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Madagascar by private tour (1 Viewer)


Sempach, Switzerland
Madagascar by private tour: Novemver-December 2015

We tried to get away from a tour group, one reason being that we were not sure whether we might be the "slow ones". So rather than risking upsetting other members of a group, we found that Madagascar Tour Guide (MTG) was able to provide a tour that was essentially tailored to our individual wishes. I had previously discovered their web site, but was not sure whether I could trust them. So, by sheer chance, we met a Swiss fellow from the Vogelwarte (Bird Station) who had travelled with Andry (the head of the group) and his team. And this fellow was full of praise, so that was an obvious bonus in trust. MTG is particularly catering to the English speaking birders: http://www.madagascar-tour-guide.com/

One additional reason for me, shying away from Swiss or German tour operators was the fact that participants in those groups invariably call for German (or French) bird names, when all the field guide books are in English. Why complicate matters?

MTG has a series of tours they offer, not just for birding. And the important point is that one can compile a tour oneself or ask for suggestions. It also turned out that we wanted a rather "late in the year" trip in order to shorten our long Swiss winter. As it turned out, that suited Andry perfectly, and we thus got superb guides all the time. After mid December, however, one should not do such a birding tour as many Couas will no longer respond. So in the end, discussing things with Andry, our tour started on 17 November in Tana (= Antananarivo), and we flew back from there on 10 December. So including international flights, our tour lasted 26 days. For reasons of personal comfort, we did not want to go to Masoala. Both my wife and myself, we can't cope well with the humid heat one has to expect there. Though we heared from others that it was cool and windy when then tried to visit.

Anyway, we concentrated more on the dryer South, though it turned out to be pretty hot anyway (but not unbearably humid). From Tana, we flew to Tuléar in the SE, visited Ifaty's spiny (Didiera dominated) forest a bit north of there, and had a speed boat bringing us to Anakao further south. From there, it was an easy trip to Nosy Vé, a small sandy island with a colony of Red-tailed Tropicbirds. More importantly for me, this is also a rather reliable site for Crab Plovers. Crab Plovers can be seen in the Middle East, but the present political situation forbids a visit there as far as I'm concerned. On the first visit, our guide counted a total of 62 Crab Plovers, an unusually high number according to him. What more could one wish for? Well, it turned out that my battery ran out at a critical moment. So it was great to be able to do another visit the next day after returning from a Flamingo lake (Tsimanampetsotsa) further south. It cost an extra 60000 Ariary (A), but that is just about 20 Euros.

The tour to the lake was announced as having both Greater and Lesser Flamingos. In the end, we just barely managed to find at least a single Lesser one. The important point for me, however, was to have another chance for Madagascar Sand Grouse. It was definitely the best place for them, but we only had them in flight.

After returning to Tuléar by speed boat, we started a very long drive north on the main north-south highway, Route Nationale #7. It turned out that this road is very far from a fast one. Way too much road damage much of the time! We made it to Isalo on that day, but the most important birding was on the way at the fine Zombitse-Vohibasia forest. Aside from a guide and driver that accompanied us for most of the time, there are always local guides added, guides who know their place extremely well! So it often turned out that the two of us had four people to take care of us. No wonder the feeling of "prince and princess" crept up every so often. All the guides and drivers we had on the entire tour were without exception wonderful, very kind and very knowledgable persons. By the end of this day 8, we had seen 107 bird species, including 61 endemic ones.

The next day (Madagascar day 9), our drive continued with another about 6-hours in the car. The goal for the day was the most interesting Ranomafana (= warm water) National Park.

More is to follow.
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2nd installment

We had two full days at Ranomafana NP and the Sahamalaotra forest, plus a few hours on the third day before driving to Antsirabe (a mere relais stop due to the distances). Ranomafana proved to be particularly productive, but it was also the toughest area for my rather basic fitness. Usually the days were structured with a morning outing from about 5:40 to 11 and an afternoon outing from about 3:30 pm to 6 or so. But at Ranomafana, the walking distances required taking along a lunch. This paid off well, with all three Asities that occur there. By the time we had the third one, a thunderstorm started. So it took us over an hour to walk back in drenching rain. We were soon about as wet as if we had fallen into the water. The following day, we took it a bit easier, drying our still wet things in the sun up at the Belle Vue overlook. I had decided that I could well do without the Brown Mesite as it would have meant another long up and down tour. This species remained the only one we intentionally left aside. On the last morning, it was interesting to see how different guides try to compete a bit. Thus, our guide knew the only reliable place for Brown Emutail, and he did not share his knowledge with another group. One must say that the bird was very hard to see in the thick tangles, and I can't quite imagine showing it there to a group of eight or ten. It was pretty difficult even for just the two of us. But a similar situation happened a few days later when our guide did not share the place for a Scaly Ground-Roller. He probably felt it was getting too crowded for a larger group.

Madagascar day 13 brought us from Antsirabe to Périnet. Another mostly just driving day. Stopping at one place for Madagascar Pratincole. Day 14 provided lots of fine endemics, including the pink Pygmy Kingfisher that had been close to the top of my most-wanted list.

Our guide, whose main turf is Périnet had some time earlier told us that there was a chance for the legendary Helmet Vanga even without going to Masoala. It involved around 14 kilometers of fairly level walking and an extra reserve fee of 60000 A (again just 20 Euros). So that was no problem. The problem arose once we were in the area as the Helmet Vangas were already feeding fledged young and were therefore rather mobile. Thus, trying to get decent looks of the birds while clambering about on a very steep slope with lots of bamboo tangles became a major challenge. Yet, we managed to see them well, just without being able to get a decent picture. Due to the late season, we missed the Red-breasted Coua. We made several attempts but the birds no longer responded to the playback.

After returning to Tana, a hefty 8-hour drive waited for us the following day. That brought us to Ankarafantsika in the north-west. Essentially, all that driving was for just a little over one day of fine birding (and chamaeleons etc, etc). It was well worth it. Though I think an extra day with a visit to the coastal marshes at Majunga would be desirable.

Madagascar day 19 meant another 8 hours drive to get back to Tana. Madagascar Airline is apparently not sufficiently reliabe to allow skipping those long drives.

As we did not go to Masoala, I had- instead - opted for another visit of the south of Madagascar. Andry had actually tried to discourage us to visit Bérenty, but I had read several favorable comments. So I wanted to visit there. Particularly, since it was supposed to provide additional chances for seeing sand grouse.

Rest to follow.
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Bérenty, and conclusion

Bérenty is a small private reserve of gallery forest and spiny forest about 80 kilometers west of Fort Dauphin, in the SE of Madagascar. It is surrounded by huge sisal plantations. Thus, the reserve suffers from a decidedly insular location. As a result, species diversity is rather limited. Bérenty is best known for its lemurs, and it excels at that. For us, it was a way to unwind a bit after the rather concentrated main tour. We had a fine guide, good food, and a very comfortable accomodation there as well. One major reason for visiting was clearly the fact that Madagascar Sand Grouse were said be be easily observable. As it turned out, that holds only during the dry season when the sand grouse have to rely on the river for drinking. In our case, the rains had already started to some extent. Thus, there were lots of other potential drinking sites. It took us five attempts till we finally saw at least two birds.

Bérenty did provide us with some extra raptor species. Raptors were - in a way - the one group we had not done particularly well on the main tour.

In conclusion, I would not include Bérenty again. But it was a very pleasant stay. But not at the effort we had to put into it. Andry had mentioned that our Bérenty extension was more expensive than a Masoala extension would have been. The trip involves two internal flights and a three-hour drive each way on a mostly very bad road.

Our trip total came to 180 species of birds, of these 125 endemics plus two other lifers. We saw all the ground-rollers, and the only vanga we missed was Bernier's. Needless to say this was a great trip that we can only recommend. I have not exactly counted the other species groups so far, but there were 14 lemur species.
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I have been asked about costs. They are obviously a most critical part.

But it is a bit complicated as they are composed of a number of components.

So the bill as originally obtained from MTG was 1900 Euros per person. But to that one has to add costs for the internal flights, costs for our own meals and beverages (except that breakfast was always included, and there was full board at Bérenty). And the local guide fees have to be added as well (322 Euros in our case). To that, the expected tips contribute quite a bit as well. So in the end, it cost us 5360 Euros that we paid MTG for the two of us. That includes the costs for the three internal flights MTG had organized for us. Plus we exchanged 1070 Euros for our meals , the tips plus some very few souvenirs. Additionally, our international flights cost us 2482 Euros for the two of us. That was a rather cheap rate, I think. We booked in April for November, using Air Mauritius (operated by Air France) with two stops (Paris and Mauritius), and a very humane trip duration of between 16:30 and 18 hours respectively. At any rate, we had VIP treatment the two of us for probably the price it would have cost us for one person if we had used one of the major tour operators. (All excluding the international flights). Additionally, we had more flexibility. The Ankarafantsika tour would not have been included in the trip offered by Rockjumper that I had looked into most specifically.

I should add that it takes quite a bit of personal extra initiative to organize the tour the way we had it. It was not just "book and everything is taken care of". MTG is essentially a one man operator with a great team. But as Andry is not just organizing but also leading tours, one has to wait for answers at times. So it's important to know he will eventually get back to you, or one might have to repeat a request. Our main problem was when nobody expected us at the Tana airport. It turned out that we had never sent our detailed flight itinerary, and Andry had expected us coming with the direct flight from Paris. To that, the phone number I had, was temporarily not in use. So we had to take the taxi to the hotel before connections worked again. All nothing major, but it's good to be a bit flexible, and maybe know a few words in French as well.
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Hi Robert,

my avatar species is a Temminck's Tragopan, photo taken in Wolong, Sichuan, China. My highest priority game bird at that time in Sichuan. ;-)
Nice report

Nice report and glad it went well

We did Madagascar as a private tour, arranged travel through Rainbow Tours and got them to get us recommended local guides. We took lots of internal flights with Mad Air (13 or 14 as you had to go back to Tana for connections), they were pretty cheap, and only one flight was slightly late but everything else went was to time, although we did go on one small plane with our tent and sleeping bags on our lap, (they weighed us with our gear as we boarded), anyway we found that much more advisable than all the long drives.

We also found Berenty really good for birds not just Lemur's, we did Berenty before Ifaty and Ampijora so maybe that's why as we saw birds at Berenety we didn't try for again further north on the west coast.

Avatar is Yellow-headed Picathartes (aka White-necked Rockfowl)
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Hi Robert,

my avatar species is a Temminck's Tragopan, photo taken in Wolong, Sichuan, China. My highest priority game bird at that time in Sichuan. ;-)

Thanks Temmie! I have never had a chance to see this superb species.
Nice report and glad it went well

Avatar is Yellow-headed Picathartes (aka White-necked Rockfowl)

Saw this unusual species in Ghana in 2012. Up to a few months prior to the trip, I did not even know there was such a bird. Yet, I find it one of the most intriguing ones I have ever encountered.
Very neat report....
I'm quite glad to hear you had a good trip with Madagascar Tour Guides as I'll be doing almost the same itinerary next month! I'll have to post a report when I'm done.
Very neat report....
I'm quite glad to hear you had a good trip with Madagascar Tour Guides as I'll be doing almost the same itinerary next month! I'll have to post a report when I'm done.

If you take the tour with MTG, make sure to say hello to Andry. And in case you have Julien (Isalo-Ranomafana-Périnet) and/ or Jean-Marie (in the south-west) as guides, tell them hello as well. Thanks to Julien we did get to see Helmet Vanga without going to Masoala.
Have a great trip! And please post a report! Wish I could come along again.
Swissboy - I'd like to thank you for posting here about Madagascar Tour Guide and Andry. I spent nearly all of November 2017 on a custom tour with them. Andry was very flexible and many of the other tour guides were very hard working when it comes to finding them. I also recommend them to anyone considering a birding trip to Madagascar.
I can also recommend Andry. He has good organization and team of local guides who generally perfectly know all stakeouts. They found us almost all gettable endemic birds, as well as were able to find incredible number of lemurs, reptiles and frogs.
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