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Courting Death and Lemurs in Ankarana (2 of 2)

     The second day’s walk was captivating—enough so to make up for it being intensely hot and physically grueling. The first leg of the journey was relatively flat and easy going for five to six kilometers as we got further and further into the rainforest. Occasional lemurs flicked through the tree tops. We began to be able to tell the males and females apart by their coloring.

     Goulam warned us repeatedly about wasps and scorpions. He carried a little glass bottle with two scorpions and a centipede pickled in alcohol just in case. We avoided the first two wasp nests on the path. The third one got Goulam, with the tiniest wasps I’ve ever seen landing at least a dozen nasty stings on his bare legs as he leapt through the bushes. I can only conclude that they couldn’t quite get through my jeans. Goulam slapped on the scorpion juice while intoning, "the wasp—they are very oh-STILE!"

     Then came the really tough part, climbing ever higher over increasingly sharp and spiky limestone tsingy fragments. The going became agonizingly slow, but always so strange and beautiful we kept going on. After what seemed an eternity, we had scaled to near the crest of one side of the big tsingy goal—the final formation being another 30 minutes’ journey picking around the edge of Green Lake and out into blazing sun to look down on unobscured miles of tsingy forest. The brown surface of the lake shone dully perhaps 500 feet almost directly below us.

     About this time I realized I was in real trouble. My brain was burning up and the world was starting to spin. Two days of tropical hiking had blown my radiator and I was dangerously close to heat stroke. I knew that if I lost it here, this far from help, I’d be dead.

     I sat down with a thump in a patch of shade, stripped off my clothes, and felt for my water. I was down to less than half a pint. Londa had even less. But Goulam still had a liter left and I started splashing it on my bare shoulders, head, back, forearms. I felt like a human griddle, though each splash brought my temperature down a little. I figured as long as I didn’t move for a while I might be all right.

     It took about a half hour to stabilize and start calming down. But all the while stubborn Londa was still itching to get to the final goal she’d wanted to see most passionately. After repeated assurance that I was quite happy right where I was, she and Goulam headed off promising that they’d be back in an hour or two.      

     I lay as flat as possible on an uncomfortable rock. I tried to remain absolutely still, lying with my eyes closed. But after 15 minutes I heard the faintest sound of footsteps next to me. I opened one eye and slowly turned my head. A family of four crowned lemurs had crept down out of the trees to investigate me. One looked quizzically at me, not a foot from my face. I kept very still. They moseyed closer and closer until finally they were reaching out and poking me curiously. They seemed to be pursing their lips. Their hands looked human. One tugged at my shirt sleeve.

     Imagine an animal—half mongoose, half cat, with opposable thumbs on all four feet and an 18-inch question-mark tail. Their coats were brown, lighter underneath, and they had darker brown foreheads. They were completely and utterly adorable. They made odd little grunting sounds as they jumped around, poking and sniffing. One spent five minutes appraising my camera. But once satisfied that I represented neither danger nor food and that the camera was too heavy to steal, they perched in trees three or four feet away, napping and grooming each other. I reached out once or twice to touch a tail that dangled within reach. At first the lemur jumped in alarm but then didn’t seem to mind.

     These were truly wild lemurs, not like the ones in other parks that become used to constant human contact. People just don’t get out here often enough to tame lemurs. After a quiet and magical hour, my temperature was back to normal and I felt I had made some new friends. When I finally heard Londa and Goulam crunching back across the stones, the lemurs stretched and yawned and casually vanished back into the trees.

     Somehow the going was easier climbing back down, and we stumbled into camp at dusk, just as the evening rain began falling again. I drank two liters of water and two cups of tea and fell asleep in the tent to the sound of the warm, pounding rain.

     It took the better part of the next day to get back to the main road, where we paid our helpers and started back toward Diego. We stopped several times to take photos in the villages. Then, coming around a bend, Londa yelled, "Chameleon!" We screeched to a halt ten feet from the biggest goggle-eyed chameleon I’d ever seen without glass in front of it. Before we’d even stopped moving, Londa had jumped out and splayed herself in front of it, nose-to-nose. She didn’t move for at least ten minutes.

     A few village women and children ambled past. After a while, I climbed out and snapped a picture. This is the single photo I show to people who ask how my trip to Madagascar was. A knot of Malagasy women stand in the road with laundry on their heads, beaming in amusement at a deliriously happy Londa, lying flat on the asphalt, grinning like an idiot through her camera in a motionless standoff with a rampant chameleon. The local women seem to be saying, "So... uh... lady... haven’t you ever seen a lizard before?"

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© 1995 Danny Carnahan

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