Saturday morning and we gather with friends from Ambotovy International School at a boat landing on the Pangalanes Canal. We’re going south on the canal for 60 kilometers (37 miles) to the Le Palmarium resort. A friend has organized the excursion for the nine of us through a tour agent at a cost of about 300,000 ariary per person ($150) which includes the round trip boat ride, one night in the resort, meals, and a guided hike through the forest to see lemurs.
Typically, the tour starts from a dock in Toamasina. But the canal runs by our village, so we walk ten minutes to the landing, which is simply a cleared area on the banks of the canal. We meet Pascal, the captain of our boat from Le Palmarium, and Bambino, our guide for the weekend.
We board. Pascal fires up the engine and we’re off. It’s a cool morning and rains a little bit. The drone of the boat’s motor is loud enough to make conversation difficult. So I watch the landscape. Forest, villages, rice paddies, people, pirogues (dugout canoes), fishermen, a few motorboat taxis.
For those of us close enough to hear him, Bambino tells some history of the canal. The Pangalanes Canal links together natural rivers and lakes and runs about 600 kilometers (370 miles) from Toamasina south to Farafangana along the central section of the east Madagascar coast. The canal was constructed under the governance of the colonial French between 1896-1904 to provide transportation of goods to the trading center at Toamasina since shipping along the coastal Indian Ocean was very dangerous. The workers on the canal were primarily Malagasy and Chinese, many of whom died during construction from malaria and crocodiles.
Crocodiles? Where? Bambino says most of the crocodiles have been hunted out of canal waters but a few are still around. They are mostly out at night. Night swims under the moonlight are out.
I get an “into the jungle” remote feeling as we chug along. There are few motorized boats and few mobile phone towers or other signs of the industrial world. To the west somewhere in the hills is Route National 2, to the east sand dunes and the Indian Ocean. A north to south rail line runs somewhere between the canal and lakes and the sand dunes. But I don’t know if trains still run on it.
Three hours of chugging and we arrive at Le Palmarium. We disembark, check in, and gather for a leisurely and delicious lunch. An almost black lemur comes by looking for handouts but doesn’t get any (I haven’t yet figured out which species this one is).
Le Palmarium also called Ankanin’ny Nofy, Malagasy for “nest of dreams,” is situated on a 50 hectare reserve (about 123 acres) on the shores of Lake Ampitabe. The buildings feature traditional constructeion for the most part. The restaurant and reception are under a large, ravenala (traveler’s palm) thatched roof with sides open to air. The bungalows have hot water (wood heated) and a generator provides power into the late evening. Always nice to have a hot shower and be able to charge modern can’t-live-without gadgets. On the ample verandas of the bungalows are chairs, a table, and a hammock.
After lunch, some of our group trek to a local village. They say later it was a bit epic. Heat, hills, and creek crossings. Not me. I take a nap then explore the gardens and the beach.
Dinner is excellent. The menu is a mix of Malagasy and French-influenced international dishes. After dinner, women and children from a local village perform traditional dances. Some guests are challenged to a dance where they balance a bottle on their heads. I avoid that one.
During breakfast, several lemurs show up. Lori offers one a slice of banana. First one then another jumps on her, “Please, may we have some more.”
After breakfast, Bambino and a Le Palmarium guide take us on a walk through the gardens and then the forest. The gardens showcase native Malagasy plants like ravenala, the Madagascar or Traveler’s Palm, local crops like vanilla and pineapple, and a few radiata tortoise. In the forest, our Le Palmarium guide calls in lemurs. We see indri, black and white ruffed, and crown lemurs, and a reddish hybrid lemur. I feed an indri who very gently holds my hand, lifts it, and eats the slice of banana from my palm.
Then comes a drowsy boat ride home after lunch in the sunshine.