Adventures in Madagascar

A destination growing in popularity, Madagascar appealed to amateur naturalists Dr Bruce and Dr Sarah Herriot for the chance of a rare lemur sighting.

Our daughter Kate was on a gap year trip to Madagascar and it was too good an opportunity to miss - travel to Madagascar, see Kate, and spot a rare lemur on this remote island off the coast of East Africa.

We spent almost three weeks in Madagascar, starting and ending in the capital and visiting a variety of reserves, the last one offering five-star hotel accommodation.

But the best part of our trip was the 'rough' two days spent in search of the endangered Perrier's black sifaka lemur. We travelled to the Analamerana Special Reserve - which is outstandingly beautiful even for Madagascar, and largely unexplored. It covers 34,700 hectares of deciduous forest punctuated by open spaces of shrub and savannah-like terrain.

If, like us, you have a taste for the unusual, a sense of adventure and an enthusiasm for the natural world, this precious corner in the north-east of the island is wonderful.

From the town of Antsiranana, a good road takes you some 50km. Thereafter, it's pot luck as you turn off the main highway and into the scrub. A guide and a four-wheel-drive vehicle are essential to help a visitor attempt to find a path through the labyrinth of rutted tracks punctuated by rocks and rivers. Hints at the route are found in villages and zebu cattle tracks, but it is often cut off entirely by irrigation channels dug to supply water to the rice fields. In the wet season it is impassable.

You must provide all your own equipment: tents, food and so on. Camping under the stars in a perfectly clear sky after a meal of zebu meat or fish and rice has, with the help of a little local rum, its own special magic. It is warm even in winter, and through the day the sun is relentless.

Rain is a rare benediction.

There is a point beyond which motoring is impossible, but walking is relatively easy, with a steady gradient, the terrain open. There are easier routes elsewhere in the country, but when your target is the black sifaka, the journey is exciting and self-justifying. When you crouch, breath held, gazing up into the forest canopy as one of these wonderful creatures breakfasts laconically on a piece of fruit, you know exactly why you came.

Usually inclined to be DIY travellers, it was clear that we would need help to organise our trip. Rather than a full-blown package tour, we sought help from agents working in the field.

We used a locally based organisation, Le King de la Piste, which signed up an expert guide called Zak who was simply the best - the best driver, the best storyteller, the best cook, the best host. He too was visiting Analamerana for the first time, and he too saw Perrier's black sifaka for the first time in this remote forest. He typified the wonderful spirit of the Malagasy people - always courteous but without starchy formality, he made it implicitly clear that as guests in his country we were entitled to his protection to the full extent of his (abundantly generous) ability.

To anyone contemplating the remote beauty of Analamerana, I'd say wholeheartedly, 'Go for it.' But put yourself in the hands of Le King de la Piste and Zak, if you can persuade him to take you. He'll look after all the tricky bits.

Travel plans

- Dr Herriot went with www.rainbowtours.co.uk. Bespoke tours from £2,095, groups from £2,985.

- ReefandRainforest.co.uk also does group or bespoke tours, from £2,500.

- Reserve: www.parcs-madagascar.com/angap.htm

- Books: Madagascar: The Bradt Travel Guide. ISBN 1841621048.

- Madagascar Wildlife: A Visitor's Guide. ISBN 1841620297.

- Best time to visit: April to October, avoiding hot summer and hurricanes.

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