Thursday, February 16, 2012

February 13th – Playing with Lemurs in Madagascar

Well, the cyclone hasn't hit yet, so it hasn't stopped us arriving in Fort Dauphin; although, as it nears the island, we're going to have to sail at 1pm, to avoid the worst of its wrath.

For our short time here, we had arranged for a driver for the morning to take us to what there was to see in this impoverished part of the world. She wasn't allowed into the port, so on a boiling hot day, we had to sweat our way over to the port gates to meet up with her.

The roads around the port are pretty good, which gives a slightly misleading introduction to the area – these roads have been put there by the mining company that ships out titanium from a huge mine outside of Fort Dauphin; while the rest of the infrastructure is literally falling apart. We drove along a heavily potholed dirt track through the ramshackle streets of the villages outside of town – we were incredulous to find out that this is one of the island's main highwaya (a Route National) that connects the south with the capital, Antananarivo in the centre of the island. You hardly meet any cars on the way, just lots of people walking (many barefoot) from place to place.

But, where Madagascar is poor is economic terms, it's incredibly rich in nature. It's an extremely lush place with a totally unique range of flora and fauna, that's evolved totally separately from the rest of the planet. Obviously, the star of the show is the beautiful lemur, so our mission was to spend as much time as possible with any lemurs that we could find.

Because of the terrible state of the roads here, you can't get into the Rainforest or the Spiny Forest (even if we had a full day); so our guide took us about 7 miles out of town to the Nahampoana Reserve, a well-run little place that showcases some of the beautiful nature on offer.

We first met some tortoises, but we couldn't wait to get to the lemurs – and they didn't disappoint. We can to a little copse, and the guide pointed into the trees and said "lemurs". I couldn't see any, but as soon as he made a high pitched noise (that obviously means "come and get some food" in lemur-speak), it felt like it was raining lemurs, as they leapt down the branches of the tree. It was magical.

These have got to be amongst the cutest animals on the planet - they're so inquisitive and combine being slightly shy with being slightly cheeky. He had cleverly brought some bananas with him, so we had the unforgettable experience of hand feeding these gentle beady-eyed creatures. Unlike monkeys, who now terrify Tracy with their skittish and aggressive grabbing of food; these timid lemurs were so calm as they timidly grabbed your finger to steady themselves as they nibbled the banana off your hand.

Their hands felt like soft velvet and we couldn't feel any nails – what a fantastic experience. So, we fed ring-tailed lemurs, some brown lemurs (who got chased off by the ring-tailed lemurs who had claimed us as their own); and then we got to my favourites – the white jumping lemurs. Unfortunately, we couldn't coax them out of the trees for them to do their endearing, hands-in-the-air jumping little run, so we fed them in the trees instead. The baby ones were so adorable, we just wanted to smuggle one back on the ship – you'll be glad to know we didn't.

Sadly, as we ran out of banana, we didn't quite have the same allure to our furry little friends – next time, we're bringing a crateful. So, we were now on cloud nine, and had fallen in love with the island, purely on the basis of the lemurs. But, the rest of the reserve was pretty beautiful too – we went on a walk through the different trees, and then did a boat trip round a peaceful little stream. All very picturesque.

With the fear of getting stranded on Madagascar an ever-present danger in the back of our minds, we headed back to Fort Dauphin to explore the city a bit. The town is every bit as run-down as the roads leading up to it, but the people seemed friendly enough (although some passengers found them a little too "grabby" when they got off the shuttle bus). We visited the chaotic market, where the hot and sweaty fly-covered meat section smelt pretty ripe, but the exotic fruit and veg showed you how fertile it was.

We also visited a beautiful beach – turquoise seas and yellow sands, with not a tourist in sight. We asked the guide why somewhere as naturally blessed as this, wasn't bringing some much-needed cash into the system by developing a tourist industry. She explained that the infrastructure here just wasn't up to, and the ongoing corruption in the system prevented things from improving.

As if just to prove the point, as we drove along, we were pulled over by a policeman by the side of the road. He demanded our papers, which he tortuously inspected, constantly shuffling them in his hand. Our guide told him again and again that everything was there and in order, while he kept up with his delaying tactics. Eventually, she weakened, and offered him a "cadeau", a gift of a few ariary (the local currency). As soon as the note was in his hand, the problem with the papers miraculously disappeared, and we were on our way again. Apparently, this happens at least every other day.

So, having encountered wild lemurs and untamed cops, it was time to head back to the ship, where we were treated to some energetic dancing, while we waited to embark. If this country can ever get its act together, it could be a massive tourist destination – for the time being, we felt privileged to just be here at all.