Searching for Lemurs in the Rain, Masoala National Park, Northeastern Madagascar

September 10-18, 2013

Red ruffed lemur high up in the tree canopy, Masoala National Park.


It is with some sadness that we mail home our camping gear from the little town of Hoedspruit, South Africa, just before boarding a flight back to Johannesburg. Farewell to the little red house, sleeping bags, stove, cooking kit, rain pants, and my gore-tex shoes (which I will have some regrets about a short while later.) Camping and self-catering affords some control over our diet and living arrangements, which we will miss. Now we are down to a backpack and daypack each, which makes us more mobile, but at the same time we are at the mercy of the restaurants, hostels, and hotels we can find along our journey.

The gate seems strangely deserted as we wait for our Air Madagascar flight to the capitol, Antananarivo, the following morning. On board, hmmm, that's odd, there are only about 30 passengers on the 737 jet for the three hour flight over the Mozambique Channel -- no problem finding a window seat ...but how does Air Mad stay in business?

As soon as we run the hectic gauntlet of touts in the airport and are in a taxi to our hotel, the first impression is that we have left the first-world far behind and are solidly in the third-world now. Pot-holed bumpy roads crowded with people walking, honking motorbikes and ancient cars, small street markets everywhere, kids in taters playing in the dirt. It is a very different feeling here in Madagascar, but there is also an air of vibrancy and immediacy that is at once appealing.

West coast of Madagascar and the Mozambique Channel.



On the outskirts of 'Tana' rice cultivation is combined with brick makers who dig fine clay from the paddies, mold and fire bricks on-site using rice stalks for fuel. Perfect use of the local ecosystem!

On day two, plans come to fruition as we meet up with our trusty travel partner, Didier, from Belgium. It has been four years since we first met and traveled together in Myanmar, and we are happy to hook up once again for more adventures! Plus, he speaks French(!), which we soon learn is an incredibly useful skill.

Madagascar was a French colony from 1896 until it finally gained independence in 1960. In addition to official Malagasy language and many local dialects, French is widely spoken and still taught in schools. English is becoming more common now, especially with the younger generation, but at least some French is required to get around, negotiate prices, order food, and book a hotel room. So we are lucky to have our very own French tutor on the team...




We hop a morning flight from Tana to Maroansetra on Madagascar's rainy northeast coast. Fortunately, Didier is paying attention because about 45 minutes into the flight, he spots oil streaming out of the starboard propeller engine. He tells the steward who alerts the pilot, sliding open the cockpit door and pointing to the engine out our window. Immediately, we do a 180 degree turn and return to base where we wait a few more hours for another aircraft!

Finally in Maroansetra, we pause for a couple days to book a transport boat and accommodation for a visit to the road-less rainforest park of Masoala, the largest expanse of protected forest, mangrove swamps and marine reserves in the country, designated a world heritage site in 2007.



Sweet staff at Hotel Coco Beach in Maroansetra.


Amazingly, Didier is able to add extra minutes to his Madagascar mobile SIM card right here at this little shop in the back streets of Maroansetra.




Strolling down a dirt road along the waterfront, we happen into a busy fishing village and catch a glimpse of daily life: repairing fish nets and boats, drying spices, gawking at the tourists.





We hire a wonderful guide, Juberson, who will accompany us for our five-day trip.

It's drizzling at 7am the next morning when we set out across the Baie d'Antongil in an open boat. A wet three hour boat ride over large ocean swells takes us to a remote coastal area at the mouth of the Tampolo river, bordering Masoala NP.

The emerald waters near our beach lodge form a protected marine reserve.




Paddling the still waters of the Tampolo River by pirogue.



Basket-makers at a nearby coastal village at the edge of the rainforest.

We're here in the "dry" season, but it rains frequently, varying between a light mist and short, intense downpours. Even Didier's magic cape can't always stop the rain. Soon, everything we have is wet: shoes, socks, all our clothes. When the sun does come out, we rush to hang up our laundry, trying in vain to dry things out.

It has long been our dream to see lemurs, an ancient primate -- our distant relatives -- found only on this isolated island, the fourth largest in the world. Finally, we're here! We soon discover it's not so easy to see these elusive creatures, as we spend hours hiking through dense rainforest on slippery, muddy trails. We hear their screeching territorial calls -- some fairly close -- but finding them is another matter.

Juberson spots them, red ruffed lemurs (right) found only in Masoala NP, and white-faced brown lemurs (above) on the nearby island of Nosy Mangabe. It is hot and wet, we are drenched in sweat, and our fogged up cameras and binoculars are almost impossible to use.





"Do you see the chameleon, between this bush and that tree," Juberson asks with unconcealed glee. Without his keen eyes, there is no way we would have spotted this gigantic (~16") Parson's chameleon, sitting perfectly motionless on a nearby branch, looking for all the world like a large green leaf.