If you’re an adventurer who’s into boating, rafting or kayaking while taking in stunning views of nature and wildlife, the Pangalanes Canal is definitely a place you should check out
Considered by many as one of the most biodiverse and alluring waterways in the world, it’s easy to see why the Pangalanes Canal attracts many visitors each year.
Stretching from Farafangana to Tamatave with a distance of 645 kilometers, the Pangalanes Canal is an artificial waterway that was initially constructed in the 16th century by order of the Merina monarchy.
Its construction was aimed at linking remote towns and villages that were extremely challenging to reach by land. It also opened up trade routes in and around the island country without having to traverse the Indian Ocean, which can be rather treacherous to small boats, canoes, and rafts.
When Madagascar was put under the control of France in 1896, General Joseph-Simon Gallieni, the then administrator of French colonies, initiated further construction for the Pangalanes Canal.
The order was given to speed up the distribution of rations for inland troops and provide a more navigable channel for boats bound to Toamasina, the capital city of the Atsinanana region.
Gallieni’s additions to the Pangalanes Canal took eight years to complete. And by 1904, the trading port of Tamatave could be easily reached, even by the smallest scows and barges.
Apart from being transformed into a major trading route for hauling spices, minerals, coffee and vanilla, the man-made waterway also became a hub for fishing and gathering for locals living in the towns that it passes through.
These include Mananjary, Mahanoro, Vatomandry, Ambila and Manambato, just to name a few.
Nowadays, the Pangalanes Canal is an emerging vacation hotspot for tourists who’d like to experience nature at its finest while navigating anywhere from a narrow inlet to an open lake.
There are even some parts of the canal that are so wide that it gives visitors the feeling of cruising on the wide ocean without waves.
Out of its overall distance of 645 kilometers, only 400 kilometers of the Pangalanes Canal’s circuit are navigable.
The rest are smaller creeks and streams, brimming with water hyacinths and similar plants that serve as important breeding grounds for waterfowl and other marine creatures.
The mystical Vato Sarilambo
Some 50-kilometers north of the town of Mananjary, particularly in the village of Ambohitsara, lies a mystical chlorite schist stone sculpture called the Vato Sarilambo or Vatolambo.
Depending on who you ask, the figure is either a depiction of a bush pig or a white elephant proudly showing off its tusks.
Besides the dispute as regards to the subject of the stone figure, it is also unclear who exactly made it and when it was sculpted. Some say the Vato Sarilambo was made by Indians from Mangalore passing by Madagascar in the 9th century.
Others believe that Arabs who traded with the early Malagasy people were responsible for it in the 12th century.
Regardless of the technical details, the Vato Sarilambo is an impressive work of ancient art that you shouldn’t miss if you’re visiting the Pangalanes Canal.
The highest waterfalls in Madagascar: the Sakaleona Falls
At a height of 200 meters, the Sakaleona Falls is known as the highest waterfall in all of Madagascar. It is nestled along the Sakaleona River and can be found in the southeast region of Vatovavy-Fitovinany.
Apart from its popularity as a picturesque place to take a dip in while catching sight of birds, lemurs and reptiles endemic only to the island country, the Sakaleona Falls is also renowned as an awesome camping ground for adventurers and outdoor enthusiasts.
Sambatra, the feast of boys becoming men
Every seven years, the Antambahoaka tribe of Madagascar celebrate the sambatra, or the “circumcision feast,” where young boys go through a symbolic ritual of reaching maturity by way of a collective circumcision.
The ancient ritual is supervised by male tribal elders and can have as much as over a thousand boys taking part in the same.
It usually takes place during the dry season and is guided by the Antambahoaka traditional agricultural calendar as to the exact time it should be observed.
Interestingly, the sambatra is also in part a bravery test, since participants are not allowed to shed even a single tear during the ritual. This is to ensure good favor from the gods and guarantee a bountiful harvest of crops.
The Antambahoaka is the smallest tribe in Madagascar population-wise and its members believe that their ancestors include King Raminia Rabevahoaka, who hailed from Mecca in the 14th century.
They also share some cultural aspects and belief systems with the Antaimoro tribe, who are partially Arab.
The Best 4 Activities to Do When Visiting the Pangalanes Canal
Whether you’re a big fan of boating, kayaking or rafting, or perhaps you’d like to experience Madagascar’s extraordinary flora and fauna while comfortably cruising on majestic waters, visiting the Pangalanes Canal is a must for anyone visiting the country.
Here are just some of the cool activities you can engage in while spending your next holiday in this one-of-a-kind waterway
Explore Manambato by boat
Bounded by the banks of Lac Rasoabe, Manambato is one of the access towns you need to arrive at before reaching the Pangalanes Canal, and a place that you should definitely check out if you’re up for adventure.
Apart from flaunting a seemingly untouched white-sand beach, this village is also known for its lush vegetation that serves as nesting sites for several bird species.
These include the Alaotra Grebe (Tachybaptus rufolavatus), the Black-banded Plover or Madagascar Plover (Charadrius thoracicus), the Madagascar Shelduck (Alopochen sirabensis) as well as the Malagasy Sacred Ibis (Threskiornis bernieri).
Manambato’s natural waterway spans for more than 30 kilometers and is becoming a haven for boating and kayaking enthusiasts because of its generally calm waters and laid-back vibes.
If you’re looking to socialize, the local fishermen are also always up for a friendly chat. Besides cruising the water, visitors can also hike the dirt trails scattered around town that lead up to hills and overhangs for stunning views of the Pangalanes Canal and the neighboring areas.
The best time to visit Manambato is between the months of April to early November — just before the monsoon season — when the chances of rain are quite low and the wind is not as strong, especially during cloudy days.
It’s very important to bring sun protection with you since there are some areas in the Manambato waterway that do not have a lot of shade. Wearing gaiters and having a mosquito repellent with you at all times is also a must when checking out Manambato’s narrow inlets.
Bask in Ambila’s colonial atmosphere
Situated in the district of Manakara, the town of Ambila is one of the places that you should have on your checklist if you’re planning to spend your next holiday touring the Pangalanes Canal.
Ambila used to be very popular among colonists when Madagascar was still under French control. It was known for its unique combination of dense woodlands and abundance of marine life, not to mention its substantial population of large reptiles.
It even once became an informal meeting place for crocodile hunters to drink and share their escapades on the Pangalanes Canal’s banks. Many of the colonists loved the place so much that they had second homes — designed in colonial architecture, of course — built there.
While most of these colonial homes have become neglected when France surrendered its control over Madagascar, a number of them have been restored over time and given a second life as spas and hotels for tourists.
And even after all these years, Ambila still retains a mysterious old-world charm that draws in nature lovers and architecture buffs alike.
If you’re looking to visit Ambila, make sure you schedule it during the summer months of June, July and August when the weather is generally sunny. It can get pretty rainy, especially between April and September, which can prevent you from really exploring the place.
Rough it out in the Sakaleona Falls
Tourists who have already visited the Sakaleona Falls relate that the experience can be likened to “as if you are going back in time.”
Besides being the highest waterfalls in Madagascar, its surrounding forests, rock formations and summits also flaunt several species of plants, birds, lemurs, amphibians and reptiles that can be found nowhere else on the planet.
While you can go for a day hike and a quick dip when exploring the Sakaleona Falls, you can also take adventure to a whole new level by camping on its grounds for a few days while having a guided tour of the jungle.
If you choose the day hike, be sure to bring at least a liter of water per person as well as a piece of reliable headwear — the sun can be pretty hot, particularly from 9 AM to 2 PM.
Make sure you also wear pants and thick socks to prevent bugs from getting to your ankles while hiking, which can be quite uncomfortable.
If you opt for a camping trip, make it a point to bring a summer tent to sleep in that allows lots of air circulation; the atmosphere in the Sakaleona Falls can be a bit humid, especially just after sunset.
Bringing along trail mixes is also highly encouraged when you’re exploring the surrounding woodlands and terrains. The terrain is somewhat challenging to navigate, and mixed with the heat, you’ll want to stay hydrated and fed.
Soak up some sun and waves in Mananjary.
Mananjary has an interesting feature that sets it apart from other towns and villages found in and around the Pangalanes Canal’s stretch: it has separate yet simultaneously existing outlets for the sea and the river.
Besides being entirely independent from each other, the types of fish and marine life that can be caught from these two outlets also vary significantly.
However, unlike a regular estuary that is affected by tidal patterns, the outlet connected to the river stays extensively deep even when its seawater counterpart is already at low tide.
This simply means you can enjoy the best of both worlds — whether you’re in the mood for a freshwater adventure or a seawater one — when you are in the area.
Or you can also just chill out on the beach and enjoy sumptuous Malagasy delicacies like Tilapia à la Malagasy or lobster in vanilla sauce while enjoying the scenery.
Although Mananjary is mostly known as a historical trading route for spices and precious stones in the Pangalanes Canal, it is an emerging hotspot for kitesurfers and windsurfers for its pleasant waves and cool sea breeze.
It is also not uncommon seeing tourists and locals alike giving their skimboards a spin on its shores.
Getting Around the Pangalanes Canal
Navigating the Pangalanes Canal mostly involves hopping on a watercraft to get the full experience. Key factors to consider when planning your trip in and around this waterway include the weather, along with the type of vessel that you’re most comfortable cruising the waters in.
While you can easily arrange a Pangalanes Canal excursion with your hotel’s receptionist (in most hotels situated in Ampitabe and Rasoabe), you can also ask around the ports and docks yourself to hire the services of a local boatmaster.
Just a heads up, though. Most of the boats plying the Pangalanes Canal are usually wooden outriggers fitted with a tarpaulin roof. While these vessels may look rather simplistic, they are the best choices to go for when exploring the canal for their maneuverability.
If you’re looking to up the ante on adventure, you can also choose to navigate the Pangalanes Canal on a long, narrow wooden canoe called a pirogue.
But they can be rather uncomfortable after an hour or so of continuous sitting. After all, they’re completely made out of hardwood, without much cushion. Be sure to bring a blanket or something to sit on if you opt for this type of boat.
Where to Stay
You’ve basically got two possible options as regards to accommodation when planning your next vacation in the Pangalanes Canal: first, you can choose to stay in a hotel that’s situated right on the waterway’s banks.
Or, you can go for accommodations in a different city and arrange your trip from there. Regardless of which one you’ll choose, here are some of the most comfortable and budget-friendly options available:
Hôtel Rasoa Beach
Located right on the shores of Lac Rasoabe, Hôtel Rasoa Beach offers seven bungalows that can easily accommodate anywhere from 2 to 6 travelers.
These bungalows are constructed using a combination of modern and indigenous materials that provides no-fuss comfort. Tourists who have already stayed in Hôtel Rasoa Beach also highlight its cleanliness and practicality.
While this hotel doesn’t have a high-speed Internet connection as well as the luxuries most of its counterparts in bigger cities can provide, it makes up for them in tranquility and coziness.
You can reach out to Hôtel Rasoa Beach at:
- Tel: +261 20 56 720 18
- Address: Manambato, Lac Rasoabe, Canal des Pangalanes, Madagascar
- Le Reseda
Le Reseda is nestled in Antanambahiny and is popular among tourists who are looking to enjoy 2-star hotel service without the need to spend a lot of money.
Besides offering bungalows that have a homey atmosphere, the overall serenity of its location also provides a whole new dimension of restfulness.
Although you won’t be able to connect to the internet or access streaming services when you’re staying in Le Reseda, you’re sure to experience a deeper sense of relaxation when you step inside its bungalows.
You can reach out to Le Reseda at:
- Tel: +261 20 53 822 05
- Address: Antanambahiny-Vatomandry, Madagascar