The day started with a 4 a.m. wakeup and a 6:55 flight to Diego Suarez. There we were greeted by our guide for the next 3+ days, who guided us past the customary airport pandemonium. We drove for close to three hours on a government route, most of which was full of potholes, some big enough to hide a VW beetle. We passed hundreds of small shacks, and passed through two different towns having their weekly market day / fair; streets jammed with people selling, buying, and just seeing their friends. All very colorful. Many of the shacks have vendor stalls in front, offering fruit, soft drinks, and green coconuts. We stopped at one and bought a coconut each – they shave it down to the nut, cut the end off so you can drink the mildly sweet juice. Then they whack it in half and cut a thin slice of the husk that you use to scoop out the thin layer of coconut flesh, still gelatinous inside the shell. It is quite a treat on a hot day. Here in the north of the country it is much warmer than in the central highlands – it felt like it must have reached close to 90 during the day.
We arrived at the resort area in time for lunch – a stir-fried vegetable dish, skewers of zebu, rice, and coconut chicken (like Thai curry but with very little spice). Then we picked up a spotter and headed for the Ankarana national park for animal and rock formation viewing. At the very entrance to the park we encountered a family of crowned lemurs feeding on a couple of fruit trees (African dates). We took some photos then walked on through a really nice tropical forest. Along the walk we saw three other species of lemur, tufted brown lemur, the closely related Sanford’s brown lemur, and the sportive lemur, a nocturnal animal who hides during the day – sometimes, fortunately, in view of our camera lenses. Some were pretty high in the trees and hard to see, but we were able to get quite close to others. One sportive lemur was hiding in a hole in the tree trunk, with only his head showing, but another clung, only partially hidden, in a half-hollowed spot about ten meters up the tree.
We also did some hiking through the limestone formation that forms a huge part of the park, called Tsingy – a sea of grey rock formations with sharp tops and weird formations that resulted from sulfuric acid rain after a volcano eruption about a million years ago.
The resort where we are staying is comfortable, a double and a single bed consisting of foam mattresses on a platform, nice and firm. It was quite warm but with the help of a fan we managed to sleep pretty well. Dinner was unexciting to say the least – I had rather stale tuna and Eric had unexceptional curried chicken. Wine was $11 for a pitcher that may have contained 2/3 liter, very poor quality and very expensive after the great wines we had in SA.
The second morning we went for a longer walk in the same area, but went further, to a hanging bridge across a canyon in the limestone formations that led to a nice overlook across an expanse of the rock. We saw more lemurs as well as a small pale snake and two gekkos, one green and one very dark, almost black. In the tsingy field we saw a couple of species of euphorbia, also poisonous. According to the guide lemurs can also eat the euphorbia as well as another plant that produces cyanide – researchers have not yet determined how they neutralize the poison or whether it protects them from parasites.
After lunch and a rest through the heat of the day we went to a different part of the park, where we watched a family of half tame lemurs at the edge of a big campground (unoccupied now but probably heavily occupied later in the season). Then we walked through the rain forest to a huge pit where we descended about 135 steps to the entrance to a fascinating limestone cave – lots of bats of three sizes, then deeper in the cave some lovely stalactites, stalagmites, and columns.
Dinner was quite a bit better the second night – shrimp in a nice oil and garlic sauce with rice, a tomato salad, and a fruit salad for dessert. By the end of the second day I had 269 pictures of lemurs – obviously some weeding will be required. They are lovely animals – in their behavior they remind me somewhat of a cross between a house cat and a small monkey. Lemurs are abundant in Ankarana National Park – the only real threat is criminals who sneak in to harvest hardwoods, and pressure to open the park to prospecting for sapphires, which have been found nearby. However, several NGOs are active in promoting alternative ways for local people to make a living without further incursions into the park.
On Thursday we drove to another park, in the rainforest atop a mountain overlooking Diego Garcia and the bay. It was considerably cooler up there, and quite muddy from several hours of rain in the morning. We walked through parts of the park Thursday afternoon and again Friday morning. In addition to several species of Gekko and Chameleon, all unique to this island, and some frog species unique to this island, we also saw a family of tufted brown lemurs in a large tree next to a picnic area, where they were feasting on the new tender leaves and flowers of the tree. They were so intent on their feeding that we were able to get quite close to them and took some nice pictures. The chameleons we saw included a representative of the smallest species in the world, a tiny fellow about an inch long. I have a picture of Eric holding it.
We stayed in a B&B, The Litchee Tree, that was a strange combination of elegance and Spartan bad design. It occupies an early 20th century French mansion with a sweeping view of the bay. Our room was large, with a large double bed and a single bed, all very cozy. The electricity was on only from 5:30 p.m. until 10:30, and there was not a single plug in the room for recharging camera or cell phone batteries. The bathroom had a lovely pottery sink - and no place to put soap in the shower. The owner ranted so much about tourists wanting wifi that Eric didn’t even ask about it. Dinner was quite good – a simple but elegant frittata followed by a delicious fruit salad. However, the wine list was on the ultra-high side; the cheapest bottle in the rack was over $35.00 (we had become used to excellent wines in South Africa for $5-6.) Very odd place; I don’t know I could recommend it.
Finally on Friday we drove back to Diego Garcia where we had a great lunch in a posh hotel – both of us dressed in our muddy hiking clothes. A great crab salad, different from what I expected – potato and other vegetables instead of lettuce, followed by squid strips sautéed and served with some mixed sautéed vegetables. All very good. Then we were taken to the airport for the flight back to Tana.
A word about the countryside. I have already written about the terrible roads. People live along the roads in small villages and a couple of larger towns, mostly in quite small unpainted shacks. All along the road are little stands, often just a table with a makeshift roof of boards or palm leaves. Some sell soft drinks, some sell fruit – maybe two or three kinds, or just green coconuts which they chop off for you to drink the juice. Many sell bottles of lemons or other food pickled in lemon juice. In the towns, these little stands line the streets, with different wares – cloth, rope laid out in long lines for inspection, meat, various garden produce, live chickens, light hardware. We drove through on a market day when two of the larger villages were filled with people, most of them dressed in their finest clothing. Some of the young women were wearing jeans and t-shirts, but some were wearing lovely African print skirts. Our guide, Simon, explained that these are mostly married women, who are expected to dress more elegantly and traditionally. On special days they choose skirts with sayings that match the mood of the day – happy sayings for a wedding or festival, somber sayings for a funeral. Everywhere you see women, and some men, carrying surprisingly large and heavy loads on their heads. The women in particular, almost all the women of any age, seem to have a well-developed sense of style and elegance in their dress and carriage.
In Diego Garcia, you see many men on foot pulling rickshaws and rickshaw-like wagons loaded with freight. You see oxcarts everywhere – more in the countryside, but some in the city as well. You also see groups of peoples sitting more or less idly in front of shops and houses everywhere, city and country – the unemployment rate is quite high, and most people get by with a series of brief jobs, and by selling whatever they can to each other. Our guide talked quite freely – if discreetly – about the corruption which is a drag on the entire society. It is apparent that the owners of vehicles who use the roads for commerce would save enough money on repairs to pay for fixing and paving the roads – but Simon says that they would be unlikely to find anyone they could trust to give the money to, so everyone evades whatever taxes there are.
It rained most of the way to the highlands, eased off once we arrived at the resort, then rained again. The highway is much better maintained than the one we drove on in the north – this highway connects the capital with the major seaport, on the other side of the island, so more money is spent on maintenance.
We had lunch on the veranda between bouts of rain – fairly good shrimp salad and a meat dish.
We checked in to the hotel then walked around the local village, which was quite interesting in itself. It was built about a hundred years ago, initially by soldiers from one of the colonial wars, then became a railroad town. The houses are of wood, mostly unpainted and small, though there are still some houses from the colonial era. Streets are muddy and lined with small stalls, like the highways. As we entered the main part of town we saw a man with a table, on which squares were numbered 1-6; he was shaking a cup with three die in it; children who looked as young as five or six were placing bets on the squares. Shops sold raw meat, whole chickens, vegetables, fruit, dry goods of various sorts – all hanging or lined up on small tables; most shops were perhaps ten feet wide.
The highlight of the day was the night walk, before dinner, that lasted 6-8. We picked up a national park guide, John, who is very good at finding animals of all sorts – three species of tree frog, two of chameleon, and two lemurs. The rain stopped and the sky briefly cleared; we walked along the paved road, which was good considering the weather. At the very end he found a mouse lemur in a tree only a few meters from the road.
Wooly lemur: A whole family in a tree, most half obscured by branches. One near the top completely visible, but inactive – feeding on leaves, not moving much. Another lower down on a large branch we could see better. Fairly large (the largest of the nocturnal species), and definitely wooly, white stripe on the legs makes them more visible. Erect posture; unlike other lemurs we’ve seen they don’t go upside down – we saw the lower one climb down the branch; she climbed down tail first, like a human would, rather than head first like the other lemurs.
Goodman’s mouse lemur: the one we saw close at hand was stocky, short neck, large head with dark markings and pointed ears which, along with the huge eyes, made it look rather like an owl. Larger than a mouse, actually – more the size of a small squirrel, maybe 4-5 inches long. It sat for a remarkably long time while the guides shined bright flashlights into its eyes and we all admired it, then scurried off into the dark forest.
Frogs: White-lipped tree frog, actually with an entire white underbelly – a bit smaller than our familiar leopard frogs. A leaf-green tree frog a bit larger than a 25 cent coin, which flattened itself to the thickness of a coin as we inspected it, and a brown tree frog with a gold belly. Remarkably, John saw the small green tree frog from across the road – we had to get a few feet away from it to see it, even with him pointing it out.
Chameleons: two very small chameleons, one almost white.
We finished the walk with a half hour left before dinner, so detoured for a stroll through the village and a stop in a village night-club – a shed with thatch roof and concrete floor with a local band playing through a bank of about six oversize speakers – most of the people inside were men and boys, from maybe 6 or 8 into late 20s, a few young women but not nearly as many as men. Outside the door was a makeshift merry-go-round filled with kids having a great time – sitting on benches that look like park benches, fastened to a round wood platform suspended from a pole in the middle that was sunk into the ground.
Sunday morning we got up to rain. We had a scheduled walk in Montavidia National Park. We drove about 10 km, over an hour, to the park gate, then another 5 km, another hour, into the park itself, over a road that resembled Hunt Road, where I grew up, in the early 50s before it was covered with adequate gravel, after a heavy spring snow melt and two weeks of rain. John, the park guide, commented that forests and roads don’t go together – if a good road is built, people quickly cut down and steal the valuable trees (including Rosewood and several other species of valuable hardwood) and the forest disappears.
We had barely entered the park when John spotted some bamboo lemurs at the roadside. Madagascar has an indigenous species of bamboo that grows very tall and bends over in an arc, almost touching the ground, with small clusters of leaves every couple or three feet. The bamboo lemurs disappeared pretty quickly – Eric managed to get a couple of shots first, using my waterproof camera. It was a good sign.
Halfway to the parking place, John spotted a golden sefaca lemur – second largest on the island. It stayed around while I took several photos of it, with Eric holding an umbrella over me and my camera, then made a spectacular leap, or rather drop, down to a lower branch, followed by a lateral leap to another branch where it disappeared. As the name suggests, it is a brownish gold on top, a paler color, almost grey, underneath. It looked big enough to weigh 80 pounds but Elperon, our guide said it weighs about ten kilos. The difference suggests a pretty thick fur.
We reached the muddly parking area and began our walk, in a light rain that intermittently increased to heavy, then decreased to a near stop, then started again all day long. We walked up a long rather slippery hill – I was glad I’d brought the trekking poles, one for me and one for Eric. The parks people have done a good job with stone stairs on the steeper parts, but the tree roots were wet and slippery, and the clay soil slippery in places. We stopped after about ten minutes to watch a family of common brown lemurs in a tree – we tried a few photos but they were pretty far away with the sky behind them – I mostly just watched them through my binoculars until they dropped down beneath the level of intervening brush. We climbed on up to a viewing platform where we took a few pictures while John went out looking for lemurs. Elperon told us most tourists would not make it that far – they took us up to the viewing platform only after seeing that we took the slippery steep trail in stride. He later told me he and John had discussed me (in Malagasy of course) and wondered at the fact that I am still an active vigorous hiker at my age. (I encountered that kind of preconception throughout the trip.)
We rambled around in the mud and rain for another hour or more, as the rain slowly soaked through my rain jacket, without seeing anything more of note. When I realized my shirt was feeling a little damp I put the iPhone into a ziplock and the Canon into a larger plastic bag to keep them from being damaged. Eventually John decided we weren’t going to see any more so led us back to the road, about a km from the car. He commented “we may see something on the way back to the car.” He was right. About halfway there he spotted a small group of red-bellied lemurs, which are quite rare (Elperon said he hadn’t seen any of them for over a year.) Eric and I both took several photos as the lemurs moved from one tree to another – unfortunately no photos of their spectacular jumps from tree to tree.
Back at the car we took our sack lunches to a shelter near the car and ate them. We had encountered several other tourist groups, most of whom hadn’t seen any lemurs, although the group who shared the shelter with us had seen a ring-tailed lemur, which we have yet to see. The rain increased, so we picked our way through the mud back to the car to drive back to the lodge and try to get some of our clothes dry. John said we would drive slowly because we might see something along the way – and once again he was prescient. On the way back we saw another bamboo lemur on one of the curved bamboo stalks. This one sat still while Eric and I took a dozen or more photos, then jumped down to a lower branch where it sat for another five minutes while we took more. John said this was a good thing about the rain – they tend to be more still when it’s cool and rainy; without the rain we might not have seen any at all.
The night walk was even better than yesterday. The rain eased off, and finally stopped when the walk was about over. This time we walked along a forest trail; began by spotting three of the four chameleons active in this area, a very small one, the stumptail chameleon, named for its unusually short tail, a larger green one, Parsons chameleon, a juvenile of a species that as adults is the largest in this area, a whitish one that turned brown as we watched it called the elephant ear chameleon because of its large ears that lay back along it’s neck, and one called the Satan chameleon because of its horn-like points. We caught a brief glimpse of a mouse lemur before it descended rapidly from its tree and disappeared, then watched two wooly lemurs for five or ten minutes. Finally, near the end of the walk, a virtual miracle: a mouse lemur crouched on a small branch maybe 5 feet from the trail, looking at us with its huge eyes while we took dozens of photos, a few of which actually turned out. It has a very cute face, small mouse-like ears. After a while it moved to a lower branch, stared at us for another minute or so, then disappeared into the brush. As we returned to the parking lot the clouds cleared and stars came out – a perfect evening.
Our last full day here was brilliant – but also made us feel that we had timed our visit pretty well. The clouds cleared somewhat, and it rained only a little during the morning, not at all during the afternoon. On the morning walk we spotted a group of brown lemurs fairly high in the trees – ended up barging off through the bush to get a somewhat clear shot – I only got a few worth keeping; Eric managed to get a few more. Then we spotted a couple of golden sefaca lemurs high in one tree. I got several good shots, looking upward so all I got was butt and tail, with a couple of shots with a head, looking over its shoulder. About then several more groups showed up and we were surrounded with over a dozen people of various nationalities, most with no sense of being silent etc. – getting into position for a better shot through the trees was almost impossible. The guides suggested we move on and leave the sefacas to the crowd. Along the way my hat got knocked off my head by a low branch – I picked it up and put it in a pocket but it dropped out again and I thought I’d lost it.
We walked through the woods – lovely in the morning light, for another hour or so, hearing the calls of the indra all around us – the guide said they are territorial calls; they sound somewhat like whale songs although shorter; they carry for a mile or more. After a while John left us to go out scouting through the brush; he came back and led us along a faint trail through thick brush, up one very steep, muddy incline and down another – very difficult walking on sometimes slippery clay; we were very glad of the trekking poles. I was also glad of my previous hiking experience, which helped me find footing on the difficult terrain.
We finally came to a spot from which we could see two indras. As we watched them we realized one had a young baby with her – we could occasionally see the face of the baby as it peeked out from under the mother’s arm – Eric managed to get a couple of very good shots of the baby – I only got one because at just about that time my lens got fogged up inside the outer cover, which can’t be removed. Fortunately, the fog cleared away after about a half hour.
The lemurs decided to move off – it is a marvel to watch them leap sideways 15 or 20 meters to another tree, then a second, then a third, almost effortlessly. When they had gone the guide led us down another even steeper and more slippery trail into a ravine, and up the other side to a point where we could see three of the lemurs. We watched them for a half hour, taking some recordings of their calls, before clambering back up the hill to a better trail and walking back to the trail.
After lunch we drove to one of the other resorts that has a private reserve called Lemur Island – a fair-sized patch of forest surrounded by a rather narrow canal (shallow moat, perhaps) wide enough to keep the lemurs on the “island.” We got into a small plastic canoe, which a guide paddled across the water into a slip, where we got out. While he went back to the guide a welcoming committee of common brown lemurs approached, walking along the handrail beside a walkway above the rather moist ground. When the guide appeared (with a sack of cut up banana pieces) the lemurs swarmed all over us (literally), climbing on shoulders and outstretched hands, looking for their reward – a small piece of banana. After a bit some other tourists showed up, and our guide led us to another boat landing, where we boarded another plastic canoe to be ferried across to yet another island, where we could also see golden sefaca lemurs in the trees, and black and white tufted lemurs, also in the trees, as well as the rather shy bamboo lemurs (about the size of a house cat) and hordes of common brown lemurs. We stayed there, close to the landing, while they came to us. The golden sefacas did not actually clamber onto us like the black and whites and the common browns, but they did come down close enough to pose with us.
The bamboo lemurs are odd – they do not like to be touched, and seem somewhat fearful about coming too close, but they clearly want to be part of it – even when there are no bananas to be begged (and they don’t seem nearly as enthusiastic about the fruit as the common browns – they prefer to munch on bamboo leaves and grass, but they stayed fairly near, within a couple or three meters. The golden browns are more enthusiastic; several climbed up and perched on us; one adopted Eric and perched on his shoulder for almost the entire time we were there, an hour and a half or more, playing with his hair and his beard, sometimes with his hat, and at one point his glasses (he took them off and handed them to me.) Another one climbed up on me and sat contentedly on my shoulder, occasionally licking my shirt (by now, after three days in the rain forest, probably quite nutritious). From time to time he would lick my hands and nibble on my fingers in the way a pet cat often does – at first it made me a bit nervous (their teeth are sharp) but the bites were very gentle and restrained, again like a pet cat or dog. At one point a couple of black and whites joined the fun, climbing up onto our shoulders for a photo-op. In the background, the larger lemurs, especially the black and whites and the golden sefacas, would occasionally do a round of jumps, from one tree to another four or five times in a row.
The experience was sublime – a nice rounding out of the Madagascar experience. First we saw the lemurs and various lizard species in their natural habitat, natural behavior, sometimes quite distant and occasionally close enough for a really good look. Then we had the extended play and photo session with the half-tamed lemurs on lemur island. It was very nice – even nicer because the rain had stopped and we could enjoy it more or less dry.
The next morning we had planned another walk but Eric discovered his flight was that day – a day earlier than he had originally thought – so we had to leave for the drive back to Tana (Antananariba) right after breakfast.
Overall assessment: We were both very glad we decided to include Madagascar in our itinerary. It is a beautiful island, with wonderful people. Contrary to my preconceptions, it is as much or more Asian than African – the first settlers came from Indonesia, and half the current residents are of Asian descent. The culture is also a blend of the two. The situation faced by the lemurs and many other animal species unique to Madagascar is not as dire as I had been led to expect, although they are certainly under pressure, especially from logging and mining. The guides we encountered are very committed to preservation, and they happily speak of the many NGOs involved in the work.
Poverty is, as we expected, widespread. The forest areas are characterized by very traditional farming – ox-drive plows or human labor to till the soil; very little evidence of any labor saving machinery anywhere. In the cities as well as the countryside, unassisted human labor seems to predominate – everywhere you see the human-pulled carts, often loaded with hundreds of pounds of freight (and occasionally with another person riding on back along with the freight.) In populated areas, every bridge and every stretch of river or creek that can be easily accessed is the site of women doing their wash in the river, and usually spreading it out to dry on riverside rocks or grass. Women and a few men are seen everywhere carrying loads, often what appear to be quite heavy loads, on their heads. The main means of transportation is walking, sometimes four or five miles to the nearest market town, carrying goods to sell in to town, carrying purchased goods back, usually on the head or back, or sometimes in a person-drawn or occasionally ox-drawn cart. The houses in the countryside in the warmer north are flimsy shacks of thin boards with thatch roofs; in the cooler central highlands they may be made of compacted and dried mud or concrete, even though wood is the more traditional building material. Aside from the main highway, paved and kept up because of its role as a connector to the seaport, the roads are pot-holed dirt roads, some showing signs of having once been paved; streets of the small villages are mud.
The experience of seeing these remarkable animals in their natural habitat is incomparable, as it was in Africa.
It appears that we arrived just before the opening of high season – the last two days we found many of the forest trails crowded, and Elperon tells us that for the truly high season, late September through October when more animals are out and the weather is dry and warm, you need to book accommodations a year or more in advance. That may be a good thing for preservation – the more people depending on eco-tourism, the more support there is for preserving the wild basis, but inevitably the nature of the experience will change. We felt very lucky to be able to observe the animals in their natural habitat and generally enjoy the rain forest as a place of quiet and solitude.
Here even more than in the rest of Africa, avoiding gluten was a problem – compounded, perhaps, by the fact that Eric has a mild allergy to lactose, which seemed to confuse the issue. Very few people understand these issues; they often overgeneralize, assuming I can’t eat dairy products, or eggs, or rice, or even French fried potatoes. My French pronunciation is not good (I have never mastered either the nasality required for most French words or the particular rhythm and musicality of the language) and comprehension is made even worse by waiters’ inability even to conceive of someone wanting a meal sans ble’. Eric, who does much better at least approximating the nasal intonation, could sometimes achieve at least a limited comprehension – at least of the language, but not reliably of the underlying need. I never felt entirely confident that what I was eating was entirely free of a bit of flour.