Those of you of a certain age may remember Johnny Morris, “Animal Magic”, and Dotty the ring-tailed lemur. My fascination with these creatures dates from that time. We love travelling – lazing on a beach is not for us – but our idea of heaven is somewhere a bit off the beaten track where we can pursue our interests in wildlife and photography. We have been lucky enough to view tigers in India, elephants and lions in Africa, giant tortoises in the Galapagos and wombats in Australia, so when we saw the details of a small-group trip to Southern Madagascar – what’s not to like?
After flying via Nairobi we arrived in the capital with an impossibly long name – Antananarivo – fortunately known locally as Tana – much easier to pronounce. We spent a night there before starting our journey around the southern half of the island, which is located in the Indian Ocean off the east coast of Africa. The next few days were spent in a simple jungle lodge close to a reserve called Andasibe known for its population of indris (large black and white lemurs about the size of a small dog) as well as a variety of other lemurs and wildlife such as birds and chameleons. The indris call to each other with an amazing loud howl and on our first morning’s walk in the jungle we came across a family group feeding high in the trees. Soon enough they started howling to each other – an eerie, ear-splitting noise which echoed across the jungle canopy.
We felt immensely privileged to witness it; the indris were well aware of our presence, but still carried on with their usual way of life.
Close to this reserve is an island in a lake which is home to a variety of rehabilitated lemurs; in the not-too-distant past people took them in as pets, but the practice is now outlawed, so a range of lemurs live out the rest of their lives in the more natural habitat of the island. They are afraid of water so they cannot escape, but visitors are allowed to go over by canoe to see them, which to me was really exciting. You are not supposed to approach too close to them, but lemurs cannot read and they have no qualms about approaching you and climbing all over you, as humans provide a much more exciting climbing frame for them. Their little “hands” were so warm!
After leaving Andasibe we had a long drive back through the capital and to an overnight stop in a town called Antsirabe, which displayed strong French colonial influences in its buildings and wide boulevards; we then moved on to a rainforest lodge near Ranomafana Reserve. We found out why it is called a rainforest after a morning spent looking for lemurs in a dripping, steaming jungle. Here we saw sifakas which have very long legs and “dance” along the ground in great bounding hops; they were in a family group with some little ones which we managed to approach as they were feeding on seeds on the ground. It stopped raining later in the day and on a night walk we saw an amazing variety of chameleons and geckos, as well as a tiny bamboo mouse lemur – the name gives a clue to its size.
As we moved further south the land became drier and we were lucky enough to visit a reserve managed by the local community. They had previously killed ring-tailed lemurs for food, but an education programme had resulted in the community taking responsibility for protecting the lemurs and providing guided tours to have close up views of them (as well as some spectacular chameleons). Dotty’s descendants were there in abundance and very curious to come and look at the human visitors. There were several family groups and they seemed very keen to show off their offspring to the visitors – the little ones were enchanting.
In the village where we stayed overnight we also visited a silk factory (in someone’s house!) and a paper-making concern which used bark from local trees to produce beautiful parchment which was widely used by restaurants for menus.
Travelling even further south – by now we were almost at the southern coast – we reached an area which resembled the Australian outback – rich red earth and rocky outcrops which provided habitats suitable for more astonishing wildlife, as well as sapphire mines. The rest of the group decided to go swimming in some natural pools up in the hills but we elected to stay in a clearing in a small forest to look for birds. We were rewarded with sightings of Paradise Fly-catchers displaying to attract a mate, but while we were sitting quietly a family of ring-tailed lemurs came through and dropped out of the trees to inspect us. One mum brought her baby so close we could not even get a photo – it was too close to focus. As nature lovers we felt immensely humbled that wild creatures would trust us enough to come so close.
We were nearing the end of our holiday, but there was one more location to visit, which involved taking a 1½ hour boat trip (there were no roads for motor vehicles) to a place called Anakao, which is located on a beautiful white sand beach. From here we went to an area called the spiny forest, which as the name suggests, is home to a multitude of spiny plants and also baobab trees which look as if they are growing upside down, with huge bulbous trunks and a few sparse branches at the top. Some of these trees were a thousand years old. On the same trip we also visited a salt lake which housed a flock of flamingoes – Madagascar is truly a country of great variety in natural history terms.
A final boat trip took us back to civilisation, for our journey back to Tana and the onward flight home. We met some fascinating people; although Madagascar is a desperately poor country and initially we were treated with some suspicion as the number of visitors is not large, there were many smiles. In our travels we visited towns, villages, and rural areas with very few facilities and had the opportunity to see a completely different way of life. Would we go back? Certainly. But maybe not yet – we still haven’t seen orang-utans, polar bears, or jaguars…….