Darkness falls early this close to the equator, and that's a good thing when your scheduled activity is a Madagascar nighttime wildlife-spotting walk.
Guy – that’s the backpacker I’d met yesterday – and I met our guide at the Mitsinjo NGO headquarters across from our guesthouse at 17:30, right when the sun was setting. His name was Dipsi, or maybe Deep-see. I could remember how to pronounce it if I imagined Samuel Jackson getting chomped by the shark in Deep Blue Sea.
Dipsi led us along the country road past Andasibe’s railway terminal and the mid-range Hotel Mikalo. The national park is two kilometres from the town, but we weren't actually going into the national park, since nighttime visits are forbidden. No, we were walking along the road and then hiking through Mitsinjo's private forest.
Squeak. Squeak. Squeak.
Dipsi's shoes wouldn't let us forget where he was. But that's okay, because they seemed to have magic animal-calling powers. And his eyes! They were amazing. He could spot a chameleon on a dark branch from ten metres away.
"There." It was a small green frog on a green leaf.
"And there." A tiny brown chameleon on a thin branch, its tail curled up into a spiral.
Then we got to the good stuff, including a large Parson's Chameleon, green with a spiraled tail and a horned nose. Other tourists approached too, with their cameras and other guides.
But none of the other tourists could go into the private reserve. We hiked through the forest by the halos of our flashlights, enjoying sightings of spiders and strange plants. Dipsi was a local naturalist, born and bred here, having never even been to the northern beaches that Madagascar is famous for. He was 36 but looked ten years younger. He didn't say much, but he seemed to know everything about each plant or animal that we came across.
The private reserve was fun, but all the real action was happening back out on the road, including an elusive mouse lemur. These are tiny and hard to photograph in the dark. Guy and I both bemoaned our lack of planning – neither of us had read up on how to use the manual functions on our cameras.
When we got back to the Parson's Chameleon, one of the other guides had pulled the branch down that the chameleon was sitting on, so everyone could get a close-up. That seemed pretty rude to the chameleon. Guy and I backed off quickly, not wanting to support disturbing the wildlife. Bad enough we were all shining flashlights at the animals. I was glad our guide had been more respectful than the guy tugging at the branches.
Though Dipsi could be a bit stand-offish when it came to direct questions. Our night safari had been outstanding, and Guy wanted to know what would be the best time for us to start out again in the morning, to see the daytime lemurs.
The question was simple and straightforward.
"Dipsi, what's the best time to see lemurs?"
Dipsi hemmed and hawed and avoided answering because he didn't really want to get out of bed at five in the morning. And who can blame him? I was pretty sure I didn't want to get out of bed at five in the morning, but after being pushy all day, it was time for me to sit back and let Guy lead. And if I didn't, well, he would have anyway. We were of similar dispositions.
Finally, Dipsi admitted that six was the best time to see lemurs.
"But we should go a little later."
We let him have his way. Heck, he's the expert.
Guy and I went back to the small ramshackle town’s Hotel Orchid for our scheduled meal, which turned out to be pretty good. And before we left, we chatted briefly with two guys who were talking about mountain gorillas in Uganda. I'd missed this social traveller's network after I’d moved on out of Mali and Ghana. It was nice to be meeting people again.
In the morning, Guy and I trekked along the road from Andasibe through the misty sunrise to Hotel Mikalo to start the day with a full breakfast. Our guide Dipsi was meeting us at the national park entrance in half an hour, and the hotel was on the way.
Dipsi was at the park waiting for us when we arrived, chatting with a dozen other guides that were hanging around looking for work.
"Which circuit would you like to do?" He showed us a map that detailed three different circuits around the park.
"Which one is the best for seeing lemurs?"
After several confusing answers, we learned that the #2 circuit was the best. But #1 and #2 were the same up until a fork two hours in. So now Guy tried a few more suggestions.
"Why don't we do #1, and when we get to the fork, we can see if we need to keep going to see more lemurs?"
This was agreeable to all of us, and then Guy threw in a wrench.
"Why don't we do the circuit in reverse so we aren't following all the groups?"
That sounded dandy to me, but it took us another ten minutes to convey it to Dipsi because of our differing accents and languages.
But it worked out, and Dipsi seemed impressed with this unusual approach, so off we went.
Early on, we reached an idyllic lake, complete with huge spiders and their webs. Guy and Dipsi were a lot more interested in the spiders than I was, so I wandered off, fidgeting, until they caught up.
We hiked around, and once in a while, Dipsi would hear or see some kind of clue that was invisible to me. He'd motion us to follow, and then he'd point.
Wow. So it was. Technically, as Guy would later look up, it's a "Red-Fronted Brown Lemur." But "Dancing Lemur" sounds so much nicer. "Muppet" also seemed apt.
Next up were brown lemurs – lots and lots of brown lemurs, scrambling, climbing, munching on snacks. They were raccoon-like. The lemurs were fast and furious now, around every corner for us when Dipsi wasn't helping other guides. He really did have extraordinary tracking abilities.
We'd just reached the end of Circuit #1, when Dipsi said "The indri are near. Just up here."
This knowledge was less incredible than it sounds. We'd been talking listening to the amazing whale-like call of the indri for the last 20 minutes.
The indri are the stars of the lemur show in Madagascar. There's nothing else in the world quite like these rare and endangered panda-koala-monkey-muppets with their picky diets and whale hooting.
They sound like this.
We watched them snack and groom each other. And eventually, the family of indri gracefully leapt away, like fat monkeys that could fly with the aid of a few branches.
Dipsi led us, the satisfied tourists, back to the park’s front gate, where we thanked him for his services and took our leave to hike the two kilometres back to town. We were thrilled by our lemurs. We'd seen all kinds of lemurs on the first few days of being in Madagascar. What could possibly top this?
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