Lemurs and leeches

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December 18th 2010
Published: January 12th 2011
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We're off to a roaring start. Bags packed for four day's camping, food bought at the market, appropriate taxi-brousse stop located, all very efficiently. Then it all comes to an abrupt halt. The 'imminent' arrival of the taxi-brousse actually occurs after three hours wait in the heat. Plenty of opportunity, then, to watch the comings and goings on the busy market corner.

Eventually when the aging modified Peugeot 404 ute rattles in, our bags are thrown on top of the canopy and tied down. We're allocated the vazaha seats in the front while the locals pile onto the bench seats on the back. And we're off - on a few hours circuit around the town, that is. Picking up everything from bags of fertiliser to timber to corrugated iron. The taxi-brousse is positively groaning by the time we finally head out of town.

Our destination is Madagascar's oldest National Park, Montagne d'Ambre. It's an uphill grind to the village of Joffreville, with regular stops to flush and top up the overheating radiator - More opportunity to take in the countryside and sea views.

We walk the last few kilometres to the park entrance where we pay our fees. Guides are compulsory here and we meet ours, Laudea, a local who thankfully speaks English. Its another 3km walk to our campsite and almost immediately we nearly step on a small terrestrial chameleon and see our first Madagascan snake, over a metre long, crossing the road.

We bought an inexpensive tent in Nairobi exactly for this purpose and this is it's first outing. While we set it up under an abri (shelter), lemurs grunt and play high in the trees and Laudea finds another chameleon. This one is super special - the world's smallest chameleon species.

We do a couple of short walks to some waterfalls and see some interesting critters along the way, including huge 50cm earthworms, a banded mongoose, large millipedes with red legs, a big snail, a nesting bulbul, a range of other birds and giant woodlice that curl defensively into hard balls.

We also find a couple of small leeches on our legs. Curious, we pluck them off and place them on our hands to check them out. The fireflies are appearing as we return to camp at dusk. We cook dinner over an open fire and fall asleep to all sorts of unusual forest sounds.

Our plan is to climb to the summit, taking 3 days and overnighting at two different lakes on the way. As we pack up this campsite Laudea very carefully wraps his feet and legs with plastic, apparently protecting against the leeches. An ominous sign, but we've already seen a couple and they seem fairly harmless. Surely Tessa and Keith will be OK in trousers, socks and shoes, and I'm catching a ride with Tessa, so I should be fine.

The well-formed track leads us to a view of le Petit Lac and then the forest closes in and Laudea has to work hard to hack a track through the vegetation and around fallen trees. It seems no-one has been this way for some time. We're in damp rainforest reminiscent of New Zealand in many ways, with tall trees, vines, tree ferns and mosses.

Small frogs cleverly camouflaged in the leaf litter leap out of our way and we hear the alarm calls of Sandford's Brown Lemurs. They're often hard to spot through the thick foliage, but we catch glimpses and some stop and stare fixedly at us for a few moments before springing off into the next tree.

But by this stage our focus is one one thing. Leeches. Hundreds of them. Their constantly feasting on Tessa's and keith's legs and ankles and their trousers and socks are no defence. Although we stop regularly to pluck them off, their ankles are soon raw and socks caked with blood. Even our guide's improvised gaiters aren't keeping them out. And we're only an hour into the three day walk.

From my perch on Tessa's pack I can see the leeches waving around on the vegetation waiting for us to brush past and there's an army of them marching up her trousers in a creepy end-over-end motion. Sometimes the thick undergrowth is over our heads, so leeches also have to be ripped from necks, faces and even lips. Yuck!

The path becomes steep, slippery and strewn with obstacles and when added to the leeches it's a challenging eight hour walk. We're all incredibly relieved when we reach the lakeside and find it pleasantly open and leech-free. However we're warned to step carefully around the lake as there's the possibility of sinking sand. Wouldn't have thought of that.

Its a tranquil scene with a grassy lake edge and egrets and parrots in the trees. We find flat spots for our tents away from the wild pig-rooting areas and sinking sand, then it's campfire rice and soup for dinner while Laudea provides insights into Malagasy history, politics and language. We go to sleep to an orchestra of frogs and in the night need don more clothes and use a mosquito net as a blanket when it gets cool.

The next morning we head for the summit and a new campsite at another lake. We approach the leech zone with some trepidation, Tessa sporting three layers of socks with trousers tucked in, while Keith experiments with some heavy-duty insect repellent.

A few minutes into the walk Tessa feels the first leech bites. Checking under her socks there's already a frenzy of feeding leeches, but Keith's DEET-soaked ankles remain leech-free. A quick spray around Tessa's ankles results in a 100% mortality rate. The cure is discovered!

What a relief. The forest suddenly seems a lot more attractive and we can all focus on the scenery and the plants and animals around us. We begin to notice unusual epiphytes, spot flowering orchids and some interesting insects.

It's a steep scramble to the summit with our heavy packs. We arrive at the same time as the thunderstorm and we're soaked through in minutes. The thick blanket of cloud totally obscures the anticipated views of the Indian Ocean and the Mozambique Channel. As the rain doesn't let up we turn and head for our new camp, slipping and sliding our way down the now muddy river of a track.

When we reach the lake we erect some temporary shelters for the tents to reduce the effects of the heavy rain, which fortunately abates. We get a good campfire going with a bit of accelerant and enjoy the last of the day while attempting to dry out our gear.

It's a long eight hour walk out of the park and we see more of the now familiar lemurs on the way. We reach the park entrance and Joffreville weary and footsore, thinking we've missed the last taxi-brousse to Diego. But rounding a bend, we spot it about to head off, and soon we're loaded on and happily bumping down the road on the back on the bench seats.

We all transfer to a minibus at the main road intersection. Although it's a twelve seater we count thirty-four of us at one point on the trip into town. But it's luxury for us and we're grateful we're not walking and no leeches are biting. It's a happy end to a great adventure.

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