A lemur on your arm and a chameleon on your head

There are many highfalutin reasons why we love to travel, including experiencing nature and cultures that haven’t (yet) been wiped out or turned into a zoo-like setting for gawking tourists. Who’d want to see that? Well…sometimes us :-) The small island of Nosy Komba is a popular day trip from the resorts on Nosy Be. You get there on a small motor boat, landing at a cute beach town that seems to still have a small fishing industry but is mostly geared to tourists. Local guides lead you into the jungle to see the “wild” life (more on that in a minute) but not before passing dozens of gift shops along the way. Much of the offerings were good quality local handicrafts like embroideries, carvings, paintings and baskets.

Once you run the gauntlet of beckoning shopkeepers, you have your first wildlife sighting – a group of guys with a selfie-ready chameleon. Ethically dubious but it is fun see a chameleon so close up and get an opportunity to touch one. Turns out their stubby little fingers have sharp claws! Tip from Laurel to any chameleon fanciers: don’t put them on your bare skin. Tip from Brian: they don’t hurt at all when you put them on your hat, but they do get antsy after a few seconds and leap off.

Then the guide pulls out a boa constrictor you can wrap around your neck and a shy baby turtle. Luckily not at the same time. We briefly played with both and then moved on to see the promised headline act – lemurs. Our guide reaches into his bag and pulls out…bananas! Thankfully, the lemurs are not in the bag and are roaming free in the forest. But they know that if they hang around the trail, some nice people will show up with bananas. The guide smears banana in your hand and you wait while the lemurs hop from tree to tree, edging closer to your outstretched hand. These lemurs were not as tame as the rescued pet lemurs that we met on Lemur Island in 2011, still being a little leery of these banana-handed tourists. Eventually they take the bait and jump on your arm to eat the banana, the guide all the while trying to smear on more banana to keep them interested. The whole thing was definitely unseemly but a lot of fun.

After our lemur-high wore off, we walked back down the trail and checked out the shops. We bought a colorful straw beach bag and filled it with tropical fruit, conveniently using the last pennies of our Madagascar currency. So long Madagascar!

Nosying around the islands of Madagascar

First, an embarrassing admission. We noticed when planning our 2011 trip to Madagascar that some place names started with the word “Nosy” such as a beach resort popular with Europeans called Nosy Be. We had no idea what the word meant but found it endlessly amusing to say. On this trip, it wasn’t until after we visited a few places that were all named Nosy This or Nosy That that we finally learned that nosy means “island” in Malagasy. All those Nosy places were islands, a pattern that it probably wouldn’t have taken Sherlock Holmes eight years to deduce.

Madagascar itself is an island, but it doesn’t feel that way when you are on it. It is bigger than California and Washington combined. When you are inland, you can drive for hours in any direction without seeing the ocean. Heck, it look us over a week to drive half the length of island in 2011, though we were slowed by bad roads and distracted by lemurs. So the locals don’t think of the “mainland” of Madagascar as a island. But the northern part of Madagascar is surrounded by many little Nosys, most with beautiful white sand beaches, impressive rocky cliffs and rich coral reefs.

One of the many islands in Nosy Hara National Park

And don’t forget the land-based wildlife. On Nosy Tanikely, we found our first chameleons of the trip. Playing a bit second-fiddle to lemurs, chameleons are the other signature animal of Madagascar. When most people think of chameleons, they think of a lizard that uses its powers of color changing to blend in with its background. But in Madagascar, many of the chameleons are brightly colored and change hues to communicate their emotions. (Yes, chameleons have feelings too…) This guy below was gorgeous perhaps due to his excitement of having his picture taken.

A Panther Chameleon on Nosy Tanikely

The day after visiting Nosy Tanikely, we went to Nosy Hara National Park. We had a great snorkel there and combed the remote beaches. Here are some pictures from both areas:

Baobabs and Lemurs

The prime tourist draw on the central west coast of Madagascar is “The Avenue of the Baobabs.” The baobab tree grows in Africa and Australia also, but Madagascar is the hotbed of baobab excitement, home to 6 of the 9 species. Baobabs have thick trunks filled with spongy fibrous wood that can store water through long dry seasons. The stored water is also useful for humans – we often saw holes cut in their trunks where people had tapped the water over the centuries for drinking water.

The Avenue of the Baobabs. Those trees are really tall but it is a bit hard to see with the perspective.

A large baobab is centuries oldThey only grow a tiny amount each year in the harsh climate. We saw 10 year old “seedlings” that could have auditioned for the role of Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tree. Most of the trees you see pictured below are several hundred years old, some over a thousand years. While it looks like the trees were planted along the Avenue, the trees were there long before and the road built between them.

(Note that we’ve changed a bit how the photo galleries work compared to the last posts. From now on, the picture captions won’t appear until you click the thumbnail. That way the text doesn’t obscure the photo).

The baobabs were pretty, otherworldly and impressive but it was so hot there (over 100 degrees) that we didn’t stay long. And we were itching to get through the Avenue to our next destination, Kirindy Forest Reserve, where we hoped to see wild lemurs. Lemurs have traditionally been referred to as “the most primitive primates” but I don’t know if modern evolutionary biologists would be so judgmental. More scientifically, we’d call them “the most cute primates.” They only live in Madagascar (and a few nearby islands) and come in several shapes and sizes – filling many of the ecological niches occupied by other mammals elsewhere.

It was a two hour drive to reach Kirindy, down one of the roughest roads we’ve been on — deeply pot-holed and partially flooded by recent rains. A jeep ahead of us got stuck in the mud but our driver somehow maneuvered his way through the muck and we got quite a workout bracing ourselves against the bumps and lurches. But in the end we were well rewarded, seeing many lemurs of different species, quite close up. Including the elusive tiny “mouse lemur” which is normally nocturnal but for some reason decided to put on a sleepy little show for us.

We’ve also taken video on the trip but haven’t figured out how to embed them in the blog like the photos. When you click on a video, it will take you away from our page and you’ll have to use your browser’s back-button to return here. For your additional time-wasting pleasure we have:

  • Driving down the street in Morondava, the main town in west-central Madagascar, showing all the activity along the way. You may notice a lot of orange t-shirts. We arrived just after a presidential election and many people were wearing the t-shirts given out free by the eventual winning candidate.
  • Here’s a video to give you a nauseating taste of the rough road to Kirindy.
  • You may feel like you’ve filled your lemur quota for the day, but you haven’t seen the definition of cute until you click on this video of our sleepy mouse lemur.
  • These rough-housing sifakas (that’s what the white lemurs are called) are pretty adorable too.

The Desert Southwest…of Madagascar

We spent three weeks in Madagascar in 2011 and it was one of our favorite trips ever. From our standpoint, it had it all: friendly people, beautiful scenery, temperate weather and approachable charismatic wildlife. We rarely return to a destination but Madagascar seemed like it deserved a sequel. If you’ve seen the sequel to the movie Madagascar, you know that a sequel is never as good as the original but can still bring a smile of recognition and few new surprises as well.

This time we came during the rainy season, so rather than visiting the interior highlands which have the lemur-rich rainforests and picturesque rice terraces, we spent our time along the east coast. Shielded from the rain by the highlands, it is very dry with unique spiny vegetation and people who make their living from the sea. We started in the south and worked our way up the coast (more about the more northerly parts in future posts).

The favorite place we visited in the in the southwest was the little fishing village of Andavadoaka. It rarely gets tourists so we enjoyed one of our favorite travel experiences, a mutual exchange of happiness and curiosity.

The main city of the southwest is known as Tulear or Toliara. Most cities in Madagascar have two names, one French-influenced and one more true to the Malagasy pronunciation. “Malagasy” is the word used to describe the language and people of Madagascar. According to the best genetic, linguistic and archaeological evidence, the language and the people came to the uninhabited island 1500 years ago, then mixed with Europeans and Africans in more recent centuries to produce the unique culture that exists on the island today.

But we digress, Tulear/Toliara was not a sleepy village like Andavadoaka but a bustling city that sees it share of tourists, with the associated proliferation of pushy gift shops, touts and beggars. It still had some charm and a lot of visual interest but not a place we’d say was our dream of Madagascar. Outside of town were some little nature reserves that showed off the resilient desert plants and wildlife, including salty Lake Tsimanampetsotsa (a prize to anyone who can pronounce that!) which boasts a resident population of flamingos.