Strange wildlife comes with some tropical paradise prerequisites in Madagascar, as Sean Ingle discovers.
For two hours, we'd trampled over rocks and tree roots, our torches cocked upwards like air-raid lights, tracking a target we could hear but not see. Suddenly the forest's haunting wail was interrupted by a snapped twig. "Quick," our guide Maurice beckoned, bounding ahead. "Male Indri indri lemur."
Maurice's beam fixed on to a hanging branch, where a panda-coloured teddy bear with butterscotch eyes seemed to be practising his scales. It was a wondrous moment; one you wish could be frozen in time. But the lemur wasn't having any of it. Within seconds he was off, expertly jumping through the trees.
Such experiences were legion during our stay in Madagascar and not just in the thickets and forests. Everywhere you go, senses dulled by the daily drudge are reinvigorated - by the morning-fresh mangoes so juicy they drip down your chin, by the coral reefs which house psychedelic fish and fauna, by the beaches and the people.
We immediately headed for the island's trump card: the most varied and unique wildlife in the world. It sounds like brochure bait and it is but the facts support such grandiose claims. A staggering nine out of every 10 species living on the island (and there are more than 200,000 of them) can be found nowhere else.
Such ecological opulence is down to the island's divorce from Africa 165 million years ago, leaving it free to follow its own evolutionary path. Man's arrival, some 2000 years ago, spoiled some of it. Of course species like elephant birds, pygmy hippos and giant lemurs are now extinct but an incredible amount remains.
Just how much became apparent as we trekked around the Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, one of the island's few remaining primary forests. Luminous birds and fluorescent frogs were spotted by the score, while every half-hour or so our guide seemed to conjure another wonderful animal. Three, in particular, stood out: the Parson's chameleons with their triceratops head and squid-like body; the feisty tenrecs, with their Sonic the Hedgehog spikes; and the centipede, which somehow curls itself into a mini hand-grenade as a defence mechanism. And then there are the lemurs. Big and small, fierce and friendly in 51 different varieties.
All told, it feels like something from a lost world Jurassic Park minus the danger (in Madagascar the snakes aren't even poisonous). No wonder the cartoon animals in the kids' film Madagascar are more than happy to leave New York's Central Park Zoo for this magic island.
Sadly, this environmental treasure-trove might not be around much longer. Slash-and-burn deforestation is rife, despite being made illegal, and just 10 per cent of the forest remains. One conservationist I spoke to predicted that in 20 years it would be all gone.
Eventually, as we headed back towards Antananarivo - Tana for short - the rainforests gave way to different views: ramshackle houses of corrugated iron, zebu carts rumbling along rural roads and primary school kids knee-deep in paddy fields.
Tana is a sprawling metropolis of 2 million people. With no guidebook sights to tick off, we meandered for a few days, perusing the downtown and trendy Upper Town areas, where traditional craft sellers flourish. It's interesting but nowhere near as eye-catching as the shantytown that corkscrews deep along the main railtrack. Even if you're not a card-carrying socialist your blood will simmer at such a sorry sight.
Still, at least some micro-level efforts at improving the situation are being made. On the outskirts of Tana, we visited Akany Avoko, a charity that takes in orphaned or abandoned children and offers them a shot at life.
Despite spartan surroundings (and no government funding for two years), it has survived by ingenious means, including turning tin cans into tin cars and making Christmas cards from recycled paper donated by the British embassy. The charity's methods clearly work: all of their charges get a basic education, both formal and about Malagasy culture, and many are taking the equivalent of their VCE.
Another place worth investigating is the intriguingly named Antshow, a multifarious complex in downtown Tana which is part hotel, part restaurant and part arts/music training centre. We were lucky enough to turn up when its owner, Hanitra Rasoanaivo, the singer in Madagascar's most famous band, Tariko, was in residence and spent a fine night chatting and eating.
By this stage of our trip, we were beginning to flag. Tummy trouble was on the rampage (word to the wise: stay away from the shellfish when you're inland) and our blisters and bunions were doing their worst. Fortunately, it was time to change pace. Madagascar has a litter of tiny islands; perfect places to wind down.
A two-hour flight later, we were in Nosy Be and the temperature was up in the 30s, ylang-ylang leaves were in bloom and a turquoise sea awaited us. After a lunch of fresh fish and fruit, we dived into the Mozambique channel.
The next few hours were bliss: we swam in the warmest waters any of us had ever experienced before heading out to snorkel around a shocking pink-coloured coral reef which looked like a human brain. Except a lot nicer.
After a bumpy, largely tarmac-free tour of the island the next morning, we stopped at the aptly named Hell Ville (from the brilliantly monikered Admiral de Hell), to visit the main market. It has a good reputation but all I remember are the thousands of flies and a cavalcade of cars belching sickly diesel as they passed by. Fortunately, we were soon on the move again, this time to Nosy Iranja. On the boat ride over, I chatted to our guide, Lalaina, about Madagascar's future. Hard times lay ahead, he agreed, adding that the price of rice had recently doubled and some Malagasy were still earning less than $A2.50 a day.
Still, he remained optimistic that the Government's plans to increase tourism by 2007 would succeed. I'm not so sure but I hope that I will be proved wrong.
Certainly, with islands like Nosy Iranja on its CV, Madagascar has every chance. With its 25 luxury huts (all just metres from the beach), five-star food and climate and the chance to swim with wild turtles, you'll be dropping lines like "perfect tropical paradise", "ideal romantic retreat" and other cliches before you realise it.
But why not? After all, it doesn't get much better than lying back on a huge hammock watching a sunset like a sea breeze cocktail, full of vivid reds and oranges, a cool drink by your side and happy thoughts in your head.
EARTHWATCH SEEKS HELP
The movie Madagascar features the vocal talents of David Schwimmer, Ben Stiller, Chris Rock and Jada Pinkett-Smith, but the real stars of the show are the Madagascan native animals. You can see them up close in the wild on an Earthwatch expedition to Madagascar.
Earthwatch is recruiting volunteers for the Madagascar's Lemurs Project to help scientists follow a group of endangered lemurs and record their feeding and behavioural habits. The volunteer group will stay at a new research station with comfortable accommodation (and hot showers). The Madagascar's Lemurs Project is from November 20 to December 4 and then December 4 to December 18.
It costs $2995 per person, land only, including a financial contribution to the project. Contact Earthwatch on 9682 6828 or go to earthwatch.org/australia