Madagascar, an island off the southeast coast of Africa, is most unique both in plant and animal life. In fact, its levels of endemism are among the very highest on the planet, with species such as chameleons, butterflies and birds being exclusive only to the island and, its forests are the only home on Earth for the entire primate family of Lemurs. That’s why it’s a good destination for ecotourism. It’s an island where you will experience sights that you would never see anywhere else in the world.
Like many other destinations in the world, the forests and animal species of Madagascar are under threat of destruction and extinction. Many conservationists agree that ecotourism can play a leading role in ensuring the protection and survival of the island’s endemic life including, most importantly, the Lemurs of Madagascar.
Back-packs packed, Team MKLF began their trip in May 2018 during the dry season. With the prospect of having to do a lot of walking in just a few days, travelling as light as possible was a must, and they needed to make sure that they had the bare bare essentials, like band aids, malaria pills, paracetamol, light clothing, good shoes, corn plasters, mosquito spray, antiseptic cream, wet wipes and sun protection cream (for their very fair skin).
Our adventurous duo had done quite a bit of preparation and planning, and that included having jabs to prepare their unaccustomed immune system for travelling to Madagascar and the remote community of Antafiabe village on the edge of the Ankarafa Forest, Sahamalaza National Park, in the northwest of the island.
How long did it take to get to the island?
“We flew for 13 hours overnight to Mauritius, there was a one hour stop there and then we flew on to Ivato International Airport, in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar; overall the flights were good. We had quite a wait, almost two hours for our visas to be issued; I think there is room for improvement in the process there. We were able to change money at the airport, the currency on the island is Malagasy Ariary – MGA (you get about 4000MGA to 1 Euro which is about the cost of a litre of milk). It was easy to get a taxi after that to get to the hotel.
What were your first impressions of the capital city and Madagascar?
“We were quite shocked because the living conditions we saw were much below our expectations even in the capital, and there was a lot of pollution in the air. The hillsides by the road were dotted with peoples’ clothes that had been put out to dry and that was quite a strange site.
Local people speak two languages French and Malagasy. We had our partner from the AEECL, Guy, with us as our guide and translator, because people in the village of Antafiabe, our final destination point, speak only their local language.”
What was the purpose of your trip?
“Our purpose was to experience ecotourism in Madagascar and of course to visit the community of Antafiabe – a place which had been chosen by the Foundation in collaboration with the AEECL, to invest in lemur research and conservation together with the local communities, and the Foundation is also supporting the construction of a new school building there. We also attended a very important scientific summit in Antananarivo that had been partly sponsored by MKLF. The summit had brought together scientists and organisations from America, UK and Madagascar too. The purpose of the summit was to evaluate the current status of the lemur species and to create a new conservation action plan.”
So the Foundation is building a new school in Antafiabe?
“Yes, that’s right. It’s the Foundation’s belief that by providing a stable, improved environment for the children to learn in, and by investing in the education of the younger generation, helping them to learn about their natural environment will have a positive impact on the survival of the varied endemic species of Madagascar (flora and fauna). Many species are at high risk of destruction and extinction and, of course, one of these species is our most beloved lemur.”
What means of transport did you use? What was it like travelling into the depths of the island?
“Long and slow!!” both Marina and Tatiana laugh, recalling the long car rides, boat trips and walks. It had been a combination of various means of transport:
- a long 12 hour road trip with our own driver in a car from the capital to Nosy Be, we only had one quick stop for something to eat, but we got to see a lot of the island that way. It’s better for someone local to drive you, they know the roads best, they can miss the pot-holes and swerve around the various animals and people en route better than you would ever do!
- speed boat rides which were between Nosy Be and Ankify (50 minutes) and Antsohihy to Marovato (3 hours); a bit bumpy at times but the scenery was great.
- lots of walking (about 15 hours in total) and we had a zebu cart (zebu are like cows) which we didn’t use to sit on, but we used it to carry some of the supplies we were taking to the community, we even had a couple of locals with us who very professionally carried bags of supplies on their heads – I tried and could hardly manage two steps before it slipped off my head!
The longest walks we did were in the same day – five hours each way – from Ankarafa Camp to Antafiabe and then back again later in the afternoon. These were THE MOST CHALLENGING, especially the return to Ankarafa, as the last hour or so was literally a walk in the dark, by the light of our mobile phones! Point to remember for the next trip – big flashlights!
- our return speed boat trip, was the most rewarding. A pod of dolphins came alongside the boat and accompanied us for a short distance. It was amazing to watch these beautiful, sleek creatures moving so effortlessly in the sea. Our guide told us that sightings are very rare and that we should consider it a good omen, a blessing, that we saw them. It was really something.”
Can you each tell me about your experience and emotions during those long walks?
Marina: “Although we had good walking shoes, it was so hot we ended up taking them off and wearing flip flops and sandals – which we really don’t advise that you do! The ground was uneven, full of pot holes, rocks and shrubs so it was difficult to walk steadily. Our feet were so sore and red by the end of the trip, we were having dreams about pummel stones!
There was this hill just as we neared Antafiabe which we had to walk down and that was fine enough, but on the walk back it meant that we had to go up-hill and that was such a challenge. I was so proud of myself for getting up the hill without tumbling back down!
But I remember feeling really irritated and grumpy as well during the five hour walks between Ankarafa to Antafiabe and back again – my legs were aching, it was so hot and dusty and the dirt had formed a crust on my skin with the sweat, all I wanted to do was curl up on the ground with a soft blanket and rest. I was having this internal dialogue with myself, full of mixed emotions, even emotions that I didn’t recognise as my own. And as I was watching Tatiana walking in front of me, it was like she was completely unaffected by the walk, she was walking tall and at a steady pace and I felt jealous of her strength. Thoughts were going through my head like – she must be super-fit and some kind of superwoman!”
Tatiana is that true? Were you not affected by the long walks? What was going through your mind?
Tatiana: “Maybe I was affected, but I think I switched to a different mode that day. I just knew what I had to do and focused on the goal of reaching the destination rather than on my physical senses or discomfort. I felt like a leaf being pushed along by the current of the wind; I became one with the natural environment around me. I was also keeping an eye out for different fruit trees, I really love fruit and Marina wouldn’t let me try anything unusual, so when I was out of her focus I tried everything!”
Tell me more about those emotions.
Marina: “I felt humbled by the surroundings, the area that we were walking through was so peaceful, and you could hear birds singing and calling out to each other and it gave me a sense of inner peace. It was like I was able to recharge my senses, reset my thoughts and rethink my attitude about life in general. But it was also scary in a way, because I felt so disconnected from the world. Do you know that not even Google can pin point Antafiabe where we were walking to?”
Tatiana: “I was really impressed by the sky, it seemed to engulf everything and it was as though it was so close I could touch it.”
How did you keep yourselves going to get to your destination?
Tatiana: “I was thinking about happy kids’ faces which gave me lots of motivation and strength. Our main goal was to reach the school and deliver some gifts to the children like pencils, sweets and biscuits.”
Marina: “On the way back I promised myself an imaginary reward when we got there. A pair of nice shoes! Which of course were nowhere to be seen when we did get there but it was a “good donkey and the carrot” trick. My one real reward that I promised myself though was this delicious full flavoured local black tea which I loved and that’s what really kept me going, not the shoes.”
What were the people like in Antafiabe? What did you do when you arrived?
Tatiana: ”Very friendly and humble. The children were really sweet but quite shy. We tried our hand at grinding grain with a pole and sifting it. The children and members of the community gathered in the current school building which is in really bad condition and Guy, told them about the Foundation and what we are doing together with the AEECL to build a new school building for them.
The children sang some songs for us that they had practiced with their teacher and some told us a little bit about themselves. They said that they help their parents in the rice fields and do other tasks to help their family when they don’t have school; some of their favourite lessons are history and science; one wants to become a teacher when he grows up and two of the girls that spoke to us said that they want to work in the municipality; we also found out that they have quite large families, some have three siblings and others seven. Before we left we handed out some pencils, erasers and sweets to the children as gifts.
What types of foods did you try?
Tatiana: “I tried everything during our stay: rice, chicken, fish, beans. Marina ate mostly rice, at least in the first part of our trip, and then she became a little less cautious and tried other foods like me. The tastiest was the fresh papaya from the garden in our ecotourism camp in Ankarafa and the jack fruit; there was one couple who were walking from one village to another and they shared it with us, it reminded me of a chewing gum from my childhood, an unbelievable taste!”
What were your sleeping conditions like at the camp?
Marina: “They were very good. Our partners had set up beds inside the tents. Tatiana and I shared a tent. There’s also a small toilet and a new larger toilet block is being built.”
What would you advise someone who wants to travel to Madagascar as an eco-tourist?
“Prepare for your trip well in advance and make sure that you get all your vaccinations done on time.
Always have a travel partner or travel with a group. You benefit from the company and the support you give each other – it’s a great team-building experience! Besides the companionship, it’s good health and safety practice too.
If you want to test your relationship with someone, travelling to a remote destination will either make or break it. You’ll end up either hating each other or loving each other more!
The wettest season is Jan-Mar, with cyclones in February, but outside of these months the best time to visit Madagascar depends on your itinerary.
Remember SPF50++ sun block!! Tatiana brought SPF30 and we have fair skin so it wasn’t the best option, but we kept covered up as much as we could and used up all the sun block we had! “
The MKLF team spent two of their evenings at a camp in Ankarafa which has been co-funded by the Foundation and the AEECL. It is set in an ideal location by the sea and offers sleeping and sanitary facilities, with trained locals who are there to maintain the camp and welcome visitors. There are still a number of improvements that can be made to the camp and by offering a small donation additional funds can be given for improving the facility, and further encouraging ecotourism in the area, which in turn will benefit the local communities.
Please have a look at our ecotourism camp here.