Flags of All Nations (that I've visited this year)
Walking West

Friday, December 08, 2000

Madagasikara No. 2: Lemurs

Most people have one over-arching reason to visit Madagascar. (Well, most people have no over-arching reason to, but those who visit it do.) Just as trekkers in the Okavango yearn to see lions and elephants in the wild, visitors to the great red island hanker after a glimpse of the proto-primates, the lemurs. Lemurs used to live as far afield as England and France, but after they arrived in Madagascar fifty million years ago they died out everywhere but there. It took the French forty-nine million, nine-hundred and ninety-nine thousand and nine hundred years to get their hands on them again.

Jane and I were no different to any other Mad tourists: we wanted to see these animals before they were gone. Madagascar's forests, the natural habitat of les lemuriens, are disappearing fast, and the various species are being pushed into smaller and smaller areas of unlogged jungle and scarce reserve.

Our first glimpse of a lemur was in one of those reserves, the small Nahampoana Reserve a few kilometres from Fort Dauphin (Taolagnaro) on the south-eastern tip of the island. It took a few days to get a flight out of Tana, the capital, down to Fort Dauphin, so we were well and truly primed for the experience. The drive those few kilometres was rough, but we were too busy jonesin' for wildlife to notice. Along the way the driver got a thousand francs from us to buy a bunch of bananas 'pour les lemuriens'. 'Ooo,' we wondered, 'should we be feeding wild animals?'; followed immediately by, 'Wow! We'll be feeding wild animals!'

At Nahampoana our guide, Alphonse, showed the two of us around the reserve's well-kept gardens (it used to be a research farm) with their three-cornered palms, spiny Desiderata trees, and stands of bamboo. He took his time, strolling around slowly, keeping us in a state of heightened anticipation. The order of the tour was no doubt intentional: long experience would have told him that once the tourists have seen the lemurs, no plant can hold their interest, unless it could somehow pull up its roots and start dancing around like a triffid. (And it'd have to be a pretty bloody cute triffid, with none of that poisonous-sting-causing-blindness nonsense.)

Finally, Alphonse broke the suspense. He started calling, 'Si-fahk! Si-fahk!' There was nothing in reply. We kept strolling, quietly. 'Si-fahk! Si-fahk!' Still nothing. We walked back to the central area in front of the old research station. 'Si-fahk!'

Sifaka And then from the bushes in front of us emerged a head. A small, white, fuzzy head, with a black face and snout. A Verreaux's Sifaka, which jumped across the few metres of lawn to Alphonse and the banana in his hand. (Click the thumbnail for a full view.)

It was one of the most adorable animals I'd ever seen—and I was raised on wallabies. The combined forces of Disney and Hallmark couldn't have concocted a sweeter creature. It was smaller than I'd expected—just a little larger than a cat—and was obviously used to being fed, nibbling away at the banana quite tamely. Jane got up the courage to feed it, but I was wary of its small sharp teeth; after a while, though, I reached out and touched its back, finding the white fur impossibly soft. It's a wonder old Verreaux didn't wipe out the lot to service the fashion industry in 19th century Paris. Maybe he, too, was entranced by them.

Rory and Ring-Tail After we had fed and wondered at the sifakas for a while we moved on, walking around a large marsh towards some trees. Alphonse had spotted a mixed group of sifakas, brown lemurs and ring-tails there. No sooner were we under the trees than a group of the latter had jumped on top of us. Literally. It was a shock, a combination of anxiety—'I've got a wild animal on me'—and excitement—'I've got a wild animal on me!' The ring-tails clambered all over us in search of food, sniffing around our day-packs and pockets. One sat on my shoulder and spread-eagled his arms and legs in classic basking pose. Another climbed onto Jane's head for a better view.

Brown Lemur Jane carefully took a banana from Alphonse, and held it out to one of the brown lemurs—which immediately snatched it out of her hand. The brown lemurs were less assertive than the ring-tails, but bananas obviously changed the equation. They still wouldn't come too close, though, keeping their distance in the branches and oinking at us, 'Mnnk, mnnk, mnnk,' like a toothless grandfather clearing his throat.

We shrugged off our furry baggage and moved on again, to another park-like area of the reserve. Alphonse had found another group of sifakas, which seemed much quieter and more reserved than the ring-tails. He tried to tempt them out of their tree with his last banana.

Just as they were getting interested, though, a gang of ring-tails came around the corner behind us and started angling for the fruit. Alphonse laughed, trying to hide it from them behind his back, and then gave up and started to feed them. After a few bites he gave the banana to Jane so that she could have another go.

Jane and Four Ring-TailsJane held out the banana, and one, then two lemurs jumped onto her to get closer to it, then three, climbing over her, hanging almost upside down, then four.

I was laughing, watching, taking photographs. 'You should try feeding them,' said Jane, 'and feel what it's like to have four lemurs hanging off you.'

Well, I thought, why not; she's been fine. I reached out for the stump of banana in her hand. The lemurs watched me carefully.

'The trick is to hold onto it properly,' said Jane.

I took the banana, gripping it firmly, and pulled my arm slowly back from hers. The closest lemur's snout followed my hand; and in one fluid motion, all four piled on top of me. They were small, but the four of them were heavy; it was like being thrown a full backpack. A furry, moving backpack made of legs and black fingers, with zebra tails waving out from it. They darted around my head and body, biting in the direction of the banana stump, the one that was gripped too tightly in my hand, eaten down to the last inch...

And missed. One of those sharp fangs had gone straight into my index finger.


I dropped the fruit, and with it the lemurs. Blood was spreading over my finger.

'Shit, shit, shit, shit.'

Jane had stopped laughing. We were both looking at each other, sharing the same thought: what about all those health warnings in the travel books...

'Here, show me,' she said, taking a plastic bottle of Eau Vive (purified water) from her daypack and splashing it over the wound. Next to my fingernail was a small red diamond and a ragged flap of skin.

'It is not too serious,' said Alphonse.

Well, no, not the bite itself, but—'What about rabies?' I said. Or Jane said.

'It is no problem,' Alphonse assured us.

But it was a problem. For anyone from Australia, where neither the wallabies nor any other warm-blooded mammal carries the disease, our complete non-exposure to rabies means that any bite like this is a problem.

We spent the next two weeks dealing with it.


We saw plenty more lemurs during our trip. At Berenty Reserve we strolled under giant tamarind trees and watched brown lemurs, sifakas and ring-tails dart around their branches. Half-chewed tamarind pods dropped down around us. Our guide warned us not to look up in open-mouthed wonder, for fear that more than tamarind pods would.

Lemur catta, the ring-tailed lemurWe saw spiky-haired sifakas dance down Berenty's wide paths like '80s pop-singers who'd discovered flamenco. At dusk we chanced across a family of ring-tails feeding by the side of a path; unlike at Nahampoana, these ones didn't jump onto us and look for food, although they did glance sideways as they strolled past our legs.

Pygmy Mouse LemurAt night we visited Berenty's patch of spiny forest and saw a pygmy mouse lemur, Madagascar's smallest, perched in the Martian tendrils of one of the endemic trees.

Don't Feed the LemursThere were more. At Tana zoo and Ivoloina we saw ruffed lemurs, woolly lemurs, crowned lemurs, and the rare aye-aye—in fact, a 'special aye-aye' (but that's another story). And we saw signs aimed at stupid Australians who've hand-fed too many wallabies.

Red-Bellied LemurAt the end of our trip, at Ranomafana National Park, we saw lemurs as they should be seen: with great difficulty. This large valley of dense jungle is home to grey and golden bamboo lemurs, black Milne-Edwards' sifakas, and red-bellied lemurs, but to see them you have to spend hours tromping through the dense undergrowth in tropical heat. We did, and saw most of the species that live there. On our second day, far into the jungle, we came across a group of red-bellied lemurs eating small green berries in the trees. One was perched in a branch not two metres from my head. It watched us thoughtfully as it ate. I took its photograph. It was the last lemur we saw in Madagascar.

For now.


Thursday, December 07, 2000

Jane had me bang to rights yesterday when she called this weblog a 'displacement activity'. In recent days, though, the displacement activity has been increasingly displaced by activity. I can't help it, it's just the way my mind works. It wanders around in circles in a seemingly endless warm-up exercise, then sprints madly through a pile of work all at once.

As part of the warm-up, I finally wrote my annual Christmas letter to friends. Six pages, three thousand words, and that's just the short version; I've got to stop leading such a complicated life. I might post it somewhere around here eventually (seeing I never did write a decent 'About' page for this log), after it's had a chance to arrive at its various destinations via snail. (As opposed to speedysnail. Hoho.)

Meanwhile, expect some more Madagascar snippets soon (modest displacement activity), after I've visited the dentist this afternoon. (Not a displacement activity. At least, I hope none of my teeth get displaced.)


Tuesday, December 05, 2000

I thought I'd dress this place up a bit. Still a few changes to be made, but it's a bit fancier than a sneaker. The spectacular moth was one that I found on the balcony of the Rianala Gite lodge at Ranomafana National Park, Madagascar, one morning in early August. (They're Jane's hands, not mine.)


Time to start dropping some more vignettes from my travels into this log. Without further ado, here's...

Madagasikara No. 1: The Amazing Changing Banknote

Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world, which gives its circulated banknotes a distinct character. Five-hundred and one-thousand franc notes are widely used, despite being worth about 8 and 16 US cents respectively. They're the notes the poorest Malagasy (which is most Malagasy) usually see, and so they end up looking like the poorest Malagasy: covered in dirt and grime.

Heavily-handled notes are soon coated in a fine layer of mud, and since Malagasy mud is five parts soil to three parts human waste this turns every transaction into a biohazard disposal operation. On the coast, the tropical humidity quickly soaks into the paper to give it a soft, spongy texture, and opportunistic moulds start to eat away at it. Change a large note and you'll end up with a handful of these bacterial swabs rolling around in your pocket like toilet-paper in an S-bend.

See for yourself. Brave the 192k download and view the Amazing Changing Banknote—and be thankful the internet doesn't transmit smells.


Monday, December 04, 2000

The sound of Melbourne in early summer is the cicada. Drive around the suburbs on a hot day with the window down and hundreds of them will fade in and out in a massed Doppler chorus of white noise. Unfortunate if you happen to live under a tree full of them.

Sadly, no-one seems to have put this classic sound of Australia on the web. The useful Guide to Animal Sounds on the Net lists only Japanese, Slovenian, Borneo (Bornean? Bornagain?), and Michiganian (erp) varieties, and the disturbingly complete Cicada Links has no links to samples of Aussie chirpers either. It's funny, you get so used to finding anything and everything on the web that when you can't it seems odd... 'What do you mean, there aren't any Australian Cicadidae sounds? And you call this the medium of the future?'


M. Night Shyamalan is one of those writer-directors whose films you have to see immediately before anyone can tell you anything about them, because the very subject of the film is part of its effect of unfolding mystery. So it was with Sixth Sense, and so it is with Unbreakable, which I saw last night. Every bit as satisfying as Sixth Sense, if not more so. Don't let anyone tell you anything about it. Just see it.


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