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Courting Death and Lemurs in Ankarana

     It was early April when, wrinkled and bleary-eyed, I landed in Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo. I had come 12,000 miles to meet my cousin Londa and together trek to the middle of the legendary Ankarana Reserve in search of lemurs, chameleons, and glory. Ankarana is the Lost World—a nearly impenetrable 18,000 hectares of tsingy, unique limestone formations resembling a forest of gigantic knife blades. The book tells of one particular view in the middle of Ankarana that is so awesome it may as well be another planet. Though it’s nearly impossible to get to, Londa was determined to see it. Plus, albino crocodiles swim in the underground rivers. Three-foot bats swarm in hundreds of miles of caves. And then there are lemurs. All kinds of lemurs.

     We met in Antananarivo (Tana for short) and hopped another plane to the northern tip of the island—the old pirate haven of Diego Suarez. According to the Lonely Planet Surviver’s Guide, our next best option was to ask around Diego for some way to cover the 100 kilometers south to Ankarana and then find someone to guide us into the tsingy and back out alive. There was no way to arrange things ahead of time. When you enter Madagascar, you check your Western expectations at the door.

     The guide book quips that Diego had been likened in beauty to Rio by someone who had never been to Rio. Well, that’s hardly fair. There is a harbor and a little "sugar loaf" volcanic mountain that looks like some giant spooned it into the middle of the bay. And there is a dazzling blue sea and the green mountainside of Montagne d’Ambre to the south. But this is less a tropical holiday destination than a quiet little former outpost of empire, lightly populated and quietly rotting around the edges. At night the April lightning playing over Montagne d’Ambre flickered like a short-circuit at a psychedelic firefly party.

     But as pretty as Diego was, we were eager to get out into the wilderness. More than that, Londa wanted us to have Ankarana all to ourselves. We’d seen two or three other groups of French tourists who’d flown in with us who seemed to be nosing around for guides. Most gravitated to the Air Mad Tours office, the agency with the biggest sign. But picking our way down the main street, we struck up a chat with a sun-burned French expatriot named Eric at Agence Bleu Marine who set us straight about potential crowding in Ankarana.

     He said that this time of year, the tail-end of the rainy season, most guides would just as soon skirt around the edges of the Reserve, since the usual western access was awash and the eastern access trek to the campsites was three times the walk. Most foreigners would be astonished enough just by what they could see at the edge and would go home happy. But if we insisted on doing it the hard way, we could find a guide named Goulam in a village near the Reserve. He’d take us in and even spoke some English.

     We took a liking to Eric and he secured a 4-wheel and driver for us, loaded it up with three days’ worth of supplies, and sent us heading south while the other tourists were still having breakfast.

     The ‘reserve’ part of Ankarana Reserve does not mean ‘park’ in the western sense. Ankarana is a reserve only insofar as no one is allowed to chop the trees or wander around without official say-so. There are no amenities. You bring your own gear, food, water, and leave nothing but footprints. Twenty-dollar entry permits are checked by an official in a thatched hut across from where a tiny dirt track leads off the mostly-paved main road.

     We found Goulam at this hut, hopping out of another 4-wheel after leading another group into the Reserve. He agreed to come along with us and quickly conjured up four local villagers to carry in our tents, food, 20-liter jerry cans of water, and other gear. All we had to carry were our daypacks with cameras, water, head lamps, and sun and bug block.

     In three days navigating the trackless rainforest of Ankarana, Goulam led us over 25 or 30 kilometers of the hardest hiking I’d ever attempted, and introduced us to almost all the crawling, leaping, and slithering denizens of the Reserve.

     We learned to spot the shy, shaggy, white-fringed Sanford’s lemurs in the treetops before they could flash out of sight. We found half a dozen tiny sportive lemurs sitting in knotholes and staring balefully at us as we passed below. We spent hours in grandly arched, endless caves filled with small bats and three-foot flying foxes. We’d sit with our lamps switched off as thousands of bats flickering past us, inches from our faces.

     We found a tenrec (God’s first draft on the hedgehog) snoozing in the bole of a tree. Tropical birds flapped noisily everywhere. Fist-sized spiders swayed in their taut, muscular webs. Foot-long millipedes and giant land snails crawled everywhere. Geckos hung out on every other tree. We played with one very small chameleon.

     By the second day we were covering ground so broken and sheer that nearly every step could end in a broken ankle. Still, I noticed that the guys who brought in our gear traveled barefoot. We did not. And where we ended up no one could go barefoot. Paths were sometimes so faint it was a leap of faith to follow them. There was no drinkable water in the Reserve this time of year. Londa and I took four liters of water from the jerry cans. Goulam had a flask of village water for himself, though he liked to brag that he only drank at mealtimes. I thought it was just bravado, but as it turned out the water he didn’t drink probably saved my life.

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