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Written by DanielaZavala. Posted in Blog

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Published on July 13, 2011 with 3 Comments

BAck into the wild!

When I arrived in my friend’s house, I didn’t have any idea how I would make it to Andisabe the next day. This popular national park is located about three hours from Antananarivo, and no matter what or how I would go there to see and hear the legendary Indri lemurs!

Back at Valbio centre in Ranomafana, I found out that the Indris were in Andisabe, not at any of the parks I was planning to visit on my way to Toliara. Immediately I decided to change my plans and instead of staying one more day at the beach, I would return to Tana a day earlier to have the chance to do a day trip Andisabe before flying back to the USA.

I contacted Rija then, and for a day trip he was charging me 347 Euros! It seemed an excessive amount and I emailed my friend in Tana to get a second opinion. He agreed that was too much money and he offered to arrange a driver to take me to Andisabe.

It was midnight when I arrived in Tana so I had no idea if my friend had arranged anything for Andisabe.

I had a backup plan though! I would take a taxi brousse at 6am to get to Andisabe around 9am. I would stay in a cheap hotel located in the heart of the forest that I had found in my guidebook. I would visit one area of the park in the afternoon and another part in the early morning the following day. By using the unreliable local transportation and finding my way without speaking the language, I would definitely have to rough it, but I am a backpacker and that’s a field where I excel. I felt confident I could find my way around. Yet, it was going to be challenging due to the limited time, but also exhilarating. I was excited about going back into my “hard core backpacking-independent” mode, which I haven’t been able to do in any of my trips in Africa due to time constraint.

“Here it is the hotel reservation Brett made, and the driver is coming to pick you up at 9am tomorrow,” my friend’s wife said when I dropped the backpack to the room.

Suddenly my backup plan was not longer needed.

It was midnight and my friend was not home yet. He was still working. Despite all the things he had going on at work, he made the arrangements for me. I was really thankful. My “rough it” trip to Andisabe turned out into a “perfectly arranged” one.

I was going to have a driver at my disposal, and I was staying in the most luxurious and world famous hotel located at the Andisabe Park itself. Even with that, the cost would be half of Rija’s price. I was happy I hadn’t taken his tour!

At 9am sharp, the driver was waiting for me with a brand new Land Cruiser.

Diademed Sifakas

“Bonjour!” said a Malagasy man in his 30s.

His name was Jimmy and he didn’t speak a word of English.

Oh my God, my French needs to come out somehow. I used to speak French. It is in me. It is deeeeep in me. Get it out Daniela I repeated to myself.

When young, I studied French for many years at the Alliance Francesa. I had a thing for French movies and anything related to France. I loved the language. I dreamt of living a year of my life in Paris and fantasized of being a writer in the City of Lights. Back then, I was fluent enough to attend a press conference in Paris, had a full conversation and even do a presentation in front of an audience. I never thought in French as I think in English, but felt very comfortable with it. Now, more than a decade later, I feel so embarrassed that words don’t come out of my month. I feel as if I had forgotten everything I learned once…now I was with Jimmy and the only way to communicate was the language I had neglected and which apparently had been erased from my brain.

Jimmy -as most Malagasy– was kind and welcoming, always smiling.

Despite our language barrier, we managed to communicate. I was without any doubt destroying the beautiful French language, but I was able to keep a basic conversation.

The road to Andisabe was curvy, really curvy. A winding road makes me sleepy, so I slept most of the ride, but as soon as we arrived in the village where the Andisabe park was, the adrenaline kicked in my body at high levels.

“Q’aimeriez vous manger?“ (What would you like to eat?) Jimmy asked me as we drove through the village.

“Je ne peux pas manger, Jimmy. Je dois voir les lemurs!”(I cannot eat, I have to see the lemurs!), I had no idea how to say lemurs in French, but I was hoping he understood my French-glish. “Aller au parc, s’il vous plait!”(Let’s go to the park please).

It was noon by the time we arrived in Andisabe. I had that afternoon and next morning to explore Andisabe before going back to Antananarivo. My flight back home was the day after tomorrow.

Time was precious and I wasn’t going to waste any minute!

With Etienne

Jimmy nodded, smiled and drove to the park’s entrance where we met Jean Etienne Toto, a 44-years-old experience guide. He was short and thin. He had several missing teeth. He had some “strong” body odor that once in a while made me dizzy, but he was also very knowledgeable.

“I am on a mission Etienne! Let’s visit the Mantadia today, and D’Analamazaotra tomorrow morning for the Indris,” I said.

The National Park Andisabe covers over 12,000 hectares. It has two distinct areas: Mantadia –where the white and black ruffed lemurs and the diademed sifaka live) and D’Analamazaotra (where about the Indris lemurs live).

“No lunch?” asked Etienne. I imagined Jimmy had mentioned something to Etienne about us not having eaten anything since our departure from Tana.

“I can eat later Etienne. If we stop for lunch, it would be too late to visit the park because it closes at 4pm,” I said.

I felt awful for Jimmy and I told him that he could have something to eat while Etienne and I explored the park.

The Critically Endangered Sifaka

“Mantadia est a plus de 17 kilometres du Andasibe,” (Mantadia is 17 kilometers away from Andasibe), said Jimmy.

I calculated that it would be about 20 to 25 minutes to reach the entrance of the park, but the road was really bad and it took us indeed 45 minutes.

The further we drove, the thicker the vegetation around us was.

There were no other cars. We ran into a few locals on the dirt road that led us to inside the park.

We passed several signs for different routes into Mantadia until we finally made it to the entrance of the Tsakoka circuit.

Etienne had recommended this route because it increased our chances to see more lemurs.

Jimmy decided to stay and wait for us, instead of going to the town to eat and return to pick us up. I felt so bad for this guy, but I had so little time in Andisabe, I really needed to make the most of every minute.

“Merci, merci, Jimmy,” I said before walking into the deep forest with Etienne.

Surrounded by canopy, Etienne and I followed an almost nonexistent muddy path. It was cold, humid and dark under the shadows of thick greenery.

“Could you please wait here? I will look for the lemurs,” said Etienne.

I stood alone in the middle of the forest. It was so beautiful and peaceful.

“Come this way,” said Etienne

MAntadia forest

We hiked up to a muddy hill and made it to the top, where we could see the clear sky.

“Look Daniela, the diademed sifakas,” Etienne pointed at some trees where about eight beautiful and fury sifakas were “sun bathing” from the comfort of a tree’s branches.

“Wow, they are so gorgeous,” I walked up a bit higher to be closer to the branches.

They are by far the most beautiful of all lemurs. They don’t look like a primate.

The diademed sifakas are one of the world’s largest living lemurs. With popping red eyes, these exuberant sifakas have a long and silky white coat that contrast with their black faces and extremities. The yellowish-orange hair in their arms and legs make them look really exotic.

Sifakas spotted!

“They live in groups of two and more, and they are territorial,” explained Etienne.

I was mesmerized by their unusual beauty. Some of them ate leaves. Others just relaxed and suntanned. The rest jumped freely from tree to tree.

The diademed sifaka is classified as Critically Endangered, with an estimate of between 5,000 and 10,000 individuals left.

“They are endangered because they have been losing their habitat. Now it is controlled. This is a protected area, but population is growing and people do slash-and burn, so they can use the terrain of the forest for the zebus, for cultivations, for wood, etc” said Etienne.

“Let’s go. Let’s look for the White-and-Black ruffed lemurs,” said Etienne.

We walked and walked through the forest, now back in the deep vegetation and under the canopy.

About 30 minutes had passed and we had seen nothing.

Uuuuuu. Uuuuuu. Ahhh. Ahhhh

Some really strange raucous calls came from the depths of the forest.

“They are half kilometer away,” said Etienne and we sped up the pace trying to catch up with the screaming lemurs.

We walked through some grown vegetation and made it somehow back into the dirt road.

Two White-and-Black ruffed lemurs hanged high in the canopy of the rainforest.

“You are lucky!” said Etienne.

One of the lemurs was jumping in the canopy and disappeared inside the forest. The other hanged out solo on a branch.

It is a big park and seeing both, the Diademed Sifakas and the White-and-Black Ruffed Lemurs, on a same day was unlikely.

My neck hurt from looking up in the canopies, but even from distance we could appreciate the beauty of the most endangered of the two species of ruffed lemurs.

White-and-Black ruffed Sifakas

They looked like small pandas!

Uuuuuu. Uuuuuu. Ahhhhhhh

“Someone is dying or suffering in there,” I said to Etienne.

“Let me go back in there and see where they are,” Etienne disappeared getting into thick vegetation while I stayed on the road looking at the solo lemur.

“Come!” Etienne came back and showed me the way back into the forest to see the ruffed lemurs.
The sounds were louder and louder.

“There is a fight! Look up!” Etienne showed me two White and Black lemurs, one of them rushing all over the place and disappeared again.

The other lemur shut up.

“They are territorial. That lemur didn’t belong here. Its forest is on the other side of the road,” explained
Etienne. “They hang out in pairs usually.”

After hiking up and down in the forest, we returned to the entrance and met Jimmy

“Lemurs?” Jimmy.

“Je suis tresssss content. Many many lemurs Jimmy!” I couldn’t stop smiling.

The three of us jumped back in the Land Cruiser.

It took us another half an hour on the dirty road to get to Vakona Forest Lodge, the most upscale hotel in Andasibe’s park.

From the outside, it looked more like a resort than a lodge. A beautiful and large restaurant “floated” in an

Vakona Forest Lodge

artificial lagoon. The lodge has a swimming pool and a private reserve with a lemur island.

I checked in, left my backpack and went straight to the lemur island. It was 4:00 pm, and it closes at 5pm. This island gives you the opportunity to get a close look at some species of lemurs through its sanctuary.

“Let’s run,” I said to Etienne and Jimmy, jumping back in the car.

Jimmy gave me a ride to the entrance of the sanctuary before heading to the village to drop off Etienne and get something to eat.

There was no body except a man waiting some tourists that had gone into the sanctuary.

“There are not kayaks. The guides are with tourists in the island. They will be back in 5 minutes,” the lonely guide said.

Etienne and Jimmy seemed concerned about leaving me alone, but I told them not to worry.

“Please go and eat. I can walk back to the hotel. It is really close,” I gave each of them a generous tip so they could have a great dinner.

It had been more than 10 minutes and I stood on the shore, waiting anxious for someone to get me into the island, but no one came.

“Soon. In five minutes,” said the guide sensing my frustration.

His tourists nor any of the guides of the reserve had come back and it was already 4:35pm.

It was getting dark and I was getting anxious.

A jeep with three Malagasy men came down.

“They should come soon,” said one of them.

“I have been waiting here for over an hour. I don’t understand why the guy at the reception of the hotel would sell me a ticket for the lemur island and he knew no one would be working. Give me the kayak and I can row. I can go myself, but I don’t want to get into trouble,” I said.

Actually I didn’t mind to row, not even to get into trouble. I was afraid I would get lost in the lagoon without a flash light to find my way back.

“You can come back tomorrow morning,” one of the men recommended.

“I am seeing the Indris in the morning, so I can’t miss that for the lemur’s island,” I replied frustrated.

The three men spoke in Malagasy

“I go with you. We will explain the guides at the reserve you waited. No problem,” he said.

“OK let’s go. I can row!” I jumped into the kayak and so did the Malagasy man wearing some dressing shows.

“Thank you! We will come back safe and sound,” I said to the man as I put all my energies into the rowing to get to the island quick!

The other two Malagasy men looked at us, sort of amused and in shock… a vaza was rowing for the Malagasy? Wait, a female vaza from a strange country called Venezuela was rowing for the Malagasy? It had to be a really rare scene in Madagascar, so I understood the shocker it was for them, but I was a woman on a mission: I would see the lemurs up close!

The name of the man accompanying me was Mami. Another Mami in my life, so this was Mami #3. His English was impeccable. He was very kind and he was also a guide. He had left his tourists at the hotel, and when he saw me in despair, he offered to help me.

“Thank you so much for coming with me. I really appreciate it. I come from very far and have no much time,” I said again.

We ran into the guides of the reserve who were also surprised to see us or see me rowing. Mami #3 explained to them what happened. One of the guides threw a banana to Mami #3. We stopped the kayak in one of the island and came down.

The smells of the banana drove dozens of little brown lemurs to us. These little furry and fat lemurs with popping eyes jumped on my arms and shoulders.

Love or....?

“Wow, that’s love or pure interest?” I joked.

They devoured the banana in my hands and hanged around us.

I wanted to ask a few questions about the lemurs in this island, but Mami was not a local guide. He had just done the favor to take me here.

Supposedly there was a White-and-Black ruffed lemur and a sifaka, but we didn’t see them. It actually didn’t make sense they were in this isolated island when there was a large forest across the lake.

It was getting dark and time to go. I rowed and rowed, making it back to the shore.

“Thank you so much Mami,” I really appreciate it. “I am a journalist. I had very back luck with my tour operator in Madagascar, but it is good to meet people like you to recommend because I can see you are someone who cares and would go the extra mile for a visitor.”

Mami was not only a well-educated and experienced guide. He spoke fluently Malagasy, French, English and Italian.

He was surprised and happy to learn I was a reporter.

“Thank you!” he said.

For my surprise, Jimmy was at the entrance, checking if I was OK. He had gone to the village to eat and returned to where he had dropped me off to see if I had gone into the lemur’s island.

“Oh Jimmy. Merci,” I said.

Mami told Jimmy something in Malagasy.

“I told him to take you back here in the morning before going to see the Indris so you can see the other lemurs. They are diurnal. It would be better,” recommended Mami.

Jimmy took me back to hotel, and I was so hungry that I went straight to the fancy restaurant.

My fancy home in the forest

The food was the best I had at that point in Madagascar, but pricy. It was worthy though.

I returned to my bungalow. It was simple but nice. For 66 Euros in Madagascar, I would have expected something more luxurious, but the cost was due to the location, comfort (because although not luxurious it was very comfortable and nice by Malagasy standards) and the facilities.

I had been running around the entire day, so I would enjoyed the night sleeping in the middle of the deep forest with the comfort of a upscale accommodation.

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There are currently 3 Comments on ANDASIBE: A VAZA IN CHARGE… “GIVE ME THE KAYAK. I CAN ROW!”. Perhaps you would like to add one of your own?

  1. What a experience you have had. This is what I want to do all my life. It’s great that I could share it through you.

  2. Hi Daniela,
    Great read. Was wondering if you’d mind if I re-used it at Don’t pay I’m afraid but would link back to your any site you like and might get you a few more readers. T&C’s, such as they are, at Let me know, all the best, Jack

  3. Hi Jack! Sorry for the late replay. I was traveling. Feel free to post the stories in your travel website. Always happy to share experiences and tips with fellow travelers 🙂

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