The landscape changed dramatically when driving south west from Ranomafana to Isalo. This is the land of the Bara tribe and the zebu (cattle) farmer. They have a strong and ancient belief in the benefits of ‘slash-and-burn’ agriculture and as such the air was thick with smoke. We stopped at Anja Community Reserve in a landscape reminiscent of the Wild West. Rather than the humid rainforest of Ranomafana we were now in a dry and arid environment dominated by sandstone massifs. For botanists the areas of Isalo and Ifaty are of particular interest as, again, the plant life here has evolved to adapt to the extremes and are found nowhere else in the world.
Isalo was the area where we were most likely to see Madagascar’s national animal; the Ring-Tailed Lemur. Unmistakable with their grey and black ringed tails, hence their name, they’re probably the most recognised lemur in the world. As with all lemurs they’re only found in Madagascar. They’re highly social, living in large groups and are female dominant; unusual for the mammal world but common in lemurs. I had chosen to travel through Madagascar in October as this is when lemurs have their babies. By October the babies are becoming bolder and increasingly interested in the world around them, making for great photo opportunities as they fumble around their surroundings. Anja Reserve and an area called Namaza within Isalo National Park are good places to spot them as they go about their daily business. Often we’d find them coming down from the hills to canyons where an oasis of food and water is found. A local campsite within Namaza seemed to be a favoured spot of theirs and we managed plenty of close encounters.
We were staying in the heart of Isalo very close to the national park, and so were surrounded by a variety of wildlife. Before sunrise I’d get up and go and explore the local area to see what I could find. Isalo is very much a desert environment, very hot and dry with eroded sandstone rock formations jutting up from the ground. Not surprisingly the area is susceptible to wild fires. Despite the dry land a common feature of Isalo were its canyons forming oases in which rivers flow and plants flourish allowing welcome respite to the local wildlife. It was through one of these oases close to the hotel that I chose to go and explore each morning. Bird highlights included the beautiful Madagascar Hoopoe, vibrantly coloured Olive Bee Eater and the lovely named Fork-Tailed Drongo.
Walks through the national park are best done early in the morning to avoid the midday heat (often reaching the mid to high 30s Celsius). Again, I chose to spend my time within the canyon of Namaza. As already mentioned, we came across a very friendly troop of Ring-Tailed Lemurs, their babies being about as cute as you can get – some seemed to be succumbing to the heat and falling asleep on their mother’s backs. Not only that, but Namaza also appeared to be the desired spot for a troop of Red Fronted Brown Lemurs. We were to learn from our guide that these lemurs are the bullies of Namaza, who dominate the Ring-Tails and, very rarely, have been known to take and eat the Ring-Tails’ babies.
On my second day in Namaza I came across a Verreaux’s Sifaka; the only Verreaux’s Sifaka in the park as unfortunately the rest of it’s troop had died in a forest fire. Surprising for a lonely lemur he was tame and wasn’t bothered by people, so much so that he performed the Sifaka ‘dance’ impeccably along one of the footpaths.
From Isalo we travelled further south-west to Ifaty. If anything the temperature grew hotter and hotter. I was on my way to Anakao in the hope of seeing Red Billed Tropicbirds on the nearby island of Nosy Ve - more of that later. Ifaty is famous for its Spiny Forest. All plants in this area have evolved to cope with extreme drought. Perhaps the most famous is the family of Baobab trees. These amazing trees are fire resistant and store a large amount of water in their bottle shaped trunk. They grow incredibly slowly; between 1mm and 5mm a year. 7 of the 9 Baobab species in the world are native to Madagascar. The local people don’t cut down these trees as they have a superstition around them, known locally as ‘fady’, as they believe that the spirits of their ancestors are inside these ancient trees.
Two areas we visited while in the area were Zombitse National Park and Reniala Reserve. Almost immediately within Zombitse we came across a troop of Verreaux’s Sifaka, one with a very young baby. For me, the highlights of Zombitse were threefold. One; seeing one of the largest chameleons in the world (in contention with the Parson’s rainforest species), the Oustalet’s Chameleon, two; having the best views of Paradise Flycatchers we had while in Madagascar, and three; coming across a very obliging Giant Coua near the car park. While in comparison, Reniala was lacking in wildlife it more than made up for it with a fantastic introduction to the plants that make the ‘Spiny Forest’ famous. Huge baobab trees stood up out the ground like giant Chianti bottles, some with holes cut out by local people as natural ladders up the tree to harvest the fruits. There were also flame trees, balsa trees, and the Compass Cactus so called because its stem always points south.
It was fascinating to hear what the local people use these different plants for. The wood of the delicate Mimosa plant is used to make charcoal because its trunks are so dense they burn slowly. Another plant locally named Katrafa has roots which are ground to make an essential oil common in sun cream and for massages. The wood of the Romby tree is used by the local people to carve totems and place on graves, and is remarkable for its beautiful bark and that it has no leaves. Instead it photosynthesises through its bark, which is green and very flaky. The locals call it ‘Vazaha’, meaning ‘foreigner’ - almost always referring to a white person as it looks like it has sunburn, just like a tourist!
Again, I took the opportunity while in Ifaty to go on night walks around the hotel grounds. I came across a Madagascar Cat-Eyed Snake. Locals fear all snakes. Again, ‘fady’ surrounds snakes - they’re called ‘kakalava’, meaning ‘long enemy’. Snakes have always received a bad rap, a primordial fear, from the Biblical reference that snakes introduced evil to man. Personally, along with all reptiles, they have fascinated me. Far from being slimy, scaly creatures that are out for the sole intention to make our lives a misery, they move with grace and have some of the most intricate and beautiful patterns and colours found in the natural world. In fact, Madagascar is home to more than 80 species of snakes of which none is dangerous to humans. Nonetheless, the local Malagasy people I was with kept their distance from this Cat-Eyed Snake while I took a few photos of it!
We continued on our itinerary to the fishing village of Anakao on the south-west coast of the island. Ifaty is a particularly poor area of Madagascar and consequently the roads aren’t what you’d call in the western world ‘roads’ more dirt-tracks over rock and sand. As such, the ride was quite an adventure even if my body didn’t thank me for it by the end! The only way to travel to Anakao is by boat, which we caught from the port of Toliara. Once boarded, we were fascinated to discover that the boat was actually a local taxi service; delivering food, drink, locals and tourists to various hotels, as well as delivering a huge 12 volt battery!
While the wind had picked up by the afternoon and made the sea rough, we took a boat to the neighbouring island of Nosy Ve to see the Red Billed Tropicbirds. Nosy Ve is the only island in Madagascar where these birds nest, so if you want to see them you have to make the effort to go. The rough boat ride was well worth it, as the birds are beautiful. The adolescent teenagers had gorgeous black and white feathers, quite unlike the parent bird. The adults are either brilliant white or with a hint of pink in their plumage and with an enormously long red tail, as well as their namesake bright red bill. The new born chicks resembled balls of white fluff, like snowballs.
It appeared to be a nesting area that was in constant use, with the parent birds nesting under the few shrubs that existed on the island. We saw roughly 16 nests that afternoon. While it was clear that the earlier protection of the nature reserve to the birds had dropped off, very few people went to visit the island so consequently, and fortunately, the birds are left in peace.
Thanks very much for taking the time to read this blog! As always, comments and feedback is welcome…