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AKA: Amber Mountain
Madagascar's first area to be certified as a National Park in 1958. Starting at nearly a kilometre above sea level and gradually ascending to to about half that again, this is a beautiful specimen of a rainforest with some wide, open avenues making the most immediate sections of the park accessible to many.
Montagne d'Ambre National Park puts on quite a show as you fly over on arrival into Diego Suarez. A common remark for first time visitors to Madagascar is the absence of forest when viewed from the air. Diego would put them at ease. Living up its rainforest badge the forest has a very evident microclimate during rainy season and will rain on cue, nearly everyday, at midday from self-generated clouds. It's quite a sight to see the ominous, dark downpours over the mountain from the safety of the nearby sunny beaches in Diego.
The entrance to the park is through the town of Joffreville (Ambohitra). Formerly used by the French foreign legion Madagascar battalion, then later by the Malagasy Army, it has some hallmarks of its past such as its wide, cobbled main avenue forming the centre of a planned grid-pattern. There's also the assortment of older brick buildings set back in compounds that don't entirely resonate with the easy-going presence elsewhere. A corner shop in English hints at its present day history.
Some of these former French buildings have been bought up and restored as accommodation for park tourists so you may be staying here. Provisions for tourists are mainly in the lodges rather than out in the town, which is sparse for shops or activities other than strolls. That said, I've eaten lunch on more than one occasion in a nearby small hotely, which was very tasty.
When coming from the south, such as Ankarana, some maps may show a junction to the park at Antsakoabe but drivers appear unwilling to take it, saying the poor road condition makes continuing on the [RN6] then turning back at the Antanamitarana junction the preferable and quicker option. Whereas rental costs are all inclusive for return journeys, durations below and in this guide are average estimates in one direction.
Add this to the list of places where regular taxis are pushing their luck getting here. The road from Diego was in pretty good condition two decades ago but sections haven't seen a single repair in that time and there's now more potholes than tarmac. You will find quite a few drivers willing to do so in a Renault 4L but expect a slow, weaving and bumpy ride if you manage to make it.
|car||day||Diego Suarez Return||[MGA80000]||1.5hrs|
Montagne d'Ambre from Diego is one route where the price of renting a 4x4 here and back can vary more than others. It's not that long of a journey and used to be the forté of regular taxis. As some taxis will still risk it, a few 4x4 owners may give a lower rate, particularly if it's in addition to several other journeys in the area. Others may not budge from typical starting prices for renting a 4x4. I've indicated a price somewhere in the middle.
|4x4||day||Diego Suarez Return||[MGA150000]||1hr|
This is private accommodation (and has its own description in the appropriate section here) but the location has features that have warranted highlighting when in the area.
Once a health centre for the French Legionnaires but restored into its present state in 2001 by its German owner, le Domaine de Fontenay has its own private forest reserve set next to its grounds. Some in the area have been uncomfortable with the reserve being off limits for obtaining firewood, as it was before, but its new status has led to a flood of wildlife coming from nearby Montagne d'Ambre and surrounds as they share a forest corridor.
Unusually for Madagascar, the short circuit through the reserve is mostly along its circumference as it orbits the river carving through the length of the reserve deep below. This means the high branches of many of the tall trees are at eye level to the paths and it's possible to see a lot of wildlife activity in quite a small space, especially at night. There was three aye-aye sightings here at the end of 2017 but it was perhaps only a chance visit as there wasn't so much of this before or after.
Day walks are free for those staying here whereas night walks are unfortunately priced to match the hospitality charges you find at parks near Diego, costing [EUR20] per person per visit. Visits from those not staying here are also available by arrangement. Although small, the forest feels unlike any other similar expedition I've taken in Madagascar, perhaps due to the density of wildlife visible at such high points in the tree tops and the sense of location this gives you, edging high above the river. Or maybe due to the stellar company of Antonio, the resident guide who is a privilege to have leading you if you're lucky to have him available during your stay.
An unexpected attraction of le Domaine de Fontenay is the resident Aldabra Giant Tortoise, Galileo. Though Aldabras were once found in Madagascar, this is not the case anymore and tend to originate in the Seychelles. The world's oldest living tortoise, Jonathan, is an Aldabra and is believed to be about 186 years old (as of 2018) but this is unverified. Galileo, according to those who reside at le Domaine de Fontenay, has approximately 200 years of life in paper records of his handling (when originally shipped as a can of food on legs) and his age beyond that is unknown. This is even more unverified than that of Jonathan but—at the time of writing—his claim to be the oldest living animal is unknown to most of the world. If you've ever wanted to pet a 200 (and who knows?) year old tortoise, Galileo loves his head being scratched. Sadly, he had a partner for much of his life but she was found at the bottom of an incline, motionless after being unable to right herself up.
The owner of le Domaine de Fontenay is unfortunately currently in ill health and the future of the lodge, the forest and Galileo is currently unknown. It's uncertain whether the reserve will remain intact or devolve into a source of firewood should nobody maintain its preservation. He is, thankfully, still welcoming guests as of the end of 2018.
There is now an additional fee of [MGA1000] per group to cover gendarme patrols in the park after a group was held up in early 2018 (without injury). This is the only incident I know of and the inclusion of gendarme patrols, as well as for increased safety, is for peace of mind of all visitors. Camping in the official campsite is still permitted.
Andasibe-Mantadia and Ranomafana National Parks both offer a choice of accommodation for varying budgets but Montagne d'Ambre goes full tourist, starting at [EUR90] (and were nearly double that ten years ago). Meals are also priced substantially above local rates if eating in a hotel, though there aren't many choices outside of them around Joffreville. If you want more options it's pretty easy to commute here from Diego city each day.
Upmarket, converted former colonial hospital with private reserve
Joffreville, Antsiranana 202
+261 33 113 4581 www.lefontenay-madagascar.com[EUR95]
Restored from a former French Foreign Legion health centre, Le Domaine de Fontenay has some beautiful guesthouses and a fascinating, blunt German owner who enjoys chatting over meals when he's available. The decor is colonial updated to a contemporary Malagasy finish, inheriting characteristics of both.
Rooms are lavishly spacious. The restoration work to bring them to this level is certainly impressive and may address concerns at the steeper pricing for accommodation with few facilities. Food was standard but tasty and in a pleasant setting by the reception bar, though not worth the steep prices charged at about [EUR20] per meal. As there's no electricity in the area the rooms are powered by solar panels and a connection to the shared generator to ensure lights keep working throughout the night (sockets are only available during the day). The temperature drops enough at night from the altitude that the lack of ability to artificially cool the room won't be a concern, despite disbelief of this possibility when temperatures soar in nearby Diego. On the other hand, luxuriously warm blankets are provided for colder nights to ensure comfort at any time of the year.
The estate is spread out over a large house and converted stables that face a grassy front garden large enough to take strolls around or sit out in. Two features of the accommodation make a visit here justifiable beyond just another place to stay and I go into them in more detail in Domaine de Fontenay's own section on this page. Please be aware that the owner is currently in ill-health and you should enquire early in advance to confirm availability. He speaks fluent German, French and English so communications will be no trouble if you can manage one of the same.
Montagne d'Ambre is the only National Park you can visit without a compulsory guide. This is due to its easier accessibility from wide trails to popular features in the park. All visitors must pay a National Parks entrance fee that's valid for a day.
If coming here for wildlife (and there's plenty of it) a guide can accompany you as they do at any other national park on a range of suitable circuits. These incorporate visiting some of Montagne d'Ambre's magnificent attractions along the routes. I would recommend that everybody take on a guide unless they've a good reason not to—you will miss out on a valuable insight and good company.
From Joffreville, it's about [3.5km] to the start of the circuits so I would suggest organising transport. Some tour groups choose to drive into the park and start beside the campsite, [2.5km] from the reception. Others may be dropped off at the reception and begin at the start of the forest. I've attempted to mark distances and times as an estimate of the total length for beginning and ending at the reception as the forest coverage and wildlife begin here.
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.
As of May 2018, Montagne d'Ambre, along with Isalo and Tsingy de Bemaraha National Parks, are accepting credit and debit cards as payment at reception (VISA, Mastercard, Maestro and UnionPay) and are the first national parks in the country to do so. Joffreville is not on the electrical grid from Diego so, given that the park reception likely won't have 24/7 electricity, anticipate charging schedules or mobile reception creating incidences where payment terminals won't work. In other words, you should probably still bring cash for the time being even though this is a welcome initiative to reduce the amount of cash in circulation at receptions.
Park Admission Fees
Circuits with Guide Fees
|Ampijoroana||1 - 2 hours||[6km]||[?]|
|Mahasarika||1 - 2 hours||[5.5km]||[?]|
|Antomboka / Mahasarika||3 - 4 hours||[10km]||[?]|
|Antomboka / Mahasarika / Olioly||5 hours||[?]||[?]|
|Ampijoroagna / Antomboka / Mahasarika||4 hours||[11km]||[?]|
|Sommet d'Ambre||6 hours||[19.35km]||[?]|
The park exhibits its own microclimate which leads to predictable rainfall most afternoons during rainy season. As such, some guides will plan schedules for morning hikes and avoid the afternoon. This is not a hard rule and anyone not fazed by heavy precipitation throughout the hike can clarify their desire to continue in the second half of the day in advance.
If walking into the further primary forest, expect to encounter leeches. The altitude and moisture give them a perfect home in Montagne d'Ambre. Guides will know the areas more suited to them so anyone put off at the thought can still see a lot of the park while avoiding a meet and greet. Those on the fence should just go for it as anything off-putting about them is mostly the thought.
We also encountered swarms of horsefly-like insects near the start of some trails. Again, their annoyance was mostly psychological as I kept expecting them to bite. I'd swat at them repeatedly but didn't get a mark despite there being nearly a hundred covering my legs and bag at any time. They flittered off after we left their main territories and were probably just along for the ride. On my second day in the park—in exactly the same conditions and areas—they were nowhere to be seen, wasting the battle armour I'd suited up in. Nonetheless, the suggestion of wearing long trousers on any park hike is especially recommended here.