Dale Morris packs his camera and goes on a photo safari to the African island of Madagascar, hoping to see lemurs, chameleons and the exceptionally elusive fossa.
The book, ‘Last chance to see’ by the Late Douglas Adams, seemed an appropriate read whilst flying from Johannesburg to Madagascar.
Its all about one man’s odyssey to track down a variety of rare and endangered animals, many of which, or so the author surmises, will soon go the way of the Dodo. Sadly, much the same can be said about the unique fauna of Madagascar. The lemurs (of which there are some 100 species) the chameleons (also over a hundred types) the birds, and the weird things like fossas and tenrecs, all hang on to existence by the skin of their teeth. Humanity’s progress is nature’s loss! So thus, inspired by Douglas’s tales of travel and engaging encounters, I set about making a list of some of Madagascar’s dwindling stars. My ‘last chance to see’ so to speak.
First up would be the lemurs; those adorable perpetually surprised looking primates, with their wide boggling eyes and acrobatic antics.
They are found on Madagascar, and absolutely nowhere else. Then next, the equally odd chameleons with their independent swivelling eyes and slow and ponderous movements. Did you know they have spring-loaded tongues that are over twice the length of their bodies? Last but not least would be those infrequently encountered oddities. The giant leaf-tailed geckos, the spiny tenrecs, and the amazing fossa; Madagascar’s answer to the leopard, and the only predator of significant size on the island. They specialize in eating lemurs. Crunch!
I didn’t expect to see them all of course. The singing indris, the dancing sifakas, the ring-tailed lemurs and the chameleons were all pretty much guaranteed. But the fossa? Well, nobody sees a fossa. They are very rare, terribly secretive and ever so mysterious.
And so, upon landing at Antananarivo, I handed my extensive list to Nono (short for Nonorinah Tinamalala) the man who was to guide me through the various habitats and regions of Africa’s largest island. He glanced at it, puffed out his cheeks and sighed the sigh of the exasperated.
“You’re not making life easy for anyone are you?” he said, looking pensive. “But why don’t we start with the dancing Sifakas? I know just the place.”
And that place was the Berenty special reserve, a little slice of protected forest, situated down in the arid South East. It took two days of bumpy flights and bumpier roads to get there, but the subsequent wildlife sightings made every jolt and pothole worth it. My first ‘tick’ off the list was a mouse lemur and a giant chameleon which were encountered at night in the region’s aptly named spiny forests.
“I wouldn’t go off the path if I were you.” Nono tried warning me when I spotted a glowing set of eyes within the beam of my headlamp. But it was too late. Camera in hand, I had already raced off into the darkness in pursuit of the mouse lemur, and had become immediately entangled in a web of thorny vegetation. Struggling only made things worse. In a spiny forest, every plant, and I do mean absolutely every plant, is covered in spikes, thorns, spears, prickles, needles, barbs and hooks. That first glimpse of the world’s most diminutive primate, an adorable creature with eyes almost as big as its body, was tainted somewhat by the disfigurements, grazes and perforations suffered as a result of my enthusiasm. Nono, diligently came to my rescue, and expertly unpicked my twitching form from a snare of painful plants. “Look up there,” he exclaimed as the last vicious barb was being removed from my earlobe. “It’s a parson’s chameleon.” And so it was. Almost impossible to see in the daytime, due to their ability to change colour and blend with their surroundings, chameleons are relatively easy to find at night. They turn pale as they sleep and are easily revealed by torchlight beams. This one was huge, easily as big as a sewer rat, and due to the slowness at which chameleons move, he gave ample opportunity for me to take photos of him.
The following morning, chafed and ‘band-aided’, Nono took me out to see the famous dancing Verreaux’s Sifakas; a variety of lemur that is so adapted to jumping from trunk to trunk, that they are physically unable to walk on all fours. “When they come down to the ground”, Nono told me as I set up my tripod at a well known Sifaka trail, “they must literally bounce on their hind legs. It looks like they’re dancing.”
The description is accurate, and I was beguiled watching these waif-like creatures pirouette, leap, hop, prance and tango. Frozen in the high shutter speeds of my camera, they appeared to be playing air guitar, doing the splits, or performing a graceful ballet.
The mouse lemur, the chameleons and the shimmying sifakas were fantastic sightings (as were the other spiny forest denizens such as brown lemurs, nocturnal sportive lemurs, pretty birds and unusual insects) but Berenty’s crème de la crème of animal interactions came courtesy of a mass mugging, of which I was the victim.
Berenty’s open-air restaurant is, understandably, a favored hang out for the park’s troops of ring-tailed lemurs. They moved in on my banana crepes with all the silent stealth of ninjas, but unlike our overtly aggressive, impolite and rowdy South African monkeys, an ambush by a gang of lemurs is a comparatively gentle affair. These fluffy wisps floated almost like dandelion seeds around the table, looking at me sweetly with gentle eyes and stealing things with even gentler fingers. There was no smashed crockery, spilt glasses, grabbing hands or tooth baring grimaces; merely a gentle change of breeze, the half seen waft of a stripy tail, and all of a sudden, a table bereft of food. I had to order lunch again. But I didn’t mind.
The next port of call for my already diminishing list of wanna-sees, were the steaming jungles of Mantadia; a rainforest national park situated more or less in the middle of the eastern seaboard. It’s here that I witnessed the Indri, the largest of all the lemurs and one which resembles something akin to a panda/koala hybrid.
“If they start to sing now,” said Nono as we sat beneath a gigantic tree in which sat a family of them, “you’ll be blown away.” We had spent the better part of a day slogging up and down steep slippery hills, being assailed by leeches, and tripping over vines and fallen logs, but finally, exhausted and sweat drenched, we found them. Problem was, they were staying shtum. As the eve drew in and the mosquitoes rose from their crypts, I started to lose hope that I would ever hear this legendary song of theirs, but then Nono pulled out his phone and played a prerecorded Indri call. The animals seemed confused by the sound at first, looking this way and that, but then they reacted and the air was split asunder by a forlorn and soulful howling. I could scarcely believe such a huge sound could come from such relatively small animals. Mix a wolf, a whale, and a gibbon (if you know what one of those are) and that’ll give you an approximation of what an Indri sounds like. It’s beautiful and very very loud. “What did you say to them?” I asked Nono as we made our way, in semi-darkness, out from the forest. “I’m not entirely sure,” he replied. “I probably insulted their mothers, called their sister a whore, and threatened to eat all the fruit in their territory!”
The following days saw us tracking down black and white ruffed lemurs (they look like tree-dwelling border collies), Diademed Sifakas (fluff balls with doey eyes) and the rarely seen and very fast-moving Tenrec.
This scruffy looking long-nosed ‘hedgehogy’ thing is so seldomly encountered, that Nono himself had never before seen one. He leapt upon it and restrained it so that we could get a better look, and for his efforts, received several painful spines to his fingers. I later read that tenrecs can carry bubonic plague, and so that evening I taught Nono the Ring a Ring o’ Roses nursery rhyme. I do so love cultural exchanges like these.
Whilst we still had some days left in Madagascar, and whilst Nono was still strong enough to lead me, we travelled to our final destination:- The Kirindy National Park and the Avenue of the giants. So called because, well, its an avenue of giants. On each side of a dusty back road one finds a row of giant otherworldly baobab trees. Sunset is the time to see these behemoths because they glow orange and silver and ochre in the fading light, but alas, its also a popular time for the tourists. There were German, French, American and Japanese sightseers by the dozen, All of them doing a sterling job at photobombing every single one of, what should have been, magnificent shots. I was most displeased. But come sundown, they all disappeared, leaving just Nono and myself, the trees and a million twinkling stars above.
The Kirindy National Park, which is just an hour or so further up the road, is a tropical dry forest, and is home to many species of lemur, chameleon and birds. Its also where you ‘might’ glimpse the almost never seen fossa, and my fingers were so tightly crossed in the hopes of seeing one, that I lost all sensation in them. Unfortunately, we arrived during a major refurbishment to the park’s infrastructure. There was hammering and sawing, noisome machinery, and more work men than one could expect to see at an open cast mine. But much to my utter astonishment, we spotted a cat like fossa slinking with confidence among all this hubbub and racket. We followed it past mechanical diggers and half-built buildings, it took us to an open trash heap and past a series of fly ridden long drop latrines. And finally, it visited an organic waste pit where piles of rotting vegetables steamed aromatically alongside a mound of fragrantly scented chicken carcasses. Not the nicest of settings in which to have my ultimate animal encounter.
But the following day was better. Much, much better in fact. Nono took me to a ‘special’ tree far away from all the mayhem and construction, up which sat two female fossas. They were ‘singing’ from the top of their lungs, calling like tortured cats across the surrounding forests. “This is the mating call,” Nono told me. “An irresistible song to all neighbouring males. It’ll likely draw them in.” And come they did. In awe, I observed no less than four males arrive at the base of the tree at which point they commenced fighting and brawling. Blood was spilled, faces were ripped and russet coloured hair filled the air like confetti.
So engaged in their battles were these males, that they scarcely paid attention to me as I snapped away, and as such, I got very close to them:- perhaps a little too close. One of them used me as a rubbing post and scent marked my legs, another leapt right over my head, brushing his svelte balls across my face in the process. “You’re probably the only person on earth who has been teabagged by a fossa,” said Nono. I felt truly privileged!
Finally, after much agro and aggression, a clear victor rose above the melee and climbed up to where his prize awaited. He mated there, nosily, whilst the routed males gazed upwards from the forest floor, jaws agape, dribbling the drool of the unsatiated. My tick list was complete. Hopefully I will return again to Madagascar with perhaps a few more species added to my list. If I’m lucky, they will still be there, clinging to existence against a burgeoning tide of humanity. I do so hope that this wasn’t my Madagascan ‘Last Chance to See.”
Notes: Nono didn’t contract the Bubonic plague and is alive and well. He sings Ring a Ring o’ Roses to his two little children to get them to sleep at night.
Dale Morris leads photographic expeditions to Madagascar annually. Visit www.oryxphotography.com.