2 January 2023
The engine choked and sputtered, and quickly gave out. With it, the night was nearly silent, as we drifted in the water. (Downstream, toward the ocean, the wrong direction from where we needed.) Our “captain” and his deckhand bantered in a foreign language, seemingly debating the best course of action. Patrick, the captain (and that evening’s guide), pulled the engine starter cord repeatedly. The engine would start for a moment or two, only to stop again. Suffice to say, the feeling was not great as we sat there under a dark and cloudy sky…
A few hours early, as the sun set on Christmas day, we had been sitting in a hotel in Maroantsetra, Madagascar, talking about nature and the many endemic animals. The first part of a two-week trip involved a flight from Antananarivo—locally known as “Tana,” the capital of the island country which lay in the central highlands, home to a single-runway international airport—to the north-eastern coast. Tucked away in the Antongil Bay just off the Indian Ocean lie rainforests, beaches, and an incredible array of wildlife. But, in its current state of affairs, the “road” to Maroantsetra can take five days to reach from the capital city, if it’s even passable at all (my partner’s only visit by car involved makeshift bridges, and more than one instance of rafting across the various rivers). After landing in Tana and flying on the once-per-week commercial flight to Maroantsetra, we’d taken a boat to an eco-lodge somewhere out along the bay’s coastline, far from civilization. And we got to the rainforest.
Masoala National Park is full of life. We’d taken a day to explore some of the local islands (Nosy Mangabe and Nosy Roa) before heading down the coast; that gave us views of wild pteropus rufus fruit bats (the “Madagascar flying fox”!), a number of lemur varieties, an immense range of reptiles and insects, and even a fossa!
A few days on the coast provided an incredible escape: Treks into the rainforest, sea kayaking and snorkeling along some local reefs, some quiet canoe trips through mango groves, and plenty of night walks.
After four nights we returned again by boat to town to make the once-per-week scheduled return flight to Tana. With an extra night and no plans, we set out in an attempt to find the elusive and nocturnal lemur known as an “aye-aye.” (Lemurs, endemic to Madagascar, come in over 100 varieties. While many are diurnal and happily explore and eat during the day, a few only come out at night—adding to the challenge and intrigue.) Our Christmas plan seemed simple enough: Take a boat through a maze of local rivers an hour or so out of Maroantsetra, then hike by foot through Farankaraina Tropical Park. Wait until dusk, and with any luck we might find one of these lemurs!
We had a local guide who also served as the captain or pilot of our little boat, and he told us to wait while he looked for signs of an aye-aye. He’d return ever-so-often to inform us about seeds or potential locations, but asked us to continue waiting while he ventured back into the dark in another direction; repeating this three or four times.
“Come quick!” he finally yelled, and, with only the light of our headlamps, we ran up the trail until we arrived at a tree that Patrick stared at intently. His spotlight shown brightly, we could barely make out the eyes and tail of this special creature. But after a few moments, our little critter came climbing along some of the branches (some 15 meters above our heads!) where we could get a better view. Mission accomplished, and it wasn’t even 8 pm!
But as is the case with climbing a mountain, the summit is only half-way; in our case, we still had a decent trek back, plus a boat ride, all in the black of night. And of course, the boat ride wasn’t as smooth as anticipated. After Patrick changed either the fuel line or the motor he was using (the boat had two) we got a sustained, if somewhat suspenseful hum of the diesel engine. It was enough to sputter along and move us against the river, toward the direction of the town (and our hotel). The night sky lit up constantly, a brilliant rainforest thunderstorm blocking view of the stars (and causing more than a little anxiety for us travelers). After a few more amusing-in-hindsight-moments—like taking a wrong path and having our two local Malagasy friends debating whether to turn back (we did!), or the rain starting to fall with us totally exposed in the water, or the two or three times we ran aground on the sand due to low tides (each time, one of the locals jumped out and pushed the boat free)—and we found ourselves back at our hotel. Some fellow hotel guests congratulated us on the sighting, we had some beer, and promptly went to bed.
For the next leg of our adventure, we returned to Tana and took a car via the RN2 to Andasibe National Park. This park is home to the babakoto, or the indri lemur—one of the largest remaining lemur species alive. Only a few thousand are thought to remain, and few-to-none have survived in captivity. Fortunately for us travelers, the hardest part was the multi-hour drive through the countryside in a hired car due to inconsistent road conditions. Beyond the indri, we explored a local lemur center and enjoyed a guided night walk for our one night in the park.
Returning to Tana, we socialized! We saw friends and their families, and walked through the city’s hilly neighborhoods during the day. By night, we enjoyed some good food and drink, and Hotel Sakamanga.
From Tana, we flew to the western coastal town of Morondava for the third and final leg of our journey. Immediately after arriving, we dropped our bags and hired a taxi to take us to the Avenue of the Baobabs for sunset. Some of these trees are over a thousand years old! Of the many species of baobab trees, all but two are endemic and only found in Madagascar.
(As a side note, I was sad to see many of these incredible trees had been tagged, with people having carved names or messages into the tree trunks. Humans are weird, and frustratingly selfish.)
We returned to Morondava for the evening, and started our next day with a pre-dawn drive up the inland coast. We stopped once more at the baobabs for sunrise, and after continued further along the dirt road—which was often covered in water as deep as our SUV’s tall tires—to reach Kirindy Forest, a private park named for its dense forest and wild animals. Here, we saw a dry rainforest which was full of life, yet so completely different than the previous week. (Kirindy was also literally swarming with bugs, to my dismay!) We found more reptiles than I could even count—sometimes before putting down your foot, an iguana or lizard which had been completely still would leap out from under your shoe to avoid being squashed. Plenty of snakes slithered around. And we encountered so many birds!
We took a pause and relaxed at a local village lodge during the heat of the day, and returned to the forest for an evening night walk. This time we found one of my highlights as the sun set: A family of mouse lemurs waking up and poking their heads out of their little nest, curious and cautious. After a few minutes of curiously staring at each-other (and us!) one of these tiny primate zoomed out of the safety of its tree, hopping to another branch, and quickly out-of-sight. Soon after, the rest of the family had done the same, presumably in search of food and nourishment for the evening.
Our new years eve was spent drinking local beer and rum, and otherwise enjoying the coast for one last day.
Returning to Tana on the first day of the new year, people were out and about. Most formal shops appeared closed, but plenty of vendors (including street food) were out for celebrating! Everywhere you looked, groups of people were having fun and spending time together eating and drinking. (Throughout the trip, Cara reminisced about when one of her Malagasy students visited us in the United States for the first time: “Where are all the people?” he asked after being picked-up from the Chicago airport, with no one wandering by foot along the streets.)
We wandered with the crowds, and found ourselves on a rooftop patio with a view of the city; and enjoyed a few moments of quiet relaxation in this place that has meant so much to Cara. Back into the fray, we walked back to our hotel; stopping for some ice cream on the warm-weathered day.
My visit felt short, perhaps due to the lengthy travel required to get to Madagascar. And yet, I’ve learned a few local words and phrases; understand immensely more about the country; and am already starting to plan my next visit.
Tratry ny taona, happy new year!
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