Archives for category: Madagascar

Image result for book chameleons chris mattison nick garbutt

Published by The Natural History Museum

Since visiting Madagascar, I have rather fallen for these extraordinary reptiles. I enjoy most natural history, it has to be admitted, however I find my interest is piqued, particularly if things are a little different. The designs to counter problems are unique, or just a little strange. Chameleons do all of that and more.

Image result for chameleons chris mattison

So this was an obvious purchase, when I came across it a few weeks ago and ordered it from work. With Nick Garbutt’s quite extraordinarily good photographs, this slim volume (112 pp) is a jewel of a book.

Image result for chameleons chris mattisonThe Contents is comprehensive: Introduction / Evolution and Classification / Size, Shape, Colour and Markings / Enemies and Defence / Food and Feeding / Reproduction and Development / Chameleons and Humans / Chameleon Genera / Index / Credits & Further Information.

The pictures are stupendous and the information instructive and fascinating. The book retails at £12.99 is a good size – 250 mm x 190 mm with many pictures full page, but all large enough so that the detail can be seen with ease and very, very few (perhaps two) that are spread over two pages. The gutter of the book, therefore, doesn’t detract from the illustrations or text – the margins allow for it to be opened without having to damage the spine. Further, I thought this paperback had been glued together, but on examination find that the book has been sewn. So, a book of quality, about an amazing subject, beautifully illustrated. This is frankly, for those of you interested in chameleons, or have a curious mind and an appreciation of beauty, a must buy.

Image result for chameleons chris mattison

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The majority of visitors to Madagascar seem to be interested mainly in the mammals, in particular the lemurs of which there are many more different species than you would think. They vary in size from the tiny, not to say minuscule Madame Berthe’s Mouse Lemur, which they say can sit comfortably into an egg cup, to the majestic Indri, which are the largest and look not unlike young bears balanced in the branches of the trees. These caught my heart in 2015, when we were treated to an impromptu chorus of haunting singing by a group in the south of the country.

There is no question that the mouse lemurs are unbelievably ‘cute’ and ‘sweet’ – or any other of the appellations of that sort that you might like to apply. They are charming, not to say endearing. On my previous trip (mainly in the south of the island), I was lucky to be shown one on a night walk and then was able to photograph it. He looked a little startled I’m afraid, as he was the centre of attention for two groups – and was very much in the headlights. I wondered if they took it in turns to keep the tourists happy…but I suspect he was just unlucky that night. I must admit I have mixed feelings about taking photos like that, it seems a great liberty. I tried to make my contribution to his photoshoot as quick as possible, but I’m afraid there were some there with cameras with attachments of a foot or more, who didn’t seem to care at all.

That aside, I suppose they are the first reason most people visit Madagascar. They are very good ambassadors. Most people are aware of the ring-tailed lemurs, however, there are five families:

Cheirogaleidae, which includes the Mouse Lemurs, Dwarf Lemurs, Hairy-eared, Fat-tailed, and Fork-marked.

The SportivDSCN0461e who come out at night and look indignant when disturbed in day-time, make up the Lepilemuridae family.

The Lemuridae which include the Bamboo, the famous aforementioned Ring-tailed, True, and Ruffed lemurs.

Then there are the Indriidae: The Woolly lemurs, (which look as though their woolly jumpers have shrunk into a mass in the wash), the beautiful Sifakas, and of course the eponymous Indri.

Lastly, and certainly not the least the Daubentoniidae family which contains only one species, the most unique of all, the Aye-aye.

There is something about them that makes them very special. There is a gentleness, and they are all very beautiful.

On this trip we were able to spot several different types – mouse, Black Lemurs, Silky (which I missed), Golden Crowned and Coquerel sifakas, Common Brown Lemurs and several Sportive. I particularly liked these. They would look out of holes with large round eyes and gaze out with a vague look of annoyance and puzzlement. The Coquerel sifaka’s were very athletic leaping and climbing around the trees, often hanging by their toes to reach dainty leaves on the branches below. We were staying in the reserve of the Coquerel lemurs and they seemed to take great pleasure in dropping large seeds down onto the tin roofs, which made a very large bang and was very disconcerting, until you realised what was happening… We also saw a group of Blue-Eyed lemurs. The males and DSCN1056females are different colours – the females are brown, males black. This dimorphism is rather peculiar – they really don’t look as though they belong together. We were lucky to see a group with a small number of babies too – hanging on to their mothers. All of them were black, however, I am unsure if they are born black and change (if female), or whether all of the babies were male.

One evening near the end of the trip we were taken on a night walk, not far from our camp (Ankarafansika). We were left with a tracker and Ismael to walk a path that was sandy and enclosed on both sides by forest. The sky was dark, though between the overhanging branches there were patches of sky, liberally decorated with stars, bright and multitudinous.

I find it best not to continuously use a torch at night when with a group, particularly with head-torches; the forest paths are lit by the wavering lights from the others, and it does prevent you from being struck in the face by an enthusiastic large moth, if you wear one, which happened on my last trip. So, this time, I carried it hanging by its strap, and only periodically directed it into the foliage. It wasn’t long before our guide found a rare mouse lemur, the Golden-brown Mouse Lemur. Tiny, and diminutive. It was kind enough to continue to forage along the twig it was on… then leapt across to another twig, then across to another branch and off into the darkness. We came across a small intrusion of cockroaches*, on the path, and then a chameleon, pale in the torch light, hanging at the end of a twig over the path. The photos I took of him were really rather good – he is hardly there, you can see his tail, and his body and head, but they are just disappearing into the darkness. Certainly not intentional, if I had tried, I wouldn’t have succeeded, but there you go, sometimes it works. As we walked we were advised to keep to the middle of the path; it had fallen away on both sides, which was a little disconcerting, and then I spotted two eyes, low to the ground coming towards us. Was I at last going to see my fossa?  The hairs at the back of my neck began to rise, just as Ismael said, ‘Watch out for the zebu cart!’, and the cattle became clearer; the Malagasy driver sitting on top of the vehicle, feet against the front board, and toes in the air. The zebu pulling the cart were past in moments, heavy, large and ponderous, the cart creaking behind. The tracker then stopped suddenly beneath a branch and indicated with his knuckle – just above were some tiny little birds, sound asleep in a row. Absolutely stunning. Further on I was surprised to see a large insect buzzing around the path and was told that it was a night-dragonfly – absolutely gorgeous. Quite large, some four to five inches in length, red-brown with enormous eyes….

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I suppose if I were to pick my favourite reptile, or amphibian, I think I would choose chameleons. Though I do love the Leaf-tailed and the Spiny Lizards are fun too. There is

DSCN0293something about chameleons, though, that I find quite extraordinary. If it isn’t their way of moving, each bifurcated foot carefully placed before the next, it’s their eyes and, and I love their tails. I haven’t seen any very large examples yet – most have been around a hands-breadth in length, or much smaller. The Malagasy were very good on both trips and if they found anything at all they would stop and show me. If I wasn’t around they would either bring the twig it was sitting on, and then return it, or they would encourage it onto another stick, and bring that. One chameleon in particular was a bright lime green with gentle feet and beautiful eyes, his tail uncurled behind. He was balanced on a sprig of foliage, brought up to me as I sat at the table in Marojejy and returned back to the forest afterwards.

The arthropods were there in profusion – the arachnids were large, but beautifully DSCN0113marked. At Marojejy they lived under the eaves of the eating area and built webs, that reached down to the handrail of the platform. They would come down to grab anything unlucky enough to get caught. There was also a web that we could see in the forest, which reached from the tree canopy down to below where we were sitting, towards the forest floor. In the south they built enormous webs across the rivers and were suspended above the water below. At times they looked as though they had no way of support, but the web was always there. As in the south, the north had a profusion of small butterflies that would rise up from your feet as you walked out from the villages. About half an inch in diameter they were a beautiful flurry of life. In the south they had some very large examples – with wingspans as wide as a hand stretch. Those of the north though were more diminutive – at least those we saw. One though was about two inches across and settled long enough for me to photograph him.

Then there were the giant millipedes – I only saw two long examples. One was making its way across the boulders at the top of the waterfall at Marojejy and I encouraged it to climb over a small stick, which I then raised a couple of inches. He climbed over the obstruction with very little trouble; exerting considerable strength – pulling himself away. I had always assumed that they perambulated with a wave like motion, however, this one moved a number of legs in a batch at a time, which was very efficient and very strong.

We didn’t seem much in the way of crickets and the like, though one travelled briefly on the trousers of one of the other people on the trip. His antennae were extremely long and fine, some six inches or so in length.

DSCN0197There were several opportunities to see the leaf tailed lizards – gorgeous creatures with superbly designed eyes. Often with very interesting patterns. Their tails were thin like a leaf, often with ragged edges and they often had a cloak edge around their bodies to break up their outline. One was sitting across a branch hanging just inside our path. He was carefully balanced, his tail dropping away behind him, his eyes red in contrast to his grey body. The night walks really are very special, I like them as they don’t involve much climbing, and the creatures can be superb.

The people of Madagascar fascinate me too. There are at least 22 different tribes, with diverse beliefs, cultures, and language. The tribes have different social demands. They all have a system of fady – behaviour or things that are taboo. Some tribes believe the aye-aye to be evil, for example, others the reverse. Death, as a result is a complicated business, particularly as the ancestors are so important to their beliefs.

When travelling far in the north we came across a crowd that stretched across the road, a mass of 50 or 60 people, all singing and dancing. It was a little disconcerting, and then I noticed a litter that they were carrying at shoulder height. Neatly folded over the recumbent body, which was carefully wrapped into a rectangular shape, were a series of brightly coloured lambas, coloured clothes. The Malagasy were dancing and singing as they carried it with them down the road, celebrating their dead and his life. The crowd parted and they smiled at us as our four x four split the group, before it remerged again after we had past.  I was astounded to be told that they were from a tribe from the south. The deceased had died in the north and his family and friends were taking him home for burial. They were carrying him all the way as they didn’t have the money for a car. Not just carrying him, they were having a party.

Not long after that we came across another group, this time a more solemn and reserved crowd. Larger than the previous throng – they too were carrying a litter. This time the body was shrouded in a white sheet which hadn’t been prepared as the other, so you could see the outline of the deceased, the sheet fluttered in the air. They were Christians. Walking in near silence. Then, astonishingly we came across a third group, smaller than the other two, on the outskirts of one of the towns. This one had a coffin type affair affixed around the body (not very well, one corner wasn’t secured), and that again had a white sheet fluttering in the breeze. This body had, in addition, a note stating that the deceased was a member of the Christian clergy. I told Ismael that I thought the traditional funeral was the best – there was an element of joy with that funeral, which was lovely.

I have been reading an extraordinary volume called Madagascar – Land of the Man-Eating Tree by Chase Salmon Osborn LL.D. (1924) which gives details of the flora, fauna and the people of Madagascar – its rather fun – though in places quite complicated.

The book starts with the following declaration. Most of the time I shall be honest in this book. All of the time I shall try to be honest. Because of this pledge I am going to tell you that the purpose of the title of this chapter (which is the same as the sub-title of the book), is at once to enmesh your interest. Madagascar has been called “The Land of the Man-eating Tree” since prehistoric times as our vain and insufficient chronology goes. I do not know whether this tigerish tree really exists or whether the bloodcurdling stories about it are pure myth. It is enough for my purpose if its story focuses your interest upon one of the least known spots of the world. Now you are, at the most modest estimate, of average intelligence. Please for a second consider how little you know about this second largest island (actually fourth, but we won’t argue), on the globe – in fact nearly a continent. Only New Guinea is vaster in area than Madagascar, and size is not always a safe measuring standard of values.

Which I think you will agree is a super start to a book about a fascinating country. I have just looked Madagascar up on the Internet – it seems that Australia as a continent doesn’t count – which means the largest island that isn’t, is Greenland (840,004 sq. miles), then New Guinea (303,381 sq. miles), Borneo is next (288,869) and is followed by Madagascar – a mere 226,917 sq. miles. It is 1,000 miles or so from top to bottom too – which is rather good…and 350 miles wide…

I feel that the more I learn about Madagascar the more questions there are…so though I was exhausted when I returned, I did find that after a few weeks my interest was sparked to visit again. Undiscovered Destinations with whom I travelled have another trip – this time to the west coast. I was rather amused. They ask their guests to give feedback on their trips, which I did for both.  After the last trip, feeling rather exhausted. Then to find them replying, with an additional note, that they had just ‘put up’ a new holiday – to the west coast. Really too tired to bother, it made me smile. Then a few weeks later…and I started to read the information about the trip, and my curiosity was sparked again… At the moment, though they have a small problem with bubonic and pneumonic plague, I don’t have any money, no time and …

*How about that for a collective noun for cockroaches!

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Sitting in my study, with the window open beside me, the air is cool and the sky is overcast – grey, with a very slight hint of blue in it. Definitely off-grey. The road is black, damp from the rain, the earth a dark brown-black and the foliage is controlled and domesticated, enclosed within beds set in tarmac. My garden a little wilder, but still contained and tamed. Grass a little shaggy, shrubs a little untidy, but all in their place, even the wild bits, the weeds, and the self-seeded; all contained within the fences, controlled.

DSCN0296Marojejy – in the North East of Madagascar isn’t like this. There is no containment, no control. Madagascar isn’t domesticated and Marojejy is one of the wildest places in the island.

The park, (a phrase that is a misnomer, if there ever was one), is just beyond the village of Mandena – a typical small ‘conurbation’, if you will, of wooden houses, thatched with raffia – the building sites on the edge of the village are a collection of wooden frames carefully fitted together. Each piece with a letter corresponding to another. The workmen climb over it, barefoot, pulling long pieces of wood up from the ground, toes gripping the edges of the frame to give them more purchase. The forest is close… The track is murrain, a rich red-orange, with chickens running every-which-way, their chicks peeping behind. We stopped near the edge of the village, hitched our rucksacks onto our backs and extended our poles, if we had them. There were six of us, not including Ishmael, our guide and a few porters. It is a walk of around 3km to the park entrance – winding around bright green rice paddy fields – past zebu (cattle), browsing the edge of the path, the ropes around and through their nostrils disappearing back into the fields. The path is clear, rolling and somewhat worn from people making their way up to the entrance. The duck boards that went over the water courses, were somewhat rickety – and in some places had missing boards; they were fine, if you didn’t happen to look down between them. The forest plants mixed between the small plots of vanilla…encroaching back into the village – it was always there in some form or another. The view was superb. From the entrance it’s another 4 and a half km or so before you reach the first camp – which took about five hours in all.

Marojejy is green. England is supposed to be green, however, this was extraordinary – more vibrant, grassy, leafy, bright, pale, mossy, emerald, acidic and glaucous – it feels more alive. I suppose because it is – stuffed full of wildlife. Only around 1,000 people, including guides, scientists and professional people ever go to Marojejy in a year – so it hasn’t been affected so much by people.

Camp One, Camp Mantella is in the lowland rainforest. There is an eating area – with long tables and benches and a cooking area too. Dotted around are small chalets, which have four bunk beds in each, with a mattress, sheets and a blanket. The eating area was covered with plastic sheeting, and many of the chalet/huts had had rudimentary work done on their roofs – the result of cyclone Enawo back in March. ‘Bathroom’ facilities

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were basic. No running water, however there was the rudiments of a toilet – at least the porcelain bowl, no seat, but it wasn’t, of course plumbed in – not surprising when you think about it and the floor had been covered with wooden slats – the majority of which were missing… It is amazing what can be done with a bucket and a jug…

Creatures we spotted on the walk included chameleons, beetles and bugs, including a wonderful ant-lion that Ishmael encouraged out of his hole and there seemed to be innumerable butterflies, which never settled long enough for a photograph. At the camp we saw a beautiful bamboo lemur – which I had missed on the Southern trip – so it was lovely to see one quietly sitting near the camp. The night walk resulted in our spotting various reptiles and frogs – the only amphibians in Madagascar. A large cricket / grasshopper hitched a lift on a pair of trousers and we had some wonderful examples of

DSCN0200leaf tailed lizards too – one about 12 inches long… I particularly like leaf tailed lizards. They are finely delineated, and their eyes and tails are unique. I fell in love with them on the last trip – the Satanic Leaf Tailed Lizard had absolutely stunning eyebrows…We didn’t see the leeches at that stage in Marojejy, though Victoria had some interesting marks left around her ankles where one at least had gorged itself on her blood. We agreed she should follow Ishmael’s advice. Leave it to dry and sort itself. After that we rubbed salt into our socks – a sure way of keeping those little worms (when hungry) at bay. Useful – though after a short while we realised the slight disadvantage. A vague feeling of grit in our boots…salt granules that had fallen into them. On the whole we thought it probably worth it, though it only protected our ankles and they do drop from the leaves too.

The following day we were to have walked down a steep path to a waterfall, before going on to Camp Two. It was, however, a steep walk, which, after the previous day, I thought I ought to avoid, so I asked if it were possible for me to walk ahead with a guide to the next camp, without visiting it.  Two of the group decided to come with me. John and Victoria were from Wales, and though they had done several similar trips (so fitter, and more experienced), they thought they would join me. So, with me leading our small splinter group, we carefully paced ourselves; climbing over tree trunks and roots, stopping regularly as I spotted small insects and lizards that were near the path, which amused Ishmael considerably. Walking together without feeling that I was holding the group back made a big difference – and Clare’s walking pole was a real bonus, particularly when stepping across the odd small river with boulders that broke up the walk. It was still quite steep, but when we arrived we were rewarded at Camp Marojejia (750m) with the chance of sitting at the head of a waterfall, (just below our huts) where dragonflies flittered over the water and giant millipedes ran like clockwork toys across DSCN0376the rocks. These were great fun. If you placed a small twig in front they would begin to climb over it, then, if you raised the stick, so that the front of the millipede was gripping the rock, and its body was arched over the stick, you would feel the power of it, pulling itself up and over. Quite extraordinary and for the size very powerful.

Above the waterfall was a bit of a climb to our huts, which were distributed amongst the trees and along the side of a path. The set up much the same as in Camp One – four camp beds, a slat covered hole in the side of the building for a window, all set on legs a foot or so above the ground. My hut was the penultimate one near the eating area. The only real difference between the two camps was that the roofs of the huts seemed to have survived Enawo a little better. In the evening you could sit on the floor of my hut and hang your legs over the edge, down to the boulder placed so that you could step in easily, and listen to the frogs – their eyes glowing in the light of a torch in front of you as the forest dropped away from the path. Continuing up the path there was another small hut to one side, once more with the bowl of the loo in place and a bucket and jug to facilitate matters. Again, the floor had disappeared and it was best not to look too closely at the ceiling. Walking on, there was the last hut on the left and then a steep climb on slippery

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rocks up to a two-tier dining area – I say two tiers, but really the first area had a cooking area and a large table and benches over-looking the forest – which was frankly a stunning view. I hope to have a large picture made of the early morning mist that enveloped the top of the mountain. To the right of that ‘floor’ was a rather rickety step onto another, slightly higher, that we only used periodically, to gain a better angle for photos. The Malagasy seemed to use that area to sleep – curled up with a blanket beneath the table.

It was there that we met the ring-tailed mongoose and his family, and the almost certainly diabetic day gecko and we watched birds, butterflies and some of the most prolific and large spiders we had seen on the trip so far. Though the largest had been suspended on a very large web amongst the trees down at the reception area for the park – with a bright yellow body, a good inch/inch and a half in length…legs spread out and resting on the web lines.

DSCN0308I had spotted the ring-tailed mongoose at Camp One, early in the morning. Trotting around the site and under the buildings (all on stilts), and investigating the area for food. In Camp Two there were at least three; two adults and a youngster. They were very interested in any food that might fall from the platforms – and had a good supply of chicken entrails. The fowl had been carried up from Camp One, upside-down, and were kept safe in a cupboard until required; they would disappear into the forest with one of the cooks to return in pieces in a bucket. The mongooses were great fun, quite cheeky and brave, and would raid the waste bin for scraps. The day geckos, (a type of lizard), however, were, on the whole more nervous around us at Marojejy – though one took delight in raiding the sugar supply which was given to us in make-shift sugar bowls; small drinking glasses.

This day-gecko was about six inches long with a sort of bubbly bright green skin with red patches on his shoulders. He was a finely made creature, his toes were beautifully delicate. A very good example. When investigating the sugar supply, he would carefullyDSCN0361 make his way across the table, climb the side of the glass and hang upside-down into it, with his feet and toes splayed out to prevent him from falling headfirst down into the glass, his tail left sticking out of the top. Then, with great care he would flash his tongue out into the sugar – of which he took quite a quantity. So much so we tapped the glass, only to find he refused to leave, unless we actually moved it. He was a lovely creature – very brave in the sugar ‘bowl’, but terribly nervous otherwise and would flit to the underside of the bench or whatever he was sitting on, if he suddenly felt threatened. Not unlike squirrels running to the other side of a tree trunk.

Camp Three at 750m was another hour or so (officially) above Camp Two. We weren’t to visit that Camp, (it is very steep and has fewer beds), however, we did start the climb towards it to find the Silky Sifakas – a small lemur, with long fur and a pinkish-blackish face – they are very rare. I decided, however that it was best for me not to continue, when we got part way up – I have a slight problem with heights and was not fit and the walk was more a climb than a peregrination – very steep and frankly I wasn’t very happy about it. Colin from the group stopped too (he was in Madagascar for the views) so we waited together (with a Malagasy guide) until he was happy and we made our way back to Camp Two.  I was sorry to have missed the lemurs, but on the reflection, it was the right decision – particularly as Ishmael responded with ‘Good job!’ and a comment that it was the right decision when I told him why I wanted to stop… We were some way behind the others too and it was quite likely that if we had continued the lemurs would have moved off by the time we got there. That afternoon one of our group, who goes on these sorts of holidays a lot, went up with the tracker and was a way for some time. We assumed all was well – he had led the main walk to Marojejy and had been very clear about how fit and fast he was – going on ahead at all times. It was a pity because he did miss out on some of the animals pointed out by the guides. Anyway – he returned much later, grey about the face having fallen some way up in the forest and twisted his ankle. I gave him some painkillers I had taken with me – though I’m not sure it was much of a help. He didn’t really rest it at all, and his ankle was still swollen by the time we were flying home.

Our porters and cooks worked seemingly without any effort. Supplies were brought up by foot (often bare, sometimes with flip flops), including great bundles of wood, bottles of water and sacks of wood, carried almost nonchalantly.  If they couldn’t be carried directly on the shoulders, (bottles for example), they would suspend the supplies in bags on a long bamboo pole and rest that across one shoulder, so that they were carried in front and behind. I presume if put across both shoulders it meant that they would have difficulty with the path – it really is very narrow and only one person at a time can go up it conveniently. A request in the morning meant the order was met in the afternoon. They cooked in double pans. The bottom pan with a hole in the side in which the wood was set alight, and the top with the food in it. They cleaned the pans with earth from the ground, rinsing it off with water and cut the wood to size with large knives/mini axes held in their right hand, whilst the wood was held steady in the left.  A practice that disturbed me, as without doubt a slip would have resulted in damage to a thumb or finger or two which couldn’t easily be treated.

We enjoyed various walks around Marojejy – some of which were quite exhausting – I remember being woken once by Ishmael – after having a snooze and he held out a small beautifully designed chocolate in his hand, which he offered me. My response of ‘Oh! Chocolate!’ made him remove his hand quickly, along with the millipede which he had brought to show me, as I was so ‘interested in insects, and things…’  Why I thought it was made of chocolate, I don’t know – except the millipede looked like one of those posh, smartly designed chocolates that you can buy.

DSCN0385Ghee was our local tracker – an extraordinary man. He lives in Mandena – and is full of laughter and knowledge. I wish I had been able to just spend more time to get to know him – he seemed to know everything about all the animals, explaining how they lived, where and why. He has lived in and around Marojejy all his life – and was full of information. I don’t think I will forget scuffing the ground whilst walking with him and seeing what I thought was a tiny insect (‘Malagasy flea’) jump from the side of the path – ‘No,’ he said, ‘smallest Malagasy frog!’ with a grin that stretched from ear to ear… The porters kindly carried my rucksack down when we started our walk back from Camp Two all the way to the village which was a great help.

There was talk of a tribe who lived in the forest, separate and away from everyone else. Initially I thought this something to make things a little more interesting for the tourists (though why that would be necessary, I wasn’t sure), and listened with a little scepticism. When Colin and I decided not to continue in the climb to see the silky sifaka’s, Ishmael was quite determined (though polite) that we weren’t to be left together, to wait for their return. Later I asked him about it and he mentioned that the tribe in the forest don’t like white people, and it was best to avoid them. He said that the Malagasy guides would often hear them talking, but wouldn’t see them. His brother, however, had made friends with one of them – and described some of their way of life, (eating raw fish, and a fear of fire), but what really caught my attention was the statement that they were cold to the touch. This, I felt was an interesting description and if the tale was just a piece of colour, it was a detail I wouldn’t expect. The island is so large, and has areas of very dense forest that on the whole, I suppose it is quite possible that there are people who are living a primitive life away from the official tribes. Somehow, that really rather pleases me.

It was a fine morning when we left and then rained for a short while. Everyone put on their waterproofs – apart from me. I was warm, the rain wasn’t cold and I would dry. After all there was nothing I could do – my waterproofs were in my rucksack. A few minutes later the rain stopped, and the porter trotted past with my rucksack on his back…padding down without a care in the world. All I had to do was concentrate on the slippery rocks, the slope, and navigating the stones across the small rivers that suddenly materialised. The damp atmosphere definitely had an effect on the leeches. One dropped onto my fingers, which I flicked off with my other hand and we saw another come out of a log of wood and search around for his next meal…at that point a rather insignificant worm, moving around much like a caterpillar, body hooped, front end rising and dropping back onto the surface of the wood as it searched for something to get hold of. I was concentrating on getting down and didn’t think to take a photo, which I regret now – it would have added something to my photo book. We also came across an arthropod (I am not sure how many legs he had, but I don’t think he was an insect) – about an inch and a half to two, square – a small tank wandering along the side of the track. When poked with a stick, he rolled himself into a neat ball, which we ushered into the undergrowth in case he got stood on.

As we made our way back across the bottom of the valley and past the rice fields etc it started to rain in earnest. Heavy and thick. When we reached the village, the chickens had taken themselves under the houses with their peeping chicks, but the Malagasy weren’t really bothered and continued to carry sacks of food over their shoulders up to the camps as we made our way back, very wet, to the four x fours. It has been a long time since I have been so wet. Positively soggy.

We travelled from there to a place called Daraina – a trip on extremely poor roads for the most part, which entailed our drivers weaving between pot-holes when they could, or just carefully driving down into them and back out the other side when that was impossible. Daraina is in a much drier area than Marojejy, though in the wet season the camp we were going to isn’t accessible. We arrived after dark, we sensed (you couldn’t see), in a large open area with a small lit covered enclosure in the middle on which benches and tables had been set. Beyond the lights of this there was, what I can only describe, as inky blackness – an almost physical wall of dark. We were told that up the slope were our chalets and we were directed to them. It seemed there were about four somewhere on a slope, which we couldn’t see, above us and a couple behind. So, with some nervousness we all grabbed our various bags and set off into the dark, headtorches making out the odd bit of scrub…and yes, there was a slope – almost too much of one. With some help, however, I made it to the wooden gang-plank that ran up the side of my hut onto its veranda. On sliding the door, I found a mattress on the floor, with sheets and a towel, and behind, a washing area –  a shower and sink neither of which worked, and a loo that flushed with the bucket and jug system. By now I was getting used to this. I think I would have been more surprised if the facilities had been different.

I was, though, astonished in the morning. DSCN0462The chalets were perched on the edge of the hill. Very little of the buildings were set into the slope, they were almost resting against it – so they had twelve or so foot tall posts supporting them underneath to make them level and to keep them up. The nights were glorious. The wind swirled around the chalets and because there was a gap of about a centimetre between each floor board, it came up between them to whistle around the inside too. When lying in bed it was not unlike lying in a great ship; the whole thing creaked and moved as though sailing enormous waves, which was surprisingly restful. Then again, perhaps that was because I was exhausted.  It looked as though the legs of the chalet had been recently ‘planted’ – the whole thing newly set up. I was told, however, that the raffia roof and the chalet had to be rebuilt each year…due to the wind and weather.

The next day we left camp to walk the local forest to search for golden-crowned sifaka –

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these have a shorter pelt than the silky sifakas, and actually I think they are more beautiful. They were very quickly spotted high in the trees and we spent a lovely hour or two tracking various small family groups and photographing them. They are mainly off white with a crown of bronze/gold on their heads… We even managed to find a few with babies. Whilst wandering around the area we came across three aye-aye nests. They are the only lemur to make nests – most just sit asleep in a crook of a tree or hide in holes or together in caves. Since I was so interested, the trackers climbed the trees – some 18/20 foot up – climbing using their feet against the trunks of the trees and pulling themselves up with their arms. From there they used poles to poke the nests in the hope that a lemur would be at home. Just my luck they weren’t. It seems aye-ayes have a series of nests and move from one to the next (in order) each night – a method of having new clean ‘sheets’, I suppose. I never saw one, but was pleased to see the nests. They found some holes that they said had been gnawed by one of them, which I was able to photograph. A couple of Americans on another trip had more success. They went on boat trip and an aye-aye came down to eat a coconut – just by their boat. Still. It’s good to know they are there!

 

 

The Farne islands are mostly made up of rock (that sounds like a remarkably stupid comment, but I hope you will understand as you read) – rather stark shards of stone, though some of the larger islands have a heavy head of grass in which puffins have made their burrows. The other islands have mainly guillemots, and cormorants etc with just a few puffins sitting like wooden carving on the top. Should you visit the islands, there are some trips that enable you to get out onto one of them where the puffins have their nests so you can walk amongst the birds (which are cordoned off), and you can spend a an hour just admiring them.

2015 Satanic & Moon 008The boat trip starts with a visit to the rocky outcrops of islands, where the other sea birds were nesting. The guano covering the tops of the cliffs look as though someone had inadvertently dropped a large can of white paint over them. Noisy and odorous to say the least, and I’m glad to say we didn’t stay long around them and soon moved on to Puffin Island, (actual name Staple Island Bird Sanctuary) and it is here you can disembark and walk amongst the birds.

They are quite extraordinary. 2015 Puffins etc 421 - CopyOnce you gain the top of the footpath you find a small number of puffins just standing having their photographs taken – even before you are really up on the top of the headland and at that point there are a large number of people taking numerous photographs. Some of the people there, I am sure never get beyond this ‘landing’ in the path and so don’t see the rest of the island and have the true puffin experience.

As you stand on the island the puffins whir like oversized feathered bumblebees, beaks full of slim fish, whose tails are bright in the sunlight, the fins seeming pushed into the body as though clipped together like a piece of Lego. The puffins land beside the burrows and comically look around. Sometimes walking a few paces before suddenly dropping into their holes as though they have never been.

They are there one moment, and are suddenly not.

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They appear again just as suddenly to gaze at a black-headed gull, perhaps too close for comfort, before suddenly paddling the grass and whirring back low overhead into the sky. Some of the cormorants nest near the landing stage, yellow beaked, throat undulating as they watch the arrival of these peculiar birds whose outline is nothing more than a curve from the tip of the beak back over to the tip of the tail.   There are sudden flocks widelyspaced with birds flying just above your head, wings whirring (they soundlike wound up tin toys), as they turn and twist to land near

2015 Puffins etc 237their holes. Some stand and gaze out to sea; others watch the gulls and gannets. Others drop into the water and bob, little flashes of yellow from their feet beneath, a sharp contrast to the dark blue of the water. They are strange and wonderful, and I feel that like bees they shouldn’t be able to fly – though in their case no one has said they shouldn’t, unlike bumblebees, which I believe aren’t supposed to be able to.

Perhaps 2015 Satanic & Moon 261no one has looked into this – they really are gorgeous, eccentric and unlikely birds. Every year they lose their bright beaks in the winter and at sea and only gain them again when they come in to find a mate and nest. I don’t suppose anyone has ever found a cast off beak – they must sink to the bottom of the ocean, which is a pity – I would love to have one, a unique and very special piece of natural history ephemera…

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We also visited Lindisfarne Castle situated on Holy Island – and a friendlier beautiful castle I have yet to find, though the outside belies the beautiful décor and architecture within. Gorgeous arches leading in two directions, lovely old fire places, and prints adorn the upstairs hall, taken I’m afraid from a probably rare French falconry volume – depicting owls being trained, and a heron hunt. There is also a small reading room looking out to the water. The views in all directions are superb; I have always had a hankering to live right by the sea… The castle looks forbidding from the outside and there is a long walk up to the rock on which the fortification perches, followed by another, steeper climb to the front door, but from then on it is one of the most captivating castles I have visited. It was renovated by Edwin Lutyens – and has distinct Arts and Crafts elements throughout – including a beautiful weather vane. Some way away – is the small walled garden, planted and designed by Gertrude Jekyll – useful, simply and gorgeously designed, but so inconvenient should you want to add some mint to your spuds, or have forgotten to collect some other essential ingredient for your meal. A touching element is the stone and chain affair to ensure the gate closes behind the gardener…

To me though the highlight of the weekend though was the puffins – so unbelievable they really should be part of the fauna of Madagascar…

The Grand Tsingy is an outcrop of limestone escarpment in the west of the island (Bemaraha National Park – Madagascar).

The notes provided by my tour operator (Undiscovered Destinations) stated that though it could be a challenge for some, many felt it was the highlight of the holiday. I wondered long and hard about whether I should go. On walks with Clare in Yorkshire I have been known to balk at a slope, which has been frustrating for everyone concerned.

The group discussed the idea the evening before. There was much laughter. Some it was obvious were fit (one a silver medallist trampolinist), one or two were definitely not. On the whole the gentlemen were ‘up for it’, whilst a good number of the rest of us decided that they preferred to remain at the hotel and to hear of our adventures on our return. There was a lot of laughter when I asked that if we went, and decided we couldn’t go on, if there was a way to return. It became quieter when Ollie our guide said it was a good question. There wasn’t – we would only be able to continue, irrespective of how we felt.

In the middle of the continuing discussions he told me that I’d be fine – and so, I thought I’d give it a go – after all Ollie had

said, he believed I could do it 2015 Madagascar Red Camera 085– and for some bizarre reason, I believed him.We drove to a small clearing and were fitted up with harnesses and then began to walk down the valley, towards a wood we could make out in the distance. I initially followed one of the men, one or two after the local guide. Strangely my harness tightly belted around my waist, and around my thighs didn’t help my nerves that were beginning to make themselves apparent.

I suppose I really began to realise quite what was ahead when after strolling through the wood spotting lemurs we came up against a rock, taller than I, with a smaller stone in front. Stretching my arm up I could just reach the top of the boulder and then put my foot up on the stone, and brought my now wobbly other leg up, past the first to near where my hand was…and scrambled to the top. The start of the Tsingy proper, I suppose, and the start of many scrambles. Most of the rocks at this stage were just round heavy boulders, with the odd tree growing between them, others were thin, incredibly hard slices of very thin limestone…

I began to think of ‘now’, rather than think about what was around me; where to put my foot this time and not to look down into the hole that seemed too deep, or at the vertical slithers of stone rising beneath me. Then there were the times where I didn’t know what to do next. Where was I supposed to put my hand, and then a panic, to call out that I didn’t know what to do with my other foot, the first balanced precariously cross-wise across a piece of thin hard sheer limestone, the fear in my voice becoming clearer as I began to wonder if I was actually going to manage this, or be the first person left, hanging onto a sheet of limestone…which was when Charlie the local guide, quietly took over.

Carefully and patiently he told me what to do. Where to put my feet, my hands, when to move quickly and with the confidence that Ollie (our wonderful Undiscovered guide), had shown the previous night (‘You can do it.’) and with some

determination encouraged me to clip onto 2015 Madagascar Red Camera 119the cables, then to unclip again – which always seemed a very silly thing to do. He showed me the small rocks bolted to the sheer limestone, making small stepping-stones, rising up the sheer limestone until we reached the viewing point, a few hours later.

Actually probably only two or three perhaps, I suppose, though for me, that climb took all day, except it didn’t.

The viewing platform was made of wooden rough posts and planks with a nice waist high horizontal barrier and a view that was astonishing. In the far distance I could just make out a plant that had managed to grow

right up above the tops of the trees that we were looking down on. 2015 Madagascar Red Camera 115Charlie gleefully took photos, and then came the problem of coming down from the platform, which I did, using that wonderful piece of anatomy designed for such times and slithered on my bottom until my feet could find a ‘stable’ starting point to begin the transverse across the escarpment.

Once more Charlie guided my feet and ensured the front of the group were moving (there were times when I wanted just to ‘stop’ and never move again), and Ollie brought up the rear with a nonchalance that was embarrassing. Not long after the first viewing point, I was offered another, but declined and with a rare burst of confidence asked Charlie if over the ridge was the much talked of rope ladder, and boldly left the group to climb over one of the edges to find the bridge hanging over space. That was something I suddenly found would be easy. A doddle – One or two of the early planks were a little irregular, but the others were clearly in place and I thoroughly enjoyed walking the bridge – somehow my fear there diminished considerably. I was quite chuffed with myself, and having not taken any photos for some time (my mind had become very focused, I was pleased to have had Charlie offer to take my camera after the first viewing point, he took some lovely photos, including one of me in the middle of the bridge. On the other side I was surprised to see a second, shorter

bridge and was pleased to be able to stride 2015 Madagascar Red Camera 106over that, but came abruptly to a halt to wait for Charlie again as a new cable twisted down the side of one of the slices of rock and I really wasn’t sure again. The darkness beneath my feet between the shards of limestone suddenly looked very black.

The Internet has photographs of some of the lemurs we saw at the beginning holding on to pieces of limestone, in the midst of the Grand Tsingy. Usually an element of ‘animal’ has the effect of distracting me enough to deal with the ditch or slope. We didn’t see any, or at least none was indicated to me whilst we were navigating our way around the shards of limestone. I’m absurdly pleased about

2015 Madagascar Red Camera 133 - Copythat. I’m not sure I’d have seen them, certainly not enough to have appreciated them. Unless of course they had been sitting delightfully on the rope ladder…

We crawled through some tight passageways, and at one point working around one piece holding on as I did with everything (including I think my toes, even though they were encased in my foot-ware), I was astonished to find the sheer limestone sheet was too hot to handle and complained to Charlie, who just said, ‘Quickly quickly, it’s the sun, on the stone…’

I will never go pot holing – I have never thought that being underground was a good idea.

I have however, crawled on my hands and knees through a cave (a short distance, but it was a cave, and I did), and squeezed through rocks almost too close for me to get through.

2015 Madagascar Red Camera 095I have glanced up with my torch, and seen a large moth, sitting against the roof of the cave, its red eyes glinting in the light. I have also fed a small Madagascan rat, most of a

chicken sandwich, which to be honest I really didn’t want or 2015 Madagascar Red Camera 145need. I have sat in that cave whilst the guides went back to help someone else in the group who got into trouble (he fainted and arrived a few minutes later), and have smiled and laughed at myself.

Apart from bruises where I braced myself too hard against the limestone, I have climbed The Grand Tsingy and arrived unscathed,hot and emotionally exhausted on a path above a small ravine and walked back up to the clearing with a rest in the sun part way, as I wondered about what I had just done, until I reached the coach and was helped from my harness.

I have climbed The Grand Tsingy – not everyone has done that.

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We travelled around Madagascar in a small coach, and whilst we were in the West of the country in four by fours. After our trip around the Grand Tsingy we climbed into these to make our way back to our hotel, not a great distance away and I was really looking forward to just sitting on the veranda of my chalet and watching the evening come in.

Brian who’s bride had decided the trip to the Grand Tsingy was not for her accompanied me in my four by four and we both relaxed as our driver started to navigate the murrain roads back. We had become used to large holes in the road, some of which stretched from one side to the other and were often deep and filled with the soil-red coloured water. Which can be disconcerting. We didn’t have any trouble really, sometimes we would take a ‘water jump’ twice if the car refused – but we

became if anything a bit blasé until this journey, when we rounded a corner in2015 Madagascar Red Camera 160 murrain track to find it had become nothing more than a bog, stretching from one side to the other, with vegetation and forest preventing a new path being made.

The car swung from side to side, slipped rapidly and we tried again. Suddenly we reversed back up a side road whilst the others tried, their higher axels enabling them to forge through the mud. We tried again. Mud sprayed everywhere. Out of the blue the track was surrounded by local Malagasy, women with children on their backs, heavy loads on the heads stood back to watch, young men shouted at our driver – he shouted back. The other drivers returned to give suggestions and young boys materialised out of the bush and stopped to watch. Small toddlers ran around the back of the four by four as the wheels spun and it slid violently from side to side. We started a roller coaster ride, but it seemed at every attempt our driver wasn’t doing something that someone thought he should, and as is the way of the world, everyone had a different idea…

2015 Madagascar Red Camera 163A small boy aged around four or five with a bright yellow t-shirt and very little else suddenly stood close to our back window. Very tentatively he raised his hand in a shallow shy wave, so I waved back really enthusiastically. He grinned and waved some more. So I stuck my tongue out at him and he grinned even more, if that were possible, and stuck his out and we started a non-verbal conversation together through the glass as our car swung back and forth. With no warning he turned tail and bolted into the forest.

There was more talking, more reversing, back and forth, everyone helping, and I was becoming increasingly tired after an already long day, when suddenly I spotted a boy whom I think of as ‘the hunter’. He stood a little back from the rest; face very serious, shorts and a cap on his head were the only clothes he was wearing. He was carrying though, a small packet, held in place by a long piece of cord over one shoulder, so it lay flat against his opposing hip and he stood with a catapult in his right hand, well used, and ready.

2015 Madagascar Red Camera 162He looked for all the world as though he was wondering what we were doing there on his land, a little aloof, and certainly very serious. I watched him for a while, as I took photographs of the turmoil out of the windows as everyone tried to help us out of the mud, when the car wheels span wildly and a spray of mud flew up from the back wheels and obviously covered someone, I assume someone important, or at least someone who thought they were, and ‘my’ hunter laughed and laughed, his grin splitting his face for pure joy…then he remembered where he was and became serious again…

2015 Madagascar Red Camera 164Not long after that one of the slim finely built Malagasy young men walked in front of the car and taking a long hoe like tool started to dig the central mass of mud away, swinging the tool over his head and flicking the mud into the two deep tracks that had been made by the wheels, slowly lowering the mud in front of the axel and raising the height of the mud where the wheels would go. Wearing just long shorts he worked methodically, and quickly, the tool he used could only be about five inches across the blade but it was obviously a very efficient piece of equipment. He became muddier and muddier as he worked until he seemed to have a second skin of mud coating him. The other Malagasy stood and watched periodically commenting. After a while one of the drivers started to help and I thought we might get back to the hotel before dark.

Watching through the window I was startled to see my yellow t-shirted friend was back, standing close to the car again and watching. I waved, he waved, and we both grinned. I realised that he was standing very close to the side of the car, and was worried he might get pulled under the wheels, so I raised my hands and ‘pushed’ away from me and he nodded and stepped back a good six feet, but looked rather sad… Just as we started up again, I realised why, I think he thought I wasn’t going to ‘say’ goodbye and so turned to him just as our wheels at last made contact with more solid earth and waved frantically at him and his face bloomed into an enormous smile and he waved too; both of us looking slightly demented, but both understanding more than could be said without words…

We crossed two rivers on our trip, both in the West of the country on our way to and returning back from the Bemaraha National Park. We arrived at the bank of the river sand running down to the water to find that our ferry, that had been booked had been snatched from under our noses, by another group. An irritation that I think bothered Ollie and the drivers more than it did us – we were able to people watch and spent a lot of time sitting in the slightly cooler four by fours waiting for the return of the ferry. The only problem we had there was that there were some very large and to be honest quite evil looking insects that flew around and periodically entrapped themselves in the vehicles. These were large, black and seemed to be flying vertically with the majority of their bodies hanging down below them with the head and thorax horizontally above. Though advised there was nothing in Madagascar that could cause us harm, I felt these in particular, along with the scorpion we were introduced to, should be given a very wide berth.

We waited I suppose about an hour before the ferry returned, with about four large four by fours lined up on the wooden pontoon. The ferry was brought to the side of the bank and a couple of ramps made out of iron were dragged from them

2015 Madagascar Red Camera 046and tied somewhat haphazardly to the edges, and wedged into the sand. Without a by your leave, but with some care, the drivers drove off the wooden pontoons and onto the ramps, across to the sand, where they pulled themselves up with their engines revving. The ramps were then shoved along so that they were ready for the next four by four, once more tied with bits of cord to the pontoon, and the whole process was repeated again, and again for each vehicle.

To load, the principle was in reverse, and was not a little disturbing – especially if you were in the car, which had to be evenly distributed with weight – the drivers seeming without thought ran their cars down onto the rails and with a lot of energy drove quickly onto the ferry, throwing their breaks on at the last minute to prevent them from driving off the other side…

Once loaded the whole thing was propelled down the river by an outboard motor – run by a Malagasy man who controlled the engine with his feet, periodically dousing the engine with water, his legs and feet slowly getting coated with fuel whilst black smoke regularly engulfed that end of the pontoons…It took some while to cross, and we took great pleasure in watching another ferry returning like ours heavily laden with four by four vehicles, their tourist passengers standing next to

them along with locals, with small children at hand looking beautiful as 2015 Madagascar Red Camera 051they waited for the ferry to dock, when they would stride off the ferry, baskets and bags carefully balanced on their heads, small children running ahead…

Once on a smaller crossing we did the whole thing in the dark, arriving after a long day’s drive, the ‘port’ lit by lights from the headlights of traffic coming and going. That was more disconcerting…but as usual our drivers did us proud and with a quick rev of the engines we were up the other bank and on our way to our hotel.

The following day after our trip to the Grand Tsingy we had the opportunity to attempt the Petite – lower and less arduous, they said. I thought I had done enough really to ‘challenge’ myself after the Grand, and said I would sit that one out, which I did. Probably a wise decision, my legs ached abominably four – five days or so after the Grand; I think because they had been going into spasm whilst I was climbing.

The evening after the Grand Tsingy, we discussed as we did each night the following day’s fun and games. It was then that I said I had thought I had challenged myself enough, but was interested to hear what else we would be doing in the afternoon after the others had returned. It seemed we were to do something remarkably dangerous – We were to be punted down a river. Jane asked if she could do some punting and was told that this wasn’t possible. Immediately we asked why not. ‘It’s dangerous,’ was the response.

At which point I started laughing hysterically, which confused poor Ollie. When I explained that that day’s efforts to get me around the Grand Tsingy was actually very dangerous, he looked puzzled. ‘But you see, the river, it has crocodiles…’ he said.

My reply was to ask how many, and what was the chance of meeting one. About 10% – they don’t come near where we were to go, but even so, the trip was dangerous, and there would be no chance of Jane attempting to punt us down the river. I did think that after that day’s adventures that I just might have smacked a Nile crocodile on the nose, should I have met one…but the chance was not to be.

2015 Madagascar Big Camera Vol 1 272Actually it was one of the most beautiful parts of the trip. The river was wide and calm. We saw a kingfisher and our punters were expert. The boats were a little disconcerting. Two long thin crafts tied at both ends with bits of cord and planks just dropped on the top of the edges of the boats on which to sit…

The purpose of the trip was to see a grave high in the cliff that rose over the river, the polished skulls of the remains

glowing out from 2015 Madagascar Big Camera Vol 1 278the sacred burial site high above our heads. We stopped too to climb into a cave, the sands slipping under our sandals as we navigated away from the boats. Some of the others climbed higher into the cave, however I voted to stay where we were looking out onto the boats, until encouraged to crouch down and to make my way further into the cave to view small bats that fluttered around our heads and the stone formations within. It was a beautifully peaceful day after the challenges of the previous one.

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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Published by Bradt / Madagascar ISBN 9781841623412 / Madagascar Wildlife ISBN 9781841622453

The Madagascar Guide has a General Information section of six chapters, covering the following: The Country (including geography, climate, history etc), People and Culture (origins, beliefs & customs, language, and ethnic groups), Natural History (flora & fauna, ecosystems etc), Practical Information (when to visit, itineraries, what to take etc), Health and Safety and Madagascar and You (carbon footprint & responsible tourism). The next ten chapters cover the various areas of Madagascar – and covers the history of each along with details of the areas. There are three appendices covering the history, language and further information and an index. Inside the front cover there is a list of essential information along with a key to the symbols of the book. The photographs come in two blocks and are really not necessary (though lovely to have) – this book is informative and a pleasure to read containing everything you could want and perhaps a lot more that you didn’t know you might need.

Madagascar Wildlife also has a map at the front of the book, with the reserves marked on it. The contents include: a wonderful Introduction which covers technical terms and classification information, followed by sections broken down by types of habitat: Rainforest, Deciduous & Seasonally Dry Forests, the Southern Region, Threatened Wetlands, Mammals, Birds, Reptiles and Frogs, Invertebrate Conservation Issues, a chapter on Madagascar at night, Camouflage, further information and an Index.

It is stuffed full of pictures of all sorts of creatures.

I am visiting Madagascar next month – and I will no doubt come back full of stories of my own and will see if the books fulfill their potential in real-time. I have no doubt they will. The Bradt Internet site (www.bradtguides.com) looks to be informative and lists all their publications.Though I have bought in my time guide books by DK, Lonely Planet, Marco Polo, Rough Guides, Blue Guides and numerous others – I have never read a guide-book from cover to cover as I have with these – remarkably detailed, with an eye on making sure the books don’t get too technical – at times amusing, but always interesting – quite extraordinary.

It seems I wrote this as a Word document on the 22nd of December 2013 just two months after I paid Kuoni for my trip to Madagascar. I should, perhaps, for those who don’t know, state that I should have gone last October, however Kuoni cancelled the holiday not long before we were due to go. I then rebooked with Undiscovered Destinations and am now due to go out in May.

You would think with an extra seven months I would be ready…anyway, I thought this piece might amuse.

22nd December 2013 

Just woke having dreamt of Madagascar. I have never visited this east African kingdom, but back on the 15th of October I paid the deposit for a ten-day adventure to this extraordinary island. I have started to read about the country, their flora, fauna, beliefs, customs, and intricate complicated series of fady, or taboo. All of which try to out do the other with their astonishing anthropology, zoology and botanical uniqueness. So I suppose to dream of arriving at an island (by boat), with just a small pack to stay in a shack at the edge of a beach isn’t to be surprised at. I was with a group of people, most of whom went to the beach immediately – I walked to my lodge in the dark.  African dark of which I have had some experience, so that did come out of my memory. The red carpet was a little incongruous I suppose, but then so was finding a small blue octopus and a sand coloured turtle trying to survive amongst its threads. There may have been three creatures, because initially I tried to gather up the one with a shell, like a shrimp, pink and quite large, only to find it twisted so much I was bothered I might get bitten. Though how this creature was supposed to bite without an obvious mandible, I never queried. In the end I took the small turquoise blue coloured octopus in my hand and carried it carefully out to the beach, with a mind to releasing it. There I found the water at ‘high tide’, and our guide, with the others on the trip, amused that I should have missed the crashing waves and that I had thought to bring the creatures out to the beach. The waves were about twelve foot in height as they crashed to the shore and I found myself with the others just watching the water as it broke, just before I woke to find Pakka curled on my feet.The Grange 2012 April 105