2015 Madagascar Red Camera 217Madagascar… When I left I took several notebooks, pencils and pens and intended to write extensive notes on the different types of lemur I might see, the people I met, the invertebrates I avoided, the amphibians and reptiles I came across, the landscape, food, and other interesting things. I planned to sketch little drawings throughout and I even thought of purchasing some coloured pencils, however Dad dissuaded me – I probably wouldn’t have time. That was some understatement.

The place is almost too extraordinary to contemplate.

Initially I tried to take short notes of important facts, or at least of the most interesting. There seemed, however, too many of these, and I found I was always behind with my notes, and the subject discussed had passed on to more interesting topics, from the burial rights, through to the likelihood of our spotting various creatures. Even if I had been able to disentangle my handwriting, which is poor in the general way of things, let alone being markedly further handicapped by craters in the murrain road that our driver tried unsuccessfully sometimes to circumnavigate, while I scribbled on my lap.

If I could, I would perhaps describe the holiday day by day. How I would do this, I’m unsure. The days were long. That too is an understatement. We left our accommodation between 05.00 and around 07.00 each morning and arrived at our new hotel sometimes well after dark, though once or twice we arrived in day light, a fact to celebrate. Which would mean that the letters would turn into some sort of book, and I’m not sure its one I would like to write, let alone read, so I think I will just plunge in, as it were and describe things as they come to me.

Andasibe lies east of Antananarivo, the capital a little more than half way up the country.

The private sanctuary we visited on arrival in Andasibe had an interesting collection of creatures. To reach some of them were to be taken across a stretch of water by canoe to an island where the lemurs came down to the bank to watch our arrival. These had been pets and had been rescued, but still liked to have some human contact.

The canoe trip was a little wobbly, however in due course I managed to 2015 Madagascar Big Camera Vol 1 009scramble out from mine (with some help from a Malagasy guide), and he introduced me to the first lemur, a black and white gorgeous creature; a black and white ruffed lemur, about the size of a largish cat… On presentation of a hand with some banana, he leapt delicately onto my shoulder, leant down across my chest and grabbed my hand to lick it clean…from that point there was a sort of mild skirmish of lemurs leaping from the fence, and other people to land on shoulders; some chirruping amongst themselves.

2015 Madagascar Big Camera Vol 1 017There were three types on the island, the aforementioned black and white ruffed lemur, the smaller, but possibly more dextrous brown lemur that had the most expressive eyes, and would stand on my shoulders and peer under my hat at me. Then there were the small grey bamboo lemurs, nervous, but willing to sit close in a tree, though very reluctant to climb or jump onto a person. They were very endearing, but didn’t get as much attention as the others.

There is nothing like leaping onto a person’s shoulder to make them pay attention to you.

On another island in the same reserve we watched some Sifaka’s – the dancing lemurs on the banks of another island leap from tree trunk to tree trunk. Their golden coats shining in the light; they were beautiful and almost ghostly. There are several different types of Sifakas, but all of them have a grace that is quite extraordinary.

One of our group commented that I looked as though I had been handling lemurs all my life, particularly as I had put my elbow out in front of me so that my lemur would be more stable.

Pakka often travels on my shoulders and I have learnt by experience that an elbow out at an angle is often gratefully accepted if we are walking around uneven ground for any great distance, or if we are just walking for any length of time… The lemurs were much more stable though than Pakka – but then again, they are arboreal…

We had two night walks too – these entailed us coming out in the evening, often half an hour or so after we had arrived at our next location. Neither walk started from a long way from our accommodation, which was good as both times we were more than a little tired and hadn’t eaten our evening meal.

On our first walk was from Andasibe, and we were driven probably less than a mile down the road and with a night guide we set out.

2015 Madagascar Big Camera Vol 1 087Chameleons habitually rest with their tails curled under them, pale and interesting at the end of long stems of vegetation, often hanging over the road. The rainforest frogs made a cacophony of sound shouting against the sound of the insects that make the background music of the forest. These amphibians often perched rather precariously on an almost vertical cliff wall that ran down the side of the road, on the other side of a rather traitorous ditch, their throats ululating as they croaked into the dark. Large spiders caught in the light of the torches and moths, surprisingly small on this walk fluttered up into people’s faces as the head torches confused them.

We spent some time in a rather hopeless search for that illusive nocturnal night lemur. Shining torches rather haphazardly into the rainforest, hoping for the glint of a pair of very small eyes, or just one eye, should the mouse lemur be peering around a trunk of a tree. This seemed an unlikely occupation, to be honest and I was increasingly sure that this wasn’t to be. After all we were told they are tiny (one, the smallest can fit comfortably into an egg cup), and at this time of year they hibernate, being small, and it being (would you believe) the beginning of winter.

We did, I am sure see one. At least I certainly saw something; a curve of a head and two small eyes. I think the rest of the group thought it was wishful thinking on my part, however, I am almost sure…

On arrival at Antananarivo from our flights from Nairobi and the flight from London we were taken to a money exchange hut situated in the airport car park, of all places, where we each passed over varying amounts of Euros. 500 Euros seemed a good quantity to be going on with after all we were advised that we could change more later on in the holiday, if it became necessary.

It was disconcerting (not to say problematical) to hand over five hundred Euros; the pile of fresh Euros standing no higher than a quarter of an inch or so, freshly pressed (possibly printed) by the Post Office before I came away and to receive back in carefully segmented small batches some three inches (I do not exaggerate) of somewhat worn notes, totalling a grand total of 1,580,000 Ariary.

I wish, I had the sense to photograph the transaction, but was so bamboozled by the whole thing and was beginning to panic about how I should keep the money secure. After all, the money belt I had taken with me was such that the zip wouldn’t close over such a largess…and so it was that this extraordinary transaction wasn’t recorded, apart of course from the docket detailing the matter.

2015 Madagascar Red Camera 274Antananarivo is full of people, many of whom sell food from the side of the road. Small stalls set out with beautifully displayed fruits and vegetables. Little pyramids of small tomatoes balanced one upon the other, small onions lined up in rows, hands of bananas hanging from a precariously supported cane over the heads of the stall holder. There is something extraordinary about the care they take over their ‘merchandising’, however, it is only on my return that I have realised that they don’t weigh their produce, and as a result they have to have some way of selling a set quantity for a set amount – and so they divide their goods up.

The stalls selling raw meat, often coated with a living sauce-like covering of flies, were off-putting to put it mildly; the stand near where we stayed that first night, selling raw chicken was particularly badly infested.

Some retailers had more substantial huts, more like small rundown sheds, and these too were open to the elements, the meat often hanging over the edge of the window…

Really it was extraordinary.

The food we were given was of a very high standard – in some places the presentation and quality was that you might have expected from a French restaurant in Paris. We stopped on the way to, and the way back from the Grand Tsingy, at The Mad Zebu in a small town. Murrain roads. Ox carts being driven through at speed. Small children wandering around, bare foot, wearing scraps of clothing and a queue outside a small shack, where they had rigged up a television, and seemed to be charging for people to come and watch. The town was busy, not far from a main river that we had crossed, with people moving goods in the dusty road. The Mad Zebu had a small veranda – on which a cloth had been set, and was where we were treated to an astonishing meal and the best chocolate moose I have ever eaten. Quite sublime.

The first reserve we visited, the Andasibe National Park, not only had the lemur2015 Madagascar Big Camera Vol 1 076 islands, but also had what amounted to a small zoo of other creatures. This was set further into the forest, and we had a small walk to reach the enclosures, including over a rope ladder over a Nile crocodile infested river… Which was slightly disconcerting, but if you didn’t think about the fact that one of the planks was missing, and that a crocodile was floating, rather like the traditional log just below, it was achievable without being too unnerving.

The crocodiles seemed relatively content. Somehow they don’t strike me as particularly ‘thinking’ animals, (unlike sloths, which I think of as being the equivalent of the S. American rain forest’s philosophers), however, this might be a disservice, but they did seem ‘happy enough’, as far as one could tell.

2015 Madagascar Big Camera Vol 1 077I found the enclosure though with the fosa (in Malagasy pronounced ‘foosa’), probably one of the saddest things I saw on the trip. He seemed healthy enough, but as I explained to our guide, I would rather he had told us about them, (‘There is a story…’) and we didn’t see him, but knew he was ‘out there’ hunting lemurs, than to see one in captivity. The fosa is the largest carnivore in Madagascar – a sort of cross between a smooth coated dog/coati/ or large cat with a long tail. They were ‘advertised’ as dangerous; with a hint that we would, in all probability, come to grief should one cross our path, which I have to say seemed a little unlikely.

I suspect we wouldn’t have known he was watching us.

We were also shown, of course, the ‘required’ chameleon and we were introduced to a Madagascan tree boa, a rather lovely example, again taken from an enclosure. The three tortoise’s seemed content I suppose, but I think its difficult to assess how cheerful a reptile might be at any given time. After all, I have almost concluded that chameleons are on the whole pretty depressed. All their mouths turn down, in an extraordinary depiction of someone who has come across something that they really don’t like. Perhaps their physiognomy changes when we aren’t around…

2015 Madagascar Red Camera 371Wherever we walked any distance in the countryside we seemed to be accompanied by small butterflies. With wingspans no larger than half an inch or so these butterflies floated and settled on small tufts of grass and vegetation sometimes in groups of four or five. The white insects in sharp contrast to the orange often making a swirling mass of wings as we walked amongst them. Being tiny, they were very difficult to photograph; they seemed to almost touch down, and fly off again in one swift movement. Larger butterflies, about an inch across also accompanied these. Once again they were of a tawny colour with dark marks on them.

These were more tempting – at least to try to photograph. I managed one, which surprised me, however on looking at it on the computer on my return I found it to be slightly out of focus and so it was deleted from the file. Nearing the end of our trip we were driven on a long tarmac road (a true rarity), which seemed to go on forever and should you look out of the front of your vehicle it seems to disappear into the horizon… We stopped for a break a little way into the drive and found a number of large white butterflies floating around the flowers in the border and ditch that ran along both sides of the road. These were exquisite, slightly larger than the others we had seen, were white with a hint of yellow and a couple of spots on each wing. Suddenly I found myself being investigated by a large insect this butterfly was a hands breadth from wing tip to wing tip, dark black with white speckles almost too close to me to photograph as I stood rather precariously in the ditch. It seemed to have more of a purpose, (if not an attitude), and further to have a conscious direction in its flight. I had often felt previously that butterflies are blown at the whim of the wind, though of course this can’t be true, otherwise they wouldn’t find flowers and of course the nectar they so need.

After feeding on various flowers this butterfly-bat-bird suddenly flew higher and higher into the sky, and took a firm steep coordinate up across the sky and the road, to disappear, a tiny dot in the haze. I don’t think I will ever view butterflies in quite the same way again.

Our second night walk was near the Ranomafana Rainforest Reserve near the end of our trip, and again we drove out back to the entrance of the reserve to walk back along the road. Once more we used torches, though I have to admit that I removed my head torch this time and used it in my hand. Being bombarded by large moths is not only frustrating – they will get in the way of the camera, but a little disturbing too.

Again we searched for wildlife along the side of the road, the coach travelling on just ahead of us.

The frogs again had perched themselves half way up the cliff that ran along the side of the ditch. It was damp, not to say wet, and in places the water actually ran down the cliff at the side of the road, tiny waterfalls. There were the usual chameleons, though many of these were too high for us to photograph, just pale shapes above us. As to lemurs, none had been spotted and after some time we were beginning to think we ought to be going back to the hotel. After all we hadn’t eaten. Two of us were strolling down the road, a little away from the rest of the group, just gazing at the stars when suddenly it was

‘Quick, come quickly, quickly, lemurmouse lemur…’ 2015 Madagascar Big Camera Vol 1 455and my arm was abruptly caught and we were both pulled through the dark across the verge, such as it was, then to stand at the edge of the ditch…to see in the torch light, in the edge of the rain forest a small delicate little face peering out at us from behind a tree trunk.

It must I think be a little like suddenly being caught by the paparazzi.

The guide who had noticed the small eyes reflecting from his torch kept it shining on him whilst photos were taken. Not something I was happy about – it must mean that he/she would have blind spots for the rest of the night from the lights, but of course selfishly and perversely I too was, so pleased to see him.

We were told that they had been putting squashed bananas out to entice them, but had ceased doing that, and hadn’t seen a mouse lemur for seven or so days…and since they sleep through the winter, actually hadn’t expect us to see one at all.

We were so lucky with the weather when we were in the rainforest. Usually there is, well, a lot of rain, they said, however, though it seemed damp, it didn’t seem unpleasantly so. One morning I sat and watched the clouds form across the, the mists rolling around the valley; a few moments to myself with the forest below.

Our local guides whom we met at the start of each day were extraordinarily knowledgeable – and observant. We were walking down a path when we were stopped by ours, who pointed out a ball of rather dank, dark looking leaves –

‘Look, a satanic leaf tailed gecko…’2015 Madagascar Red Camera 249

and the regular and almost immediate cry of

Where?

was more understandable this time – after all he was just pointing at some leaf litter caught amongst some twigs.

And then he pointed out it’s head, hanging down from the ball of brown leaves, almost triangular, with extended ocular ridges like fans over his eyes, his body and legs rising above him and his tail resting along the top of the ball of leaves…an exquisite endemic creature and truly demonic in its form. His Latin name, for those of a more classic nature is Uroplatus phantasticus – he really is a most fantastic leaf tailed lemur, and quite my favourite…

Some time later our guide pulled us off our path to show us two lizards, heads down looking not unlike pieces of moss or bark and it was only with s2015 Madagascar Red Camera 243ome care we could slowly make out the legs, tails, torsos and heads of the sleeping creatures. They would wake, we were told, later in the evening and so were snoozing away whilst we looked at them. They were quite difficult to spot, even with a guide, their out-lines were broken up with flaps of skin to merge into the tree trunks. The guides used bits of twigs to point them out, and I was always worried they might poke one in error. I am pleased to report, however that they were able to sleep undisturbed and though viewed with wonder by us, didn’t know anything about it.

Should you ever decide to go to Madagascar, it would be wise to purchase the latest Bradt guides to the country. They are incredibly informative, both about its history, anthropology and wildlife.

I purchased the standard book some time before I left and went carefully through it reading all the general information and any that related in particular to any part of my trip. There are 18 main tribes and these are distributed over the whole country and the book not only has a map showing their location, but it also has a small description of each. Which has whetted my inchoation of anthropological interests. So much so I ordered a copy of Taboo from Via Libri, a book search engine on the Internet. Irritatingly this was deemed not to be in stock, just before I left, so I will have to go to the BL and borrow it, I suppose. I don’t want to spend a lot on the book, so didn’t want it sent from overseas. I digress – many apologies…

Both the standard Bradt guide and the book specifically published by them to cover the natural history of the island, stated that one of the glorious things about the wildlife that occurs in Madagascar is that there is very little that will do an adult human much harm.

You might get bitten, clawed or defecated on (one lemur when climbing over me did a very neat deposit, dry and cylindrical that dropped from my shoulder), but on the whole as a species we don’t come to much harm, the books said, oh, apart from the scorpions.

I am sure there were scorpions everywhere we went. We wouldn’t have seen one though, if it hadn’t been for one of our guides who carefully turned over a small rock so that the example he found was resting on the top. The invertebrate didn’t seem very pleased about this, they like, we were told shadows, and shade.

On being presented he seemed to be flat, not to say two-dimensional, a paper cut-out and really rather insignificant. I turned to my camera to photograph him and when I raised my head he had expanded from a flat drawing, about a centimetre in length to one about two and a half times that size, and three-dimensional too.

He was in his way quite beautiful, however I gave him a very wide berth and have to admit to not turning over many stones over the holiday. Just in case.

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We saw too a stick insect that without exaggeration was about a foot long. She was tucked under a branch in a small bush, and looked like nothing more than another limb of the plant, until she turned around to face the other way. I took a photo’, but on reflection, its not very good. It looks like a photograph of a very twiggy plant…

On our first trip to see ring tailed lemurs our local Malagasy guide casually pointed at a very peculiar insect. I couldn’t believe it as I had seen pictures of it in my guide books, but hadn’t thought we would see any – they are tiny, reminding me a little of rather over grown woolly aphid type things Mum has sometimes found in her greenhouse. They were the nymphs of the flatid bug – and looked for all the world like curious wisps of cotton wool with legs…

Often it was the tiny rather insignificant creatures that they pointed out that caught my interest…the place is it seems alive with creatures…

Most of our hotels were designed around a reception building, including the restaurant, and pool, with our sleeping accommodation in separate buildings, with bathrooms attached. I enjoyed this a lot – it meant you had complete privacy, and were not disturbed by anyone else. It did mean though that to contact the reception for help, should you need it, meant leaving your room to walk outside. I was extremely pleased with the torches I took, including a small lamp – one hotel turned its lights off without warning at around 10 pm – which could be a bit irritating, when in the middle of reading The Aye Aye and I…

Returning one evening to my chalet in one such hotel I stepped carefully into my room pulling the insect shutters behind me to hear a scuttle. Using my torch I lit up an insect, some three inches or so in length running up and across the wall. I would have been happy enough to share my room with a lizard (in fact I would have been extraordinarily happy to have done so), a frog wouldn’t have caused a problem, nor a small furry creature, though I suppose he might chew holes in my rucksack. I cannot abide things with more than four legs that scuttle. Those who sit on webs are I suppose allowed. They usually stay there. Creatures that run around with boots on, are another matter entirely.

We had mosquito nets in all the rooms, which I suppose would have given me some protection should I had needed it (which was unlikely, considering this was not a scorpion), but somehow, I really didn’t like the idea of him wandering around, and promptly left my room again. I considered asking my friend the groom of the honeymoon couple to come and see to it, but in the end returned to the reception building.

It took a little time to explain, but in the end the lady behind the desk said she understood – she would get the hotel security to deal with the matter.

Which seemed a little extreme, but actually was a remarkably astute decision. As with farms in Kenya, security entailed a couple of local men who squatted at the entrance to the hotel grounds with a blanket around their shoulders, and, I suspect periodically walking the perimeter. He looked bemused, and said something back to which she said, would I go ahead and show him…So once more I approached my chalet and climbed the steps, opened the wooden door and peered around the shutter. Once again my torch encouraged the insect to run.

I could tell my security officer was even more perplexed – he looked as though he couldn’t believe what I was asking, and was almost laughing, however, with a flick of his fingers, he knocked it to the ground, attempted to stamp on it with his bare feet…and in the end resorted to grabbing it by a hind leg and tossing it out the door…

It was at that hotel when walking back to my chalet, for want of a better term, I came across a beetle, large and shiny, that really would have preferred my not shining my torch on him. He too scuttled and was perhaps a kin of the beetle that had got into my room. He was rather beautiful, if not interesting, but then again, he wasn’t in my room.

I then noticed a hole in the sand, some two inches across, from which his friends and relations were coming to investigate the night. I think they were cockroaches. I went back to my room a different way.

One of the most poignant, and memorable events was when we visited the Andasibe National Park to try to locate the Indri.

There are five families of lemur of which the Indri has perhaps the most diverse collection of lemurs…there are the nocturnal (Woolly) Lemurs of which we saw none, 2015 Madagascar Big Camera Vol 1 103the Sifakas, which include those that seem to dance and leap vertically between tree trunks, of which we saw a few, including some who were playing with each other high up amongst the trees, and the Indri – the largest of the lemurs.

They look not unlike over sized teddy bears with rounded ears, long arms with a very small stub of a tail. Those we saw were black and white, but they can be almost completely black. They seem to sit for hours high in the trees, thinking and eating leaves, with a sort of benign relaxed expression, with a very relaxed attitude to the tourists who suddenly arrive beneath to take photographs.

2015 Madagascar Big Camera Vol 1 116

When we arrived the forest seemed quiet, and our guide began to find us small fauna to keep our interest. A frog was found, followed by a delicate lizard. We then saw some gorgeous Sifakas playing high in the trees, chasing one another, washing each other’s feet and generally enjoying themselves, ignoring the gasps and the people beneath taking the same picture over and over again. After a surfeit of these we moved on. An interesting plant was talked about, a small bird was pointed out, and then suddenly we heard one of the most haunting and beautiful sounds I have ever heard floating though the forest.

‘Indri…’

Where?

‘Oh, somewhere over there…their calls can be heard for miles…’ came the reply.

Which for me was a little disheartening.

We walked on and then suddenly above our heads we saw a round heap of black and grey fur. Then it moved – an arm stretched out to pull some leaves towards it, which it munched in a desultory sort of way.

It is very difficult not to take photographs of ‘special animals’. The dancing Sifaka’s in the trees were so beautiful, and these were extraordinary, and so impressive. We spent some time photographing and just gazing upwards, the lemurs hardly acknowledging our existence, if at all.

After a while our guide led us away, we were, we thought sated. A little further along, however, we came across another group, with another group of tourists photographing them from below, (there should be a collective noun for tourists, perhaps a ‘gang’). Since we had already taken an overly large number of photos, I decided to step back a bit and just watch one or two of them.

Without wa2015 Madagascar Big Camera Vol 1 133rning one pulled his lips together as though to give a whistle, his mouth extended into a tube and the most haunting loud and exquisite call reverberated through the forest. His friend in the opposite tree, joined in and then suddenly, we were surrounded by a choir of Indri. The sound vibrated through the air and the ground and then flowed out into the forest. The call is particularly eerie – a long ululating cry which reminded me of whales, but was so much more emotive.

I managed to take one or two photos of them singing, and then just stood back under the trees, a Malagasy guide standing beside me, periodically pointing out another lemur amongst the group and just listened and watched…

We stayed of course until that performance was complete.2015 Madagascar Big Camera Vol 1 004

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