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Lonely Planet Madagascar

Lonely Planet Madagascar
by Paul Greenway, Mark Fitzpatrick
  This updated edition of the Lonely Planet guide to Madagascar features information on where to whale-watch, trek, dive and swim, details on the national parks and reserves, a full-colour wildlife guide, and a language chapter covering Malagasy and French.
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Madagascar: The Bradt Travel Guide

Madagascar: The Bradt Travel Guide
by Hilary Bradt
  With plenty of background on the belief and customs of the Malagasy people, this guide to Madagascar addresses the challenges and rewards of travel on this unique island, with coverage of the extraordinary natural history and information on accommodation, transport and the country's improving infrastructure. More information and prices from:
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Madagascar Wildlife

Madagascar Wildlife: A Visitor's Guide
by Hilary Bradt, Derek Schuurman, Nick Garbutt
  Illustrated with full colour photographs throughout, this guide to Madagascar is a celebration of the unique fauna of a remarkable island. It includes the most important parks and reserves, plus features on evolution, camouflage, conservation, wildlife watching and photography.
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Great Leaping Lemurs!

Verreaux's Sifaka. Berenty. © 1998-2004 Roderick Eime

Madagascar's tourism industry is counting on a lemur-led recovery.

Words and pics by Roderick Eime

When the vast island continent of Madagascar wrenched itself free from the mighty Gondwanaland tens of millions of years ago, it took with it a veritable Noah's Ark of plant and animal species, and established itself as a unique ecosystem that remains so to this day. But only just.

The planet's eighth continent has remained largely undisturbed for the majority of its existence and has only felt the influence of man in the last two thousand years. In this short time, hungry humans have deforested 85% of the landmass, felled huge boabab, tamarind and ebony stands, remodelled vast tracts for agriculture and placed most of the endemic flora and fauna on the endangered and threatened lists.

Yet even as a developing country with some of the poorest people in the world, Madagascar retains a unique beauty and charm that attracts tourists, adventurers and scientists from all over the globe. But as an evolving nation still struggling to distance itself from a hectic colonial past, the population's priorities are not necessarily focussed on environmental conservation and preservation.

Malagasy woman in traditional headscarf. © 1998-2004 Roderick Eime

A healthy recovery in tourist traffic was rudely interrupted in mid-2002 by a bout of internal strife that saw bridges destroyed, roads blocked and the already delicate infrastructure further upset. That behind them, the now legitimised government can get on with resurrecting the economy and protecting the remaining, immensely valuable biodiversity.

What little the world knows about Madagascar is thanks to people like Sir David Attenborough whose amazing BBC television series featured the highly engaging and animated lemurs, chameleons and birds. John Cleese's self-confessed love affair with the ring-tailed lemur also helped put these delightful creatures on the screen and in the hearts of the world.

Consequently, ask any recent or prospective visitor to Madagascar what first comes to mind and they'll almost certainly answer; "the lemurs".

Despite their cute, cuddly teddy-bear looks, lemurs are primates, albeit an early incarnation that pre-dates the apes of neighbouring Africa. Madagascar has fifty surviving varieties (five families and fourteen genera) ranging from the 25g mouse-sized Pygmy Mouse Lemur to the very vocal Indri Indri which would, if it could, stand over a metre tall.

There are several locations dotted around the island where visitors can get a true up-close-and-personal experience with lemurs. Berenty in the south is famous for its Ring-Tailed Lemurs, Périnet in the east has both the Black and White Ruffed as well as the Brown Lemurs, while Lokobe and Nosy Komba on the northwest island of Nosy Be have semi-tame groups of Black Lemurs.

Acutely endangered Black and White Ruffed Lemur. © 1998-2004 Roderick Eime

Probably the best known of these locations is Berenty Reserve near the historic southern port and tourist town of Forth Dauphin. Visited as much by bona-fide researchers as tourists, the lodge-style accommodation is roomy, clean and comfortable even if some find it pricey by Madagascan standards. The reserve itself was established in 1936 as something of a concession to the burgeoning sisal industry that is responsible for over thirty thousand hectares of cleared land around Berenty. The lodge's owner and local sisal baron, Jean de Heaulme, maintains the reserve as much out of pragmatism as philanthropy and has even received a WWF award for his efforts.

The 260 preserved hectares of endemic tamarind and spiny forest around Berenty are but a fraction of what once existed. Certainly, a completely profit-driven enterprise could have destroyed it all, so perhaps we should be grateful for small mercies. The forests provide a valuable compliment to any visit with both day and evening guided strolls enhancing the visitors' understanding of the important role played by the remaining native vegetation.

Tourists were not introduced to Berenty until the 1980s and their impact was immediate. The ravenous bands of tame Ring-Tailed Lemurs that now patrol the grounds around the bungalows are the result of unmonitored hand-feeding. These animals have become reliant on tourist-supplied bananas, and now that this practice has been greatly reduced, they are suffering from as yet undiagnosed, but probably diet-related maladies that include weight loss and patchy fur. In contrast, their siblings who live exclusively in the forest are in excellent condition.

Acknowledged lemur expert, Alison Jolly, who has studied these animals closely for decades believes a strict rationing of bananas could bridge the gap between visitor satisfaction and interference in this case. Experts are, however, unanimous in their verdict that no supplementary feeding should take place in the forest.

This debate aside, any guest at Berenty is sure to be delighted with simple observation of these exquisite animals. In late afternoon, small bands of White Sifakas skip merrily across the open ground between trees in a curious upright fashion that is a distinct visual highlight. These attractive, if sometimes ungainly, creatures are completely disinterested in tourist offered food, preferring instead their usual diet of leaves, buds and flowers.

Travel Tips:

Madagascar is best suited to open-minded travellers with an interest in nature, ecology and culture. Photographers and videographers will be in their element, so take plenty of film and tape. Be prepared for minor disruptions to travel schedules and have patience with service staff - they work at their own pace.

Fact File:

Best time to visit: May to October

Visas: Three month validity. Obtain prior to arrival.

Health: Take precautions against malaria, hepatitis and diarrhoea.

Best currency to use: Euro

Electricity: mainly European 220V standard

Getting There: Australians will need to fly via Mauritius utilising a combination of Air Mauritius, Air Austral and Air Madagascar. It can be complicated and schedules vary, so consult an experienced agent.

Getting Around: Air Madagascar operates a comprehensive internal network that is definitely the way to cover longer distances. Keep road travel to short distances as conditions vary enormously.

Travel to, and accommodation at, Berenty is best organised as part of a complete travel package, although committed independent travellers can make their own arrangements at local hotels in Fort Dauphin.

Adventure Associates organises annual group tours to Madagascar departing in September. Contact them on (02) 9389 7466 or 1800 222 141 or visit www.adventureassociates.com.


 

Madagascar Map

Madagascar Map

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Hunting Pirate Heaven

Hunting Pirate Heaven
by Kevin Rushby
  Kevin Rushby's objective is to locate the descendants of the 16th century pirates who had carved kingdoms for themselves in the remote jungles of north-east Madagascar. Hitching rides on a motley assortment of freighters, dhows, yachts and fishing smacks, he sails up the African coast, then east towards his goal. It is a story full of incident: voyages to islands where forgotten Portugese forts lie covered in jungle, places where some have tried to shoot their way to paradise, and where the ever-present ocean can destroy lives and dreams as quickly as men and women create them.
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