My sister and I saw a rather cheap holiday to Madagascar and the itinerary, although quite busy, seemed to cover a lot of the Southern part of the island. The holiday company was Exoticca Travel and unfortunately the itinerary we were given only told half the story! When we received our flight details we were a bit dismayed to find it was Heathrow-Paris, Paris-Nairobi, Nairobi-Antananarivo with long lay overs in between. It meant we were actually travelling for over 30 hours! That was only a taster of what was to come! On arrival at Antananarivo we met our fellow travellers. There were 8 of us in all and our guide, Tookey, took us to our first hotel, The Belvedere. The hotel itself was OK but to get to it we had to walk up a long alleyway where we were mobbed by people begging or trying to sell their wares. I had not realised how poor Madagascar is. It is one of the poorest countries in the world and the poverty in the cities is awful. It wasn’t that we couldn’t go outside, we could, and there was no feeling of being unsafe but if we did leave the hotels we were just besieged by ragged children and even adults asking for food or money. You ended up walking around like the Pied piper! We just wanted a good nights sleep that first night but we had to leave at 7am the next morning. As we headed out into the countryside the scenery became more lush and green. The tiered rice fields were being worked by poor but healthier looking farmers and the old fashioned oxen drawn ploughs. En route we stopped at an “authentic Malagasy pot factory”. We had expected a commercial, ” just for tourists” factory but it seems there are no such concerns in Madagascar. Everything we visited was a small holding or concern run by a local family. The pot factory was actually two men, in a shack, making aluminium pots by hand. We watched their primitive procedure that involved them treading their hot ash kilns with bare feet. Ouch! We stopped for lunch and then arrived at our next hotel in Antsirabe, the Arotel. They had a nice outdoor swimming pool and we sat by that in the afternoon.
The next day was ridiculous! Our itinerary said it was a 10 hour drive (daunting enough) but it was actually 15 hours! Fifteen hours of sitting in a bone shaking bus as we drove over pot holes the size of the Grand Canyon. The scenery was lovely (every area is very different, from lush to arid within a few miles). Going through villages, children ran alongside the bus calling for food or money. We were heading to Morondava to see the famous Boabab trees and the itinerary said we would arrive at sunset. We didn’t! We were staying at the Renale Au Sable D’or hotel which had cabins right on the beach. We arrived so late that we had no inclination (or time) to get dinner. Next day we had a lovely morning on the beach to recover. Even there the locals tried to sell their wares to us but it is not as frantic as in the cities. In the afternoon we were taken to The Avenue of the Baobabs. We were there for sunset and it WAS spectacular (but worth a 15 hours drive??)
Next day we left at 5am for our drive back to the Arotel Hotel. Another 15 hours drive! We arrived at 8pm, tired, aching from the pot holes and realising why this trip had been offered so cheaply!
The next day we were heading to Fianarantsoa, the second largest city. The “6 hour” drive in the itinerary was more like 9 hours with no lunch stops (our guide ordered sandwiches on the way). Seeing as the age range on the bus was from 59-80 years we found that toilet stops were few and far between. The guide made frequent “comfort stops” so the men could go in the bushes but my sister and I no longer have the knees for squatting and we had to insist he find a garage with a proper toilet (and, as I have said, these were few and far between)! Pot holes and a full bladder are not a great holiday experience! Our hotel, The Zomatel was quite nice tonight.
7.30 am the next morning we were off again. We had a visit to Anja Park where we saw lemurs for the first time. Incredible! We saw the ring tailed lemur here and our guides from the park were very good at spotting them and pointing them out to us. (Tipping is a big problem here. The currency is the Ariary and a 20,000 note is worth about £4. Therefore we kept feeling we were tipping generously but then working out we had given them about 50p! This was the case with the guides in Anya Park, their disappointment of our first offering was patently obvious!) We then headed off towards Ranohira and the scenery changed, yet again, quite dramatically. This is the land of the Baras Community known for their cattle herding skills. Huge boulder like hills which eventually turned into a flatter contour like the plains of Africa. There were lots of Zebu (the oxen with a large hump on the neck) and some of them were being herded by young children who looked no older than 8 or 9. We stopped to watch the sunset through “The Window of Isalo” (a rock formation just outside the national park). Our hotel The Isalo Ranch was one of our favourites and we had 2 nights here. The next day we did a trek in Isalo National Park. A long walk through the canyon and up steps and over boulders. It was classed as an “active” walk but we felt it should have been classed as “challenging” as quite a few people struggled. At the top however we were rewarded with the chance to swim in two natural fresh water pools. We saw more lemurs and chameleons but Madagascar is no Costa Rica! We were disappointed in the wildlife. Hardly any birds and few mammals to see.
Next day we had a 7 hour drive (not the 5 hours as mentioned in the itinerary) to Ifaty. Another lovely hotel at the beach called The Bamboo Club. Our one free day followed. A day on the beach, perfect!
Next day, feeling rested, that was soon shattered by a 5am start! Almost a 12 hour drive (not that it said that in the itinerary). This hotel was the worst one of the trip, The Tsienimparthy Lodge in Ambalavao. Damp sheets, no door on the bathroom, no wine in the bar and no fish on the menu. Plus no fruit or juice for breakfast the next morning. A disaster of a hotel! Almost a lie in the next day, a 7.30 am start! We viewed a paper factory and a silk factory on our journey to our next hotel in Ranomafana (The Centrest Sejour). It was lovely scenery on the ride there, right alongside the Ranomafana National Park. That night we had a nocturnal wildlife walk which involved us walking up the main road like something out of The Walking Dead and diving into the bushes when a car came past! We did see some more chameleons though and supposedly there was a mouse lemur as well but I couldn’t see him at all!
The next day another trek in the Ranamafana National Park. It was a beautiful rain forest type park and with the help of guides (and some locals) we followed lemurs through the trees. This time they were different species and they were very impressive to see. A “village tour” was planned for the afternoon but we declined that and sat by the pool (This holiday has taught us to take our rests when we can!)
Nest day a 9.5 hour drive back to the Arotel Hotel again (our third visit to this hotel). The itinerary had said a 6 hour drive but we had by now learnt not to take that as gospel! The scenery was nice along the route but we were returning on the same road so it was nothing new to see.
Our last day and we left at 5am to drive to the airport. A 6 hour journey which, amazingly, was the only journey that took less than expected. A 36 hour journey home followed that!
So, our opinion of Madagascar? Beautiful, heart breakingly poor, beautiful people who have absolutely nothing and very little wildlife and infrastructure. Our views of Exoticca are not so good. A totally incorrect itinerary and much too much travelling for older people. When we confronted them on our return their answer was to offer a £40 voucher to use when we book with them again! I don’t think so!!