Lemurs and Leeches

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Africa » Madagascar » Ranomafana National Park
January 3rd 2012
Published: January 3rd 2012
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Here we go again!Here we go again!Here we go again!

See how disheveled I already look?
We must be gluttons for punishment. After wrapping up a blissful few days of lazing about in Morondava - taking a gander at some baobabs and lemurs, walking along the quiet beach, eating fantastic seafood, etc. – we were preparing to take ANOTHER taxi-brousse back into interior Madagascar. I think we rationalized it by saying “at least we aren’t going all the way back to Tana – we are just going to Antsirabe…”

In theory, the journey should have taken ten hours. However, almost from the moment we started, we knew that this was going to take a bit longer – and was going to be even more uncomfortable than our first epic taxi-brousse journey. We had hardly left the station when we began stopping what seemed to be every 100 meters or so to either pass through a military or police checkpoint or, more commonly, to pick up a new passenger and their loads of ducks-in-baskets and other such fare. Each time I was sure we had reached full capacity, but somehow we kept stopping and adding more and more people. At one point we had 24 human beings and one chicken crammed into a van that should have held a max of 14 people. My knees couldn’t even fit into the narrow passage between the seats, so I had to contort my legs in a variety of unnatural directions. And at another point I wasn’t really sitting on a seat but between two.

The only thing that made the trip bearable was this was during daylight, and we got to see all the Malagasy vistas we had missed on the descent. Actually, it was amazing to see just how many different landscapes we traversed as we made our torturous ride from the coast into the highlands. Yet by hour 12, when we were within spitting distance of Antsirabe and STILL pulling to the side of the road (stop 28), Abby and I were about ready to lose our minds.

Finally, shortly after 11pm – about 13 hours since he had started the trip – we were dumped at a gas station somewhere in northern Antsirabe. Fending off a horde of overzealous pousse-pousse (richshaw) men, we bee-lined it to the nearest hotel, the Diamant. It didn’t bode well that as we approached we could hear the thumb-thumb of a Friday night disco. And when we saw the horse sized cockroach on the wall in the room they showed us, well, we decided to look elsewhere.

Succumbing to the pleas of a couple pousse-pousse pullers, I asked them to take us to Hotel Hasina, a place that had been recommended by Gary from Chez Maggie – and prayed there would be someone to let us in at this late hour. Luckily, there was and the room was…spotless and comfy. A world of difference from our first attempt! We crashed immediately….


In the daylight, Antsirabe revealed itself to be a strangely European looking town, a holdover from its days as a colonial spa retreat where colonists would come to “take the waters” at the thermal baths. The Hotel des Thermes is a faded piece of colonial grandeur of this era.

Over breakfast, fortifying ourselves in preparation for a trip down to the taxi-brousse station to try and get tickets to our next destination, Parc National de Ranomafana, Abby said: “We should just hire someone to drive us there….” I didn’t hesitate: “Let’s do it.”

A few minutes later we were asking the hotel receptionist whether this plan was possible; fifteen minutes after that we had made arrangements to be picked up in two hours. We couldn’t believe that our whim, sparked over breakfast and fueled by the dread of another long taxi-brousse ride, had actually materialized! Merry Christmas to ourselves!

It felt decadent to slip into a real car, one with plenty of space to stretch and move (even with a trunk to store our bags!). We would be whisked from door to door; all we had to do was sit back and relax – and watch the gorgeous Malagasy views slip by.


The highlands of Madagascar are quite different from the coast around Morondava. The hills are blanketed in forest or terraced in emerald green rice fields. The villages are clusters of two or three story houses built of brick and sometimes plastered in a red as deep as the red of the surrounding soil (Madagascar is sometimes called the Red Island).

The people, too, have a somewhat different appearance, many looking more Asian than mainland “African”. Actually, the Malagasy have a fascinating origin, as the island was settled first not from continental Africa but by Indo-Malayan seafarers coming from the eastern side of the Indian Ocean. The Malagasy language, oddly, is supposedly most closely related to a language spoken in Borneo! Of course, over time, the original settlers intermingled with black Africans and Arabs (as well as some European pirates) who came ashore. The result is a very distinctive ethnic and cultural mash-up, not unlike that of the Swahili coast.*

The Malagasy classify themselves in “tribes”, which correspond more to older kingdoms rather than ethnic groups; however, certain tribes do seem to show their ancestral South-East Asian traits more, while others have a more traditional “African” appearance. The Sakalava people in Morondava, for example, seemed to fit the latter pattern – not surprisingly since they occupy land facing Mozambique across the Mozambique Channel. Whereas the Merina people in Tana often look almost Malay or Indonesian. Traveling in Africa underscores just what a diverse part of the world it is….


After crossing the great ridge that separates the central highlands from the eastern part of the country, we found ourselves in yet a new landscape: wet, lush rainforest. In the early afternoon we pulled up to Setam Lodge, our base for exploring the famous Ranomafana forest.

While eating Christmas eve dinner – a candlelight affair - at the lodge, I casually informed Abby: “By the way, there are leeches in the forest…Merry Christmas!” If looks could kill….

The next morning – Christmas day – we woke early and walked up the road to the park entrance. We chose a four-hour hike that would loop through the forest and Namorona River valley (a compromise, as I wanted to do a 6-7 hour jaunt and Abby balked – or rather her knees did – at the up-and-down that such a trek would require). We hoped we would get a nice Christmas present and see a few lemurs. Little did we know what was in store!

We had not been hiking long when we got to a sign that said we were on the edge of the territory usually occupied by the rare golden bamboo lemur, a species only discovered about 25 years ago and only found in Ranomafana. Our guide told us to wait and he’d go see if he could spot any.

When he returned, he shrugged his shoulders. “Sorry, no sight of them today…” I was disappointed, but knew it was unlikely we’d be that lucky. Some people come to Madagascar and barely get a glimpse of a wild lemur, yet we’d already seen several species relatively close up in Kirindy. Perhaps today in Ranomafana we’d not have the chance. At least we’d get to see the beautiful forest….

But just minutes later, as we began to ascend a steep hill, the guide stopped and pointed – “Wait, there they are!” And, yes, there they were. A troop of golden bamboo lemurs, feeding and jumping around in the branches, was just a few feet away. These rare, rare mammals seemed completely unperturbed by the gawking humans who began snapping countless photographs to try and capture this special moment.

I would have been more than happy – actually, I was ecstatic – with this sighting alone. We were some of the lucky few to get a glimpse of the golden bamboo lemur. Yet our luck was to hold. Just a little further down the path, we came across a clutch of related greater bamboo lemurs, which allowed us to get even closer! And then we saw red-fronted browns (our second sighting), and then a lone Milne-Edwards’ sifaka…and then white and black ruff lemurs** – a species that normally lives so deep in the park that most people who want to see them have to hike for a day or two to reach their territory.

Of course, these weren’t the only creatures we were blessed to see. We even managed to see one of the chameleon species that also make Madagascar famous – but, being chameleons, they are notoriously difficult to spot. Yet, spot we did.

It was as if Ranomafana was turning out all its glory for just us, a spectacle to make our Christmas all the more special. I didn’t even care that when we got close to the end of our hike, stopping for a break at a panoramic viewpoint, I found a few leeches lunching on my shin. Let them sup! I had seen more lemurs than I ever imagined I’d see in all my time in Madagascar in the span of just a few hours.

Could I have asked for a better Christmas?

* Despite Madagascar usually being classified as an African country, the Malagasy do not like to be considered African. They are a separate people, proud of their distinct “Asian” heritage.

**This brought our lemur species sighting total to seven!

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