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Mystical Madagascar

Floating just off the coast of Mozambique, lies an island so mysterious in splendour that it’s almost impossible to think of it as being part of the African continent. From dry deserts to wet rain forests, its contrasting nature is what forms part of its appeal.

The rainforests of Madagascar exhibit gigantic buttressed trees, coiled lianas, dangling ferns and colourful orchids, all draped in mist, and is the auditorium of the one of Madagascar’s most revered creatures, the indri. The largest of the island’s rainforest dwelling Madagascan lemur species, it is an animal that boasts a magnificent voice that could rival that of any soprano.

I have managed to secure the best seats in the ‘house’ for myself and my ORYX clients for our Madagascar Photographic Tour by getting to the stage incredibly early. Although sunlight eludes us amongst the rainforest trees, I am told by those who know, that the best songs are those that are sung before sunrise.

We take our seats upon rotten stumps and fallen logs, made comfortable by cushions of moss, and peer with binoculars into a backdrop of brilliant green leaves. We are hushed, expectant and excited but also a little concerned the performers will not show. After all, nothing in nature is guaranteed.

Suddenly, the crashing of branches heralds the arrival of the indris, and before we know it, these cute and cuddly black and white primates have electrified the air with their eerie melody. An indri song is undoubtedly one of the most beautifully haunting calls in all of nature. It follows the basic harmony of a humpback whale blended with the soulful howl of a wolf. It touched our hearts in that way only beautiful music can, and there were tears in my eyes when the ensemble eventually ended.

But with so many diverse animals in one place, the evening action also never fails! At night time, armed with headlamps and cameras, we ventured forth into the steamy darkness with a local guide in order to track down some of the smaller and more unusual animals that call this island their home, and within minutes found an enormous green chameleon. Easily the size of a town rat, it swiveled its eyes this way and that, but it didn’t seem afraid of us. Quite the opposite actually. It looked intrigued and perhaps a little expectant. Luka, the guide, wandered away for a while, leaving us to take flash photos in the dark, but then he returned with a grasshopper in his hands.

“Watch this” he said, proffering the struggling insect to the big green lizard.

Instantly, its two bulbous eyes locked onto the target followed by a huge and grotesque tongue which shot out of his mouth like an arrow. Crunch, the grasshopper was no more!

Most evenings, we went out on nature focused night walks, and encountered giant leaf tailed geckos as big as hot dogs, tiny mouse lemurs as small as their name would suggest, and all sorts of strange insects, frogs and owls.

The star prize though (in my opinion) was a giraffe necked weevil. A bizarre, cherry coloured beetle with a ridiculously long neck which is utilized in jousting competitions with others of its kind. When man-beetle meets man-beetle and lady-beetle is watching, they will swing their necks back and forth until the lesser of two weevils submits. The creatures of the rainforest are assuredly impressive!

Technically, Madagascar is part of the African continent. It sits upon the same tectonic shelf, yet hasn’t been physically connected for 153 million years. The island in fact, has more in common with India from which it broke away some 88 million years ago. But 88 million years is a long, long time to be on your own. Time enough for distinct changes to happen to much of the wildlife that lived and still lives there today.

There are no Africanesque monkeys on the island, only Madagascan lemurs (of which there are some 100 species), as well as no lions, tigers or even elephants. The bird, mammal, reptile, amphibian, plant, and insect species are nearly all endemic to Madagascar, which means they are found there and absolutely nowhere else on the planet.

Being a large mountainous island of some 587000 km2, Madagascar has plenty of geographical and cultural variety to experience, and any trip there should aim to incorporate several of these unique and fascinating regions. There are dry spiny forests and semi deserts, sweltering humid rainforests and impressive groves of giant towering Baobab trees. Ethnically, it’s quite a jumble.

The highlands have a distinctly Asian flavour and were populated, less than 3000 years ago, by people who rowed over the ocean in simple canoes from Borneo. People of African decent arrived much later but yet today dominate the cultural landscape of the lowlands and coastal areas. Regardless of their origin, the first ‘settlers’ found themselves in a natural paradise where no human foot had ever stepped before. Although now extinct, back then there were also Madagascan lemurs the size of modern day chimpanzees and giant terrestrial birds too. What a sight they must have been to behold!

The song of the indri is just one of the many reasons why everyone should try to visit Madagascar at least once in their lives. It has countless beautiful animals to see, is decked with beautiful tropical beaches, boasts good scuba diving waters and fascinating human culture as well. But the main reason you should embark on a Madagascar Photographic Tour is because nearly all of the animals are endemic and rare, and may not be there in the not too distant future because of their endangered status. Madagascar’s once undisturbed forests, with their lemurs, chameleons and beautiful birds, are under siege by the native population.

But despite continuous deforestation, poaching and rampant development, it’s not too late to help save the endemic species of the island, and eco-tourism is one of the ways that Madagascar has adopted to help create jobs and bolster the economy. In order for this to be a success, the island locals are educated to understand the value of protecting their endemic flora and fauna because without tourists flocking to see its distinct assets, Madagascar would cease to exist.

I’ll most certainly return to this island and you should come along for a Madagascar Photographic Tour! Otherwise you might miss your only opportunity to meet some of the rarer denizens of this mysterious sultry ‘paradise’.

Dale Morris

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