They like to move it ...
Leaps and bounds ... a black-and-white ruffed lemur. Photo: Karl Lehmann/Lonely Planet
Wildlife spotting on this remote island means meeting diverse, photogenic lemurs, writes Ute Junker.
THE brown lemur is ready for its close-up. Perched on a rough wooden beam, it fluffs out its tail and gazes winsomely at my camera. Slowly, carefully, I move slightly to my left to ensure it is perfectly framed. At this distance, I don’t even need to use my zoom lens.
As the shutter clicks closed, however, I realise that in one bound the lemur has leapt from my field of vision. Before I can even wonder where it is, I feel something solid land on my head. Clearly, the lemur is interested in a different kind of close-up. In that instant, I learn the truth of two things I’ve been told repeatedly on this Madagascan adventure: first, that there’ll be no shortage of photo opportunities and, second, the wildlife has a gift for jumping.
The wildlife is, of course, why most people come. When this island broke away from Africa more than 80 million years ago, it developed its own distinctive flora and fauna. Nothing like it is found elsewhere in the world. The diversity of habitats found on Madagascar – it’s the world’s fourth-largest island, more than four times the size of England – led to the evolution of some truly weird and wonderful animals. And, for some strange reason, many of them like to jump around. Lemurs are the best-known example. Looking a bit like a cross between a monkey and a possum – with fluffed-out fur, big eyes in a small face and perfectly formed five-fingered hands that seem scarily human – it’s no surprise to discover lemurs have a number of simian traits. These include a propensity for hanging from tree branches by their arms, their legs or a combination of both and leaping through the treetops. Sporting lemurs can cover five metres in a single bound.
In Madagascar, even the rats are jumpy. The giant jumping rat can grow to a daunting 58 centimetres. Fortunately, as it’s nocturnal, you’re not likely to run into one. You’re even less likely to run into a fossa, a catlike predator that is almost as agile in the trees as lemurs, its main prey. The fossa is endangered and rarely seen in the wild. So, it’s surprising that, half an hour after extricating myself from the embrace of a brown lemur, I find myself face-to-face with a fossa.
True, the fossa sighting isn’t going to get me any wildlife-spotting points: the wistful-looking creature is safely confined in a large cage in the grounds of Vakona Forest Lodge, a tree-shrouded hotel in eastern Madagascar that’s a favourite with trekkers and families. Trekkers love its proximity to the Parc National D’Andasibe-Mantadia, which features some of the best wildlife spotting in Madagascar.
Families with small children, and anyone in search of great lemur photos, will love the Vakona’s extras, which include horseback riding, an on-site zoo and crocodile farm and a lemur sanctuary.
There’s a bewildering array of lemurs in Madagascar. Sadly, some, such as the gorilla-like giant lemur, have been wiped out but that still leaves about 70 distinct species and subspecies, each with its own particular charm.
At the lemur sanctuary, a troop of black-and-white ruffed lemurs recognises an audience when it sees it. Two cubs roll on the ground, while an adult competes for attention by using its feet to cling to a tree branch while letting its body hang down. Offered pieces of banana, the lemurs wander over. One lemur, having missed out, comes over and puts its hand on my hand while looking at me with a puzzled expression, as if to ask: ‘‘Did you forget to bring bananas?’’
The star attraction, however, is a Diademed sifaka, considered by many to be the most beautiful lemur. This particular specimen – large and well fed, with a fluffy champagne-coloured coat with white and grey highlights – seems to know just how beautiful it is. Unlike the other lemurs, it displays no interest in spectators.
The poor brown lemur, deprived of its audience, is reduced to jumping on the heads of visitors to get some attention.
A very different lemur experience is in store the following day, when we head into the national park. The aim is to see the indri, the largest of all lemurs, which can grow to almost a metre in length and are rarely seen anywhere outside this park. The indri are most active during the early morning, so we rise before dawn and head into the forest. Forget safari jeeps – this is wildlife spotting done the old-fashioned way: on foot. After walking for a while on well-marked paths, we’re in indri territory. As other groups, chatting loudly, wander along the path, my guide takes me off the path, into the bush.
‘‘Those people will never see anything – they talk too much,’’ he says dismissively. We come across a troupe of Diademed sifakas, which
I watch, entranced, until my guide asks: ‘‘Are you OK here for a moment?’’
When I nod my assent, he disappears downhill, bashing his way through bushes. Five minutes later, he’s back. ‘‘Come with me – quietly,’’ he says. We stumble downhill until he stops and points. There I see an extraordinary sight – four tiny dwarf lemurs, fast asleep (they’re nocturnal). Huddled together for protection, clinging to either side of a small branch (two above, two directly below them), they could almost be mistaken for an exotic flower.
Later, as we round a corner, something stirs on the ground. It’s a large male indri, which looks at us warily, then heads for the treetops. ‘‘You never see them on the ground!’’ my guide explains excitedly. ‘‘That was really something!’’
Further along, the rest of the troupe is lazing in the treetops. As we stand there silently, I begin to hear, a long way off, a group of people making a lot of noise. Silently, I pray they don’t come closer and disturb the indri. However, the noise gets louder. It sounds like a tribe on the warpath, stomping and hooting and hollering. I shoot a concerned glance at my guide. ‘‘That’s another family of indri,’’ he explains. ‘‘They’re establishing their territory. With luck, these ones will answer.’’
And then it begins. The dominant male – perched higher than the rest – starts with a deep, low call. The rest of the troupe chime in, some singing higher, some lower. It’s an eerie sound, one that raises the hair on the back of my neck. Three minutes later, they fall silent again – and that was the song of the indri.
Air Austral flies on Tuesdays and Saturdays from Sydney to Reunion, priced from $1430, with daily flights from Reunion to neighbouring Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo. Air Austral also has an interline agreement with Virgin Blue, flying from other Australian capitals. 1300 306 365, airaustral.com.au.
Vakona Forest Lodge is about two hours’ drive from Antananarivo. The simple bungalows are in a leafy setting by a lake and there are plenty of things for children — from the zoo to the swimming pool to table tennis. +261 20 226 2480, hotelvakona.com.
African Wildlife Safaris has a four-day package from Antananarivo, including accommodation on a fullboard basis, all taxes, transport with a car and driver and park entrance fees, for $1235 a person, twin share, until December 31. 1300 363 302, africanwildlifesafaris.com.au.
Three (other) things to do
1. Rock climbers and trekkers will be entranced by the ‘‘forest’’ of limestone needles that makes Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park one of Madagascar’s most unique landscapes. If canoeing is more your thing, a three-day trip down the scenic Tsiribihina River takes you through stunning gorges punctuated by magnificent waterfalls.
2. With a cooler climate, vineyards and tea plantations, the towns of the central plateau have a very different feel to the rest of the island. Antsirabe is famous for the thermal springs at Lac Ranomafana, while Ambalavao is known for its cattle market, with people coming from all over to sell their livestock.
3. Beach bums will fall in love with Nosy Be, a beautiful island off the north-west coast of Madagascar famous for its pristine beaches and the excellent diving, where you’ll spot everything from turtles and manta rays to whale sharks.