I was walking through the small shops in the Antananarivo airport looking for my one must have souvenir, a patch of the country I've just been to. I found it in a tiny shop selling wooden carvings of Boabob trees, hair combs made from Zebu horns and key chains with lemures on them. The Malagasy woman taking the last of my local currency, called ariary, asked me how I liked her country. "I loved it!" I said. "It was so special and beautiful." The smile on her face disappeared and she looked a bit confused. She then said to me, "How can you love it? We are so poor. We have nothing." I immediately felt guilty and embarrassed about my response. It's true, Madagascar's people are exceptionally poor. For most people, things like shoes, education and proper housing are a luxury. She then put her hand on my arm and kindly said "I'm happy that you liked it. Now tell all your friends to come too."
Madagascar is among the worlds poorest countries despite its biological and cultural richness. They have a very corrupt government, lack of infrastructure and major environmental degradation. If there is a decent road to be found, it's because the Chinese or Japanese have built it to better serve themselves for their transportation of fish and Zebu.
Ecotourism is where it's at nowadays and Madagascar prides itself on it. If you want to see lemurs, you need to come to Madagascar, Now.
The largest and most extreme destruction of the lemur habitat, the forest they live in, is due to slash and burn agriculture. It's what makes way for cattle and rice fields. This has been the only source of income for many people. Over 90% of Madagascar's forests have been decimated due to this. It's been, "Feed my family or protect wildlife," for many years.
Now whole communities are being educated and slowly seeing the benefits of ecotourism which can be millions of dollars each year. It's not the most ideal remedy but it's a start. The money you spend here goes to your tour guides, personal drivers, guides in the national parks, the animal trackers in those parks, vendors outside the parks, local restaurants, and bars. Your entry fees into these parks are also helping the communities build schools and pay for teachers. The men who used to hunt lemurs are now making more money leading groups of tourists. The hunter has now become the conservationist.
Yes, I loved Madagascar. To me, it was magical and special. It's the ultimate road trip. I wouldn't consider it a vacation, it's more like an epic journey. It was like taking part in a daily 8 hour, up close, high definition documentary of how the people here live. You have to see it for yourself. One of my friends on our trip said it best. "These types of trips are "Course Correctors." Meaning that these trips really help remind you to get back on course for what's important in life. We can be so trivial about unimportant things in our daily lives. There is no place for complaining about anything here. I'm fortunate and grateful to be able to travel to all wild and wonderful places that I do. It's not a place that can be explained in words. This place has to be shared and seen by the rest of the world.
This is mostly a photographic blog I put together for those of you who may have a desire to see this wonderful island. Maybe it will be the final nudge you need to plan your trip.
I planned this trip with the help of my one and only, bestest travel gal, Dori Peterson with Candene Travel. We used Jenman Safaris who specialize in Madagascar travel and we couldn't have asked for a better team taking care of us. For our 13-day tour, we had a private guide and driver with us every day. Toavina and our driver Mamy, worked their butts off to take care of us. Mamy sat behind the wheel like a race car driver, expertly maneuvering us along the terrible, windy, potholed roads allowing us to watch the beautiful and dramatic scenery and daily activity throughout Madagascar.
This is Mamy and Toavina.
Mamy even dressed like a race car driver.
So here are my top reasons you should come to Madagascar.
1. The Wildlife, obviously.
2. The dramatic scenery and geography.
3. The National Parks.
4. For me, the best part of any Madagascar trip is The Road Trip.
The absence of monkeys has created a niche for lemurs. It's the only place in the world outside of zoos where they can be found. It has 2/3 the world's chameleon species and the list of endemic species goes on and on.
Peyrieras Reserve or Madagascar Exotic is a privately run zoo that is a fantastic stop between Antananarivo and Andasibe-Mantadia National Park. It is one of the only places where you will easily be able to see many of the chameleons, frogs, insects, butterflies and other reptiles that Madagascar is so famous for.
Lemur Island is a private lemur sanctuary at the Vakona Forest Lodge. The island is accessible only by paddleboat, where rescued lemurs clamber for food and petting from their visitors. The story goes that these lemurs are supposedly rescued from the captive wildlife trade, and as they had been in the presence of humans so much, they could not be fully released into the wild. There are plenty of negative thoughts about this place like, the Lemurs are getting excessive and unnatural interaction with humans and that makes them anything but wild. So you can make your own decision. You are guaranteed to see lemurs and even touch them here. When you go to any of the national parks, your experience with the lemurs will be much different. The hikes are legitimate, sometimes hard and the lemurs will be doing the very opposite of trying to get closer to you. They will be wild and in their natural habitat and not wanting to be bothered. We went and enjoyed our time spent there.
The dramatic scenery and geography.
Here you will find some of the most diverse and unique landscapes anywhere in the world. You'll come across Jungles, spiny forests, dry forests, rain forests, high peaks, terraced rice fields and miles upon miles of spectacular coastline and beaches.
The National Parks.
We were told that if you don't visit any of the 25 national parks, you haven't visited Madagascar. So for all of you who just come to their beautiful islands and beaches, it doesn't count. It's here, in these protected parks where you will find some of the highest biodiversity on the planet. Besides the fact that 80% of the flora you will see here is endemic to the island, the majority of the wildlife can also only be viewed on this island as well. Madagascar is home to 100% of the world's lemurs and half the worlds chameleons. You may want to get here soon. There are no guarantees that some of the species won't be extinct in the next 10 years. The destruction of their habitat is a grave problem.
Some of the National parks we visited were,
Natural Reserve of Andasibe
Ramomafana National Park
and Isalo National Park.
4. The Road Trip.
This, for me, was the best and most spectacular part of the trip. It needs to be shared with others. There is just too much to see and process. You will constantly hear yourself saying "Did you see that?"
"What? What did I miss?"
Life is lived along the roads you travel along in Madagascar. The images you see are indelible. The 6-year-old boy standing in a large pothole in the middle of the road, filling it with dirt with a stick and yelling at the truck drivers as they passed within a foot of him that they needed to give him money for filling their potholes. The Zubu wading chest high through the rice patties while young boys bailed buckets of water from one field to another. Children riding in Ox carts downhill as if they were boxcars with no breaks. Women washing their clothes in the rivers and laying them out on the hillside to dry making it look like they were putting together the worlds largest quilt. A little boy pushing his infant sibling in a wheelbarrow with a makeshift canopy as if it was a stroller. The miles and mile of golden and green terraced rice fields.
The long hours spent in the car every day were sometimes tiresome. The roads are bad. They are constantly winding and are full of potholes and people. There are no turnouts, rest stops or bathrooms. Photography is difficult from a moving car so many of my memories are just that, memories. I did capture hundreds of blurry random shots. I finally told myself to put the camera down and just sit back and enjoy the high definition documentary out the window.