Madagascar the world’s oldest and fourth-largest island is as diverse as the heavens are infinite and geographically diverse as it is biologically, creating a treasure haven of the spectacular scenery of emerald rainforests, mountains, deserts, mangrove swamps, and dazzling beaches skirting the Indian Ocean and island archipelagos.
Catherine Burmester, with a camera and notebook in hand, went scouting for creatures.
As a result of being an isolated island for millions of years a number of animal and plant species evolved in isolation in Madagascar creating one of the earth’s greatest experiments in evolution. Over millennia many species arrived on Madagascar’s shores by various modes of travel, swimming, flying, or clinging to driftwood and enriching the biodiversity further. The species made landfall spreading all over the island experiencing the range of habits and evolving subtly as they encountered new environments, some to the extent that new species were formed, resulting in an evolutionary process known as adaptive radiation, which culminated in a myriad of new species found nowhere else on earth.
Madagascar’s unique biodiversity makes it one of the most enthralling destinations in the world and my husband Ryan and myself decided to spend some time on the magical island as part of our belated honeymoon.
Hog Nose Snake
After a stop in Nosy Be, we made our way to Nosy Komba a smaller island between Nosy Be and the mainland across the bay where we encountered the beautiful hognose snake lazing about the path, which allowed me to capture his magnificent black and yellow checkerboard form on camera. Further exploration brought our horrified Malagasy guide and us into contact with a harmless tree snake effortlessly gliding through the branches.
Vilandeer, our guide, retreated explaining that the snake was very dangerous. Some of the Malagasy believe the tree snake to have the powers of possession, sporting a pale innocuous green body and culminating in a bright red tail, the reason for its notoriety. It is said that the harmless tree snake mesmerizes cattle and people from the treetops and then stiffens its body like an arrow drops down its tail first to impale its hapless victim, resulting in a blood-red tail. Black lemurs bounced around in the trees feeding on mangos oblivious of a ground boa camouflaged on the forest floor.
We taxied our way on a boat from Nosy Komba to Port Ankify on the mainland where we met up with our guide Goulam, fluent in English and knowledgeable on Madagascan wildlife and headed off in his 4×4 to his rustic lodge adjacent to the spectacular Ankarana National Park situated further north on the western side of the mainland.
Fire Flies and Frogs
Goulam stopped on the way at roadside stores purchasing various items for lunch, including crabs and exotic fruits before we arrived at his lodge being a small wooden hut with a double bed taking up most of the space and the shower comprising of 2 buckets filled with cold water from the well and a little jug to douse ourselves. The toilets were down the drag and again a bucket was supplied with a jug to flush the loo. At night after the generator was turned off it seemed as though the stars had floated down around us as little male fireflies were lighting up to attract a mate. The rain showers at night would set off the frog chorus, a cacophony of sound that reverberated into the night drowning out the resident nightjar.
Pinnacles called Tsingy
Ankarana is a small vegetated plateau with ancient 150 million-year-old limestone elevations that exceed 1,200 meters above sea level. With an average rainfall of 1,800 millimetres, the underlying rocks have eroded vastly producing caves and underground streams, forming a karst topography. The limestone has also eroded from the top creating a massif of sharply jagged limestone pinnacles known as “tsingy”, formed over centuries by the movement of wind and water and often towering several meters into the air they are a spectacular sight.
Tsingy in Malagasy means ‘walk on tip toe’ because if you slipped on the tsingy you could be skewered like a sosatie on one of the spires, so we were mindful of our steps as we surveyed the strikingly unusual landscape. The tsingy is surrounded by sunken dry deciduous forests containing a high density of lemurs, bats, birds and reptiles. We started our walks around 7 am and were greeted by the reverberating screech of cicadas lasting till nightfall, a sound which I find enthralling as it feels as the day is starting with a crescendo of suspense of what may lie ahead pulsating through the forest.
Vasa Parrots and Lemurs
Primitive vasa parrots also added to the cacophony of sound while pesky orange flies would chase us around diving into our necks delivering a nasty bite (much like a horsefly) and copious amounts of insect repellent did nothing to deter them, forcing us to pick leafy branches and wave them wildly around ourselves to ward them off. The forest was alive with life and Goulam pointed out diminutive nocturnal sportive lemurs in the nooks of trees resting their chins on little human-like fingers all the while staring benignly at us as we passed by.
Spiders and Bats
Families of the diurnal crowned lemurs browsed in the trees, whilst large red skinks scurried over the tapestry of leaves below and strange butterfly nymphs resembling bits of scraggly cotton wool were bustling around on branches. We ventured down into the cave system descending into complete darkness and scrambled around stalagmites and stalactites illuminated by our head torches revealing some of the resident spiders and bats hanging huddled together squeaking and twitching at our presence.
Our night walks were fascinating as Goulam with his x-ray like vision managed to detect the elusive and extraordinary leaf-tailed gecko tucked away on a branch its form melting into the bark as their camouflage is uncanny. The gecko’s body indents perfectly around the branch eliminating any shadow and sporting a splayed tail and the ability to employ colour change tactics it is almost undetectable save for its large beautiful speckled eyes.
Orchids and Baobabs
We were captivated by the landscape as at times it felt as though we were walking on another planet, the surroundings seeming not of this world. Orchids hung delicately from trees, baobabs reached skyward and strange tubors culminated into long twisting vines winding their way around the vegetation. Red flowers hung over the tsingy like little lanterns, strange lilies protruded from crevices and foliage clung to the rocks resembling beautiful red coral in an ancient seabed. The forest floor was bedecked in a tapestry of leaves forming pathways that snakes and chameleons silently traversed.
We made our way back to Nosy Be and flew directly to Antananarivo. Climbing into an ancient taxi (a little Renault) held together by bits and bobs we travelled east for 3 hours to Andasibe with the tar clearly visible through the cracks in the floorboards allowing the exhaust fumes to sometimes pervade the cab. We jiggled along cobbled roads passing rice paddies and men pulling along carts laden with goods or paying passengers and noticed the change in architecture which at times resembled little European villages with tall houses hugging narrow streets surrounded by green valleys compared to the wooden huts up north.
Fauna and flora of Andasibe’s Rainforests
We arrived in Andasibe in time to find a hotel and an amazing guide Herman who was to unveil the beauty and unique fauna and flora of Andasibe’s rainforests. Herman transformed our walks from the ordinary to spectacular with his ability to see right through the forest pointing out a pair of mating stick insects, reed frogs, tree boas and the most bizarre-looking giraffe beetle. He knew how to settle down unobtrusively in the forest and marvel at the diademed sifaka lemurs as they browsed close by in the trees.
In places, the forest was a velvet carpet of magical green moss with ferns and lichens growing from branches and the indri lemurs would pierce the forest orchestra with their eerie wailing song. Their enchanting songs can be heard echoing for miles in the forest from early in the morning and was a magical sound to awaken to as our accommodation Hotel Feon ny Ala which aptly means the voice of the forest was situated overlooking the river adjacent to the reserve. The view was beautiful with steam rising off the river and floating into the forest as birds cavorted along the water’s edge. Herman informed us that the Indri lemurs live up to about 60 years of age, are monogamous and the largest of all the lemurs and are the only ones with virtually no tail.
As we were scrambling up a steep slope trying to achieve a better view of the Indris, they descended down the trees and gazed at us with piercing blue eyes looking like a strange teddy bear panda. These gorgeous, black and white lemurs feed on complex carbohydrates and so need to spend much of the day resting in order to digest their food. Indri in Malagasy means ‘look up there’ and was mistaken for the lemurs name by an English explorer being shown the lemurs by locals. The Malagasy name for the indri is babakota meaning “father of Koto”. Indri lemurs are endangered as they are sensitive to habitat disturbances and not only does deforestation threaten the Indris’ environment but they also have never survived in captivity as they simply stop eating.
The forest imbued in us a sense of wonderment and immense fascination for Madagascar as we had only glimpsed the surface of Madagascar’s vast bio-diversity which has one of the highest percentages of endemic species in the world.