My four-day visit to Andasibe was coming to a close. Before the three-hour drive back to Antananarivo to meet up with friends and make a flight to Sainte Marie Isand, I had one more opportunity to trek through the rainforest. This time it would be at the seldom toured Vohimana Reserve—only 12 km east of Andasibe Village down RN2. The Vohimana Reserve was established as a private reserve only recently in 2001 and proves to be a crucial 1.6 sq km corridor that links the Andasibe reserves with the Vohimana Forest to the south. The Vohimana Reserve is administrated by the Man and the Environment, an NGO that focuses on ecotourism, medicinal plants, and experimental agriculture as alternatives to environmental degradation for local communities.
The trek into the Vohimana Reserve starts out differently from the others I did around Andasibe. You must first cross a river and then you walk for a half-mile on railroad tracks.
I never asked where the railroad ends, but apparently this is one of the tallest bridges in Madagascar. Walking the railroad tracks had a Madagascar Stand By Me movie moment feel.
Along the way we received some great intel on some large palm trees. Here a villager draws a map for us. Sadly, we would find out later the area was completely burnt down recently. Such are things in Madagascar.
After about a mile of hiking, we stumbled upon what looks to be a home-stay location. I didn’t expect to see these two French kids in the middle of nowhere. It was like a scene from the movie Apocalypse Now.
I wanted to take this cute little guy home. I think he knew I was a dog person and followed me for as long as he could keep up. He has a tough life ahead of him.
So many things just felt so out of place on this trek. This random stone arch in the jungle served as the entry into the remaining forest corridor.
Once we finally reached the remaining rainforest and not more than a few hundred meters into it, the trail took us to a still smoldering slash-and-burn. It is so frustrating to continually run into this in what are supposedly protected reserves and national parks. By the end of my month-long trip I really had a negative outlook on the future of the country. It was frustrating to hear my local Vohimana Reserve guide tell me that he must apologize because this was where the large Dypsis were located that his friend drew a map to in the picture earlier.
Just look at the secondary growth that they could have reused below. Instead, they are lazy and burn rainforest because it is easier and more fertile. I was told they get one season of crops out of the burn. They then move on to destroy more forest the following year.
Looking out across from the burnt area you can see the vast amount of devastation happening in the Vohimana Reserve. I asked why this was allowed and my guide said that after the 2009 coup, corruption has run rampant. Villagers bribe the local police who then turn a blind eye to this illegal activity.
Yep. More forest being destroyed off in the distance. Plant and animal extinctions will continue in Madagascar.
Enough of the doom and gloom. Let’s move onto the beauty that is left. Ravenea madagascariensis is the dominant palm in this reserve. They can be found growing in the secondary forest like this beauty below.
Ravenea sambiranensis is also well represented in Vohimana.
This is a great photo of three Ravenea madagascariensis and one Ravenea sambiranensis (far right) growing together. You can see how the keeled and recurved leaf of the Ravenea sambiranensis makes it stand out.
One of the reasons I wanted to trek into the Vohimana Reserve was to see Dypsis procumbens in habitat. It did not disappoint. Personally, I found it to be a much more attractive palm in the wild than in cultivation. All these Dypsis procumbens shown below were found in a small 100-meter area of remaining trail. While abundant in this small area, it wasn’t found anywhere else.
When in full flower, Dypsis procumbens has an attractive orange-yellow inflorescence which is almost Chamaedorea like. I arrived too early in the flowering season to see the inflorescence below with its nice coloration.
Dypsis procumbens is a wonderful palm. It has short leaves with an almost leathery feel to the leaflets, especially when found growing in mostly sun.
The stems and crownshaft were colorful as well.
Something interesting about Dypsis procumbens seedlings found in situ is that there are two forms: an entire leaf and a pinnate leaf form. Once past the seedling stage, they all end up looking the same. Unfortunately, the photos I took were out of focus so I can not show examples.
This is a bad photo of a beautiful Dypsis concinna I had to show.
I even found a few small Marojejya insignis not far off the path.
Before you can reach the remaining old world forest, you walk along an old rocky road that used to lead you to a cobalt mine. Along this walk there was secondary forest on both sides. At one point I looked out over a small ravine and noticed a palm that looked different from the many Ravenea madagascariensis or Ravenea sambiranensis you see growing in the Vohimana Reserve. Top center was the palm in question.
Breaking out my 70-300 mm lens, I snapped a closer view and could confirm that it was indeed not a Ravenea.
Even though it didn’t look too far away distance-wise, time-wise it was. It was located in the invasive secondary vegetation that comes in after the primary forest is burnt to the ground. My local guide questioned our Vohimana Reserve guide if it would be possible to hike to the palm. With a big grin, he thought about it. A few moments later he decided on yes. With machete in hand, my guide and I crossed the small stream that went through the ravine and began our way up the hill.
The journey to get to the palm was a long one. It took my guide 45 minutes of hacking through vines and ferns to reach the amazing palm shown below. I was ready to turn around about 20 minutes into the ascent up the hill. My guide had to be in his 50s and was practically coughing himself to death on all the fern spores filling the air. The spores were so thick that I had to cover my nose with my shirt just to breathe. My guide didn’t speak any English so it was difficult to sign language my question asking if he wanted to go back. To my surprise, he shook his head “no” and said something in Malagasy with a point of his machete up the hill. The Malagasies are a hard people. Only a few times the entire month did I ever tire any of my guides out on any of my treks. While people like me with a camera seem to get much of the credit once we share our pictures or experiences, in reality it is the local guides that do all the work.
Here is my Vohimana Reserve guide on the left and Ranaivomanana, my Andasibe area guide for the four days on the right. Ranaivomanana came up once the path was clear. These guys were proud of the work they did and seemed to get enjoyment over how excited I was about the beautiful palm we just found.
I am not sure how many different palm tress I would see in total while trekking through Madagascar, but none were as beautiful as this unknown Dypsis in my opinion. Everything about this palm was gorgeous.
The crown and petioles were thick with reddish ramaneta—unlike any palm I have seen before.
The closest looking palm found around Andasibe that it could pass for was Dypsis pilulifera. However, while the leaves have a strong resemblance to Dypsis pilulifera, I am pretty sure it is not that palm. I showed legendary Madagascar palm expert John Dransfield the same photos and he too could only call it an unknown.
After coming back down the hill I looked back up the hillside and about 100 meters to the left of the palm shown above I noticed another palm that appeared to be a Dypsis. With my zoom lens this is what I saw.
This Dypsis was just as far up the hill as the last palm. I looked at my guide and he smiled. He was eager to clear another path. Another 45 minutes later and we reached what appeared to be a Dypsis pilulifera.
The two palms on the hillside had many similarities, but as you can see, were still quite different. I am not sure if this is really Dypsis pilulifera, but it matches what palm botanist John Dransfield describes as Dypsis pilulifera found around Andasibe. This palm below has much more irregular leaflets which are also finer. Plus the crownshaft and petioles don’t have the red ramenta the other palm had. You can see, however, it is still a beautiful palm.
I felt extremely lucky to find two beautiful trunking Dypsis growing in full sun. It gave me the opportunity to fully admire and photograph them. Most palms you find like this are growing in the jungle and it’s hard to get a great 360-degree view around them. Not to mention, most Dypsis growing out in the open like this have been cut down by local villagers for various reasons. I sure hope the new paths we cleared to visit these palms didn’t make it easier for some villager to go chop them down now.
Thus ends my Andasibe rainforest adventure. The next stop was the International Palm Society’s annual Board of Directors meeting on Sainte Marie Island.