The lemur count climbs
Two fairly short taxi-brousse rides see me arrive in the village of Ranomafana to the east of Fianar. This is the gateway to the National Park of the same name, created when the golden bamboo lemur first became known to (Western) biologists in 1986. I search for some touristy hotels as these will offer the best chances of getting lifts to/from the park entrance (6.5 km away) but the WLP shows its age again and no-one recognises any of the names I’m looking for. I end up at the Catholic Mission, being briefly attacked by a duck along the way, and meet a nun whose French is such a model of slowness and clarity that I almost weep with the joy of total comprehension. For whatever reason, the mission runs a number of clean and comfortable bungalows, but at $20 a night they’re hardly cheap.
I’ve arrived here knowing little about what’s available in the park in terms of walks, so plod along to the park office in the village to do some research. The janitor tells me that it’s closed because the manager is off playing basketball. A locked glass presentation case on the wall contains maps in English, tantalisingly available if I simply smash the front. Fortunately I never act on these criminal thoughts.
That evening, I conduct a self-guided night safari in the grounds of the mission. There are numerous frogs filling the night with their croaking and belching, as well as some alarmingly large spiders, but I find nothing else.
The following morning, I wake early and begin walking to the park, reasoning that I’ll be able to get a lift at some point along the way. This is when I realise that basing myself in the village was a really stupid decision. The park entrance is 6.5 km away uphill, an hour of brisk walking, and in that time I’m passed by not one taxi-brousse, and the dozen or so private vehicles that motor by do not have a positive reaction to my outstretched thumb. Thus I’m already horrendously sweaty before I’ve even done anything in the park.
Along the way, I pass a group of young foreigners and we exchange “Bonjour”s. One of them then essays a tentative “Hello”, which I reply to with “Hi” and they all burst out laughing. It really is a novelty finding non-French tourists here.
Not improving my mood is the knowledge that the lemurs in the park are most active in the early morning, so my hour of walking has greatly reduced my potential lemur viewing time. I realise that I could’ve risen an hour earlier but is it really too much to ask that there should be some form of transport to one of Madagascar’s most famous parks? (I think there used to be a shuttle but for whatever reason it was stopped – I’m guessing because most tourists have their own vehicle.)
After buying a map, I’m then further annoyed by my allocated guide telling me that it’s “bad” and “wrong”. I ask the park reception why they’re selling a map that isn’t even endorsed by the guides, which precipitates an argument between the reception and my guide. Having had rubbish guides until now, I’m not impressed by this one telling me that I need to hike for at least 5 hours for the trip to be worthwhile – which he’s always going to say as the guiding rates increase with time. I tell him we’re doing 3 hours and that lemurs are my focus. We head into the park together, a small bubble of frostiness in the humid rainforest.
Fortunately the guide is by far the best I’ve had yet in Madagascar. He knows specialist information about the flora and fauna, and respects the environment (bar his ludicrous cellphone ringtone). Given the enormous costs of the guides, that’s probably what I’d expect though. His English is decent but by no means perfect, and there are several occasions when it seems like he’s decided I understand Malagasy.
I’m initially sceptical of his claims that he was one of the four guides who’d accompanied Dr Patricia Wright back in the ’80s when she was “discovering” the golden bamboo lemur, however his story does all seem to fit together. He always refers to her as “the American”, never by name, even though they spent two years together, but I’ve been in Africa long enough now to not be surprised by that.
The park contains streams, waterfalls, caterpillars, orchids, snakes and umpteen other interesting features in its 41,500 hectares of rainforest, but I’m on a lemur mission and it doesn’t disappoint. First we find some greater bamboo lemurs, the rarest of all the species and which were thought extinct for a century. Their diet is bamboo, whose cyanide content they neutralise by eating soil – a remedy I’ll shout at the screen next time I’m watching an Agatha Christie on TV. This family has been collared for monitoring purposes and is not at all afraid of humans. There are several other groups of tourists clustered under the tree in which the lemurs are resting, one of which has a guide who not only speaks excellent English but has a scope that turns the dark blobs in the canopy into cute, furry bug-eyed creatures.
A guide from another group breaks open a couple of pieces of choice bamboo, and within minutes the lemurs have come down from their perch to retrieve them. They sit munching, entirely unconcerned by the humans just metres away.
The paths in the park are not well-maintained, and there’s a great deal of pushing aside of branches, tripping over roots, and scrambling up muddy banks necessary to move around in the tropical humidity. I find I don’t have a single piece of dry material on me when I need to clean my camera lens.
Next we find some common brown lemurs, a species whose name is perfect for the females but highly confusing for the grey males. They are in much denser forest and I can’t get any sort of proper photo.
Finally, we see the most attractive lemurs I’ve yet laid eyes on – a pair of diadem sifakas. With their black and white fur and red eyes, they’re stunning. On the ground, sifakas move with a dancing sideways motion but, like all lemurs, they’re predominantly arboreal. I can’t complain about today’s lemur sightings.
At one of the viewpoints I’m entertained by a couple of gorgeous green geckos similar to ones I’ve seen at my hotel. The gradations of colour on their skin are totally captivating.
The final major sighting of my session is that of a leaf-tailed gecko, a bizarre reptile that resembles a dead leaf. I then discover a leech feasting on my right ankle, despite the guide saying there were no leeches around at present. We also see some giraffe beetles, whose long necks enable them to roll up their eggs in a protective leaf.
For a park with such a diversity of rare and interesting wildlife, and which has attracted the attention of a gazillion naturalists, it has a pitiful selection of postcards. That’s a definite business opportunity for anyone with a decent camera and a basic idea of how to frame a shot.