Thinking about a Trip to Madagascar?

For our complete itinerary and list of posts to specific destinations check out the Madagascar page.

Grand Tsingy de Bemaraha

Never on a trip have I asked myself more times, “What on earth am I doing here?” Yet never have I had so many stories to write in my journal every night. If you are looking for adventure, Madagascar is a good place to find it.

Wildlife

Those looking for exotic animals and birds will not be disappointed. Without trying very hard we had numerous sightings of various species of lemurs and chameleons. Although, unless you are knowledgeable on how to track these animals it’s best to go on walks with local guides.

Infrastructure and Roads

Infrastructure and transportation remain the biggest challenges on the island. With the heavy rains every year, other than those near the capital the roads for the most part are not well maintained and go downhill from there. In the hinterland of Western Madagascar we were on the worst dirt tracks I’ve ever seen in my life, the taxi brousse crawling up and down the deeply scarred track.

Even in the North, which is more developed for tourism, the guide asked me not to tell people how bad the roads were as it would make tourists not want to come. If you can’t tolerate bouncing around on rough roads Madagascar is definitely not the place for you.

Deciding where to go

My original intent was to try to see the whole thing, but Madagascar is a very big island and travel is very slow. I therefore decided to concentrate on a couple of areas with the intention of going back some day if we really liked it. Spending more time in two areas, the West and the North, we got a more in depth feel for the region and had a more relaxed itinerary. The Western river excursion was definitely the most rugged and adventurous part of the trip.

Using Travel Agencies

While we didn’t have our trip completely organized by a travel agency (I booked most of the hotels and flights myself), we did use local agencies to arrange multi-day excursions as well as day trips – Remote River Expeditions in the West and le Paradis du Nord in the North. In order to maintain some level of comfort you will need to work with travel agencies to organize ground transportation.

Hotels

Upscale hotels are generally in good condition and offer the services you would expect.

Cost

Travel in Madagascar is no bargain. I’m sure if you live like a local you could travel, eat and sleep fairly inexpensively, but this is a very poor country and basic conditions are quite rough.

Western Madagascar River Trip

While there are more options on the Tsiribihina River we chose a canoe trip on the Manambolo River to the Tsingy of Bemaraha National Park. While a fascinating cultural experience, it was not the picturesque setting I had imagined. The other detraction was the fact that the rivers run low at the end of dry season (October) and the canoes frequently had to be pushed through the low sandy spots. The weather in October was also quite warm to hot.

Diving on Nosy Be

Diving with French owned Scuba Nosy Be turned out to be a great way to improve our diving skills as the company is very professional and safety conscious. Although I don’t have enough diving experience to compare the diving sites to other sites around the world, we were happy with the range of underwater life we saw.

Safety Concerns

A poor country plagued with bouts of political unrest, it’s wise to keep track of the local political situation. At times there are warnings that certain regions of the country are unsafe due higher levels of crime, especially in the South. There are also roving bands of zebu rustlers who make their living stealing zebu, the local cattle. While I haven’t seen reports of zebu rustlers harming tourists, you should be aware that they are out there and avoid any conflicts.

Final Thought

The best advice I can give is be prepared for the unexpected and allow a little extra time in your itinerary for Plan B. As we all know it’s the unexpected that makes the best stories.

If you have traveled in Madagascar or have a question please leave a comment.

 

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Diving with Scuba Nosy Be, Madagascar

October 6-8, 2016

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Highly rated on Trip Advisor Scuba Nosy Be is French run and does good business with a mostly French speaking clientele. As such, most of the guides are also French speaking but they do have English speaking guides as well.

They are located just a 3 minute walk down Ambondrona Beach (10K north of Hell-ville) from Nosy Lodge.

I had made arrangements online for 3 days of diving. Erwin, the owner, stopped by the lodge at 6PM the night before our first dive to meet us and briefly tell us the next day’s schedule. He also asked about our diving experience and wanted to see our PADI cards.

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They have 3 boats, all of which went out each of the 3 days we were with them. There is a maximum of 8 persons per boat with generally 1 instructor for every 4 divers. Boats are small but in good shape and comfortable. Basic conditions on board with no shade and no toilet, shared dry space for your clothes and such, and just enough room for the tanks and a bench in front of them to gear up. Equipment was also in good condition with the BCDs looking brand new.

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Boarding and disembarking is in the surf along the beach in water as high as mid-thigh.

The boat is set up with the gear when you arrive and they bring the gear back after you disembark. The boat captain and a French speaking assistant were friendly and helped with basic gear donning and removal but didn’t fuss with all the buckles and releases.

We were impressed by their certifications and that they went over their safety equipment on board. In addition, there is a decompression chamber on the island.

They only provide a bottle of water and 1 banana for each person. They try to get you back by lunch but 2 days we ran over until nearly 2:30PM – once because we spent time with a whale shark between dives.

Our guide Etienne spoke good English and was very professional and safety conscious. They take excellent care of you, especially if you have less experience and still need a little extra guidance. However, it’s still important to check your own gear. One young woman found out after she had already started the descent that her tank was not fully open. When she ran out of air, she had to use Etienne’s octopus.

Dive Sites

We haven’t been diving long enough for me to judge the conditions of the dive sites.

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We did 2 dives at Nosy Tanikely Marine Park (entrance 20,000 ariary/person), a protected area popular with snorkeling groups.

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The island has beautiful crystal blue water and white sand beaches but plenty of sharp shells and coral making walking difficult.

The first dive was much clearer than the second. The reef was in good condition with lots of live coral and a wide range of fish. It was just us, Etienne and 1 other experienced diver.

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We were about an hour at 12.5ft with pretty good visibility and an abundance of colorful fish, some sizable, sea turtles and a great view of a leopard shard just lying in the sand while 10 divers tried to photograph him. My camera battery unfortunately had died.

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We spent 45 minutes on shore where more and more boats of snorkelers were arriving for the day.

For the second dive we went out farther from the beach and did a free descent. This time there were 2 more clients and another instructor. There was a surge as we descended and the water was not as clear.

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Here we saw several turtles, rays and the same types of colorful fish we saw on the first dive. However in the lower light and visibility my little Olympus Tough TG-4 didn’t work so well.

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The next 2 days we did 4 open water dives. All had some reefs and similar species of fish with frequent larger schools and bigger fish. Visibility was OK but not great. Highlights included a moray eel, octopus, and tons of large fan coral. As we were diving deeper I didn’t take my camera on these dives.

Of course the biggest get was swimming with a whale shark. We tried to find one on the second day of diving but came up empty. On the third day they made a special effort to find one as there were a number of clients eager to see one.

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We spent a good 15-20 minutes swimming with him, though it was a rugby match jockeying for a good photo position and my wimpy camera was not very good in the rough surf conditions.

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Although it’s the biggest fish in the world, this one was just a juvenile about 5 to 6 meters in length.

Posted in Diving, Travel, Travel Madagascar | 1 Comment

Nosy Lodge, Nosy Be, Madagascar

October 5-9, 2016

Nosy Lodge

Nosy Lodge, located on Ambondrona Beach 10K north of Hell-ville, is just a 3 minute walk down the beach from Scuba Nosy Be. The small resort has 3 seaside bungalows, a few garden bungalows and a couple of rooms in the main house.

Nosy Lodge

The spacious seaside bungalows are a basic wooden structure with high ceilings, minimally yet tastefully decorated.  The comfortable foam bed has mosquito netting but the sheets were pilled. The waffle towels looked nice but were scratchy, especially against sun or wind burned skin. The outdoor shower had no amenities, i.e. no soap or shampoo. There was a safe in the room but the batteries didn’t work. You needed a key.

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The pleasant front porch with lounge chairs is just 50 meters from the beach. Heaven sleeping with the sound of the surf in the background.

Nosy Lodge

It’s not the nicest beach on the island, however, as it is brownish in color rather than the white sand at some other beaches and is covered in a fair amount of seaweed and washed up rocks. While the beach front is fairly developed mature plantings soften the buildings.

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The complex includes pleasant hang out areas and a pool.

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Amazing sunset views on the water

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Women going to market

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Family bathing the zebu on Sunday

Restaurant

The restaurant serves 3 meals a day and you can get demi-pension at a good price with a set menu at lunch and dinner – generally lots of fish. However, if you don’t like what is offered they will make adjustments.

For our first lunch we had a choice of salads –

Nosy Lodgeroasted vegetables and cheese or

Nosy Lodgesmoked fish followed by a choice of

Nosy Lodgefish or

Nosy Lodgeshrimp for mains.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASalad with sesame crusted fish

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Nosy Lodge

Lounge with dining room behind

Nosy LodgeDinner begins with an amuse bouche served in the lounge if you are having drinks before dinner.

Nosy LodgeThe first dinner started with fish in a cream sauce followed by

Nosy Lodgefish topped with an herbed cream sauce accompanied by starchy mashed sweet potatoes and shredded vegetables. For dessert a dense brownie-like chocolate tarte – very chocolatey and not too sweet.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMeatballs with a sweet and spicy dipping sauce.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGrilled fish with roasted potatoes and salad

The last dinner was Malagasy beef with greens in a green Sichuan pepper (ma) flavored sauce.

Nosy LodgeBreakfast included coffee, fruit plate, crepes, jam, butter and a bread basket with 3 types of bread.

Service

While the Belgian (French speaking) owner, Eric, speaks English, communication with the staff works much better in French, especially for any difficulties you may have.

While it feels more French here than Malagasy, some travelers complained that it was too French, with staff ignoring those who only spoke English. This is still Madagascar and things only work so well.

For example it took 3 days to get our laundry back. The lock to the outdoor shower door in the bungalow was broken. We pointed this out the first day but it was never replaced.

We were told in advance that we would have to change rooms for our last night. We made the change in the morning before heading down the beach for our last dive.

The safe in the new room was low on batteries. It finally opened with the help of a staff member. I asked her what happens if it doesn’t work again. She assured me that someone could open it for us. Sure enough when we returned the safe wouldn’t open and our room wasn’t made up. We had left the room key in the door – this room is right off the main lounge area. Their excuse was that there was only one key, the key that we had left in the door.

To their credit they quickly got someone to clean the room. Still there was the problem of the safe. Only Eric, the owner, could open it and we would have to wait as he was not on the premises at the moment. At nearly 3PM we hadn’t eaten lunch and the lodge restaurant was already closed. We were planning on going to a snack bar down the beach but all our money was in the safe. The staff kindly suggested that they could make a sandwich for us. Problem solved.

When Eric returned he did get the safe open as the batteries still occasionally worked. Shortly afterwards a young woman showed up with the key explaining that it was the only one and we needed to take care. Great, but when I try it afterwards it didn’t work. In the end we decided not to use the safe as we were not sure we could get our stuff out if the batteries failed for good.

All in and this is a relaxed and convenient place to stay, especially if you are diving with Scuba Nozy Be. Just don’t expect a European level of service.

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Antsiranana (Diego Suarez) to Nosy Be, Madagascar

October 5, 2016

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Today we drive from Antsiranana (Diego Suarez) to Ankify where we catch a boat to the island of Nosy Be for a couple days of beach and diving before heading back to Johannesburg. We arranged the transfer to the port at Ankify with Eric at le Paradis du Nord, the same outfit that arranged our day trips to the Red Tsingy and the Three Bays.

Eric explained that the drive would take six and half hours and cost 390,000 ariary ($120 USD) for the both of us as they also charge for the return trip back to Diego. We were to leave at 6AM so the driver could get back to town the same day.

Our driver Tony was on time and a fast but safe driver. The vehicle was in good condition and our first car in Madagascar to have working seatbelts.

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Loaded down pickups going to market

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The first part of the drive, the drive from Diego to Ambilobe, is rough for most of the way, passing through villages and markets, with numerous people and animals on the road. This is the same road that passes by the turnoff for the Red Tsingy and the Ankarana Reserve.

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Tony stops for the occasional chameleon.

A teenage girl wearing only blue striped underwear throws rocks at a zebu who was encroaching on her bathing hole by the side of the road. Sorry no photo.

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Two boys try to coax their zebu cart to the side to let the on-coming truck pass. The zebu, however, are reluctant to move sideways.

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Ambilobe is a bustling crossroad town and like Diego comprised of colorful crumbly colonial era structures.

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Surprisingly there are many more bicycles here than we have seen anywhere. The bicycle traffic continues along the way to Ankify.

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From here the landscape becomes greener with mountains in the background and more mature trees than we have seen anywhere except for in Amber Mountain National Park.

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Just outside of Anikfy the route is a pretty shaded lane that is in much better condition.

In Ankify Tony drives us straight to the port and hands us over to a boat captain. I’m suspicious at first but it is one of the collective boats that Eric suggested we take to Nosy Be. We’re charged the 12,000 ariary Eric said it would cost and get the last two spots so it leaves straight away.

On the way to the boat an official looking sort wanted to check our passports, forcing me to dig out my money belt in the middle of the open port.

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Once on board the small boat which accommodated about 18 passengers we were given life jackets that we were expected to put on as everyone else had. The wind had picked up and the sea was rough, bouncing us across the waves. If I didn’t hold on I would fly up and crash back down hard on the seat.

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The trip to Nosy Be took about 40 minutes including a stop at another island where a young woman and man took off their shoes, climbed over the side of the boat and walked to shore.

At the port in Hell-ville on Nosy Be the porters were eager to carry off our bags before we had decided on a taxi. Only one young man offed us a taxi service, asking the same price to Palm Beach that the folks at Nosy Lodge advised me it should cost, 25,000 ariary. We reach the lodge by 1PM, 7 hours from Diego.

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Allamanda Hotel, Antsiranana (Diego Suarez), Madagascar

Allamanda Hotel

Allamanda Hotel at the end of town along the sea is an easy walk from the center. The white buildings above the water’s edge are set along a grassy path, the first row with great sea views.

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The upscale suites decorated in dark wood furniture have a living area with a kitchenette, small bedroom, bathroom with shower which was moldy and needed recaulking. There was no mosquito netting but there is a safe. The Wifi connection is slow. Credit cards are accepted.

The restaurant is one of the better choices in Diego Suarez, with pleasant dining on their outdoor terrace.

Allamanda HotelFor dinner we started with the sautéed fish and seafood – calamari and shrimp –

Allamanda Hoteland the zebu carpaccio – strongly flavored compared to other times we’ve had this dish.

Allamanda HotelShrimp curry served with a choice of sides – rice, spaghetti veg, etc.

Allamanda HotelSeafood pasta

Allamanda HotelRoasted chicken with couscous

The 18,000 ariary ($6 USD) à la carte breakfast menu includes a nice fruit plate but was otherwise pretty ordinary.

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Three Bays, Antsiranana (Diego Suarez), Madagascar

October 4, 2016

We arranged a day trip to Three Bays (Les Trois Baies) with Paradis du Nord by visiting the owner, Eric, at his office in Antsiranana (Diego Suarez). This is the same outfit we used for our visit to the Red Tsingy a few days earlier.

Three Bays

It turns out that all the agencies do the same route as we ran into the same pairs of tourists, each with their personal guide, at several spots along the way. Although you could do this route on your own, Eric explained that they’ve had robberies at the bays making a local guide necessary for security reasons. The would-be robbers know the local guides and won’t bother their clients. Sounded like extortion to me but I acquiesced. 260,000 ariary ($80 USD) for two including – a guide, car, driver and the entrance fees. Lunch was another 60,000 ariary for 2 ($18 USD) paid directly to the restaurant.

Sugarloaf Mountain

Sugarloaf in the morning

First stop is the view point for the sacred mountain, Sugarloaf. Straight into the sun in the morning

Antsiranana (Diego Suarez)

Sugarloaf in the afternoon

this spot has much better light on the way back to town at the end of the tour.

French Mountain

The next stop before the bays is at French Mountain to see a rare type of baobab, Adansonia suarezensis.

Three Bays

Starting at Sakalava Bay we walk along the bays with our guide Eddy. The walk, mostly on well packed sand, passes by eroded limestone rock formations, clear tide pools with fish, and crabs running along the beach, quickly darting into the sand. The blue-green water and white sand beaches with an unfortunate amount of seaweed on some are scenic but not the pristine setting you might expect from the Lonely Planet description.

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From Sakalava Bay to Pigeon Bay and on to Dune Bay really only takes about 1 and half hours going slowly. They budget 3 hours including a swim at Dune Bay, massage and/or shopping.

Three Bays

Don and I just hung out under a tree, a perfect temperature with a soft breeze blowing.

Restaurant in Ramana

Past the military base Cap Miné we head into Ramana for lunch. With narrow lanes of shabby corrugated metal buildings surrounded by stick fences, the restaurant is the only decent looking building in town and seems to be where all the tourists go for lunch. The high-ceilinged open air dining room has a pleasant garden setting.

Restaurant in Ramana

The limited menu includes a choice of protein, served with salad, rice, pommes frites, and fruit for dessert. I was distracted by the visiting lemurs who had come to snatch a banana or two and didn’t take a shot of the beautifully grilled whole bream and shrimp in the shell. Both were just a tad over done but quite fresh.

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The lemurs put on quite the show, jumping along the railing. The brazen creatures come right on to the tables. There were plenty of begging cats as well.

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Photos from Antsiranana (Diego Suarez), Madagascar

October 3, 2016

Antsiranana (Diego Suarez) in Northern Madagascar is a fairly shabby old colonial town. At its best the streets are lined with colorful, crumbly colonial style buildings and it goes downhill from there – abandoned buildings, corrugated shacks on the outskirts of town coated in a layer of red dirt until the next rainy season.

Near the center towards the water there are a number of tourist type restaurants, cafés, bars and a pretty normal looking super market. However the streets somehow don’t fee welcoming to foreign tourists, the same jaded expressions we experienced in Joffreville.

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