Meaningful Madagascar – where we were greeted with “Bonjour Vazaha” and “Foto, Foto…!”   Young melodious voices and delightful smiling faces – which in turn brought smiles to our faces and pleasure to our souls. This is what travel is all about, the unlikely connections in somewhat random places with people you would ordinarily never get to connect with.

Our party of five, guests of Fair Trade Tourism (FTT) and GoToMadagascar, were here to discover some of Madagascar’s hidden gems on what turned out to be a mammoth road trip.  On arrival in Tana, as the capital Antananarivo is affectionately known, we were met by our guide Sonja Gottlebe – GoToMadagascar representative and Boogie Pilgrim Director – and Solofo our driver.

2023 update: Boogie Pilgrim is unfortunately no longer operational due to the harsh realities of the pandemic, but an alternative option is Travelife certified Madagascar Tourism Expeditions is a specialist Tour Operator and DMC)

Our forex dealt with (purses bulging with hundreds of thousands of Ariary – the exchange rate of R1 to AR 255 – July 2015) and luggage loaded, we set off through the traffic of Tana onto Route RN7 – the main route south. Past paddy fields, picturesque homesteads and through interesting little towns…

We spent our first night at the charming Tanimanga Guest House (aka Maison Tanimanga) in the town of Antsirabe. Our host Henri and his lovely Mum welcomed us with chilled THB (Three Horses Beer – the local beverage of choice and one we would get quite familiar with). 

2023 update: Maison Tanimanga is temporarily closed due to the harsh realities of the pandemic, but an alternative option in a similar location is Soa Guest House with its traditional Malagasy Style.

From there we set off for the Tsaranoro Valley and Tsara Camp, stopping in the town of Fianarantsoa for lunch with Hery Heritsialonina at Snack Imanoela in the Old Town district.

The town of Fianarantsoa , Madagascar
Hery Heritsialonina

Hery is an absolute inspiration and walking through the Old Town of Fianarantsoa (Fiana) with him a delight. As we walked through the narrow pedestrian walkways, past old buildings and local homes, Hery explains the work of the Foundation that he was instrumental in creating. 

The Foundation works in different areas of conservation and activities range from supporting the rehabilitation and restoration of the historically rich buildings in danger of collapse, to working with the local community to help promote cultural tourism thereby helping to provide an income for those who live there. So great is his passion for the Old Town that he chooses to live there and has renovated and restored one of the old buildings to call home. 

It was late afternoon when we turned off the main road towards the FTT certified Tsara Camp, the sun just dropping behind the surrounding hills… we would have to wait for morning to see the splendour of the famed Tsaranoro Mountain after which the camp is named.  

2023 update: Tsara Camp is unfortunately no longer operational due to the harsh realities of the pandemic, but an alternative option in a similar location with the same eco-conscious ethos is Tsarasoa Lodge.

We were warmly welcomed by Tsara Camp staff members as well as Vivi Razaka, the lodge manager of Boogie Pilgrim, who oversees the management of both Tsara Camp and Bushhouse (2023 update – now temporarily closed). 

Besides the wonderful hospitality, it is the warmth and friendliness of the staff that impresses most. It is abundantly clear that Tsara Camp management work closely with the local communities and are committed to employing locally – approximately 90% are from the surrounding Bara and Betsileo communities.

We had the opportunity of visiting three nearby villages where we learnt about the importance of the Zebu, the rice harvest and their respect for the land. Water is sourced from the nearby stream (in a piped system installed by Tsara Camp) and is used with great care – the people of Andonaka had a rudimentary irrigation system for their vegetable garden filled with wild spinach and cassava seedlings.

Mounds of rice were being cleaned, sorted and bagged…

Sparks flew as the local blacksmith (and carpenter) created tools from scrap metal heated in coals fired by a makeshift forge – he even had a ‘waiting room’ for customers under the shade of a thatch structure covered by sprawling creeper.

Golden corn cobs added splashes of colour and the occasional fowl scattered as we walked by. 

The traditional clay homes are beautifully adorned with intricate carvings, colourful designs and pretty balustrades.  Even though these people would be considered very poor to a western mindset, I felt they possessed wealth beyond measure with their beautiful simplicity, great work ethic and extended family support.

The kids loved to pose for pictures, shrieking in delight at the images portrayed on the screen of digital cameras. Even the oldies wanted pictures – which Sonja prints for them.

Tsara Camp helps support the local school in the nearby village of Fenoarivo. Some 75 children between the ages of 5 and 15 attend, learning everything from Math to Geography, Malagasy and French – and in their free time get to play football on the field alongside the school where were given an impromptu exhibition of these skills.

In addition to feasting on wonderful local produce, much of which is grown on site or purchased at the nearby town of Ambalavao, Tsara Camp offers guests the chance to explore the Tsaranoro Valley and the adjacent Andringitra National Park. We hiked into the valley’s sacred forest with local guide Shedrick – we quickly learned from Sonja that almost no one in Madagascar uses surnames as these long family names with multiple syllables are often very difficult to pronounce. 

As we walked through the sacred forest Shedrick explained the custom of fadi – things considered taboo, and how the local fadi of eating lemur meat has in fact resulted in a healthy population of ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta) in the valley.

In addition to wonderful sightings of lemur, we saw a variety of endemic birds including the Malagasy coucal, Madagascan magpie robin and Malagasy kestrel – a big ‘tick’ for the birders in our group.  There are numerous hiking trails and climbing routes and the more adventurous can even try base jumping and paragliding!

Next up was the beautiful and luxurious family owned Le Jardin du Roy located on edge of the fascinating Isalo National Park with its towering sandstone cliffs and dramatic canyons – not surprising to find the region is sometimes known as ‘Madagascar’s Colorado’. 

And it comes complete with wonderful opportunities to roam the area on horseback…

The stone bungalows blend seamlessly into their sandstone surroundings, punctuated with splashes of greenery.  Owner Marc Colombie proudly gave us a tour through the property (which included the adjacent sister hotel, La Relais de la Reine).

This included their spectacular food garden complete with beehives, orchard, organic vegetable garden and its own composting and organic insecticide production area. 

The gardens provide almost all fresh produce required for both guests and employees… which certainly accounts for the fabulously fresh and beautifully presented cuisine. Which we not only experienced in the restaurant but the open-air too as Marc hosted us on the mountainside to an awesome sundowner event.

On-route to our next destination on the coast, Salary Bay, we pause to admire the expansive views over the sapphire-rich landscape… and scrutinise the ground just in case a wayward sapphire could be found.

Heading towards the coastal city of Toliara, en-route to Salary Bay, we passed through the sapphire mining region and the main town of Ilakaka. We were advised not to stop or take photographs as the gemstone bosses here can be quite ruthless!

We had the opportunity of briefly meeting Salary Bay owners, Michelle and Philippe Cotsoyannis, during lunch at the Hotel Hippocampo in Tulear – they were flying out and we were having a quick refreshment break before transferring to 4×4’s for the remainder of the drive to Salary Bay. 

Located on Madagascar’s southwest coast, Salary Bay overlooks the azure waters of the Mozambique Channel. This beautiful beach lodge with its white stone walls and reed thatched roof integrates perfectly with the white powdery sand dunes of this stunning stretch of coastline.

After the very long journey, we were delighted to unwind and once again immerse ourselves in the chilled Malagasy way of life that we were becoming accustomed to.

Salary Bay is located in a protected area rich in biodiversity both on land and sea – one of Philippe and Michele’s first objectives was to get agreement and buy in from conservation bodies such as the WWF and Madagascar National Parks as well as local community associations.

To the north it is bordered by a unique spiny forest – where certain areas are considered sacred to the local Mikea people – and to the south the villages Salary Nord and Salary Sud, home to the Vezo fishermen. 

We had the opportunity of visiting the spiny forest with a local Mikea guide, where he explained how they would sleep in small enclosures made of sticks and reeds and use traditional methods of making fire, how they would dig a hole in the path, place a sharpened sick in the centre and cover this with twigs so as to catch small mammals.

Spiny Forest Madagascar

A fair amount of this felt a little contrived, but I guess the reluctance to take visitors further into their sacred spiny forest is explanation enough.

As part of its commitment to sustainability, Salary Bay works in partnership with the local communities for the economic development of the area as well as its conservation. Part of this includes the construction of a health centre for locals, hotel staff as well as guests under the management of a Malagasy doctor (who happens to function as dentist, obstetrician, surgeon and everything else in between!). 

We visited the health centre as well as the Bekodoy School – here we were welcomed with song and dance and beaming children. Salary Bay contributes financially to the employment of teachers as well as providing financial incentives to children who pass their primary school exam. 

In keeping with the Malagasy way, we jumped at the chance to experience the ocean from a traditional wooden fishing pirogue. The tide was out, and we waded through the shallows to the boat, the Vezo fishermen, our skippers, pushed us out and soon the breeze was filling the colourful sails made from old sacks. 

Salary Bay is the perfect place for a beach holiday offering diving, snorkeling, game fishing, kite surfing, seasonal whale watching and a magnificent baobab forest 37 km away (a great day trip option).

Another FTT certified gem on this stretch of coastline is the Hotel le Paradisier. Carefully designed to blend with its surroundings and proudly powered by solar energy, this delightful property overlooking the bay of Ifaty offers guests a variety of activities from diving and canoeing to botanical tours (through the mangroves and baobab trees) and bird watching.

The easiest way to get back to Tana from Toliara is an Air Madagascar flight – which was at the time, unfortunately for us, not an option.

Our epic drive back started bright and early, with a shopping stop at Ambositra, known for its Zafimaniry woodcarvings and handcraft – proclaimed in 2003 by UNESCO as one of the ‘masters of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity’. 

We stopped overnight at the delightful Tsara Guest House in Fianarantsoa.

Sensitively restored (the main house was an old church) and stylishly decorated by owner Hery Heritsialonina, with beautifully landscaped gardens and a wonderful classic car in the driveway – what more could a weary traveller need?

Other than perhaps a refreshing cocktail on the terrace followed by superb French cuisine…

For some of us our Madagascan adventure was almost over (or so we thought) as we gathered in the conference room of the Royal Palissandre hotel in Tana for a presentation on the other FTT certified and GoToMadagascar tourism businesses…

Another travel curve ball (ground crew on strike at Madagascar International Airport with the grounding of most flights) – don’t you just love the unexpected? – saw two of us heading unexpectedly to one of the Fanamby Lodges, Saha Forest Camp located in the Anjozorobe-Angavo Forest Corridor. (Update – the lodge is now known as Akiba Lodge Anjozorobe.

Our 4×4, driven by the very capable Franko, made its way up from Tana to one of the last natural forests remaining in Madagascar’s central highlands, an area rich in biodiversity and of great conservation value – of the 423 plant species found in this forest, 65% are endemic to Madagascar. 

The forest corridor has numerous low-lying valleys where rice paddies are the economic mainstay for local communities, supplemented now by employment as conservation guides and lodge employees. Saha Forest Camp guests are offered the opportunity of visiting the Merina villages and experience village activities such as rice farming, the building of traditional zebu carts, basketry etc. Needless to say, we were delighted to be experiencing another facet of this unique country. 

Saha Forest Camp overlooks the primary forest which is home to11 species of lemur including the tiny nocturnal mouse lemur and the large Indri Indri, and 82 bird species including endemics like the Vangas, Couas and the Madagascan pygmy kingfisher.  Our levels of anticipation were high, and the binoculars were never far out of reach! 

Early the following morning we ventured into the forest with local guide Valisoa. Not long after entering the forest we heard the ‘phoof, phoof’ call of the diademed sifaka lemur (Propithecus diadema)… could we be so lucky?

Soon we caught a glimpse of them gliding from tree to tree, not pausing long enough for us to get a good look. Never mind, there were still Indri out there. Valisoa pointed out the different plants and trees endemic to the area and of significance to the local people, there was much in the forest to keep us occupied. 

The Indri in this part of the forest is monitored for a research project, and lucky for us they were spotted not too far from where we were. The eerie territorial call that pierced the air was nearby, unable to contain our excitement we forged ahead up the steep inclines scrambling through undergrowth until we reached the Indri guide. He beckoned with hand signals where to look. There she was… we watched her feed for a while before she moved on further down the valley. 

Satisfied we made our way slowly down the hill… there it was again, the tell-tale ‘phoof, phoof’. This time they passed overhead even pausing in the trees above us. What a privilege to see these amazing creatures in their natural habitat. Just one of the many treasures we found on our epic Madagascan adventure. 

Just one of the many treasures we found on our epic Madagascan adventure.

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