A Small-Group Exploration of the Planet's Most Unique Biodiversity Hotspot
Day 1: Johannesburg, South Africa
Arrive in Johannesburg, a 19th-century gold mining settlement that's now a cosmopolitan city of 4.4 million. Food and music are central to life in "Joburg," and its clubs and pubs are an integral part of the social fabric. Gather with our small group this evening for a welcome dinner with our Expedition Leader.
Days 2–4: Antananarivo, Madagascar / Andasibe-Mantadia National Park
Fly over the Indian Ocean this morning to Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, where our adventure begins. We drive past rice paddies and rural villages into the rain forest to reach Andasibe-Mantadia National Park where we'll have our first opportunity to look for lemurs, primitive primates found only in Madagascar. The country is home to approximately 100 species and subspecies of lemur, and the world’s largest, the indri, is found in this park. As exciting to hear as it is to see, this pied creature’s call is a loud, eerie wailing that rings from the trees. During the day we may also spy gray bamboo, Eastern woolly and black-and-white ruffed lemurs, as well as diademed sifakas that dance through the canopy. On night walks, look for tree frogs, chameleons and palm-sized brown mouse lemurs that 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, numerous medicinal plants, the iridescent green and turquoise Parson’s chameleon (one of the largest in the world—as long as your forearm), 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'll also visit Lemur Island, a small sanctuary where lemurs rescued from captivity are thriving. Three species, including the common brown lemur, bamboo lemur and black-and-white ruffed lemur, have become habituated to visitors, allowing for close encounters and delightful photo opportunities.
Days 5 & 6: Ranomafana National Park
Return to Antananarivo by road and take a chartered flight to the hilltop town of Fianarantsoa, noted for its 19th-century colonial Old Town filled with colorful houses and winding streets. From here, we make a scenic 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. Cliffs draped in lush vegetation and waterfalls abound in this rugged wilderness.
The park is home to 12 species of lemur, including three different bamboo lemur species, 120 frog species, numerous chameleons and other reptiles, 90 butterfly species, 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 amphibians active after dark. The lush rain forest also harbors many different carnivorous plants.
Days 7 & 8: Isalo National Park
Have your camera ready and enjoy the changing views on a full-day scenic drive to southern Madagascar. Get glimpses of local life as we pass through small villages into a land in stark contrast with the eastern rain forests. Stop en route at the Anja Community Reserve for a picnic lunch and a chance to see rambunctious ring-tailed lemurs feeding in the trees or foraging on the ground. Continuing south, we enter a region of mountainous plateaus and eroded canyons reminiscent of the American Southwest, as massive rock outcrops rise from dry grass plains. As we reach the striking Isalo massif, we witness the fascinating flora that thrives against this Jurassic-era sandstone backdrop, including the odd-looking swollen pachypodia, or “elephant’s foot.” with its bright yellow flowers.
Several varieties of lemur live among the cacti, aloes and palms, in particular the resident ring-tailed lemur we’ll look for on a hike in Isalo National Park. The 200,000-acre park is also home to more than 80 bird species and 33 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 an ancient deep gorge. Here, there's an option to climb a series of steep 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
Drive west 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 of green in the middle of a widely deforested region, and as such, it provides crucial natural habitat for an 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 native to this forest alone. We also look for the giant coua, the 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, if we're lucky. We feel especially fortunate to be here, knowing that our presence is in large part responsible for protecting this rare habitat from destruction. Late this afternoon, return to our secluded ecolodge in Isalo to spend one more night.
Days 10–12: Anjajavy Private Reserve
Board an early-morning chartered flight north to the 17,000-acre private nature reserve of Anjajavy. This vast protected area on the Indian Ocean coast is reached only by flying by chartered aircraft into the private airport—exclusive access that is a distinct advantage in traveling with our small group. The seaside lodge fronting the cerulean waters of the Mozambique Channel is our base for exploring the dry deciduous Anjajavy forest of northwest Madagascar. This remote area, less disturbed than other regions of the country, hosts a striking number of endemic species. Look for the common brown lemur and black-and-white Coquerel’s sifaka during guided forest walks, though we frequently see the latter on the lodge grounds as well. Night strolls may reveal gray and golden brown mouse lemurs, giant hairy crabs and various reptiles. The forest contains some 1,800 plant species, among them massive baobab trees shaped like squat bottles and richly colored rosewood trees. Our 4-star resort, Madagascar's only member of the exclusive Relais & Chateaux group, accommodates guests in deluxe thatched bungalows overlooking a private white sand beach.
Private boat excursions offer a close-up look at this secluded region that's mostly uninhabited except for a couple of nearby 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. It's a scenic landscape of rocky outcrops and tiny indented coves with unspoiled beaches dotted by pale ghost crabs. We travel by boat to Moramba Bay to view eroded limestone formations protruding from the sea, and huge baobab trees that stand sentinel over densely vegetated environs. Search the coastline for the Madagascar fish eagle, rare Madagascar sacred ibis and crested ibis. A sunset cruise through the mangroves reveals more 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, snorkel over a coral reef from the beach and explore a subterranean cave where we may spy bats. On the lodge 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 green kingfisher, red fody and active sifaka lemurs. A saltwater infinity pool overlooking the ocean offers welcome refreshment after a day of discovery.
Day 13: Antananarivo / Johannesburg / Depart
After a leisurely breakfast at the lodge, we fly back by chartered aircraft back to Antananarivo for connecting flights to Johannesburg and homeward, or on to your safari extension.
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.