Searching for Chameleons, Northeastern Madagascar

September 19-25, 2013

Small villages and rice paddies in the Andapa Basin.


From Maroansetra, we fly a short ways north (no direct roads between these places) to Sambava, a northeastern coastal town which lies at the heart of Madagascar's vanilla growing region.



Our plan is a three day trek in Marojejy National Park (the background mountains in the picture above) to see the rare and endangered Silky Sifaka. But Liza slipped on one of the trails in rainy Masoala NP, and is still recuperating... In the end, Didier is the only member of the team to reach Marojejy, and is rewarded with leaping sifakas and nocturnal lemurs.


There seem to be two options for road transport in Madagascar: (1) Hire an expensive private vehicle; or (2) Take the cheap and ubiquitous taxi-brousse (bush taxi.) All the locals travel around in the taxis brousse which ply every road in Madagascar and form the backbone of the country's transport system.

The short-haul taxi brousse are either mini-vans or covered pickup trucks with a dual row of benches in the back. The three of us (and later just Liza and I) opt for the real experience and go with the taxi brousse. You simply wouldn't believe how many people can fit into one well-worn, bald-tire, no-shock-absorber minivan -- twenty-five, at least!

And so this is how we get a chance to meet the locals while watching the 'little movies' play out all around us, and at the same time, get a thorough introduction to the Malagasy musique playing on the stereo. The catchy pop music has us instantly grooving as we motor along. One incredibly nice driver meets us afterwards and gives me a copy of the music we listened to -- sweeet!

There are just two rules: (1) Taxis never leave the station until full (sometimes hours later); and (2) There is always room for one more! Our luggage, along with bicycles, boxes, food, live animals, and woven baskets filled with all manner of cargo are piled high on the roof, secured with a few cords. And off we go!

On the ride to Andapa, Liza and I luck out with the front seat! Unlike all the other roads we encounter in Madagascar, this one is in very good shape...

Eight in a three-seat row.


Jammed in and really cannot move a muscle...



Our guide and ace chameleon finder.

"Vazaha! Vazaha! Bonjour!" Kids rush to the dirt road or peak out from thatched huts, amazed to see three scruffy tourists approaching -- the circus has arrived! Foreigners are a rare sight in Andapa, a town of about 30,000 in northeastern Madagascar, and in its surrounding villages we are a unusual treat. We're walking at a chameleon's pace, searching the bushes for these strange creatures. Once the kids discover our obsession, they go on high alert, laughing with delight as Mark photographs one after another after another. They run away screaming and giggling when he looks up, quickly return, then start the search again.

We are with Fostin, a local guide, making a circuit around Andapa, through tiny villages, past verdant rice paddies and, sadly, denuded hillsides. Fostin promises we will find twenty chameleons, but with the help of seven or eight kids at each village, we lose count after seeing more than 50 of these amazing creatures.

The kids are happy and curious in their bedraggled outfits, clothing no doubt collected in America or Europe and shipped around the globe by one of the many churches active in the area. Most live in ramshackle houses made entirely from the raffia palm; wealthier villagers live in tin-roofed wooden houses. Little stands dot the paths, offering tomatoes, bananas, and green onions. At one popular stand we feast on a tasty treat of mashed banana and rice, steamed in a wild ginger leaf wrapping.

The roads to most of the villages we pass are inaccessible to passenger cars and, since there are no bridges across the wide river, everyone wades across. We roll up our pant legs and join the crowd: A young boy with a machete, barely controlling the huge zebu he leads by thin string; teenagers with bicycles held high overhead; and, amazingly, two guys riding their motorbikes through the thigh-high water -- despite the dunking, the engines still work!

Nearly fifty percent of Madagascar's population is under 15 years, and having large families and multiple wives is a sign of power for village men. What will happen as the population explodes in the coming years? We meet Brent, a volunteer wit Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) who is working with one of the local villages to encourage more sustainable farming practices and reduce the rampant deforestation. Since the political coup in 2009, cutting valuable rosewood and ebony trees has been out of control and today, only small patches of primary forest remain in protected reserves -- less than 10% of the primary forest remains by some estimates. The trees are also cut down to make charcoal (for cooking), so WWF is helping villagers plant Eucalyptus trees as an alternative. I'm amazed to see them -- they were planted in California years ago, and have proved to be highly invasive.

As we head home, we are passed by mobs of excited teenagers, walking into town for a concert. How in the world can these kids get their clothes so clean, their hair perfectly braided, even their shoes are spotless! The three of us look ridiculous. We are drenched in sweat, our baggy nylon clothes stained red from the dirt, our shoes scuffed and muddy. The first elections following the 2009 coup are supposed to occur October 25th, and one of the thirty-four (34!) candidates has hired musicians and a DJ for an all-night party. With a crowded field of candidates, how could anyone know what the candidates' positions are on the critical issues facing Madagascar? But this crowd doesn't care, the candidate who finances a concert is sure to get their votes!

Heading to the weekend soccer game, full of bravado!







We love the chameleons -- very cool animals, and they (mostly) sit still for a portrait!


The special way chameleons walk when they're in a hurry...