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 “See? John Ceena t-shirt!”

– Jason

The dock, such as it is in Miandrivazo, was in a jolly form of chaos.

A packed earth set of a dozen or so stairs descended to the Mahajilo River, tributary to the Tsiribihina River, which we would descend in dugout canoes for the next 3 days. A half dozen boats bobbed in the brown water, in various stages of loading and unloading by young piroguiers, dressed in rolled up jeans and foreign t-shirts featuring wrestlers and college hockey teams. We’d started to take particular joy in sighting clothes featuring a wrestler named John Ceena. A Peace Corp volunteer had told us that when Mr. Ceena’s popularity had waned in the US, tens of thousands of t-shirts featuring his image had been shipped to Madagascar. Now they were a popular status symbol and there was even in market in pirated John Ceena t-shirts.

Women washed dishes in the river water, scooping handfuls of coarse sand to scour soot-stained pots. An older man walked back up and down to the riverbank with two large buckets, filling and then dumping them in a large oil drum tied to a dolly at the top of the stairs. Children of all ages ran about, some asking us for money and pencils. Others, too small and innocent yet to beg, sat on the stairs and looked up at our strange pale faces with large eyes. Guides and captains barked out orders to rowers and loaders while adult onlookers laughed and shouted out unsolicited advice. A beautiful little girl, with a still younger girl balanced easily on her hip, watched it all serenely and smiled.

Two of the rough-hewn 20 ft boats were our own and would carry us down the rivers for the next 3 days. We were a group of 7 — 2 rowers, or piroguiers, the older Joseph and his young protege, Kennedy; our guide, the genial curly-haired Coco; Janine and I, and 2 French health care workers, Valerie and Geraldine, on holiday from Mayotte.

The Tsiribihina trip is the most popular amongst the Madagascar tourist crowd. For this reason alone, we almost skipped it. Other rivers sounded more remote and exciting. But with our time on the island limited, we opted to put our feet (or paddles) on the tourist track and hope for the best.

We pushed out into the milk chocolate waters of the Mahajilo to the waves and shouts of “vazha!” from the Malagasy kids. The current was stiff – 5 or 6 knots easily – and the dock was quickly left behind, lost amidst the tall reeds that lined the muddy banks.

A dug out is a very different creature from the canoes we use back home.

Long and narrow, it curves up and then inwards at the top. At its widest point, it’s no more than 20 inches across. At bow and stern it tapers to a point about a quarter this length. A piroguier with a hand-carved paddle sits the rear, with passengers in the middle and baggage interspersed up until the front. When fully loaded, the whole craft wobbles with only a couple of inches of freeboard. But, expertly handled, it is a steady boat and Coco assures us that he, for one, has never capsized.

The reedy banks are perfect cover for shorebirds. As we floated down the water, we spotted numerous kingfishers (including the colourful orange and blue Malachite), egrets and herons dodging and stalking amongst the green stalks. Raptors circled high in the air or watched us impassively from withered tree branches.

The Mahajilo won’t inspire you with it’s natural beauty. The water is dull, brown and, for foreigners, undrinkable. The view is narrow and unvaried, with most farms and villages obscured by the reeds. This is a working river. Like the Nile, it is everything to the people that live along its banks – fertilizer, irrigator, highway, sewer. Fisherman cast nets from pirogues and wave to a dilapidated motor boat ferrying passengers upriver from the coast. Women stripped to the waist, wash clothes and keep an eye on their bathing children. Boys paddle loads of tobacco downstream to the sea and laboriously pole their boats back home, two standing in each boat, sinking 15-foot poles down to the river bottom, then thrusting their entire weight forward against them in perfect unison.

We’ve come to expect impressive things from the men we hire to take us into the African bush. And our paddlers don’t disappoint. Joseph, now in his twentieth year on the river, paddles a steady 20 to 30 powerful strokes a minute, switching paddling sides seamlessly every ten seconds.

He thrusts powerfully with his entire upper body, sitting with his legs set out straight before him, but never rocks the boat. Kennedy, can’t claim his tutor’s balance (for the first hour in his care, Janine mutters worriedly about an imminent dunking) but paddles even more strongly. Coco sits in the bow, paddling intermittenly, scanning the shoreline for wildlife or tapping happily on a drum that he claims no trip can be done without.

It’s hot. 30 degrees at least, and that’s according to my crappy thermometer which is known for frequently being off by a degree or eight. We’re glad when we finally leave the thin Mahajilo and meet up with the much wider Tsiribihina. At the confluence, the river valley broadens to give both prettier views and a welcome breeze.

After a morning paddle of nearly 4 hours, we stop for a quick lunch of sandwiches and salad before going back on the water for another session of the same length. By dusk, we reach a broad sandbank and make camp for the night. Coco and and our paddlers make fresh french fries and roast skewers of vegetables and zebu steak while we sit on a large rug, watch the stars and drink vanilla flavoured Malagasy rum. I start writing this blog and then quit after the rum kicks in and a second round of french fries is put before us.

***

What is it about lemurs? Something about seeing these distant cousins from a nearly severed branch of the evolutionary tree is instantly exciting. Even when you have gas.

It’s early morning and I’m crouched in the bushes praying to the God of TUMS, when rustling in the canopy above announces the passing of a troupe. Suddenly, the crappy stomach that kept me up a good portion of the night is forgotten and I’m shouting for Janine to get the camera.

It’s not a great viewing – they truly were in transit to somewhere evidently more interesting – but Coco assures me that we’ll be seeing more simians today.

And he’s right. After a continental breakfast of coffee, breads and fruit, we push out into the river. It’s a beautiful section that flows gently through a wooded canyon where several varieties of lemur cavort in the trees. Kennedy and Joseph paddle lightly as we crane necks and snap pictures of the brown, black and off-white shapes leaping amongst the branches.

This may be the laziest form of travel we’ve yet undertaken. In fact, “undertaken” even seems like an inappropriate verb in these circumstances. We eat. We get in the boat. We look around as we float.

We eat again. We read. We discuss travel plans. We stretch out as best we can in the dugout amongst our backpacks, bottled water and chicken (his name is Louis) and we sleep.

Near mid-morning, we pull out on a sandy beach and walk a hundred meters inland to a spectacular waterfall, plummeting 20 meters off an escarpment of forested limestone into a tranquil aqua-marine pool. The water is crisp but refeshingly clear and irrisistible in the heat. We all enjoy showers before climbing back aboard the dug outs and continuing our journey.

After the forested canyon, the land surrounding the Tsiribihina flattens again and grows uninspiring. Most of the afternoon, we doze and try to keep ourselves as sheltered as possible from the scorching sun. It’s hard to believe that two nights ago, on the Antananarivo plateau, we shivered in bed underneath our extra blankets. Hazy reverie is broken for a few exciting moments when Joseph spots a 10 foot crocodile lounging on the river bank. We drift closely by, cameras clicking furiously, but it’s even too hot a day for crocs. This one doesn’t move an inch.

***

With unwavering strokes, Jospeh and Kennedy guide the dugouts to a broad sandy shore just as the sun begins to set on the Tsiribihina.

Within minutes, they have unloaded the boats and are busily setting up a kitchen while we erect our tents and search for firewood. Soon the beach is twinkling with the light of our fire and the little coal burning stoves that our guides use to cook Louis. The rum and the conversation flow freely, the stars glisten overhead, Coco starts to tap half a song on his drum. In the growing darkness, a ferry motors labouriously upstream and herdboys sing to their zebu in the village beyond the riverbank reeds. Tomorrow we’ll leave the river and push on by road for a visit to the stone forests of the Tsingy National Park.

But tonight, there’s only the river, flowing slow and red like an ancient vein through the heart of western Madagascar.

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“That’s the warning call! Quickly!”

– Moses, sprinting

Is there anything better than a rest day?

After our long day up to the summit of Marojejy peak and back down to camp 2, we slept in lazily the next morning. When we finally dragged ourselves out of bed and up to the dining shelters, Primo presented us with steaming coffee, omlettes and the news that Moses had left camp an hour ago to hunt for signs of the Silky Sifakas, the famous White Lemurs. A sighting of these primates, one of the rarest in the world, would certainly be a highlight of the trip.

We had thought that Moses might want us to come with him in case he was successful in tracking down the troop of 6 Silkies that often frequent the area around camp 2. But in the typically generous manner we’d come to expect from him, he’d decided to let us enjoy a relaxing morning at camp instead. He would come back and get us if he located the Lemurs.

This left us with a blissfully work-free morning on our hands. The sun was again brilliant. We savoured the view of the Leaning Rock, read books and journaled. Later in the morning, we bathed in the nearby river and watched the red, black and green dragonflies zip in and amongst the great webs slung across the waters by the giant spiders.

Moses returned to camp around 1 o’clock, disappointed after a long hunt for the White Lemurs. As we sat down to a vegetable stir fry lunch, he announced that, in the afternoon, we would all go out for one last try.

All of us that is, except Primo. And Louise. Those two had other, more sombre matters to attend to.

The time had come for us to say goodbye to our fine feathered friend.

“Pauvre Louise!” Janine said genuinely, to the great amusement of Moses and Primo. The latter had picked up our hen and now held her out towards us for a final farewell.

I felt a little lump in my throat. “Make it quick,” I told Primo, who stroked Louise gently as she fussed in his arms. “Otherwise, she’ll taste gamey.”

“And save a few nice feathers for the scrapbook!” pleaded Janine.

Then Primo took Louise into some bushes beside the dining shelter and Janine and I found something else to do for a few minutes.

***

Was it karma? We didn’t find any Lemurs that afternoon. We stalked quietly through the forests around camp 2, stopping every dozen or so steps to gaze intensely over the canopy or listen for a tell-tale grunt or a rustling branch. We went off track, pushed through bush, doubled back on our previous path, split up. Nothing.

Towards sunset, we walked back down to camp, consoling ourselves that we’d already had a superb trip by almost any standard. Moses seemed the most downcast. Our guide had genuinely wanted to find the lemurs as a cap stone to our Marojejy trip. Watching him return empty handed after so much hard work was as much a source of sadness as missing the Lemurs themselves.

Once again, however, Louise buoyed our spirits. Stewed in a tomato and ginger bouillabaise, she was delicious. If only all our hiking companions could come in so handy (are you listening Matthew?). After dinner we felt refreshed and decided if we couldn’t find Silkies during the day, we’d go see what there was to see in those deep dark forests at night.

***

Through the forest we crept, our headlamps sending beams of light into the secretive woods. If looking for lemurs by day was slow work, hunting for animals in the dark was glacial. A few steps and then a slow sweep of bushes, tree trunks, grasses and earth with the lights. Then, crouch or face back the other way and repeat the process. You never know what you’ll see from a different angle.

Gradually, the forest revealed secrets. A rare chameleon no longer than my pinky finger, glowing a little greener than the blade of spider grass on which he perched. A leaf tailed gecko and a little frog that could sit comfortably on a nickel. A ponderous and stately 2.5 inch long stick bug called the Devil’s Club. Another tiny Chameleon with a long, pinched nose. Web throwing spiders in the trees and a blue-tinged eel wriggling gracefully through the waters in which we’d bathed that morning.

Each discovery in the glow of the headlamps was enjoyed with hushed whispers and excited explanations by Moses about the creature’s habits, rarity and various scientific and common names. We had meant to go out for just an hour, but stayed out for two. When we finally went to bed, we were excited to have had a glimpse into a world which we had only heard and dreamt had existed outside the walls of our snug little sleeping shelters.

***

“I can’t believe it’s sunny again,” Janine said as she finished closing her day-pack. “The weather’s been amazing.”

I couldn’t disagree. Heat had been a greater adversary than rain each day of the trip. And as we prepared to leave camp 2 and hike out of Marojejy, it looked like today would be no exception. Even in the early morning shade it was growing warm.

We told Moses and Primo we didn’t want to leave. “It could hardly have been a better trip,” I told our guide as we shouldered our packs. “9.9 out of 10. The only thing blocking the perfect score is the White Lemurs and that’s no one’s fault.”

Moses nodded a melancholy smile. He was still disappointed about not finding the Silkies. Sighing, he turned to leave.

We took all of five steps out of camp when we heard the first call. A deep, grunting “tock tock” echoed across the canopy.

The transformation of Moses’ face was instantaneous. His face lit up rapturously. “They’re here!” he said, dropping his red and blue pack and beginning a brisk jog towards the forest. “That’s the warning call!

Quickly!” He broke into a full out run, bounding across the little river that ran through camp and up the trail towards camp 3 and the gutteral barks. We ran behind, our hearts thumping like we’d just been told a troop of sasquatch were up in the hills.

Within two minutes, we’d located them – three of the six troop members grazing serenely on leaves and shoots 20 meters off the forest floor, their snow white coats almost irridescent in the powerful sunlight.

Three more soon joined these, leaping gracefully through the trees, grasping the branches with their strangely elongated opposable thumbs.

The grunting “tock, tock” was issued whenever a threatening bird appeared. But otherwise they were silent and paid us no mind as they ate their breakfast, at the end of which a low mooing sound was issued to signal it was time to think about moving on.

Moses looked like he was in heaven. Folding his arms behind his head and stretching out on the forest floor, he stared up at the canopy as calm and content as a sage. “Wait here,” he predicted. “They’ll come right over us.”

And once again he was right. The Silkies moved slowly and nonchalantly from tree to tree, sometimes in a duo but usually scattered across a few dozen square meters of canopy. Eat, rest, move. Repeat. Eventually, most of the troop was munching placidly within a few meters of us, posing for pictures as they stretched out between branches or crouched in “Thinker” like poses on a thick tree limb.

An hour slipped away in what felt like minutes. By that time, the Silkies had begun to move deeper into the bush away from the trail and we turned our minds once again to the 5 hour walk that lay between us and the park gate. It was time to go.

Moses led us back to the spot where we’d dropped our bags. His step was visibly lighter. I was as happy for him as I was for having seen these rare animals. “I changed my mind.” I told him with a pat on the back.

“10 out of 10 seems like the right score after all.”

***

After our lemur encounter, we walked steadily for the next 5 hours, stopping only twice. Once for lunch and once for a skinny dip in a simply irresistible natural swimming pool fed by a sparkling waterfall (Moses and Primo waited demurely back in the forest while we jumped in).

By early afternoon we were once again strolling through the vanilla fields, rice paddies and little villages that crowded around Marojejy’s borders.

We were almost in sight of the park office and had just finished examining a beautiful female Panther Chameleon, when Moses started to relate one final story in a quiet voice, at first almost like he was speaking to himself. His grandmother had told it to him as a boy, he said, and it had always stuck. It was a fable about a Malagasy slave’s son from distant antiquity who took refuge in the forest during a storm and found in a tree a great treasure of gold. With the gold, he became rich enough to marry the king’s daughter and eventually become king himself, giving freedom to all his fellow slaves.

“Of course, it is a fairy tale,” said Moses. “But one with a deeper meaning. If you look closely, you still see the forest’s gold.” He nodded to a field of rice, deep yellow in the sun. “The clean waters pouring from Marojejy’s forests irrigate one of the largest rice growing areas in the country. The forest gives us the animals. The animals and the trees bring the tourists. The tourists inject money into the local economy and create opportunities for jobs and businesses around the park.”

“You see?” he said, turning to me,

“The gold is still there. We need only to look for it and to protect it.

It is a great treasure.”

Jason

“Took my love, took it down; climbed the mountain and I turned around.”

– Stevie Nicks, Landslide

Louise was secure in the Camp 3 dishes cupboard, her brown feathers slightly puffed out against the chilly evening air. She cooed quietly amidst the spare pots and cutlery. It was time for us to go to bed too.

The forest was coming alive with a million strange calls, whistles chirps and hoots, signalling the beginning of the night shift in the Marojejy forest.

There was something mysterious and alluring about the darkened palms, bamboo and vines. Even on our way down to the outhouse together before bed, Janine and I were entranced, speaking in whispers and hoping for a glimpse of something rare and nocturnal. Janine went in the bathroom first while I stood outside in the dark. Before long, I got that unmistakeable feeling of being watched and turned on my headlamp. There, right over the door of the bathroom sat a strange, plump little brown bird, its beak elongated and curved for some undoubtedly specialized purpose, its eyes staring at me wide and black in the glow of the lamp.

Silent. It was just a little bird. But it was also part of the mystique of the nighttime forest.

Then the little bird gave a loud squawk and buzzed my head just as a rather large bug fell on Janine’s lap in the bathroom, producing another squawk, and we trotted briskly back to our cabin, nocturnal wanderings over for the immediate future.

***

“Marojejy” is a Malagasy word. “Maro” means “many” or “much”. But “jejy”, Moses explains as we start our climb to the highest peak in northern Madagascar, has 4 different definitions. In some contexts it means “spirits”, in others “rocks”, still others “palm trees” and finally, in others, “rain”.

The “spirits” moniker is easy to understand. These forests have evolved here, isolated from the rest of the world, since Madagascar floated away from the other continents180 million years ago. While in the rest of the world ferns and lemurs receded, and in the latter’s case, died out, in the face of increased competition from flowering plants and apes, here they flourished. Lemurs here were once the size of gorillas. From a high vantage point, Moses points out vast tracts of forest that have still never been explored by humans. In the villages bordering the park, people speak matter of factly about “little people”, humans less than a meter tall, like us in every way except for their feet, which face in the opposite direction as our own. There are also the Calonoors, half-human, half spirit, which Malagasy will sometimes summon for advice on the treatment of maladies. Moses, though a Christian by inclination, has witnessed such a consultation and believes in the existence of these beings. He lists the Calanoors, together with the traditional methods of trial and error and observation of the Lemurs, as one of the sources of the Malagasys’ incredibly vast and detailed knowledge of herbal medicine. Looking out over these rugged forests of strange trees, you may not believe, but you will have to wonder.

Just what the hell’s out there?

***

The “rains” definition is the one that contributed to a restless sleep the previous night. Moses has told us that the summit is pelted with rain 4 days out of 5 and sure enough, every day of the trip so far at around 11 a.m., we’ve watched dark grey clouds boil up and around the park’s tall peaks. They’d certainly spoil our view from the top. But more importantly, they’d make the 880 meter ascent up there, not to mention the 1350 meter descent down to Camp 2 later in the day, a slippery, mucky mess.

We’re on the trail by 7:30 a.m. to make the best of our chances. Primo sends us on our way with a breakfast of incredibly strong Madagascar coffee and incredibly salty eggs.

The weather looks cooperative. The sky is a pale azure and the air cooler than at the more humid low camps. The trail leaves Camp 3 on a steady incline through the rainforest. The trees are a little shorter now at this altitude but still tall enough to provide dappled shade. We are increasingly grateful for this as the path angles more and more sharply upwards before its final transformation into an irregular ladder of tree roots and rounded stones. We work our way over this prototypical jungle gym mostlyin quiet, breaking silence ocassionally to share a quick laugh or sigh as we gaze up at the next swirling pitch of wood and rock. Then, with a grunt, we place feet carefully, check for millipedes or ugly spiders on our proposed handholds and hoist ourselves onwards.

Even with the shade, it gets to be sweaty work. And after 2 hours we lose even the diminished shade of the mid-altitude rainforest, to emerge on the more thinly forested slopes of the massif. At this altitude, the trees continue to grow, but in dwarfed proportions. The palms that towered into the canopy 10 meters above our heads yesterday now top out at just 20 centimeters above the ground. Suddenly, we’re the giants.

Sweaty giants.

Over the tops of the wild begonias, miniature ferns and heather, we can now see the true majesty of Marojejy’s “stones”. Most of the park is forest-covered. But where the rock breaks through, it does so in dramatic fashion. Below us, the Leaning Stone, which towered over us so imposingly at Camp 2, bakes gold in the morning sun. To its right, across the deep valley which our path has followed for the past 2 days, a W-shaped mountain called the Cow’s Snout sniffs the sky. Yesterday, it too rose high above us. Now, we can see down into its snorting grey and green nostrils.

But the most magnificent “jejys” are only now revealed. “The Teeth” are a series of 3 severely jagged peaks directly facing the summit’s north face. Their slopes rise at rugged 70 degree angles on each side. A tinge of green forest clings on doggedly towards the top. But even this gives way when the faces drop; white, bare and perfectly vertical, for several hundred meters to the valley floor below.

Moses says they’ve never been climbed.

We don’t stop for long. We’ll continue to get views of the Teeth as we climb towards the peak. Plus we’ve got the seemingly contradictory weather to deal with. On one hand, we’re cooking in a stew of our own sweat on the exposed slopes . On the other, we can see those 11 a.m.

clouds moving in from the north.

We reach the summit just as the first wisps of white start to trail over the Teeth. But for 20 minutes, our view is perfect. To the north, beyond the grinning peaks of the Teeth, we can see the plains of Andapa, gold with the rice harvest. South, we can see traces of the villages bordering the park, peaking out from behind the forests or clinging to the little roads that wind their way throught the mountains. In the east, the park’s lesser mountains run off to the horizon in layer after hazy layer, ending at the Indian ocean, itself seared yellow-white and shimmering in the heat.

The view may only be the latest gift of Marojejy, this park of wild stones, lemurs and palms. But it’s one of the best.

***

 The descent of any mountain is anti-climactic. Marojejy is no exception.

But added to the slight malaise is a healthy dollop of hard work. The return path must be negotiated with even more caution than the outbound since falling down tends to hurt more than falling up.

It took nearly 4 hours to reach the summit. The trip back down to our starting point at Camp 3 in only an hour less. Once there, we tuck in gratefully to a plate of hot beans deliciously spiced with ginger (who knew?), while Primo tidies the kitchen and bundles up Louise for the hike down to Camp 2.

Within half an hour we’re on the move again, negotiating the 500 meter descent to Camp 2 over the now-familiar interlocking network of tree roots. Our porters have failed to show up today, so in addition to all of their other labours, Primo and Moses shoulder the loads themselves.

The physicality of this is almost as impressive as the good humour with which it’s done. Janine and I silently promise to mete out justice at tip time.

As is his custom, Primo races ahead of us to prepare hot drinks and food for our arrival at camp. Louise dangles calmly from a rope tied to the foot-long handle of the cook’s trusty knife, making an ocassional upsidedown peck at a passing shrub or fern.

After 2 hours, stopping often to scan the canopy for signs of life, we catch up with Primo and Louise at Camp 2. Primo stands before a series of small stoves, the size and shape of washing buckets. In each, white hot coals glow heartily, warming kettles of water and pots of potatoes, rice and carrots.

It hasn’t been that long since lunch, but we’re still able to polish off everything that our cook puts before us. To accompany our meal, we open our bottle of “Victory Coke”, carefully saved for summit day, and share a toast with our team.

We eat in a darkness alleviated marginally by the glow of a few candles.

The Leaning Rock once again broods over us, though unseen in the pitch black. After we finish dinner, Janine and I linger at the table, listening to more of Moses’ stories about the spirits and strange creatures that live in these mountains. I know I should write notes on the day’s events, but the earlier exertions and the knowledge that

tomorrow is a rest day, makes me lazy. I let my mind wander off

towards sleep, accompanied by the deep baritone musings of our guide.

Jason

“I don’t mind them biting me ocassionally but I’d really rather they didn’t lay eggs.”

– Janine

Madagascar is home to over 670 million insect species. Or at least that’s my guess based on how many bounced off or buzzed by my face last night.

Most species are quite harmless. Into this category I place the big white moths that so loved our parafin lanterns, the crickets and grasshoppers of various sizes that jumped onto our picnic table and into our rice over supper and beautiful green bug with two inch wings mimicking little green leaves down to the very veins and texture. They all found my headlamp irresistible and throughout the course of the evening I was treated to many enounters with them, their cousins, friends and more distant relations.

It was the easiest bit of nature watching I’d ever done. Still, after two hours, I was ready to go crazy if one more multi-legged individual made an unauthorized landing on my nose or eye. Listening to Louise, cooing contentedly in the large wooden dish chest where she was stowed safely away from roaming mongooses, I was tempted to crawl in with her to finish the blog.

In the morning, on warm up hike to a picturesque 50 meter waterfall just half an hour from our camp, we were introduced to some of the less pleasant insects. Namely, leeches. These little darlings were delighted to see us, crawling like tiny inchworms across our clothing until they found a patch of exposed skin. Thereupon, they kindly squirted a little anaesthetic so as we’d not feel a thing, or notice them, chomped into our flesh with their hundreds of razor sharp micro-teeth and with the aid of a natural anticoagulant (again, for our comfort and convenience, certainly) commenced to greedily suck our vital bodily fluids. This continued until we either noticed them and with a little shriek and shiver plucked them off or until they’d eaten their fill and dropped back into the bushes to await the next passing meal. Leeches don’t hurt. They’re just really fucking gross. So we made a game of seeing who could pick the most off themselves. I, unfortunately, won. By a lot.

Apparently, in addition to all my other wonderful attributes, I’m quite tasty.

I’m also tall. This becomes a little inconvenient as I clean most of the spider webs strung acros the trail with my face. This wouldn’t be so bad if it were only the horned buffalo spiders that I had to worry about disturbing. But today we’re seeing many instances of a new, lovely, but very large and hairy red-legged spider. Moses assures me it’s harmless, but I can’t believe that of any spider whose mandibles I can actually see and imagine using as a nail clippers.

Then there’s the mysterious unseen insects. On the way back from the waterfall, Janine stopped to scratch again at a strange welt that was rising on her back. “Bite or something else?” she asked me, lifting her shirt and showing me a two inch long slightly puffy bump. I said I wasn’t sure of anything beyond the fact that something had been there and done something, probably unpleasant.

“I don’t mind them biting me ocassionally but I’d really rather they didn’t lay eggs,” Janine said plaintively, giving the welt one last scratch and then, with a sigh, heading back down the trail.

I thought it was a reasonable request, but silently resolved to keep a closer eye on my wife for the next few weeks. If she grows an extra eye, shows an enhanced appetite for sugar, or if anything creepy begins to protrude from her back, I will squish her.

***

 Of course, insects can be beautiful too. While Moses explains some park history to us, a brown, blue, orange and white butterfly the size of a tea saucer lands on his leg. We all enjoy the moment breathlessly, knowing that as soon as we move, it will be gone. And sure enough, just as Janine moves to extricate her camera, he’s gone.

We stop beside a fig tree where large clumps of fruit lie dried and brown against the trunk. Moses tells us that these husks are actually in the process of being turned into ant colonies. The clumps of fruit, as they dry create a waterproof superstructure. But the tree gets something from it too. Unlike most plants, its flower buds within the fruit. The ants pollinate the flowers when they burrow into the fruit to lay their eggs. It’s a beautiful symbiotic relationship.
The pageant continues. A black and scarlet millipede the length of my hand weaves gracefully over the forest floor. Its undulating legs are mesmerizing. Shorter, fatter green cousins are also seen frequently.

When touched or threatened, they instanteously curl into a perfectly circular, lacquered emerald ball. They’re beautiful. Hell, they’re all all beautiful in a way.

Except the leeches obviously. Oh, and the giant cockroaches living in the sleeping cabins. Hate them too.

***

Today’s hike starts with a 2 hour walk from camp 1 to our lunch stop 200 meters up at camp 2. It’s a gentle incline, leaving us with lots of breath to appreciate the ongoing display of rare trees. Moses is unstumpable when it comes to identifying them, knowing both their French, Malagasy and Latin names in every case. Our favourite is the Acrobat Tree. The trunk of the tree sits high above the ground on stilt like roots. Over time, it throws out new roots a casts off old, gradually migrating across the forest floor. A slow motion walking tree.

Of course, the great trees are home to the creatures for which Madagascar is most famous – the lemurs. And while standing before a marvelous 500 year old Strangler Fig, a cavernous void in its middle where it’s host tree once lived, we hit pay dirt. A troop of White-Fronted Brown Lemurs suddenly reveal themselves in the canopy. The males sport a white rim of fur around their faces while the females are completely earth coloured. One male carries a baby lemur on its back, in a fashion no different than we’ve seen humans doing with their young all over Africa. The little Lemur mirrors the parent looking over its shoulder and down at us curiously. Moses explains in a whisper that the young are carried on their parents underbellies for their first 3 months and thereafter on the back, until they reach maturity. There are about 6 animals that we can see in total. We watch each other for about 5 minutes before they finally leap gracefully off the Strangler Fig and move deeper into the forest.

We’ve only been walking a few minutes more when clicks and chirps give away the presence of another group of our distant cousins. We go still and after a few moments a Lesser Bamboo Lemur gives away his location (barely 10 feet from us, seated on a downed tree) by moving his head slightly. He and his mate only give us a quick once over before hopping into a denser thicket.

This would normally be more than enough to satisfy most animal lovers.

But today, the hits just keep coming. Not long before camp 2, we come across another pair of the Bamboo Lemur. But these two are a local sub-species, larger and more golden in colour than is typical for the species. They are unfazed by our presence and rest languidly in trees just a few meters off the trail, their thick, ropey tails dangling idly from their supporting branches.

When we arrive at camp 2 we’re elated. We’ve just seen 3 different types of lemurs in 2 hours. Most zoos couldn’t offer you that.

 

We’ll be spending two nights at camp 2 on our way down from the summit of Marojejy and I couldn’t be happier about it. It’s beautifully sitatuated in an open clearing surrounded by thick rainforest. These woods are home to, among other things, the snow white Silky Sifaka, one of the rarest primates in the world. Seeing some would be a major coup. But even if we fail, there are some other pretty spectacular views to compensate. Beyond the clearing rears the face of the Leaning Stone, a 500 meter rock face stretching up and over the forest floor below at a noticeable 10 degree angle, like a natural Tower of Pisa.

We eat lunch and grab a quick nap in the shade here (it’s ferociously hot) before continuing on with the biggest challenge of the day – a 500 meter climb to camp 3. The elevation gain itself is no big deal, but the terrain makes it a tough 3 hours. For most of the ascent, the trail disappears beneath a continuous interlocking network of tree roots.
These must be either carefully tread on, over or between while negotiating the inclines. Where the roots run out, they are replaced with smooth, wet brown earth and slick round rocks. The earth bordering this “trail” is peaty and soft, making trekking poles and walking sticks useless – without snow baskets, they just punch right through.

Janine’s poles disappear up to their handles so many times that it looks like she’s checking the earth’s oil with two big dipsticks.

After two hours of this, we reach a plateau of sorts. As usual, we realize up here, that all the slipping, sliding and cursing was worth it, as we stare out over a magnificent panoram of rugged mountains and deep virgin forests.

Still, I don’t look forward to going back down that sucker tomorrow if we get rain.

When we reach Camp 3 an hour later. Primo has already fed Louise her daily ration of rice and is busily preparing our vegetable spaghetti sauce. Our labours for the day are finished, and while Janine gives Moses some advice and first aid supplies for treating a wound on his foot, I head for the bathroom where a garden hose funnelling river water from a high mountain stream serves as a rough shower.

I’m just about to duck in for a wash when I spot a branch movement out of the corner of my eye. Clicks and chirps tell the rest of the story.

More lemurs. Another species too. The vulnerable Red-bellied Lemur. But the name belies their true colour. They’re really a beautiful bronzed brown with a lighter gold crest on their chests. Their are 4 of them, including a parent and child, not twenty feet away. They stare at me a while, before their interest wanes and they start to move away. I don’t want them to go and in desperation try imitating some of the clicking and chirping sounds I’ve heard our guide and cook make on previous lemur encounters. It works. One of the adults breaks away from the troop and in four giant leaps descends to a tree branch nearly at eye level just 8 feet away from me. The light of genuine intelligence and curiousity is plainly visible in his eyes. We stare at each other for what seems like several minutes, long enough even for Janine to join me and savour the encounter too.

Later on, drying off from an extremely, extremely cold cleaning, I wonder if we even need to summit Marojejy tomorrow morning. The wildlife and the natural beauty of its slopes alone already has us feeling like we’re on top of the world.

Jason

 

 

 

 
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where are we now?

Home, Sweet Home

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