As a protected area that houses Madagascar’s most beautiful highland rainforests, the Zahamena National Park is home to some of the country’s most extraordinary sights.
A National Park Close to the Clouds
Set 40 kilometers northeast of the city of Ambatondrazaka, the Zahamena National Park’s lofty landscape is mostly composed of steep valleys surrounded by a flowing mountain range.
It has an overall land coverage of 64,300 hectares, but only 42,000 hectares is open to the public due to strict conservation reasons. Having a maximum elevation point of 1,560 meters above sea level, the general climate in this nature park is both humid and subtropical.
It receives an average annual rainfall level of approximately 6 feet and experiences frequent rain showers even during the dry season between the months of April and October.
One really interesting thing about the Zahamena National Park is that its unique highland topography has paved the way for the development of several ecosystems that simultaneously exist within its territory.
This is the reason why the types of wildlife living in one sector of its expanse are different in another, which makes it quite exciting to explore.
This protected area’s main territory is divided into two parts, the eastern and western sectors, with a separate tract of land in the middle where many small villages are situated. These villages are inhabited by the members of the Sihanaka and Betsimisaraka ethnic groups.
What’s in a Name?
The Zahamena National Park gets its name from the local Zahana Mena tree, an uncommon type of hardwood that thrives on the lower regions of this protected area.
It is characterized by its deep red timber and extra resilient wood that can be rather challenging to cut, join, shape and carve even with modern carpentry tools.
The Pioneering Reserve that Became a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Established as a strict natural highland integral reserve in 1927 (and one of the first of its kind in all of Madagascar at that), the Zahamena National Park was officially conferred its national park status in 1997 and was eventually opened to the public.
Due to its remarkable limestone topography and unique endemic biodiversity, this national park was later listed as a key component of the collective UNESCO World Heritage Site called the Rainforests of the Atsinanana in 2007.
The Rainforests of the Atsinanana comprises six (6) national parks that feature mostly primary forest zones in the eastern part of Madagascar.
Besides the Zahamena National Park, the other wildlife sanctuaries that make up this collective UNESCO World Heritage Site include the Andohahela National Park, the Andringitra National Park, the Ranomafana National Park, the Masoala National Park, and the Marojejy National Park.
A Place Where Water Sources Abound
The Zahamena National Park’s territory is very close to some of the most prominent water systems in Madagascar and plays a crucial role as regards to the supply of drinking and irrigation water in the villages set near its grounds.
Apart from being only twenty-five kilometers away from the country’s largest lake, the Lac Alaotra, this wildlife sanctuary is also surrounded by the rivers Sarondrina and Sahatavy, not to mention the several small tributaries and inlets in and around its expanse.
A total of twenty-nine individual species of fish have been recorded in the areas where these water systems consistently flow through and the majority of them can be found in the Sahatavy and Sarondrina rivers.
Its Out of the Ordinary Fauna Species
This national park is deemed as a prime bird-watching destination.
Featuring 112 individual avian species (of which 67 are endemic), the Zahamena National Park has earned the reputation over the years as one of the go-to places when it comes to catching sight of some of Madagascar’s exceptional winged creatures.
Besides the Red-tailed Newtonia, the other endemic birds that call this place home include the Malagasy paradise flycatcher, the Blue coua, the Madagascan Red owl, the Madagascar blue pigeon, the Madagascar wood rail, the Madagascar flufftail, the Madagascar sparrowhawk, the Madagascar serpent eagle, and the Madagascar Yellowbrow, among others.
According to the BirdLife International (2021) Important Bird Areas factsheet, the Zahamena National Park is the protected area that contains the largest number of endemic bird species in the country.
It has a solid catalog of lemurs.
The Zahamena National Park’s expanse houses groups of thirteen (13) different types of lemurs, namely the Aye-aye, the Hairy-eared mouse lemur, the Babakoto, the Black-and-White ruffed lemur, the Diademed sifaka, and six kinds of various fat-tailed and mouse lemurs.
Moreover, sightings of the elusive Lake Alaotra bamboo lemur — the largest of the bamboo lemurs — have also been confirmed in this protected area.
What’s really interesting about the Lake Alaotra bamboo lemur is the fact that it can only be found in forested zones near or within the Lac Alaotra.
This protected area flaunts an extensive lineup of herpetofauna and carnivores.
A total of sixty amphibians and fifty reptiles have been catalogued in the Zahamena National Park’s premises and some of its most conspicuous specimens include the Malagasy tree boa, the Perinet chameleon, the Short-horned chameleon, and the Masobe gecko.
As for its carnivore denizens, this wildlife sanctuary is a refuge for the Malagasy civet, the Eastern falanouc, the cat-like Fossa, the Malagasy brown-tailed salano, and the Malagasy broad-striped mongoose, which have been all listed as vulnerable species by conservation groups.
The Plants You’ll Encounter
The lower regions of the Zahamena National Park’s territory are abundant with towering Dalbergia, Ravensara, Diospyros, Weinmannia and Tambourissa trees that provide dense overhead canopies usually reaching a height of fifteen to twenty meters.
Its mid-altitude sectors are blanketed with various shrub varieties, particularly Pandanus screw-pines and Cyathea tree-ferns, while its high-altitude zones are filled with sclerophyllous vegetation as well as an assortment of ferns and herbs like Polystichum, Begonia and Impatiens.
There are also twenty species of palms and sixty types of orchids scattered around this wildlife sanctuary’s grounds. This very diverse selection of flora is seen as a key factor in the Zahamena National Park’s ability to sustain an extensive list of wildlife.
Best Activities to Do
Check out some of Madagascar’s most amazing avian species.
The Zahamena National Park flaunts one of the most substantial populations of endemic bird varieties in the country.
Besides being one of the areas where the Madagascar wood rail can be seen perching on the trees, you can also pick out the Madagascar serpent eagle zipping through the sky if you’re really lucky.
This protected area’s avian populations are mostly concentrated near its water systems where they can wade or have a quick dip throughout the day.
Make sure you bring a pair of binoculars if you’re looking to check these birds out since some of them can be pretty tricky to spot with their camouflaged plumage.
Conquer the park’s hiking circuits.
The Zahamena National Park’s expanse contains three unofficial yet frequently used hiking circuits or trails, which also vary in distance and difficulty. It is important to remember, though, that regardless of the circuit you travel on, the journey will still be quite challenging.
The first circuit and the shortest of the bunch, begins in the lower regions of this wildlife sanctuary and will lead you through its forested areas, a few waterways and some steep rock slopes.
It culminates near a waterfall where you can have a refreshing dip. This circuit is recommended for bird-watchers and can be completed within a single day.
The second circuit passes through the park’s eastern mid-altitude sectors where you’ll negotiate a lot of harsh climbs and demanding descents. Unlike the first circuit where you’ll only traverse the outer perimeters of this protected area’s forested zones, this circuit allows you to go deeper into them.
This circuit is recommended for tourists who’d like to check out this wildlife sanctuary’s lemur denizens and can be completed within two days. This trail is deemed as the most difficult among the three.
The third circuit is a cross between the previous two trails and lets you pass through several steep rock walls while cutting across some waterways as you go along.
Apart from getting a fantastic panoramic view of the Lac Alaotra while on top of a rocky bluff, you will also get to check out a lot of lemurs and birds chilling in the general area.
You may even get to encounter some chameleons and mongooses while you’re at it. A crude yet functional campground is situated at the end of this circuit, which can be completed within a single day.
Go for light clothes that protect you from the sun.
Make sure you go for light, breathable clothes when touring the Zahamena National Park since the temperatures in the area tend to be very high, especially during noontime and in the early afternoon.
Wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants is also a plus since although its forested areas have dense overhead canopies that protect you from the sun’s harsh rays, its mid-altitude and high-altitude sectors provide very little to no shade.
Putting on a cap or hat is also highly recommended for added sun protection. After all, it gets extremely hot.
Coordinate with the Parks Office in Antanandava first.
The Zahamena National Park’s office is located in the town of Antanandava, which is part of the Ambatondrazaka district. Make it a point to drop by the office first.
This is where you pay the necessary fees to be allowed entry to its grounds as well as hire accredited guides who will assist you during your tour of this protected area.
The Parks Office in Antanandava is also the place where you can coordinate with personnel if you’re looking to camp out on its premises, given you’ve already got the essentials covered like shelter, food, water and other necessities.
Drink water regularly.
The combination of high temperatures and excessive humidity levels in the Zahamena National Park can negatively affect your body’s ability to stay cool.
Make sure you drink a glass of water every half hour or so to avoid dehydration or even heat stroke. Local guides recommend bringing at least a liter of water per person per day when exploring this wildlife sanctuary.
While there are several clean streams and creeks in the area that you can drink directly from, bringing some purification tablets along with you is a must to steer clear from gastrointestinal issues.
While negotiating the Zahamena National Park’s harsh landscapes and terrains is already quite demanding in the first place, the biggest reason why this protected area isn’t as frequently visited by tourists is its sheer remoteness. Getting there is quite a challenge, too.
With Antananarivo as your vantage point, you’ll need to travel on the Route Nationale (RN) 2 until you reach the city of Moramanga.
From there, you’ll need to shift to the RN 44 and drive on 158 kilometers of mostly dirt road until you get to the district of Ambatondrazaka.
From Ambatondrazaka, you’ll have to drive another 68 kilometers to the Parks Office in Antanandava. After paying the necessary fees and other charges, you need to travel 8 kilometers more to Ankosy to reach the Zahamena National Park’s entrance gate.
If you’re really looking to up the ante on adventure, you can also trek all the way to Ankosy from the Parks Office in Antanandava. There is a 6-kilometer bypass trail that you can travel on that leads to the national park’s entrance.
Where to Stay
As for accommodations when touring the Zahamena National Park, your first option would be to spend the night on its campground that is located at the end of its third “unofficial” circuit.
It is important to remember, though, that this campground is as basic as can be and does not have any formal infrastructure, running water or electricity.
However, if you prefer to cap off your exploration of this amazing wildlife sanctuary in a more private and cozier setting, here are some of the best places to stay in the Ambatondrazaka district as recommended by tourists:
Set in the village of Andreba, just a few meters away from the banks of the Lac Alaotra, Camp Bandro is a modest eco-tourist facility that offers simple yet homey rooms for guests.
It also provides short educational tours highlighting the unique plants and animals that can be found in and around the area.
What’s really interesting is that the income generated from Camp Bandro’s accommodation business is in turn used to fund the Andreba village’s micro-projects like the construction of wells and public toilets.
You can reach out to Camp Bandro at:
- Tel: +261 34 10 147 60
- Address: Andreba-gara 503 Ambatondrazaka, Madagascar
- Social media page: facebook.com/rmialisoalucile/
Hotel Max Irene
Known as one of the newer establishments located in Madiotsifafana, Ambatondrazaka, the Hotel Max Irene (French: Hôtel Max et Irène) flaunts a post-colonial vibe that is heavily accented with traditional Malagasy concepts.
Besides offering an assortment of spacious rooms and modern amenities like free Wi-Fi, guests who have already stayed in this hotel also relate that its multi-cuisine all-day dining restaurant is worth checking out.
You can reach out to Hotel Max Irene at:
- Tel: +261 20 54 813 86 or +261 33 14 644 88
- Address: 3 Ravinala, Route from Ambatondrazaka Station, Maditsiotsifafana, Ambatondrazaka, Madagascar
- Webpage: ortalma.org/hotel