Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Northern Madagascar: Montagne de Ambre, and Ankarana

After spending the night in Diego Suarez, Shielo and our driver Bertrand drove us south to Montagne de Ambre, to hike into the national park there.  Shielo spotted this blue nosed chameleon in a tree, as we were driving.  The mountain is the remains of an old volcano, now covered in rain forest.  We were hiking towards the larger crater lake in the area.  As we walked, we saw our first lemurs—Sanford’s brown—and were delighted.  They were on the move, and we didn’t get any pictures, but we also didn’t miss seeing them by scrambling for our cameras, which we took as a hard-learned victory.
Shielo was eagle-eyed, but he was just lamenting how difficult it was to spot the Amber Mountain Chameleon in the lush green forest when David spotted this one, mostly by shape.  It stands out in these images due to the camera’s shallow depth of field combined with a telephoto lens, but it was much less distinct with the naked eye.
Shielo pointed out this leaf-tail gecko, which we never would have spotted.  By now, we had crested the high point of the trail, and were descending towards the crater lake.  We were lucky to have a clear day, as it frequently rains, and the caldera sometimes fills with fog.  The trail was wet and slippery, and Shielo was kind enough to cut a long branch for Lana to use as a walking stick.  We also picked up one of or first phrases in Malagasy, “mora-mora” which means “careful-careful.”  We found ourselves using that phrase on a daily basis in Madagascar.  Even after we traveled on, one of us would murmur it on any slippery or tricky stretch of ground.
Malagasy has only three tenses, and no irregular verbs.  Shielo told us that Peace Corps volunteers usually pick up a functional use of Malagasy within a month of arriving.  We quickly picked up the words we always try to learn first in any language: thank you, hello, good-bye, yes, and no.  Lana was also able to use her French at times, as that is widely spoken.  All of our guides spoke excellent English, but a few of our drivers—including Bertrand--spoke only Malagasy and French.
The crater lake itself was quiet and pretty, but not spectacular.  It was a good arbitrary destination for the purpose of encountering various wildlife along the way.  Shielo mentioned that the lake is a source of fresh water for Diego Suarez, 30 miles away, through lava tubes.
On our way back from the crater, we encountered a family of crowned lemurs traveling from tree to tree in search of fruit.  They are pretty cute:
When they reached a gap in the forest canopy, they just leapt to a tree about 20 feet away.  It was impressive to watch; each member of the family followed the lead female after she clambered up to the springy tip of one tall branch, and hurled herself, spread-eagle, and grabbed onto another very springy branch on the far side.
We did not need Shielo’s warning not to brush up against this caterpillar.  We found there were a number of plants and insects in Madagascar that give you a very itchy rash.  It was somewhat miraculous, given our history, that we escaped experiencing any of them personally. 
At the end of our hike, we stopped for a picnic lunch.  A pretty ring-tailed mongoose paused to sniff at our food before continuing on his way.  It was a nice chance to talk with Shielo about daily life, politics, and his family.  He is studying Italian so that he can be a guide for more tourists.  French and German speaking tourists are the most common, followed by Italians.  English was next, though Americans are not very common.  He felt like Americans and Dutch tourists were the most pleasant and flexible, from his perspective as a guide.
After lunch, we took a shorter walk to some waterfalls.  On the way, we stopped to search for a very tiny chameleon that can sometimes be found amongst the leaves at the base of a variety of trees.  Lana found one—Shielo was impressed.  He’s only found them 9 times in the past 6 years, and Lana is the second tourist he’s known who found one.  Its scientific name is Brookesia minima, and until 2012, was thought to be the smallest chameleon (in 2012, a smaller chameleon, Brookesia micra was discovered).  It is about 1/4” long.  We were thrilled to get to see it, although it was very difficult to photograph.
Above is the shady section of trail where Lana found the chameleon.  The waterfall was pretty, but as with the crater lake, the sights along the way stole the show.
In the afternoon, Bertrand drove us back towards Joffreville from Amber Mountain, and dropped us off at the Monastere de St. Jean Baptiste, a nunnery that rents some of its cells to visitors.  The room was austere, but the views and the gardens were beautiful.  We did not mind the simplicity of our room with one exception—there were no mosquito netting for the bed.  Anti-malarial medications improve your chances of not getting malaria, but the best defense is not getting bitten in the first place.  This was the only room we had in all of Madagascar without screens or mosquito netting-and it definitely was not in a low risk area.  We opened the windows to cool the room down until dusk, when the malaria-bearing mosquitoes become active, and then closed them, and dealt with a hot room.  It certainly wasn’t the hottest place we’d ever slept.  Just before dusk, the sounds of the nuns singing vespers drifted through our window.  It had been an amazing day.
After a delicious breakfast composed of various home-made and hand raised foods from the nunnery, Bertrand and Shielo picked us up, and we headed towards Ankarana.  On the way we passed through a village where the weekly morning market was in full swing.  In the video, Shielo is talking about the market:
Morning Market
On our way to the national park in Ankarana, we stopped to hike to the Red Tsingy, one of several tsingy formations in Madagascar.  Wind and water erosion produce the ribbon-like ridges.  The red stone here is quite soft, and this landscape changes with each rainy season, unlike some of the harder rock tsingy formations we would visit later.
The soil is a rich red clay.  In some areas, it is interleaved with white limestone, which produces striking patterns of contrast.
After more driving, we stopped outside the park for another picnic lunch, and then hiked in.  There were a number of places we could go, and after Shielo outlined the options, we chose a route with less direct sun (Lana’s interim hat really didn’t fit), but also one that grouped several, shorter hikes together, instead of one longer hike.  We missed the bat caves as a result, but have absolutely no regrets.
Our first destination was along a dry riverbed to a massive hole in the limestone to an underground river; in the rainy season, that river fills the 100 foot hole and creates a wide, fast river above ground. Along the way Shielo turned around and smiled widely at us, shaking a finger and saying “You are very lucky, my friends. Very lucky.” Lucky because we had managed one of the more difficult sightings—a nocturnal lemur awake and visible in the daytime. 
It was the Northern Sportive Lemur, which swiveled its ears as we walked past, carefully listening to us go. Their hearing is quite a bit better than their sight, especially during the day, and he was definitely paying attention to us, even if he couldn’t see us.
We finally made it out to the limestone karst formations known as the tsingy. They seemed to go on for miles, strange and infinite in a way that seemed similar to the glaciers we’d seen in Patagonia.  The sun was beginning to get a little low in the sky, so we turned around to make our way out of the park; we still had another mini hike planned before we were done.
We didn’t get very far, however, because as we turned around we found some residents who were very curious about us.
We were equally curious about this little family of crowned lemurs, and we stared at each other, fairly close and utterly fascinated, for about 15 minutes. Finally Shielo pulled us away so we wouldn’t be wandering back to the park entrance in the dark.  It was one of our favorite encounters, and truly the crowned lemurs of northern Madagascar are some of the prettiest lemurs.
Well, maybe not so much this guy.  In crowned lemurs, the males are brown, and the females are grey.
On our way back to the park entrance we went back a different way—our last destination—passing through an area called “the tournelles,” which translates to turret in English. Seemed pretty apt. It was fun to wander a bit through the slot canyons, but the tournelles were very sharp, so we practiced saying “mora-mora” to each other quite a bit.
The closer we got to the park entrance, the more beautiful the light became as it slanted through the tsingy formations and the trees as we left the tournelles.
It had been a long couple of days, filled with fantastic, incredible things. Forty-eight more hours in Madagascar, and we had (mostly) forgotten about our absent luggage in light of the wondrous things we had already seen.  There are obvious drawbacks to traveling without luggage, but traveling light can be a real advantage—something that would be driven home clearly the next day.
To be continued…