinoceros chameleon; possibly a Western plated lizard; an Oustalet’s chameleon; an unidentified harmless snake and Dean taking a picture of him (and – I discovered later – stroking him).

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We’d not seen this plant before – Gabriel said they’re locally called Christmas tree plants and that they glow in the dark!

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Towards the end of the walk, we trekked through the intense midday heat to a canyon of the most amazing colours.

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After some lunch and a little rest in the park cafe, we headed out on another walk, around Lake Ravelobe.

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It got its name from a Malagasy hero and rebel against the French colonisers who, in 1952, hid in the lake’s reeds for three years. The main focus of the walk was to search for crocodiles! To be honest, I hadn’t thought this through. I hadn’t really realised how scary I would find it. In one breath Gabriel said he’d known of hundreds of people eaten by the crocs but in the next he said they were always in the water and were usually alone! Dean was happy to accept the latter but I became quite absorbed by the former! I think the main issue was not knowing where they were. The worst, most panic-inducing moments were walking along metre-wide stretches of beach with thick vegetation to the left and the lake’s edge to the right, imagining being attacked from either side in turn!

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Thankfully, the reptilian beasts were too smart for us. We heard several intimidatingly humungous splashes of adults diving into the lake as they heard us approaching. I was secretly quite pleased but also a tiny bit sad that we didn’t get a good view/photograph of one!

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This is one which we’d seen basking in the sun from a distance, but which slipped stealthily into the water when it noticed us. Dean was quicker than me with his camera!

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The crocodiles are considered sacred. Gabriel told us about the history of a little hut near the edge of the forest, guarded by two tall, carved, wooden statues of women with crocodiles.

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It was to commemorate the time in the early 19thcentury when, under attack from the King of Antananarivo, the local king and his family committed suicide in the lake to avoid surrender. The crocodiles are thought to be their reincarnations and the hut is said to contain items that belonged to the family. I assume that is also what the statues represent. A celebration is held here each year, where zebu are slaughtered and plenty of drinking and dancing ensue.

Surrounding the hut were enormous tamarind trees, several of which had red cloths tied around them. Gabriel explained that people come to ask the tree spirits for things; they leave alcohol and a small amount of money to thank the spirits when the request is granted. The tamarind tree itself is pretty special: it makes the best charcoal; its bark is an antiseptic; its roots help with dysentery; its leaves cure constipation; its fruit gives juice; and its wood is used for buildings.

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The lakeside was a new habitat for us and home to various new creatures such as the giant swallow-tailed moth – as large as a bird with black and white spots and a red underbelly – but it was to swift for me to capture on camera. We also saw these spiky trees some of which had actually been brought in from Asia.

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The bird life was a bit more varied too. There were various water birds which we viewed at a distance including a Madagascar Malachite kingfisher, a wading bird of some kind and this cuckoo hawk suddenly appeared on quite a low branch overhead!

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We also spotted a female magpie robin.

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Gabriel was the first guide who successfully managed to coax a tiny ant-lion out of its hole in the ground to show us.

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We also encountered this chameleon…

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…and the tiniest dwarf gecko…

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… and a Cuvier’s Madagascar swift.

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As we returned to the park entrance, we were lucky enough to get another few minutes to enjoy watching a group of six sifakas playing and feasting on fruit, high up in a tree.

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After a short taxi-brousse ride back to the village, we trudged tiredly back to our guest house to drop off some belongings and to get warm layers on. Believe it or not, still functioning on three hours’ sleep, we were heading out for yet another walk – a night hike around a local forested area! The villagers were getting used to us walking back and forth and exchanged greetings of salama with us or pointed out the vazaha (a friendly word for foreigners) to each other, whilst they lit their fires and gathered to cook their evening meals, or filled plastic containers from the well. We met Gabriel in the village centre as the sun was setting.

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The walk was fairly fruitful. We were looking for nocturnal mouse lemurs – successfully but not photographable. We did see a few large chameleons though:

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My second terrifying experience of the day also occurred during this walk. Keep in mind that it’s pitch black, completely silent but for our footsteps, and we’re moving off-road through dense woodland with no paths. Gabriel had pointed out a snake in the undergrowth to us.

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It was a medium-sized boa constrictor and it slithered away but, after this, I became wary of where I was putting my feet and tried not to worry about treading on another one. However, towards the end of the walk, already a little on edge, I bumped into something hanging down. My immediate thought was that it was another snake but, after a second, my heart racing, I realised it was only a tree branch. However, my relief was only momentary because, refocusing my mind and my torch, I looked down at my feet again to see that I was half a step away from treading on another large boa!

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I squealed which halted Gabriel and Dean, thus blocking my escape! Real words failed me but further high-pitched noises and gesticulation eventually conveyed my problem and the others finally moved to allow me out of the way! A bit melodramatic, I know, but you try it! Quite enough fear for one day!

Walking back to the village centre, we checked how many steps we’d done on Dean’s watch – 32164 incidentally! Having spent all day with the lovely Gabriel and having had conversations with him about all sorts, we thought he’d find it interesting to see the watch. His reaction was one of amusement and bemusement: ‘What will the vazaha think of next? I bet no one else in the village has heard about this!’ I like to imagine him excitedly telling his friends later that evening about this new crazy invention he’d learned of!

Back at the hotel, we were so exhausted that we caught only two of the three massive cockroaches in the room before bed! Horrid but not as scary as the scorpion our neighbours found!

The next morning, we set off back to the capital. One nature destination remained – Andasibe. More on that next time!

If you missed them, here are the previous Madagascar posts: Masoala National Park, Nosy Mangabe and Ankarana National Park.

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