Comments, recommendations and conclusions

 

Some background information

On October 7, 2015 we traveled to Madagascar to participate in a succulent plant tour offered by South America Nature Tours – owned and operated by Guillermo Rivera.  The tour was made up of 12 participants (10 paying members, the tour operator and the local guide). We had a total of three four-wheel drive vehicles (Toyota land cruisers and a Nissan Patrol) – none in the best shape – and three drivers, one of whom spoke no English. The tour members were from the USA (5), Australia (4) and England (1). The tour operator himself is a native of Argentina who now resides in the USA.  Before committing to this particular succulent plant tour we explored the web looking for other tours being offered by different companies. Surprisingly, we discovered that there were many tours available.  However, none of these tours on the succulent plants of Madagascar, but rather tended to cover a broader range of subjects.  Tours that focused on birds, or lemurs or aspects of adventure tourism appeared to be the most common ones being offered.

Six  years earlier, we had taken a tour with Guillermo to eastern Brazil to see cacti. That tour was very interesting and most everyone was satisfied with the amount of time allowed for exploration of the different habitats. The tour was reasonable and Guillermo  had specific information about where to stop for the best habitats.

Jumping ahead to October 2015 we can say that the differences between our Brazilian tour and our Madagascar tour were substantial – and not in a good way.

In all fairness, Madagascar is a difficult country to tour due to poor or lacking infrastructure in most of the countryside. However, all the difficulties –  bad roads, lack of quality habitats to explore and see succulents, were compounded by the seemingly poor planning and lack of information at times on the part of our tour operator.


 Problems we observed during our tour:

  • Lack of information throughout the tour, as well as the somewhat poor treatment of tour participants on the part of the tour operator.  Little to no discussion at night of anything we had seen or of what we would be doing the next day.  There was very little information provided about what we were doing each day or even at specific stops.  We usually would not know why we were stopping here or there.
  • Little information about the type of hikes we were expected to do or how difficult or long these would be.  Emails sent out prior to the tour indicated there would not be any difficult hikes:   “DIFFICULTY OF TRIP: I have to add also that the trip is somehow difficult in some areas. Easy walks by the side of the bus. Two easy hikes with plenty of time to do them. Some people should be aware that entire trips is done in 4×4 therefore a bit more uncomfortable than traveling on a bus.”    The two long hikes in the Tsingy (4 km but 4 hr) or in Isalo (12 km, most of day) were not easy hikes.  The Pachypodium brevicaule hike was very rushed, and several other hikes were hardly “by the side of the road”.    For those with knee problems or other health issues it may be possible to push yourself if you know it will be worth it, but usually no such information was provided (or even known by the guide) and some stops were not that rewarding – considering the effort.  Any questions about how difficult, how long, or what we were going to see was usually met with blank stares on the part of the guides.  I never knew if our park guides were just not accustomed to having tourists ask such questions or if they just did not know the answer.

We don’t mind long walks, or difficult hikes – if there is a reason for them.  But we couldn’t obtain any clues from our guides about what we would likely see – before starting the hike.  And coming back 4 or 6 hours later, tired, and without having seen much more that what was possible in a one or two-hour hike is really not the best use of time.  Of course, this is our view – but we didn’t come halfway around the world and spend thousands of dollars to just take a hike (literally).

While the pace of the hikes was probably acceptable for those wanting a hike, it was too fast if you wanted to do half-serious photography or if you wanted to take the time to look for interesting plants and animals.  That was perhaps something we didn’t appreciate at the outset and can be a drawback of many nature tours.  Since we wanted to return with good photos, we found the hiking/walking pace too fast, since we tend to look at everything along the route.  Tour guides naturally see things differently, with an eye on the time and what they think are the key highlights of the walk. We noticed this relatively fast pace also on our private tour.

  • Local guides (and our tour operator) have limited knowledge of the ecology or natural history of Madagascar – or they failed to show what they knew.     See here for the background material and guiding ethics taught to students at a good nature guiding course in South Africa.  Perhaps this was too much to expect for Madagascar tour guides.  Most guides knew what they presented and managed their groups reasonably well, but they lacked in-depth knowledge to make the walks more educational or more interesting to those already with some knowledge of natural history.
  • Late departures from hotels due to late breakfasts.  Most hotels served breakfast earlier than our 7-7:30 usual breakfast time and many could have provided breakfast materials the night before.  Birding tours routinely leave early.  As sunrise was near 6:00AM we lost valuable daylight each day (and also the best photography time).
  • Logistical problems arising because we didn’t use  a local tour agency.  Certainly, this was to keep costs low for participants (and to maximize tour operator profit).   But this led to problems.  Our poor-condition vehicles we suspect would not have been contracted by major tour companies, and our missing a stay at a planned beach resort south of Tulear (already paid for) would not likely have occurred.  In addition, problems with reservations at one hotel (forcing a rush to the hotel from the good P. brevacaule site)  would probably not have occurred.    Heavy reliance on the drivers for anything from obtaining food for our lunches to finding areas to visit to look for succulents was not an acceptable mode of operation – in our opinion.
  • No first aid kit.  The tour operator did not have a first-aid kit; even he had to borrow a band-aid at some point.  Given the remoteness of our destinations, a basic first-aid kit should be carried by someone in the tour.
  • Obtaining a local botanical guide. After the previous year’s guide declined to join our group, our tour operator found another guide on day 3 by asking one of our drivers for opinions. Unfortunately, as we would soon discover, this guide was not an expert on Madagascar succulents and he was not very familiar with most of the country other than the Tsingy – the area where he worked as a day guide.   Talking to him, we found out that he had been porter for many years before taking a 3-month guiding course and becoming a guide at Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park.   He spoke English, although at times most tour members struggled to understand him.  However, this language issue was common to many of the guides in Madagascar  – most tourists to Madagascar don’t come from English-speaking countries.  (A Madagascar guide’s  first language is usually Malagasy, the second French, and then they must select from whatever language is needed most for the tourist trade).   We heard from a very knowledgeable person in Madagascar who knows many guides, that the guide used during our tour operator’s first trip,  and whom he was hoping to hire for our tour, was “terrible”.   Even our tour operator complained about this guide.  Then why was he planning to hire this person again?

Important note added after we wrote the above comments:  Recently, we received an email from our tour operator, Guillermo Rivera, mentioning that he was apologizing for his behaviour over the past few years – he had been diagnosed with a brain tumor after our Madagascar trip and had just had surgery to remove it.  He said it was successful (and not malignant) and that the doctors had said because of its size, it would have likely affected his behavior the past few years.  Given the seriousness of such a medical condition we are inclined to give Guillermo the benefit of the doubt about any personality-related issues during our tour.   The following comments, related to organizing a tour to see succulent plants in Madagascar, are applicable to any tour – not specifically our tour.


 

General comments about touring in Madagascar

  • It is not possible to explore parks or reserves on your own. You have to hire a local guide and their level of education and knowledge can vary quite a bit.
  • We did not see any guides, booklets, etc. about natural history except at Vahatra and those were not really “field guides”.
  • At parks, unless you hire a guide for the day, you have to make choices of what circuits you take and those are supposed to be done in a certain amount of time.  Thus, if photography or plant exploration is your thing you will need the guide for the day or half-day to make sure they don’t rush you.
  • Infrastructure is poor unless you stick to major towns.  However, tourist hotels and food can be good even in remote locations.   We suggest stocking up on simple food items before leaving Tana (for example buy enough cookies, canned food, or granola bars for the entire trip).
  • Roads in the countryside are very bad and you don’t cover much ground in a day and it is physically tiring.  Deep sand, deep-water fords, etc.
  • It is important to try to have vehicles in good condition. The vehicle we had for our private tour was not only nicer (inside and out), but it was in better condition – though it too had problems.   Our guide told us that Cactus Tours and other companies he has worked for rarely used cars more than 10 years old.   In contrast, our succulent plant tour driver told us that the owner of our tour vehicles did not spend much money on maintenance and did not send the drivers with much money for repairs either.  How old were their vehicles – he said 20 years.  He and the other drivers were aware of the possible car problems and apparently were used to trying to fix the cars the best way they could when driving vehicles from this particular car rental company.   He mentioned that there are many such “companies” in Tana, all owned by individuals and some had as few as 2 cars.  Though newer vehicles are more expensive, given the road conditions in Madagascar, such vehicles would appear more of a necessity than a luxury.
  • Taking a tour with a reputable overseas company doesn’t guarantee reliability.  Such companies may sublet the tour to a local company and guide and then in the parks you still need to hire another park guide.  Some tours (expensive ones) may have a naturalist that comes from overseas.   To see examples of tours that provides their own naturalists see here or here.  Of course, this is still no guarantee that the naturalist has extensive knowledge of Madagascar.
  • If you are traveling along any kind of road in Madagascar you can expect to see people (85% of the population lives in the countryside).   In Madagascar the poverty (relative to where tourists come from) experienced by a large percentage of the population will also be evident no matter where you are.  More information about living standards in Madagascar can be found here.
  • Food and hotels were not expensive at most places except perhaps for Relais de la Reine.
  • Did not see any mosquitos since we were at the end of the dry season – and in a dry area, but malaria does occur here – at least in the rainy season. We took malaria pills (Malarone)  as a precaution.

 

Selecting a tour: general recommendations

Before committing to any tour it is very important to consider the feedback you are getting from your potential tour operator.  Are emails answered promptly and do they provide the information requested?  Is there an itinerary with a reasonable level of detail?

If you are going to be primarily visiting national parks and private reserves, then it is feasible to put together your own tour with the help of a reputable local tour operator.   We recommend that you get a guide since it is always useful to have that extra person with  you to help you with translation or any other details that may come up.  This is important because a driver will stay close to the vehicle to provide security for it, and if you are scrambling up a hillside you will want a guide near you to explain what you are doing to any locals who appear.  Of course, most nature guides also know a considerable amount of nature-oriented material – just don’t expect it to be specific to succulent plants.

If you have a specific interest in lemurs or in seeing endemic birds, there are many tour companies that focus on these and thus fair amount of tour company competition.   However, few companies offer specialized tours to see succulent plants, so competition almost doesn’t exist.  Cactus Tours, a local company in Madagascar (which doesn’t focus on succulents despite its name), offers a variety of customizable tours.  Recently, they have begun to offer a 17-day botanical tour.  The cost of this tour for two people is $2931 per person.  There is an additional $1050 per person charge for 2 internal flights.   Thus, the total for 2 people is about $8000 (RT airfare to Madagascar is not included).   This includes all transfers, hotels, most meals, guide fees, car and driver, and park entrance fees.   From our experience this company is very flexible in modifying the itinerary to meet your wishes.   By comparison, our  18-day succulent plant tour cost was $9700 for the two of us (again excluding airfare to Madagascar).

The difference in price per person per day between the two tours ($269/day for SANT and $235/day for Cactus Tours) is about $34, which is not large.   However, the Cactus Tours itinerary includes two internal flights – which save long drives.  They probably use better vehicles, and such a personal tour, being for only two people, would be more comfortable.  Two people in the back seat instead of 3 (as in our succulent tour)  does make a difference in comfort.  Personal tours are also more flexible – stopping where you want to.  Taken together, these are major advantages.

Of course, if travel is done by ground alone, then the Cactus Tour would be noticeably lower in cost, but would require the same long-distance driving to reach different destinations.  However, the real challenge for any Madagascar succulent plant tour is to identify enough sites that display the “essence” of the succulent flora of the island.  That is probably beyond the capacity of any of the local tour companies – without your input.

Naturally, if you can identify a few other like-minded individuals who share your passion for succulents, then organizing a trip becomes even easier – or more difficult, depending on how flexible your associates are, and how much time each of them have.  Many people do this when they travel to exotic destinations.

 


 

Designing your own itinerary : recommendations based on our (limited) experience.

Our experience with Cactus Tours in Madagascar was good.  Although their staff might not know the locations of many of the specialized succulents in Madagascar, they could provide good logistical support, good cars, relatively good guides, camping gear, cooking – if camping became necessary, and good customer service.  Designing such a tour would involve submitting an itinerary to them and they would forward this information to one or two guides they feel would be the best for this type of itinerary.  The guides would look at the itinerary and make suggestions based on their knowledge of the condition of the road, availability of accommodation or other issues that tourists might not be aware of.   After this interaction is completed the tourists would arrive at an itinerary they can live with and they would still have the freedom to modify as they go if this were necessary.

This type of personal tour puts the burden of deciding where to go and where to stop on the tour participants.  It can be done to a certain degree using the existing internet resources, scientific literature, and Google Earth imagery.   It is highly unlikely that anyone knows the ideal locations to see all of the succulents found in Madagascar and we suspect that in order to many some species, expeditions would be required.  We are now well aware that in Madagascar, as in most countries, the closer you are to roads the more disturbed the landscape will be by human activities.

We repeat: designing a succulent-focused tour requires knowledge of where the succulents are.  Collectively, there are a great many people who have traveled to Madagascar to see succulent plants, but relatively few of these people have put this information online.  Many people don’t write or blog, others don’t take extensive photos or don’t carefully document their travels, and still others probably don’t want you to know where they have been and what they have seen or done  (the “collectors”).  Googling “Madagascar succulents” or anything similar gives lots of results, but few that provide really precise locations that you could quickly travel to.  So it is up to the traveler to put together their best information – or contract a tour company that knows about such species.  For example here is one that appears to be familiar with many of the key succulents in Madagascar, but the website is in French.

Of course, if you know botanists in Madagascar, or those who have done field work there, you might have a good source of location information.  However, such individuals are often specialists and may not have the required locality information either.

An internet source of species distributions is the Map of Life.  This allows you to search for the records of occurrence of specific species.  However, the localities are not precise enough to plan specific stops on a tour.

In retrospect, we missed some iconic species of the Madagascar spiny forest by not traveling farther south or going to the Taolagnaro (Ft. Dauphin) region (e.g. Andohahela National Park and Berenty Reserve).  We did not see the Alluaudia forests of A. ascendens and A. procera, nor other Alluaudia species such as A. humberti, A.dumosa and A. montagnacii.  Also, we personally had hoped to see Didierea trollii, but did not.  Thus, of the iconic spiny forest plants,  we only saw A. comosa and Didierea madagascariensis.  The distributions of some of these species taken from Rauh’s Volume 2 of Succulent and Xerophytic Plants of Madagascar are shown below.

alluaudia_distributions_rauh_mod

Distribution maps of different Alluaudia species taken from Werner Rauh’s book (Succulent and xerophytic plants of Madagascar Vol 2). Unfortunately the legend doesn’t indicate which symbols go with what species (the fig in the book lacked this info). I have put the location of Tulear as a red dot for geographical reference.   The point of showing these figures is to indicate that only by traveling farther south and east would we have seen these iconic species of the Madagascar spiny forest.

 

Didierea distributions

Distributions of the two Didierea species in southwest Madagascar. Note that they overlap only in a small area, well south of Tulear. We did not see D. trollii, but D. madagascariensis was abundant throughout the coastal stretch that we traveled. This figure is from Rauh’s Vol 2 book; it did not have explanation for the dashed line.

Possible itineraries

Any itinerary designed by us would undoubtably miss many interesting succulents, but we would most likely have a more relaxed and satisfying experience by being able to take the time to explore if a good area comes up during our journey.  We would be able to visit all the same reserves and national parks visited during our succulent plant tour, but we would spend more time on the coastal Morondava to Tulear road and would plan on exploring a lot more using information from Google Earth than we did during our succulent plant tour.  This part of the trip, in our opinion, merited more time and more two-night stays.  In fact the tour made this whole journey in a series of one night stops (this added to the discomfort level).   That made for too many very long days and too few stops in the best areas to explore.  We would have 2 or 3 two night stays along this route to allow for more time to do day trips out of the hotels and to recover from the drive.   The coastal road south of Morondava was difficult, yet it was probably the least crowded, most scenic and most unique in the whole trip – from the point of view of seeing the succulents.   Hotels were nice and in very scenic locations and the food was good.  The perception of this part of the trip being very hard was in part due to recurring car troubles forcing stops in not-ideal locations and then having too little time to stop in seemingly good locations.   We strongly suspect that even if our car had not had problems, we would not have stopped as much as we would have liked.

There are other options for exploration along roads that head south from near Tulear.    One road goes to the Beza Mahafaly Reserve but the highlight of such a trip would be the opportunity to see forests of Alluaudia procera that we missed.  There is camping and a few cabins at the Beza Mahafaly Reserve.   After our tour with Cactus Tours we now realize that camping is quite possible.  A combination of camping and coastal lodges would allow more thorough exploration of this dry area in western Madagascar.

Below are two possible itineraries for an independent traveler that wants to see succulent plants in southern Madagascar.  However, we would be the first to say they are not necessarily the best options.  We would start developing itineraries by putting key locations where you want to see succulent plants or spend time – based on Google Earth imagery.  Then you can visualize your route and think how to “connect the dots” most efficiently – that is with the minimum driving distances and maximum time in the field.

Option 1. Drive from Tana to Kirindy Reserve and spend two nights there.  Drive to Tulear via the coastal road, taking perhaps 6 nights, then return to Tana via Isalo.   This allows the visitor to see visit the Reniala Reserve, the Antsokay Arboretum, Zombitse National Park, Isalo National Park, Ranomafana (for moist forest) and you could explore some of the better inselberg/granite dome areas like we did during our tour. A stop to see Pachypodium brevicaule in habitat would be worthwhile – allowing a few hours for the stop.   This itinerary is similar to the one we took but gains 3 days by excluding the Tsingy.  This could allow time for a trip to Beza Mahafaly Reserve to see Alluaudia forests.

Option 2. Fly to Fort Dauphin and start the tour there.   You can visit Andohahela National Park about 50 km west of Ft. Dauphin.  This park covers both dry and moist forest and there are many trails available.  There are 5 species of Alluaudia is this region and many birds and lemurs.  There are many other succulents as well and there is even a carnivorous plant in the genus Nephenthes.   There are enough things near Ft. Dauphin to spend at least a week in that area.  Berenty Reserve is also near Ft. Dauphin.

From Ft Dauphin one has the option to drive to Tulear, then back via Isalo.  This would be long, and perhaps not productive for the long stretch of dirt.   Alternatively, one could try to fly from Ft Dauphin to Tulear, then drive back to Tana (visiting Zombitsi, Isalo and some Pachypodium habitats and Ranomafana along the way).  Without more specific plant locality information than we currently have, it would be hard to make a well-informed choice.

Although flying with Air Madagascar can be problematic, we discovered that many tourists do it as part of their tours.  Delays are somewhat managed by the tour companies offering such tours.  It can save a lot of driving if you are willing to be delayed.   All the suggested itineraries above could be done in 18 days and they would allow for more time for exploration and recovering from the roads – which are still going to be the same marginal to bad roads found in much of Madagascar.

We have not included visits to the Tsingy of Bemaraha in the above itineraries.  The Tsingy involves a 3-day detour and unless it is a must-see item for a particular traveller, it is not a must-see location for succulents in Madagascar.  Skipping this attraction allows for better use of the time if your main interest is to see the succulent flora and some fauna at a reasonable pace during your visit.

As a careful reader will note, both options 1) and 2) mentioned above have compromises.  If time or money are unlimited almost everything is possible, but most tourists will lack one or the other.

Regarding succulent plants, we felt that the road segment from Isalo National Park to Tana (450 miles, 12.5 hrs according to Google Maps) did not offer that much.  Only Pachypodium densiflorum and P. brevicaule were standout plants for enthusiasts – though there obviously were many other succulent species.  The P. brevicaule site could be visited on a long day trip from Tana – it is 120 miles to the site.  In our opinion, the value for any tour succulent traversing the Tana to Isalo route would be enhanced by a stop at Ranomafana National Park because of the relatively small detour required.  While not likely to contain many succulents, it would be valuable for seeing the Madagascar moist forest environment – without adding more than one day to the itinerary.

For tourists that want to see lemurs or birds, such specialized tour are offered by  both international and local companies and from what we heard from some tourists flying out of Tana with us they were satisfied with their experiences.  They had seen what they had been promised and many of these tourist had flown once or twice within Madagascar.   We did not visit the north, but we know that this too could be arranged as a private tour and most likely you would fly, although some people drive.  For the tourist seeking the beaches and relaxation there is a place just for that in Madagascar – the island of Nosy Be.  There are many options for tours or independent travelers to that area and a fair amount of information.  We don’t travel to go to the beach or to relax so we can’t really provide much advice for this kind of travel.    Finally we are not recommending itineraries for adventure tourists or those with lots of time and little money.  There are tours for those individuals as well – and if you attempt to do it on your own and use public transport that alone will be sufficient, in our opinion, to satisfy your desire for adventure.


Conclusions

Our succulent plant tour was not as satisfying as it could have been.  We felt that we needed 1) more time in certain areas and less time in others, 2) better vehicles, 3) better customer service (how individuals (tour participants, guides and drivers) were treated, providing timely answers to questions, providing information about what we were doing), 4) more information about Madagascar’s natural history, and 5) discussions of what we were seeing and had seen.   Despite these problems, we did see many succulents and we did visit some nice natural habitats in Madagascar, but this all came at a high price (figuratively and literally) due to the long driving days, the poor condition of the rented vehicles, and the too-few and too-short stops in quality habitats.

Madagascar is a difficult place to visit even with the best vehicles, itineraries, or guides.   No matter how good your vehicle, the roads will still be bad, the driving in the highlands during the dry season may still be unpleasant due to the smoke from fires and truck diesel fumes, and camping may be required in places.   Even visitors on a private tour will likely still not see some of the impressive succulents found in Madagascar, yet they will likely be less frustrated, more relaxed, and will have more flexibility and time to explore and photograph any subjects of interest.

Though we only spent 27 days in Madagascar, and visited only a part of the country, we feel confident in saying that it should not be a “first destination” for anyone whose primary objective is to see succulent plants in habitat.   We have traveled very widely in the Americas (for example, more than 30 trips to Mexico and many to South America) and in southern Africa (6 trips totaling more than 20 weeks) and can say with confidence that there are many succulent-rich habitats around the world that are easier and less expensive to visit, and more rewarding on a daily basis, than Madagascar.  For ourselves, we would most likely prefer to visit a new region or revisit locations that we know can provide a more rewarding overall experience (better habitats and better infrastructure) before returning to Madagascar.

NOTE: Our conclusion related to not visiting Madagascar first naturally doesn’t apply to researchers, botanical explorers, or those with very specific interests that can only be met by a visit to Madagascar.

 

Continue to references and useful links.