Having spent the the entire trip down RN7 away from the rainforest, it was time to drop off the high plateau for a few days. Destination? Ranomafana National Park, a place loaded in biodiversity and a must-see location for anyone visiting Madagascar. Ranomafana National Park is made up of 161 square miles of tropical rainforest that is literally located just off the high plateau. Not long after you turn left off RN7 towards the small village of Ranomafana, you begin your descent into a forest of green. You know you are in the park when you see Chute Andriamamovoka on the Namorona River you have been skirting.
Ranomafana National Park is one of six national parks on the east coast of Madagascar that make up UNESCO’s World Heritage Site called “Rainforests of the Atsinanana.” Ranomafana National Park itself was established in 1991. Like most of the national parks and reserves in Madagascar, there are many options to hike and explore. I decided on three treks in two days that would be broken up by a trip to climb Mount Vatovavy outside the village of Kianjavato.
To beat the crowds, we were up fairly early, which would put us at the trail head by 8 AM. I actually woke up to a surprise. Rain! Something that hadn’t happened the entire two weeks I had already spent in Madagascar.
The first trek would be the Sahamalaotra Circuit. I was told this was the circuit that had the most palm trees on it. My local guide Fidy, on the left, and his wildlife “spotter” on the right were dressed for the worst. It would turn out that Fidy would be the ONLY Malagasy guide that I would drop on these hikes. It might have been related to the fact he smoked a pack of cigarettes a day.
The first palm I would see on the hike was one of the more common Malagasy palms – Ravenea madagascariensis.
Dypsis thermarum is a rare palm that can only be found in Ranomafana National Park. Short leaves and hairy, short inflorescences key it out (as seen below). Dypsis thermarum species name is Latin for “of the hot springs.” Ranomafana means “hot water” in Malagasy.
Dypsis catatiana could be found growing throughout Ranomafana National Park. There was an entire-leaf leaf form as well as a split-leaf form.
Dypsis catatiana could also be found growing on the trunks of trees.
I couldn’t figure out what this palm was. I just have to call it Dypsis aff. procumbens.
The Sahamalaotra Circuit was also a rich area for frogs. While Ranomafana National Park has 120 species of frogs, I only ended up seeing 3. This Baron’s Painted Mantella (Mantella baroni) was my favorite.
Pandanus Frog (Guibemantis pulcher).
White Spotted Reed Frog (Heterixalus Alboguttatus).
Frogs like it wet. In many of the places you would find frogs, you could also find Drosera. This carnivorous plant is also called a Sundew.
After finishing the Sahamalaotra Circuit and before heading back to the hotel for lunch, I wanted to go photograph a large Dypsis we spotted not far off the road. You can see it in the middle of the picture below.
This unknown Dypsis at the time just kept getting more impressive the farther up the hill we climbed. It would later be confirmed that this large tristichous palm was a Dypsis prestoniana. That was one of the guesses we had for it at the time, however the only large Dypsis known in Ranomafana National Park were Dypsis robusta and Dypsis mananjarensis. We can add Dypsis prestoniana to that list now.
Speaking of Dypsis mananjarensis, this palm was a quick 20-minute hike off the road. Not sure how, but it survived the deforestation you can see around it. Usually large palms like this Dypsis mananjarensis are chopped down for various uses by the locals.
After lunch we decided to go walk through the Ranomafana Arboretum. The Arboretum is by the small village of Masomanga just 2 km east of the town of Ranomafana. The importance of this stop was to see one of the more majestic palms of Madagascar in habitat – Dypsis robusta. This Dypsis robusta shown below is the only individual of its species known growing in the wild. This Dypsis robusta at Masomanga is truly one of the rarest trees in the world in habitat. Since its discovery in June 1994, no other plants have been found. The Ranomafana Arboretum was built around this one unique palm.
Another rare palm found at the Ranomafana Arboretum is Dypsis basilonga. Dypsis basilonga can only be found growing at the top of Mount Vatovavy in the wild, a place we would explore the following day.
Once we finished touring the Ranomafana Arboretum we decided to head back to the hotel and relax. It was time to call it a day. After all, we still had a busy two days ahead of us in the rainforest.
Picking back up after a wonderful and inspiring trip to the top of Mount Vatovavy the day prior, we were back hiking into Ranomafana National Park. For this day’s trek we decided on two circuits. The first would be the Talatakely circuit in the hopes of spotting the elusive bamboo lemurs. The second would be the Ambodiriana Circuit, which would lead down the mountain and into the village of Ranomafana.
Both circuits require you to cross the Namorona River. This bridge takes you into the southern part of the Ranomafana National Park.
Ravenea robustior (or possibly a Ravenea krociana) this size are always an impressive sight. For a slow palm such as Ravenea robustior to reach this size, it must be over 100 years old.
Bamboo is not an uncommon sight in Madagascar. Finding them growing in an undisturbed bamboo forest like the one in Ranomafana National Park, however, is very uncommon. Most of the remaining bamboo forests of Madagascar are highly degraded or have been deforested completely.
While the bamboo forests are nice, it isn’t the reason the majority of tourists come to this part of the park. The real reason is to hopefully see the rare lemurs that live off the Madagascar Giant Bamboo (Cathariostachys madagascariensis) found in Ranomafana National Park. The park is home to twelve lemur species. This includes three different bamboo lemur species. I was fortunate to see all three on this trek and mark off a total of eight of the twelve lemur species in the park.
First up was the Golden Bamboo Lemur (Hapalemur aureus). This rare lemur species was only discovered in 1986 and its protection is one of the main reasons Ranomafana National Park was created.
Eastern Lesser Bamboo Lemur (Hapalemur griseus).
Greater Bamboo Lemur (Prolemur simus). This is the largest of the bamboo lemurs and is most likely the only lemur species where the male is dominant. Sadly, it is also one of the most threatened primate species in the world, with less than 500 individuals remaining in habitat.
Along with the three bamboo lemur species, I also was lucky enough to see a few other types as well. These were Red-fronted Lemurs (Eulemur rufifrons).
This is a female Red-bellied Lemur (Eulemur rubriventer). Males have a white mask.
A bad picture of the Milne-Edwards’ Sifaka (Propithecus edwardsi). One of my greatest regrets was traveling through Madagascar with a cheap camera and a short lens. I quickly realized my desire to travel light was a bad mistake when I was missing so many photographic opportunities. It is extremely difficult to shoot wildlife with an 18-55mm lens.
Finally, a video of the nocturnal Brown Mouse Lemur (Microcebus rufus). These are the smallest lemurs in the world.
This Ring-tailed Mongoose (Galidia elegans) wasn’t very cooperative in letting me take his picture. The picture doesn’t do it justice, as the colors are actually very rich on the Ring-tailed Mongoose.
Ranomafana National Park is home to twelve Chameleon species. Just like at Mantadia National Park, most chameleons and frogs are best seen at night. As with the lemurs, I believe I was lucky once again in that I saw eight of the twelve Chameleon species at Ranomafana National Park. This is a Glaw’s Chameleon (Calumma glawi) photographed at night. Unfortunately, it was the only good night-time photo I would capture due to the rain and only having an iPhone.
This Blue-legged Chameleon (Calumma crypticum) gave me the perfect pose on this cement post. This species shows a wide range of color variation. This one is much more brown than normal as he tries to mimic the coloration of the bridge he was walking across.
This O’Shaughnessy Chameleon (Calumma oshaughnessyi) was waiting for me back at the hotel. This is one of the largest Malagasy Chameleons.
The Baweng Satanic Leaf Gecko (Uroplatus phantasticus) is a nocturnal feeder and it was only by luck that were we able to spot this lizard just off the trail.
These Golden Silk Orb-Weaver Spiders are found throughout much of Madagascar. I really hate spiders and these suckers were huge. But you just can’t help but admire how beautiful they are.
I thought this unknown green beetle was cool.
There are not many hiking option in Madagascar where you actually do more descending than climbing. The Ambodiriana Circuit is one such hike. The trail will take you from the higher portions of Ranomafana National Park and drop you down along the Namorona River and into the village of Ranomafana.
The view from the top of the Ambodiriana Circuit was great. From this point the trek was a 1,500-foot descent for 3.5 miles.
As the Namorona River approaches the village of Ranomafana, it begins to flatten out.
It was at the end of the dry season, so the waterfall wasn’t as impressive as it is during the rainy season. Apparently the whole rock face is covered with water after strong rains.
This section of the Namorona River near the village of Ranomafana is a popular swimming hole for the locals to cool off.
This is how farmers get their bananas from the trees in the top of the last photo down the mountain to the village.
Just outside the old presidential retreat we found this large Cycas thouarsi. Cycad thouarsi is the only cycad native to Madagascar.
This is the thermal spring where Ranomafana (“hot water” in Malagasy) gets its name.
Once back at the village it was time to have a few Three Horse beers with our guide Fidy before saying our goodbyes. The guy on the right was my traveling companion for a week. Jason is a fellow Southern California resident and palm lover that was living in Uganda at the time. He received great news while in Madagascar that his long wait was over and all paperwork had been approved for the adoption of their daughter. They would be heading back home from Uganda just over a week after this picture was taken.
Two photos from my hotel, The Centrist Sejour, before I close out this post. This is a photo of the only Orania I would see during my entire month-long trip through Madagascar. This is an Orania trispatha planted in the hotel gardens. It is a distichous palm, meaning the leaves come out in a two-ranked arrangement. Similar to the Travelers Palm (Ravenala madagascariensis) behind it.
I found this almost comical. I travel half-way around the world to a place that is famous for their aloes, yet the hotel plants Agave attenuata. Exotic for Madagascar, but all too familiar for this Californian.
From Ranomafana National Park, I would leave the rainforest and head to the high plateau and mountains of Andringitra next.