For many people, the word ‘holiday’ conjures up thoughts of sandy beaches, sun loungers, cocktails with cute little umbrellas, late nights, late mornings …
What about 5 a m wakeup calls? Jolting around in a cramped vehicle for hours at a time over steep, narrow, winding, pot-holed roads? Scrambling, stumbling up twisting paths fraught with rocks and tree-roots, slipping and sliding in mud and drizzle – all in the hopes of a possible glimpse of something furry?
No, I didn’t think so.
Let me tell you about Madagascar …
We made our way into the depths of Ranomafana. Our spotters were there long before us, locating the ‘box-office megastars’ and communicating with our guides by mobile phone in order to lead us straight there – straight to Milne-Edwards sifakas, golden bamboo lemurs, greater bamboo lemurs. The ‘supporting cast’ were just as fascinating, if not as showy. One of our guides called us back to look at a tiny screwed-up dead leaf – and even after I’d been told exactly which screwed-up dead leaf it was masquerading as, it still took an effort to pick out the satanic leaf-tailed gecko. We saw giraffe-necked weevils posturing on giraffe beetle trees (where else?); a red forest rat that scampered back into the anonymity of the trees; swivel-eyed chameleons; birds of all sizes, shapes and colours … with a constant surround-sound of the noises of the rain forest.
A buttock-jarring hour of torture took us by boat down the Mozambique Channel to Anakao. With jelly legs, we wobbled onto a postcard-perfect beach that fronted something almost resembling a resort. But we were not there to relax beneath sun umbrellas, sipping cocktails while dabbling our toes in the turquoise waters. Instead, we crossed to the small uninhabited island of Nosy Ve and peered under low bushes, being careful not to disturb the nesting red-tailed tropic birds, blush pink in their breeding plumage, their two slender tail feathers sticking out behind just like red straws. Three-eyed iguanids scurried over the hot white sand. Plovers and terns banked and wheeled above a nearby sandbar.
On to Berenty. Wherever we looked, it seemed, were ringtail lemurs with their incredibly long tails raised and gently waving. Mothers had babies riding on their backs. Young males squabbled and chased each other. At breakfast-time there might be a ringtail looking on hopefully and taking the slightest opportunity to steal scraps. Verreaux sifakas danced with gangly grace across open spaces.
In the growing dusk, we went on the prowl for eyeshine. Our torch beams raked the trees … Was that answering gleam a white-footed sportive lemur? A grey mouse lemur? Or was it a star? If the creature stayed motionless on the branch where it had been spotted, it was most likely a sportive lemur (belying its name); mouse lemurs pinged through the branches at high speed, rarely offering us more than a brief flash of fur; and yes, stars twinkling through the foliage fooled us a few times.
On to Ankarafantsika, an area of dry semi-deciduous forest where another roll-call of amazing nature awaited us: far from any water, a pygmy kingfisher that has adapted to eating grubs rather than fish; in the branches above our heads, a snuggle of furry bottoms surmounted by large brown eyes peering down at us – western avahi in their daytime perch; a Milne-Edwards sportive lemur in its hole, its ears, backlit in the sunshine, glowing pink; a Scops owl half-awake and ensconced in a hollow tree; another tree trunk clothed in a mass of processionary caterpillars; chameleons, mongoose lemurs, magpie robins, couas …
Coquerel’s sifakas roosted in a large spreading mango tree in the forestry lodge’s car park; collared iguanids scuttled through the leaf litter; hoopoes hopped among the trees; sickle-billed vangas cried mournfully on the branches outside our bungalows.
At Périnet it was the indri we hoped to see: the largest of all the lemurs and the most vocal. Early the next day, we heard them calling – a haunting, enchanting, unforgettable song that carried for miles on the fresh morning air. We staggered up precipitous slopes and suddenly there they were in the branches above us, looking almost like slimmed-down long-legged pandas. They sprang from tree to tree, pausing to look down at us, their heads pivoting impossibly right round, watching us watching them. We were doubly lucky, for not long afterwards, one of our guides found a family of diademed sifakas feeding high in a tree, their lustrous golden fur shining in the sunlight.
So ended three weeks of intensive wildlife watching: a richness of nature ranging from indri to mouse lemurs to jewelled chameleons to giraffe-necked weevils to a tiny greyish smear on a distant rock in a river – a Madagascar pratincole, I was reliably informed.
Now that’s my sort of holiday.