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After leaving Ankarafantsika and reconnecting for 3 days with the capital, Antananarivo, I met with my new driver, Miary, and headed south for the longest loop of my visit to Madagascar. I was somewhat incapacitated for a couple of days in Tana from a lower intestinal bug (probably virus), but recovered sufficiently to continue my journey south; I suspected my green mango chili sauce might be the culprit, although I had been adding it to my food for 5 days by then – perhaps the viral incubation period was that long. I figure now I am immune, though I have suspended use of the sauce for a while. The first stop on the journey south was an overnight in Ambositra. We stayed at the L’Artisans Hotel, a nice oasis in the middle of a very crowded dusty town. The area is famous for its wood carvers, who do entire panels, balconies, statues or anything to order, by hand. The small bungalows were a little dark, but the entire upper outside walls were carved dark wood panels – very ornate.
After a 6 hour drive the first day, the second leg should have been shorter but was lengthened somewhat by two events. The first, we passed a small forested area which my driver told me was a new private reserve owned by the local village of Ambotovaki, created just 3 years earlier to protect the critically endangered Red Lemur (aka Rufous Brown Lemur). I paid for entrance and services of a local village guide and we spent a little over an hour hiking up the forested hillside to ultimately encounter two small families of the lemurs. I was able to capture some decent photos, although all birdlife escaped my lens as the undergrowth simply was too thick to permit the camera any chance of achieving focus.
Shortly after the stop at the reserve we were halted by a long line of vehicles extending up and around a hill. I walked along the line and found the cause – a tractor trailer had overturned on a corner, unleashing a load of newly cast concrete power poles along the roadway. They had temporarily shut the road in both directions to try to right the trailer with steel cables, but ultimately failed, and eventually traffic was re-opened but took some time to pass the roadblock.
Ranomafana National Park is the most famous and expensive of the Madagascar Parks, and the small town near the entrance has a number of hotels with a number of foreign tourists. I stayed in the Centrest, with very nice rooms, mine with a balcony overlooking the greenery of the town below. It at least had power, in theory, 24 hours a day although it seemed often to go off for short periods. My first full day I headed out with car, driver, chief guide and 2 finders, only to have fog and heavy drizzle continue all day ending any viewing whatsoever. Rotten luck – they kept telling me this was the first precipitation they had had in over a month – little consolation as the rainy season was not to start for another month. It is, however, a rainforest. The second day started overcast, but cleared by mid-morning and we took full advantage with a 6 hour trek in the am and another 3 ½ in the afternoon. The park consists of very steep hillsides with creeks running in each valley, all covered with dense rainforest with the hardwood canopy reaching 150 feet. While the upper story is ablaze with sunlight and clear sky, at the bottom it is near full dark. For those who know camera settings, for a single lemur jumping from double shade understory into a shaft of full sunlight, the appropriate setting would go from ISO 6400, f5.6 at 1/60sec to ISO 400, f8 at 1/1000s – that is a 9 stop difference, which is huge.
The Park was created after the major discovery in 1984 of a new species of primate, the Golden Bamboo Lemur (which I vaguely remember reading about at the time). The Park has over a dozen species of lemur, including now 3 species of Bamboo Lemurs, the Grey Santel, Greater and Golden – all three critically endangered, living only within this Park. The Greater may have as few as 60 members left. We spotted all 3 species of the Bamboo Lemurs on the same day, pleasing me to photograph so many endangered creatures. The price paid for getting the photos, other than some luck, was a drudging hike through and over a number of very steep mountain trails on the south side of the Park to get into the bamboo forests. Also in the park are families of the Edward’s Sifakas, another beautiful deep brown and snow-white lemur, which we twice encountered on the north side of the park, along with a beautifully colored Leonartus Gecko and a super camouflaged Devil’s Gecko (a must see photo to determine if you can make out which parts are gecko – the answer is almost all).
To give an example of the problems facing the protection of these species, the day we drove into the Park, I noted with some disgust a small forest fire on the hillside which my driver and I assumed was caused by a careless cigarette. Two days later my driver reported to me the full story – residents of a small village outside the Park were making forays into the Park to gather wood for making charcoal; Park rangers caught them and 2 people were jailed – in retaliation the villagers set the forest fire the day we arrived.
My guide in the park, now 55 years old, worked with the small group of scientists who camped for 2 years in the forest in 1984 studying the lemurs and making the Golden Bamboo Lemur discovery. He now apparently is the senior bird guide, and although long on bravado is not one of the better guides I have experienced over the years, although he prices himself way above any normal Madagascar level. Unfortunately, the beautiful rainforest also seemed very thinly populated with birds, though we found a good mix of lemurs, reptiles and insects.
From Ranomafana we drove west across the great plateau to Ranohira to visit the Isalo National Park. On the way we stopped at another village reserve, the D’Anja, where they have a small forest of Lilac Trees with a dozen or so families of the Ring-tailed Lemurs. The villagers dig water holes to assist in maintaining the relatively high concentration of lemurs through the dry season. On to Ranohira where I stayed at the Hotel Isalo Ranch, 5 kilometers from the town, with bungalows scattered throughout a large area planted with all forms of tropical trees and shrubs. The restaurant was known for its quality of food and lived up to expectations. The rooms were a small step above rustic, with 24 hour electricity and solar heated hot water tanks.
After some inquiry at the Park headquarters we met with Roland who turned out to be one of the best guides I have had anywhere. The Park is amazing – One heads from the town across almost barren grass covered plateau to a line of rising granite massifs and cliffs. The cliff wall is broken every few kilometers by gorges, the entrances to which appear green from the distance. As one hikes into the gorge the trail follows a running stream through a verdant wonderland of towering Pandamus and larger and larger trees until deep within it is a narrow lush tropical forest. A number of bird species inhabit this area, along with a large number of the most unusual insects, spiders and reptiles. Included in my favorites were a ‘twig-mimicking’ preying mantis (you must see the photo) and a ‘snout-nose’ bug (also a must-see), which appears to have a sawed off twig nose extending well beyond the eye, which is near the legs. We found three roosting owls, including the Madagascar Scops Owl and a White-browed Owl, as well as the beautiful Forest Rock Thrush (considered in the Park a separate species – the Benson’s Rock Thrush) and the elusive Madagascar Buttonquail. The owls were in very dense dark understory, and required a lot of work in very low light, as well as inching through the undergrowth in search of the little windows through the branches to permit some kind of decent photos. Though viewed at a distance, we also saw the sole surviving Verreaux’s Sifaka (a lemur) left in this Park, who now has joined with and been accepted by a family of Ring-tailed Lemurs.
From Isalo we drove the couple of hours further west to Sakaraha to visit the nearby Zombitse Park. En route we passed by Ilakaka, a booming frontier mining town where 20 years ago deposits of sapphires were found – the population since has grown from 40 to 60,000. The red-earth gravel is dug up manually from pit-holes 30 to 60 feet deep, into which the diggers are lowered by ropes; the dirt gravel then is washed in the river to find the sapphires. The entire portion of Highway 7, crossing the southern part of the country from Fianarantsoa in the east to Toleara on the west coast, is still considered dangerous, with bands of thieves at night – the long distance public transport, the taxi brousse (mini buses or vans), often travel in convoys with special flags and armed guards on board (for me this was reminiscent of travel in most parts of Egypt some years ago, permitted only by convoys with armed military vehicles leading and following). We have avoided staying in certain towns, and certainly do not travel at night.
Zombitse National Park is a last remaining isolated section of interzone dry forest among relative barren rolling hills where all other trees have been felled. It is renowned for a handful of endemic species, especially including the Zombitse Sportive Lemur and the Abert’s Tetraka, both found nowhere else. The Sportive Lemurs are nocturnal only, but they tend to come out of their tree holes to investigate annoying humans. This also is where I finally got a few decent photos of the hawk size (and sounding) Madagascar Cuckoo-Roller with its green and gold wings, as well as the terrestrial Giant Coua.
From Sakaraha we drove the short remaining distance west to just outside Toleara on the Western Coast to stay one night at the Aboretum, before continuing south by boat to a wetlands park. Dave
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