Travelling is Fun

Madagascar - 2010


Travelling independently using public transport
(alone
)

TERM:  10.6. - 11.7. 2010

ROUTE: Antananarivo - Mangily/Ifaty (Reniala Reserve visit) - Toliara - Isalo NP - Ranomafana NP - Fianarantsoa - Ankarafantsika NP - Mahajanga - Amber Mountain NP - Ankarana NP - Ramena (Three Bays and Emerald Sea visits) - Andasibe-Mantadia NP - Antananarivo



Madagascar is offering absolutely unique nature featuring one of the highest levels of endemism in the world. It got separated from the rest of the world well before emergence of mammals and so it was originally populated solely by reptiles allowing some of them, esp. chameleons and geckos, to develop to a rather big variety. This world apart has been later conquered by few random mammal species that have been casted away from African continent and differentiated there into many species exploiting all unoccupied niches - particularly famous are endemic lemurs, the only Madagascar primates. This unique experiment of alternative evolution lasted undisturbed for some 60 million years and has been interrupted as late as some 2000 years ago by humans oddly arriving from Southeast Asia at first and only later appended by another wave coming from African continent. All this history created world of its own, embracing a unique blend regarding both the natural and cultural environment and some of it still remains present on Madagascar and is luring to exploration. The Madagascar nature can be explored in many national parks, which offer unique experience in spite of their rather stiff regime.

I do admit that Madagascar is not an easy country for independent travellers, esp. in respect of transportation, catering, and availability of information. Still, the locals are friendly and generally willing to help, and many of them speak some French at least in places not too far from main roads. It is certainly manageable for experienced travellers and in return offers unique experience and encounters with many genuinely friendly people. Yet, somewhat in contrast to its visible poorness Madagascar feels surprisingly expensive even for an independent traveller who
wants to visit and explore some of its national parks but is not prepared to make quite substantial changes in her/his perception of life necessities. In any case, travelling independently is the only way to meet Madagascar as it really is - hiring your own car and especially travelling around with some travel company would separate you completely from the real local life and prevent you from meeting Malagasy people.


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General Information

Transport: Public transport in Madagascar is not known to be especially user friendly, being crowded beyond imagination, but this is not really truth when sticking to those few sealed roads. Yet, travelling overland to any destination distant more than some 50 km from the sealed roads seems to always be an adventure in itself claiming lots of time. As I preferred to spend my time in Madagascar exploring the local unique nature, I more or less sticked to main roads and also used some aerial transportation.
1. I flew to Antananarivo and back from Paris with the local Madagascar carrier, the Air Madagascar, and have to state that I was not too happy with quality of their international flights. The Air Madagascar is definitely very lousy airline as far as the longer international flights are concerned, as they seem to be always delayed by hours. During all my visits of major Madagascar airports (in Antananarivo and Antsiranana) I have never seen an Air Madagascar international arrival or departure that would be less than one hour late, and majority of them were delayed for over two hours (meaning the flights to and from Paris, Johannesburg, Reunion, and Comoros); esp. their longest flights to and from Paris seemed to always start with about 2-hour or longer repair of the plane (suggesting there might be some problem with plane maintenance ??!!!) and that added to the usual delay of the planes on their arrival from their previous international destination. My inbound flight left Paris half an hour delayed after doing some repairs there, took 2.5 hour more to do repairs in Marseilles, and arrived to Antananarivo those three hours late (when asking I was told that they never tried to shorten the delay while giving up on the most economical flight regime) - due to this I missed my connection to an Air Madagascar domestic flight in Antananarivo and had to wait for the next day flight (the Air Madagascar guarantees the connection in Antananarivo if there are 40 minutes between scheduled arrival and scheduled departure of connecting flights but the catch is that attribute "scheduled" added to "arrival") but at least the Air Madagascar did no fuss about booking me for that next-day flight and providing me with a hotel in Antananarivo including all transfers and meals. On my flight away the plane arrived to Antananarivo some 2.5 hours late from Reunion and took another 2.5 hours to do the "unexpected" repairs (the delay of 5 hours made a happy flight for me as I had "only" 5-hour connection time in Paris to a low-cost airline flight - those do not wait and do not allow any reservation change; yet, I got lucky as the Air Madagascar did shorten the delay that time to just over 4 hours due to favourable winds and I broke the record of the Paris CDG airport in making the plane change in half an hour; naturally, my check-in luggage, luckily sent all the way from Antananarivo to my final destination, did not make it and arrived but two days later). As for the flights alone, the meals and leg space was about average and there was little chance to watch movies as there were just two common screens provided and one of them was nearly blind. In general, I was very thoroughly unimpressed by the conduct of the Air Madagascar ground and air personnel regarding their international flights. A good feature of the Air Madagascar international flights is 30-kg weight limit for the checked-in luggage, which extends also to domestic flights when those are included in the same ticket. Also, beware of another practice of the Air Madagascar which is making rather frequent and substantial changes of its schedule - when booking my ticket I had a 2.5-hour connection time between my international and domestic flights in Antananarivo but it was later shortened to mere one hour (as mentioned I actually missed the connection due to a 3-hour delay of my international flight arrival). Yet, both my international flights looked completely full and so it is probably necessary to reserve (and buy as it is common practice now) the tickets well ahead of the flying date (I bought mine about half a year before flying). Anyway, I chose the Air Madagascar to get me to Madagascar and back as it earned me a 50% discount on their domestic flights - I paid EUR1085 in January for my international flights and three domestic flights which was indeed quite a good deal making the ordeals described above worth enduring; yet, when not planning to take advantage of this offer I do not believe the saving on the international ticket alone would justify the struggle.
2. To save time on travels to more distant places I resorted to some domestic flights again using the Air Madagascar, which is the only airline providing air transport within Madagascar. The normal fare for the flights is quite high but when flying in and out of Madagascar with this airline one gets a 50% discount on the domestic flights fares which makes flying rather attractive option for any more remote destinations. In spite of my rather bad experience with Air Madagascar international flights (see above) I have to admit that the combined price of my international and domestic flights was quite reasonable indeed when bought well before the actual flight date. Yet, it was not so easy for me to buy the discounted ticket as it was not possible to claim the discount when buying the ticket through the Air Madagascar on-line reservation website; the only way turned out to be buying the ticket through one of the few Air Madagascar points of sales they have abroad and so I reserved my ticket through their Paris office after some intensive e-mailing with them and while paying it using my debit card and faxing all the numbers on it to them (not too safe way to do it but it went without problems). Yet, beware of the rather frequent and substantial changes of Air Madagascar flights schedule (all three flights of mine have been moved several times by few hours in both directions) and so do not make too many plans for the days of your domestic flights and make sure to check for last minute changes. As for the Air Madagascar domestic flights my experience was not bad - the planes looked well maintained, the flights were OK, about on time, and far from full (sometimes nearly empty in fact), the leg space was above average with no seats allocation usually, the food served was about same as the flights of the same duration between European cities (so rather limited). There were no formalities or safety checks whatsoever for the domestic flights and so there was no need to arrive long before scheduled departure; also the boarding was very simple, just walking through the doors out of building on the landing ground and to the plane.
3. Otherwise I used mainly the basic Madagascar means of transport over any longer distances called locally the "taxi-brousse" and consisting in all kinds of vehicles running along the preset route, leaving any time when full, and stopping anywhere along their way. They are very cheap and there is no fee for the luggage that go onto the rack system on vehicle roof (the
taxi-brousses also double as a dispatch service delivering all kinds of goods along their route so expect to see huge piles of cargo on vehicle roof where your luggage is skillfully and safely roped and usually also tarpaulined). The Madagascar taxi-brousses travel only during daylight or until some 9pm and leave so that they complete their route within this time window (there are rumours about occasional highway robberies at night), i.e. for longer routes they all set off early in the morning and for long distance routes, requiring more than one day, they stop somewhere along their way and the passengers have to take care about their overnighting, typically roughing it in the vehicle or somewhere out; also beware that the frequency of the service along short distance routes is considerably reduced on Sundays or during holidays (the best bet in these days is to go early in the morning). On longer routes they normally do a meal and toilet stop at some roadside restaurant place. The way of driving was not nearly as bad as one could expect in a developing country - I have never experienced any case of really dangerous driving and the roads were also usually nearly empty with the exception of bigger cities and their close vicinity. The kind of vehicle used for this service (and the corresponding level of comfort) matches the condition of the road connecting the given places - it may be a minivan for the places located on decent main sealed roads, a pick-up for side roads either sealed or dirt, or a converted truck (i.e. a normal truck with its cargo area turned to a sort of cabin fitted with benches for seating passengers and called the "camion-brousse") for longer routes in backcountry with dirt "roads". The generally known feature of the Madagascar taxi-brousses is their crowdedness which makes them not too friendly for an unprepared Westerner on longer journeys and so it is wise to see about getting a good seat if you get a chance to make a choice - in fact, the number of paying passengers in the vehicle is typically not really exceeding the reasonable capacity of seats fitted into the vehicle (of course, not providing too much space) when its sets off on its way but not always there is enough space left for the baggage handlers who all pile in in this time (and there can be up to four of them in less tidy vehicles used for not-so-good roads); of course, another story is that some more passengers have to be accommodated along the way. Still, esp. along the main roads the situation is not really any different from what can be encountered in poorer developing countries anywhere around the world, esp. in Africa. The longer routes along the main sealed roads are serviced by minivans, which are normally in quite a reasonable shape. If travelling alone, the preferential seat is by far the front window seat (commonly called "place No. 2", i.e. "place deux" in French) and it is very much worth an extra effort to get it as it the only place offering enough leg space, access to window for regulation of the temperature, and even chance to open door and stretch one's legs during short stops - there is one more passenger place in between this preferential seat and the driver seat (called "No. 1") but for some reason locals do not like to take it and I witnessed it remaining vacant even when main passenger space in the minivan back was becoming rather overcrowded already (I have no idea why it is so - could not believe the reason could be that it is obviously not a good place to sit in case of accident; there is typically no seat belt available for this seat, while I was almost always able to use the seat belt when sitting on the window seat); if travelling as a couple the two front seats are naturally the best option in spite of the fact that the middle seat is somewhat less comfortable (it was still the second best choice for me if the preferential window seat was taken). The minivans used are typically Mazda, Toyota, or Hyundai made and if you have a choice go for the most common Mazda as it offers much more comfortable front seat than esp. its also common rival Toyota Hiace. Guidebooks and other travellers often recommend as the next best the place in the first row right behind the driver but I do not believe it is really a good choice - one does have there a place to put a daypack in front of oneself and slightly more space to move legs but it is also the row where the baggage handlers are most likely to squeeze on departure and also the first place to cram those extra passengers getting in along the way; I have myself preferred the seats in the third row in the main passenger cabin (the fourth when counting the front seat) which at least offers a somewhat stable position - the second row in the cabin is next on when trying to accommodate additional passengers. In bigger towns the taxi brousses depart from a taxi brousse station (in some places there may be more than one of them serving different sectors of country - e.g. in Antananarivo there are four), in smaller places and anywhere along the way one can just flag them down on the road. It is not so easy to recommend an universal strategy how to secure the mentioned preferential seat No. 2 even if you travel from the place where the taxi brousse is originating - the LP guidebook generally recommends to reserve a seat an evening before the journey but I have not found it esp. effective if you do not know well which of the companies serving the given route is the reasonably good one because it may happen that the chosen company is not too popular with locals and is not capable to get enough passengers quickly enough to leave soon (I have done it once and later decided to write off my deposit and go with other company as the company of my first choice emerged to be incapable to fill the minivan in a reasonable time - at least try to pay ahead as little fraction of the full fare as you can wangle). It worked better for me to arrive to a taxi brousse station early and found a minivan heading to my destination and showing the signs of being close to its departure, i.e. either having a big enough pile of cargo on its roof and majority of its seats taken (either by seating passengers or their luggage) - but these are likely to have their preferential seat taken, or better the one still having the preferential seat available and appearing to be filling quickly - if there is more companies you may become an object of genuine interest of all kinds of touts trying to win you for their company but it is not bad to be hooked by a capable tout as he gives a prospect of being able to quickly hunt down enough of other passengers as well (so do not look on touts as on your enemies and enjoy watching their bustle - it is esp. enjoyable in busy taxi brousse stations of Antananarivo). Still, you will very likely be the only "vazaha" (as a white foreigner is called by locals) on board and I have noticed that Malagasy people still have a tendency to grant somewhat more space to a vazaha than they would lend to a local (the exception seems to be the Madagascar North where locals seems to be frowning on vazahas, likely due to their frequent encounters with rich tourists on day visits from the plush resorts of Nosy Be and esp. the sex-tourists coming from there accompanied by very young local girls). The shorter routes along the side and not so good roads are serviced by pick-ups, often 50-years old vintage Peugeot 404 Camionettes - the best seats in them is of course also the front seat but it is much less likely you will be able to secure it for yourself (these vehicles are filling more slowly and usually wander around to find passengers so you are typically boarding them when they are already quite full); just try to get as far from their rear entrance as you can as the additional passengers picked-up along the way make their back real crowded - they typically do not travel too far but better do not expect to have a nice trip anyway. As for the camion-brousse I tried it just once for a short 2-hr ride and it was quite fun but I am sure it would be a back breaker for any longer trip - the thing was clearly using the original shock-absorbers and so it was no smooth ride at all; still, these vehicles are providing the only transporting option e.g. for all south of Madagascar and people have to survive days in them (no regret I did not try that). Beware that when asking about duration of the taxi brousse journey you will get very revised information, usually about half of the real time.
4. In the cities you may use public transport or resort to taking a taxi. The public transport systems are very cheap and seem to be fairly well developed in bigger Madagascar cities but it is naturally not always easy to find out how to use them - this service is typically provided by small buses (in Antananarivo they are called the "taxi-be") but the same minivans as used for the taxi brousses are also used in some cities (e.g. in Antsiranana). If you cannot get clear information on the public transport covering your route it is generally better to stick to a taxi; still, I have used the public buses to travel from/to the airports in Antananarivo and Mahajanga as the airport taxis there were impossibly expensive (as it is common in the airports all around the world after all). There are lots of taxis available in the cities, typically yellow- or beige-coloured small Renault, Citroen, or Peugeot hatchbacks, and usually not too expensive in the daytime but the price may increase at night; as it is typical in developing countries taxis do not use meters and so you need to settle the price to your destination before getting in - the taxi drivers usually quote rather high asking price so try to find out ahead what is the proper price for your route (check out your guidebook, look around on the internet, and/or ask in your hotel) or start haggling with offering half of the asking price. In some warmer and flat cities the taxi services are also provided by rickshaws, i.e. two-wheeled carts seating one or two persons powered by a human runner known from India and locally called the "pousse-pousse" - again, the price needs to be settled in advance and should be about half of price for a motor taxi (of course, one feels awkwardly to be dragged around by a usually rather skinny guy but at least you let him earn some money - not hiring him is not helping him for sure; if you feel he deserve more, you can always give him more than settled when reaching your destination). The main means of transport in rural areas is a zebu-drawn cart and it can be also hired as a taxi there - yet, I have not tried it myself.

Accommodation: I mostly camped using my own tent on this trip but in cities I was also using budget hotels.
1. I have only used the cheapest available hotels with rooms up to some US$10 per night. In general, the rates for the rooms are very diverse depending on the place and local competition - in some more businesslike places you may also be able to negotiate a discount. For this money you typically get a room with not much more than a double bed (single-bed rooms are quite rare but do exist) and a table and chair, and also an access to shared toilet and bathroom, typically but not always separated; in colder areas of eastern and central Madagascar hot water is usually available, typically generated by a boiler. A fan is naturally provided just in the hot areas in the west. The toilet is usually fitted with a toilet bowl, a squat toilet is rare and when available the outfit for using the Asian/African water-cleaning method is missing anyway - as it is typical in developing countries, you are almost always expected not to put toilet paper into the toilet due to possible plumbing problems but put it into a provided garbage can. A mosquito net is surprisingly rare considering that there are almost always some mosquitoes around (in spite of not too plentiful) even in quite cold places like Antananarivo - I have been using repellent in colder places (where I was well hidden in my sleeping bag) or my own mosquito net - it is rather difficult to find a place to attach the net (I have made two additional loops to my net allowing to make a tent-like structure out of it and hang it down from a low-lying rope which can be usually attached to some suitable points like picture hooks or door/window hinges). Breakfast is not provided in the described kind of rooms and hotels. I was travelling in low season and typically had no problem to find an available budget room in the first hotel I asked, an exception being Antananarivo where the cheapest rooms in budget hotels seemed to be rather full.
2. In national parks I was always camping using my own tent. In many parks there were campsites conveniently provided right next the park office. A nice feature of these campsites was a chance to use set spaces designated to accommodate the tents, fitted with shelters (thatched roofs) raised above somehow elevated platform often softened by a sand - these spaces helped me to keep my tent dry in rainy areas and shaded from sun in sunny places). The provided sanitary facilities always included shared toilet and separated bathroom but their quality differed widely. The price for using the campsite was nominal, some US$1-3 per night (sometimes it was also possible to camp even cheaper outside of the set spaces). When camping I was leaving all my things in the tent locked by a token padlock and never had any problems despite that there was nobody watching over it (of course I was not stretching my luck too far by leaving there any valuables, esp. passport, money, or camera).

Food: Food is for sure no Madagascar attraction - actually it is quite a problem to get at least substantial and reasonably safe food outside of the rare and expensive tourist restaurants available just in big cities and plush tourist resorts. The Madagascar cuisine seems to be very simple and focused very much on feeding while neglecting the taste - I have never found it so difficult to get a cheap and tasteful food during all my travels to "exotic" countries as in Madagascar. This is somewhat surprising considering the Southeast Asian origin of local culture and rice-farming basis of local agriculture - actually the later arrival of zebu pasturage from Africa seemed to instill bigger influence on Madagascar cuisine making it almost solely based on meat and using almost no spices or additions to improve or differentiate the taste; the staple food in Madagascar is lots of plain rice and some meat, usually zebu, stewed in it's own juice. Vegetarian food is virtually nonexistent and the very notion of it is even difficult to explain to locals; I am not a vegetarian normally but when in tropical areas I generally prefer to resort to vegetarian food to avoid problems - this strategy of mine earned quite a corroboration in Madagascar as one of the first meat-based meal I sampled (it was my second order of a fried rice with zebu meat in quite a good looking tourist restaurant in Mangily near Toliara) brought me a medium case of bacterial dysentery; after this experience I mostly stuck to my own food luckily brought in plenty from home (it was originally meant to be used just when camping in wilderness but I was somewhat expecting the problems and took a good surplus of it) and only very conservatively supplemented it with some strictly vegetarian local food - regarding that, it was always possible to get plain rice (locally called "riz blanc" in French) and french-fried potatoes ("pommes frites") and I was usually also able to negotiate a local version of the vegetarian fried rice ("riz cantonaise") which was however usually not too tasty, being typically just a plain rice with rather scarce addition of some very few kinds of vegetables of rather strange taste and not really fried. The restaurants used by locals (locally called "hotely") are dead cheap and available even in not so big villages and anywhere along the roads and their offer includes zebu brochettes, samosas, pakoras, fried chicken, boiled eggs, and fried banana; yet, the stalls and the food offered in them looked invariably quite untidy and so unappealing to me that I had no problem to resist buying it even when rather hungry (the food offered by hawkers at taxi-brousse stops looked even worse); I have rarely seen the food being really under preparation - it all seemed to be cooked somewhere else and quite some time before it got to its consumers - I may be rather picky (and may give too much attention to the food look) but I have never had problem to buy street food within all my travels before but Madagascar has been just too much for me. The prices do not vary too much throughout the country but do depend on the remoteness or popularity of the places. The guidebooks and internet sources, I have read, mentioned freshly cooked snacks being sold in the evening in the stalls but to my regret I have in fact almost never seen that during my trip and all the stalls kept selling the same things prepared long before (the only exception was Ramena in the North where I very much enjoyed eating freshly cooked manioc, aubergine, and some kind of flour flippers). In places of tourist interest there were some special restaurants catering for tourist and those were offering menus with rather wide offer and looking OK but those had been quite expensive indeed. As for provisions, the bakery is available in many shops (typically it is that French kind of bread, the "baguette", which seems to be made mostly of air and is not too tasty if half a day from an oven, but in some random places it is possible to get some longer-lived kinds), as well as the bottled water, soft drinks, and beer. Yet, as for drinks I resorted to using tap water treated with chlorine-based disinfectant and mixed with Tang drink powder and found it very good replacement for buying an overpriced water or soft drinks and producing waste adding to the typical problem of developing countries with no established plastic recycling system.

Money: The local currency is called Ariary and somewhat foolishly uses lots of excessive digit places - in this report I will use an abbreviation of 'kAr' to indicate 1000 Ariary. I solely used cash withdrawn from ATMs using my debit card (MasterCard) and had no problem at all. The ATMs of several banks are available in all bigger cities but many of them take just VISA - still, I used successfully the ATMs of the CNI-BA bank that are accepting both MasterCard and VISA cards and giving up to 400kAr, which actually seems to be the highest withdrawal limit available in any Madagascar bank (one of these ATMs is conveniently located right in the international arrival/departure hall of the Antananarivo airport). It is advisable to plan well and stock ahead with enough cash (Madagascar is quite safe to carry money around) as outside of the bigger cities it would be necessary to change money in banks, which offer short working hours and long queues (Euros are said to be more welcome than US$).

Internet: Internet connection in Madagascar was by far the worst I have ever encountered anywhere in the world. Outside of Antananarivo I have never been able to even open the windows for "new mail" or "reply" for any of my accounts set up with two different providers in Czechia and in some places with a dial-up connection only (e.g. Fianarantsoa) I was not even able to read my mails - the given windows just remained blank and the "status bar" kept showing the message "Transferring data..."; even in Antananarivo the process was incredibly slow. The only website I was able to use rather easily in Madagascar for sending some messages back home was somewhat surprisingly a site allowing to sent free SMS messages to mobile phones. In addition, any time I tried to open my Czech-based mailboxes for the first time on a new computer I got some sort of a security message (always the same) and was asked to import a temporary certificate to the computer to be able to use it - the import was not difficult and did not take much time but it was quite a surprise for me as I have never needed to do it before (I am not sure if it is just Madagascar or it will be necessary from now on anywhere else in the world -I will find out on my next trip). On the other hand, internet cafes are available in all bigger cities and also in not so big places with any demand (e.g. village of Ranomafana); the internet access points are also in the main post offices. In any case, when going to Madagascar you better prepare your folks and friends back home that they may be getting no messages from you.

Timing: The weather is extremely various in different parts of Madagascar and it is quite difficult to find a time offering reasonable weather in all Madagascar habitats. The timing of my trip was somewhat forced on me by job constraints but proved to be rather good - it was not yet unbearably hot in the west and the vegetation was still somewhat green there too, while it was not intolerably cold yet in the east. I also liked that it was not, in fact, the high-season period anywhere in Madagascar (it was just before it in the north popular with French and Italians coming for summer school holidays) and I have even got an unthought-of bonus in football championship held in the South Africa which kept some potential visitors busy elsewhere (not to mention the current downturn in number of visitors caused by the recent political unrest in Madagascar) - so, the number of hotel guests and visitors in national parks was rather low within my stay and it gave me a good chance to enjoy my trip relatively unbothered.

National park visits: The unique nature of Madagascar is the very reason for visiting there but it is not really much left of it outside of the national parks (an exception being just the spiny forest in the south). Visiting the national parks is thus the main activity of majority of Madagascar visitors (leaving out the special reasons of rather monstrous French and Italian sex tourists) - fortunately, there is quite a few national parks in Madagascar that preserve all kinds of the very diverse local habitats and are mostly well managed and kept. Yet, the regime of these parks is quite strict and it is compulsory to hire an authorized guide and in spite of that also to stick usually just to limited number of established trails (locally always called "circuits"). In fact, in majority of the parks the guides are not really necessary to keep you on trails (obligation to hire a guide is fairly new and in majority of the parks the trails are still signposted reasonably well) and they are certainly a constraint, often asking you to set your itinerary well in advance, when your knowledge about the given park is still rather casual, and not leaving much room for later changes according to the weather and your momentary feeling. Additional problem to watch out for is talkativeness of the guides - as it is so typical in developing countries any time two locals get together they seem to have always something to discuss and so any time more guides get together they keep talking and make it rather difficult to enjoy nature sounds; unfortunately, there are several occasions this happens and guides typically seek them actively: (1) sometimes your guide is joined by another guide in training with alleged aim to learn new skills and got accreditation - if you get a chance try to avoid this happening (I wanted to be nice in one such case and thoroughly regretted that decision later), (2) sometimes your guide is using a so-called "spotter", i.e. another guide (often also guide in training) who he sends to look around for animals - this setup actually may suits you well on condition your guide is good enough to make good use of the spotter, (3) there are some spots along the trails where groups of visitors tend to confluence (such as resting-places, view-points, etc.) and the guides like to take advantage of such places - you better cut this meetings right away and make sure you keep separated from other groups (that's what you are paying for after all), (4) in many parks there are special places where habituated lemurs concentrate and attract number of visitors with their guides - there is no chance to avoid this but your will anyway have bigger problem with some reckless "animal photographers" who always look at the animals only through their lenses, make all kinds of noise, and do not give a damn about other visitors. In any case, I did slipped into one park without a guide at the end of my trip and found it much better to enjoy the nature undisturbed - yet, in majority of the parks it is not at all easy to avoid necessity to take a guide and everybody is really trying to make it very difficult (Madagascar was the only place in the world that forced me to stick with the guides all the time and it gave me a reaffirmation that no matter how good the guides are they are always preventing one from having a really good time with the nature); still, I do not know what happens if you get caught in a Madagascar park without a guide. Anyway, under the circumstances the park visits are not at all cheap, especially not for a solitary traveller, and they will likely represent a quite substantial part of your expenses in Madagascar. The park fee per person is 25/37/40/50kAr for 1/2/3/4 calendar days (i.e. any visit within a certain calendar day is counted as full day, no matter how short it is); the guiding fees can differ quite considerably in individual parks but they are typically about 40kAr for a half a day trek and about 60kAr for a full day trek per group of 1 to 4 (or 5) people (for bigger groups it is usually slightly more or extra payment is requested), overnight treks are also possible while the fee is calculated by multiplying the fee for single day and adding an extra fee for guide food (it is just 10kAr per day but I consider it real audacity unheard anywhere else) and also fee for camping; formerly popular night walks offered within some parks have been cancelled once for all (after complaints about bad behaviour of guides in the Ranomafana NP, thoughtlessly feeding nocturnal lemurs and torturing them using strong lights) but it is still possible to do this activity outside the parks for some 20kAr. The guides are usually quite good (sometimes utterly incredible) in spotting the wildlife you would have no chance to find yourself, esp. well-camouflaged chameleons and geckos, but not always good enough in English to answer your questions and sometimes not really willing to adapt to your preferences - to find a good guide is the single most important step for having a rewarding and enjoyable visit in any Madagascar national park and it should by no means be left to a luck: before coming to a park always seek recommendations for good guides in the guidebooks, on the internet (I have included some in this report too), and from other travellers (or at least have a look at a book of complaints usually kept in park offices). On arrival to an office of the given park you are normally entitled to speak to a guide of your choice (the Ankarafantsika NP is an exception here - see below) and discuss your plans with her/him - make sure you explain in detail your desires and choose the trails and set all your visit accordingly. The trails an timing given for them are typically set for lazy walk and could be almost always walked in half a day (of course, if not planned for several days overnight treks) - still, the fee you pay for guiding is not limited by time and so it is reasonable to negotiate with your guide to go slowly and try to get the most for the money paid. The guides in some parks insist you choose and pay for all your hikes in advance and this is not at all a good sign - if this happens expect a trickery and be very careful and conservative with choosing your hikes; by contrast, trustworthy guides in good parks typically just set a general plan which they are ready to adjust according to your evolving feelings, weather, and other factors and ask you to pay just in the end after all your hikes. Unfortunately, it is not at all easy to get fair information about individual Madagascar national parks before coming - LP guide 2008 is absolutely useless in this respect (the information provided is real shame, testifying that not only the authors did no research of their own but they did not even bothered to include at least some official information - I suggest to disregard this guidebook totally in respect of the national parks as it will just mislead you) and also the much better Bradt Guide 2007 often does not provide enough details; by far the best information can be found on the official website of the MNP (MNP further on - formerly known as ANGAP after its that-time French name "Association Nationale pour la Gestion des Aires Protegees") but even there the information is rather erratic and often out of date and messy; I will try to provide here quite detailed information at least for the parks I have visited. In any case, it is quite a struggle to plan your visit in Madagascar national parks and some of the park guides clearly exploit the lack of information about the trails to make you pay more than fair amount for your hikes by feeding you slightly modified information about trails lay-out and interconnections (it is not surprising as I was told that the guiding fee goes in full directly to the guides, making them in fact exceptionally well paid in Madagascar standards) - in fact, due to all these restraints you are quite likely to experience some set-backs in getting the best out of your visits in at least some of the parks and many people try to avoid these problems by putting in extra expenses while resigning on staying fully independent and experiencing Madagascar in full with all its difficulties. Certain easement of the problems may be even just renting a car with an experienced driver to take you to the parks of your choice as these drivers usually know some good guides in individual parks and help you at least to find them - yet, I doubt this is worth the expenses. The more efficient option seems to be hiring an extra guide to accompany you on all your park visits (no matter if you rent a car or travel by public transport) - beware that you would still need to hire and pay a local guide, authorized for each visited park, but your extra guide should know the best local guides and be able to help you to choose the right trails and make up for possible incompetence of the local guide; for this I can recommend Mr. Heriniaina Thierra (known by his nickname 'Hery'; +261-327771378; heriniainathierra@gmail.com) who is skilled in providing this kind of service all around Madagascar, esp. in its southern part (he was my very good guide in the Ranomafana NP). The most complete option, yet preventing you from really getting to know Madagascar, is to have all your visit organized by some local or even international travel agency but this puts you in mercy of an establishment likely to manipulate your trip and not really listening to your desires - if you are really interested in this option I can recommend Mr. Rajeriarison Desire (known by his nickname 'Desi'; +261-330625422 or +261-334196395; rajeriguide@yahoo.fr) who was my very good guide in the Andasibe-Mantadia NP; he is genuine nature enthusiast and incredibly knowledgeable about flora and fauna of all Madagascar and is occasionally working as a guide for the local Ecotour travel agency and guiding its trips all around Madagascar - so he could be able to discuss your plans and help you to set the tour itinerary to your desires. Also good may be a new company named Madagascar Natural Tours (www.madagascar-natural-tours.com) started at 2013 by Mr. Jenita Harilala (known by his nickname 'Jenita'; +261-341500030; madanaturaltours@gmail.com) who was my quite good and knowledgeable guide in the Ankarana NP. The wildlife in Madagascar national parks is not especially spectacular in comparison with the African continent, the animals are smaller and less abundant but those few present in individual parks are again always interesting and often quite amazing; it is fairly easy to observe at least some animals in all the parks - the most sought trade-mark lemurs are generally unafraid of humans and in many parks they are quite habituated to seeing human observers owing to many researchers coming to study their ethology; quite interesting is lack of shyness of Madagascar birds - I have never seen so many different birds in such a close range, placidly going after their usual food just few meters from a human observer. Offices of the parks are typically located on the park borders in some adjacent human settlements but there may be exceptions like the office placed somewhat away from the park in some village or else the office being right on the border with no settlement around; the offices are typically open from 6:00 (yet, sometimes as late as from 8:00 - officially or effectively) till 16:00. Some sort of accommodation is readily offered near the park offices of almost all the national parks - these are usually organized by the parks themselves in the form of camping sites, dormitories and/or bungalows; food is often also offered in some basic restaurant. Some parks are not offering any accommodation near their offices but have a campsite and even a dormitory within the park boundaries instead - in these cases you are allowed to enter the park without a guide and so get a chance to explore around at least outside of the official opening hours of the park; if staying there you are generally requested to pay the park fee for each day of your stay inside the Park within the opening hours of the park office; also beware that in such parks your backpack may be checked in the office when leaving the park so do not try to smuggle out any samples of local flora or fauna. Whole Madagascar and also its national parks are noted for unusual diversity of weather - some parks are very hot and dry and others are very wet and cold, so it is necessary to come equipped with accordingly various clothing. The wet parks are "blessed" with terrestrial leeches, apparently rather unwise home reminders brought in by original settlers - they are somewhat smaller and less abundant (at least in the rather cold season during my visit) but otherwise the kind known from Southeast Asia, i.e. they are not all dangerous and do not spread any diseases but if you get more of them and let them suck long enough you may experience some kind of reaction like a slight gathering accompanied with rather unpleasant itching (as I have been exposed to them recently in Malaysia I got this reaction from the very beginning). The mosquitoes are also present but not especially abundant in the parks, yet Madagascar is known for inherency of malaria and so it is sensible to make corresponding precautions.

Safety and pestering: I have found Madagascar very safe and absolutely friendly - violent crime is not a problem within a daytime (it is generally not recommended to walk around in Madagascar cities later at night but I have never felt endangered even after dark) and even petty crime is not a problems if taking usual precautions (night seems to be a time for local thieves: a daypack with money, debit cards, and passports left lying rather recklessly under the open window in Ranomafana NP dormitory was stolen but the thief was at least "nice" enough to take only money and dump the pack at place where it could be found and returned to its careless owners; my rubber sandals left outside by my tent at Ramena disappeared during small night hours). People are usually very friendly and approach vazahas without any aversion (the exception seems to be the Madagascar North where locals seems to be somewhat frowning on vazahas, likely due to their frequent encounters with rich tourists on day visits from the plush resorts of Nosy Be and esp. the sex-tourists coming from there accompanied by very young local girls). As for pestering, it is not especially widespread in Madagascar and generally limited just to touts at taxi-brousse terminals looking for passengers, who are more helpful than annoying, and souvenir sellers and would-be masseuses (in fact looking as and probably being the whores) along the beaches; due to rather widespread poverty you do get sometimes approached by all kinds of beggars asking for money (I strongly believe one should never give money or anything to these people as these gifts solve nothing and make them to believe that begging is a way how to live instead of finding some sustainable way; South Asian countries are an example that there is a self-sustaining way out for even the poorest parts of the world).

General impression: Madagascar is indeed not too easy country to travel independently but it is not impossible or overly difficult to enjoy such travelling. Still, the locals are very friendly and generally willing to help. Many of them speak some French but one can manage even without knowing this language - English was rarely spoken outside of the national parks and some tourist hotels but I was able to manage in spite of the fact that my French was virtually non-existent on arrival and was only slightly improving through my stay and I had to rely heavily on a dictionary and my phrase-book upgraded with some pre-prepared phrases covering expected situations. Yet, somewhat in contrast to its visible poorness Madagascar is surprisingly expensive especially for travellers determined to explore some of its national parks.

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Mangily / Ifaty

I have spent together about two days at the beach village of Mangily and found it quite interesting esp. due to the surrounding very unique habitat of spiny forest.

Mangily / Ifaty village: Mangily is a small tourist oriented fishing village comprising two different parts - a string of small tourist resorts and restaurants bordering the beach and original fishing village with few local stall shops lining the transiting main road. It is not especially interesting by itself but offers pleasant lazy holiday atmosphere. This retreat place is often known as Ifaty but that is in fact another fishing village lying some 2 km south along the main road and representing a rather different world - it is still extremely poor with no tourist infrastructure and allows one to appreciate the hard real life in one of poorest parts of Madagascar and away from tourist ghettos. Beware that the beach at Mangily was the only place I have found few stalls with some decent souvenirs during all my Madagascar holiday so if you like some of the wood carvings or other things on display there better do not postpone your shopping for later date.

Mangily sea and marine-life tips: The Mangily beach opens to one of the largest lagoons in the world (Ranobe lagoon) protected by long coral barrier reef opening to the sea by only two narrow passages - this topography determines characteristics of the area including absolutely flat sea level, protection from sharks otherwise quite abundant in the Mozambique channel and making swimming in the open sea slightly dangerous (there are even the Great Whites living there), but also vulnerability of corals in the lagoon to the climate changes. The difference between low and high tides at Mangily is almost 2 m at full/new moon and so you need to give care to them - it is very useful to get the tide table and plan your time. Seawater temperature during my wintertime visit was little too low for comfort and it was not really possible to swim for more than some half an hour without getting cold through.
1. Swimming: It is rather difficult to enjoy swimming at the Mangily beach during the low tide as the sea retreats quite far and the sea floor is sloping down very slowly making it necessary to walk very far to the sea; in addition, the beach is lined with a rather annoying strip of seagrass one has to pass through. During the high time swimming is quite nice with easy access to the sea from a nice sandy beach.
2. Snorkelling: The snorkelling in the Ranobe lagoon is rather bad as majority of corals there have been damaged by occasional high water temperatures and it is now seriously affected by coral bleaching. Snorkelling from the beach would require rather long swim and so it is necessary to hire a boat to get to some of the patch reefs lying beyond the strip of seagrass. The best spot for snorkelling in the lagoon is supposed to be the patch reef called in French "Massif des Roses" that has been set apart as a local community-managed marine reserve (the misery of coral status in the Ranobe lagoon is illustrated by the fact that the reason for protecting this reef is its by far the highest percentage of living corals around: 38% at the time of its declaration !!); the fee to visit this reserve is 2kAr per person per day - there are indeed some corals there and quite a few species of fish (mostly those feeding on dead corals) too but nobody would take note of this place in an area with healthy coral reefs; visibility there during my visit was just about 10 m. It is not difficult to hire a boat as you are likely to be approached on the beach by boat owners offering to take you to snorkelling spots in their locally used small outrigger canoes (called "pirogues" in French) - it is sensible to wait for several offers to have a comparison; I have been there in low season and got a quite reasonable price of 17kAr for an unlimited stay (but the boatman was rather surprised when I indeed abided to staying at the Massif des Roses for 4 hrs as I had set when negotiating the deal).
3. Diving: I have not been diving at Mangily but seen at least two diving centers there. The few diving sites within the Ranobe lagoon are likely to be affected by coral bleaching but majority of dive sites is outside the lagoon and so hopefully better.

Exploring the spiny forest: Mangily is situated within the area of the spiny forest, which is an absolutely unique habitat packed with endemic plants, such as endemic species of baobabs and whole Didiereaceae family, demonstrating all kinds of extravagant adaptations to the dry climate of southwestern Madagascar; the vegetation is somewhat similar to that growing in south of the USA or northern Mexico but the plants have actually totally different origin (displaying an exemplary case of convergent evolution). The best place to see the spiny forest near Mangily is the Reniala Nature Reserve located just next the village and easily reachable on foot - there are few established trails there (some oriented to plants and other to birds) and it is compulsory to hire a guide to explore them; at least, this is a private reserve run by a local NGO and the fees are quite reasonable: the entrance fee depends on the trail you choose - there are two botanic circuits (I took the longer one taking some 2-3 hours for a fee of 12kAr) and one birding circuit, the guide fee is 5kAr (the guides speak reasonable English and know all kinds of information about the spiny forest). The forest in the reserve is quite natural and definitely interesting and features lots of baobabs and other local plants - the best time to visit is the morning or evening when there is not so hot yet and the birds are more active. The turn-off for the Reserve entrance is some 100 m north of the T-shaped crossroad in the heart of Mangily, the entrance is east of the road about 300 m along a sandy road. Right at the turn there is another establishment started by Moussa, a former guide to the Reniala Reserve, in an effort to hijack the business of the Reserve - he has acquired and fenced a patch of rather depleted forest directly adjacent to the village and is taking his clients there advertising it as "Baobab Forest"; while his trips may be as good as the Reserve regarding the birding it is not so good regarding the forest itself; I also disliked his clear effort to snatch the visitors using all kinds of dirty tricks including claiming that the Reniala Reserve is closed; the fees are about the same as in the Reniala Reserve. Actually, if you are really low on cash you can take a branch sandy road (turning north off the road heading eastward to the Reniala Reserve entrance, just some 100 m before this entrance) that also gets you to the spiny forest free of charge and you can explore it as long you want (in fact, any trail branching east from this side road gets you stright into the Reniala Reserve - you can recognize its botanic trail by white rocks lining it on both its sides; yet, I am not suggesting to sneak into this Reserve for free as they charge quite reasonable fees there and the money seems to go to good purposes). After the "Moussa forest" and before the Reniala Reserve entrance there is the so-called "Village of Turtles" ("Village des Tortues" in French), which is a rescue station for local endemic endangered turtles that can be also visited.

Transport: To get to Mangily from Antananarivo I first flew to Toliara and from there took a taxi-brousse. The Air-Madagascar flight (their first and only of the day at 6:10) took one hour and half, was about one hour late, almost full, and uneventful - it was a compensatory flight provided by the Air Madagascar after I missed this flight a day before due to a three-hour delay of my Air Madagascar flight from Paris. The original flight ticket was booked and bought within a compound Air-Madagascar ticket including both my international and domestic flights. From the Toliara airport I took a taxi for 15kAr (fixed fee not likely negotiable) to the northern taxi-brousse station and took a direct taxi-brousse to Mangily from there (cost 3kAr, took about 2 hrs). There are two kinds of taxi-brousses serving the route from Toliara to Mangily, pick-ups and camion-brousses; the cost and duration of journey is the same but the pick-ups are much more comfortable and naturally do not take nearly as much time to fill - also, while pick-ups go just to Mangily and deliver you right to your hotel of choice on request, the camion-brousses continue further north and just drop you on the main road. Still, you do not have this choice usually - on arrival just tell the touts that you are heading to Mangily and see what kind of vehicle they will show you; if you are waiting for a camion-brousse to fill watch out for pick-ups possibly going your way in case the touts do not tell you - you should have no problem to transfer yourself and your baggage (and the money paid) into other vehicle if such appears.

Accommodation: Chez Freddy, a rather dark double-bed bungalow for 15kAr per night with an access to shared toilet and bathroom; beware that water is slightly brackish. It was rather too near to the popular restaurant (they have just two bungalows) but as the electricity was coming from their own generator everything got very quiet at night; on Saturday there was a very good live local music in the restaurant. The place was located in the village about 100 m from a public access to the beach. Some English was spoken.

Food:
1. The Chez Freddy was primarily a quite good and popular restaurant and I had twice a very good and filling grilled fish (poissons grilles) there for dinner for 7.5kAr (for side-dish it was possible to choose between rice and french-fried potatoes). They had a good selection and menu in French.
2. To save some money I took my lunch twice in the Chez Blandine & Charly, a small bud good looking restaurant at the corner of the T-shaped crossroad in the heart of Mangily - I had a fried rice (riz cantonaise) with zebu meat (the meat came from a freezer; there were no English spoken there so I could not negotiate to have it vegetarian) and did taste reasonably well but the second meal brought me a medium case of bacterial dysentery and so I cannot really recommend to eat there. Anyway, as the place looked OK and was somewhat oriented to foreigners (they even had a reasonable selection and menu in French) I understood that nourishment would be a problem in Madagascar.
3. As for the provisions there was several stall shops around the T-shaped crossroad in the heart of Mangily selling bottled water, soft drinks, beer, and also French baguettes. The usual variety of seasonal fruits was also available in some stalls, including bananas and pineapples.

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Toliara

I have just slept in Toliara on my way to the Isalo NP and got time just for a short shopping trip to the center. The place was not at all attractive but looked reasonably developed and offered all kinds of services, such as variety of shops, banks with ATMs (including the CNI-BA), and internet places.

Transport: To get to Toliara from Mangily I took a taxi-brousse. As advised I was first waiting for a pick-up taxi-brousse in front of the Chez Freddy at around 13:00 but when none appeared in some half an hour I moved to the main road and flagged down a passing camion-brousse which took me directly to the Toliara northern taxi-brousse station (cost 3kAr, took about 2 hrs); it was quite full and the ride was very bumpy indeed but it was kind of an interesting adventure within that short time period. To get to the city center I took a waiting taxi to the Hotel Central for 3kAr and then took a pousse-pousse to the Hotel Lovasoa for 1kAr (ride was very short and quite overpriced but the price was suggested and arranged by the Hotel Central owner).

Accommodation: Hotel Lovasoa, a rather good double room with fan, bathroom attached (with cold shower and wash-basin), and shared toilet for 16kAr per night. First I tried LP Guide recommended Hotel Central where all cheap rooms were occupied (the rooms available were over 30kAr) and the hotel owner suggested I could go to her other property, the not so distant Hotel Lovasoa.

Food: I did not have much time and just bought a pineapple for a dinner and some bread for my next day travelling.

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Isalo NP

I have spent two days in the Isalo National Park and had a mixed feelings about it - the nature there is nice and interesting but the Park is very badly managed and in addition I have picked up an incredibly bad guide (I was paying a price of a novice to the Madagascar national parks but it was a good awakening call for me which helped me to score better in other parks). The Park is formed by a huge, wildly eroded sandstone massif rising from the grassy plains and with its cliffs furrowed by deep canyons - while the massive itself is overgrown with grasses and xeric vegetation, including the bizarre endemic pachypodium, the streams flowing through the canyons create completely different world featuring lush green riparian forests and palm-lined oases inhabited by endemic fauna including three species of diurnal lemurs: Verreaux’s sifaka, catta (ring-tailed lemur), and common brown lemur.

Park visit tips: The Isalo National Park is one of the most visited Parks in Madagascar and may see rather too many visitors on those few trails close to its HQs (allegedly about 250 people daily in full season in July and August). It has a dry tropical climate but hiking there is not too uncomfortable due to a breeze in the grassland and tree shade in the canyons. The Park office is located in a small town of Ranohira on the principal road RN7 from Toliara to Antananarivo - there it is possible to pay the fees and hire one of many guides lingering in their house just opposite the office. Unfortunately, this Park is very badly managed (thank goodness, this is quite an exception among the Madagascar national parks) and so it is not really a nature sanctuary but more a pleasure park where no special attention is given to protection of local unique flora and fauna - especially the most visited area around the Namaza campsite degraded to a picnic ground where lots of people come to make a barbeque, make terrible noise, throw around litter, and feed the wildlife without any respect to the natural environment (I was shocked to see all that happening in presence of a Park ranger whose only interest under these circumstances was to check if I paid the entrance fee); the situation is especially difficult for local wildlife as it is concentrated in rather small areas of moist canyons and has no chance to escape the intolerable conditions. Not surprisingly, the bad Park management shows itself also in behaviour of local guides who are quite often extremely arrogant and totally uninterested in making the Park visit tailored to wishes of their clients, and try to make as little effort as possible - my guide there (named 'Nemaise') was actually a real extreme as he genuinely believed that his only task is to show me the trails and several "sights" along it (incl. a rock in the shape of a crocodile and such treats) and nothing more while deciding where and if at all I could stop (when I refused to stop for my lunch in a place full of terribly noisy people, where he probably wanted to have a talk with other guides, and decided to stay in more quiet place along the trail he went so far to whistle all the time to make sure I could not enjoy the nature - I would never believe any guide can get so low to actually try to spoil the Park visit for his client intentionally). So be extra careful when choosing a guide in the Isalo - the recommendations I have seen mentioned 'Roxy' (+261-330833813 or +261-324697812, roxyisalo@yahoo.fr) and 'Jean-Baptiste' (+261-0344424237); definitely stay away from rude Nemaise. Beware that information about this Park published in the LP Guide 2008 is especially misleading (e.g. characterizing the horribly noisy campsite area in the Namaza canyon as "peaceful camping ground"); good maps and relatively valid information can be found on the MNP website.

Park trails: The Park borders loop around the massif not far from its cliffs; the nearest border is some 2 km west from Ranohira. The several available trails usually allow just rather short return trips along some of the moist canyons cutting into the massif cliff, but sometimes it is also possible to walk over massif top plateau and traverse between the canyon trails. The trailheads for the trails are typically located on the Park borders and can be reached from Ranohira on foot or by car. My guide insisted on my choosing and paying all my hikes in advance and was not quite accurate with his information about trails lay-out and interconnections (actually, another problem with the Isalo guides is their alleged laziness to walk, making it not so easy to recruit them to take you to the trailheads on foot without using a car - I did go on foot and did not seem to have this problem with my guide while visiting in the off-season, but I noticed that majority of other visitors were coming by car and so it might be indeed a problem in high season) and was making sure to discourage me from some hikes giving me incorrect information about the time needed for them. I did two following hikes:
1. Natural Pool (Piscine Naturelle) - Namaza Canyon - Cascade of the Nymphs (Cascade des Nymphes) Loop Trail with a detour to the Blue Pool (Piscine Bleue) and Black Pool (Piscine Noire): This is the best trail to take when not having much time for your visit because it actually offers a good possibility to view, within a half day or full day, all kinds of habitats, flora, and fauna featured in the Isalo NP; the trailhead for this Loop Trail is just 2 km to the west from Ranohira; it takes half to full day (depends on your walking pace and the time spent observing lemurs at the Namaza campsite) and the total guiding fee for it is 60kAr. This Loop Trail begins with an easy ascent to the massif top through a wide valley and a short walk along the top plateau to the Natural Pool, which is a really beautiful palm-lined oasis in the middle of dry grassland - along the Trail you have a chance to view all kinds of Park flora; the walk takes about 1 hr and the guiding fee for this Trail part is 20kAr (it can be done stand-alone with return back the same way). The next part of this Loop Trail is a connecting walk over the grassy plateau of the Isalo massif to the Namaza canyon and descent to it - along this trail you can enjoy panoramic views of the colourful sandstone ranges around the plateau; the walk takes about 1 hr. The Namaza canyon is rather wide and holds the small Namaza river (often dried-up) and a green riparian forest - the descent takes you to a trail connecting east back to the same trailhead as the one of the Natural Pool Trail, but also west to the Namaza campsite, which is a rather terrible place turned to a picnic ground and usually full of very noisy people but also gives you a chance to observe at a very close range some very tamed ring-tailed and brown lemurs (they are sadly often fed there by visitors and already seek these handouts actively); there should be also some sifakas living there but those do not like the noise and escape to the forest if disturbed - it is just about 10 minutes to the campsite from the trails junction and about 1 hr to the trailhead. The trail leading to the Namaza campsite continues on with a connecting trail to the Cascade of the Nymphs and loop back to the trail leading to the trailhead, this loop trail can be also done stand-alone - the loop walk takes about 3 hrs and the guiding fee for it is 20kAr. This part of the Loop Trail offers a romantic hike through one of the narrow canyons typical for the Isalo and a short climb to a waterfall. It is also possible to make a short detour trip continuing along the now narrower canyon to the Blue Pool and Black Pool, just prolonging about the same experience; it is a 1-hr return trip and with the guiding fee of another 20kAr is not really worth the extra expenses (be careful, the guides will try to feed you with all kind of crap in an effort to squeeze extra money from you - this detour is not at all necessary to complete the described Loop Trail). There is not much chance to make this trek without a guide, as there seem to be always some people present on these trails and even a ranger checking the permits at the Namaza campsite.
2. Canyons Trail: This Trail encompasses rather short return hikes along two near but separated and quite nice narrow and deep gorges - called the Canyon of Rats (Canyon des Rats) and Canyon of the Monkeys (Canyon des Singes) - holding small streams and lush vegetation (reminding the gorge in the Zion NP of the U.S.A, just much smaller); the both hikes take together about 3 hrs and the trailhead for this Trail is about 9 km from Ranohira across grassland; it takes half to full day including the walks there from Ranohira and back (depends on your walking pace and the time spent observing lemurs) and the guiding fee for it is 48kAr. The gorges by themselves would not be really worth the effort, in case you also plan to visit the Namaza canyon - Cascade of the Nymphs Loop Trail, if it was not for a small patch of green forest in the embouchure of the Canyons inhabited by groups of habituated sifakas and ring-tailed lemurs that allow you to observe their interesting natural behaviour - yet, beware that esp. the ring-tailed lemurs are typically sleeping around midday, so if you find them sleeping on arrival go to see the gorges and come back later (I did just that and got two nice hours with them, observing undisturbed their interesting social life - funny thing was that my guide, who originally suggested this return, was very surprised when I asked him to live up to his words and let me observe the lemurs (later he complained that it never happened to him - makes me thinking about the kind of people visiting the Isalo). There should exist a connecting trail between the Canyon of the Monkeys and the Natural Pool over the top plateau taht could offer superb views of the surrounding sandstone ranges - unfortunately, my guide told me it would need two days to walk it and it was too late to change my plans when I saw a sign for this trail near the mouth of the Canyon giving some 4 hours for this hike (my bloody guide was then saying that the time given was meant "as the crow flies" - what an asshole). It may be possible to visit the Canyons and esp. the neighbouring forest without a guide in the afternoon as all the visitors seem to come in the morning; the walk along the savanna is outside the Park borders and so no regulations apply to it.

Transport: To get to Ranohira from Toliara I took a taxi-brousse from the Toliara main taxi-brousse station (company: Sonatra, cost 15kAr, took about 5 hrs along a good road); to get to the station I took a pousse-pousse from my Hotel Lovasoa for 2kAr (the price suggested in the hotel seemed to be rather low for the distance and I actually gave the man 3kAr). I was told at my hotel that the first taxi-brousse for Toliara is leaving at about 6:00 and made sure to be at the station at 5:30, just finding there a minivan with only a driver present - the other passengers did not show up before 7:00 and the minivan left at about 7:30, surprisingly only half full (it was picking many passengers along its way); anyway, at least I got my favourite "place No. 2" and enjoyed a comfortable ride with nobody sitting on the middle seat.

Accommodation: I slept in my own tent in a garden of the Chez Momo resort at Ranohira; for 2kAr (for a site) and 4kAr (per person) per night I got an access to shared toilet and cold shower. There were no established campsites in the garden but I was able to find a shaded place under the only bigger tree in the garden (there were no other campers there). The Ranohira town gave the resort owners a gift of a very noisy electric generator set just next to their property - yet, when using my earplugs I was still able to sleep well (the same problem would apply for people staying in the also available 20kAr bungalows and so the owners are now building new bungalows somewhat away behind a ground wave).

Food: I was still suffering with the effects of the dysentery contracted in Mangily and could not fully used an exceptionally good choice available in Ranohira.
1. The best value-for-money food gave the restaurant of the Hotel Orchidee de l'Isalo offering quite good food for a very reasonable price (plain rice for 1.5kAr, grilled fish for 6kAr); they had written menu in French.
2. The best food was probably offered in the restaurant of the Chez Momo resort. I had by far the best Madagascar vegetarian fried rice there for 5kAr - huge portion, written menu in English available.
3. There are several street shops selling bread (pleasantly not the French baguettes) and other provisions in Ranohira.

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Ranomafana NP

I have spent three days in the Ranomafana National Park and had a very good time in spite of experiencing some light rain (actually, I was rather lucky as it was not raining during my paid hikes but mostly at night). The Park  protects a lush and thick montane rainforest growing along a mountainous and broken relief with steep slopes that helped to keep at least some of its parts fully intact and covered with one of the last remaining primary rainforest in Madagascar. The forest is inhabited by rich fauna including 12 species of lemurs, e.g. very rare and endemic bamboo lemurs feeding on the local endemic cyanide-filled giant bamboo; the not so pleasant inhabitants here are the ill-famous terrestrial leeches, abundant especially when it is raining.

Park visit tips: The Ranomafana National Park has a moist subtropical climate, warm and humid all the year round with a period of heavy rain between September and November and no period really without precipitation. The Park office is located in a tiny village of Ambodiamontana located on the important side road to the east coast some 6 km west from the principal village of Ranomafana - there it is possible to pay the fees and hire one of the guides hanging around. I can very much recommend my guide in this Park who was very knowledgeable and also reliable and friendly and spoke a good English - his name was 'Hery' (+261-327771378, heriniainathierra@gmail.com) - the manager of the Park Rianala Gite knows him and can call him and set an appointment for you; Hery uses a good spotter, a guide in training, who helps him to locate animals for you (unfortunately there is a price to pay, as they also never quit talking when together but at least do not mind you to go somewhat behind to better enjoy nature sounds); another recommendation I have seen mentioned 'Adrien'. Beware that information about this Park published in the LP Guide 2008 is just unbelievably incomplete and very misleading; good maps and relatively valid information can be found on the MNP website. They have no trail maps at the Park office so you better bring some yourself to be able to discuss your itinerary with your guide.

Park trails: There are five mostly looped trails allowing to explore this Park - the trailheads for three of them are located just next the Park office, the common trailhead for the other two is located some 4 km west along the road and can be reached on foot or by a taxi-brousse. My guide Hery gave me very good and correct recommendations which trails would suit best to my needs and never asked me to pay the guiding fee ahead of the hikes. I did the following hikes:
1. Varibolo + Varijatsy Trails: This is the best trek to take when not having much time for your visit as it actually offers a good possibility to view all the main attractions of the Ranomafana NP within a day. The trek begins just next the Park office at Ambodiamontana and ends at the village of Ranomafana; it takes half to full day (depends on time spent wandering in Varibolo area and your walking pace) and the total guiding fee for it is 70kAr. The trek starts with a visit to the Varibolo Trail complex which is a labyrinth of paths crisscrossing the secondary forest (very "secondary" in fact, as it was cut clear very recently and it is just slowly growing over now) famous for its stands of local endemic giant bamboo (not too giant yet) that are a habitat of very rare endemic bamboo lemurs. This is by far the most visited area of the Ranomafana NP and many people come just for a few hours to check out these bamboo lemurs that are very habituated to people owing to a constant presence of many researchers studying these rare primates (consequently you are very likely to see here mainly many individuals of another primate - man); still, you are also almost guaranteed to be able to observe at close range both local rare lemur species - the golden
bamboo lemur and greater bamboo lemur; there are usually many groups of people wandering around with their guides and there are also other so called "spotters" sent in ahead to find the lemurs - all are communicating using mobile phones to offer the visitors the desirable sighting; it is rather difficult to enjoy these maneuvers with all these reckless "animal photographers" around, clicking their tongues on the lemurs to make them look to the lenses (also the guides often attracts the lemurs by cracking the bamboo trunks, which saves these tiny creatures from the burden to do it by their teeth and so brings them down right in front of visitor's cameras), but the lemurs are still cute and very enjoyable; this Trail can be of course visited stand-alone, which takes some 3 to 5 hrs and costs the guiding fee of 25kAr. The rest of the trek is a rather strenuous hike along the Varijatsy Trail, which is a single-path trail negotiating steep slopes and following narrow ridges and taking you to a very nice undisturbed primary forest - the rainforest around the trail is magnificent with huge trees and thick underbrush but it is real wilderness and so it is not so easy to observe any wildlife there; the Trail continues all the way to Ranovao but side exits to Ranomafana or Ambatovory are also possible (it is possible to do this Trail as 2-day trek but the full guiding fee needs to be paid again every day and 10kAr needs to be paid for food of the guide for every night). There is almost no chance to make the Varibolo part of this trek without a guide as its trailhead is continuously watched by guides waiting for clients, there is a continuously manned ranger checkpoint on the only entrance path near the bridge and there is always quite a few people present in the area in the morning; there would be no problem to make the Varijatsy Trail without a guide as it is just a single path and it is little used but there would be a real problem to is enter it as there is no sign for it at Ranomafana village (and very likely also at the other exit points) and this part of the trail passes through farmland with several forking trails.
2. Vohiparara Trail: This is another good trek around a rarely visited complex of paths crisscrossing the rainforest somewhat similar but also slightly different in comparison with that near Ambodiamontana, owing to its higher altitude. The trek starts and ends at the trailhead some 4 km west from Ambodiamontana along the road; it is up to your decision how long you want to spend wandering around the many paths there, the guiding fee for half a day is 35kAr. The forest in this area is somewhat less jungle-like and more transparent, the trees seem to be smaller and the underbrush not so thick and so it is easier to see the wildlife - the area is popular with birdwatchers; I was lucky to have a chance to observe group of habituated common brown lemurs at a close range going about their daily life. To get to the Trail trailhead from Ambodiamontana you can either walk or take a taxi-brousse by I strongly recommend to walk - this 4-km section of road is closely lined by a rather undisturbed forest and actually offers a very good chance to observe the wildlife, esp. birds and chameleons - my guide was able to show me several specimens of chameleons along this road; I was also lucky to have a chance to observe a group of the lesser bamboo lemurs there, which are rather shy and generally difficult to see well, and was told that when lucky one may also see there the sifakas. It may be possible to visit this paths complex without a guide as there are very few visitors there but there is a ranger checkpoint (unmanned during my visit) right next the single entrance path near the trailhead and it might be also difficult not to get lost it the complicated terrain and the maze of trails there.
3. Night walk: The Ranomafana NP park used to be famous for night walks organized within the Varibolo Trail complex but these have been cancelled once for all, probably for a good reason (it was always a rather controversial show as it was based on feeding nocturnal lemurs to attract them to a particular spot within the Park and I was told that the night walks were actually banned in all Madagascar national parks after some biologist joined this Ranomafana night walk incognito and when seeing the way how the local guides torture the poor lemurs with strong lights she complained to the MNP head office and persuaded the officials to put an end to it). Yet, it is still possible to take a night walk outside the national parks and the guides are more than happy to organize that; you can of course do it just as well on your own without a guide. The 4-km road between Ambodiamontana and Vohiparara trailhead is actually especially good place for it as there is no problem to walk along this rather good road (not much traffic after dark there) and there is enough wildlife to see - I had my night walk scheduled with my guide for my second evening there but we have cancelled it due to the afternoon rain (the guiding fee for this walk would be 20kAr - generally asked fee all around Madagascar - but I did not pay for it owing to my guide being nice and not requesting ahead payment - thanks Hery). Anyway, my guide Hery explained to me all the theory behind this treat and I used this knowledge later in other parks to do the night walks on my own without needing a guide - the only thing needed (esp. in Madagascar with no nasty snakes to ruin the fun of it) is a good flashlight. The idea behind the night walks is that it is actually much easier to find some animals at night than during the day even for an unskilled visitor - namely, the nocturnal lemurs and the chameleons. As for the lemurs, they are easy to spot at night as their eyes are reflecting the light when shine at after dark - so if you see two adjoined shining spots (and again, it is good that it is not much chance it to be a tiger in Madagascar) you have found a nocturnal lemur (or a house cat as it happened to me once); it worked for me to tilt the light slightly after finding the lemur in order not to disturb it too much (naturally, the lemur does not like to be shone straight into its sensitive eyes and would escape quickly), while also trying to get closer, and
light the lemur fully only when it turns its head to look other way - sometimes I got quite good sightings and could see the lemur moving around and then disappear by a mighty leap; normally you should be able to catch sight of quite a few tiny mouse lemurs that seem to be abundant all around Madagascar. As for the chameleons, it is even more interesting as these animals, invisible for an unskilled observer during a day, are actually shining by a yellow-green-coloured light when illuminated at night, making them very easy to find, and you can look at them real close as they do not believe in running - yet, after this unpleasant thing of being found happens to them they quickly start changing their colour so when you try to find them again after some time it becomes much more difficult as they adopt a rather flaxen and not so betraying colour; in addition, the chameleons do not really go too far within a day (esp. in cold weather) and so if you remember where you have found them at night you may be actually able to find them and have a good look at them in full light next day. As Hery also explained to me the sealed roads are especially good for night walks as they absorb the sun heat during the day and radiate it after dark when the air starts cooling down, which attracts the chameleons to the low tree branches hanging above the road - I did find much more chameleons when walking along the sealed roads than along the dirt roads in the otherwise same environment. Anyway, the cold afternoon drizzle in the Ranomafana NP negated this effect and was the reason why my honest local guide Hery suggested to cancel our night walk even though the rain stopped before the dark - if you happen to get to the same situation do not let your guide to "take you for a ride". Besides, the light has the same or similar disclosing effect also on some caterpillars, moths and even spiders and so you may be able to find also those during your night walks - it is a good fun for sure.

Transport: There was no direct transport to get me from Ranohira to Ranomafana NP and so I had to switch taxi-brousses in Fianarantsoa.
1. The taxi brousse for Fianarantsoa was leaving from in front of the Hotel Berny at Ranohira at about 8:00 (company: KOFIAM, cost 21kAr, took about 7.5 hrs along a good road); I had booked the No.2 seat two days ahead of the trip after being hunted down by a local tout claiming that the taxi-brousse was originating form a near town of Ilakaka but it was probably a hoax as on arrival to the meeting point I found a half empty taxi-brousse there that was then driving around town on hunt for passengers (the price set was splitted into some 5kAr for "deposit" and 16kAr for "ticket", so I probably paid an extra fee for the "booking" ??) - the booking was very likely unnecessary for getting just any seat but probably useful for getting a good seat (the journey actually included a switch of vehocles at Ambalavao but I did manage to keep my No.2 seat in the other vehicle). The journey included passage through scenic area of towering granite peaks of the Andringitra Mountains.
2. After arrival to Fianarantsoa at some 15:30 I was quickly escorted along the only local station to another nearly full taxi-brousse heading for Ranomafana - it was just about to leave but even after filling solid took a typical one hour of no activity before actually leaving, it
thus arrived in total darkness at 18:45 but on request dropped me right in front of my destination, the Ranomafana NP dormitory/campsite at Ambodiamontana just few minutes before the village of Ranomafana; it cost 10kAr and was probably overpriced (the return trip was 6kAr only) but I could not get lower price (on my complaints they were just offering to let me check the price list in their office which was of course total hoax where they could put just any number - well, that's Madagascar).
3. The road from the local central village of Ranomafana to Ambodiamontana is 6 km and uphill all the way - if you need to do this transfer and do not want to walk you can take a taxi-brousse, some of them originate from Ranomafana. Yet, it may be not so easy in the afternoon when they are often full.

Accommodation: I slept in my own tent at the official campsite just next the Park office at Ambodiamontana; for 5kAr per night I got a set space under a shelter (quite useful as there was frequently raining there) and an access to shared toilet and cold shower (just a hose with no sprinkler) - the campsite is a part of a jointly-managed complex together called the Rianala Gite and also including a restaurant and a dormitory. All the guidebooks and other sources of information about the place mentioned the hot water available in the bathroom and so I asked about it but was told by the manager that I would need to go to the hotels located in Ranomafana village for that - just later I found that there was indeed hot water available in the bathroom serving for the dormitory and located just next the restaurant which could be also used when using the campsite (this lie of the manager was indeed not too nice, considering how cold it was there at night). Also, beware of thieves there esp. in the dormitory - a daypack with money, debit cards, and passports left lying there rather recklessly under the open window during the night by their sleeping owners was stolen but the thief was at least "nice" enough to take "only" money and dump the pack at place where it could be found and returned to its careless owners.

Food: Mainly I was relying on my own food. The Rianala Gite restaurant was reasonably good and priced but naturally offered mainly meat-based food - as the manager spoke good English I was able to get there a vegetarian fried rice for 7.5kAr but it was clearly not their usual product and so it was not too tasty (big portion of rice and very little of vegetables); next I was only getting their french-fried potatoes (with some cheese and ketchup) for 5kAr. There is just one little street shop there with a very limited offer so you better bring along all your provisions including bread.

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Fianarantsoa

I have just about slept in Fianarantsoa on my way out of the Ranomafana NP and got time just for a short sightseeing around its center. The place was not especially attractive, unfortunately including its historical center (Old Town), which looked very neglected and did not offer anything to attract attention. At least its infrastructure was reasonably developed and offered all kinds of services, such as variety of shops, banks with ATMs (including the CNI-BA), and internet cafes.

Transport: To get to Fianarantsoa from Ambodiamontana I took a taxi-brousse (cost 6kAr, took about 1 hr along a good road); I went to the road at about 13:00 and it took about one hour to get a ride (there were some taxi-brousses passing by while I was waiting but too full to take me). Beware that on Sunday, when there is a market day at Ranomafana village, it may be very difficult to get a ride in the afternoon when even the taxi-brousses originating in Ranomafana are totally full.

Accommodation: Hotel Arinofy, a reasonable double room with shared bathroom (hot shower) and shared toilet for 17.6kAr per night. Friendly hotel not too far from the Fianarantsoa taxi-brousse station.

Food: There was a restaurant at the Hotel Arinofy that had got quite good reviews in the guidebooks. They did have an impressively looking written menu but the food was prepared by a girl, also doubling as a receptionist, who was not a good cook at all - I got the worst vegetarian fried rice of my life there for 7.5kAr (seeing that even this delicacy was too much for Madagascar cooking abilities I gave up on Madagascar restaurant food further on, except for the french-fried potatoes). There was of course no shortage of shops to buy provisions around the city; there was even a self-service food store called Supermarche 2000 at the city center - the only one I have seen anywhere in Madagascar outside of Antananarivo - where I happily bought some samples of Madagascar black tea (it was the only place I had seen it sold in normal shops anywhere in Madagascar).

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Ankarafantsika NP

I have spent two days and three nights in the Ankarafantsika National Park and mostly had a very good time. The Park protects one of the very few remaining patches of the western Malagasy dry deciduous forest and also some freshwater lakes. The forest is inhabited by rich fauna, esp. lots of birds and reptiles but also eight species of lemurs, including the common brown lemur and esp. the very cute Coquerel's sifaka.

Park visit tips: The Ankarafantsika NP has a warm tropical climate with the pronounced dry season from May to October - it is rather hot during the day and any serious hiking in open parts of the forest and esp. in the surrounding savanna grassland should be undertaken just early in the morning. The Park office is located in a tiny village of Ampijoroa on the principal road RN4 from Antananarivo to Mahajanga - there it is possible to pay the fees and pick up a guide. Unfortunately, it is not allowed to choose a guide of your liking at this Park and you are simply required to take the guide who has her/his turn - this socialistic system is of course very unfavourable for the visitors as the guides have no reason to do their best as their earnings are not at all influenced by satisfaction of their clients (my guide was good enough to find chameleons and show me the known spots where all kinds of nocturnal creatures, such as lemurs and owls, hung over day but could not understand English well (half of his answers to my questions was "yes") and was unscrupulously cheating by giving incorrect information about the trails layout and by shortening the pre-paid hikes - I did not remember his name but the choice was not mine anyway); I came equipped with a recommendation to ask for a good guide named 'Ndrema' but was refused to emply him. There is almost no information about this Park in the LP Guide 2008 (the Park is relatively new being upgraded from former forest reservations in 2002); a good map and basic information is in the Bradt Guide 2007; some relatively valid information about the trails can be found on the MNP website; there is a relatively good wall trail map at the Park office. The Park is bisected by a road passing along the lakeside of 2-km long Lake Ravelobe that offers a good chance to observe lots of water birds; the Park office is just across the road from the Lake and it is possible to take advantage of two observation towers offering a good view on the Lake - one is just opposite the Park office and the other is about half a kilometer along the road to the north from the office and can be reached by a short trail branching east off the road just behind the string of Ampijoroa village road stalls. The area around the Park office, esp. the campsite is the best place to observe Coquerel's sifakas and also brown lemurs - while these diurnal lemurs are spending their days somewhere in the forest, where it is quite difficult to observe them (so do not be too eager to pay the guides to find them for you), every evening they come to sleep on the trees at the Park campsite allowing those staying there to enjoy great sightings. Especially the sifakas, who need more light, come about an hour before dark (at about 17:00) and spent the remaining time slowly moving from tree to tree why feeding on some leaves in between; the brown lemurs, who are more crepuscular, like to arrive late during twilight when it is already not so easy to see them clearly. The same performance repeats in the morning when the brown lemurs leave with the first light while the sifakas take their time moving slowly around while waiting for more light but then putting on a good show while leaving quickly with their typical long leaps from branch to branch. Right next the Park office there is also a breeding station for several threatened tortoise species, which can be also visited.

Park trails: There are several trails allowing to explore this Park, all accessible on foot from the Park office. My assigned guide insisted on my choosing and paying for all my hikes in advance and was simply lying about the trails lay-out to make me pay more. I did three following hikes (while paying for four):
1. Coquereli Circuit: This is the most popular hike in the Ankarafantsika NP consisting in wandering around a labyrinth of paths crisscrossing the dry forest west of the Park office and looking for the wildlife, namely the various types of lemurs, birds, and reptiles. The Trail begins right at the Park campsite just next the Park office at Ampijoroa and it is possible to take either a shorter 2-km hike called the "Small Tour" and focused mainly on lemurs, or a longer and more generally oriented 3-km hike called the "Big Tour", which also includes visit of a view-point offering a good view on the forest canopy below; the hikes take just few hours, the guiding fee for the longer one is 15kAr. The forest in this area is very dry and rather open and it is very easy to observe all kinds of birds there who let visitors to come really close; also the lemurs, esp. sifakas, are quite habituated there to seeing people owing to a constant presence of some researchers studying their behaviour. All the paths are mostly level or just slightly sloping. There is almost no chance to visit this paths complex without a guide due to the almost constant presence of some researches and also the guides with their clients, esp. in the morning - yet, there would be no problem to enter the area through its unguarded trailhead at the remote corner of the Park campsite next the village fence or through an unofficial entrance along a well visible path turning south from the main road some 100 m east of the Park office.
2. Small Lake Circuit: This Circuit offers a possibility to visit a
dense and humid forest, i.e. quite different from the one covering the rest of the Park, and also observe all kinds of water birds on the lake and possibly also the Nile crocodiles allegedly also living there (I have seen none personally). The trail starts with a turn north along a well-beaten path from the main road some 1 km east of the Park office at Ampijoroa, crosses stream entering Ravelobe lake first along a plankwalk across the marshland and then along a suspended footbridge, goes through the forest all around the Lake along its northern waterside, crosses along an artificial dyke on the Lake western waterside, and emerges back on the main road some 200 m west of the Park office; it is almost flat and takes about 3 hrs and the guiding fee for it is 15kAr. Beside the Small Lake Circuit it is also possible to go for the much longer Large Lake Circuit, which goes around the lake further up north for 25kAr. Besides, at the beginning of this Circuit the path passes right by several real big baobab trees - it is possible to visit just these baobabs by paying a 15kAr guiding fee for the so-called "Baobab Trail" but beware that this Baobab Trail is in fact just a part of the Small Lake Circuit (the baobabs have been shown on the trail map in the Park office correctly located just next the Small Lake Circuit and so I asked my guide if it was necessary to pay extra to see these baobabs - the liar told me that I did need to pay extra as the baobabs were an hour away from the Lake Circuit - nice guy indeed). It should be possible to make this Circuit without a guide as there are very few visitors there, esp. in the afternoon, and its single trail is easy to follow and easily recognizable by the plankwalk and suspended footbridge at its beginning.
3. Retendrika Circuit: This Circuit offers another possibility of wandering around a maze of paths crisscrossing the area lying to the northwest of the Ravelobe Lake western waterside and covered by a dry deciduous forest. The Trail begins as a turn north along a well visible path from the main road some 1 km west of the Park office at Ampijoroa and continues with a path along the artificial dyke; the area is slightly rising to the north; the Circuit is planned for some 2 hrs and the guiding fee for it is 15kAr. I have seen almost no wildlife there at about 14:00 and the forest there was very similar to that in the Coquereli Circuit area, so this Circuit seemed not to be worth the money; yet, most likely I have not seen the whole Circuit as I did it as an extension to the Small Lake Circuit and my guide seemed to cut it short considerably (at least when comparing the area really covered with the trail map at the Park office) - quite possibly it could be possible to note a change in vegetation when visiting the northern corner of the Circuit with somewhat higher elevation. It should be possible and quite easy to visit this paths complex without a guide as there are very few visitors there, the labyrinth of trails there should not be a problem as the terrain there is quite simple and allows to find the way by simply following the compass directions.
4. Night walk: The Ankarafantsika NP used to be known for offering a good night walk around the area of the Coquereli Trail but the night walks are not any more allowed in the Madagascar national parks. Still, the 2-km section of the road between the villages of Ampijoroa and Ambodimanga passing by the Park office is actually one of the best places for night walks in Madagascar (owing to the warm weather and low traffic after dark) and gives a chance for very good sightings of several kinds of chameleons and nocturnal lemurs (for the ideas about the night walks see the Night-Walk paragraph of the Ranomafana NP Park section above).

Transport: It is practically impossible to cover the distance between Ranomafana NP, or rather the near Fianarantsoa, and Ankarafantsika NP within a day and so it is necessary to split the journey into two parts with overnighting in Antananarivo.
1. To get to Antananarivo from Fianarantsoa I took a taxi-brousse (company: MAMI, cost 23kAr, took about 8 hrs along a good road). Quite a few minivans operated by several companies were leaving one by one for Antananarivo through the morning and I had not waited long for complete filling of a chosen half empty minivan after booking my favourite No.2 seat (no chance of having free seat next by me). I had actually booked a seat at a taxi-brousse of another company (Transud if I remember it well, they had their office just by the exit of the Fianarantsoa taxi-brousse station) in the evening before my trip but found the minivan and the office still locked when arriving at the preset time just before the time of its departure and so decided to write off my
10kAr deposit and go with other company; so it seems that booking ahead is not only unnecessary but may make things even worse). The countryside around Fianarantsoa and almost all the way along the road to Antananarivo is a cultural landscape strongly reminding man designed and created countryside of Europe, i.e. it is completely transformed from the original virgin forest into a more or less scenic rice and vegetable fields and terraces sparsely alternated with growths of introduced timber forests of pines and eucalyptuses.
2. To get to Ampijoroa from Antananarivo I took a taxi-brousse (company: KOFMAD, cost 25kAr, took about 10 hrs along a good road); the route is once again served by several companies launching several minivans leaving from about 6:00. The countryside along the road changes soon after the departure from Antananarivo into a downy barren savanna grassland with almost no trees that sadly replaced the virgin forest originally covering all Madagascar before arrival of man.

Accommodation: I slept in my own tent at the official campsite just next the Park office at Ampijoroa; for 6kAr per night I got a set space under a shelter (good to provide shadow during the hot days) and even equipped with an electric light (working every evening till 22:00) and an access to shared toilet and cold shower (the campsite is a part of the Park amenities that also include bungalows).

Food: I was again mainly relying on my own food but right next the Park office there was also a restaurant with a rather limited offer (definitely not as extensive as their menu) based mainly on meat; I was only getting their french-fried potatoes for 2.5kAr. There was no shop to buy provisions at the tiny village of Ampijoroa (better choice might be available at the near village of Ambodimanga but I came well supplied and never went there).

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Mahajanga

I have spent about half a day in Mahajanga and got time just for a short walk along the seashore and around the center. The town was incredibly hot during the day and long into the night and even the blowing breeze did not make the life there much more bearable; the sea along the shore was brown with all that silt brought in by the Betsiboka River (later when leaving on a plane I could see a quite wide belt of silted seawater lining the shore all around Mahajanga). With its wide streets the place looked quite different from the towns and cities in the Madagascar interior but being there on the Madagascar's Independence Day I found the center really dead, i.e. totally deserted with no people around and all the shops closed (yet, there was a very organized and probably compulsory parade on the principal Avenue Philibert Tsiranana, which is located somewhat away from the center but connecting the Central Market with the taxi-brousse station and the airport). There was no problem to get some money from the CNI-BA ATM in the city center but even the internet cafes were all closed.

Transport: To get to Mahajanga from Ampijoroa I took a taxi-brousse (cost 5kAr, took about 2.5 hr along a good road); I went to the road at about 7:00 and it took me no time to get a ride - the reason for so early start was that it was the Independence Day and I was told that there would be no taxi-brousses running later during the day. On arrival to Mahajanga the taxi-brousse was delivering the passengers right to their chosen places and so I also got a ride to my chosen hotel.

Accommodation:
1. Hotel Chez Madame Chabaud, a reasonable double room with a fan, attached washbasin and an access to a shared bathroom (cold shower) and shared toilet for 16kAr per night (they also offered me a double room without a fan for 11kAr per night but it would be unbearable in the hot weather there).
2. Should somebody be looking for an upmarket hotel I could recommend the friendly Anjary Hotel in the center where the receptionist let me use one of theirs internet-connected PCs for free - it was very nice of them as all the internet places in the city were closed for the holiday.

Food: There was a restaurant belonging to the Hotel Chez Mme Chabaud just across the street from it, yet I found the prices there rather high and so I just bought a pineapple for a dinner at the street market next the Hotel. While all the restaurants and shops in the city center were closed, there was no problem to get just about anything at the street market and shops on the near Ave. Philibert Tsiranana.

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Amber Mountain NP

I have spent together about two days in the Amber Mountain National Park and had a very good time (being able to do some exploration on my own there and also being very lucky regarding the weather as there were no rain and mostly even blue skies during my stay). Amber Mountain is a prominent extinct volcano abruptly rising from relatively flat lowland savannas enclosing it from all around but itself covered by an isolated patch of montane rainforest. Its isolation and proximity to the sea allows it to create its own very rainy weather, quite different from the surrounding plane, and support a unique vegetation - in addition, the strong south-east trade winds constantly blowing in northern Madagascar have cooling impact and thus, in spite of its height just 1475 m a.s.l., the very top of its ridges are overgrown with an upper montane cloud forest characterized by twisted dwarf trees covered with lichen (due to the so-called "Massenerhebung effect"). The forest is inhabited by rich fauna including many birds, reptiles, and also eight species of lemurs, including the crowned and Sanford's brown lemurs; the not so pleasant inhabitants here are also the ill-famous terrestrial leeches even if not too abundant.

Park visit tips: The Amber Mountain NP (better known under its French name "Montagne d'Ambre") has a humid tropical climate with lots of rain and strong winds, which can make hiking there rather unpleasant. The Park office is located at the Park border about 4 km along a dirt road from the town of Joffreville - at the office it is possible to pay the fees and hire one of the guides lingering in their near house. I could very much recommend my guide in this Park who was very good in all respects - his name was 'Angeluc' (0325889452); also recommended was his twin brother named 'Angelin'. Beware that information about this Park published in the LP Guide 2008 is very misleading including the map showing some nonexistent trails; good maps and relatively valid information can be found on the MNP website and reasonably good map is also provided in the Bradt Guide 2007; yet, as for the short trails around the the Park campsite the best map can be found on this page. They have no trail maps at the Park office so you better bring some yourself to be able to discuss your itinerary with your guide. In fact, you may utilize a Park map yourself for walking in the forest on your own as a special feature of this Park is that the Park campsite is located within the Park boundaries some 3 km away from the Park office and so you are actually allowed to enter and stay in the Park without a guide. The Park office and the Park campsite are connected with a dirt road and there are also two other dirt roads - one goes to the viewpoint of Antomboka Waterfall, and another one goes south up the mountain (beware that this road, shown going all the way to the Amber Mt. summit on many Park maps, has became overgrown and ends not too far beyond the exit of trail for Mahasarika Lake), and you are free to walk these roads without a guide any time of the day or night. Of course, you are still required to hire a guide when venturing away from these roads on any of the available forest trails but there is nobody to check on you early in the morning, late afternoon and all night - at that time you have the Park for yourself (in fact, there is a keeper living in a hut near the campsite but his only interest is to check if you have paid for accommodation). Unfortunately, long ago the area between the Park office and the Park campsite has been a zone of experimentation with introduced trees, such as pines, eucalyptuses, or araucarias, and so the forest lining the roads and even trails there hardly belongs to Madagascar. Still, the roads and the adjacent trails are a good place to catch a sight of the local fauna, esp. brown lemurs which are in general rather wild and not really habituated to people (early morning and late evening is the best time to catch sight of the local wildlife). After staying in the Park campsite I had my backpack checked (not too thoroughly) in the Park office when leaving the Park.

Park trails: There are generally two types of trails set in this Park - five well beaten and often visited short trails, and three longer trails visited so rarely that they have become very overgrown (at least in June before the high season) and you would very likely become seriously lost when entering them without a guide; the trailheads of all these trails are accessible by an off-road car (majority of the visitors actually come by car and just for short hikes); beware that Park map provided in the LP Guide 2008 is a total fiction regarding the trails sketched in it - especially the trails shown in its southern portion (and also in the Bradt Guide 2007 map) are simply not there at all (and never been) and that area is total wilderness without any established paths where one can enjoy a real backcountry trekking, when having a really good guide. My guide Angeluc gave me good information about the longer trails (I never asked about the shorter ones) but I had to pay all the fees ahead in the Park office. Yet, I did just one guided hike along one of the longer trails and besides walked all the short trails on my own without a guide within evenings and mornings:
1. Olioly Loop Trail: This was my only guided hike within the Park and it was very good indeed - it might be easily the best trek there as it offered a chance to appreciate all the Park unique features within a day (there are two longer trails, the Renard Trail and Summit Trail, which take two days each with overnighting in designated campgrounds but likely provide about the same experience). The Olioly Loop Trail starts at the Park campsite called "Station de Rousettes" (I set up an appointment with my guide there), takes a good part of the day (depends on your walking pace), and the guiding fee for it is 60kAr. The initial part of the Trail follows a well beaten path - used by local villagers to walk into local town of Joffreville - but the rest has become overgrown beyond recognition and cannot be visited without a good guide (this Trail was actually the only trail I walked in all Madagascar where I really appreciated being with a guide); the Trail ends on the road formerly leading to the Amber Mt. summit but now totally overgrown and blocked by fallen trees. The Trail is rather strenuous at parts and also climbs all the way to one of the side Park summits (slightly lower than the Park highest point at 1475 m a.s.l.) where you can see the lichen-covered upper montane cloud forest and enjoy a panoramic view all around including Diego Suarez Bay to the north.
2. Mahasarika Trail: This is the most interesting of the short trails as it is outside of the area with introduced trees. This Trail starts and ends at the trailhead located on the road to the Amber Mt. summit some 5 km from the Park office (just about 200 m on along this road there is a road viewpoint offering good view to the plain surrounding the Park, soon after it there is another viewpoint with a view to the other side and down on the Mahasarika Lake, and about 300 m further on the passable part of this road ends); it is about 1-km long Trail along a clear path going down to the nice Mahasarika Lake (also known as "Petit Lac" or "Lac de la Coupe Verte"), distinctively green due to some algae. It was no problem to follow this Trail without a guide.
3. Antomboka Trail: The trailhead of this Trail can be reached by a 2-km long side road forking west about 1 km beyond the Park office from the main road going into the Park (and about 1 km before this main road reaches another fork with its branches heading for the Park campsite and for the Amber Mt. summit); this
side road soon turns north and ends at the trailhead with a viewpoint on the narrow Antomboka waterfall plunging down 80 m into a pool hidden behind the trees. The Trail itself used to be a 1-km long steep path going down to this pool but it is not too visible now and ends abruptly with a landslide about half way down - if very determined you could possibly still reach the pool descending down to the stream flowing out of the pool and wading against its current but I gave up on that and doubt it would be worth it. I have seen a bunch of crowned brown lemurs there one evening. It was no problem to find and follow this Trail without a guide.
4. The "Voie des Mille Arbres" Trail: A nice 2-km shortcut Trail ("Lane of a Thousand of Trees") connecting the road to the Antomboka cascade (about 0.5 km from its beginning) and the road to the Park campsite (about 150 m from the campsite) along a clear path going through the forest with many introduced trees; I have seen a pair of Sanford's brown lemurs there one morning. It was no problem to find and follow this Trail without a guide.
5. Antankarana Trail: A nice short 0.5-km Trail connecting the road to the Park campsite (about 120 m from the campsite) and the mid of the "Voie des Mille Arbres" trail along a clear path passing by a viewpoint on the small narrow Antankarana
Waterfall (also called the "Ampijoroana Waterfall") plunging down 10 m into a pool; the viewpoint is right next of the point where its source stream starts its fall and it is also possible to get down to the stream there. It was no problem to find and follow this Trail without a guide.
6. Sacred Waterfall Trail: This very short 100-m Trail starts and ends at the Park campsite called "Station de Rousettes" and leads to a small but nice segmented waterfall falling to a small amphitheatre behung with vegetation; contrary to what it is said about this Trail in the guidebooks I have seen no wildlife there. Of course, there was no problem to find and follow this Trail without a guide.
7. Night walk: I have tried to do night walks along the road around the campsite but seen very little - it was not too warm in this Park and the dirt roads do not create that effect of radiating heat after dark.

Transport: It would be possible to reach Antsiranana and the near national parks just going overland but it would take two full days. Therefore I have flown to Antsiranana and only then took a taxi-brousse to Joffreville, the nearest town to the Park.
1. I
n Mahajanga, when asking about a transport to the airport at the Hotel Chez Mme Chabaud, I was told that a taxi would charge me a hefty flat price of 15kAr anywhere in the city, and got a good tip to take a public bus instead - there is the bus No. 6 that can be boarded at its stop in front of the church on the Avenue Philibert Tsiranana very close to the Hotel Chez Mme Chabaud, costs just 0.5kAr, go rather frequently since early in the morning and gets to the airport in just about 10 mins.
2. To get to Antsiranana from Mahajanga I took the only direct Air-Madagascar flight in a week that connects these two cities on Sunday. I booked and bought this flight within a compound Air-Madagascar ticket including both my international and domestic flights. The flight took one hour, was about 15 mins ahead of schedule (!), nearly empty, and uneventful.
3. A taxi from the Antsiranana airport anywhere into the city normally costs a flat price of 10kAr. Yet, I was contacted by an enterprising taxi driver within the luggage area of the airport, who pooled me together with a pair of two
other vazahas and so he could charge me just 5kAr for a short drive to a taxi-brousse station handling the vehicles heading for Joffreville. This "station" was just a small parking place by the road where there were no waiting vehicles and just few touts flagging down the passing taxi-brousses according to the requests of waiting passengers (the touts spent those about 20 mins of my waiting before my taxi-brousse arrived with trying to persuade me that there were no taxi-brousses heading to Joffreville that day and offering to find me a taxi for "just" some 30-40kAr).
4. The taxi-brousse to Joffreville stopped for me by the touts was one of those local vintage Peugeot 404 Camionettes. It arrived quite full and got me a rather unpleasant ride on the pickup bed floor with many other passengers including one very drunk local who was a much welcome target of not so nice jokes of his fellows. The journey cost 3kAr and took about 1 hr along a rather pot-holed road.
5. There is no public transport serving the route from Joffreville to the Park office and on to the Park campsite. It should be possible to rent a whole taxi-brousse to get you to the campsite but it would set you back for about 25kAr. Other option, preferred also by myself, was to walk for free those 4 km to the Park office and another 3 km to the campsite - the walk was uphill all the way and I would not recommend trying to do it with all your luggage.

Accommodation:
1. I slept in my own tent at the official campsite called "Station de Rousettes" 3 km within the Park borders; for 4kAr per night I got a set space under a shelter (good to protect from rain) and an access to shared toilet and cold (very much so) shower (it was also possible to pay just 1kAr per night if staying in the open without the shelter, there was also a dormitory available there). The fee for camping has to be paid ahead in the Park office - the keeper living in a hut near the campsite comes to check your ticket soon after your arrival. I arrived to the Park office at about 15:00 and so I was asked to pay the Park entrance fee for that day too (the campsite is actually inside the Park) - when arriving late and finding the office closed you may still proceed to the campsite but have to come back in the morning of the next day and pay the fees (you may or may not have the fee for the previous day waived) - I wanted to avoid that and especially to settle a guide for my next day hike; my plan was to stay at the campsite for two nights and so I was told that on the third day I had to either leave the Park before 8:00 (time of opening the Park office) or pay also for the third day - as I wanted to get more time for my lonely early morning walks I preferred to pay (the difference of the Park fee for two and three days was just 3kAr).
2. I did not want to carry all my luggage those 7 km all the way to the Park campsite and so I looked for a place to store my extra stuff in Joffreville. I wanted to use the local recommended budget hotel "Auberge Sakay Tany# but found it closed and was told that the owners were away for the holiday (it was Sunday after the Madagascar's Independence Day). So I had to let some local tout to lead me to another hotel and he took me to the hotel "Le Relais de la Montagne d'Ambre" - they offered few double rooms overlooking the garden with shared bathroom and toilet for an incredible price of 30kAr per night (of course there was no guest there for the price); all I was able to negotiate was a discounted price of 25kAr for storing my extra stuff for one night and either giving me a room for my second night or just storing the stuff till next day; after coming back the third day at about 10:00 I indeed had to pay those insane 25kAr (of course, still no other guests in sight) - at least, my luggage was kept in a locked room and I got it back in good order. Joffreville was a rather strange town - it had been originally a summer holiday resort for the French officers serving in Antsiranana at the times of French colonial regime but many of the big proud colonial houses there were either fully abandoned or turned to unkempt high-toned hotels while the locals stayed to live in makeshift huts among these houses; the place had no charm at all and looked as an especially sad example of wasted opportunity.

Food: Naturally there is no food whatsoever available in the Park campsite or anywhere near and so you need to bring it all from Joffreville.

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Ankarana NP

I have spent together about two days in the Ankarana National Park and had a quite good time. The Park consists in a karst limestone massif with its surface rugged into razor sharp pinnacles sculpted by rain and locally called "tsingy"; the interior of the masiff is pierced by caves, sink holes, and deep canyons. The periphery of the tsingy massif and its large canyons are overgrown with the western Malagasy dry deciduous forest abound with baobabs and succulents and housing rich fauna including many birds, reptiles, and also eleven species of lemurs, including the crowned and Sanford's brown lemur.

Park visit tips: The Ankarana NP has a hot and dry tropical climate with little rain and fortunately also with strong winds, which are very agreable and make hiking on the dark gray rocks there not too unpleasant. The east-entrance Park office is located about 1 km from the Park border in the village of Mahamasina located on the main road RN6 from Antsiranana to Ankify - there it is possible to pay the fees and hire a guide (there is another entrance from the west but that one can be reached just by an off-road car). I arrived rather late and found the office already closed which prevented me from finding the recommended guide name 'Nambin' and so I had to put up with the only guide still present who fortunately turned out to be quite good - his name was 'Jenita' (0341500030; harilalajenita@yahoo.fr) and he was quite knowledgeable and spoke a good English. The map and information about this Park published in the LP Guide 2008 is not so bad (esp. in comparison with those craps given for other Madagascar parks) but still not too useful, by contrast the map published in the Bradt Guide 2007 is rather bad for this Park; good maps and relatively valid information can be found on the MNP website. The Park campsite is located within the Park boundaries some 3 km away from the Park office at Mahamasina and so you are again allowed to enter and stay in the Park without a guide and also walk the dirt road leading to this campsite. Yet, it is not so easy to explore along the trails in this Park without a guide - it is again not allowed and those few near available trails have quite a few visitors any time from sunrise to sunset.

Park trails: There are quite a few trails in this Park, yet half of them can be visited just by an off-road car or within a multiple-day trek. Near the east entrance there are basically two different trails with various side trips and attractions. My guide Jenita gave me general information about the trails but I had to pay all the fees ahead in the Park office. I did the two following hikes:
1. Hike along the Grand Tsingy de Benavony Trail with side trips along the Turrets of Tsingy and Tsingy Rary Trails: This is probably the best hike to take when not having much time for your visit as it actually offers a good possibility to view all kinds of attractions of the Ankarana NP within a day. The Hike begins and ends just next the Park office at Mahamasina and basically follows a wide canyon cutting through the massif to the northwest from Mahamasina with few side trips into the surrounding karst; it involves some climbs along rocky paths but is not too strenuous, takes half to full day (depending on your walking pace) and the total guiding fee for it is 40kAr (35kAr without the side trips). The principal part of the Hike is the recently opened Grand Tsingy de Benavony Circuit which allows you to appreciate all the main features of the Ankarana NP, i.e. a field of the tsingy pinnacles, deep canyons with sunken forest growing inside, and a small cave; the Turrets of Tsingy side trip takes you through some narrow crevasses and allows you to closely appreciate unique succulent vegetation of the Park, the Tsingy Rary side trip takes you to a viewpoint offering a good view on another field of the tsingy pinnacles and general
landscape  of the Ankarana massif (the side trips are not markedly different from the principal Circuit but they are rather short and cost you just 5kAr of extra guiding fee); the main canyon is overgrown with a quite nice dry deciduous forest and gives you an opportunity to get some sightings of the Park wildlife (the hike can be even prolonged for an extra fee by continuing further on along the main canyon and over the tsingy plateau to the Green Lake sunken deep down in the canyon, which can be even reached by a breakneck path; the further stroll along the main canyon would get you through the massif and let you access the sites on its west side). It would be no problem to make at least the principal Benavony part of this Hike without a guide as the paths are clearly visible (the side trails are signposted but not so clear - still, they are too short to get lost in case of losing them) but there are visitors there with their guides all day long and it would make it difficult to escape attention.
2. The Loop Hike along the Tsingy Meva Trail with a detour to the Bats’ Cave and return via the Lost River Trail: This is to a large extent a much shorter repetition of the previous hike giving another opportunity to appreciate attractions of the Ankarana NP. The Hike begins and ends just next the Park office at Mahamasina and does not go too far into the massif; it involves some climbs along rocky paths but is not too strenuous, takes few hours or half a day (depending on your walking pace) and the total guiding fee for it is 30kAr (25kAr without the Lost River Trail). The principal part of this Hike is the Tsingy Meva Trail allowing to quickly see some tsingy pinnacles and canyons overgrown with a forest; in the Bats’ Cave ("Grotte des Chauves-Souris") you may see - with a good light - some stalactites and three different kinds of bats sleeping there; the Lost River ("Perte des Rivieres") Trail takes you through a dry deciduous forest to a huge sink hole where three small rivers disappear to emerge again on the other side of the massif. It would be again no problem to make this Hike without a guide but this small circuit receives lots of visitors coming any time during the daylight (it is a favourite hike for short-time visitors coming from Nosy Be resorts).
3. Night walk: The weather in the Ankarana NP is rather similar to the Ankarafantsika NP and so very good for night walks - unfortunately, the sealed road passing through Mahamasina is not lined by too many trees or bushes and it is also rather too busy even after dark. It is possible to do night walks along the dirt road leading from the Park office to the Park campsite but it is not so very rewarding - still, it is possible to catch sight of some nocturnal lemurs and especially lots of bats.

Transport: There was no direct transport to get me from Joffreville to Mahamasina and so I had to switch taxi-brousses midway.
1. First I took a short ride with that vintage local taxi-brousse heading for Antsiranana from Joffreville but it took much longer than expected due to a 1-hr repair needed to start the decrepid vehicle (the ride itself took about 0.5 hr and cost 3kAr, i.e. full price as if going all the way to Antsiranana). I got out at the junction of the Joffreville side road with the main road No. 6.
2. After a short wait I boarded another taxi-brousse heading south but I was out of luck again as it was Thursday, i.e. a market day in Anivorano, a large village on my way to Mahamasina - as the result, all the taxi-brousses, normally simply passing through, were terminating there and I had to wait for another taxi-brousse heading further south to fill. The journey from the junction to Anivorano cost 3kAr and took 1 hr; the lap from Anivorano to Mahamasina cost 5kAr and took 2 hrs - the road was all sealed but had deep potholes in spots.

Accommodation: There was no official campsite at Mahamasina near the Park office but I got a recommendation to set my tent at a convenient place just next the office for free; there was a public toilet I could use near there and also enough people around there any time during daylight to watch over it.

Food: I was again mainly relying on my own food but right next the Park office at Mahamasina there was also a small bar and restaurant with a rather limited offer; I was only getting their french-fried potatoes for 2kAr. There was no shop to buy provisions at the village of Mahamasina.

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Ramena

I have spent over three days at the fishing village of Ramena and had a good time enjoying the change after all that hiking around the national parks. All my stay there was oriented to enjoying the sea but it still involved trips to somewhat remote localities of the Three Bays and Emerald Sea - in fact, even these trips were supposed to be both aimed at snorkelling but I was to find that the timing of my visit was not right for this activity. That is, all the eastern and especially north-eastern coast of Madagascar is constantly blasted by south-east trade winds (also responsible for humid climate of the Madagascar East) that become stronger since April and very strong from mid-June to October (these winds are locally called "varatraz") - at this time the coast exposed to these winds gets attacked by big waves which make even swimming rather difficult (due to the arisen currents) and also stir the sand, thus making snorkelling rather pointless. So, while the Ramena beach located in sheltered Diego Suarez Bay still offers almost flat surface even in that time, there is a strong current pouring through the Emerald Sea and the Three Bays seaside is attacked by a thundering surf. Unfortunately, this important information is totally omitted in all the guidebooks (including the LP Guide 2008 and Bradt Guide 2007) and internet sources as well, which all unanimously praise these spots as general snorkelling heavens.

Ramena sea and marine-life tips: Ramena is located at the northwest part of the Orangea Peninsula, the finger of land that closes the large Diego Suarez Bay (actually the world’s second largest natural bay) from the southeast. It is blessed with a nice sandy beach opening to this Bay sheltered from the trade winds and thus offering somewhat warmer water with always-flat surface. The beach is quite clear and undeveloped - part of it is lined with a string of very reasonably sized resorts and beach restaurants (still no sunbeds or sunshades and no beach sections with restricted access, just some small fishing boats lying there) but especially its northern section is still untouched. The difference between low and high tides at Ramena is almost 2 m at full/new moon and so you need to give some care to them - it is very useful to get the tide table and plan your time. Seawater temperature during my wintertime visit was little too low for comfort and it was not really possible to swim much longer than half an hour without getting cold through.
1. Swimming: The Ramena beach is ideal for swimming any time disregarding the tide. The sea bottom is sloping slowly but steadily and remains always sandy so even if the sea retreats quite far during the low tide it is never problem to enter the water. The sea surface is almost flat and makes Ramena good swimming place even for not-so-good swimmers.
2. Snorkelling: There seems to be just one very small coral garden at the Ramena beach at its north edge but that is actually rather nice and can be easily reached just swimming there from the beach. When going north along the beach you pass the concrete pillars of a former wharf and reach some rocks standing up from the beach and a remainder of a small concrete bunker lying on the beach - the garden lies just in front of this bunker about 20 m off the shore and consists of several coral pillars covering the area of just about some 20 x 20 meters. Yet, in spite of being so small the garden is quite nice and noted for exceptional diversity - in this small area it is possible to see several kinds of hard and also some soft corrals, incl. sea fans, and also a good variety of fish (I have seen, e.g., two kinds of morays - one real big, several kinds of puffer fish, and a lion fish); visibility there during my visits was just about 15 m. It is possible to snorkel there at any time of the day and in low tide one gets real close to the corals.
3. Diving: I have not been diving at Ramena but seen at least one diving center at the beach there.

Trip to the Three Bays: The eastern coast of the Orangea Peninsula to the south of the inlet to the Diego Suarez Bay (called "Passe d'Orangea") forms a succession of coves separated by narrow promontories and protected by outer coral barrier reef - three of these coves are especially pronounced and form semi-closed lagoons and the area is therefore called the Three Bays ("Trois Baies"). These Three Bays are, from north to south, the Dunes Bay ("Baie des Dunes"), Pigeons Bay ("Baie des Pigeons"), and Sakalava Bay ("Baie de Sakalava") - of them the Sakalava Bay is quite large and fully open to the wind and therefore quite popular with windsurfers (it can be also reached by road and there is even a hotel there), while the other two bays are fairly remote and usually deserted (they can be reached by an off-road car only, either from Ramena or Sakalava Bay); all these bays are lined with long white-sand beaches, in spots sheltered by palm trees, and form beautiful turquoise lagoons that are supposed to be rich in fishes and corals. Especially the first Dunes Bay should be a very good spot for snorkelling as on its northern side there is a flat remnant reef abruptly ending with a great wall reef - yet, I cannot certify that as the sea was very rough during my visit there in time of the full varatraz season and not only there was zero visibility in the sea but I did not even dare to swim too far to the sea being afraid of possible currents on the edge of the bay opened to the thundering sideward waves. Still, I did walked along the beaches of the Dunes Bay and Pigeons Bay and found them both truly beautiful and peaceful and quite good for swimming even in the full varatraz season (southern corners of these Bays are sheltered from the winds and waves). From Ramena it is about 5 km one way (a 1-hr walk) to the Dunes Bay - to get there you need to enter a practically abandoned military base (there is a sentry left at the gate to collect a 3kAr fee per day from any vazaha passing there - it is the only reminder of the military presence; yet, the fee was actually collected by a civilian when I was passing there early in the morning ??) and get over the ridge running along the north-eastern shore of the Orange Peninsula. To get there first go on north along the sealed road through Ramena to the gate and then on north through the deserted base to the spot where the north-western end of the ridge falls into the sea, there turn east along a sandy road slowly traversing up the ridge and then switch back west along the ridge to the lighthouse on the north-western corner of the ridge called "Cap Mine" where you get a panoramic view north to the Emerald Sea; from there go south-east down the ridge still along the road passing through the dry bushes till you reach a big bunker on the left side of the road; there pass left along the bunker and you will emerge on a low cliff above the sea just north of the narrow promontory forming northern border of the Dunes Bay. The Pigeons Bay is further on southeast along the road or southeast along the beach just over the southern border promontory of the Dunes Bay. In spite of not having any luck with snorkelling there I quite enjoyed not only the peaceful atmosphere of these Bays but also the hike there offering a chance to get a good views on the sea and also to explore the quite interesting low dry forest interspersed with baobab and pachypodium trees overgrowing the ridge; actually, on my way back I have been treated to a very rare daylight sighting of the Madagascar top predator, the elusive fossa, that I have seen for a moment walking along the side road on the southwestern side of the ridge.

Emerald Sea Tour: The Emerald Sea ("Mer d'Emeraude") is a large area (about 20 km in perimeter) of shallow sea (hence its emerald colour giving it the name) located just off the eastern coast of the Cap d'Ambre Peninsula to the north of the Passe d'Orangea. The Emerald Sea lagoon is again supposed to be a very good snorkelling spot rich in fishes and corals. Again, I cannot certify that as I was there in time of the full varatraz season when there was a strong current passing through it and making snorkeling rather difficult. Still, I have some doubts about validity of this popular advertisement as I have seen just very few of quite small corals and not too many fish in the small area I have a chance to see. I have visited the area within a typical tour organized from Ramena, which consist in sailing in a local fishing boat to the small island called "Nosy Suarez", having a picnic sea-food lunch there, and then sailing back (see the map on this page). The destination beach on Nosy Suarez was on its northwestern side and so somewhat sheltered from otherwise very strong varatraz winds but during my visit there in the full varatraz season it was quite windy there anyway and the current passing by the islet was quite strong and made snorkelling there very difficult; I asked the boatmen to take us to a good snorkelling spot by boat and he took us not too far off and that was the spot where I got my rather disappointing snorkelling experience mentioned above. Yet, I got an impression that the same picnic spot was used all year round (there were even some huts and other amenities built there to facilitate preparation of the lunch) and so the repute about good snorkelling there seemed to be rather unjustified. So, in spite of being generally advertised as a "snorkelling trip" the tour was not much more than a "picnic trip" in fact - not being a fan of lobster food I declined the lunch for a discount but other participants seemed to be satisfied. Still, I was told that there may be good spots to snorkel in the Emerald Sea even within the full varatraz season but I had not found any way how to get to such spots for reasonable price - also, there was no map of such areas or at least reliable information available and it would be clearly very risky to hope to get a real value trip for the extra money. Otherwise, Nosy Suarez destination beach was rather long and nice and very good for swimming, but there were very razor sharp volcanic rocks on both its sides; Nosy Suarez itself was rather flat and sandy and overgrown with low spiny bushes. The best part of the tour was actually the sailing, which was quite adventurous due to the rough sea churned up by the varatraz - the waves were easily higher than our small boat and we got a really bumpy ride. Somewhat a problem was that both the tour organizer and the boat crew forgot to inform us in advance that we should come ready for heavy sprays of seawater during the sailing - we "felt a rat" when seeing the female cooker entering the boat in a raincoat and indeed got fairly sprayed on the way to the Islet but we at least had our packs sheltered by a plastic tarpaulin; yet, what really alarmed us was the boat steersman boarding the boat in a neoprene wet suit for our sail back - and indeed, this time we had to use the tarpaulin to protect ourselves from really heavy splashes and it left our packs almost unprotected in the open boat forecastle (not so much problem for myself, as I went light, but a fellow participant got her camera destroyed by seawater); so do not forget to put on enough of waterproof clothes and especially put all your sensitive devices into plastic bags. My tour was organized by a rather enterprising man named 'Mohamed Youssouf' (0324075269) linked with the crew of local fishing boat named "Libertalia" - he was the only one to be able to offer a reasonable price at Ramena (at least after some bargaining based on my apparent irresolution whether I really want to go at all) owing to his ability to find four other participants; the tour cost me 35kAr (without the lunch) and included 1-hr sailing each way and about 4-hr stay on Nosy Suarez.

Transport: There was no direct transport to get me from Mahamasina to Ramena and so I had to switch taxi-brousses in Antsiranana.
1. To get to Antsiranana from Mahamasina I took a direct taxi-brousse (cost 10kAr, took about 3.5 hrs along that potholed road; no switching cars in Anivorano this time); I went to the road at about 13:00 and it took about half an hour to get a ride. After explaining my further plans to the driver I was delivered right to the waiting Ramena taxi-brousse at Antsiranana.
2. The taxi-brousse to Ramena was one of those local vintage Peugeot 404 Camionettes. It took about an hour to fill completely but then delivered me safely to Ramena while stopping for me at the hotel of my choice (cost 2kAr, took about 1 hr along rather worn-out sealed road).

Accommodation: I slept in my own tent in the garden of the small Badamera Cafe Resort at Ramena; for 2.5kAr per night I got an access to a shared toilet and cold shower. There were no established campsites in the garden but I was able to find a shaded place under a big tree providing necessary shade (there were of course no other campers there). The Resort was friendly and its garden was quite nice with samples of local trees including baobabs and pachypodiums (not at all "shabby" as it was suggested in the LP Guide 2008). I was quite happy there except the third morning when I found that my rubber sandals, as always left outside by my tent, disappeared during small night hours; the only other complaint would be a rather noisy discotheque running all Friday night somewhere near. The public access to the beach was just about 50 m away.

Food: There was a good looking restaurant in the Badamera Cafe Resort but it was rather expensive for my budget - I tried just their french-fried potatoes once but for 3kAr I got a pitifully small portion and so I was again forced to resort mainly to my own food. Fortunately, Ramena appeared to be the only place encountered in whole Madagascar where I was able to get freshly cooked snacks sold every evening in few stalls near the Ramena pier - I very much enjoyed eating freshly cooked manioc, aubergine, and some kind of flour flippers sold there for 0.2kAr a piece. There were few street shops selling bread and other provisions near the Ramena pier.

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Andasibe-Mantadia NP

I have spent together about three days in the Andasibe-Mantadia National Park and had a very good time in spite of experiencing some rain (actually, I was rather lucky as I experienced almost no rain during my hikes while it was raining quite heavily during the nights and on the way in and out). The Park protects a lush and thick montane rainforest growing along a mountainous and broken relief with steep slopes that helped to keep at least some of its parts fully intact and covered with one of the last remaining primary rainforest in Madagascar. It consist of two parts separated by an area of degraded forest: the small and rather popular "Analamazoatra Special Reserve" (also known under its colonial-era name the "Perinet Reserve" or the popular name of "Indri Reserve") in the south, and much larger and wilder "Mantadia National Park" in the north. The forest there is inhabited by rich fauna including 14 species of lemurs, including the indri, the largest of all living lemurs that is very rare anywhere else and unable to survive in captivity, the especially beautiful diademed sifaka, common brown lemurs, eastern gray bamboo lemurs, and black-and-white ruffed lemurs. Of these, the indri lemurs are famous for their unique territorial calls, weird vocal songs somewhat reminding songs of humpback whales - these calls are somewhat casually described as "morning calls" lasting just few minutes and not heard in any other time of the day but this seems to be quite misleading: (i) do not expect any calls welcoming the rising sun (such as, say, howler monkey calls) - the indri seems to be somewhat lazy and does not bother earlier than at about 8:30, (ii) I was told it was rather untypical, but during my two days of hiking in this Park I was happy to hear these calls repeatedly during all day (my guide mentioned that it might have been because of the much welcome interruption in otherwise persistent rains, which I was lucky to experience there). The not so pleasant inhabitants there are supposed to be the ill-famous terrestrial leeches but I did not encounter any of them there, likely because of the very cold weather.

Park visit tips: The Andasibe-Mantadia NP has a moist subtropical climate, cool and wet all the year round with a period of heavy rain between January and March and no period really without precipitation, the period between July and September can be quite cold with the temperature allegedly dropping down to 10°C (but I would bet that it was much colder at night during my stay there). The Park main office located right next the sealed side road, some 3 km north from its fork with the principal road RN2 connecting Antananarivo and east-coast port of Toamasina and about 1 km south of the village of Andasibe, where this side road terminates - there it is possible to pay the fees and hire one of the guides hanging around. I can very much recommend my guide in this Park who was genuine nature enthusiast and incredibly knowledgeable about Madagascar flora and fauna and also spoke a very good English - his name was 'Desi' (+261-330625422 or +261-334196395; rajeriguide@yahoo.fr) and I had no problem to contact him through the office; another recommendation I have seen mentioned 'Zaka'. Beware, that while the maps and information provided about the Analamazoatra part of the Park in both the LP Guide 2008 and Bradt Guide 2007 are relatively good, the situation is very different regarding the Mantadia part for which there is no map and only very brief but at least reasonably correct information in the LP Guide 2008 and more misleading than not map in the Bradt Guide 2007; good maps but somewhat incomplete information can be found on the MNP website (in contrast, no information is provided about the Analamazoatra part there); there is a relatively good wall trail map at the Park main office and also outside at the parking space near the office. Besides, just next the Analamazoatra part of the Park there is another quite well preserved rainforest generally known as the "Mitsinjo Forest", which is managed by a local NGO called Mitsinjo and where it is also possible to take short but good hikes for much lower price.

Park trails: There are basically four different and mostly looped trails which typically form several alternate paths and allow to take few different hikes - one of them, with its trailhead just next the Park main office, allows to explore around the Analamazoatra part of the Park, while the other three go to various parts of the Mantadia part of the Park and their trailheads are rather far away north along a dirt road. As the Andasibe-Mantadia NP was my last park visited in Madagascar, I was running low on cash and did not want to change more money and so I decided to limit my paid hikes within the Park (as always, generally rather expensive) and possibly visit the cheaper Mitsinjo forest instead; later I found that even a guided hike within the Mitsinjo forest would eat too much of my limited funds but figured that the remote Mantadia part of the Park would be likely very rarely visited and so I could risk to go there without a guide - all that affected planning of my guided hikes in the Park but within these terms my guide Desi gave me a good information about the Park trails and also did not asked me to pay ahead the guiding fee. After considering my possibilities I decided to spent one day taking a guided hike within the Analamazoatra part of the Park and another day doing some unguided hiking within the Mantadia part of the Park - the remaining time after these main hikes I decided to spent exploring around the Park main office. All these plans went very well and so I did the following hikes in the area:
1. Analamazoatra Reserve Hike: This is the best hike to take in the area when not having much time for your visit as it actually offers a good possibility to view all the main local attractions within a day or even just few hours. The Hike begins and ends just next the Park main office and takes few hours to full day, depending on time spent wandering in the area and your walking pace; it is possible to choose three different circuits differing by their duration and distance from the trailhead you venture into the Reserve (and naturally also by their guiding fee) - I have chosen the longest circuit which takes about 6 hrs and the guiding fee for it is 35kAr (the shorter circuits cost 15kAr and 25kAr respectively). The whole small Analamazoatra Reserve is practically level and crisscrossed by a labyrinth of paths allowing to wander around the rainforest in search for the wildlife, namely the various types of lemurs, birds, and reptiles. This Reserve is by far the most visited area of the Park and many people come just for a few hours to see the rare indris, the largest of all living lemurs, that are quite habituated to people owing a common presence of some researchers studying their behaviour - consequently, you are likely to see quite a few of other visitors there but you are also almost guaranteed to be able to observe these primates and also hear their unique territorial calls. There is almost no chance to visit this paths complex without a guide due to the almost constant presence of some visitors and their guides and the proximity of its trailhead to the Park office. Owing to my enthusiastic guide Desi I had a very good hike in this Reserve and not only got a chance to observe an indri lemur (unfortunately bothered by several typical picture taking visitors) but also could finally see over my first and only famous leaf-tail gecko, the incredibly well camouflaged small reptile endemic to Madagascar (thanks Desi).
2. Mantadia Park Trek: The Mantadia part of the Park is rather different from the Analamazoatra Reserve - it is very mountainous with steep slopes and narrow ridges, all overgrown by a very nice pristine primary forest with trees covered by mosses, lichens, lianas, and the abundance of epiphytes, esp. orchids, and with thick understorey dominated by tree ferns. It is also rather remote and difficult to reach as its southern border is located allegedly about 8 km north from the Park main office near Andasibe (there is another small Park office just there at the border of the Mantadia) along the narrow road sealed up to the Vakona Lodge (a very plush resort some 7 km from the Park main office) and unsealed and muddy further; there is no public transport anywhere along this road and almost no traffic at all beyond the Vakona Lodge. Taking a guided hike there would very probably need to include hiring a very expensive transport as I doubt one could be able to find a guide willing to walk there from the Park main office - visiting there without a guide I was able to simply walk this distance (when going back in the afternoon there is a good chance to get a ride with some car coming from the Vakona Lodge - I saved myself from about half an hour walk this way). To plan my trek I used the map provided at the MNP website and actually even better wall trail map placed outside at the parking space near the Park main office - that is, beside the Rianasoa Trail (with its trailhead about 10 km from the Park main office) and the Sacred Falls ("Chute Sacree") Circuit (about 10.5 km from the office) shown on the MNP map, this outside map was also showing another trail, called "Trekking Circuit", forking eastwards from the road some 9 km from the Park main office, going through the wilderness to the turning points of the above mentioned trails, and continuing north all the way to the distant Tsakoka Trail (the MNP website talks about a circuit of this name but does not show it on its map and gives strange particulars for it - there described trail looked much longer for sure, likely needing 2-3 days). Anyway, to catch the morning indri calls in Mantadia I started my hike just after sunrise at 6:15 and reached the well signposted turn-off for the Trekking Circuit at about 8:30 (the road was somewhat undulating and mostly uphill but I was walking rather hard and so I would estimate the real distance there to be about 12 km, instead of given 9 km), i.e. just in time (I was passing the local Park office at about 8:00 and seen nobody there, but I was ready to say that I was just going to walk along the road - there were some villages and individual houses along the road, so there was no reason for prohibiting to walk there; in fact, even from the road the forest looked very nice and would be worth visiting even in this limited way). The path of the Trekking Circuit was quite clear and just great - it went steeply up and down through a very nice moist forest, sometimes along narrow ridges offering views on the forest canopy down below and overgrown with an upper montane cloud forest characterized by twisted dwarf trees covered with lichens and mosses; on the top of it, time to time I was pleased by the calls of different groups of indris exchanging their territorial calls over the ridges. I have been hugely enjoying myself during this hike and it only reinforced my realization that even the best guide is more a burden for me than help and I just enjoy the nature much better when alone and undisturbed. After about 2 hrs I reached a small river and going back west against its stream I soon got to the end of the Rianasoa Trail and along it to its trailhead back on the road at some 11:00. As it was so early I decided to add some more hiking, moved north along the road to the trailhead of the Sacred Falls Circuit and walked along a short trail to the falls. After some exploration there I continued to walk a part of the reverse path of the Sacred Falls Circuit but then decided to go back along another part of the Trekking Circuit connecting from the falls back to the Rianasoa Trail - again, the path of the Trekking Circuit was more enjoyable than those official short trails; on this rather short path I have been treated to several very nice sightings of local trade-mark lemurs, namely the diademed sifakas, indris, and probably also the black-and-white ruffed lemurs - first I heard loud alarm call and caught sight of few black and white lemurs quickly jumping away (I thought they were indris due to their size and colour), then just short way further I saw few beautiful diademed sifakas who unfortunately saw me too and also fled away unhurriedly showing their effortless jumps, and next, while I was following the sifakas and trying to get a better view, I found myself in the middle of a group of three indris sitting around and watching me inquisitively and so I stayed put and spent about half an hour exchanging looks with them in starting drizzle (they did not look too happy about the return of rain); considering how highly territorial the indris were and how close was this group to the place of my seeing the first lemur group, I figured that those first lemurs must have actually been the black-and-white ruffed lemurs. Unfortunately, the rain was picking up and so after coming out of the forest at the Rianasoa Trail trailhead again I went back to Andasibe, while getting a ride with a passing car not too far beyond the Vakona Lodge - at about 15:30 I was back at my camp next to the Park main office, while stopping before at Andasibe village for some shopping. All this Trek was absolutely fabulous and the most rewarding I have done in Madagascar. During all this Trek I have not met any other visitor, just quite a few villagers walking along the road. I believe there would be no problem to do hikes in the Mantadia part of the Park even in high season time and I very much recommend it to anyone seriously interested in nature - all the trails I walked were very clear and perfectly signposted and there was no reason for any fear of getting lost.
3. Hikes in the Mitsinjo Forest: Across the road opposite of the Analamazoatra Reserve there is the Mitsinjo Forest managed by the local Mitsinjo NGO - part of this Forest is also the so called "Orchid Park", a botanical garden where it is possible to admire these plants flowers in October and November. This NGO set up the hikes quite similar to those organized in the Analamazoatra Reserve and guided by their own guided. They offer a 2-hr loop hike for total price of 20kAr and 4-hr loop hike for 30kAr; they may also organize a night walk into the Forest. Their main office is about 100 m south along the road from the Park main office, another office is in the village of Andasibe; the common trailhead for their loop hikes is right next their main office. The Orchid Park was just next the road about 100 m north from the Park main office but its gate was always locked. Yet, further on north along the road there were some paths exiting west to the forest and while exploring them I suddenly found myself right in this Orchid Park (I got there along about third path beyond the gate while the previous two ended with a barbed wire barrier) - the Orchid Park was very artificially looking pond circled by a nice wide path. Then I explored few paths leading on west from this pond and soon realized I had actually sneaked inside the Mitsinjo Forest on its hiking trails. These trails were clear and nice paths navigating within a good-looking forest, allegedly inhabited by some lemurs habituated to people. It would be no danger of getting lost in these trails as you can always hear cars passing along the road to the east - yet, this Forest is visited by visitors any time during the day and even at night and so an "unofficial" visitor is always running a risk of bumping into a guided group.
4. Night walk: The Analamazoatra Reserve used to be known for offering a good night walk but the night walks are not any more allowed in the Madagascar national parks. Still, the 1-km section of the road between the Mitsinjo main office and the village of Andasibe passing by the Park main office offers an opportunity to do the night walks - yet I have not seen much during my attempts, probably during to the very cold weather there during my visit. Yet, the common brown lemurs, living hidden within the Analamazoatra Reserve during daytime, again like to come to sleep closer to human settlements - with twilight I have repeatedly observed two different groups, one coming to sleep on the trees at the southeastern corner of the Park picnic ground, and the other passing along the trees across the river beyond the Mikalo Resort located just before the Andasibe village.

Transport: It was, of course, not easy to get from Ramena to the Andasibe-Mantadia NP. I had to get to the Antsiranana airport first, fly to Antananarivo, overnight there, and only next day reach the Park by two consequential taxi-brousses while changing at Moramanga.
1. First I took a short ride with that vintage local taxi-brousse heading from Ramena to Antsiranana. I was told that the first taxi-brousse would go after 6:00 but it probably went sooner (strange ??) and I had to wait till the next one, which sufficiently filled up at about 8:00. The ride again cost 2kAr and it took about 1 hr to reach center of Ansiranana. I was passing three times through the city of Ansiranana (also known by its colonial-era name "Diego Suarez" or only "Diego") but never had time or need to explore around it. Still, the city looked rather good and less shabby than majority of Madagascar cities including its capital Antananarivo. Ansiranana seemed to be lively city reminding by its atmosphere (and dress of its inhabitants) the swahili ports on the east coast of African continent, like Mombasa or Dar es Salam.
2. When asking about a transport to the Ansiranana airport at my Ramena hotel I was told that taxi would charge me a flat price of 10kAr from anywhere in Ansiranana, but that it should be also possible to go by one of the red public minivans connecting the Ansiranana center with the airport. I was told that the minivans would be waiting at a spot quite near the place where my taxi-brousse from Ramena terminated and so I went there and enquired. Yet, the crews of those minivans were somewhat unable to understand my simple enquiries if they would go to the airport (yet asked in my pidgin French) - strangely, they were always answering: "of course", and starting to quote me the price for hiring the whole minibus to get me there without any waiting. After several attempts I gave up and got a taxi. Yet, even this taxi was rather strange there as it was actually operated as a sort of shared taxi - i.e., not only I was picked by a taxi with some other passengers inside, who were getting out later along the way, but the driver, who did already secure those 10kAr from me for taking me to the airport, was stopping for other passengers going in the same direction and asking some money from them too - each of us was paying the full price. So, it was some taxi carpooling run there but I doubt they had ecological reasons for that. Anyway, it was my general feeling about people up there in the North Madagascar that they were somewhat more greedy and crafty than anywhere else in Madagascar (remember those taxi-brousse touts mentioned above, who were trying to put me on a normal taxi by trying to persuade me that there would be no taxi-brousse).
3. To get to Antananarivo from Antsiranana I took the only direct Air-Madagascar flight of the day at 12:55 (its schedule changed several time till the morning and back), which I booked and bought within a compound Air-Madagascar ticket including both my international and domestic flights. The flight took about 1.5 hr, was about half an hour late, half empty, and uneventful.
4. To get to Moramanga from Antananarivo I took a taxi-brousse (company: KOMPIMA, cost 5kAr, took about 3 hrs along a good road); the route is served by two companies launching several minivans leaving from about 6:00; they compete fiercely and it is rather amusing to watch their touts rushing to any potential passenger arriving to the taxi-brousse station.
5. At Moramanga I had to ask around for a taxi-brousse heading to the village of Andasibe as the touts had not been to active there - yet, the station there was rather small and the appropriate company office turned to be very close. They had a taxi-brousse waiting (a Renault van fitted with some seating) but it took about an hour to fill up and set out (company: KOFIMANGA, cost 2kAr, took about 1.5 hrs along a reasonable sealed road).

Accommodation: I slept in my own tent at the Park official campsite just next the Park main office at Ambodiamontana; for 6kAr per night I got a set space under a shelter (very useful as there was frequently and rather heavily raining there - there were just two of these shelters available there but I was again the only camper; there were additional sites but without shelters) and an access to a shared toilet and cold (very much so) shower.

Food: Once again I was mainly relying on my own food but right next the Park office there was also a restaurant with a rather limited offer; as usual I was only getting their french-fried potatoes. There was no shop to buy provisions near the campsite but the large village of Andasibe, just 1 km north along the road, had quite a few shops selling bread and other provisions and even small vegetable market spread along its main "street".

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Antananarivo

I have been generally just passing through Antananarivo but together I have spent there about two days while sleeping there four nights. I could not found this city especially attractive no matter how much I tried. It is spread out on several rather steep hills and so it looks rather good from a distance - yet, at close range it loses all its attraction being rather shabby and unimaginative. I could not found any soul in it with the exception of the large Analakely Market, where I spend majority of my time in Antananarivo. Of course, there are all necessary kinds of services available there, such as variety of shops, banks with ATMs (including several branches of the CNI-BA), and internet places.

Transport:
1. The small and simple Antananarivo airport is in the small town of Ivato some 15 km from Antananarivo. After leaving the customs you become an easy prey of a gang of taxi drivers waiting there - they all maintain that a ride anywhere into the city costs a flat price of 40kAr (they may even produce a very officially looking list of taxi prices supporting this claim but it is of course just a hoax). In fact, the price should be just about 20kAr but they are all well concerted and would not reduce this ludicrous sum - your only chance would be to walk out of the airport premises and try to get a taxi there but I have not seen any taxis just passing there and not entering the airport parking lot. Fortunately, there is a vastly cheaper way how to get to the city. The Ivato town is connected with Antananarivo by small buses called "taxi-be" and indicated by a sign saying "IVATO - TANA" or just "IVATO", which pass quite often right by the airport and deliver you near the Antananarivo center for 0.4kAr only; you can the taxi-be down on the road passing just outside the airport gate (the gate is just across the parking lot some 100 m straight out of the airport building; the taxi-be for Antananarivo goes in the direction to the right, so wait for it at the left corner - there will likely be few people waiting there already) and it will deliver you in about an hour to the place called "Vasakaosy" (indicated as the western taxi-brousse station on the LP Guide 2008 Antananarivo map); the taxi-be can be quite crowded and as it is not really equipped to carry large backpacks (no usual rack on the roof) you may be justifiably asked to pay an extra seat to accommodate your pack. When going the other way from the city to the airport, just take a taxi to Vasakaosy (each taxi driver should recognize this name - pronounce it as "Va-sa-ko-ssy") and ask him or bystanders there for the taxi-be to Ivato. It is quite safe to use this taxi-be during daylight but it is not recommended to venture out of the airport gate after dark. Along the road in front of the airport gate there is a few small street shops where you can burn all your remaining money - yet it is not much of a choice there, just some biscuits and soft drinks (there are some shops in the airport hall are of course very overpriced). There is no departure tax or other surprise fees to be paid when leaving.
2. Antananarivo has four different taxi-brousse stations servicing different sectors of the country, all rather distant from the city center: the western station is used by local taxi-brousses (e.g. those going to Ivato), the northern station is used by those going to northern destinations (e.g. to Mahajanga or Antsiranana), the eastern station is used by those going to eastern destinations (e.g. to Moramanga or Toamasina), and the southern station is used by those going to all southern destinations (e.g. to Fianarantsoa, Toliara, Morondava, or Manakara). None of these stations is really in a walking distance from the city center (esp. the southern and eastern stations are rather remote) and so you generally need to take a taxi to travel there or back. As for the fees, I can provide just few concerning the routes between these stations and the Hotel Moonlight at the north side of the center - to the western and northern stations it was about 3kAr and to the eastern and southern stations it was about 8kAr. Within the center it is usually quicker to walk as you can use the staircases instead of long driving around the hills and one-way streets.
3. To get to Antananarivo from the Andasibe-Mantadia NP I first took a taxi-brousse to Moramanga (company: KOFIMANGA, cost 2kAr, took about 1.5 hrs along a reasonable sealed road); I needed just a short waiting time on the road opposite of the Park main office at about 7:00. At Moramanga it took about half an hour to fill in another taxi-brousse heading for Antananarivo (company: KOMPIMA, cost 5kAr, took about 3 hrs along a good road).

Accommodation:
1. On my several passages through Antananarivo I was always staying at the very friendly Hotel Moonlight - originally I have chosen this Hotel for its relative proximity to the northern and eastern taxi-brousse stations but later I was coming back for its friendly atmosphere. The Hotel has rooms of various sizes and accommodation standards and due to its popularity it is not so easy to get the cheapest rooms there, esp. when arriving rather late - yet, the owners/receptionists are rather businesslike and understand that it is better to offer a discount than loosing a customer. Thus, on two of my three stays there, when I arrived rather late and was leaving early next day, I got a discount (after asking about other cheaper hotel nearby) - once I got a large double room with access to a shared bathroom with hot-water shower and bathtub and a shared toilet for 19kAr (allegedly normally for 21kAr), and next I got a small single room with TV, attached hot-water shower, and shared toilet for 20kAr (allegedly normally for 22kAr); for my third and longer stay I booked ahead their cheapest room for 15kAr (single room with access to shared bathroom with hot shower and bathtub, and shared toilet). Some of the rooms are slightly noisy early in the evening due to cracking floors but it is not so bad; somewhat more annoying are dogs often barking during all nights but there is no way to escape it anywhere in Antananarivo. The Hotel can organize a taxi for the airport for 20kAr. There is an internet place just about 100 m down the street from this Hotel but I cannot really recommend it - on my visit there two computers simply switched off one by one after some time of my using them, erasing all my work (likely something wrong with hardware connections somewhere inside the PC case).
2. For my unplanned initial stay caused by missed flight connection, the Air Madagascar provided me with a free accommodation at the 3-Star Hotel Anjary. According to a sign at the doors, my single room with TV and attached hot-water shower and toilet would normally cost me 50kAr. Nice feature of this hotel was convenient free use of two computers connected to the internet (they had the best connection I have encountered in whole Madagascar) placed at a small public restaurant located at the lobby round the corner from the reception. To be able to connect to the internet, it was necessary to enter an authorization code, which was written, on a sheet of paper kept in the reception. After problems with connection in other places I happily used these computers "unofficially" during all my passages through Antananarivo - the computers were very rarely in use and the paper with the authorization code was usually lying about next the computers (and the code was not changed so often anyway).

Food: Once again I was again mainly relying on my own food but I did allow myself some exceptions in Antananarivo.
1. Just before leaving for the airport and home I indulged myself a pizza at the restaurant of the Hotel Brajas about 100 m up the street from the Hotel Moonlight - their cheapest Margarita pizza cost 10kAr and was very good indeed after all that hardship of my Madagascar holiday (the Margarita pizza was a safe choice - they had about 20 different kinds of pizzas on their French menu (and not much more expensive too), but they spoke only French and with my extremely poor French I was not able to really understand the menu).
2. The small restaurant at the Hotel Anjary served me those free meals provided by the Air Madagascar compensatory stay - the meals were nothing special and the portions were rather small. I also had their french-fried potatoes once - do not remember the price but it was not cheap and the portion was very small.
3. Around the Analakely Market there is quite a few of small eateries serving mainly some meat-based snacks, Yet, it is also possible to get there some very cheap and good french-fried potatoes.

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When preparing for my trips I always gather from the internet all information available and before I go I put it unsorted into separated documents covering each place to be visited and print those out to use them during the trip. I still have the documents prepared for this trip and I can send them to you on request. If anybody is interested please see the information on my Introductory Page.


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