Nature Unleashed: Madagascar Masoala Forest
Madagascar’s geological and ecological roots are African but this island’s wildlife has taken a distinctly different turn to its mother continent. It’s where nature’s imagination has been allowed to flourish and the result is an extraordinary set of plants and animals, nearly all of which occur nowhere else on Earth.
Madagascar’s primates – the Lemurs – are the most familiar of its mammals. Everyone recognises the Ring-tailed Lemur but there are over a hundred different species of them and the island is equally famous for its chameleons (two thirds of the world’s species are found there). Brimming with endemic bird species, it’s the land of the peculiar, skinny-fingered Aye-aye, the spiky-furred Tenrec and the carnivorous Fossa, seemingly a combination of a cat and a mongoose.
But you’ll probably be aware of the other side to Madagascar too: this is an island that has suffered a rapid loss of natural habitat, especially its rainforests, 90% of which have been felled. The result is that the only places to see Madagascar’s wildlife are its national parks, and in general, the bigger the park, the better the wildlife. And the largest national park on the island is Masoala National Park.
Lying on Madagascar’s north-eastern coast, Masoala is a World Heritage Site and protects the greatest area of lowland rainforest in the country as well as mangrove swamps and coral reefs. The name translates as ‘Eyes of the Forest’, a reference to the reflective eyes of the nocturnal Aye-aye but there are nine other species of lemur here, including the spectacular Red-ruffed Lemur which, along with the White-fronted Lemur, are unique to the local Masoala forests.
Humpback Whales visit the coast between July and September, sharing the sheltered coves with rare ‘sea-cows’ – Dugongs. Other charismatic species here include Leaf-tailed Geckos, brightly-coloured Panther Chameleons and Vangas, a highly diverse family of birds that illustrate the evolutionary journey of island wildlife: all the wildly different types of Vanga have diversified from a single species.
Lying quietly at the heart of it all is Masoala Forest Lodge, built to exacting environmental standards with the aim not just to preserve the natural landscape but benefit the local Betsimisaraka community too. The owner-run lodge has just seven suites, set on stilts and with views of both rainforest and a tropical ocean and there’s enough luxury to make it very comfortable (there are massage therapies on offer for example) but this is barefoot casual chic at its best.
Guided forest walks are among the activities here – the best way to see wildlife – but this is the sort of place that you can also go snorkelling along coral reefs or paddle a kayak to a deserted beach for lunch. The only motorised aspect of the lodge are their motor boats which are used for longer ocean adventures and whale watching.
Madagascar has a typical tropical climate – warm and humid: there could be rain on any day of the year but it’s driest between August and November and wettest from January to March. However, in terms of your comfort in a tropical destination, the Madagascar tropics are quite different to other regions: the Masoala rainforest is surprisingly free of dangerous and poisonous creatures and the Indian Ocean is warm and safe for swimming.