Ankarana …

Way back in the Jurassic the area that is now Ankarana was the floor of a shallow sea. This resulted in the deposition of  limestone more than 200 metres thick. The break up of Gondwana got underway at the end of the Jurassic, about 150 million years ago. The limestone has weathered to produce a karst landscape – caves, sinkholes, underground rivers. And where the limestone is uncovered the surface is very sharp and there are many pinnacles, the local term is tsingy from the Malagasy for a place where walking in bare feet is a really bad idea. What an economical language Malagasy must be.

The tsingy share the landscape with deciduous forest and all the good things that occur in the remaining Madagascan forest.

The Ankarana Special Reserve was declared in 1956 and protects about 182 km2. It has an annual rainfall that averages about 2,000 mm (79 in). Don’t forget the raincoat. About 100km of cave network has been mapped, some of which are home to Nile Crocodiles. It boasts 11 species of lemur and 14 species of bat. One species of Baobab is found only here, Andansonia perrieri.


You should be getting quite expert at this by now … the answer’s below.

The view across an expanse of stingy …


And some of the denizens of the forest …


Sanford’s Brown Lemur above, Crowned Lemur below.


We ventured into one of the caves where we were warmly received by the locals …



At Ankarana we stayed at Ankarana Lodge, nice rooms, nice gardens and very enjoyable swimming pool. The restaurant next door did a splendid job of feeding us, especially considering the distance to the nearest significant shops.

And for anyone struggling to find the Leaf-tailed Gecko …


Montagne d’Ambre …

… is about 30 km south of Diego Suarez. Established in 1958 it it covers 185km². The mountain rises from a dry region producing an isolated stretch of montane rainforest covering an area of more than 18,000 hectares  at an altitude between 800 and 1,500 metres. Not surprisingly, it holds a fantastic biodiversity, the scenery is pretty good, too. But take your raincoat.

It is about 45 minutes by 4WD from Diego Suarez and could be done as a day trip, but beware, if you do it that way you will wish you had spent longer.

Here are a few of the stars of the show …


If you could just imagine me crouching for hour after hour, in the cold damp undergrowth with raindrops intermittently going down my neck, leaches going end over end, out of focus, up my nose in an effort to fasten on my eyeball to get this stunning photograph … so could I. The reality is this bird is an absolute tart, it lives at the picnic ground and starts posing the moment it sees a camera. For the splitters this is the Amber Mountain Rock Thrush Pseudocossyphus erythronotus, a thoroughly unique species in a small obscure genus restricted to one little mountain in Madagascar. To the lumpers this is the Forest Rock Thrush Monticola sharpei, found in forest throughout Madagascar, the local representative of a genus that is widespread through Europe, Africa and Asia.

Chameleons come in various sizes…



Amber Mountain is home to 8 species of lemur, but for a change here is the ring-tailed mongoose (Galidia elegans) and very elegans it is …


Diego Suarez …

A four am wakeup call at the illustrious Hotel Colbert and a continental breakfast in the dining room! What service, and to think there are people who complain about feathers in the pillows. Through the streets of Antananarivo as the folk that will soon be selling breakfast are lighting their charcoal fires on the footpaths of the city. And once again at the mercy of Madagascar Airlines. Let me say, although we had been warned that they were less than entirely reliable, they flew us back and forth safely and courteously and never lost our luggage. One flight out of four was delayed and rerouted. They did a good job.


Diego Suarez is blessed with a wonderful natural harbour.

Because of Madagascar’s appalling roads the country as a whole benefits little from it but the harbour was the principle prize of French colonisation and one they had to fight for in the Second World War (they surrendered, of course).

The town was named for Diogo Soares, a Portuguese navigator who visited the bay in 1543. In this usage navigator is an all-encompassing term that includes pirate, mercenary, murderer, rapist, kidnapper and thief. He was stoned to death in Burma when he lost the protection of the king and his crimes caught up with him. The only place you could find such a scoundrel today would be the New South Wales Parliament. Hardly surprising then that the town changed its name, in 1975, to Antsiranana.


Either the change of name has not been uniformly embraced or the taxi fleet predates 1975. The name lives on in the scientific name of Adansonia suarezensis, one of the baobab trees, just possibly, this one …


Here is the bay (a click enlarges any of these illustrations, the back arrow on your browser will bring you back) …

Screen Shot 2014-08-14 at 6.37.35 pm

From the shore it looks like this (you’ve gotta click on this one, and say isn’t that an Adansonia suarezensis?) …


The French seized the harbour and then negotiated a protectorate agreement signed into effect in 1885. The process worked so well they then seized the rest of the country. For them it was a place to refuel their fleet travelling between France and the far east.

In the Second World War Madagascar was in the control of the Vichy French, the value of such a port to the Japanese submarine fleet was not lost on the allies. The British opened hostilities on 5 May 1942 and after a relatively brief campaign installed the Free French. At the end of the war the Malagasy sought their independence, talks did not go smoothly. An uprising commencing  in 1947 was brutally suppressed in 1948. So well did the French encourage les autres it was not until 1960 that Madagascar gained its independence.

Our accommodation in Antsiranana was at the aptly named Hotel Le Grand, in, wait for it, La Rue Colbert. The hotel was almost entirely to my satisfaction, the feathers in the pillows were as good as those in the capital but management wouldn’t rise to the occasion and serve an early breakfast.

So who was Colbert? It was probably Jéan Baptiste COLBERT, (1619–83). A French statesman and Minister of Finance (under Louis XIV) who reorganized the established colonies in Canada, Martinique, and Haiti, and founded those of Cayenne and Madagascar. It seems he sought obedience rather than popularity and, whilst not stoned to death, he was buried at night under military guard to prevent the mob from tearing his body apart. One of his notable sayings translates as “The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest amount of feathers with the least possible amount of hissing“.

So, right from the outset, Antsiranana attracted more than its fair share of colourful characters. It is, I think, the most cosmopolitan city in Madagascar. It seems strongly influenced by Africa, the clothes are colourful, the whole place has a rhythm to it.

This is part of a series of posts on Madagascar that began on July 6 and is best read from the bottom up. To be continued …



Parc de Tsarasaotra …

Into the bus and back to Antananarivo. Before checking in to the Hotel Colbert we dropped in on Tsarasaotra. This is a privately owned estate surrounded by the city. It dates back to 1890 when Queen Ranavalona lll, the last monarch to rule Madagascar, and her husband Prime Minister Rainilaiarivony, built themselves a fine home here. By 1895 the French had taken over, Rainilaiarivony was exiled to Algiers. Ranavalona was exiled not long after to Réunion.

The estate is now a Ramsar site, it covers 27 ha (67 acres) and has a couple of fine lakes and a good bird list.


Red-billed Teal and White-faced Whistling Ducks can be seen above, Knob-billed Duck and Meller’s Duck were also present. A cooperative Black-crowned Night Heron was sitting near the main entrance.


You can get a good view of both lakes by walking around the one nearest the entrance.


Tickets to the park can only be purchased at BOOGIE PILGRIM: 1st floor Trio Property building, Tana Water Front, in Ambodivona. Their office is open Monday to Friday. So if you wish to visit the park at the weekend you will need to plan ahead.

Price: 12 000 Ariary/person (Mon-Fri)
14 000 Ariary/person (Week-end)

Leaf-tail Gecko …


This is a fairly easy one to spot.

There are currently about 14 species in the genus Uroplatus, all are confined to Madagascar (and the illegal pet trade). The name is from the Greek οὐρά meaning “tail” and πλατύς meaning “flat” the terminal us is thrown in to render the combination sufficiently Latin to be used in a museum. It is quite likely that DNA studies will split them into many more species.

They are night active insectivores and rely on camouflage to keep them safe by day. Four of the currently recognised species pretend to be leaves the rest pretend to be bark. They rest with their head down and tail up. Several species, including this guy, have a frill at the edges that ensures that there are no shadows to give them away.

Convergent evolution has given us some Leaf-tailed Geckos in Australia but they are in the genera Phyllurus and Saltuarius and not closely related.

Lemur Island …

If you stay at Vakona it is inevitable that you will succumb to the allure of Lemur Island. Whether that’s a good thing or not, I’m not sure. You will get the opportunity for some good photos and if you are fond of cuddling the animals you can do that, too.

Access is by canoe ride. The reason the island works is that lemurs will not cross water. River systems in Madagascar have been the agency of prosimian evolution by providing the genetic isolation that has enabled populations to evolve into different species. The river crossing is about twice the length of the canoe.

The lemurs will be waiting …


Never bring a banana to a bun fight.