Wonders of wildlife – How to make the most of Madagascar
Our LuxuryBARED member, Dr Alison Coll, shares her memories and experiences of her once-in-a-lifetime trip to Madagascar with us, which was filled with wonderful wildlife and spectacular scenery.
Madagascar is a bucket list destination of many facets, a place my husband and I had long considered visiting. But the ongoing political situation, the lack of good hotels and our busy travel schedule had long prevented us from making that happen. But this year, when a planned trip to Burma was cancelled, we were left with a void in our schedules in August. Serendipitously, as the peak period for visiting Madagascar, we decided that this was it, we were meant to go. A country where 85% of the fauna is seen nowhere else in the world, we booked. And we were excited, to say the least.
How to get there
The first decision to make was how to get there, because it’s not the most straightforward journey. The recommended routing is Air France via Paris, but as France faces strikes quite often in the summer months and the flights come and go at undesirable times, we weren’t keen. So we opted for BA via Johannesburg, as this option had us arriving during the day and we deemed we could reach our first camp without overnighting in the capital, Antananarivo, or Tana for short. Perfect, I thought. However, as they say, even the best-laid plans…
Because nothing is ever a sure bet in the world of travel. So we boarded on time and were sitting comfortably, champagne in hand, when the captain announced a technical problem with the aircraft, which soon became a slightly larger problem, and after one hour, it was determined that the plane was going nowhere. We were told there was a spare aircraft to deplane us to, but there would be an overall delay of about four hours.
Of course, we missed our connection in Jo’burg (a once daily flight), but the ever-efficient Claire Parsons at LuxuryBARED got us waitlisted for the following day’s (full) flight. As an alternative, she booked us onto a Kenya Airways flight to Nairobi and onto Madagascar, which we ended up taking. Even though we missed a few days of our planned adventure, we embarked on our superb trip, which had been specifically tailored to give us maximum exposure to the island and its wildlife.
Mandrare River Camp
In Madagascar finally, we overnighted and then took off on a shared charter flight aboard a Cessna 210 to Mandrare River Camp. This is a small, luxury camp of six tents located on the Mandrare river, in the Ifotaka community forest. Its main habitat is a spiny forest, only found in that area, and a gallery forest. The most common lemurs found here by day are ring-tailed and Verreaux’s sifaka, and at night, white-footed mouse lemurs and sportive lemurs can be spotted.
Days at the camp are divided into three meals and two excursions, commencing with a wake-up call with a tea and coffee service. They offer a cycle of trips based on a four-night visit, and all are done on a strict rotation so that your trip finishes with their piece de resistance: sundowners under the Baobab trees with the local villagers performing.
Excursions included night walks, strolls into the forests, and some to sacred areas within. Meals were all taken communally with the managers, and both lunch and dinner were hosted at a different site each time. Lunch would be a barbecue with salads, and a light dessert and dinner of three courses, always good, healthy and light.
The tents were small but adequate, with minimal place to unpack, small hanging spaces and only a couple of hangers – so pack lightly. My main complaint was that the bed is only a basic double. The bathroom was a zipped-off section of the tent, of reasonable size.
All electricity is from solar sources, so the rooms are dimly lit. There are about four charging points for devices. The guides were good, as were the managers; the camp was well structured and smoothly run. After three nights, it was time for us to move on to the sister camp, Manafiafy. Most people stay four nights at each camp rather than the three and five we did at each one, perhaps a better option if you want to ensure you see ring-tailed lemurs.
The transfer to Manafiafy Camp is a short flight by charter to Port Dauphin on the coast, and then a gruelling three-hour road transfer by Land Rover. Believe everything they say about the roads in Madagascar, and then multiply it by 100 and you may then have a realistic picture of the average road. You barely go twenty yards between huge potholes, most filled with water. To avoid these, you weave from side to side over massive curves and more holes. There are also numerous streams and rivers, some with makeshift bridges, but many with none. The bridges often look dodgier than just taking the plunge and driving straight through would be.
There are signs advising you to drive slowly, and no, they are not meant as a joke. A little man with a brush was sweeping the side of the road as we drove past. “Why bother?” I asked myself. Despite all this, it was fairly scenic, but I couldn’t help dreading the thought of having to do this again on our return in five days time.
Manafiafy Camp has five bungalows and is located on the beach in a rainforest. The large rooms all have king size beds and open out onto verandahs with plenty of furniture and their own piece of beach. The bathroom is part of the bedroom but screened off. There is also a small single bed in the room for a child. Storage is limited, but there is a safe. Electricity, here too, is solar, and there is one plug point only per bungalow. The shower was rather poor, but apparently, they vary per room. The towels were dreadful, with very poor absorbency. This camp works very much like Mandrare in regards to meals and excursions, although guests are not obliged to eat communally, and the managers don’t eat with you.
The lemurs are slightly different here. You’ll spot red-collared brown lemurs by day and woolly lemurs by night, as well as mouse lemurs. Activities also include water-based ones, such as going through the Mangroves, kayaking and whale watching in season. There are enough activities here for four days, but we stayed five, which was maybe a day too long as the weather was not great for snorkelling, sitting on the beach or whale watching.
The food here varied: at times it was better and at others not as good as Mandrare. Breakfast was better, and they served beautiful, fresh crepes. Lemur viewing was difficult here, due to the tall trees or perhaps because there just weren’t too many around. No one saw many, though some visitors did better than others. The standard of the guides here also varied, and not all were good. One, in particular, didn’t seem to have much knowledge of the area and was decidedly bad at spotting wildlife.
Manafiafy is in a very beautiful location, great for chilling out and relaxing with wide stretches of beach. We were told the snorkelling could be great when the sea was calmer, so your experience is very weather dependent.
Both these camps are owned and run by Madagascar Classic Collection. They are very similar but do have some differences. Mandrare appears to be more structured and organised. Its tents, though, are less luxurious. At Mandrare, you are met after every drive with cold towels and a ‘welcome back’ by the manager, this is not the case at Manafiafy.
They are both classified as 4-star properties, which I think may be the case by Madagascar standards but not so when compared to 4-star lodges in other countries. For example, they don’t provide tissues, and as I normally only travel with enough for the journey, I came rather unstuck here.
Our departure day involved a very early start at 5 AM, as we needed to be at Port Dauphin for an 8.30 shared charter Cessna flight to Tana. It was a long day’s journey consisting of a 2.5-hour flight to Tana airport, followed by another 2.5 hours in a small plane to Diego Suarez in the extreme north of the island.
We were travelling to our last destination, Miavana, a newly opened island resort off the northern tip of Madagascar. Cited as being the “in place” to visit in 2017, we were looking for luxury at the end of our holiday.
Landing at Diego airport with our bags, we could see a very pretty pale green helicopter with “Miavana” written on the sides, but no one was waiting for us. So we sat in the rudimentary baggage hall, wondering what our next move should be. We were about an hour ahead of our itinerary but had assumed someone at this end would have kept an eye on the developments. We tried phoning the resort, but the number we had didn’t work, and the local agent’s number went to voicemail. As we resigned ourselves to a long wait, the pilot arrived, very apologetic. He knew we were going to be early, he said, but not that early.
We were soon ensconced aboard the helicopter for the final 30-minute leg of our day’s journey. It was a very beautiful flight, with views onto the cerulean blue sea below and pods of dolphins and whales within.
Designed by the architects who created North Island, as fans, we couldn’t resist trying out their new product. It’s billed as a 5-star property, but we felt it could not be just one star better than our other lodges. In every way, it deserved to be at least 8 stars.
Upon arrival, we were met by our butler and driven to the central area to meet the GM and have a welcome drink before being taken to our palatial villa. There will be fourteen villas in total, ranging from one to three bedrooms. At present, only eight are finished as it has only just opened, and we were the only guests here.
The villas are enormous, light and expansive. You walk into a large, living area that flows to an outside deck and pool with a small kitchen area. From one side, there is a study that can be converted into a sleeping area for children with an en-suite, and on the other is the large master suite. Pale shades of mint, white and light turquoise swirl through the property, giving a sensation of calmness. The bedroom leads into a large bathroom with a sunken tub, and wonderful indoor and outdoor showers. The vanity area has more than enough space to take the contents of even the largest toilet bag, and large, well-lit mirrors. Some villas have stand-alone additional suites as extra bedrooms, nearly identical to the master suite.
Within the villa, you are supplied with a vast array of drinks, both soft and alcoholic. Jars of delicious, homemade nibbles, savoury and sweet, are continually replenished. Your butler hovers constantly, wanting to know if you would like something to eat or drink.
The villas are all spread along the beach, distanced from each other, and come with a golf buggy. Depending on where you are, you can easily walk along the beach to the activity centre, the main pool and the restaurant. There’s a very large infinity pool, more suited for lap swimming than those of the villas.
Each evening at around 7 PM, sundowners are hosted at the bar where different members of staff, from the GM to the activity centre team, are there to chat and discuss what you would like to do the next day. Ask for any cocktail you fancy, chilled white wine or a G&T – your wish is their desire. Dinner follows and tables outside are grouped around ornamental ponds facing the beach.
Meals were three courses, with two choices each. The chef came to talk to us and ask what we liked so he could tailor the menu to suit. He prepared wonderful sushi and sashimi from tuna caught the same day. Whether this would be as easy if the resort were full, I’m not sure, though I think there would always be a tendency to give you what you would like. We were also told if we fancied a snack at any time, we just had to let him know.
Needless to say, we were never hungry. The food was very good, but not overly fussy. Unfortunately, as yet they are not doing any local dishes, though I am told this will eventually come. Breakfast is served in your villa, either continental or cooked, whichever you prefer.
At Miavana you can do as much or as little as you wish, from totally relaxing to embarking on full-on activities. All island-based excursions are included, including nature walks, picnics, fishing, snorkelling, diving and whale watching.
They offer trips off the island by helicopter which cost extra and are mainly to see different lemurs at alternative venues. The original information sheet we received stated that lemur viewing by boat to the mainland was included but, apparently, this is no longer offered, and the only way to view lemurs was by helicopter. It’s expensive, but we saw endangered sifakas that are only found in that area.
Miavana’s prices are not for the faint-hearted, but it’s beautiful, and it’s a wonderful way to finish a Madagascar holiday full of early starts, bouncy roads and not much relaxation.
So is Madagascar for everyone? Probably not. Do not arrive expecting luxury to be what you consider luxury; if this is what you want, this is not the trip for you. Most of the camps are literally in the middle of nowhere, and emergency evacuation would be difficult to impossible. Do not go if you have health issues. Internet and phone reception are extremely sparse and intermittent, and even at Miavana, they were poor, though the resort is looking at installing a satellite. But if you have a spirit of adventure, want to go somewhere different, and love seeing amazing wildlife then, yes, Madagascar is for you.
Photography courtesy of Dr Alison Coll
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