Then we went to Parcel 2, the spiny forest. One endemic tree has no leaves and photosynthesizes through chlorophyll in its bark, which is always peeling like a bad sunburn; octopus trees are strange thorn-covered things with multiple branches twisted up in the air; and euphorbias have geometric green branches that describe complex cubelike spaces and look like models of the crystal structure of phosphorus. We got the rare sight of a sifaka dancing across the road; they walk on their hind legs with a sideways leap when on open ground. Then we watched a family of them in the spiny trees, and it was that gorgeous hyper-golden light that occurs in the late afternoon in Madagascar, and it lit up the sifakas so that they seemed to be furry angels glowing with their own private radiance.
We returned to camp just as a researcher arrived in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, and we negotiated with the driver to take us out the next day. That morning we zipped along and got to Isalo in time for a late lunch. The hotel there, Relais de la Reine, is owned by a Frenchman, who built into the stone landscape so that you can only half tell there are buildings there; the food was excellent, and the room fresh and attractive and a lovely change from the tents at Beza. Isalo is famous for a landscape reminiscent of the mesas of the American Southwest. Great canyons give way to steep stone mountains full of caves, in which the locals bury their dead. Though the landscape is mostly dry and barren, there are occasional rice fields clinging to the moisture of stream banks. The most famous endemic plants are the "elephant’s foot," a pachypodium that is short and bulbous with a yellow flower, and the pink Madagascar periwinkle.
The next day we rose early so we could ride—the hotel had beautiful horses—and trotted across plains and saw shapes in the huge stones that dot the landscape: a king, a lion, a woolly lemur. Then we trekked to the piscine naturelle. You slog across barren stretches and climb through rocky formations and then suddenly you descend into a crevasse and there it is, the fantasy of some brilliant landscaper from the sky, too exquisite to be believed: a lush plenty of swaying palm trees and thick vegetation, and at its center an impossibly pretty waterfall dropping into a deep, clear pool with a sandy bottom. We rolled up our trousers and bathed our tired feet in the cool water. Only a few times have I seen something so completely pleasing to the eye.
We then drove on to Ranomafana, the most popular rain forest park, where we hit a day of sunshine. The park is extremely mountainous, so you spend the whole time climbing up and down muddy trails, but it’s well worth it if you are a lemur enthusiast. In one day, we saw red-fronted brown lemurs, red-bellied lemurs, Milne-Edwards sifakas, a brown mouse lemur, and a troop of greater bamboo lemurs, as well as a ring-tailed mongoose and a civet. We got very muddy, and my legs and back ached, but the density of species was beyond any we’d seen yet, as though this were the prosperous end of the ecosystem—the animals’ preferred foods are all in ready supply in this moist domain.
After two nights in Ranomafana, we drove through sublime countryside, a sort of protracted stay in a postcard, and stopped at Ambositra, famous for its woodcarvers. Back in Tana, we attended a glamorous dinner party and ate amazing food under a Winterhalter portrait of Napoleon III. The linens had been embroidered to match our host’s Empire Limoges porcelain, and we met an Englishman who has revived the Malagasy textile tradition and has sold a piece to the Metropolitan Museum; a Malagasy woman who has worked for the UN all over the world; an Australian conservationist; and a few industrial magnates. I thought of Alison Richard and Russ Mittermeier, returning so often against steep odds, and asked one of the guests whether he had chosen to stay in Madagascar for the business opportunities. He spread wide his hands and said, "At home, I thanked God for things all the time. Here I have learned to thank God for each day itself." His eyes twinkled. "This time, you have fallen in love with the lemurs and the landscape. This is the first step. Every time you return, this island will shed another veil in its dance of seduction. Once you fall in love, you cannot bear to think of leaving. You see—and I have traveled—everything here tells you: this is the kindest place in the world."
Andrew Solomon is a T+L contributing editor.