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Journey to Madagascar 2009 

October 12, 2009

Montagne d’Ambre & Strangler Figs

We reached Montagne d’Ambre in time for lunch after a 30-40 minute drive from Diego Suarez. We have small bungalows on a windy bluff and are allocated one more hour of electricity this evening before the generator is shut off. The wind is blowing briskly; the starts are shining – they actually HAVE stars here, unlike in the city; and we are glad there are extra blankets in the closet. Breakfast is at 0730 tomorrow and then we’re off for a second visit to the rainforest before leaving for the airport and returning to Tana in time for late dinner.

We have limited hours of electricity at the Nature Lodge – four hours each evening – and no Internet connection. We will be able to upload our accumulated postings to the Internet – and you – tomorrow when we return to the Hotel Colbert in Tana. At least that is the plan.

We left the Grand Hotel in Diego Suarez shortly after 10:00 am and drove down the main street right to the water and the port. Just for the record, the Grand Hotel is sort of grand but not really truly grand, so don’t think we are living in luxury. But at least it has power all day and all night. I’ve become very fond of electric power.

Diego Suarez is one of the most important port cities of Madagascar and has been so for a long time. A major construction project is underway to build a modern port facility for container ships. Cement trucks and cranes are everywhere. From a sea navigation standpoint, we are told that sailing into this port is quite difficult since it requires passing through a very narrow channel at the head of the harbor.

Our natural science destination today is Amber Mountain, or Montagne d’Ambre National Park. The French created a number of reserves (protected areas) when they ruled the island, and this was among the first created in the 1920’s. In the 1970’s, sometime after Madagascar got its independence (1960), these special reserves became national parks. Even if you have a Malagasy guide, you still have to have a local guide from the park, and the guide for our visit was Philippe.

The history of the colonial period here is complex. The French were not exactly benevolent rulers and it appears that they did not invest generously in infrastructure. Much of what they did leave behind is in very bad condition. Our guide said that the people so hated the French that they took out their feelings on the buildings that had been left behind and let them go to ruin. It sure looks that way. Some lovely colonial buildings are crumbling into the ground.

Montagne d’Ambre is an evergreen rainforest that exists in a microclimate formed in the cone of a long-extinct volcano, the same volcano that produced the boulders that we saw in the Ankarana National Park yesterday. It is a very distinctive climate and has been called a paradise for botanists.

We didn’t know what the weather would be like in the rainforest. After all, the word “rain” figures prominently in the description. On the way to our Nature Lodge, the first stop of the day, it suddenly started pouring rain, both down and sideways given the wind. The question was whether it would stop and if it did, would the trails be too wet and slippery. Fate smiled on us once again. When we arrived at the park the sun appeared and the rest of the afternoon was delightful, cool, and with dappled clear light. It was a perfect day for walking in the rainforest.




Wild Figs


Deadly Nightshade Berries


Deadly Nightshade

Most of Montagne d’Ambre Park is a mature deciduous forest with native plants as well as some that have been introduced over the years. Since the elevation is well above sea level, there generally is a nice breeze. It was a perfect leafy, green glade reminiscent of woods in the northeastern United States, but with a tropical theme. We saw many examples of the strangler fig vine which to survive attaches itself around a tree and grows by wrapping itself around the trunk of the tree in loops until over a period of years it eventually kills its host tree. The mature fig vine/tree lives on.

Ring-tailed Mongoose


We saw many examples of epiphytes in the trees, giant lush ferns (think of the campy sci-fi flick, “Day of the Triffids”), tiny little orchids, an ebony tree (the interior wood is so black it looks burned), rosewood trees, and a lichen high in one tree that could have been Rapunzel’s tresses but is called “gray beard.” We were introduced to the world’s (not just Madagascar’s) smallest chameleon, a pregnant female one, tiny, and then to the male; she was tan colored and he very dark when we saw them, but as their name implies, they do change color to blend with their surroundings. In the picnic area at the edge of the trails we saw a ring tailed mongoose foraging in the picnickers’ leavings. There also were multiple sightings of the Malagasy sunbird, some swifts, a buzzard, and a beautiful flitting green bird called a Madagascar bee catcher.

Smallest Chameleon (Brookesia minima), female


We walked two different trails, both of which were mostly flat and covered with dry leaves interwoven with tree roots. The morning rain made for a bit of mud at the beginning and a few slippery spots, but overall it was easy trekking, thanks to our walking sticks. The first trail took us to a waterfall which is a place of worship where the Malagasy people believe they can communicate with the sprits of their ancestors. The second trail included another waterfall; both were quite high and rather small in volume, but beautiful and peaceful. Walking through these woods was soothing and exhilarating at the same time.


The Nature Lodge where we are staying is about a half hour’s drive from the park entrance. It is several years old and owned by a Frenchman who is married to a Malagasy woman. Its setting in a meadow with broad vistas of the mountains. The lodge includes a main building with a very attractive dining area and a series of small bungalows. The bungalows are simple and pleasant with all that is needed for a good night’s rest.

We had our lunch today outside on the porch of the lodge, picnic style. When you rent a car here, you also can order a lunch to go. “Hertz rent a lunch” – it’s a new concept. So we had “Hertz catering.” It included rice, zebu (local beef) with green peppercorns, cooked veggies (carrots, chayote, and green beans being the usual suspects), fried wontons stuffed with vegetables (all of the cooked food was served cold), bread, and many, many halves of luscious fresh mango. Along with our water and coke, it was just the right amount of food to give us energy for the afternoon’s hike.

Afterward the hike, we returned to the lodge and our cabins. Everyone did a fast clean up to be ready for dinner at 7 PM and then bed at 9 PM. It’s early to bed and early to rise on this trip. The fact that the power goes off early encourages good habits.

Filed under: Uncategorized — greg @ 12:25 pm

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The Chief Penguin


Greg Farrington

Greg Farrington, Executive Director of the California Academy of Sciences, is visiting the island of Madagascar. He is joined by his wife, and Academy researchers, who are surveying and assessing this biodiversity hotspot.

Visit the Farringtons' personal blog, Madagascar Adventure, for in-depth details of this Academy expedition.

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