Private tour Days 1-3

Tana-Ambohitantely Reserve-Tana

We made arrangements with a local tour company in Madagascar called “Cactus Tours” months prior to our arrival in Madagascar.  Of course we should have told them that their company name was a bit inappropriate – there is only one cactus that naturally occurs in Madagascar (an inconspicuous Rhipsalis) – everything else that looks “spiny” is not a cactus family member.  There are lots of introduced prickly  pear cactus – but these you’d hardly want to advertise (we would think).

Anyway, reviews were very good for “Cactus Tours” and they had been very good in responding to our email requests and questions.   The previous day we had a short meeting with a representative from the tour company and we went over the last-minute details.  We also payed the balance due.   After upgrading to hotel rooms rather than camping in the eastern forest, and also requesting an English speaking-guide, our 5-day tour cost about $1500.    We were pleased with the car and its condition as well a with the very good and courteous driver.  Our English-speaking guide Yvonne was, in our opinion, more knowledgeable than our guide during the succulent plant tour.  He had travelled more widely in Madagascar and worked as a free-lance guide for many tour companies including Rainbow Tours (a higher-end UK-based company).  His main area of expertise was birding, but he also knew something about the plants.   Although we felt that this guide was better than our previous guide, he did not appear to possess a very deep knowledge of the natural history of Madagascar.  Apparently guides take a 3 – month course to have some kind of certification.  His English, while not perfect, was reasonably good.


Day 1    10/27        A half-day shopping tour

I had suspected that we would not have many opportunities for craft shopping during our succulent plant tour and I was, for the most part, correct in that assumption.   For this reason we had arranged for a half-day tour to visit a craft shop gallery (Lizy’s gallery) that was highly recommended by Steve Goodman and other Vahatra staff.   It was not one shop but an assortment of shops, all very close to each other.  The shops were nice and the crafts were of very good quality and at very good prices.   Everything had a price and there was no need to bargain or argue about the price.  On the way there we also had a chance to see a more pleasant, more colonial part of the city.  The Jacaranda were in bloom and the French architecture evident in this part of town, together with the comfortable car and smooth driver, made for a  pleasant experience.

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The Black Angel statue on Lake Anosy, a famous monument erected in 1927.  The beautiful Jacaranda flowers were on display this time of year.

After about 3 hours shopping, Steve Goodman picked us up at the gallery and after a short meeting at Vahatra he took us on a quick  visit to the University of Antananarivo’s paleontology collection.  We were able to see bones of now extinct Archaeolemurs and Elephant Birds.  Then it was off to lunch at Steve’s house (almost next door to his Vahatra office).    While at his house a highlight of the day for me was seeing the Elephant Bird egg, part of Steve’s personal collection.  It was very interesting to see the size difference between the Elephant Bird’s egg and an Ostrich’s egg.

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Rosario holding an Elephant Bird’s egg and Steve holding an Ostrich egg for size comparison.

By mid-afternoon we were back at the hotel and after a 2 hour walking excursion to a nearby mall (quite modern) we were back to the hotel to finish packing and to prepare for the tour the following day


Day 2    10/28       A surprisingly pleasant drive

A map showing our route traveled during these 5 days is here.

Our guide Yvonne and the driver picked us up at the hotel early that morning and after a short stop at the nearby supermarket we were headed for the Ambohitantely Special Reserve.   This reserve is about 3 hours north and a bit higher (5200 ft) than Tana (which is about 4100 ft).  Mike was interested in visiting the main 5-mile long forest patch in the reserve because 1) it contained a rare palm 2) it was not commonly visited by tourists and most importantly 3) because it appeared as an isolated area of frequent cloudiness in satellite cloud climatology data and he wanted to see whether it was an isolated remnant of a former widespread forest or if it had always been isolated due to the peculiarities of the local topography.

The areas surrounding the forest tract are grasslands, with the nearest comparable tract of forest about 50 miles away.   Some claim the forest was more widespread in the past and now only patches remain, yet the cloud climatology of Madagascar that Mike has been working on does not appear to support that theory.  Persistent cloudiness is found in certain areas within the preserve but not in the adjacent grassland areas. After a smooth and pleasant drive on a paved road we arrived at the Ambohitantely Special Reserve by early afternoon.  Once we left Tana the towns became fewer and  near the turn towards the Reserve we did not encounter many villages or people.  Grass-covered hills were evident all along the route.

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1  Natural or man-made grasslands?  on our way to Ambohitantely Reserve.

Prior to taking the road to the reserve our driver and guide stopped at a small village and purchased charcoal.

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2  Small hamlet where were our driver bought charcoal.

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3  Our driver loading the charcoal. He said it was cheaper in the countryside.

Then we were finally heading for the Ambohitantely Special Reserve.

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5  A map showing the trails.  This preserve is home to a rare palm Dypsis decipiens. Note the condition of the sign.

As we entered the reserve we could see the patches of forest in the gullies.

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Upon arrival we talked to the manager of the preserve and discussed hiring a local guide for an afternoon hike.   After setting up our tent for the night we headed for our walk with Yvonne and our local guide.  We should mention that our guide Yvonne and our driver set up our tent and they took care of many details during our camping stay.  After our recent succulent plant tour we were unaccustomed to this level of service.

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8.  Our guide and driver helping us prepare the tent for the night.  Actually, they did almost all the work to set up the tent.

After a short walk from the campground area we arrived at the forest.  We had asked Yvonne to let the guide know that we were not just interested in lemurs, but instead we wanted to look at the vegetation, birds etc.   Unfortunately, this proved useless and the guide seemed to only look for lemurs.  He did not appear to know very much about the natural history of the area.

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9.  The forest in the late afternoon.

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10.  Heading to the forest trail.

We walked in the forested area for about 2 hours and observed many orchids (mostly of the same species), lichens and ferns.  Also very large Pandanus were visible in parts of the forest.  A relatively short forest, yet with enough moisture to support the mosses, lichens and ferns.  Some of the birds we saw during this hike were:  the Madagascar Wagtail, Madagascar Stone Chat, Cuckoo Roller, Madagascar Black Swift, Madagascar Magpie Robin and a Broad-Billed Roller.

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11.  Our guide Yvonne ahead of us on the trail.

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12.  The forest.

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13  Lichens were very abundant.

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14.  Orchids were in evidence as well.

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15.  Mosses were also common.

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16.  Beautiful  orchids.

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17.  Another orchid.

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18.  Rosario with a very large Pandanus sp.

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19.  The reserve guide looking for lemurs.  He could not be dissuaded to stop doing that.

After our hike it was back to the camp for a simple meal.   Rain started at around 6 pm – just after sunset and it was cold.   We did not sleep very well that night due to the rain, strong wind and we were a bit cold. Mike’s comment:  I was quite cold by morning because I did not have enough warm clothes, and  because I had somewhat insisted on staying in the reserve camping (no other option really) I could not complain too much.


October 29       A beautiful morning!

After a less than comfortable camping night we were up very early and ready to explore a bit more.  It was foggy near sunrise, with wind, but at least it had stopped raining.  We were up by 6 am and after a simple breakfast our driver and guide drove us to an area where we could get closer to the main area of palms.  This reserve is known for the endangered palm Dypsis decipiens.   Mike also wanted to see the cloud motions over the terrain early in the morning.   The light, the fog and the forest together with the  palms were a nice combination and made for a scenic early morning drive/walk.

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20.  Mike preparing the breakfast; the guides had prepared the table for us and gave us the thermos of hot coffee.  So maybe it should be said Mike is only opening the thermos!

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21. The forest edge and clouds forming in the upslope flow.

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22.  Getting closer to the palms  (Dypsis decipiens) and the edge of the forest on this cool morning.  Clouds were forming as the air ascended from the valley.   Beyond the crest of the hill towards the west, the sky was mostly clear.

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23.  Palms are an important component of this forest.

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24.  Another view of the forest and mist.

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25.  The clouds were forming as the air moved from right to left.

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26.  Palms with grasses in the foreground.  Notice the lack of forest in the background.

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27.  The taller trees in the bottom of the canyon are Pandanus.  The hillsides are presumably burned almost every year.  Trees remain in the canyon bottoms because there is enough soil moisture to support the growth of trees that the fire don’t easily burn.

We have put some more photos of the palms and their environment here.

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28.  The forest transition with the grassland was very sharp.

Then  we drove to a rocky area known for the abundant  lithophytic orchids.  Other plants in this area included Xerophyta sp. and a variety of interesting plants. More about lithophytic orchids and their habitat here.

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29.  Sign leading to the orchid garden.

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30.  Firebreaks were surrounding the parks to help keep fires started outside the reserve from entering the reserve.

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31.  Water from the previous night’s rain filling depressions in the rock outcrop.

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32.  Orchids and grasses were definitely the dominant plants on this rocky outcrop.  There were, however, other interesting plants, including an Aloe sp. and a Cynanchum sp.

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33.  Closer view of a Cynanchum sp.

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34.  Lithophytic orchids were fairly tall and numerous in this rocky outcrop called the “orchid garden”.  Note also the small aloes.

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35.  A closer view of the orchid, notice the roots.

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36.  More orchid roots.

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37.  A species of Kalanchoe, probably K. synsepala.

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38.  Plants were growing in a sea of grasses.

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39.  Aloe sp.

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40.  Grasses were common in this rocky environment.

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41.  Another interesting plant growing with the orchids.

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42.  Closer view of the flower.

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43.  This small shrub caught our eyes.  Nice leaves and very soft texture.

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44.  Lithophytic orchids and other xerophytic plants such as Aloes were present in this outcrop.

The views from the ridge were impressive.

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45.  Note the sharp transition between the forest and the grasslands.

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46.  Nice view of the tree canopy across the canyon.

After this early morning tour we went back to the camp to drop off our driver who was going to pack the camping gear while we went for a 2-hour walk back to the forest near the campground we visited yesterday afternoon.  The cloudy day made for a darker forest interior.

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47.  The light in the forest understory was not very bright.

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48.  Snail

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49  Testament to the moisture present in this environment, lichens and mosses were also abundant on the tree trunks.

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51.  Dypsis decipiens.

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52.  A female Souimanga Sunbird

Then it was time to get ready and head back to Tana.

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53.  The landscapes heading back to Tana

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54.  A town on our route back to Tana.  There were not many towns along this route.

It took about 4 hours to get back to the Ibis hotel in Tana and we arrived about 4 pm.  After an early dinner we went to bed – catching up on rest that we had gotten too little of during the previous evening’s camping.

Continue to days 4-6 of our private tour “Tana-Andasibe-Mantadia NP”