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Ankarana

Just within reach of Diego Suarez, Ankarana Special Reserve is probably most known for being the next best place to see a limestone forest in Madagascar, ala Tsingy de Bemaraha. Like all good runners up there may be mutterings of a disputed winner. In fact, though they can look similar from certain angles, they feel distinct to traverse and provide different experiences should you be fortunate enough to visit both.

Ankarana has several immense, carpeted valleys with thick, leafy forest emerging to the peaks. Ascending through these areas encapsulates you in a rock-laden jungle of jagged edges, low-hanging branches, and vines. These ruins of nature are your obstacle course—requiring solid feet—rather than Bemaraha's rock-climbing extravaganza where you'll become very acquainted with a provided carabiner and put more effort into scaling vertical rock faces.

Both experiences overlap somewhat, minus the carabiner and bolted cables in Ankarana (or taking you up and down cliff faces that would require one). That's not to suggest that Ankarana can't provide as great a physical challenge as required on its tourist-appropriate circuits for those who feel a day isn't complete unless they collapse at the end. There are routes available to suit most abilities including steadier, shorter ones for anybody who wants to experience glimpses of the areas while being gravitationally challenged.

Close to Ankara's eastern entrance is a stunning, deep descent into an enormous open chasm that levels out at the bottom just enough to wander into the water-pocketed caves vaulted with fields of shrieking bats. A feature that, alone, warrants a visit to the park.

We had only a few encounters with scorpions—a resident noted to be abundant in the area. That's not to say that our experience will be the same as yours. Heed all warnings and be extra vigilant with where you sit and check under anything you place on the ground.

Entering the Park

Divided into eastern and western halves according to circuits accessible from one of these sides, those travelling in wetter times or without ever-present transport on hand will find themselves at the eastern access village of Mahamasina, which offers a selection of accommodation. Otherwise it's quite a sparse village jumpstarted every few minutes by bright red THB trucks passing from Tana to Diego—something to watch for if your room is beside the road. Though it's the eastern access town, it's only so relative to the western access point and is still quite southerly.

The area of park to the west and south-west, including the entrance and its circuits, become inaccessible in the rainy season (November to March) due to rising river levels getting too high to cross by car. The only tourist accommodation near the western entrance, Iharana Bush Camp, also closes during this time. One or two of the lodges and bungalows in Mahamasina close during this time too but the majority remain open. We had our accommodation and the park to ourselves in January.

Far fewer visit via the western entrance due to limited accommodation (camping is no longer permitted), tougher access and seasonal closure but, as well as circuits through some of the park's most significant accessible caves, they miss seeing the Wall of Ankarana—an imposing, lofty boundary that leaves no confusion as to where the reserve starts.

They'll also miss one of the few caves on earth home to resident crocodiles, which was once a source of confusion and fascination from researchers who didn't understand how these cold-blooded behemoths could regulate their temperature in such a cool environment. If visiting the west on your own, ensure any arrangements have been made in Mahamasina beforehand as it's the reception office for the entire park.

Emerging from thick forest into a lower section of the Ankarana tsingy.
Emerging from thick forest into a lower opening of the Ankarana tsingy. At this crossing point there's a stark contrast in rock colour where limestone meets dark basalt. Overhead, the forest envelops the weathered walls, climbing upwards until it reaches the surface.

Getting Here

4x4 to Mahamasina

Mahamasina is just shy of [100km] from Diego Suarez via the [RN6]. Taking a 4x4, the journey is almost four hours. Some maps indicate a potential route alongside Montagne d'Ambre that's less distance but I've yet to see evidence it exists. Regardless, drivers take the [RN6] the entire way. Since you'll be passing by the the turn-off to the Tsingy Rouge I highly recommend adding two hours to check it out. Most visiting the area will also spend a longer period of time at Montagne d'Ambre, closer to Diego. Durations listed below are estimates for one-way. I would not recommend attempting to see the two parks and tsingy rouge in one day so have not included that option.

VehicleTimeFromRateDuration
4x44x4dayDiego Suarez Return[MGA260000]3 - 4hrs
4x44x4dayDiego Suarez / Tsingy Rouge Return[MGA280000]6hrs

Whether you're entering via the eastern or western entrance from Diego, you'll still be heading to the southern side of Ankarana and may be given a false sense of conclusion as you pass through the signposted northern limits. Keep in mind that the park is quite large and you're not quite there yet. Before the northern limits, the town of Anivorano has a gas/petrol station, market area and enough small hotelys to stock up on basics and stretch your legs. If you're finding stretching them difficult because they've been crossed for so long, the same gas station has a bathroom stall out on its forecourt with a regular toilet and lockable door. Just mind your head on the low ceiling.

How Big?

Ankarana Special Reserve

Size: 25,308ha

How many times could international city parks fit inside an area of this size?

Central Park, New York: 74

Hyde Park, London: 181

Phoenix Park, Dublin: 36

Status since: 1956

Security

Unfortunately, due to more than one altercation with bandits overnight in the campsites, camping is no longer permitted in the park as of 2017. The campsites are still in good condition and had a lot of work put into them, which makes the situation even more sad. The park is perfectly safe for day trips, as well as night walks along its entrance avenue.

Accommodation

Accommodation in Mahamasina (the eastern entrance) is divided between backpacker and tourgroup appropriate bungalow compounds with little in the middle. The former starts at about [MGA45000] and the latter at about [EUR75] a night. Ankarana is a bit of trek to get to from Diego for provisions so, comparative of cost, both options are a little bit more rustic than those of a similar price near other National Parks.

Chez Goulam / Goulam Lodge

Popular, budget-friendly option beside reception. Now closed

Ankarana Special Reserve Reception, Mahamasina, Ankarana

nonenone[MGA50000]

I'm including Chez Goulam to raise awareness that it is no longer an option to stay at, having closed at the end of 2017 due to the unfortunate ill-health of its owner, Goulam.

[?][?][?][?][?][?]

Chez Aurelien

Budget option beside reception with basic sleeping in private bungalows and simple dining options.

Ankarana Special Reserve Reception, Mahamasina, Ankarana

+261 32 027 8600none[MGA55000 - 60000]

Another low-budget option right next to the entrance reception. Chez Aurelien has a rustic, farmyard vibe to it as you stroll down to your door from the dining bandstand. Rooms are mostly clean and comprise of aged, bare concrete, with wiring strung up wherever is most convenient and functional. Fresh sheets, towels and good mosquito nets are provided and the thin foam mattresses on the beds are perfectly adequate for a solid nights sleep. The bungalows may not be for the squeamish as you'll meet a certain amount of wildlife intent on messing the place up.

A generator kicks in at dusk until nine or ten each night, lighting the common areas and providing each bungalow with an overhead light and working sockets.

Perhaps it was the upset stomach I had for the duration of my stay (not caused by Chez Aurelien) but I wasn't overly keen on the meals that were limited to whatever they'd decided to cook that day, times ten. Portion-wise, you will not go hungry but there is no menu in low-season.

The dining bandstand was a nice location to watch the adjacent mango tree get swarmed by its resident Sakalava Weaver birds. The male's task is to construct a woven nest worthy of their partner. This is no small ask and anything less than perfect gets snipped at its branch joint—a damning review as the work falls to the ground and the nest needs to be started all over again. Crashing down alongside them are the mango trees own fruit. The first time one hits the tin roof above your head you'll check everyone for gunshot wounds once the ringing in your ears dissipates. So there's no shortage of dinner conversations.

Staff were all very pleasant and eager to please, if a little baffled at nuances of ill-health and dietary fussiness. Some bungalows come with en-suite toilets and cold showers while there are communal facilities for everybody else, including a well to pull water from.

nonononono[?]

Park Costs & Circuits

The cost of entering is the admission fee, per person, added to a guide fee that's divided between a group of up to four people (5 - 8 requires paying a second guide fee, etc). Admission fees cover an entire day so second circuits are just the cost of an additional guide fee. Duration times are averages to complete as advised by the park. You're under no pressure to leave other than being considerate of your guide expecting to get back.

A porter can be arranged to assist you for [MGA20000] a day. The park reception in Mahamasina is open seven days a week from 8am to 4pm. Circuits described below are as defined by the central ANGAP office and can deviate from what you'll find listed in the actual park reception. Your guide may also suggest a segmented or combined variation of several where the price will need to be agreed.

Finally, some features that can be accessed from the eastern entrance (such as Lac Vert) can also be inaccessible during the rainy season.

If entering from Mahamasina, the park reception (right beside the turn off the [RN6]) designates the start of about a [2.3km] walk along an avenue of wild mint to the beginning of most circuits. If staying without transport keep in mind the additional journey this will add to circuits. Distances displayed below are indicative of the total length to complete a circuit and get back but don't include this entrance length as not everybody will be walking it.

The avenue leading to the circuits can be teeming with as much wildlife as the park so if you're a glass-half-full type, see it as a free bonus section.

Park Admission Fees

CategoryAgeRate
TouristAdult[MGA65000]
TouristChild[MGA25000]
ResidentAdult[MGA2000]
ResidentChild[MGA500]

Circuits with Guide Fees

CircuitDurationDistanceRate
Grotte des Chauves-souris2 - 3 hours[6.4km][MGA25000]
Grotte des Chauves-souris / Tsingy Meva3 hours[7.5km][MGA25000]
Grotte des Chauves-souris / Tsingy Meva / Perte des Rivières 4 hours[?][MGA30000]
Pont Suspendu3 hours[?][MGA30000]
Boucle de Benavony4 hours[?][MGA40000]
Boucle de Benavony / Perte des Rivières4 - 5 hours[?][MGA40000]
Perte des Rivières / Tourelles de Tsingy / Pont Suspendu de Benavony[?][?][MGA35000]
Le Lac Vert8 - 9 hours[22km][MGA40000]
Grand Tsingy / Lac Vert / Boucle de Benavony9 - 10 hours[?][MGA60000]
Point de vue d’Ambohimalaza4 - 5 hours[10.5km] [MGA25000]
Western Section Combined Circuit[?][?][MGA50000]