Madagascar: Wildlife You Can Only Find There: Mantadia Park
By Caitlin Prince
Remote, wild, and scarcely developed, Madagascar is a country to meet the cravings of any intrepid traveler who harbors secret Indiana Jones or Jurassic Park fantasies.
Crammed with barely explored regions of the Mantadia National Park, and biodiversity of weird and wonderful creatures, this country nudged my inspiration awake and filled me with wonder.
‘Barely There Tourism’ Mantadia National Park
It is Madagascar’s ‘barely there’ tourism that instills travel there with a sense of adventure. The flip side of this lack of infrastructure though is that time or lots of money is required to truly penetrate its depths.
Having neither, on a visa run from flailing business opportunity in nearby Mauritius, I thought I’d only nibble at the most accessible areas.
Fearful that this might mean simple ‘skimming the surface’ and catching only tourist traps, I was delighted to discover just a stumble off the airplane plummeted me into the foreign.
Promoted as the most accessible national parks to spot species of lemur, I head first to Speciale Analamazoatra and Parc National de Mantadia of Madagascar. These parks lie approximately 125 km from Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital, a distance that can take anywhere between 3 and 12 hours to cover.
Short of hiring a private car and driver (US$100-150, depending on bargaining skills), the only way to get there is with the local taxi-brousse via Moramanga (5000 MGA to Moramanga and 2000 MGA to Andasibe).
Then a ‘local’ taxi-brousse, what appears to be a recycled police paddy wagon, a couple of bench seats, and a wall of fifty bodies, pressed into the back.
The discrepancy between expected journey times is owed to the taxi-brousses tendency to leave only once filled. Like inverted Babushka-Dolls the modes of transport get larger and more populated with each leg of the journey.
Firstly, a taxi to the eastern taxi-brousse station at the edge of town: a two-stroke engine propelling a contraption that appears to be constructed purely out of recycled car doors and electrical tape. Secondly: a minibus ‘taxi-brousse’ bound for Moromanga: 14 adults, 5 children, and scooter strapped to the roof amongst the luggage and rice sacks.
The rattling vehicle carries its passengers through villages and steep hillsides, the road visible through gaping holes in the truck floor.
The chatter of Malagasy and very poor attempted French (theirs and mine) falls abruptly silent at the regular police checks.
A pale face in a sea of dark ones draws curiosity and friendly questions from the officers, and after a subtle exchange between sweaty palms of driver and officer, the overcrowding, and completely shattered windshield is overlooked.
Finally, I’m deposited into Andasibe the nearest town to the parks, a sprawling collection of wooden shack houses like a scene out of an outdated Western film. It occurs to me that the term ‘accessible’ must have a unique Malagasy meaning.
The National Parks here are thick with life forms unique to this one country. The jungle has a muting effect. Its dense green walls close in around me and silence the modern world, filling my ears with a jungle cacophony, propelling me into its mysteries.
A different planet of hanging vines, trees many hundreds of years old, orchids, oversized fungus, fern trees, giant vakona plants, each leaf the size, shape and ferocity of a saw.
Need a Guide for the Parks
To access the parks we need a guide, easily organized for a set fee at the park entrance (fees range from 14 000- 50 000 MGA for a group of four, depending on the duration and type of walk you do).
We really do need a guide. Mantadia barely has paths through it, and those that are there are ignored, as our guide tracks lemurs by a whisper of a sound, or a raucous call echoing for kilometers.
Thigh High Grass
Through the jungle we tumble, struggling through thick vines and thigh-high grasses, perching on steep hills to peer through the canopy- and there, there it is, a golden limb spread high overhead, a black face curled down, cleaning its lemur-self with flexibility any yogi would envy: a Golden Sefika.
Then the lemur is off, and so are we, tracking it as it swings spectacularly through the canopy. In a four-hour walk, we spot six different types of lemurs.
There are countless Indri Indri, the largest species in Madagascar, noisily calling through the forest. We spot two juvenile Sefikas, wrestling precariously on branches just meters from us.
A family of Red-fronted lemurs clamors in the trees above, the infant’s curiosity sending it running up and down the tree trunk to sneak a closer look at us.
Nocturnal Woolly lemurs stared balefully down at us from their treetop bed, wondering who is disrupting their siesta.
Common-brown lemurs scamper above us. A black and white ruffed lemur taste-tests a variety of trees in his district.
Amongst the lemurs there’s still more to be seen, chameleons blending into the greenery, leafy-geckos almost imperceptible against the bark of a tree.
For hours, and for several days, the jungle captures me. Its other-worldliness awakens my inner-child and I am enraptured by its secrets.
Staying literally on the edge of the Reserve Speciale Analamazoatra, at Hotel Ala Feon’ny my simple room (51 000 MGA p/night) comes with its own bathroom, hot water, and morning lemur- calls.
Lunch at Andasibe
Lemur calls all-inclusive, one thing Andasibe does not have is food worth marveling at. Hungry from traipsing after lemurs, I return to Antananarivo with a monstrous appetite for seriously good food.
Built onto and into mountainous terrain, Antananarivo, or ‘Tana’, is something Picasso might have painted into existence if he drunkenly dabbled in landscapes.
An endless maze of cobblestone streets, colonial architecture quietly crumbling beside half-finished modern, interspersed with steep staircases descending in surprising places.
It’s an experience of contrasts just wandering Haute-Ville (or High Town) in Tana’s center. Its shabby streets and sprawling markets are filled with hawkers and beggars, but one step through an undistinguishable doorway pops me into the middle eastern shisha bar of La Medina, walls covered in sequined silks, comfy cushion booths, and the best coffee in town.
A steep walk up a hill and a small sign “Le Creperie”, and suddenly I’m devouring a crepe a French woman has ingeniously folded ham, cheese, basil, and a still oozing fried egg into. A relapsed gastron-aholic, I wander the steep winding streets, tracing my way between culinary experiences. Almond croissants at The Colbert Hotel, still warm and fresh early in the morning.
Embarrassingly cheap and delicious mojitos at La Boussole, local zebu delectably cooked at KUDeTA, but the crowning culinary experience- La Varangue.
Three courses of French-cuisine brilliance: sauces you want to coat your lover’s skin in and devour with abandoned long licks.
Thank god for the bread, freshly baked, crunchy crust and soft inside, that drinks up every speck on my plate until I am stroking my swelling belly, lost in gustatory bliss.
Everything lies right out in the open, no ropes or glass to create distance between this rich history and me.
A guide fills the aging room with juicy tales of the royal family’s history, of King Andrianamponimerina who united the 12 tribes of Madagascar, showing me the view of the 12 hills where they stood during ceremony.
He showed me photographs of Queen Ranavalona I, an animistic queen taking rule after her Christian husband’s death and martyring Christians by throwing them from the tallest point of the mountain in Tana, which can be explored when visiting the Rova in Tana.
Madagascar was a place that quickly flipped me off the beaten tourist track, simply because it’s so barely there. Its long geographical isolation has birthed a world so entirely foreign to everywhere else.
Caitlin Prince inherited a nomadic tendency and has been traveling her entire life. She currently lives somewhere between Australia, Thailand, and Mauritius.