Discover the island’s spectacular wildlife and unique natural beauty
Guy stopped short in the middle of the trail. “Watch out!” he exclaimed.
My feet slid to a stop on the steep, muddy track. Guy bent down slowly, hand outstretched. I couldn’t see anything but mud and leaves on the trail. His right hand gently swept something imperceptible into his left hand, and he sighed.
“Ah, you don’t see many of these,” he said. A teeny tiny chameleon no bigger than my pinky nail, brown like the mud, perfect in all its miniature parts, sat bewildered in his palm – a very rare type of Brookesia chameleon, right in our path, right where I would have stepped on it. Most amazing was Guy’s ability to see the creature while in full hiking stride.
Suddenly I looked around in amazement at the moist, green forest surrounding us, pulsating with rare, endemic life-forms. What else had my foreign, untrained eyes missed?
Madagascar is a wild world of possibility and discovery. A country with more than 20 million inhabitants, it has not a single stoplight. It’s the first place I have ever visited – and I’ve been to a lot of places – without a single McDonald’s, Burger King or any other fast food restaurant in the entire country. Boasting unique natural landscapes in the otherworldly baobab forests of the south and beautiful tropical beaches of Ile Sainte Marie and the lush rain forests of the north, it is a land teeming with wild-life. Isolated from the African continent millions of years ago, Madagascar is home to thousands of endemic plants, colorful chameleons and rare animal species including, most famously, the lemurs.
This is why I had come so far – to see the lemurs. Ancient relatives of more famous primates, they exist only on this island. In certain forests in Madagascar, there lives a species of lemur that only remains in that one forest, limited to a few hundred remaining members. It is a living testament to the vanishing bio-diversity of our world, and I wanted to experience its grandeur firsthand. What I had not anticipated was the warmth and kindness of the Malagasy people: straightforward, generally happy, unassuming and humble.
Dusk was falling as I set off with Guy, our wonderful Malagasy guide, into the forest. Deep in the heart of Marojejy National Park, Guy carefully veered off a marked trail in search of the silky sifaka.
Marojejy National Park lies in the northeast corner of Madagascar. This park is nestled in the heart of the Andapa basin, a mountainous, lush region known for its amazing biodiversity and the unfortunately shocking rate at which it’s being destroyed. In June 2007, Marojejy National Park was designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization). Funding was made available for cabins with bunk beds, bathrooms and kitchen areas at three stops along the trail to the summit of the Marojejy Massif, a sheer cliff of granite from the top of which you can see all the way to the ocean some hundreds of miles away. It’s a four- or five-day trek altogether. You take with you a guide, porter and cook – all locals from the surrounding village, eco-tourism at its finest. You can hire the guides on your own or go with an organized tour group. Either way, it is an experience not to be missed.
The silky sifaka was my reason for visiting Marojejy. A type of lemur and one of the most endangered mammals in the world, there are estimated to be only 300 left in the wild, and they all live in the northeast region of Madagascar. These sifakas are about the size of a chimpanzee, all white except for their small black faces.
There was no guarantee we would find them. Many groups have done an entire trek without a sighting. Hiking along, we kept our eyes and ears tuned to the forest around us for any clues of their presence. In the first two days of our trek, we had already seen several white-fronted brown lemurs, bamboo lemurs, a rare helmet vanga bird with its amazing blue bill, a leaf-tailed gecko and countless other rare chameleons, frogs, birds and palms. I was in naturalist heaven.
It was day four of our trek. Earlier in the morning, we had decided to forgo a final push to the summit of the Marojejy Massif. The morning was gray and it was raining, as it’s apt to do in a rain forest, with clouds obscuring the summit. I wasn’t upset – that meant more time to look for sifakas. In the late afternoon, Guy spotted some signs that sifakas had recently been in the area. Hoping they could still be nearby, we set off after dinner to find them.
Guy asked me to sit and wait on the trail while he rambled through the forest, his eyes scanning for clues that only the most skilled tracker would notice. It felt like an eternity before he returned with a huge smile on his face. He had spotted a small family preparing to bed for the night in their nest of leaves high in the forest canopy. We rushed, panting, up the steep trail to view them in the last moments of daylight. High in the trees I could see the family (a few adults and their babies) snuggling up together, with small white faces just barely peering over the leaves to stare down at us. Morning would be our magic time. If we could get ourselves up there just before dawn, we would see the sifakas as they left the nest.
I had no problem getting up in the smooth darkness of predawn. My heart was pumping with excitement. We huffed up the steep forest trail as a pinkish dawn light peeked through the dense forest; I felt like the luckiest person on Earth with a chance to experience these amazing and rare creatures in their natural environment.
We reached their nest as they were starting to swing out into the canopy. For almost two amazing hours, we followed the sifakas as they swung between the trees, eating leaves, grooming each other and enjoying the morning. We were able to get within feet of them, and their lack of fear helped me to understand how they so easily fall prey to poachers looking for a quick meal of bush meat.
It was a divine morning – I had gotten much more than I ever expected from this amazing journey into the jungle. To witness a wild animal intimately, on their terms, is perhaps one of the most sublime experiences. In that moment, it is possible to remember your true nature, understanding that we are just one note of many in the brilliant symphony of the natural world.
Madagascar has my heart. It is a land I would gladly visit again. From the arid deserts and beaches of the south to the lush rain forest of the north and everything in between, there exists a lifetime’s worth of adventures to be enjoyed.
The night after we left Marojejy we sat in the home of our new friends Eric and Flavienne, enjoying a beautiful meal with their family and going over the details of our experience. Eric, originally from France, has made it part of his life’s mission to share the glory of the Marojejy park with the world. He has built a beautiful, informative website (www.marojejy.com) and will gladly help anyone who is in town looking to trek to the summit with all the information they need. We became fast friends and he opened his home to us.
While talking about the park, I looked out his window at the town of Andapa below. Its bustling dirt roads, fruit markets and rice fields spread out to the horizon. We reflected on how special this country truly is. No fast food, no stoplights – just an authentic wildness, a closeness to nature that, once discovered, takes hold and doesn’t want to let you go.