(THIS POST WRITTEN ENTIRELY BY HENRY)
In the pantheon of places every wildlife biologist would like to visit, Madagascar is near the top, right up there with the Galapagos Islands. Separated from the continent of Africa about 165 million years ago, Madagascar’s flora and fauna have been evolving in isolation ever since. While not hosting large numbers of species, very few places on earth can come close to the percentage of endemic species, found no where else. Forty percent of the 270 species of bird species are endemics.
Although the island’s biodiversity has affinities with Africa, its people are another story. Most of the island’s inhabitants are descended from Indo-Malayan seafarers who arrived only 2,000 years ago. Even the Malagasy language has affinities with Southeast Asia, and the terraced rice fields are reminiscent of Indonesia.
In 1883, French warships occupied the major ports of the country and forced the Malagasy government to sign a treaty declaring the island a French protectorate. It wasn’t until 1960 when the country gained full independence from France. The French influence persists today in the written and verbal language, architecture, and food that one encounters.
French built Citroen car. Body hasn’t changed much in 50 years.
After a three and half hour flight from Nairobi, we arrived in the capital Antananarivo (nicknamed Tana by the locals) on December 20. I immediately noted the French character of the vehicles, Renault. Peugeot and Citroens ruled the road. We were met by Jonah, the owner of the tour company I had been working with over the past year. In order to catch our breath and review the itinerary we stopped for lunch at a local restaurant by the side of the road.
Enjoying our first local meal. I had the grilled fluff tail, a bird I had hoped to see in the wild but didn’t. The Three Horses Beer was better than the any of the brews I had sampled in Kenya!!
Alicia was in rum heaven!!!
Bat guano is still being used for fertilizer.
Sitting outside the guest house shortly after arriving. Almost all the hotels and guest houses had wooden shutters and no screens. In the evenings you have to shutter yourself inside making for hot and stuffy evenings spent with little light or air circulation.
Our first night was at a lodge that Jonah hoped to expand. Essentially we stayed in a few rooms that were part of his family’s home. Because of the high elevation of Tana there was no air conditioning and one invited in mosquitoes if the shutters were left open. Alicia decided to relax while Julie Mei and I accompanied Jonah to a nearby village. Along the way we encountered the first wildlife species of the trip, a chameleon crossing the road. The local kids were entertained by our excitement over this find. The houses here and throughout most of Madagascar are two stories in height with the first floor dedicated to storage and animals (mainly chickens). The walls were made of brick, plastered over with red mud. Brick factories became a common site in the landscape. Julie Mei and I were treated to coffee by the village headman and his wife who were in their early seventies. The people lived only with the bare necessities of life; no pictures on the wall, no TV, no radios, and we soon noticed no shoes. It seemed like most everyone went about bare footed.
Typical village cart, wooden wheels and local cows, called Zebu.
Holding a baby in the village was the highlight of the afternoon for Julie Mei.
The family whose home Julie Mei and I visited.
The next day we began our five hour drive to Andasibe and Mantadia National Parks to the east of Tana. Once we left the city the roads became less congested but extremely curvy. The terrain was very hilly. Along the way we stopped for lunch at a local reptile park where we were introduced to some of the charismatic creatures we hoped to encounter in the wild.
The Madagascar reptile guide only uses scientific names. So, just enjoy the colors and variety of these interesting animals!!
Lunch was grilled zebu. Zebu is one of the most identifiable symbols of Madagascar. They are cattle with a large hump on their backs and flaps of loose skin dangling from the their throats. They indicate wealth and status, are sacrificed in ceremonies, yoked in pairs to pull wooden-wheeled carts, and used to plow the rice terraces. Zebu rustling is popular amongst some of the southern tribes. Anyway, zebu was to be found on every menu we encountered throughout the country. It was good!!
Zebu steak with green peppercorn sauce and sautéed vegetables
The decor of most of the restaurants, and all the menus were in French.
Our next accommodation was at Grace Lodge, which had a small pool in which to relax after a morning walk through the park to spot lemurs. The number one attraction here is a lemur known as the indri or babakoto. It is fady or taboo to kill or eat indris, which has assisted in their continued survival. The cool thing about the indri is their cry, which can be heard up to 3 km away; a sound once heard not forgotten. Unlike other lemurs they only have a small stump for a tail They are sensitive to changes in their environment and are threatened by deforestation, which was visible in the surrounding areas of the park. Our first day of lemur hunting resulted in the sighting of 5 different species including the indri. But the star of the show had to be the diademed sifaka, a pale grey lemur with rich orange to yellow-gold arms and legs. They are also known as dancing lemurs for their habit of occasionally descending to the ground and engaging in play bouts or wrestling. We were lucky enough to observe this behavior and watching the lemurs, the other tourists, and Julie Mei thus enchanted brought on an emotion in me that I will never forget.
The grounds of Grace Lodge as seen from our cottage
The characteristic eerie wailing song of the indri is unforgettable. It’s local name, “Babakoto” literally means “Father of Man.”
Budding wildlife photographer, Julie Mei, is inching her way closer to performing diademed sifakas who put on quite a show.
Cute bamboo lemur!
Black and white ruffed lemur. Notice the opposable thumb!!
Probably the highlight of our stay at Andasibe was a visit to “lemur island” a sanctuary within the park where former pet lemurs are kept. As soon as we stepped on the island we were besieged bodily by four different species of lemurs waiting for a banana hand out. Although very touristy, the animals are no longer caged or kept captive away from their natural habitat. Alicia and Julie Mei had a ball.
Favorite photograph of Julie Mei with the lemurs
Can’t get much closer to lemurs than this.
The next day the girls stayed behind while my guide and I went in search of ground rollers. It was tough going in the rainforest but we did manage to see the “pitta like ground roller”. The birding highlight however was the Madagascar cuckoo-roller, a weird looking bird with a massive head and very short legs. It belongs to a taxa that is considered a living fossil.
We left Andasibe for a two day journey to Ranomafano National Park. This became symptomatic of our visit to Madagascar and illustrated the precarious state of the natural environment and its wildlife. Most of the habitat has been converted to agriculture, especially rice production, trees cut for charcoal, etc. What remains are little pockets of rainforest or other habitats separated by long distances where the landscape has been severely impacted by humans.
Rice cultivation is a community and family affair.
A common sight; intensive agriculture, deforestation, and erosion.
A common roadside sight; charcoal for heating and cooking.
These folks were walking from their village to the church in town on Christmas day.
Entrance gate to our guest house where we spent one night.
Malagasy people frequently wear hats! These are like woven baskets turned up-side down.
These children were playing in the street just outside our SOA Guest House, barefoot, grimy but always happy to pose for photographs and a chance to see themselves in the viewfinder.
We overnighted at a small guesthouse in the highland town of Antsirabe. Antsirabe is known as THE place for Madagascan art, we unfortunately were there when every store was locked up for Christmas. Still, the town had it’s own charm with numerous, colorful “pouse-pouse” or rickshaws carrying passengers and goods. I would estimate that half the pouse–pouse pullers were running the streets in their bare feet.
The roads were not as twisty as before but what became noticeable was the paucity of private cars and only a few taxi-brouse or truck carrying goods. Lonely Plant describes the taxi brouse as “slow, uncomfortable, erratic, and sometimes unsafe.” Often the tops were stacked high with luggage, bicycles, and baskets of chickens. From the looks of them, however, I thought they were in better condition and safer than the local Nairobi “matatu.”
Two different taxi “brouse” on the windy roads in Madagascar. The one in the front has a coffin on the roof. Typically the back door is ajar, with the “conductor” standing on the back railing. Passengers get in and out of the taxis via the back door.
Two other modes of transportation were bicycles and walking. People were everywhere walking or biking along the side of the road. With a friendly toot from our driver, they would move off the road or towards the edge. The Malagasy equivalent of the Mexican “manana” attitude was “mora mora” or “easy easy.” Two miles of potholes and craters in the road…..”mora mora.”
You don’t find roads like this in Kenya!
The other vehicle that was commonly seen was home made carts for hauling water jugs, luggage, boxes of goods and people. Some had steering wheels and the brake was usually a piece of tire at the end of a rope for the driver to step on to slow the cart down.
These low rider carts were a very common mode of transport for goods, water jugs, and people.
The wheels were made of wood with pieces of tire nailed around the rim, or not.
Parc National De Ranomafana consists of 40,000 hectares of cloud forest in the cool mountains. We were lucky to see golden bamboo and greater bamboo lemurs. I also ticked off the velvet asity a deep forest bird with striking blue caruncle around the eyes. The highlight of our stay however, was a night walk to see the nocturnal mouse lemurs as well as chameleons.
Leaf tailed gecko!
The wired looking giraffe-necked weevil lives on a single species of plant! The female lays a single egg.
Nocturnal mouse lemur about the size of a squirrel.
We saw lemurs which were about the size of a squirrel but the amazing thing was the guide’s ability to spot the five chameleon species within a quarter mile space of roadside forest. Alicia and I went on our own night walk one night and saw zero chameleons. Another mammal sighting was the lowland streaked tenrec. Tenrecs are the oldest surviving mammalian lineage on the island. They have evolved to fill several niches and have morphological adaptations that include parallels with hedgehogs, moles, shrews, otters, and even small arboreal mice. The cool thing about tenrecs is that some have very large litters, up to 32 young!!
Setem Lodge got an A-plus for setting but the service left a lot to be desired. The grilled zebu in a local restaurant was to die for.
Julie Mei and I sitting outside our room at Setem Lodge
After three nights we headed south for a visit to Madagascar’s most popular park, Isalo. We left the rolling hill landscape for more open, flatter terrain, and the villages became more grass hut dominated. We stopped along the way to visit the Anja Reserve which was started by a local to promote regional tourism, create jobs and teach villagers the importance of conservation. Great views of the ring-tailed lemurs were had by all. We also were introduced to some tombs within the caves. The local tribes bury their dead here for a period of time and then collect the bones for festivities and re-burial.
In the southern part of Madagascar the dead are buried in caves. Years later the bones are removed and reburied with much celebration.
The changing landscape and the agricultural fields
Madagascar is a poor country and the distances between parks and major cities are long. The result of this is that tourist facilities i.e. lodging can be pretty rustic. That was the case for Toiles de I’Isalo. Our little bungalow was adequate but stuffy because of the hot days.
Standing in front of our cottage that we stayed in for two nights
One fan provided some relief and kept the mosquitoes at bay. However, the shower had hot water and the place had a pool. Parc National de I’Isalo consisted of eroded Jurassic sandstone cliffs and hills, with vegetated valleys, waterfalls, and canyons. It reminded us especially of Arizona. Or guide led us through the best hike of the trip; spectacular vistas despite the heat. However we were rewarded by the opportunity to swim in several pools below lovely waterfalls. For lunch we had grilled zebu provided by one of the locals. And of course ring tailed lemurs to entertain us and Julie Mei got to hold a tree boa!!!
Julie Mei and tree boa!
Heading south again brought us to the Zombitse Forest where the vegetation changes dramatically to what is known as the spiny forest. We went on a short hike and spotted several Verreaux’s sifakas. This is a lemur with white pelage and a dark brown crown and can tolerate drought conditions. In the dry season, when heavy dews are common, they lick moisture from their own coats.
Your every day run of the mill ring-tailed lemur.
Julie Mei with an endangered radiated tortoise.
Flatid leaf bugs that have evolved to look like fuchsia flowers as protection against predators.
Sandstone landscape of Parc National de I’lsalo
Our next lodging was at the La Plage Hotel, along the beach north of the soon to be infamous town of Tulear. The managers were French who spoke minimal English. But the room and setting were great. Alicia and I had several walks on the beach and Julie Mei enjoyed swimming in the warm Indian Ocean of the Mozambique Channel.
Shopping for bargains along the beach!
Relaxing outside our room at the beach
Grilled lobster for lunch on New Year’s Day
One day we got up very early for a tour of the spiny forest with it’s spiny octopus trees and ancient baobabs that look like giant carrots. We were a bit disappointed because we were expecting vistas like those of The Avenue of the Baobabs which it turned out was located several days drive to the north. Maybe another time!
The iconic baobab tree!
Sunrise at the Spiny Forest
The highlight of our beach stay had to be the New Year’s Eve dinner and entertainment. The hotel brought in about twenty local men and woman who performed traditional music to the accompaniment of a guitar and drum. The melodies and beat were great and it was an evening that will stay with us for a long time. We didn’t make it to midnight!!
They danced and sang for hours
Well, the new day dawned and it was time to get to the airport and catch a flight on our way to a much anticipated beach resort in northwest Madagascar. Unfortunately, Air Madagascar had decided to use a smaller plane and bumped eight passengers….us included. Come to find out that the airline also goes by the name “Air Maybe”. We were put up in the Amazone Hotel in Tulear. The air conditioning was a plus but the worst was yet to come. Our rooms faced a busy street with several open-air bars. It seems that in Madagascar the New Year celebrations go on for several days. And they like to play loud music all night long….in this case 3 AM. What was interesting was that men and women both used a nearby open, vacant lot as a bathroom. Women would just get off the street find a bush if available and just squat…pretty much in the open. And this went on all evening. The next day we got bumped AGAIN. We spent some time roaming the street and doing a little shopping.
Public WC Tulear style.
When we finally left Tulear for Tana we were all disappointed that we would miss out on the beach but glad to be leaving Tulear. We were put up in a lovely hotel in Tana and spent the next few days touring the old town, markets, and relaxing at the hotel. The highlight was a visit to Ambohimanga which was the original capital of the Merina royal family. Trivia—the fortress was constructed using cement made from egg whites—16 million for the outer wall alone. The king lived in a large wooden hut with a central pole made from a single trunk of sacred rosewood tree. Reportedly, it was carried from the east coast by 200 slaves, 100 of which died along the way. All in all it was a pretty interesting site to visit. A lot better than the national museum which was housed in a old palace with high arching ceiling. The exhibits, however, were few and in poor condition. Many of Mad’s heritage treasures had been lost in fire in 1995 that gutted the still closed royal palace.
Palace walls made with eggs!!
Standing just below the palace grounds
Old town Tana.
Local outdoor market in Tana where we went to buy a bag of rice for donation to an orphanage we visited
With the help of our guide we also stopped at a local “wholesaler” to buy soap, oil and sugar to donate as well.
Some of the girls at the orphanage — they loved our visit and jumped all over Julie Mei and Alicia
Throughout the trip we asked ourselves was this trip worth it. I don’t think we were prepared for the long drives and some of the “mora mora” times. As a wildlife biologist however, I think it was well worth it although it left me with a sense of despair at how the few remaining pieces of natural habitat are under threat. I think Julie Mei came back to Nairobi with a sobering view of way of life that most Americans and Europeans couldn’t imagine otherwise. We essentially high graded the country. Having talked with other people and seen the lay of the land, I would go back but do things differently; stay longer in fewer parks and finally make it to the beach resort.