Strange, Wonderful, Maddening Madagascar Part 1

August 2000

A very confiding Ring-tailed lemur at Berenty. These animals are no longer fed, but some of them are extremely tame.

After my first short visit to Madagascar in July 2000 I’d have to say I found it to be a truly strange and wonderful yet mildly maddening country, that is definitely not for everybody. Strange? Absolutely. Madagascar is often associated with Africa, having split off the African mainland some 165 million years ago, yet it is very unlike Africa in almost every way. Not even once did I feel like I was in Africa, while in Madagascar. To the contrary, I might as well have been in an Asian country, judging by the facial features of the people and the many rice paddies which are tucked away into the valleys and hillsides like an Impressionist version of a patchwork quilt. Or perhaps it could have been some hidden corner of France, where time had stood still, the roads had not been worked on for 20 years, but everybody drives their Peugeots and Renaults in typical Gallic fashion, using their horns to squeeze through impossibly tight spots and generally paying scant attention to ‘no entry’ or ‘do not overtake’ signs, happily at a fairly sedate pace.

Wonderful? Undoubtedly. I am not a great monkey fan, and I generally consider the few African monkey species which I have seen, especially the cheeky Vervet monkeys, to be a bit obnoxious. By contrast, Madagascar’s lemurs are stunning. It took me all of 15 seconds to fall in love with the first species of lemur I had a good look at, namely the Ring-tailed Lemur, at Berenty. But more about that later. The same was true of the birds. On my last two visits to Botswana I had to work really hard to come up with a new ‘life’ bird or two. So what an absolute pleasure it was to be in a country where I was seeing not just new birds all the time, but several entirely new families of birds, most of which are found only in Madagascar! It is not fair to have them at the bottom of my ‘wonderful’ list, but the Malagasy people – especially the children – were equally fascinating. We just simply did not have enough time to enjoy the many cultural offerings which Madagascar no doubt has in abundance.

Mildly maddening? Most assuredly. On the day of our departure from Ivato Airport in Tana, by way of example, we had checked our luggage and received our boarding passes for the flight back to Johannesburg. Which, by the way, was no mean feat. Having stood in a poor excuse for a line for an extraordinarily long time, we had to produce our passports to various persons at least four or five times, and we were even asked if we had anything to declare upon leaving the country! We’re used to getting this question asked on arrival somewhere, but on departure? Go figure. In any event, some 20 minutes after the flight to Johannesburg was supposed to have departed, a blunt announcement was made that the flight would be delayed, because…the airport is now closed. Down came the shutters on the coffee kiosk, a split second before the blinds dropped in front of the duty free shop. In the time it took to utter a four-letter word, every single Air Mad employee had decamped. So there we were, stuck in a dingy departure lounge with about 234 smokers and nowhere to go. For the next 90 minutes, our emotions ranged from slightly bemused to exceedingly annoyed when it became clear that the reason for the abrupt airport closure was the not-so-imminent arrival of the president of Madagascar, M. Ratsiraka, on the Air Mad flight from Paris. Our flight could have been long gone by the time ‘his’ ‘plane actually landed, but alas it was not to be. So we were treated to more pomp and circumstance than we had collectively seen in a lifetime, with much playing of shiny instruments, rolling out of long red carpets, serial saluting and handing over of elaborate bouquets of flowers as Madagascar’s first couple arrived safely back in lovely Tana.

Those of you who have spent some time in Madagascar will know that ‘lovely Tana’ is an oxymoron, and used very much tongue-in-cheek here. Perhaps Mr. and Mrs. Ratsiraka really needed lots of flowers and many ‘so nice to see you’s’ from the gathered dignitaries at the airport, to prepare them for their return to ‘lovely’ Tana. Which is part of the reason why I contend that Madagascar is not for everybody. Maybe we just did not spend enough time in Tana to find its redeeming features, although I am inclined to think that I might have liked it even less had I stayed longer. A bit more about Tana later.

Lemur ‘safari’ in the rainforest at Perinet, in eastern Madagascar.

Before I lose every one of my readers with tales of gloom, let me hasten to add that the other two areas of Madagascar which we visited, namely Berenty Private Reserve in the south and the Perinet rainforest in the east, were superb. Admittedly our room at Berenty was not the best one we had ever stayed in, and it could have done with some refurbishment. The walls were bare, the towels were threadbare, there was nowhere to unpack or hang anything, the toilet had a tricky seat and the shower head was suspect. To be fair, we were offered a much nicer bungalow with all of those things and more, but its solar water heating system was not functioning too well. It gets cold at night in July, even in the south, so we opted for the room with a hot shower and no pictures on the wall.

One had only to step outside, however, to come face to face with the many reasons to visit Madagascar, and to shrug off its many imperfections. Early on our first morning at Berenty, we made our way to the open-sided breakfast ‘bar’ area, a little ways down the sandy track which runs between the older research bungalows and the newer tourist bungalows. The mediocre coffee, stale French bread without butter, a bit of jam, good local honey and so-so pound cake stretched the definition even of ‘Continental’ breakfast. But no matter. The morning lemur show more than compensated for the food. I had hardly taken my seat, when I spotted a small group of Ring-tailed Lemurs ambling over and gracefully leaping onto some empty chairs, so close that I couldn’t get their distinctive tails into a photograph. For a minute or so several lemurs looked straight at me, their intent little faces and piercing red eyes practically imploring me to share my rations. In earlier years, lemurs at Berenty had been fed, and I guess some of them still fondly recall their free-loading days. They were never pushy though. Unlike monkeys or baboons, which can act like real rogues when they become habituated, the lemurs politely kept their distance.

I had many other opportunities to observe various species of lemurs over the next few days. Following a group of Ring-tailed Lemurs at Berenty early one evening, I sometimes almost felt as if I were part of the troop, as they completely ignored my presence and carried on feeding, picking and chewing away at choice bits of flowers on the edge of the forest, sometimes just a couple of feet from me, slowly making their way on the ground from one spot to the next, the little ones giving me a wary look every now and then. Nice as the Ringtails were, my favorites at Berenty were definitely the Verreaux’s Sifaka, arguably the most handsome of all the lemurs. I will never forget their apparently effortless, yet prodigiously acrobatic leaps from branch to branch. As powerful and athletic as they appeared when making these leaps, they were graceful and almost dainty when crossing an open space in weird sideways ballet-like dance steps.

Berenty is Madagascar’s best known reserve, because its large populations of sub-desert lemurs (Ring-tailed, Verreaux’ sifaka and brown lemur) have been the focus of many television documentaries and books. The brown lemurs are very common at Berenty, and their unmistakable pig-like grunting contact calls can be heard just about everywhere. I was very impressed with the gallery forest and the beautiful trees of Berenty, as well as with the great views over the Mandrare River. The wide roads and well-maintained trails made getting around easy and effortless. Late one morning Olivier took us to the noisy colony of ‘flying foxes’, some 400 to 500 large fruit bats roosting in a tall Tamarind tree. Seemingly constantly embroiled in territorial disputes, they are never quiet during the day, one or two taking to the air every few minutes, showing their huge 4-foot wingspan.

Southern Madagascar’s unique ‘pitcher plant’, one of the few plants of its kind in the world.

The birding at Berenty was slow, but almost everything was new to me. Amongst the species seen on our first day there were Common Jery, Madagascar Paradise Flycatcher, Madagascar Coucal, Crested Drongo, Souimanga Sunbird, Crested Coua, Giant Coua, Hookbilled Vanga, Madagascar Kestrel, Frances’ Sparrowhawk, Madagascar Bulbul, Greyheaded Lovebird, Madagascar Bee-eater, Magpie Robin and Madagascar Turtle Dove. In Madagascar, the local guides are going to point out various species of birds to you, so go prepared to take an interest in the island’s fascinating birdlife, even if you’re not much of a birding type. Although the island does not have anything like the rich birdlife of most African countries, the diversity is stunning. As pointed out elsewhere, had Charles Darwin gone to Madagascar instead of the Galapagos, the peculiar bill shapes of the 14 species of vangas might have underpinned his theory of evolution, rather than those famous finches. Be sure to take a copy of Sinclair and Langrand’s excellent Birds of the Indian Ocean Islands (Struik 1998), which contains descriptions and superb illustrations of more than 300 regularly encountered birds of the area, which includes Madagascar, the Seychelles, the Comoros, Mauritius, Reunion and Rodrigues.

Berenty is also a good place to observe the southern region’s peculiar flora, notably the Euphorbia-Didieraceae bush. This includes baobabs and various bloated Pachypodium species and the baobab-like Moringas. Walking in the so-called spiny forest, we marveled at the almost surrealistic shapes of the various cactus-like plants. We might as well have been in the Sonoran desert region of Arizona, except there were no Cactus Wrens to be seen anywhere… There were Grey Mouse Lemurs though, and we enjoyed several sightings of the diminutive White-fronted Sportive Lemur. There were not many birds in the spiny forest, but we did spot a couple of African hoopoes, and a white-headed Vanga.

The main dining room and lounge complex at Berenty was very pleasant and the meals which we enjoyed there (lunch & dinner) were more than adequate. A typical dinner consisted of very tasty sauteed shrimp for a starter, a hearty beef stew with potatoes, carrots and green peppers served over rice, and fresh papaya for dessert. The coffee was excellent. On another occasion we had sliced roast pork with gravy, accompanied by peas and cabbage. Dessert was a delicious fruit salad of papaya, banana, pineapple and granadilla (‘passion fruit’) juice. Here, as everywhere else we went in Madagascar, the nice crusty French bread was excellent and plentiful.

Mother and child at a street market in Fort-Dauphin, southern Madagascar.

Earlier, on our way to Berenty, we had flown into Fort Dauphin, where we arrived without being met at the building which passes for an airport. Apparently someone at the Dauphin Hotel (we couldn’t quite figure out who was the ‘responsable’) did not put our name on the ‘tableau’. I figured this was not a big deal, easy to fix with a phone call. Ne Pas d’telephone’, I was told upon inquiry. Not broken, just not there… It is on an occasion like this when traveling in Madagascar becomes really interesting. Having repeatedly and unceremoniously rebuffed the offers of several taxi drivers up to that point, I had to eat crow and quickly summon the last remaining one. Despite my earlier rejection, he was very friendly, told us that we needed to go to the Hotel Dauphin and promptly drove us there, where our guide Olivier caught up with us. How the taxi driver managed to fit all our luggage (two huge duffel bags) plus the two of us plus two other persons and himself into the very small taxi I will never know.

Like many other things in Madagascar, the Hotel Dauphin has seen better days. Something as basic as a coat of paint would make a huge difference in the lobby, where the stains on the wall look almost as old as the hotel itself. We couldn’t believe the condition of the road from Fort Dauphin to Berenty. Considering that a substantial percentage of all visitors to Madagascar visit this famous reserve, one would assume that the central government (or the local authorities) would keep this road in as good a condition as possible. One would be wrong to make such an assumption. Over the years, some of the potholes have evolved into craters that have engulfed the entire width of the asphalt road, so that vehicles are forced onto the shoulder. A couple of the bridges along the route are not exactly in ship-shape condition either. Even so, it is not an uninteresting drive, with most guides stopping at various point of interest, such as Madagascar’s famous pitcher plants and at a stand of the unique three-cornered palms. At another ‘obligatory’ stop at an Antanosy tomb, we encountered a large group of small children. Having taken a photograph of them with a digital camera, I gathered them around, switched the camera to its playback mode and motioned them to come closer. Thirty little faces pushed to within 12 inches of the camera, and the collective squeal of delight as they recognized their images was worth driving all the way there.