Fruit stands along the road to Andasibe © Emily Koopman
The following day, after breakfast at the hotel, we met up with our driver/guide Andry. He was an absolute wealth of information. It was only day one of the tour, and I already felt like I could teach a class with all of the facts he had supplied us with. We traveled from Tana through the highlands, “artificial” forests made up of Eucalyptus trees, and into the lush rainforest. On the way, we pulled over at a fruit stand where Andry bought us some bananas. A little while later, we stopped by an animal education centre, where we learned about, and saw, a number of different reptiles. I got to hold a Madagascar tree boa, but there’s no photographic evidence because my Grandma nearly blacked out when she saw the snake.
Afterwards, we continued our drive and at last made it to our destination: Vakona Forest Lodge. I doubt that words could ever do its beauty justice. You know in “The Notebook” when Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling are dancing and can’t keep their eyes off of each other? Yeah, that was me with this entire place. Bungalows were scattered on a hillside, only separated by colourful gardens. The main building overlooked a small (presumably manmade) lake. The deck presented a few tables, one of which where we found ourselves eating lunch. Ya girl had some Malagasy chicken strips. They’re essentially just chicken strips… that were made in Madagascar. But like I said before, I’m pretty sure they make all the food 10x better there.
They’re in the running for the best strips I’ve ever had.
That evening, we went on a night walk in search of mouse lemurs (some of which are barely 4.75 inches long, tail included), and other nocturnal creatures. Our park guide, Zak, was fantastic, and always making sure that I got the best possible pictures.
Bright and early the next morning, Andry took me back to the park in Andasibe for a hike with Zak. This 3-hour adventure was a milestone for me, because it’s where I saw my first “typical” wild lemur. There are very few experiences that can compare to seeing an astounding animal go about its life in the wild. That said, we saw tons of them, including the Indri, which is the largest lemur in the country. We also saw the Common Brown, and Diademed Sifaka, which ended up being my favourite out of all the primates.
The forest itself was amazing, and I couldn’t have been happier to finally visit a tropical rainforest. It was like Disney’s Adventureland… but in real life. Even though I was hot, sweaty, and a little bit tired (are you sensing a pattern?), I kept thinking to myself how grateful I was to be there.
When we returned, I was promptly greeted by Andry, and we were off back to the lodge. He said we could meet back up at 3 pm and head to Lemur Island, which would prove to be the standout experience of the whole trip. In short, Lemur Island is a small, well, island, where several species of lemur live freely, but are used to people and will leap onto your head and shoulders. I had a soft, furry lemur bum pressed against my cheek. Is there anything better? I could have spent all day there, but settled for 45 minutes. If I asked you to guess how long it took to get to the island, what would you say? I bet it wouldn’t be 30 seconds, yet that’s the approximate time it takes one to drift across the ankle-deep water from the mainland to the island. All you do is hop in a 3 person canoe and blink a couple times. It’s all quite the thrill.
Afterwards, we visited the Vakona Reserve, which is a catch and release nature area similar to the Discovery Passage Aquarium in my hometown (but outside and much, much bigger). We saw Nile crocodiles, which are the only species found in Madagascar, a Fossa (pronounced Foo-Sa), lots of reptiles, birds, and plenty of interesting flora.
I was tired that night.
I should also mention that it was here where we discovered corossol juice, which we later found out is the French/Malagasy word for soursop. Neither of us had ever heard of it before, but it soon took the place of guava juice as our usual drink.
On Monday, we made the drive back to Tana, stopping to purchase a bag of fresh guavas from a young girl. Once back in the city, Andry searched far and wide (3 stores) to find me a replacement camera battery charger since mine had stopped working the night before. The Canon T6S hadn’t arrived in Madagascar yet, so we were SOL (and by “we” I mean “me”). The 3 of us had lunch at a pizza place with a knock-off Pizza Hut sign in a surprisingly modern mall. The pizza was alright, but my piece had goat cheese on it.
From there, we drove 309 km to Antsirabe, which is the beer industry hot spot. However, neither my grandma or I were all that interested in having a drink. Instead, we visited a small, rustic manufacturing plant where they create functional objects out of zebu horns. Zebu are a breed of cow with a large lump of fat on their backs; they are populous in both Africa and India — unlike in India, however, they are a popular meal choice in Madagascar. Luckily, the Malagasy people are not ones who let things go to waste. They use the horns from the zebu cow to make a variety of different items, such as utensils, bowls, and jewelry. During the demo, a worker made a small spoon. In due course, we proceeded across the street to a small shop owned exclusively by one man. By hand, he creates unique cars, bikes, and other things from pop and beer bottles (among an assortment of household products). In the back of the same building were several women cross-stitching colourful (and traditional) Malagasy scenes and animals. It was astonishing to watch them work at such an elaborate pace, as a man penciled out their next project at a table beside them.
It was late when we arrived at our hotel on the other side of town. Once again, our room was nice and spacious. I had the best spaghetti ever at the restaurant there. Italy who?
At 8:30 am the next day, we left the hotel and made way to check out a little museum which specialized in gems and precious woods, including Rosewood, which is often illegally logged and sold. The people there were very kind, but unfortunately, a lot of the information went in one ear and out the other as I was rather distracted by their “guard tortoises”. That was much more interesting to me. They let me hold one, and he was very heavy but a lot less bitey than my turtle back home. I liked him a lot.
Andry then gave us the nickel tour of Antsirabe before we hit the road again, this time destined for Ranomafana National Park. A pitstop was made in a town called Ambositra, which is the centre of Madagascar’s wood carving industry. We were able to observe the woodworkers practicing their craft; one gentleman even let me keep a small heart pendant he had made as the demonstration. They had an awe-inspiring gift store, where I bought several souvenirs. Beforehand, we had popped into a restaurant for lunch, which boasted both musical and dance performances.