Trail Of The Unexpected: Andringitra National Park, Madagascar

Someone called out: "He's caught a small porcupine!"
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The Independent Travel

Without the ring-tailed lemurs you'd never guess this was Madagascar. The island that most people associate with beaches, rainforests and ecotourism has a hidden side: superb trekking. Andringitra National Park features on few itineraries, yet I consider the Diavolana circuit to be one of the most beautiful mountain walks I have ever done. At its highest point, around 2,000m, the landscape takes on a Disneyland quality, with rock-gardens of colourful succulents against a backdrop of craggy granite peaks.

Without the ring-tailed lemurs you'd never guess this was Madagascar. The island that most people associate with beaches, rainforests and ecotourism has a hidden side: superb trekking. Andringitra National Park features on few itineraries, yet I consider the Diavolana circuit to be one of the most beautiful mountain walks I have ever done. At its highest point, around 2,000m, the landscape takes on a Disneyland quality, with rock-gardens of colourful succulents against a backdrop of craggy granite peaks.

Even the lemurs here have a slightly unreal quality. Instead of spending their lives in the forest like the rest of their kind, they have grown extra thick coats against the cold and bound around the rocks as though to the manner born. Which indeed they are - they are recognised as a distinct ecotype which has adapted to this chilly, treeless environment.

There are four named trails in the national park, varying from 6km to 28km. The longest incorporates the ascent of Pic d'Imarivolanitra, at 2,658m Madagascar's second highest mountain. This is a tough climb but the three other circuits can be managed by any reasonably fit person. There are steep ups and downs but the trails are beautifully engineered so it is never difficult or dangerous. For this we must thank the WWF and its Malagasy partner ANGAP who, in 1999, created a national park in this rugged area.

The Diavolana trek begins at the main campsite. Most visitors to Andringitra sleep in tents, although there is a simple cottage for those who prefer a bed. You need an early start for the seven-hour trek since rain is more likely to fall in the afternoon. For the first two hours you climb up through forest. The birdwatchers keep an eye out for endemics such as the vanga family (found only in Madagascar, and with a variety of bills to rival Darwin's Galapagos finches) while true trekkers slog on with their eyes on the escarpment ahead. You emerge onto heather-clad highlands - except that it's not Erica, it's Phillipia and the shrubs come up to your waist.

Higher still are alpine meadows which, at the end of the wet season, are carpeted with orchids; there are more than 30 species in the park. The first rest stop is by a lake, the headwaters of one of two sacred waterfalls which tumble 250m down the escarpment. Named Riambavy (the queen) and Riandahy (the king), they are said to be the embodiment of a royal couple who could not conceive a child. They climbed up to the falls with an ombiasy (spiritual healer) and under his guidance sacrificed a white-faced zebu to the ancestors. This did the trick: the queen conceived and everyone lived happily ever after. So unless you want to get pregnant, it's best to resist the temptation to swim. Anyway, the water is icy cold.

As you gain altitude, the granite peaks and pleated escarpment dominate the view. In the foreground are clumps of plants that would not look out of place in Kew Gardens or the Eden Project. Bursts of delicate white flowers grow from fleshy leaves in gaps between the grey rocks which are splodged with multi-coloured lichen.

At the highest point, 2,100m, there's a convenient slab of rock which serves as a perfect picnic spot as well as providing the best-in-house seats for the ballet performed by the ring-tailed lemurs on the cliffs opposite. I don't know if it was the bright sunshine and clear air or just the thick coats to keep out the cold, but these animals looked more brightly coloured than the ones we saw at lower altitudes.

The steep descent is down such a well-made trail that even tired legs can cope. For me, the crowning pleasure of the whole walk came when one of our party called out: "He's caught a small porcupine!". And there was our guide dangling one of Madagascar's most enchanting animals, a streaked tenrec, by the back leg. The little thing was the size of a hamster, with a long nose and a formidable clump of cream-coloured spines on its head and back. Once safely back on the ground, it bustled off into the undergrowth, seeming only slightly annoyed rather than frightened at this interruption to its daily routine.

None of Madagascar's mammals is particularly alert: they don't need to be in this paradise of an island where there are no large predators save man. And humans are gradually coming to grips with the reality that here their wealth is in their wildlife and its natural environment. Thank goodness.

'Madagascar: The Bradt Travel Guide' (8th edition) is published on 30 November, £14.95

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