3. Hitchhiking in Lemuria

"Go to the garden," said Fairy Godmother, "and catch six lizards there."
Ch. Perrault. Cinderella.

Madagacar's capital city is called Antananarivo, "the camp of 1000 warriors". Locals always call it simply Tana. It was founded in 1610, and has now grown so much that walking from northern to southern bus terminal takes two hours. The center doesn't look bad at all: narrow cobbled streets climb to ancient hilltop rova (palaces) and cathedrals. Other parts have a lot of lakes, but otherwise aren't very aesthetically remarkable. The old capital Ambohimanga is twenty kilometers further north.

This part of Haut Plateaux is inhabited by the Merina. This tribe has conquered almost all others, and still pretty much rules the island. It can be difficult for someone from the coast to make a good career in Tana. The worst of all Merina rulers was the mid-19th century queen Ranavalona the First. She was paranoid and had thousands of people tortured to death. In 33 years of her reign the island's population was decreased by a quarter.

Exploring the city isn't easy: I have to watch Mary all the time to make sure she doesn't get hit by a car, and my camera bag she's carrying doesn't get stolen. Madagascar has surprisingly low crime levels, but I've reminded her to be careful so many times that now the poor girl is always holding the bag belt to make sure nobody can snatch it. In her other hand is a pen and a notebook. Every time I tell her a new English word, I write it down. This way it's easier to remember, and I can be sure she gets the spelling right. I introduce her to other people as my secretary.

We buy her some new clothes. Her ex-owners let her go with nothing but a spare skirt, extra panties, plastic ear clips, a necklace made of dog canine teeth, a toothbrush and a half-rotten blanket which we got rid of the next day. She had to wear my shorts and T-shirts, but she looked kind of suspicious in them. Shopping is a lot of fun. I never thought I'd have to teach a grown-up girl to fasten a bra. I am lucky: she doesn't need any makeup, otherwise I'd have to call an Internet conference with my female friends. But I have to explain her the purpose of certain personal hygiene items; it's a good thing nobody around us can understand English.

I also show her some other city wonders: ice cream, computers, railroad station (although it hasn't seen any trains for many years). Then I get us air tickets to Lake Alaotra. It's only a hundred kilometers away, but the road is so bad that it would take two days to get there by car or bus. We are tired of bad roads, and I want to give Mari a plane ride. It costs us only ten dollars. Air Mad has a "2 for the price of 1" promotion, and on top of that I have a 50% discount on local flights because I've flown in from the mainland on an Air Mad flight.

People say a lot of things about Air Mad, but the truth is, it's a very friendly and reliable airline with good safety record. It's so nice to be able to get onboard without showing your passport, or going through a metal detector, or being searched! The pilots are very friendly, too: they even let us take the yoke for a few minutes on the way back.

Alaotra is by far the largest lake on Madagascar. On the southern side there are extensive reed beds, the only place in the world where lemurs can be seen away from a forest. The local subspecies of grey bamboo lemur lives in dense reed thickets. The lake and rivers flowing into it are a nice place for snorkeling. Some of he colorful native fishes still survive here. In many other rivers they are now extinct because they can't tolerate the runoff from farms and deforested slopes.

Back in Tana, we go to a bus station and take a bus east. We only get to the first large town by bus (they stop running around 5pm), but there's plenty of trucks, and hitchiking is easy.

Parc National Andasibe-Mantadia is the closest to Tana, so it gets a lot of tourists, and most of them are of a regular kind. They leave their hotels only for guided forest walks, so from early evening till sunrise the forest belongs to me and Mary. It is full of interesting creatures, from tiny frogs inhabiting pockets of water at the bases of pandanus leaves to giant emerald-green chameleons. But the most famous tourist attraction of the park is indri.

The indri are the largest surviving lemurs. They probably survived because it used to be fodi to hunt them. They have very short tails, large ears and beautiful black-and-white coats. Nobody knows what was the coloration of giant extinct lemurs, but I think they were probably very beautiful, too, because among the still existing species the largest ones are also the most colorful. The indri can leap from tree to tree with surprising agility, but usually you see them perching koala-style on tree trunks, chewing leaves.

From time to time the entire group (usually two-six indris) begins to sing. It's not recommended to stay in the middle of a singing family: the sound gets so loud it can be painful. Their whistling calls carry for miles over the forest. Other groups answer them from distant hillslopes, and the exchange can last for a few minutes. It's one of the most beautiful rainforest sounds I've ever heard.

I keep pumping huge volumes of information into poor Mary, but I also learn a lot from her. She teaches me good manners: for example, if you are given food or a gift, it's considered polite to accept it with your ringt hand while holding its wrist with your left hand. I pick up a few words of Malagasy language (the dialects are not very different). I also learn a lot about life in a small Sakalava village, where abortions are still induced with boiled nettle foot baths, like in Russia in the old days.

We decide to hike up a trail leading to a ridgecrest in nearby Maromizaha Forest Reserve. The mountains here are almost 2000 m high. The slopes are covered with lush cloud forests, with lots of orchids and ferns on tree branches. We are the only people in the reserve. The view of the rugged slopes descending from the plateau towards the coastal plain is breathtaking.

A rain begins. We try to wait it out under a huge old podocarp tree, but it only gets worse. We realize that it's going to get dark soon. We have to set up the tent. My sleeping bag is very light; if not for Mary, the cold night would be very uncomfortable. Just before dawn, the clouds disappear, and we are awaken by indri calls. We walk back to the road and hitchhike to the sea to get warm.

Toamasina is the second largest city on the island. It's the sex tourism capital of Madagascar, and many people in the streets have light skin. But here the fun is no longer free: you are expected to pay cash or to take care of the girl for a long time. In our hotel, most guests are French refugees from midlife crisis. Some of them have lived here for years. Condoms are sold in every store from huge rolls, like toilet paper.

We hang our tent and clothes in our room to dry. But it doesn't work, even with the electric fan. I find Air Mad office, change my flight to Nairobi for a later date, and get us tickets to Parc National Masoala for the next day. We spend the rest of the afternoon in an Internet cafe: it's time to teach Mary to use a computer.

Late in the evening we come down from our room to the small restaurant on the first floor. Soon, a half-bald guy in a Hawaian shirt sits down at our table. He says he owns a diving center, then switches to English:

"Where did you find such a beauty?" he asks. "She's not from around here."

"There's none left there," I say, smiling.

Mary pretends not to understand, but her eyes are sparkling.

"She must be a Sakalava, from the western side," he says, "did you buy her?"

"She is my secretary."

"Yeah, we all have secretaries around here. Listen, I'd like to buy her. How much?"

"More than you have."

"Me? You don't know me! I can give you a thousand dollars."

Mary suddenly turns pale. It's a lot of money even in the city, and where she is from, such huge sum is unimaginable.


"Two thousand? Three? Say your price!"

I politely ask him to leave. But he won't shut up, until I accidentally spill hot tea in his lap.

After that little incident Mary is walking around very proudly. She costs more money than her entire village! And I begin to contemplate a career change. Being a slave trader is obviously more profitable than zoology.

Masoala Peninsula is the most pristine part of Madagascar. There are no roads here, only a sparse network of trails between small villages hidden in coves and valleys. It's also the last place where rainforest still grows all the way down to the sea. Where there are no mangroves, you can find cozy little beaches with white sand and living coral reefs just offshore. We only have one mask and snorkel, so we have to take turns exploring the reefs.

Some hillslopes are all covered with scarlet flowers of flamboyan trees. Clearings are lined with ravenalas, the famous "traveller's palms". They look like banana trees, but their leaves form huge fans. It is often claimed in botanical literature that ravenalas contain good drinking water - all you have to do to get it is drill a hole through the bases of the leaves. I looked into many leaf bases, and the water was always stinky, with worms and tadpoles.

This area is inhabited by the most beautiful of lemurs: calico sifakas and varis. They are the world's most colorful mammals. The two subspecies of vari, or variegated lemurs, are separated by a small river. On the southern side, the animals are black-and-white; on the northern side, they seem to be wearing bright red jackets. When a group of red varis is rapidly travelling through treetops, it looks like a forest fire.

At night, the forest is full of weird sounds: owls, nightjars, geckos, giant red tomato frogs, crickets, nocturnal lemurs... The loudest is the strange popping sound. I can't figure out who makes it, until locals tell me it's the calls of land crabs hiding in burrows.

After a lot of night walking, we manage to see the island's most impossible inhabitant, the aye-aye. It is theoretically a lemur, but it looks like a giant squirrel with hair of an Irish wolfhound, eyes of an eagle owl, ears of a bat, and teeth of a beaver. Its fingers are long and thin, especially the point fingers, that look like fishing rods or spider legs. Aye-ayes are very agile, and I have no idea how they manage not to damage these fingers as they run through the canopy. Ecologically, they fill the niche of woodpeckers. They knock on tree trunks with their fingers, listen for sound of beetle larvae, chew into the wood, and get the larvae out, using their point fingers in the same way a woodpecker uses its tongue. Around villages, they feed on coconut pulp. They are extremely difficult to see. In some forests, they've never been observed at all, but their presence is indicated by numerous holes in snags and logs. In some parts of Madagascar, local people weren't even aware of their existence until they saw them in zoologists' traps; the name "aye-aye" comes from their astonished exclamations.

This National park is only visited by people seriously interested in biology. No sex-tourists here. Villagers are not particularly surprised to see me, but Mary is often surrounded by women who keep asking her some questions. She refuses to translate these conversations, but I think she's telling them some tall tales, because suddenly I become very popular with local girls. They follow me in small flocks anywhere I go. In one village I have to get a palm frond to chase them away, like Prof. Challenger in The Lost World novel.

For some reason, such attention drives Mary crazy. I even have to break up a fight she gets into with a girl following me, and carry her away from the village. It's as if I am her property!

We catch a boat ride around the tip of the peninsula, to a small town connected by a road to the next city, Sumbava. This part of the country is known as Vanilla Coast. More than a third of world's vanilla is grown here. As usually, at the exit from every village you have to pass through two road blocks, the police and the army. They take their time searching for misprints in the driver's papers, looking for vehicle code violations, but never notice that ten people are squeezed into a four-seat quatrelle. They also check my passport, and pretend to read the largest stamp (the one from South Georgia, with a nice penguin). Why does Madagascar need an army, and why a desperately poor nation has to feed such a horde of parasites, I don't know.

Our next destination is a group of rocky peaks known as Parc National Marojejy. Everybody in the park office speaks very good English: an American teacher has been living here for two years. We hire a guide, leave some stuff at his house, and walk towards the mountains. There's only one trail, but I want the guide to tell Mary more about the job, and to give us French and Malagasy names of some plants and animals. The path crosses shallow rivers, rice paddies and vanilla plantations, then enters the forest and becomes steep and muddy.

We are climbing along a beautiful river, with countless waterfalls and clear pools inhabited by giant eels. Looking behind a trail turn, we can sometimes see forest ibises, weird birds that explode into green-and-white comets the moment they notice us. Where the soil is sandy, we find female chameleons laying eggs into little holes they dig in the ground.

On the way to the summit there are four campgrounds, flat clearings with rain shelters. The trail is so steep that flora and fauna change a lot from one camp to the next. Upslope from the second camp, you can see pure white silky sifakas, flocks of small blue pigeons, and strikingly beautiful little birds called asities.

Birds of Madagascar are a wonderful example of island evolution. Some of them have gotten here relatively recently and look similar to their relatives in Asia and Africa. Others have changed so much that they are different to recognize. Probably the most interesting are vangas, closely related to African helmet-shrikes. They have apparently colonized the island a long time ago, and have evolved into twenty species looking completely unlike each other. One resembles a nuthatch, another one - a titmouse, yet another - a starling, and some look unlike any other bird. In Marojejy, the most common of them is helmeted vanga, which looks like a miniature toucan.

We are the only people in the park. Previous visitors have left three weeks ago. But our guide says that a month later there will be no vacant places to put up a tent. The tourist season on Madagascar is determined by holidays in French universities: July-August and December. It's the worst possible timing. July and August are cold; many animals hybernate or become much less active. November to March is rainy season. The best time to visit is October, when dry areas are full of flowers and many lemurs have babies. Now it's June, so some small mammals become difficult to find. Dwarf lemurs will disappear in a week or two: their tails are very thick from stored fat.

At night we meet a family of common tenreks. They look like hedgehogs having a bad hair day. They move around in large families (a female might have up to twenty young). If you point a flashlight at them, they run away in short hops. In the river, we catch a glimpse of a very rare web-footed tenrek, too fast to follow.

We only get to the fourth camp. The trail there is almost vertical and very slippery. You have to pull yourself up from branch to branch. In the morning we walk back. It is so difficult that I have to carry Mary for the last kilometer or two. As a Russian proverb has it, "a load is never too heavy if it's your own". Actually, carrying a girl on your shoulder is much easier than it looks - try it sometimes.

Despite all this, Mary manages to remember the names of almost all animals in four languages. What a memory!

Soon we are in Vohemar in the far northeast of Madagascar. There is no road further north along the eastern coast, but a bad dirt road cuts through the interior to the western side. We get lucky again: there's a taxi about to leave. I now have a lot of respect for Renault 4: it can pass almost anywhere, is very reliable, and if it gets stuck, one man can easily push it forward. Taking turns with the owner and occasionally giving Mary driving lessons, we make it across the island in less than twenty hours, and get stuck only five or six times.

By daylight we are in Diego Suarez at the northern tip of Madagascar. Along the way we see two smashed SUVs on a roadside. It's hard to believe, considering the roads and the driving style, but it's the only accident I ever see on Madagascar.

In towns of Northern Madagascar electricity only exists for a few hours every evening. We have to spend a lazy afternoon on a beach, waiting for the computers in Internet cafes and Air Mad office to start working. I change my ticket to Kenya again, and we go to nearby Parc National Montagne d'Ambre. There is no amber there: it's an ancient shield volcano with five or six crater lakes on its flat summit. The forest has giant millipedes, solemn flat-tailed geckos, and lots of lemurs. Walking up the road after midnight for a swim in one of the lakes, we encounter a pair of red owls, very rare birds few people have ever seen.

"When you apply for a guide job," I tell Mary, "don't forget to mention that with your last client, you managed to find a fossa, an aye-aye, and red owls. They'd be really impressed."

Hitchhiking here is usually until the first car, but often you have to be very small or very flexible to fit in. If the traffic is reliable enough, we try to get a ride in a tourist SUV or an expensive sports car.

As soon as we get out of the car in the next city, we hear loud screams. They move down the street in a wave, and soon we see the culprit, a rabid dog. It runs along, as people around it shout and jump on trucks or into first floor windows. The poor thing doesn't seem to see much anymore, so I don't move, just pick Mary off the ground just in case. In a minute, the accident is forgotten. Apparently, people here are used to such things.

We get to Parc National L'Ankarana to see its famous karst plateaus, locally known as tsingy. The word literally means "toes". Limestone blocks are covered with erosion grooves that look like somebody dragged his toes over sand. The tsingy are seas of sharp rock edges and crevasses, but if you hop from block to block and get deep inside, you can see green lakes in deep sinkholes and "fat" Pachypodium trees with beautiful white flowers.

We spend the rest of the day exploring bat caves, swimming in cool underground lakes, and petting semi-tame crowned lemurs and mongooses in the forest. Then we walk away from karst, into shady "normal" forest, and camp near a quiet, very clean river, where tiny red kingfishers hide in trees. The entire forest smells of jasmine, but I can't figure out which tree is the source. At night, African bush pigs (believed to be an ancient introduction) dig into the forest floor, sportive lemurs (that's what they are called) play around our tent, and shiny black scorpions slowly walk along dry logs.

The pavement ends in the next town. Ahead of us is a long stretch of very bad road, with litle traffic. Nobody's going in that direction, so we have to stay in a hotel. Next morning we find a bush taxi just in time to take the priviledged seats in the front.

Getting a minivan ready for a two-hour drive to the next town might take half a day. First, you have to wait until it's full. Which means, it's impossible to squeeze any more people in. But every time you think it is full, the driver's assistant shouts "Exhale, brothers!" and pushes in another passenger or two. When there are twenty-something people on thirteen seats, the driver begins to drive in circles through the town in hope of finding someone else. He stops at every corner and asks: "Anybody wants to go to Ampijirariantsoandava?" In one place, a rugged old man sleeping in shade opens one eye and says: "I think some woman in the lower quarter wanted to go there." So, we go looking for the woman. It takes a while, because nobody here uses street names or numbers. Finally, a sleepy woman is dragged from her house, followed by crying children. "Actually, I was planning to go next week," she says. Everybody tries to talk her into going now. "OK," she says, "but I have to gather some stuff." Her relatives begin to carry the stuff from the house: bags of rice, wooden chairs, a bicycle. All this gets tied to the roof, added to a pile of luggage which is already as big as the minivan itself. Twenty four people wait patiently, stuck into a hot metal box under scorching sun. Then two more circles around town, picking up more of the woman's luggage from her relatives. A trip to the gas station. Another circle, just in case. It works: we find two more passengers, and both have "stuff" scattered all over the town. The sun keeps climbing into the sky, and now it's really hot. Children are too tired to keep crying, and fell silent. The worst thing is to have a Muslim woman on board. They wear a lot of clothing, and sweat so badly that breathing inside the minivan becomes almost impossible.

Well, we are on the road. Don't relax yet! Five minutes later, it's time for one of the passangers to get off the taxi. He is squeezed in a corner, so everybody has to get out to let him out. Then we have to remove the burlup covering the roof, find that guy's bag in the mountain of luggage, untie it all, tie it up again, cover it with burlap, get back in, then pick up someone else to fill the vacant corner... and so on, ad infinitum.

Somewhere in this area Libertaria, the pirat republic described in one of Daniel Defoe's books, has probably been located. It was said to be based on utopian socialism and total equality. Eventually it was destroyed by Sakalava warriors. Nobody knows if it really existed: there are no independent references and no archeological evidence.

Now the only interesting thing to see is rare black lemurs in tiny remnants of coastal forests. Only males are black, females are red. The subspecies living closer to the coast has orange eyes, lemurs further inland are blue-eyed.

We are bracing ourselves for another night of bumpy ride along an andless dusty track. Suddenly, we see a huge dust cloud on the horizon. It's a batallion of road construction workers, sent by president Ravalomanana to build a highway connecting the north with the rest of the country. Rollers, graders, heavy trucks... Behind them, fresh pavement goes all the way to our next destination.

At least I won't have to spend my last few nights on Madagascar on the road.

Next chapter

Back to Contents