As we work our way south through Madagascar we spent two nights in Ranomafana National Park and then a quick one-night stop in Ambalavao. Ranomafana is a 160 square mile tropical rainforest, established as a national park in 1991 and as part of a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2007. Due to Madagascar’s geographic isolation over tens of millions of years, the plants and animals here evolved independent of others and there are large numbers of species of both that are native here and nowhere else. And while I’m sure unique frogs and insects and birds and trees are interesting and important, it’s really all about seeing the lemurs.
Of course my first question was “Just what the heck is a lemur?” Not surprisingly I learned a fair bit about them here. First, they’re primates, related to monkeys and apes and humans, but primates that evolved completely separately from the rest of us over those millions of years of Madagascarian (I just made that word up; spell check doesn’t like it) isolation. The result is that they’re more cuddly and furry than most other primates, with big long tails that you just want to tug on. Today there are over 100 species identified on the island, most of them recognized only since the 1990s when research really picked up. Because of various pressures on their habitat, though, the International Union for Conservation of Nature considers lemurs the most endangered of all mammals, with 90 percent of the species facing extinction within 20 years or so.
That would be a real tragedy because lemurs are really cute. Officially of course even ugly animals need to be protected but the cute ones deserve really special care. And lemurs are cute. We stayed at a reasonably nice lodge just inside the park boundaries and set off early our first morning for a long hike into the rainforest in search of lemurs. And we found them; the golden bamboo lemur, the black and white ruffled lemur, maybe the oddly named Milne-Edwards sifaka, and perhaps one or two more. These were truly animals in the wild; while they weren’t too upset by our presence we had to go way out in the rainforest to find them.
To be honest, we found the tour itself kind of annoying. The guide talked too much, kept repeating himself, typically went too slow, and was awfully difficult to understand. On the other hand we never would have found the lemurs on our own; it takes a real talent to find those little buggers hiding up in the trees. I loved watching the lemurs but my favorite part of the hike was when it was time to head back to the park headquarters: the guide said it would take 40 minutes or so but when Mark took the lead on the trail we got back in 15 minutes. That’s more my style!
We decided to break up the long drive to our next destination – Isalo National Park – with a stop in Ambalavao, a couple hours further down the road from Ranomafana. We got there, had a surprisingly great lunch, and then headed out to the Anja Community Reserve for another, shorter lemur tour. This time the stars were the ring-tailed lemurs, and they were all over. Our guide was a funny little guy whose “shtick” was to say, with eyes big and wide “Oh, you’re so lucky!” when we’d find lemurs or a chameleon or something like that. By the third time or so I was on to him.
So yeah, more lemurs.
Beyond the cute animals there is a lot we’re loving about Madagascar. High on the list is the food – it’s just been crazy good and crazy cheap. I’m supposed to know that food in former French colonies is good but this is just blowing us away. And to our delight the road has been good – we understand that there is one good road in the country and it’s the one we’re on – and the scenery is gorgeous. The hotels have been better than I would have expected. Our hotel at Ambalavao was awfully basic, but given that the price was under $24 for the night you can’t really complain that much.
Another unique feature of Madagascar is that pretty much the whole country is a malarial zone. We haven’t been in any meaningful malarial zone in the five-plus years we’ve been on the road so we had to dig out those anti-malarial pills we stocked up on back when we started all this. We finally get to get rid of some of those damned things!