OnSafari: Andasibe

OnSafari: Andasibe

I’m in Madagascar with very bad wifi. No photos possible today, but my account follows. Note that starting tomorrow we may be out of touch for a week!

There is nothing comparable to Madagascar in the wild. Isolation for millions of years has created an ecology unique to earth. It’s an absolutely essential trip for anyone who truly wants to understand the wilderness of our planet.

But Madagascar isn’t easy to do. Accommodations are poor. Urban areas are congested, impoverished and polluted. Roads are horrible. Especially important for tourism, its airlines are notoriously inadequate and unreliable. And to fully appreciate what it’s all about, considerable physical exertion is required.

So it’s an ideal destination for young, adventurous people deeply curious about our nature world. It’s not friendly to a 60+-year old veteran of African safaris. Yet almost all visitors to Madagascar are exactly that, older safari veterans. Why?

The short answer is because it’s so different.

Continental Africa is replete with wildlife and comes up somewhat short on plants. Madagascar is just the reverse. Madagascar is the Amazon of Africa, and I think this holds true even when compared to the central African jungles.

There are very few kinds of animals on Madagascar compared to the continent but those that exist have filled every possible niche. There are 112 different kinds of lemurs. They are as different from one another as every species of continental African antelope.

Some are diurnal, others nocturnal. Some are big and live long lives and others are teeny weeny and live no longer than a bunny rabbit. They eat different things. They behave radically differently. Most tolerate each other in overlapping territories while others aggressively keep their territory free of all distant cousins. As a result they’re found in geographically distinct areas, just like hartebeest are not usually found with impala.

But antelope are found throughout the world. Lemurs are found only in Madagascar.

Virtually all visitors to Madagascar will see a variety of lemurs in what are essentially private or contained reserves, like Lewa Downs or Nakuru National Park in Kenya are for African animals.

But to see them in the wild takes real effort. Our group saw our first white-and-black roughed lemurs on “Lemur Island,” a private reserve associated with the lodge we’re staying at, Vakona Forest Lodge.

Lemurs won’t swim, so an island is perfect for containing them. Lemur Island, about four acres, is first a rescue center for several types of lemurs that were hurt. With time they formed their own sustaining colonies.

Immediately after our checkin, a lodge guide took us onto the island. The fuzzy creatures bounded out of the trees, leapt onto our backs and licked the pieces of banana off our palms.

But Sunday we went to find black-and-white lemurs in the wild. This was a trek, a real physically challenging excursion that reminded me of the early days of mountain gorilla trekking.

Nearly five hours of rigorous up-and-down climbing through thick forests with very primitive trails was the prerequisite for locating the wild black-and-white that live naturally at the top of the canopy. People slid and fell, got frustrated and angry, probably pushed themselves too far and in the end felt exuberant that they had watched four wild animals for about a half hour about 40-50 meters above them.

Obviously there was much more to the excursion than the few minutes with the lemurs. The truly untouched primary rain forest of Madagascar is a wonderland and not something found on Lemur Island. The planet’s oldest trees, its most diverse and odd geckos, insects, frogs and chamaeleons make you wonder if you haven’t just walked into a House of Magic.

Not all lemurs are as difficult to see in the wild as the black-and-white. The largest, the indri, seems almost ubiquitous. So a comfortable 2-hour stroll in a community reserve or on well-maintained paths of national parks like Andasibe is likely to bring success.

Today on just such an excursion we saw a family of seven indri including a 5-day old baby. The excellent guides knew the family’s territory, knew the individuals and could give us a complete story of this troop’s life in Andasibe.

We stayed with them for nearly 40 minutes, watching them groom, jump around us, scream at intruders and all of this mostly low enough for less than professional camera to get fine shots. These were completely wild lemurs. This was a primary forest.

But it was nowhere near as as undisturbed as through which we trekked five hours, yesterday. Indri have adapted to less than ideal habitats. Black-and-white have not.

So clearly, the more effort you put out, the wilder an area you’ll get to and the clearer becomes Madagascar’s full story. It’s as true for the lemurs as the ancient trees like the pandanus or the chamaeleons like the Parson’s.

Lovers of Africa have to visit Madagascar for Africa’s – indeed, the world’s full story. But take heed: Don’t put it off.