Before humans began settling Madagascar two thousand years ago the island was covered in forest and was the domain of the lemur. More than one hundred species of this cat-faced primate ran rampant over this one thousand mile long island. For thousands of years they evolved on this isolated island and remained confined to the island, a species found nowhere else. With ninety per cent of their habitat no more, the most dramatic devastation of forest on the planet, they are now confined to a handful of national parks and other small preserves.
It wasn't until my eighteenth day here that I had my first encounter with a lemur, one of the emblems of the country. It adorns the most common bill, the one thousand Amiary, while the baobab graces the two thousand note. I finally saw a real one on an early morning hike in Ranomafana National Park accompanied by the mandatory guide.
I thought I might be visited by them the night before as I camped at the park entrance besides a fast rushing river, but they stick to the forest and have no interest in foraging from humans. Shortly after we entered the dark and dense forest Idi began making a guttural clucking sound hoping for a response from the bamboo lemur that inhabited this section of the park. On and on we went without a response. Twice Idi left me at an intersection while he dashed off to check if there might be any lemurs that-a-way. I didn't mind a pause, as the going was steep, and Idi was going at a brisk pace as if testing me. I was keeping up, but I was using different muscles than I use on the bike and I could feel them tightening up. As we approached a ridge top after nearly half an hour Idi pointed and said, "Look" and there was a troop of lemurs barely discernible quickly scampering through the tree tops.
We could barely catch a glimpse of them through the thick foliage as they were moving so quickly and gracefully. With their faces pointed upward, their most prominent feature was their long bushy tail. They passed directly over us and our trail.
Idi gestured to hurrily follow along. We managed to catch up with a few stragglers who had paused to munch on leaves. One nearly directly overhead was straining to reach a few. He didn't seem perturbed by our presence at all, not expressing any curiosity in us or desire to pose for the camera. He was fully preoccupied with the business of getting those leaves.
After a few minutes he continued on his way. Idi left the main path for a barely detectible trail through the tightly packed trees where we came face to face with another lemur fifteen feet away. He barely gave us a glance and returned to munching.
And so it continued for a full half hour, playing tag with an assortment of the bamboo lemurs, a species only found in this park and one other. Another eleven species are scattered about the vast park, but none within our range. I had paid for just a two-hour hike, not caring to abuse my legs beyond that. We did come upon a few other creatures, a snake curled in a tree, a furry rat, some birds and butterflies and brightly colored insects. Idi was regularly pointing out something of significance--an orchid and other distinctive plants in the thick vegetation.
I got a better idea on the vegetation at an arboretum five miles and a nine hundred foot elevation drop down the road, a mile past the town that bears the same name as the park. Though over eighty per cent of the plants in Madagascar are original to the island, my untrained eye could only distinguish a couple of the more dramatic ones--the baobabs and a huge fan-shaped palm known as the "Traveler's Tree," as its palms provide a liter of fluid for the desperate.
The arboretum had a variety of odd plants that out in the countryside blend in, but here on their own one could appreciate their individuality. Some have only recently been identified. Madasgascar is truly a botanist's paradise.
My day was further highlighted by the first library I had seen in Madagascar in this town of 5,000 that was a tourist town even before the park was established in 1991 thanks to its thermal waters. There are baths and a full-sized swimming pool. The library resided in a small building by the town hall--bare bones and basic, just one room and just one wall of book shelves that weren't even half-filled.
There were books in Malagasy, French and English. I was delighted to donate two books that I had finished, both novels, one Austrailian, "The Slap," and the other an Irish Booker winner, "The Sea." I was going to leave them with Juerg, but I'm sure he'd approve of this gesture.
There were five shiney-faced, gleeful young girls in the library, not much different than kids everywhere, more interested in a computer game than the books.