The song of the forest

Published: January 6th 2010
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 Video Playlist:

1: Indri singing in the dawn mist 15 secs
2: Indri singing and leaping 15 secs
Parson's chameleonParson's chameleonParson's chameleon

Analamazaotra Special Reserve
The taxi clatters over the cobbled streets of Tana on its way to the eastern taxi-brousse station. This will be the second last taxi-brousse journey of my stay and in theory shouldn't be a bad one. Unfortunately I've been fed spurious information by my hotel so it's more hassle than enough.

It's a ~2.5 hour trip hence Ar5,000 is a decent price, as confirmed by several hotel receptionists. My initial quote is Ar17,000, which is so high as to indicate something other than a rip-off attempt. I try several other taxi-brousse booths but it's the same story at all of them. I don't fully understand the explanations I'm given in French but an English-speaking guy helps me out. Seems like there are no taxis-brousses that terminate at Andasibe - they all continue on to Tamatave. Since I'll be taking up a seat that could otherwise be sold to a Tamatave-bound passenger, they want me to pay the Tamatave fare. This frankly sounds ridiculous, as there will surely be prospective passengers available once I get off, but that's the policy. I eventually haggle the price down to Ar12,000, wondering why neither the WLP nor my hotel knew anything about this.

Analamazaotra Special Reserve

The guy who'd helped me turns out to be a fellow passenger in the taxi-brousse, and he has further bad news. Seems like the first wave of Tamatave-bound taxis-brousses left at about 8AM, and the next wave will wait as late as midday before leaving, unless they fill up first. This explains my 3.5 hour wait before the 3 hour journey (extra half hour courtesy of the inevitable meal break).

At least my neighbour is interesting. Having studied in Kenya and South Africa, his English is good and his background is atypical. He worked as a journalist throughout Africa, including being kidnapped in Sudan, an experience which has left him with a dislike of the country. He has done two long African car trips - one up the west coast from Cape Town to Cote d'Ivoire, and one up the east as far as Djibouti. Now he works for a company providing financial assistance for large infrastructure projects in the Indian Ocean. He counts the current president of Madagascar among his acquaintances. At the lunch stop, he introduces me to the smoky-flavoured rice drink that the Malagasy call "silver water".

After the hotel issues in Tana, I'm pleased
Golden bamboo lemurGolden bamboo lemurGolden bamboo lemur

Analamazaotra Special Reserve
to find good, available, sensibly-priced accommodation in Andasibe just 1km from the park entrance. It's Chinese-owned, another Asian connection, and the restaurant till seems to contain all the small change that the rest of the country is lacking. The maitre d' resembles Hercule Poirot and, wonder of wonders, there's also a cute cat but it spurns me.

Andasibe-Mantadia National Park is quite confusing as it consists of several distinct areas, at least one of which isn't even run by the government-owned ANGAP and hence could be considered to be competing with the ANGAP-administered areas. Each has its own set of walks and I spend a couple of hours mulling over my various options with the help of Donna, the English-speaking (male) guide who has tempted me to employ him with the promise that he is a chameleon and frog expert. I never summon up the courage to ask the provenance of his name.

Analamazaotra Special Reserve is the park's main attraction, its calling card being its habituated populations of indri, the largest lemur species with an appearance that has been described as resembling a child in a panda suit. But the first indri characteristic that any visitor to
Mantella baroni frogMantella baroni frogMantella baroni frog

Mantadia National Park
the park will encounter is its wailing call, a rising and falling keening that apparently carries up to 3km (a biologist researching in the park says she thinks the indri is the world's loudest mammal). As I stare across the mist-hazed rainforest in the cool of the dawn, it's a sound both enchanting and slightly chilling (see/hear first video). I can't wait to see what the originator of the noise looks like in the flesh.

Donna arrives promptly, dressed like he's paying tribute to David Dundas. He carries no binoculars, which I find a worrying sign in a guide. One topsy-turvy situation in Madagascar is that many guides earn more than doctors do (the 5.5 hour trek we do on my first day nets him twice a doctor's daily wage), but he says that times have been hard since the political unrest earlier in the year, with tourist numbers down so low as to mean guides are only finding work two or three days a month. He will do well out of me.

We pass a short-horned chameleon on the way to the Special Reserve entrance and I take that as a positive omen.

This day will
Palm trunkPalm trunkPalm trunk

Feon'ny Ala hotel
be periods of feast and then famine. The first 1.5 hours nets us nothing but orchids and a few indignant frogs. It's overcast, and even when the sun comes through it rarely penetrates the canopy. The coolness is welcome, the requirement for at least ISO 200 less so.

Fortunately we then encounter the indri. The child/panda suit analogy is an insult to these athletic creatures, which leap from tree to tree in thrilling fashion, stopping to gently nibble on leaves. They have no tails but still rate as cute. One decides it's time to sing when I'm maybe 6m beneath it and the sound is deafening (see/hear second video).

Donna tells me that an indri has never successfully been kept in captivity because their diet is so wide-ranging (and not comprehensively known to man) that it can't be replicated, hence they starve and die. He also says that their name means "There it is" in Malagasy. Malagasy legend holds that an indri once saved a child from a bee attack, so indri are protected by fady.

The main trails in the Special Reserve are in much better nick than at Ranomafana, though Donna does like his cross-country
Short-horned (elephant-eared) chameleonShort-horned (elephant-eared) chameleonShort-horned (elephant-eared) chameleon

Road near Feon'ny Ala hotel
excursions and I soon accumulate enough spiders' webs on my head to make me forget I have a bald patch.

Seeing the indri has been a revelation and Donna follows that up with something equally enthralling, when he finds not one but two chameleons. The smaller, a dead-leaf-brown creature, is a ground chameleon, nocturnal by nature and hard to find. But it's pitifully dull compared with the Parson's chameleon that is clinging warily to a nearby sapling. Parson's are one of the largest of the chameleon species and area a brilliant green in colour - their size certainly helps you appreciate their beauty. This one cautiously keeps the sapling's trunk between me and it by shuffling around as I do, so that my default view of it is its independently-moving eyes on either side of the trunk and its feet gripping the wood. Waving my hand to one side is necessary in order to get a profile.

The park features several tour groups that I've already seen in Ambalavao or Ranomafana, and certainly if you're near an indri you can guarantee you're near ten other tourists. But it's not overcrowded and, frankly, with the park being so close

Analamazaotra Special Reserve
to Tana and with such rewarding wildlife viewing, I'm surprised it's so relatively empty.

After the chameleons, we have a bit of a drought, with just a few birds (crested drongo, magpie robin), geckos, and random insects. What I'm already noticing here though is that the frogs are generally colourful and patterned, and underrated compared with the lemurs and chameleons. We catch some common brown lemurs at a distance, a (nocturnal) woolly lemur napping in a tree, and a sleeping adult boa (a snake found in South America and Asia but nowhere else in Africa).

We're into the final couple of hundred metres of the walk when Donna suddenly stops and motions me to be quiet. The forest is silent around us but then my ears pick up the faint sound of chomping coming from a bamboo thicket up ahead. Inching forward, we gradually draw level with the bamboo and find, sitting a couple of metres inside, a remarkably unconcerned and extremely cute golden bamboo lemur, chewing away on its favourite food. It's a great end to the walk, and Donna's persistence in digging out the things I said I was interested in, even though it meant we

Analamazaotra Special Reserve
overran by 1.5 hours, for which he doesn't expect payment, means I'll be using his services again.

We do a night walk that evening. Night walks are forbidden inside the park so it's on the road outside, which might sound like a cop-out but does mean you don't need to worry about your footing. Donna tells me that chameleons show up white in torchlight, but that doesn't help me find any and the ones that he finds look pretty damned green in the light of my headlamp. He says that the green chameleons are usually yellow on the side away from the light, which he demonstrates when we find a juvenile Parson's - the side facing us is green, but when Donna flicks his torch to the other side I see its skin is yellow there, though slowly changes to green. We find several other species of chameleon, including a juvenile of the smallest species (pygmy chameleon), and a few colourful frogs. The lemur sightings range from a mouse lemur just metres away to a greater dwarf lemur scampering down a tree at distance to the reflected eyes of a woolly lemur.

The second government park at Andasibe

Analamazaotra Special Reserve
is Mantadia National Park, but it's much less touristed due to being harder to get to (more than an hour away down a bad road that features no public transport) and harder to get around. Donna and I try to find other tourists interested in splitting the cost of hiring a car but everyone we speak to is either on a tour or not keen on Mantadia. I decide to go anyway, as it's not like I'm here every month.

On the bumpy road to Mantadia, Donna shows me a chameleon reference book, proudly pointing out his name in the credits. We pass the Vakona Forest Lodge, the plushest in the area, getting a glimpse of Lemur Island on which some tourists are feeding a pair of maki. Donna mutters darkly that it's not good for the maki, with many of them apparently dying through being fed inappropriate food.

At the trailhead we bump into two English birders, coincidentally my neighbours at the hotel, but they're the only tourists I'll see in Mantadia. The main trails are the same standard of maintenance as the secondary ones in Analamazaotra, and the secondary ones would benefit from some machete work.

Analamazaotra Special Reserve
And, given Donna's penchant for short-cuts, I'm sure we end up blazing some tertiary trails. The place is awash with birds, but they're not why I'm here.

Donna and I have agreed that the focus of our walk will be to find black and white ruffed lemurs, diadem sifakas, and a gorgeous species of frog called mantella baroni. Several times he disappears off into the undergrowth for up to twenty minutes, returning disconsolately from fruitless searching. After the longest of these, while I've been standing around perusing the nearby forest and seeing absolutely nothing bar a couple of birds, he returns and casually points out a common brown lemur foraging in a nearby tree. OK, it's not like its bollocks were slapping me in the face or anything but it's a further demonstration that his eyes prise secrets from the rainforest world that mine will be forever blind to.

We luck out with the black and white ruffed lemurs when a forests researcher tells us where one is sleeping. It's high up in a fig tree and not exactly in plain sight, but the binoculars reveal it's cuddly enough. Sadly the diadem sifakas will elude us, though we

Analamazaotra Special Reserve
do hear some indri alarm calls. They really are noisy buggers.

The search for mantella baroni occupies the greater part of the walk. It's small and lives under dead leaves so is by no means easy to find. Donna knows some likely places to find it, one of which is infested with mosquitoes of such astounding voracity that they view my DEET-smeared legs with ecstasy rather than horror, but the lack of recent rain means that these spots are currently too dry for our quarry. We troop from one site to the next, striking out each time.

However Donna will not be denied and his persistence finally pays off. Returning from another of his solo wanderings, he clears a patch of ground of leaves and twigs, and gently deposits a disgruntled specimen of mantella baroni on the earth.

Having previously seen pictures, I know how attractive this thing is, but in real life it's in miniature and exquisitely formed, the black, red, yellow, and white parts perfectly defined. It will be one of my favourite images of Madagascar.

There's another park, a non-government one, close to Analamazaotra called the Mitsinjo Analamazaotra Forest station, run by an

Parson's chameleon Analamazaotra Special Reserve
NGO. I don't have time to do one of their day walks, but they have a night walk that is inside their reserve.

My guide proves competent at spotting but his English is incomprehensible. I dread him asking me questions because I have little idea what he's saying. This has been an issue all the way through my time in Madagascar, with none of my guides speaking good enough English that I can converse with them without massively reducing the complexity of what I'm saying. The Mitsinjo park is more of a community organisation than the government-run parks, hence is a preferable body to support, but I can't ignore the fact that my guide may as well be speaking in French. Another downer is that the site is very much up hill and down dale, which is a real pain at night when you'd rather be looking for wildlife with your torch than checking your footing. We see several chameleons and reflected lemur eyes, but the language barrier is just too stressful.

Andasibe is my favourite place in Madagascar and I'd love to return in the future. But my flight back to Jo'burg is fast approaching and I
Parson's chameleonParson's chameleonParson's chameleon

Analamazaotra Special Reserve
reluctantly pack up my stuff to head back to Tana, one last taxi-brousse journey on this magical island.

Additional photos below
Photos: 42, Displayed: 31


Parson's chameleonParson's chameleon
Parson's chameleon

Analamazaotra Special Reserve
Parson's chameleon's crotchParson's chameleon's crotch
Parson's chameleon's crotch

Well how many times have YOU seen one? Analamazaotra Special Reserve
Parson's chameleon's footParson's chameleon's foot
Parson's chameleon's foot

Analamazaotra Special Reserve
Ground (stump-tailed) chameleonGround (stump-tailed) chameleon
Ground (stump-tailed) chameleon

Analamazaotra Special Reserve

Analamazaotra Special Reserve

Analamazaotra Special Reserve

Analamazaotra Special Reserve

Analamazaotra Special Reserve

7th January 2010

Accommodation jindabyne nsw
just love your blog.great explanation you posted here with awesome picture thanks to you for this great share.looking froward for more updates.
3rd February 2010

i loved the pictures, and the writing. reading this improved my night considerably.

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