Mad About Madagascar

Madagascar by Gibson 563 If someday you find yourself way off the beaten path, then manage to take a few wrong turns and get even more lost, you may well end up in Madagascar. The world’s fourth largest island, Madagascar lies off the east coast of Africa. It’s a country that seems at least fifty years behind the times, with an unusual blend of French and African cultures. This destination isn’t for everyone, but we had a fabulous time here, focused on finding some of the world’s most exotic wildlife, including the chameleon above photographed by Gibson.

Madagascar 377 The smartest thing we did in arranging our trip here was to coordinate our visit with Chris Raxworthy, Chris has spent over twenty years exploring Madagascar while holding down prestigious appointments elsewhere. Since the year 2000, he’s had a very senior position at the American Museum of Natural History, focusing on herpetological (reptiles and amphibians) research and education. Having the world’s foremost expert on the wildlife of Madagascar was an incredible opportunity for us to immerse ourselves in this country’s astounding fauna and flora.

Madagascar 525 We spent time in two different locations in Madagascar — the Masoala Peninsula and Nosy Mangabe in the rainforest of the northeast, and Perinet Reserve in the southeast. The first thing you have to get used to here are long names — really long names. The cities and towns have names like Manjakandriana and Antananarivo. Also, the two primary languages spoken here are French and Malagasy. The country claims to have a population of 16 million, although its capital has just a million, and almost all the regions we passed through seemed sparsely populated.

Madagascar 105 The country seems to have almost no tourism industry, and little else in the way of industry or development. The country’s President also is CEO of the country’s largest company, a company that has been expanding rapidly through a series of acquisitions. The hotels we stayed in were extremely basic. Forget about internet access — even electricity and hot water can be hard to come by. The roads here were surprisingly good, but in many ways the Madagascar infrastructure seems to be moving backward over time, as the airport for one of our destinations reflects.

Madagascar 223 Our typical day in Madagascar was a) breakfast, b) morning hike, c) painfully prolonged lunch, d) some homework, e) late afternoon hike, f) painfully prolonged dinner with even worse service than lunch, and g) a night hike (generally in the driving rain :-( ). During our hikes, we played a collective game of “Wildlife Where’s Waldo?.” We’d scrutinize trees and thickets, looking for chameleons, snakes, geckos, frogs, birds, and lemurs. Their sizes range from small to tiny, and their camouflaging is generally excellent. Largely with the help of Chris Raxworthy, we saw over forty reptiles and amphibians during our week here, many so spectacular and bizarre that the pictures seem hard to believe.

Madagascar 053 My personal favorite from the trip were the chameleons. They ranged from good-sized to tiny. In the wild,we saw the Parson’s Chameleon, the Horned Leaf Chameleon, the Short-horned Chameleon, the Nose-horned Chameleon, and the Panther Chameleon. These lizards are very smart, extremely hard to find in the wild (at least for me!), and endlessly entertaining. They will walk all over you, jump great distances, and snap their tongues over two times the length of bodies to catch an insect.

Madagascar by Gibson 421 As hard as chameleons are to find, the “Where’s Waldo?” game would escalate with the Leaf-tailed Gecko. When we saw our first one in the wild, I could easily have spent five years looking at the tree without figuring out the location of the gecko. See if you do better in the picture on the left!?!? [Hint: the gecko stretches for most of the bottom half of the light-colored tree trunk on the right. At night, in the dark, even with a flashlight, you can't tell it's there unless you have a sixth sense for these things!!]

Madagascar by Gibson 045 We saw a bunch of different frog species here, ranging from tiny to fair-sized. Many were just so amazing in color patterns. We were fortunate to catch this Tomato Frog (see right), and its coloring left little doubt as to the origin of its name. And we saw some really astounding tiny frogs as well.

Madagascar 462 Among the herps we saw, the kids’ favorites were the snakes. We saw three different snake species in the wild, even though we were visiting Madagascar in early winter (a poor time for snake-hunting). The big favorite was the Tree Boa (left), which is even more impressive in person than in the photo. This snake is quite young and will get three times this size as it matures. I should add, though, that the snakes were not quite as big a hit with Elizabeth, who kept them at a safe distance.

Madagascar 260 Madagascar is famous for its lemurs (small primates), and we saw several species in the wild. These animals are fabulous acrobats, and often would jump distances of thirty feet or more in going from one tree to the next. They are just adorably cute, and a real highlight of our wildlife viewing here.

Madagascar 194 A wildlife surprise for us was the level of bird activity here. Birds weren’t our focus, and we weren’t really here at peak bird season. But we all expected to see a fairly broad and diverse set of species during a week in the wild here, and ended up seeing just 25 species, including the Red Fody at left. Some were spectacular, but it was a pretty slow bird spot for us.

Madagascar 481 On the morning of our last full day here, we stopped by Perinet National Park, hoping for some interesting wildlife activity. In just an hour in the park, we found (with the help of the local guides) a Tree Boa, an adult and juvenile Parson’s Chameleon. And while holding the chameleons, we were visited by an Indri Lemur! It was a fabulous conclusion to our stay in this interesting country.

Madagascar 645 Many of the places we’ve visited on our trip reminded us of somewhere else. Not Madagascar. It’s so distinctive, and so interesting. On our last day, we drove several hours across the country en route to the capital of Anantananarivo, and got a better feel for the beauty and unspoiled nature of the country. A typical scene is captured in the photo on the left, when our car on a major highway passes a man running in front of his cart, which is — believe it or not — carrying two pigs!! It’s not your everyday tourist location, but we were thrilled to have spent time here, and particularly appreciative of the insights we got from Chris Raxworthy.

Check out our Madagascar photos for some of the most amazing animals you’ll ever see!!

3 Responses to “Mad About Madagascar”

  1. scott Says:

    ted,
    finally had a chance to catch up with your trip through the blogs. evrything sounds fascinating and the pictures provide great info too. hope all is well, my best to everyone

  2. Elizabeth Carey Says:

    Hi guys! Imagine my surprise at seeing a picture of Chris Raxworthy on your blog – he is married to a childhood friend of mine – Didi! I love sharing this trip with my kids. Thanks for all the great info and photos.

  3. Dick Merrow Says:

    Didi,

    Joanna forwarded the blog address to me and I just finished enjoying the Mad About Madagascar pages with the great pictures. This was an unusual assignment for Chris, being an expert for a private party. Did he enjoy the role?

    Dick

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