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.
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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