Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Divana, my guide, picked up a branch with a generous grove of green leaves on it and began waving it. Halfway up the tree, the indri lemur in his furry black and white suit like a climbing panda looked down skeptically, weighing the human’s proposition.
A minute later, he appeared to make up his mind and began climbing down. In short order he was only a meter in front of me, still on the tree but only at eye-level, and staring at us with those round yellow gemstone eyes of perpetual surprise. Divana handed him some of the leaves; he took them with neither apology nor urgency and began to chew them.
I had worked my way to Madagascar from Mauritius and the French island of La Reunion. After a brief stay in the capital city, Antananarivo, I had come east to Andasibe, the site of perhaps the country’s most accessible national park. Or rather, parks. Right off the road east to the port city of Toamasina, Andasibe has on its right the national forest reserve of Analamazaotra, and on its left the state park that is in fact the same eco-system, arbitrarily divided from it by a road. Another 15 kilometers north by four-wheel-drive and you would find the Andasibe-Mantadia National Park with its alluring primary forest but difficult trails.
About as soon as I’d arrived on the bus from Tana (the merciful diminutive for Antananarivo), I began marching toward the park entrance. And before I ever got there, Divana came up to me on his bicycle and offered his services. So now I was standing inside the state park, communing with the indri, one of the largest lemur species in existence. Overhead his family members hung about, including a mother with a baby on her back, indifferent to the silly homo sapiens below.
Whether it was Divana’s skills as a guide or my good luck, within a two-hour stroll through the park we saw not only the approachable indri but also a family of brown lemurs huddling atop the trees. Among lizard species we found the Malagasy giant chameleon, again one of the largest species. In the area known as the “orchid garden,” a colorful elephant-eared chameleon gingerly maneuvered toward an insect and darted out its tongue for a satisfying meal. Along the road back toward the park entrance, Divana pointed out to me an almost perfectly camouflaged leaf-tailed gecko blending into the tree bark. The biggest giveaway to its presence was the trident pattern of its feet.
Divana persuaded me to return in the evening for the night visit in hopes of catching some nocturnal species. The name “lemur” comes from the Latin word “lemures,” meaning phantom. There had been nothing phantasmagorical about the massive indri. But now the mouse lemur, one of the smallest species and nocturnal, eluded us for the longest time until we finally spotted one hiding atop a tree, its eyes glowing red in the darkness.
The following morning, I joined a couple I met on the night tour, David and Maria, to head into the national forest. It was, however, raining cats and dogs, which I learned was normal for mornings in Andasibe. Brilliant mind that I am, it had not occurred to me to bring waterproof gear to the rainforest. I wrapped my camera in a plastic bag and then embraced the rain. More indri lemurs and brown lemurs leaped over our heads, but this time none climbed down to say hello. A bamboo lemur scuttled as ghostly as the mouse lemur atop its namesake plant, too swiftly for any of us to get a shot. And finally we found a family of the critically endangered diademed sifaka, another lemur species, their snowy tails looking incongruous in this rain now that we were covered in mud.
IF YOU GO
The chief obstacle to traveling around Madagascar is the poor condition of the roads. You can easily spend sixteen hours driving or on a bus just to get from one town to another. This is one reason that Andasibe, being the closest major park area to Tana, is an attractive destination. Even so, it is a three-and-half-hour winding drive from the city.
If you’re confident enough to brave the bumpy roads, renting a car is a good option that provides a degree of autonomy. There are public buses that travel the road from Tana to Toamasina, which are uncomfortable by Western standards. One company, Cotisse Transport, provides the best bus service for the princely sum of US$6 from Tana to Andasibe. In fact, Andasibe is where buses traveling between Tana and Toamasina in either direction generally stop for lunch, so that it is unlikely that you will miss your stop. For the same reason, you can jump on the bus returning to Tana without too much difficulty.
Only a couple of hotels in Andasibe make themselves available for booking online. A number of other hotels and guesthouses line the village and the road leading up to the park entrance. If you don’t mind chancing it, you can simply show up and ask if they have vacancies. You’re likely to pay much less this way for rooms or bungalows that are not dramatically worse.
Though the park guides I met all seemed to be nice and honest, they can be a little too eager to please. This can mean that they go too far in trying to attract the attention of the wildlife. I didn’t mind Divana waving leaves in the air. But I saw other guides poking lizard species with sticks and trying to wake up nocturnal lemurs during the day when they should be sleeping. Be mindful of this and stop your guides from seriously disturbing the animals.
Don’t be like me: bring rain gear and warm clothes. It can get surprisingly chilly in Andasibe, at least in September.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."