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Madagascar: A Safari Tour

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Photo: Brown W Cannon III

We chartered a boat to see sunrise birds in Moromba Bay, a smooth body of water full of little round islands, like a flotilla of pillbox hats, many of them eroded from beneath so that they taper in above the water. There was nothing man-made along the ensuing coast for 20 miles except occasional fishing villages built of wood and reeds on the sand. We stopped at a sacred baobab, about 1,600 years old, the scale more of a small apartment building than of a tree. Nearby was another—one of the six kinds of endemic Malagasy baobabs—wide at the bottom, with a straight trunk, and then crazy branches at the top, so that it looks like an Indian goddess with a splayed skirt and dozens of arms gyrating madly. There were mangroves along the water’s edge in some places, and "sea salad," which we ate by the succulent, salty handful. We stopped at one isolated beach and swam; at another a picnic had been set up for us in a palm-leaf hut.

Back at the hotel, a troop of sifakas were in the trees right outside our villa, and we took a thousand photos of them; then we had massages on our terrace while the sun set.

We next headed to Andasibe. The colors of the green, green rice paddies and the red, red earth were like a child’s drawing in crayon. We strode into the Analamazaotra Special Reserve to see the three-foot-tall indri, the largest living species of lemur (fossils show extinct, gorilla-size giant lemurs). Our very energetic guide took us deep into the forest, and then we heard our first indris, like humpback whales crossed with air-raid sirens, a strange, high waffling tone that seems inconceivable coming from a land mammal, much less a primate. You have to know how to follow the sounds: though they can be heard for two miles, the way the sound echoes means amateurs can’t tell how near or far they are. We went running through thick undergrowth, and just as I was losing hope we found ourselves right beneath them. Their ululations were deafening, these great huge things with inquisitive black furry faces, sitting up in the trees and eating leaves, then leaping, with unlikely grace, to other trees when they’d finished.

The next day, we got up early and headed off to the Mantadia National Park, quickly climbing up a mountain and down and up and down, and we were all feeling a little abused when we hadn’t found anything after two hours. Then we came upon a great troop of diademed sifakas, athletic and whimsical. We saw tree ferns and an endemic bamboo that grows as a huge arch, kind of like an outsize croquet wicket. We made our way out of the forest and onto a magical road covered with graphite dust from the nearby mine. It looked silver in the bright sunlight, right out of The Wizard of Oz, and if you touched it, your finger looked like you’d swiped a tray of eye shadow.

Then we went to an island reserve where the lemurs are completely habituated to humans. We saw common brown lemurs, who jumped onto our shoulders and sat on our heads and made us laugh and laugh; and black-and-white ruffed lemurs; and another diademed sifaka, the sweetest creature imaginable. While the brown lemurs pushed and grabbed and gulped, the sifaka looked with its head on one side, and if you held up a piece of banana, would reach out his hand, lift it carefully, and then eat it in several bites. He had the most beautiful fur, bright orange and white and incredibly soft. When he wanted to leap, you realized how strong he was, but he had an air of impossible gentleness about him, as though he were very shy but did want to be friendly. The brown lemurs stayed for an hour, but the sifaka seemed to say at a certain point that he had taken enough of our time, and swung off into the bush.

On the way back to Tana, we stopped at a reptile park, where I was particularly taken with the large, blushing tomato frog.

For our final week, we headed to the wilds of southern Madagascar. We flew to Tuléar, where a minivan full of food waited for us with a guide. We drove out on a lovely paved road for an hour, then headed into the deep countryside. I had assumed we were in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, but we weren’t. Further, it turned out that the driver had never been to Beza-Mahafaly before, so he had little sense of what was involved in getting there. Because our luggage was on the roof, we had a high center of gravity, but our low undercarriage prevented easy passage on a road with patches of huge rocks, potholes, washed-out areas, and stretches of powdery sand, like a dry riverbed. We had a live chicken (dinner) in the vehicle, who kept squawking. We had to keep the windows open or suffocate, but the vehicle kicked up dust that caked our faces and hair at once. We reached the last real town at about 5:30 p.m., and when we pulled into a gas station, the attendant mentioned that someone needed a ride and could we take an extra passenger?The someone turned out, thrillingly, to be Andry, the manager of the camp to which we were headed. Before long, the vehicle began to sink in the sand, and so we all got out and pushed and heaved and we got past that and about three minutes later we sank again. It took us almost three more hours, and the final part of the trip was by moonlight.

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