A Small-Group Exploration of the Planet's Most Unique Biodiversity Hotspot
Day 1: Johannesburg, South Africa
Our Madagascar tour begins on arrival in Johannesburg, a 19th-century gold mining settlement that's now a cosmopolitan, culture-rich city of 3.6 million. Food and music are central to life in "Joburg," and its clubs and pubs are an integral part of the social fabric. We gather with our small group of travelers this evening for a welcome dinner and orientation with our Expedition Leader.
Please note that this is our 2018 itinerary. Our 2017 departures begin in Antananarivo, Madagascar instead of Johannesburg, South Africa.
Days 2–3: Antananarivo, Madagascar / Perinet Reserve
We fly to Antananarivo, Madagascar's capital, this morning, where we will continue by road through rice paddies and rain forest to reach the Perinet Reserve, one of the two main sectors of Andasibe-Mantadia National Park. Madagascar has approximately 100 species and subspecies of lemur—and the world’s largest, the indri, is found here. As exciting to hear as it is to see, this pied
creature’s call sounds like a loud, eerie wailing in the trees. During the day we may also spy gray bamboo, Eastern woolly
and black-and-white ruffed lemurs, as well as dancing
diademed sifakas. On night walks we look for palm-sized brown mouse lemurs that awaken to skitter among the strangler figs and giant ferns.
Madagascar’s premier national park is a critical component of the country’s efforts to conserve its biodiversity in the face of extensive deforestation. Besides lemurs, this threatened biome contains a thousand different orchid species that bloom during the rainy season, a plethora of medicinal plants, the turquoise Parson’s chameleon (one of the largest in the world), and a spiky insectivore called a tenrec, which looks like a striped hedgehog. The protected tract of rare
montane rain forest is also one of the world’s top birding locales. We also visit Lemur Island, a small sanctuary where orphaned lemurs are thriving. Four species, including the bamboo lemur, black and white ruffed lemur, brown lemur and diademed sifaka, have become habituated to visitors, allowing for close encounters and outstanding photo opportunities.
Day 4: Mantadia National Park
Today we venture farther afield to the less-visited Mantadia section of Andasibe-Mantadia National Park. Mantadia's virtually untouched primary forest is filled with stunning buttress-rooted trees and lichen-covered trunks beneath a canopy reaching more than 100 feet high. Experience the true seclusion while exploring with our small, quiet group among towering tree ferns and fan-shaped traveler’s palms that harbor a variety of endemic birds and rare reptiles. Diademed sifakas and black-and-white ruffed lemurs launch themselves from tree to tree above us, and we witness varieties of couas
, vangas and ground rollers flitting through the forest. Mossy-green leaf-tailed geckos and short-horned chameleons are special sightings
when our sharp-eyed guides locate them and point them out.
Days 5 & 6: Ranomafana National Park
We return to Antananarivo by road and take a chartered flight to the hilltop town of Fianarantsoa, noted for its 19th-century colonial old town with colorful houses and cobbled streets. From here, we drive to Ranomafana National Park, created in 1991 following the discovery of the endangered golden bamboo lemur. Today, the park is a hub of research and discovery that is vitally important for the conservation of regional wildlife. Comprised of steep, mountainous terrain, Ranomafana's 250 square miles encompass varied habitats at a range of altitudes, from lowland rain forest
to cloud forest, to high plateau forest. Verdant cliffs and waterfalls abound in this rugged wilderness.
The park is home to 12 species of lemur, including three different bamboo lemurs, 120 frog species, various chameleons and other reptiles, 90 different butterflies and the fascinating but rarely seen fossa. Birds are abundant, too, with more than 100 species present, including ground-rollers, red-fronted coua
and collared nightjar. A night walk may reveal brown mouse lemurs and various frogs and chameleons active after dark. The lush rain forest also harbors many different carnivorous plants.
Days 7 & 8: Isalo National Park
Ready your camera and enjoy your guaranteed window seat as our full-day scenic drive to southern Madagascar takes us through lively
local villages and into a land in stark contrast with the lush eastern rain forests. Stopping about halfway at the Anja Community Reserve to relax over a picnic lunch, we may see rambunctious ring-tailed lemurs feeding in the trees or even foraging on the ground. Continuing on, we enter a region of mountainous
plateaus and eroded canyons reminiscent of the American Southwest, as granite outcrops rise from dry grass plains. As we reach the striking Isalo massif, we'll witness the fascinating flora that thrives against this Jurassic-era sandstone backdrop, including the odd-looking swollen pachypodia
, or “elephant’s foot.”
Several varieties of lemur live here among the cacti, aloes
and palms, in particular
the resident ring-tailed lemur that we’ll look for in Isalo National Park. The 200,000-acre park is also home to more than 80 bird species and 33 different reptile species. It is the sacred homeland of the tribal Bara people, whose burial sites are marked by mounds of tiny stones placed in crevices in the rock faces. Amid the arid landscape, we come upon a swift stream running through a deep, ancient gorge. Here, there's an option to climb a series of steps to a natural pool fed by a thundering waterfall that has carved its course into the sandstone. At night, as temperatures fall, the sunset fades and the ebony sky beckons our gaze upward for some of the best stargazing on the planet.
Day 9: Zombitse-Vohibasia National Park / Isalo
We drive to Zombitse-Vohibasia National Park today, a little-visited reserve on the border of two biological zones, dry deciduous tropical forest and more humid forest and savanna. The park is an island in the middle of a widely deforested region, and as such, it provides crucial natural habitat for an abundant array of flora and fauna. Some of Madagascar’s finest birdwatching is here, with a number of endemic species including the very rare Appert's tetraka that is native to this forest alone. We also look for the giant coua
, iridescent souimanga
sunbird, greater and lesser vasa parrots, Oustalet’s chameleon, and, always, lemurs. Among the park's eight lemur species, we may see Verreaux's sifaka, red-fronted brown lemur and the Hubbard's sportive lemur, a prize sighting found only in this park. This afternoon we return to Isalo to spend one more night.
Days 10–12: Anjajavy Private Reserve
Early this morning we board our chartered flight to the 17,000-acre private coastal nature reserve of Anjajavy. This vast protected area with private walking trails and secluded forests and beaches is accessible only by flying into the private airport—exclusive access that is a distinct advantage in traveling with our small group. Our seaside lodge fronting the cerulean waters of the Mozambique Channel is our base for exploring the dry deciduous Anjajavy forest in northwest Madagascar. This remote area, less disturbed than other regions of the country, boasts a striking number of endemic species. We’ll look for Coquerel’s sifaka and the common brown lemur during guided forest walks, and night strolls may reveal gray and golden brown
mouse lemurs, giant hairy crabs and a variety of reptiles. The forest contains some 1,800 plant species, among them massive baobab trees shaped like squat bottles, and rosewood trees used in the construction of our lodge. The 4-star resort, Madagascar's only member of the exclusive Relais & Chateaux group, is a secluded tropical paradise, with accommodations in thatched rosewood bungalows overlooking a private, white sand beach.
Private boat excursions offer a close-up look at this remote region that's mostly uninhabited except for a couple of small fishing villages. While we may pass a few fishermen in their dhows
with triangular white sails or paddling wooden pirogues
, we're largely alone along this wild coastline of rocky outcrops and tiny indented coves with untouched beaches dotted by pale ghost crabs. We travel by boat to Moramba Bay to view eroded limestone formations protruding from the azure sea and huge baobab trees that stand sentinel over their lushly vegetated environs. Search the coastline for the Madagascar fish eagle, rare Madagascar sacred ibis and crested ibis. A sunset cruise through the mangroves reveals an array of birds and, if we’re lucky, Madagascar flying foxes leaving their roosts at dusk. From our lodge, guests may also opt to explore the mangroves by kayak or snorkel over a coral reef right from the beach. On the grounds, the "oasis" provides a garden sanctuary for a wide variety of aquatic and climbing plants, papyrus, tree ferns and palm trees that offer refuge to hummingbirds, green kingfisher, red fody and lemurs. A saltwater infinity pool offers refreshment after a day of discovery.
Day 13: Anjajavy / Antananarivo / Depart
After a leisurely breakfast at the lodge, fly to Antananarivo for connecting flights homeward, or on to South Africa for extensions.
Please note that this is our 2018 itinerary. Our 2017 departures end on Day 14, making the trip one day longer, as we spend Day 10 in Antananarivo.
Physical Rating: Moderate