Made in Madagascar: Natural highs in the land of the lemur
Bucket List Trips
Lemurs are a natural highlight, but there's much more to this African island nation, says a smitten Sophie Gorman.
I hear the indri lemurs before I see them in Madagascar's Andasibe National Park. Their shrill, plaintive hollering is somehow both doleful and conversationally cheerful, bellowing from high up in the giant eucalyptus trees.
We follow the calls until we spot these remarkable black and white furry creatures with their glowing eyes. They may appear to be lingering for photographs, but don't be deceived. This dawdling is actually the time they spend digesting leaves and, if you stand too long underneath, you might find the results of their digestion on your head.
The indri are unique among lemurs. They live in families, they can weigh up to 10kg, they are monogamous and they can survive for between 40 to 60 years - much longer than many of their lemur counterparts.
Interestingly, lemur societies are almost all matriarchal, which is a rarity not only among mammals but also in openly patriarchal Madagascar.
And, if you want to see a lemur in the wild, Madagascar is the only country in the world where they still roam free. The parks we visit are not zoos - these animals are wild, though you do occasionally meet a particularly bold and curious lemur, who thinks you are a strange tree and jumps on you.
Most famous for its lemurs, chameleons and those majestic giant baobab trees found in the south, Madagascar is certainly a natural paradise, but it is also so much more.
There is such rich diversity of cultures, traditions, ecology and climates. The landscape can radically change in just an afternoon's drive, from steep craggy mountains to lush valleys and arid desert plains to wet rice fields. This African island nation is full of surprises.
Its markets are wonderfully unpredictable, too.
One of the best I visit is a weekly combined pig and clothes market, divided by a rickety stick fence with squealing pigs on one side having their tongues pulled out to confirm their wellbeing and mountains of fine fabrics on the other.
It seems inevitable that the two will at some point mingle, as they do when one sow protests forcibly to having the root of its tongue examined and goes rampaging through the clothes, followed by her seven piglets.
Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world and almost the same size as France, from which it gained independence in 1960. With a population of 23 million, the mother tongue is Malagasy with French the second language.
People have a gentle friendliness, I find - they welcome you without overwhelming you. It's a predominantly Christian and also very calm country, with 18 different tribes but very little internal disquiet between them.
Sadly, there are also few assets between them, as privatisation has been a key policy since the 1980s. Railways, airlines, mining rights and telecommunications have all been sold off.
Rice is gold here, and the locals are rice masters - they manage three harvests in their rice terraces when most other rice nations can only manage two. You see these impeccably cut terraces as you drive across the country. The terraces meet demand, too - Malagasy people eat rice three times a day; their consumption is actually the highest per capita in the world.
April is considered the beginning of autumn here, and it's one of the best seasons for visiting (after wet summer months, everything is freshly verdant). Leaving the bustling capital of Antananarivo, I begin my lemur pursuit in Andasibe - discovering those bellowing indri lemurs, before driving on to Antsirabe, a town full of intricate craft workshops producing wood, stone and zebu-horn goods.
Our next destination is the national park at Ranomafana ('rano' meaning water, 'mafana' meaning hot). It's impressively humid.
There are 12 species of lemur here, seven of which emerge during the day. The golden bamboo lemur is endemic, which makes it all the more special when we find two of them, languidly lazing. We walk in the wet heat for hours, driven on by the natural beauty of the park combined with our childish excitement at finding more lemurs - red bellied ones, beautiful sifaka lemurs, bold brown lemurs.
Finally, we reach a fork in the road. Our guide tells us that the right path leads directly back home. The left one leads to a secret waterfall. Exhausted but unanimous, we turn left, trekking for another kilometre or two before emerging near the base of a gloriously thundering waterfall. One short moment later we are immersed, happily cooling down.
Later in the trip, we drive to an entirely different world in Isalo National Park. Those famous ring-tailed lemurs live in the canyons between its dramatic tabletop mountains. We are first in and last out. Despite busloads of tourists arriving, we experience everything blissfully alone, including the headline act. Ring-tailed lemurs are timid, but we reach a clearing and suddenly they are everywhere, swinging from tree to tree, chattering. We sit among them, quietly euphoric.
A land of unexplored treasures, Madagascar is full of such raptures. You drive down a dirt track singing along to 1980s rock music and suddenly see a 600-year-old baobab tree, or sifakas hanging above you, or a darting fossa - a strange cat-like creature.
Your eyes are kept wide open.
What to pack
Strong shoes are required for hikes, and a head torch is useful for night treks. Take your swimming togs on forest walks in case of glistening waterfalls, and bring insect repellent (Malagasy mosquitoes are hungry for fresh Irish meat).
Don't forget to set your alarm to catch the sunrises.
Sophie travelled to Madagascar with Pioneer Expeditions (pioneerexpeditions.com) on a 10-day Southwest Madagascar Nature Holiday — Land of Lemurs tour. It costs £2,150/€2,400pp, includes all internal transport and is full board (flights extra). Air France (airfrance.ie) flies via Paris. For more info, see madagascar-tourisme.com/en.
Visas & Vaccines
Visas are available on arrival into Madagascar (bring €40). It is a slow process involving often static queues and handing over your passport for an unsettlingly long period of time, but patience will get you through. You will need certain vaccines, and may need anti-malarials if you are travelling to low-level areas.
What to add
There is an optional three-day beach extension in the aptly named Le Paradisier Hotel in Ifaty on the Mozambique Channel. I have my own little two-storey thatched house right on the beach. I rent a pirogue, a local canoe complete with sail and local young sailor boys, and we let the wind take us to the coral reef. Giant blue iridescent fish, yellow sunny ones with arched eyebrows, huge shoals of black and white striped ones. Yes, paradise.
What to eat and drink
Food: There is much European influence on the menus thanks to the vestiges of colonisation, but do try to eat local. Traditional Malagasy meals include zebu steaks, beans cooked with pork, spinach and kale greens, spiced curried rice, skewers of zebu. Perhaps avoid the manioc dish that tastes a little like fresh cow dung.
Drink: Rum and the local beer.
What to buy
Natural raw silk weavings, sapphires, rum, vanilla pods, cloves, hand-embroidered dresses, zebu horn spoons.