By the time we landed in Antananarivo (Tana, for short) it was 6:30pm and already dark out. We would be spending some time in Tana towards the end of our trip, but for the time being the plan was to head north east from the city and spend some time at the Vakona Lodge, which was close to Andasibe and its two national parks of Analamazaotra and Mantadia. These parks are home to the largest living species of lemur, the Indri Indri, and are a good spot to observe a wide range of lemurs and other wildlife. Roanne had received good recommendations on the Vakona Lodge from a co-worker who had spent some time there, so we were also excited to the check that out. It is considered very upmarket accommodation in Madgascar, but at the equivalent of just under $100 USD per night it is still a pretty affordable splurge by western standards.
The lodge had arranged for a driver to meet us at the airport and shuttle us to the lodge (which was 150km north east of Tana), so after meeting with him we set off on our journey. The trip ended up taking about 3.5 hours as the road, while in good condition by Madagascar standards, was torturously windy and traveled up and over a significant mountain pass with numerous other vehicles to avoid and pass along the way. We stopped for a quick dinner at around 8:30pm and then continued on, reaching the lodge just before 11:00pm.
The lodge was set right in the middle of the jungle, and it was pretty fun to walk the lit path to our bungalow through stands of giant ferns amid the cacophony of crickets, frogs, and other nocturnal jungle dwellers. It was considerably cooler here than it had been in Diego Suarez, and we thankfully settled in for a delicious night's sleep. Here is a shot of our accommodations taken the next morning to give an idea of our surroundings:
We rose at 8:00am the next morning and headed to breakfast, which while passable, did not meet the bar of expectations for an establishment of this quality. I had been reading through the Vakona Lodge brochure in our room before breakfast, and was pretty excited to spend the day engaged in activities on their premises, such as mountainbiking, hiking their extensive networks of trails, canoeing around islands of lemurs, etc. We decided the first order of business was to go for a hike to try and catch some Indri calls (which usually take place between 7:00am and 11:00am). We set out onto their trail network, which the brochure had advertised as "clearly marked, impossible to get lost!". We, however, quickly disproved this claim as we soon had no idea where we where and were covering terrain that did not look well traveled at all. Nonetheless, we were still enjoying ourselves and seeing some nice flora and fauna. Here is one of the many lizards that we saw, this one is a skink:
We also enjoyed seeing the giant ferns. Having moved from Ontario, Canada, out to Seattle in the pacific northwest, I was well aware that they do things larger on the west coast, with plants reaching epic proportions compared to what is seen back east. As we found out, they do things even bigger in Africa, here I am standing beside a few of the ferns and shrubs that we encountered:
We also encountered several different forms of spiders that we carefully bypassed, though we found out later that they were not poisonous. One was a crab spider who looked fairly friendly:
And another was a slightly meaner looking one who had some sort of pattern on his back that seemed to mimic the face and eyes of a larger animal in hopes of intimidating predators:
We eventually emerged onto a road, and after asking directions from a local we found our way back to the lodge. We then decided to go inquire at reception at how we had managed to become lost on their foolproof network of trails, and how we could get the other activities that we had planned for the day coordinated. The young man staffing the reception desk informed us that the reason we had become lost was that the network of trails described in the brochure did not exist, and only two (of the 12 or so described) were actually marked and maintained. He also informed us that a mountain bike excursion that afternoon would not be possible, as the Lodge's fleet of mountain bikes did not exist either (no explanation was provided as to whether they had existed at one time, or if they were just a myth existing solely in the imagination of the brochure author).
This was a little disappointing, but we did manage to sign up for several other activities including a visit to the Lodge's reserve, a trip in the canoe around the lemur islands, a visit to the one island that is home to habituated lemurs that can be fed and handled, and the guided night walk that evening for observing some of the nocturnal forest dwellers. One surprise to me was that we had to buy tickets to all of these things, I had assumed that the lodge would be more of an all-inclusive set up where visitors who stay there can make free use of the Lodge's facilities. Nevertheless, it was still inexpensive by western standards so we were happy to fork over the ariary to take part in the activities.
First up on our agenda was a trip to the "Private Reserve", so after making our way there on one of the two trails that actually do exist, we were met by a guide who toured us through the reserve. It actually turned out to be more of a small zoo, the word "reserve" in my mind invokes connotations of a confined yet large and open area where animals are allowed to roam freely and visitors can wander the reserve in hopes of seeing some of these wild animals. The animals in the Vakona Reserve were actually in cages, which was still interesting as some of them were animals that I had not seen before, but different than I had expected. The first animals that we saw were crocodiles, which while not new to me were still fun to see lying around motionless with their mouths permanently open to cool themselves off (note to crocodile: you might realize more effective cooling by getting off your belly and moving out of the sun to the shade, instead of just opening your mouth):
I never quite figured out whether crocodiles are native to Madagascar, I suspect not though they do live there now (in several spots they are farmed for their skin and meat). Next up was a slow moving tortoise who looked pretty friendly:
Next on the tour was my favourite critter of the day, a Madagascar boa who I was lucky enough to be able to hold while he squirmed around in my hands, yikes!
He was full grown, they don't grow all that large compared to other species of boa constrictors. Still fun to hold, though! Another interesting one was a chameleon, made even more interesting when our guide held some crickets close to him and he fired out his tongue to grab them and reel them back into his mouth. Apparently their tongues are as long as their tails, and from the looks of it this was definitely the case.
We saw a few other interesting animals including the Fosa, a predatory cat that hunts lemurs. They are nocturnal and pretty hard to see in the wild, so it was good to be able to see one in captivity. I asked the guide if they fed it lemurs but he said that was not the case. After finishing the tour we continued on to the next thing on our itinerary, a canoe trip around the lemur islands. There are three islands in total with a network of waterways around them, two of them hold wild lemurs and one holds lemurs that have been habituated to humans. We declined accompanyment by the guide and set off on our canoe adventure, with myself having claimed the leadership role in the back of the canoe. Roanne likes to think of herself as an expert canoeist and was feeling frusterated at being relegated to the front, so she continued to carry out subversive actions from the front of the canoe that ran us into the bushes or reeds and then look back at me as if it was due to my incompetence at manning the back of the canoe. Eventually I gave in to her whims and let her occupy the back, and we made better progress from there on out:
We could hear the loud cries of the lemurs as we paddled, and eventually we were treated to a show with the lemurs leaping through the trees at the edge of the water. Here is one of the lemurs staring out at us from his perch:
After about 1.5 hours of paddling we had seen most of the waterways that were navigable by canoe, so we decided to bring it to shore and take a stroll on the lemur island. A guide escorted us over there, taking along some bananas to feed the lemurs, and before we knew it we were surrounded by lemurs who seemed happy to jump on our shoulders and crawl on us in the hopes that we would give them bananas. Here is Roanne with one of the little guys, note that they both have the same facial expression:
One of the other species of lemurs on the island was the diademed sifka, which is one of the larger lemur species and a pretty impressive sight:
Eventually a common brown lemur happened by with her new baby in tow, the baby clings to the mothers back as she makes her way through the forest, with its tail wrapped around her midsection as an added means of adherence:
We then made our way over to another part of the island where we found some smaller lemurs called bamboo lemurs, due to their diet of bamboo (apparently they also like bananas):
Funny little guys! After a little more lemur watching we decided to make our way back to the lodge as we were getting a bit hungry. We sat down on their deck and enjoyed some Fanta and sandwiches over a game of scrabble:
After lunch it was necessary for Roanne to feed her reading addiction, so she settled into "Gone with the Wind" and I headed out for a run along the dirt road towards Mantadia National Park. It was a nice run passing some nice forests where Indri cries could be heard, and some of the local boys ran along side me for a while and we tried to make each other understood in french. Upon returning I went for a swim in the hotel pool and then we suited up and headed over to the meeting point for the guided tour of nocturnal animals. The tour was fairly unstructured, no lights were provided to the participants and the tour consisted of slowly stumbling behind the guide who walked with his flashlight pointed at the forest looking for animals. We almost didn't end up on the walk at all, as no announcement was made that it was leaving but Roanne and I happened to be standing at different exits to the lodge and I happened to see a group leaving that looked like they might be part of the tour.
There was one guide from the lodge, Roanne and myself, and a group of three Americans (from Ashland, OR) who happened to have their own personal guide along with them. The endeavor as a whole was boring to the point of being painful, as we would stumble along in relative silence for about 10 minutes and then a guide would announce in a loud voice that he had found a lizard (most of which were not even nocturnal and we had already seen them during the day, the only difference now was that they were sleeping and the lighting was worse so they were harder to see). Nonetheless, in a homage to the famous nightwalk here is one of the sleeping lizards that we saw:
As the tour continued and stretched past the one hour mark the alarm bells in my head continued to sound, accompanied by images of flashing red letters spelling out "ABORT, ABORT!", but every time I suggested this course of action to Roanne she replied with a stern look that told me I must change my attitude and start to enjoy the famous night tour. Things did pick up in the last 10 minutes of the tour, as we saw two legitimately nocturnal animals, a mouse lemur (the smallest primate on earth) and a dwarf lemur. With the night tour having concluded we were free to have some dinner, after which we headed back to our room for a warm shower followed by bed.
The next morning we rose bright and early at 6:00am and had breakfast and checked out in order to be ready when our driver picked us up at 7:00am. The plan was to head to the Analamazaotra Park to try and see some Indri during their most active hours (before noon) and then head from there directly back to Tana. We reached the park by about 7:30am, and after getting a guide we headed out to try and see some Indri. Their cries are exceedingly load, so we could hear them well before we could see them. Here are Roanne and our guide as we made our way through the forest learning about the local flora and fauna:
This guide spoke english so it was easier to converse with him, he had been working for 10 years in the park and was quite knowledgeable. After seeing a wide range of wildlife we finally happened upon the noisy Indri, who were sitting together up in a tree. They live in families of about 5 individuals, and have a territory of about 5-7 hectares. They are the largest living lemur, and can only be seen in the wild because they are so sensitive to changes in their living conditions that if they are ever taken into captivity they always stop eating and die. They have been described as looking like a 4-year old in a panda suit and this was a remarkably apt description. They have only very short and stubby tails in contrast to the other lemurs we had seen, and it was incredibly to watch them leaping sideways from tree trunk to tree trunk, making it look totally graceful and effortless.
Before humans arrived on Madagascar (about 2000 years ago) there existed species of lemurs that weighed up to 200kg (about the size of a gorilla), unfortunately these were driven to extinction by humans and the Indri are the largest living lemur. It is quite possible that the Indri would have suffered the same fate, but there was a local taboo against killing them so thankfully they are still alive for us to see today. The english name Indri for the species came about in a funny way: an early European explorer was walking through the forest with some of the locals when an Indri lemur was sighted overhead in the canopy; the locals cried "Indri!" which means "Look up!" to the European explorer to indicate that he should check out the lemur above him. The European took "Indri" to be the name of the lemur instead of the verbal cue to look up, and the rest is history.
After observing the lemurs for a whle we continued on our walk which took us through the territory of one more Indri family, and after tracking them down and observing them for a while we started making our way back towards the park office. Along the way the guide pointed out an interesting plant battle, where a vine and tree were locked in a struggle for survival:
Apparently in some cases the vine wins by strangling the tree so that it can no longer bring water up through its bark and the tree dies; in other cases the tree wins by growing fast enough to snap the vine. I guess plant battles are just as dramatic as those in the animal kingdoms, they just play out over longer periods of time. Back at the park office, we bid our guide farewell and hopped in the car with our driver for the trip back to Antananarivo where we would spend the rest of our time in Madagascar before starting to make our way back to Seattle.
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