Ryan's Journal

"My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?" — David Mitchell

The Road to Ifaty

Posted from Ifaty, Madagascar at 9:47 pm, September 21st, 2014

We reached the ocean today after a four hour drive from Isalo, at which point we turned right and traveled at fifteen miles per hour up a bumpy “road” to the seaside town of Ifaty. The route today was past all manner of villages and people, and was done with Desiree playing Celine Dion as our soundtrack for much of the way. The ever-present taxi brousse (van taxis) were out as always, each with room for about ten people, while actually containing around twenty-five, plus everything from furniture to produce to farm animals piled on the roof. Zebu carts yielded to us as we passed, lumbering overloaded trucks did not, while people pushing carts filled with water containers, bags of charcoal, firewood, or anything else needing transport labored up hills in the heat. Ancient bicycles were in use, some carrying three people, some loaded down with lumber, some merely carrying a single passenger who had somewhere to get to.

The scenery showed the effects of generations of slash-and-burn, with grassy fields stretching to the horizon, except in one area that was maintained as a national park and thus still forested. Baobab trees started appearing as we neared the coast, although hopefully tomorrow we’ll see some of the older, larger members of the species. Sapphire miners were bringing their gems into the many shops that appeared during a brief stretch of road, and the rivers in that area were filled with people filtering gravel looking for the tiny blue stones. Villages varied from mud huts with thatched roofs to stick huts to the occasional modern building, although once we reached the coastal town of Toliara the construction was mostly all modern.

The people along the way seemed happy for the most part. Children waved, some of them running to the car yelling for “bon bons”. Older folks were busy with the chores of their daily lives, whether working in the fields, chopping firewood, taking something from point A to point B, or running a tiny roadside stand. People in Madagascar have only a fraction of the wealth seen in other nations – our guidebook says that a doctor or university professor might make just $200 a month, while our guide in Andasibe indicated that the fellow who manned the security booth at the hotel probably made 100,000 Ar per month (about $40) – but despite the low wages people seem to get by sufficiently. Obviously when things go wrong for someone here they can go very wrong – a big storm might wipe out crops and mean no food, or an accident could lead to a handicap that would end a person’s ability to support himself – but for the majority of individuals it seems like they do well with the life they’ve been given. Hopefully conditions will continue to improve, but at the same time there is probably a lesson to be learned from the fact that even in the toughest of situations, people can be as happy or happier than those of us who live in comparative luxury.

The Guide was Tired

Posted from Isalo National Park, Madagascar at 6:52 pm, September 20th, 2014

The alarm went off at 5:45 this morning, and I sprang out of bed ready for a day of hiking in Isalo National Park. It took some coffee to get Audrey equally as charged up, but once caffeinated she was suited up and ready to go. Isalo is a huge, hot and dry park that contains impressively eroded sandstone formations that are home to a number of lemurs, and also has deep canyons that contain lush springs and numerous waterfalls. Our plan today was to hike to the Piscine Naturelle (natural swimming pool) and then across a big open area to a campground that was rumored to be lousy with lemurs. From there Audrey would meet our driver and return to the lodge in order to miss the worst of the afternoon sun, while the guide and I would hike through a canyon to the Piscine Bleu and Piscine Noir (blue & black pools).

Things went according to plan, with ringtail lemurs joining us at the Piscine Naturelle, and numerous raptors, a stick insect, and a scorpion all making appearances on our way to the campground. At that point the needle on the thermometer was moving from “hot” to “frying pan”, so Audrey exercised good sense and said her goodbyes while the guide and I moved on. The campground was as advertised, and I spent much time photographing lemurs until I heard another guide say “there is a sifaka over here” and suddenly the magical moment turned into a zoo as I was surrounded by about thirty other people. I made an immediate exit through the sea of oncomers, and we then continued on through a canyon filled with waterfalls and beautiful pools. The Blue Pool was also as advertised, and the guide took a plunge to cool off while I moved on to the Black Pool. That one was equally pretty, with the beauty only slightly diminished by the sight of four soaking wet Italians in their tighty-whities. I retreated to a corner of the pool away from the underpants party to get some photos before we backtracked to the campground for more lemur photography, after which the mercury in the thermometer was moving from “frying pan” to “surface of the sun” so we made our return to the waiting Desiree for a ride back to the lodge.

Tomorrow it’s a five hour drive to the coastal town of Ifaty for two nights, home to spiny forest and a beach that should be perfect for lounging. The month in Madagascar is going by shockingly fast, but each day has been memorable, and plenty of adventures still remain.

Verreaux's sifaka in Isalo National Park

This guide said that this poor sifaka didn’t have any of his own species in the area, so instead he spent his days with a group of ringtail lemurs who mostly kept their distance from this much larger party crasher.

The Rock Lodge

Posted from Isalo National Park, Madagascar at 8:45 pm, September 19th, 2014

Audrey got more craft workshops today, and was in tremendous spirits. I’ll admit to thinking they were interesting, but manliness prevents me from doing more.

Our day started before six, and after breakfast we were checked out and on the road by 6:45. Two hours later we were in a silk factory, which was essentially a house with a shop next to it that employed several women in sweatshop conditions to process silk cocoons and weave the silk fabric. Despite the less-than-ideal working conditions it was a neat thing to watch, involving cooking the wild cocoons into a gooey mixture, unwinding the farmed cocoons by hand, and a labor-intensive process on a hand loom to weave fabric. The end process wasn’t what I expected – it felt far more coarse than the silk we find at home – but it was nevertheless impressive.

The next workshop offered the opportunity to see paper being made, and at this one my French was pressed into service so we might have missed out on some important details. The gist of it seemed to be smooshing trees, pouring the resulting goop onto a frame, and then pressing decorative flowers into it before letting it dry. It was again impressive to see the whole process being done entirely by hand, including the smooshing of the trees, which was done with two steel mallets after the pulp had been cooked into a weird soup over a period of three hours.

Craft workshop touring complete, our third stop was at the Anja Private Reserve, which was a village initiative created fifteen years ago in which six local villages got together to preserve thirty hectares of forest that is home to 300 ringtail lemurs. To date they’ve had 14,000 tourists stop to visit them, so it has been a clear success. In a country that is losing most of its forest to slash and burn agriculture this initiative was one worth supporting, and as an added bonus the lemur spotting took only five minutes from the point at which the trail started. Throw in the best chameleon sightings we’ve had during daylight hours, and yet another chance for me to practice my horrible French, and it was an extremely worthwhile visit. If you’re ever in Madagascar, go to there and help demonstrate the value to the local people in conserving their natural resources.

Tonight we’re staying in the very fancy Isalo Rock Lodge – our last hotel was missing a toilet seat, so finding not just a fully functional toilet, but also a huge bathroom that would rival any top hotel in Los Angeles, is a massive change for the better. We’ll be up at six o’clock tomorrow morning in order to do some hiking before the day hits the “crazy hot” stage, and with luck there will be some nice pictures, and with even more luck I’ll manage to avoid heatstroke during the planned seven hours with our (required) park guide.

Chameleon in Anja Private Reserve

Chameleons are extraordinarily difficult to spot during the day, unless they’re like this guy and are a foot long and climbing a small tree trunk out in the open.


Posted from Ranomafana National Park, Madagascar at 9:20 pm, September 18th, 2014

While planning this trip I underestimated how long it would take to drive from place to place, so while we have two nights at Ranomafana National Park, we arrived late last night and need to depart early tomorrow morning, leaving today as our only chance for activities in the park. Luckily we continued to have nice weather, and our karma stayed strong as our guide (and the entire Malagasy team of trackers that apparently work together to alert anyone in the area when something interesting is found) discovered all three species of bamboo lemurs that live in the park, including the very rare golden bamboo lemur and the even-more-rare greater bamboo lemur. The bamboo lemurs are different from most of the lemurs we’ve seen elsewhere – they look like a cross between a koala and Yoda, and are maybe a third of the size of the sifakas that danced on our balcony in Anjajavy.

The first lemur we saw today was a grey bamboo lemur that was running around calling for its family, much to our amusement since its call alternated between sounding like a squawking crow and a snorting pig. The second set of lemurs was discovered after we had already passed their location, and required backtracking down a significant number of stairs, but luckily the cuteness of lemurs outweighed any issues due to excess stair climbing. The family of lemurs were golden bamboo lemurs, which were only discovered in 1986, and are the primary reason that the national park was formed. From there we got word that two greater bamboo lemurs had been found, and since they are the rarest lemur found in the park we set off in search of them. The route was reminiscent of the opening scenes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, with vines being pushed out of the way, steep hills, giant trees, and after much sweat two lemurs hiding up in the canopy. Despite the bushwhacking it was all worthwhile after one of the two lemurs decided to climb down to a log near the ground, and we sat a couple of meters away while it groomed itself for ten minutes before jumping onto the tree a couple of feet behind Audrey, and then clambered up to rejoin its companion.

We returned from our morning adventures at about 1:30, grabbed lunch and a nap, then headed off for a night walk, aka the path of many chameleons. Things started with spazzy mouse lemurs leaping out of the shadows a few feet from where we parked, then turned into chameleon-o-rama with at least one lizard on seemingly every tree and bush. A few frogs and bugs made appearances for good measure, but chameleons were clearly the stars of the show tonight.

Tomorrow we’re off to see paper and silk making, visit a private lemur reserve, and then, if the roads are good, we’ll get to Isalo National Park by sunset. This trip down RN7 is going by quickly – there’s still a lot of Madagascar to go, but amazingly we’ve already been here for ten days.

Greater bamboo lemur in Ranomafana National Park

The greater bamboo lemur is one of the most endangered lemurs in Madagascar, but fairly easy to photograph when it decides to groom itself on a log three meters from the admiring tourists.

Leaf-tailed gecko in Ranomafana National Park

The leaf-tailed gecko. The guide found it for us on a branch next to the trail – there is approximately a one-in-a-billion chance that I would have spotted this thing on my own.

Chameleon in Ranomafana National Park

Night walks are awesome, because you see lemur eyes reflected in the flashlight, and find chameleons with tails that retract like vacuum cleaner power cords.

“Oh my God, it’s a hole in the ground”

Posted from Ranomafana National Park, Madagascar at 8:33 pm, September 17th, 2014

The Madagasar trip is primarily a nature trip, but I also acquiesced to Audrey’s request to include some of the craft workshops along the way. This morning we started out in a rock shop, with one of the salesmen hounding us about a good price he could offer on a pendant that Audrey had made eye contact with for more than six seconds. We left there in a bit of a rush and moved on to a workshop where they were making items out of zebu (oxen) horns. The process of boiling and cooking the zebu horn in order to make it pliable was a stinky one that had me questioning what we had gotten ourselves into, but as the artisan started cutting and polishing it into a spoon I actually moved from being mildly nauseous to fully impressed – the final product rivaled anything you would find in an art gallery in the US.

Our last stop was my favorite – the artist at the workshop cut up cans and bits of scrap metal to make finely-detailed miniatures. He demonstrated the process for making a miniature bike tire, which involved a tiny piece of a tin can to act as the wheel frame, a tiny piece of a spring to act as the hub, fishing wire as the spokes, and medical tubing as the tube. Bending, threading, and soldering those parts together into a tire that was barely two inches across took him a couple of minutes, and the fully-assembled bike showed an equal amount of attention to detail for the handlebars, frame, chain, etc. Final price for this tiny piece of art was less than $10 US. I bought two little cars from him (one of which is pictured below) that are actually fridge magnets – my first real souvenirs in more than nine weeks of travel – setting me back a grand total of $2 each.

From the magical toy emporium our route was south, and we spent the vast majority of the day driving to Ranomafana National Park. We stopped briefly in the afternoon for a coffee and a bathroom break – when we asked to use the bathroom we were led out of the back of the restaurant, down a flight of stairs, past a cage containing two chickens, a duck, and a goose, and up to two open doors. Madagascar is renowned in the guidebooks for its dirty bathrooms, and while we have been spared that horror thus far, Audrey’s first words upon entry were “Oh my God, it’s a hole in the ground”. And that’s what it was, quite literally a messy hole in the ground. In a very gross way, we have now been informally certified as genuine Madagascar travellers.

Today was the first day without lemurs in quite some time, but we’re meeting our guide at 7 AM tomorrow morning for a hike through some of Madagascar’s most pristine rain forest, so a new streak of lemur sightings should begin shortly.

Tin miniatures in Antsirabe

The sweet pink ride in the front left is now mine. I’d be the proud owner of one of the kickass bottle cap airplanes, too, if it wasn’t likely to get smooshed in my luggage.

The Madagascar Margarita

Posted from Antsirabe, Madagascar at 10:39 pm, September 16th, 2014

After we said goodbye to Anjajavy and our plane returned to Tana, our always-smiling driver Desiree was waiting to meet us outside of the airline’s offices. Shameless plug for Faniry Rent-Car: we got a great car and a better driver.

The plan for the next eight days is to drive south along National Route 7, which goes from the capital past several national parks, ending 570 miles later at the town of Toliara along the coast. The start of that journey today took us about 100 miles, past rice paddies, small markets, many cows, people on bike/foot/rickshaw/anything-that-moved, and at one point to the town of Ambatolampy, which is known for its metal casting. We paid the equivalent of $2 to see a group of men in a hut melting scrap aluminum and casting it into cooking pots. They made fifty pots per day, retail for each pot about $8, barefoot and in shorts while molten metal was poured inches from their toes. I’ve probably spent too much time in this journal writing about how lucky everyone in the US should feel to have the benefits that we don’t even realize we have, but seeing these guys slaving over their cooking pots was the millionth reminder that being born in America was a very, very lucky occurrence.

After leaving the metal casting, the trip continued through pretty scenery until we reached our hotel for the evening. Much merriment was had when we attempted to order off of the French menu, with each of us getting a meal that was completely unexpected – French lessons will need to continue. Audrey also ordered a margarita from the menu, and the waiter had to check the drink list to figure out what was in it – never a good sign, although whatever it was that he ended up making was a strong pour, and she fell asleep quickly after we returned to the room.

Aluminum casting in Ambatolampy

Reason number five thousand to be thankful you live in America: no one I know has a job that requires casting molten aluminum cooking pots in a sweltering shed while barefoot.

Aluminum casting in Ambatolampy

Note all of the protective gear in place in case that crucible spills? Neither did I.

Fantasy Island

Posted from Anjajavy, Madagascar at 11:20 am, September 16th, 2014

Audrey has taken to calling Anjajavy “Fantasy Island”, which is about as apt a desription as one could want (aside from the fact that it isn’t an island, but work with us on this one). During our time at the resort we were surrounded by dancing lemurs, tropical birds, and beautiful beaches, a staff that prepared incredible meals for us, and our accommodation was truly special. Karma continues to be good.

Yesterday we had a couple of activities planned, the first of which was a boat ride to Moramba Bay. The bay was scenic, with baobabs perched on the edges of uplifted coral islands, turquoise blue water, and flocks of birds roosting in the mangroves. The end of the boat trip provided time for snorkeling among colorful corals and with more than enough fish to keep us occupied in the warm waters, and I swear I heard a whale singing during a few of the many free dives along the reef bottom.

After our return from the boat trip, lunch, napping, and lemur photographs were followed by a late-afternoon exploration of one of the two caves in the reserve. The cave was located beneath massive uplifted corals and filled with big stalactites and stalagmites, and much to Audrey’s liking was also home to big spiders and tiny bats.

We returned from our hike in time to catch the end of lemur tea, and then to see a pre-dinner dance performance from members of the local village. Normally a dance wouldn’t be my type of thing, but in Africa anything musical tends to be both impressive and one of the opportunities to interact with the local folks in a less touristy way, and this performance was no exception. The lodge manager’s kids joined in the dancing, after which we went for dinner and were informed that a special meal had been set for us in the garden. We were led to a single table surrounded by candles and hanging lanterns, and for once this non-romantic guy managed to treat his girlfriend to a romantic meal.

Prior to our departure this morning I was asking Cedric (the manager) for help in identifying a couple of birds I had photographed, and he actually asked if he could purchase two of my photos for use in promotional material for the resort. Whether he really wanted the photos or was just trying to do a nice thing for a guest, it was a neat gesture that made me feel good, and knocked the cost of a few drinks off of our bill. Now I’m writing this entry from a four-person plane 6500 feet above the ground – my brother would not be a fan of all of the shaking and bouncing, but it’s a super-fun way to see Madagascar from above. When we land we’ll again meet our driver Desiree to begin our land journey south, over what will hopefully be decent roads through more of the land of lemurs.

Coquerel's sifaka in Anjajavy

Mom and baby coquerel’s sifaka, hanging out in a tree next to the resort entrance. Wildlife spotting is not difficult at Anjajavy.

Leaf-nosed bat in Anjajavy

A tiny leaf nose bat in Sakalava cave, one of two photos that may be featured in future Anjajavy promotional material.

Chemin des Crabes

Posted from Anjajavy, Madagascar at 6:35 pm, September 14th, 2014

For reasons that no one seems to understand, the Anjajavy Resort operates in a time zone different from the rest of Madagascar, so we either got up at six or seven in the morning, depending on whether you reset your watch on arrival or if you refuse to partake in their cunning mind games. Audrey’s one rule is that she must have coffee before I can rush her off to start the day’s activities, but as soon as her cup of Nescafe was gone I got her out of the door and off on the “Five Coves” trail, which is along an amazing coast and past five secluded and beautiful beaches. The return loop went through mangroves filled with dinner plate-sized crabs that mostly hid in tiny mud holes, and thankfully today not a single one of them chose to attack me.

Following the hike we got back to the resort in time to enjoy a late breakfast on a patio overlooking the sea – Madagascar now rivals South Africa for my favorite bacon. A nap, some snorkeling, another hike under the blazing sun (Audrey wisely opted out of that one), tea with the lemurs, and a night hike completed our schedule for the day. All of the day’s activities were good ones, but the lemur tea in particular is one that everyone should find a way to enjoy at some point in their life – sitting in a garden with juice and cookies while little furry animals leap Evel Kinievel-style through the trees above you is an experience that even the grumpiest of sourpusses would have to admit is a pretty cool way to spend an hour.

Crested drongo in Anjajavy

The aptly-named crested drongo. During our morning hike this guy was also referred to as the “posing on a post” bird.

Scops owl in Anjajavy

Grumpy owl was unimpressed with our flashlights in his eyes.

Total Crab Attack

Posted from Anjajavy, Madagascar at 12:33 pm, September 14th, 2014

4:30 wake up yesterday to fly on a private plane to visit a destination on the northwest coast called Anjajavy. This resort sits on the beach with a 550 hectare private reserve surrounding it, and was called out in our guidebook as being a “best of” spot in Madgascar (something the resort apparently realizes, based on their prices – ouch). The plane ride here was scenic, with the mountains of Madagascar rolling along below us until we arrived at the “Anjajavy International Airport”, an open air hut with a thatched roof and room for perhaps twenty people to stand inside. The resort itself is beautiful – the water is turquoise blue, the sand is bright white, the villas are all on raised platforms and made of rosewood, and the animals also show up in large numbers to enjoy the scenery and amenities.

The highlight of the place is the five o’clock tea, which is served outside and coincides with the time that the brown and sifaka lemurs apparently like to visit the garden. Just prior to tea time Audrey made a sound best described as a yelp and ran outside, where a sifaka was leaping and dancing across our balcony. Having now seen them do the sexy dance, both of the girl’s trip requests have officially been fulfilled. During tea a steady stream of lemurs came through the garden, with lines of brown lemurs walking along the ground with their tails high, sifakas leaping kamikaze-style through the branches, and a few baby lemurs making short practice jumps before returning to their spots hanging onto their mom’s bellies.

In addition to the dancing lemur tea time, I also got in an afternoon hike under the blistering sun where a huge bat flew out from an overhang, just missing my head, and parrots, lizards and lemurs made less distressing appearances. After dinner Audrey and I went on our own night hike, finding one lemur and many more bats, before we got to the crab-covered beach. The crabs froze like deer when the flashlight was on them, except for one little brown one who took offence and proceeded to chase me along the beach for perhaps twenty or thirty yards – the “Jaws” theme was playing in my head as the angry little bugger zig-zagged at me repeatedly out of the pitch blackness before eventually moving off to find other victims to terrorize with his vengeful little claws.

Common brown lemur in Anjajavy

Nap time for lemurs. Later they celebrated tea time with us.

Coquerel's sifaka in Anjajavy

A new lemur species for us, the Coquerel’s sifakas that hang out at this resort are dancers, and Audrey is a fan.

Veloma Andasibe

Posted from Antananarivo, Madagascar at 8:56 pm, September 12th, 2014

Another day, more lemurs; like the elephants in Africa, I don’t think it will be possible to tire of these furry little creatures. Today’s stop was the Mitsinjo Private Reserve, which borders the national park and is a joint effort between someone and someone else (both of whom are probably very important, but I was distracted by singing lemurs) to, among other goals, plant three million native trees and create connections between currently-isolated stands of forest, thus allowing the animals more freedom to move around. In 2013 they replanted something like 500,000 trees on 7500 acres, so the effort seems to be making real progress.

Our hike today started with the indri lemurs singing in the forest nearby, and we stumbled upon the talented lemurs munching leaves in the trees above us. The guides went to great lengths to tempt them with some local plants – wildlife etiquette is a work-in-progress here – and finally found one willing lemur who climbed down and put on a brief show of close-up leaf eating for the assembled group before disappearing into the trees with a few powerful leaps. While the guides were trying to lure them lower, Audrey and I very much enjoyed craning our necks up to watch the panda-like lemurs feeding in the tree tops, and occasionally launching themselves from tree-to-tree-to-tree in massive leaps. As noted previously, it’s not a sight (or sound, since their songs are so haunting) that I would soon get bored of seeing.

After a morning of lemurs we asked the driver to take us back to the capital, partly to get ready for our early flight on a tiny private plane tomorrow, and also because driving on the highways at night in Madagascar is an activity that is almost universally described as a terrifying ordeal that will lead to death in the worst case, and brown shorts in the best case. Since we were interested in neither of those things, we made sure our departure from the park got us back into Antananarivo well before sunset.

Indri lemur in Mitsinjo Reserve

For the second day in a row an indri lemur tried to poo on me, but I was intentionally keeping out of the target radius. Strangely, after his unseemly greeting he then climbed down the tree and ate leaves out of the guide’s hand.

Madagascar day gecko in Mitsinjo Reserve

“People will like it if you post something in addition to lemurs” was the advice I was given at dinner tonight when trying to choose a picture for this entry. The result: Madagascar day gecko, the only other animal in the photographs from today.

Covered in Lemur Spit

Posted from Andasibe National Park, Madagascar at 9:24 pm, September 11th, 2014

Audrey had two very specific (and difficult to fulfill) requests for the Madagascar trip – she wanted to hug a lemur, and she wanted to see them do the sexy dance; after today, one of her two requests has been fulfilled. Vakona Lodge, located just outside of the park, has an island on its property that is aptly named “Lemur Island” that is a home for lemurs that were formerly pets and thus cannot be released back into the wild. No sooner do you arrive on the island than lemurs are literally leaping on your shoulders to get to bananas that the guides hand out. The girl was beyond happy as she got to hug one of the furry little guys, and I was a fan of interacting with the little beasties and getting to see them so close up. They have soft little hands with giant fingers, and for whatever reason found me delicious, so I was licked repeatedly by lemurs and had to take a long shower when we returned home (for the record: there are far worse things in the world than to be licked by lemurs).

Prior to visiting the island of lemurs, we did a long hike through Andasibe National Park, a walk that started with a family of common brown lemurs. Yesterday’s wildlife lesson was that you can photograph diadem sifakas from four feet away, and today’s lesson was that the common brown lemur is fine with two feet of personal space. We would have been sitting there with wild lemurs on a log next to us for the better part of the morning had a grumpy indri not leaped over and scattered his competitors by turning their log into his toilet area – luckily we were out of range at the time.

When not forcing us to dodge their poo, the indri continued to impress as the various families sang their songs throughout the morning. They’re easy to find when singing, but at one point things went silent and the iPhone was used to “cheat” our way to indris, with a recording of the singing played back at full volume in order to entice the local family to join in the song and reveal their exact tree. We photographed that family, including a tiny baby, until our necks were sore from staring upwards – our morning was a good one.

The day finished with a night walk (chameleons, frogs, and four types of nocturnal lemurs, for those not sick of species lists yet). Tomorrow is our last day at this park, so we’ll have a morning walk in a private reserve that borders the park before making the three hour drive back to Antananarivo in preparation for a flight in a tiny plane on Saturday.

Common brown lemur in Andasibe National Park

Wild common brown lemur in Andasibe Natioanl Park. The journal may be all lemurs, all the time for a while. For those upset by this development, you may want to tune out for a couple of weeks.

As a rule I don’t take out the big camera for captive animals, but the iPhone was fair game for getting video of my new friend today.

All the Lemurs

Posted from Andasibe National Park, Madagascar at 6:37 pm, September 10th, 2014

Every animal has a distance that it will allow people to approach before it gets uncomfortable, and it’s both good etiquette and better for wildlife viewing when that limit isn’t exceeded. The first lemurs today were the uber-pretty sifakas, and based on our experience they require about four feet of personal space. Maybe less. While moving slowly to photograph one from thirty feet away, two more climbed down the tree next to me and started eating leaves; I am going to like Madagascar a lot.

The good karma on this trip continues. The haunting call of the indri lemur (best comparison: imagine a humpback whale’s song, but in a forest) was echoing through the trees when we picked up our park entry permit, and we then embarked on a bone-rattling drive into Mantadia National Park. The drive was followed by a hike, which began with a significant amount of time walking around while the animals hid, but then the long dry spell was abruptly ended with a magical moment. The sifakas suddenly appeared right next to the trail, with a black-and-white ruffed lemur above, and a group of indris leaping through the trees a short time later. Audrey was spellbound as the tiny beasts sprang thirty feet through the air from tree to tree to tree – given the dense brush and uneven ground, had they wanted to they could have left us completely in about five jumps, but instead they chose to munch leaves next to us. Happiness was abounding.

All told we found five species of lemur today during a morning hike in Mantadia and an afternoon hike in Andasibe (bamboo, black-and-white ruffed, sifaka, indri, wooly). Not bad for the first full day in Madagascar – 27 more to go.

Black-and-white ruffed lemur in Mantadia National Park

Although we had seen a bamboo lemur from the road earlier, this black-and-white ruffed lemur was our first lemur in the forest, and thus gets the unofficial distinction of first lemur of Madagascar. I’m a big fan of his (her?) haircut.

Diademed sifaka in Mantadia National Park

Photographing sifakas today involved a hike through dense forest, up hills, across streams, and followed by lemurs that climbed down the trees and ate leaves right next to us.

Dancing Queen

Posted from Andasibe National Park, Madagascar at 7:34 pm, September 9th, 2014

We’re in Madagascar, and I’m in a bit of shock that thus far everything has gone smoothly. Our Air Madagascar flight, which has a historical 50% on-time record, arrived in Antananarivo twenty minutes early, they fed us on the way (fish or duck), although they did somehow manage to squeeze enough seats on a thirty year old 737 that my legs only just fit into the space allotted. When we arrived the customs process went quickly, and there was no charge for our thirty day visa. Our bags were there to meet us, and we exited the arrivals area to immediately find our driver holding a sign with our names on it, smiling, and greeting us in English.

Money exchange was quick and painless, although at an exchange rate of approximately $1 to 2500 Madagascar Ariary, and in a country where credit cards aren’t in wide use, Audrey and I are now both carrying bricks of 10,000 Ariary notes, which feels very wrong when you see people pulling rickshaws filled with paving stones, with piles of firewood balanced on their heads, or in some other way demonstrating how lucky everyone born in America should feel for the many advantages we take for granted.

While I had been concerned that our pre-arranged transportation might not even show up at the airport, it has so far exceeded my highest hopes – our car is in excellent condition, and the driver is a former chauffeur for the American embassy who has also come up with an itinerary for us at the parks, complete with the required park guide. Our one errand for the day was to drive into town to make the necessary pre-payment for a hotel we have scheduled later in the trip, and my French was actually passable enough to deal with that minor adventure. In another shocking development, the Madagascar roads were paved for the entire three hours that it took to get to Andasibe National Park, a drive that was done with an ABBA CD playing, since everyone dreams of someday cruising through the Madagascar countryside while rocking out to “Dancing Queen”.

I’m now writing this post from our insanely nice lodge while watching Xena, La Guerrière on the TV. We’ll be up at six tomorrow morning to find the animals, with a very full day’s worth of activities planned; hopefully, there will be pictures of lemurs in tomorrow’s journal entry. Our luck can’t hold out in a country renowned for its unpredictability, but we’ll definitely accept our good fortune to start this part of the adventure.