"Arctracer" Letters

Land Tour of Northern Madagascar, September 2011

We traveled on land in northern Madagascar from September 15 through 21 primarily to see the National Parks at Ankarana and Mt. Ambre. We left our boat at Nosy Sakatia with a local guard on board at night. We got to Nosy Be via water taxi, used a private taxi to cross Nosy Be to the port at Hellville, crossed to Ankify by fast ferry, rode a "taxi-brousse" ("bush taxi") to Ankarana, spent two days there, took a van to Joffreville, spent a day on Mt. Ambre, took a taxi to Diego Suarez, stayed there one day, and returned to our boat via taxi-brousse, ferry, taxi and water taxi. This tour was one of the highlights of our stay in Madagascar. Here are the details:

The Start

We gathered information for planning this tour from several sources. We tried the tourist office in Hellville but they seemed to have information only about Nosy Be so could not help us. Other cruisers had made similar tours and we learned much from what they had posted on the Internet. We happened to meet a Peace Corps worker who had just returned from northern Madagascar and his input was extremely valuable because it was so current. We used a Lonely Planet guidebook which was several years old but still very valuable. We would have gone by ourselves but our friends Jan and Tom of "Ambler" were interested in doing pretty much the same tour so we all went together. It was more fun having another couple to share the experiences and we benefited in many ways from their participation.

We left our boats anchored at Nosy Sakatia. The anchorage is pretty well protected from winds and we did not expect bad weather in September anyhow. We considered leaving them in Crater Bay where we could have rented moorings at the marina but the costs of guards were higher there and we felt our boats would be at least as secure at Nosy Sakatia. We found guards by inquiring at Sakatia Towers, a small resort. We expected to be put us in touch with someone from a local village and were pleasantly surprised when two of their employees asked to be our guards. These young men worked at the resort during the day,overlooking our anchorage. At night they slept in our cockpits. They were happy to be paid 10,000 Ar per night ($5 US) which was more than the typical daily wage for a local employee. They apparently did their jobs well and our boats were fine when we got back.

We left our dinghies on our boats. We arranged for an outrigger canoe with an outboard motor to pick us up and carry us to "Shanty Beach" on the western side of Nosy Be. The agreed price was 20,000 Ar but when we arrived the driver asked for 30,000 Ar. So we started by "being taken for a ride." A prearranged taxi met us at the beach and took us all the way to Hellville's port, stopping a few times on the way for last-minute shopping and cash at an ATM.

As soon as our taxi arrived at the port we were besieged by touts. They were apparently trying to get us to buy tickets on particular boats and taxis. We were not sure what a "good deal" was and the confusion was so great that we simply walked past them all, confident that we would find a reasonable taxi-brousse in Ankify. At the ferry ticket office we were not really given a choice but were immediately sold tickets for 10,000 Ar each. We eventually discovered that this was for a "fast ferry" boat with powerful outboard engine which could carry about 25 passengers to Ankify in about 30 minutes. There was a "slow ferry" alternative which cost 5,000 Ar but those bigger boats were crammed with people and cargo and took over two hours for the crossing. There was no dock for ferries so all ferries loaded and unloaded at a concrete ramp. We were glad we took the fast ferry. It was a smooth ride early in the morning, most of the way in the lee of Nosy Komba. Most ferries operated before 14:00 because the prevailing winds in the afternoon tended to raise waves which made the trip uncomfortable and more dangerous.

At the ferry landing in Ankify we were met by another collection of touts, all wanting us to buy a ride on their taxi-brousse. These vehicles were large vans, typically designed to carry about 25 passengers. The Malagasy crammed in more people than we thought possible, and piled luggage onto the roofs. When a taxi-brousse was really full there were people on top too. Most taxis left here in the morning and we arrived about 10:00 when it was a very busy place. There were several different routes from Ankify, and we found a driver who would drop us off at Mahamasina halfway to his final destination in Diego Suarez. We were given four seats in the row just behind the driver and were not asked to let people sit on our laps, so we felt we were given VIP treatment.

Most of our route was on RN6, a main north-south highway, but the two-lane roads we traveled were not in good shape. There were many bad potholes and the bridges were almost all single-lane so we sometimes had to wait for traffic coming in the opposite direction. Our driver, Samir, was excellent. He seemed to know every bump in the road and drove smoothly and swiftly. We had interesting views of mountains to the east, mangrove estuaries to the west, tiny villages, cashew plantations, grazing Zebu and rivers where people washed themselves and their clothes. We stopped for a short time in Ambilobe where we bought cashew nuts and pastry snacks. Samir bought green leaves and some nuts which we believed to be mild intoxicants. The trip took just over three hours and we arrived in Mahamasina at 14:00.

(view photos of traveling)

Ankarana National Park

Mahamasina is a small town which had the headquarters of Reserve Speciale de l'Ankarana and several guesthouses for people visiting that National Park. We considered the place beside the road where we were dropped off, but they had only one small bungalow available. We were guided along paths to nearby Goulam Lodge where we found a larger bungalow which easily accommodated both couples at a total cost of 60,000 for the first night and 50,000 for each of the next two nights. There was a double bed on the ground floor and mattresses on the floor of the loft above. Tom and Jan generously volunteered to sleep in the loft. The bungalow was new, built mainly of cement, and had both a toilet and a shower inside (without running water, but large buckets with dippers were provided.) More of these modern bungalows were under construction and there were also several older "local-style" bunglalows of wood, bamboo and thatch. Dinner was served at outdoor tables under thatch roofs at 19:00 each night for 12,000 Ar each and was unremarkable but adequate. This guesthouse was actually closer to the park than the park headquarters building which was down beside the main road. The whole complex was owned and operated by Eugene Goulam, a very experienced guide to Madagascar parks and wildlife. He was away leading a tour of southern Madagascar at the time we arrived but his staff took good care of us. The sign outside Goulam Lodge gave the email address for Eugene Goulam as goulamguide_ds@yahoo.fr with phone numbers (00261) 32-02-691-06 SMS and (00261) 33-11-459-05, in Diego 261-32-52-682-81 and in Ankarana 261-34-01-832-75.

All park visitors required guides. Since we had a little free time before dinner, we strolled up the road looking for birds and other wildlife. We were soon stopped by a guide and told we must go to the park office to buy passes and hire a guide. We arrived after the office had closed for the day so could not buy passes but we looked at exhibits and chatted with a French-speaking guide. At Goulam Lodge just before dinner we met Joachim, a local guide who spoke English and had worked with Eugene Goulam. We engaged him for the next two days at 50,000 Ar per day and were pleased with his work. His email address was liva-joachim@yahoo.fr and his phone number was 032 8133 785. We might have gotten a guide for slightly less but he had very keen eyes and good knowledge about all the plants and animals we saw. That evening he showed us a Leaf-tailed Gecko (Uroplatus henkeli) which was very difficult to notice because it flattened itself on a tree trunk, blending its color with the tree's bark. There was loud music at a nearby restaurant/bar until 1:30 that night and roosters started calling early in the morning so some of us did not sleep as much as we wanted. This made us realize how quiet the nights almost always were aboard our boats at anchor.

In the morning we ate muesli which we brought from our boats at the table in our bungalow, and then had coffee supplied by the guesthouse at an outside table. While drinking coffee we saw a chameleon, a green gecko, Gray-headed Lovebirds, and Greater Vasa Parrots. Joachim went to the Park Office and bought our two-day passes for 37,000 Ar per person. We could have purchased one-day passes for 25,000 Ar or three-day passes for 40,000 Ar.

We walked the few kilometers from Goulam Lodge to the end of the access road. Some tourists stayed in Diego Suarez and drove to this point. Some hauled camping equipment and food from here to campgrounds inside the park. This location had ruined buildings originally erected by the World Wildlife Fund when they were investigating the area many years ago. Ankarana became a Reserve in 1956, started having visitors in 1990, and became a National Park in 2007.

We walked with Joachim until 1530 on trails through several different types of terrain. The most unusual was eroded limestone called "tsingy." We visited near the end of the dry season but a great amount of water flowed into the park during rainy seasons and much of it ran down into a huge hole to become an underground river under the tsingy. The seemingly inhospitable large areas of tsingy supported a variety of plants including pachypodia, baobabs, euphorbia and even orchids. Walking through these areas felt like a science fiction adventure. More fertile areas had additional varieties of trees including a huge Ficus Megapode and more flowers. The park had ten species of lemur and we saw the three most common: Crowned, Sanford's Brown and Sportive. We saw many birds, including Crested Couas and an Ashy Cuckoo Shrike. We saw three Panther Chameleons, a tree snake, several green geckos, three Leaf-tailed Geckos, a Crocodile Gecko (Blaezodactylus boivini) and "leaf bugs." We could not distinguish a pachypodium from a baobab but Joachim showed us many of each, including a huge baobab approximately 800 years old. We got back to the guesthouse tired and dusty but happy to have seen so many interesting things.

The next morning we had coffee at 6:30 so we could take a longer walk than the day before. We got a ride to the end of the road so we would not get quite as tired by the day's end. Joachim entertained us with several Malagasy legends as we walked. We saw more lemurs and lizards, birds including Sickle-billed Vangas, a Blue Vanga, Paradise Flycatchers and a Stone Chat. We crossed a canyon on a suspension bridge and walked through a dark tunnel under part of the tsingy. It was another excellent day but we got very tired with so much walking. We decided to eat at a different guesthouse that evening, and had a nice meal at the place where the taxi-brousse deposited us in Mahamasina.

Eugene Goulam and his wife arrived back at their lodge while we were up in the park. It was nice to meet him and learn about his plans to expand the facilities in future years. When he learned that we wanted to go to Joffreville the next morning he volunteered to drive us there in his van and show us a nice place to stay. He and his wife were going to their house in Diego Garcia and could make a detour to Joffreville to drop us off. Their three children go to private schools in Diego. A mother-in-law and a young woman take care of the children when Eugene and his wife are working at their lodge. The alternative for us was to wait by the roadside for a taxi-brousse which would take us to an intersection where we would wait for another taxi going to Joffreville and then we would search for a place to stay. It might have been cheaper to go by ourselves but the convenience of riding quickly and comfortably in the Goulam's van seemed worth 50,000 Ar per couple.

We learned quite a bit from the Goulams during the drive. We drove through some villages where the main occupation was digging for sapphires and other precious stones. Many of the people were squatters living in very temporary housing and their villages had almost no amenities. Foreign buyers may have benefited most but this industry (with better regulations and control) had the potential for earning considerable foreign currency for the country. Other villages specialized in breaking rocks. That is, they dug big chunks of rock from the ground and methodically hammered until they produced piles of pebbles of the sizes desired for construction. We stopped in the large town of Aniverano where we bought baguettes and bananas. We saw carts drawn by four Zebu which Eugene said was the Madagascar version of a "4x4." We passed a place that used to have a lake with crocodiles, but it was now dry due to deforestation. This drive lasted from 7:15 to 10:45.

(view photos of Ankarana)


During the years of French rule, Joffreville was a cool vacation retreat for colonists living in hot and humid Diego Suarez. It was established by the French military in 1902. The town was laid out with wide streets perpendicular to the main street which ran straight uphill. When we visited, the town still consisted mainly of colonial era buildings, large and small, with many of them apparently needing significant maintenance. We were taken to Chez Vanina, a huge old colonial house with beautiful gardens and a beautiful view of the big bay at Diego Suarez in the distance. This was quite near the road leading from Joffreville to Mt. Ambre National Park. We met the lady who owned the house, and then met her sister Louise who spoke English and seemed to be in charge of daily operations. Each couple got a large room opening off a shared central sitting and dining area for 30,000 Ar per night. These were very nice rooms with high ceilings, lots of fresh air, and mosquito nets over the beds. There was a shared toilet with running water and a hot shower so we felt we were living in luxury. There were two other guest rooms and two more under construction but no other overnight guests while we were there.

We ate baguettes and cheese for lunch and rested until the shops reopened at 15:00. Then we walked around the town and visited a few shops plus the fresh food market. We saw an old steam-powered roller which must have been resting on a side street for at least fifty years. Some old colonial houses were in disrepair while most looked lived-in and some were perhaps luxurious. We bought the only bottle of wine at the town's largest store to drink at dinner that night, and picked up baguettes and cheese for a picnic lunch the next day. It was neat to see Samir, the excellent driver who brought us from Anfiki to Ankarana, now waiting in Joffreville for day-trip passengers he would return to Diego Suarez.

A local guide named Joel explained some options for walks in the park. Guides had been required ever since a visitor got lost for several days. He said we could walk two hours and see two waterfalls for 25,000 Ar, or walk three hours and see three waterfalls or two waterfalls and one lake for 30,000 Ar, or walk four hours to see all three waterfalls and the lake for 40,000 Ar. Joel didn't always understand our questions and we did not commit to using his services but we felt he would be OK.

Chez Vanina had many luncheon guests who ate under covered tables in the large flower garden beside the house. The kitchen was on the garden level while our rooms were on the floor above. We ordered a special dinner that evening for Tom and Jan's 35th wedding anniversary. Chez Vanina prepared a nice meal and served it to us in the privacy of the upstairs dining area. They had cold beer but no wine so they chilled and served ours. It was a lovely celebration. We arranged to ride the four kilometers to the park entrance the next morning, and went to bed for a good night's sleep.

(view photos of Joffreville)

Mt. Ambre National Park

When we got up we were surprised to learn that our guesthouse had called Torine in Diego Suarez to be our park guide. Torine spoke English well, had keen eyes and knew a lot about the plants and wildlife of the park. She met us at Chez Vanina and spent the whole day with us, taking us to all three waterfalls and the lake. She was a good guide. Her email address was Snestorine@yahoo.fr and her phone number was (00261 outside Madagascar) 3202-78-132.

At 0730 we left in the Chez Vanina vehicle on the four kilometer (less than three miles) ride on the very rough road uphill to the park entrance. Our driver waited at the park headquarters until we returned. We thought the round trip would be a total of 30,00 Ar but when we arrived back at the guesthouse we were asked to pay 60,000 Ar. This was by far the most expensive transportation we had on our entire tour - about $30 US for about five miles in an old car. We recommend getting prices fixed very clearly in advance at Chez Vanina.

The park fees at Parc National de Montagne d'Ambre were the same as at Ankarana. We paid 25,000 Ar each for one-day passes. Torine explained that birds and animals were difficult to see because of the park's thick rainforest. During our day we saw several lemurs, two beautiful Ring-tailed Mongoose and three chameleons including a "blue-nose" (genus Calumma) and the smallest chameleon in the world (genus Brookesia, less than 1" long, found by Torine where she often found them at the base of a tree in a campground.) Interesting birds we saw included two lovely Amber Rock Thrushes, a wonderful Madagascar Scops Owl, Paradise Flycatchers and an African Darter. We saw three waterfalls: the park's highest "Grande Cascade" falling 84 meters (273 feet), "Antakarana" falling 15 meters (49 feet) and the smaller "Sacred" where "Tromba" (spirits) were said to be available to help people who gave appropriate gifts. The lake in an ancient volcanic crater was 400 meters (1/4 mile) down and back up a steep trail from the road. In addition to endemic species there were trees which had been introduced from places such as Japan and South America. It was an interesting visit and we were glad we visited.

(view photos of Mt. Ambre)

(view photos of Birds)

Diego Suarez (Antsiranana)

We were back at our guesthouse in Joffreville before 15:00 so decided to leave immediately for Diego Suarez. We rode in a comfortable taxi for 5,000 Ar each. As we entered the city we were delayed slightly by both a festival parade and a funeral procession but arrived after just an hour of travel. The driver took us to Hotel Le Jardin Exotique which had been recommended by other cruisers. This had views over Diego Bay towards the entrance, and we could see yachts at anchor below us. The rooms had air-conditioning and modern bathrooms. It was a real luxury for us to have long hot showers. The hotel restaurant did not serve dinner but the restaurant Le Balafomanga was very near with an extensive menu of good food and drink. We did little except rest on our first evening here. The hotel restaurant was on a balcony and since no dinners were served we sat there sipping wine in the evening.

We slept late (for us) the next morning and had coffee at the hotel restaurant. Then it was time to explore the city called "Diego" or "Antsiranana" by the locals. We walked towards the oldest part of the city on the end of a peninsula. We discovered a local festival event which involved young Zebu somewhat controlled by men running alongside with ropes. We walked past the commotion to the Post Office where we bought cards and stamps to mail to our families. We got cash at an ATM. At a large supermarket called "SCORE" we bought yogurt, granola bars and wine. Jerry bought a Madagascar T-shirt in a souvenir shop since he needed a clean shirt. The city had many colonial-era buildings of two or three stories along the main street, fairly large military installations and a big port complex. We saw rickshaws which we had not seen anywhere else in the country. These were small two-wheeled carts pulled by men. While they could have carried one or two passengers we only saw them carrying various sorts of cargo. We read in our guidebook that these were sometimes operated with a second man pushing at the back, and were nicknamed "pousse-pousse" because that's what the man in front would call when going up a hill ("Push! Push!") Tom and Jan walked more than we did around the city and took many photos. We had another dinner at La Balafomanga in the evening, took hot showers and went to bed relatively early.

(view photos of Diego Suarez)

Return to "Arctracer"

We briefly considered flying from Diego to Nosy Be. It would have been more expensive but perhaps more comfortable than a long taxi ride. When we discovered that route had no flights on Wednesdays (when we wanted to go) we decided to take a taxi-brousse directly to Ankify. We arranged a reservation through the hotel receptionist with "Jimmy Transport" (telephone 032 02 097 16 or 032 02 908 04). The combination of taxi-brousse to Ankify and fast ferry to Hellville cost 35,000 Ar per person. The bad part of this arrangement was that these vans all left about 03:00! This early hour was necessary because afternoon winds on the sea between Anfiky and Hellville sometimes raised waves which made fast ferries uncomfortable and possibly dangerous, so we needed to arrive at Ankify in the morning. We needed a wake-up call to be prepared for the van to pick us up at our hotel.

We were awakened very early in the morning by hotel staff and Jimmy picked us up at 3am as planned. We picked up more passengers at a central taxi stand and left Diego with the big van fully loaded. One or two people were on the roof with the luggage. Not far outside the city we ran into a little rain, so Jimmy paused long enough to improve the rain protection up top. We were groggy and dozed in our seats, but the driver and the two passengers up front carried on a lively conversation practically all the way. After five and one-half hours we arrived in Ankify. Jimmy pointed us towards a particular fast ferry and we went aboard. The ferry soon filled up and zoomed to Hellville, arriving there before noon. We renewed our Internet modem service at the Telma office, bought some fresh food at the market, and engaged a taxi to take us to "Shanty Beach." There we hired a small boat to take us to our boats. It was great to get home and find everything OK on board. In the early afternoon our boat-watcher, Tony, visited to chat for a few minutes and collect 60,000 Ar for the 6 nights he slept in our cockpit with the boat all locked up.

Our costs for this whole tour totaled 966,000 Ar, which was about $475 U.S. with one dollar worth 2035 Ariary at the time. We paid 160,000 Ar for transportation, 124,000 for National Park passes, 70,000 Ar for guides, 60,000 Ar for our boat-watcher, 210,000 Ar for accommodations, and 342,000 Ar for food. We could have spent a little less or a great deal more. We had an excellent experience and believe this tour was well worth the time and money.

(view photos of this land tour)