We left the rolling hillsides for the tumbling waters of the Namorona River and the lush green of the virgin forest. After spending the better part of two days in the car, we were itching to get on the trail and try our luck at spotting more lemurs. There are over a hundred known sub-species of lemurs, all of them endemic to Madagascar. They inhabit distinct parts of the island and are incredibly different from one another, some resembling monkeys while others are closer to cats in appearance. The tiny ones look like the mice for whom they are named and there is even a rare lemur that for a long time was thought to be a kind of squirrel.
Ranomafana, meaning hot waters, previously drew visitors in the colonial days with its thermal baths. This hitherto unprotected fragment of rainforest came to the world’s attention in 1986 with the discovery of the golden bamboo lemur, one of three bamboo lemurs that call this forest home. Overall, the park has twelve known species of lemurs, including the elusive aye-aye, but only half are diurnal and seeing more than a handful in a single visit is rare.
Our morning walk began on the neatly kept, rock-inlayed trails but we quickly took a detour to delve into the heart of the forest in search of bamboo lemurs, best seen early in the day. Tracking lemurs is no easy task. The path was steep, muddy, and extremely slippery. We had to dodge branches and bamboo shoots, fighting our way through the brush – and that was when we were on the trail. We both bit it, D almost cracking the camera as he suddenly found himself sliding down a steep incline on his rear end, while S tumbled into a patch of thorns when she tried to position herself for a photo.
Despite the multiple trackers assisting our guide and the presence of encouraging signs – freshly chewed bamboo remnants on the ground and the sound of bamboo rustling and snapping in the thicket – luck was not on our side. The guide whistled, cooed, grunted, and even played bird calls and lemur grunts on his cell phone in an attempt to elicit a response from the forest’s denizens, but all to no avail.
Our senses were on high alert as we peered into the dense forest in a vain attempt to spot furtive lemurs that might have been hiding in the forest. When we did come upon the animals we sought, we realized that the ones that are active during the daytime do not strive to keep a low profile. We emerged from the brush to find a crowd gathered in front of a strand of trees that had a pair of Milne-Edward’s sifakas and a whole troup of red-fronted brown lemurs. They grunted and jumped from branch to branch, making quite a racket while they snacked on leaves and forest fruits.
If finding the lemurs was tough, photographing them was doubly so. Lemurs are fast, hopping from one tree to the next. The ones that do stay put usually sit in the treetops, surrounded by dense foliage and backlit against the sky. The sifakas, slightly smaller but very similar to the indris we saw in Anjozorobe, were hugging and licking each other high up in a tree some fifteen meters off the trail. We clambered up a steep embankment, battling the brush and trying not to slip while jockeying for position with other tourists, but it was impossible to get any quality photos. After a while, the crowd dispersed in search of other lemurs. Multiple safaris have taught us that it usually pays to stick around once you find an interesting animal, especially since one is never sure to find others elsewhere. So we waited, and eventually the lemurs migrated to a more accessible tree, allowing themselves to be photographed.
We looped around and returned again to the strand of bamboo forest but again failed to locate the bamboo lemurs. The trackers did, however, manage to find three nocturnal woolly lemurs that had curled up to sleep in the canopy of tangled tree branches. They stirred occasionally, grooming themselves lazily before turning their owl-like faces to gaze sleepily in our direction.
Having seen three different lemur species, we considered the day a success even though we had missed out on seeing the bamboo lemur. On the way back to the park entrance, our guide found a pair of ingeniously hidden leaf-tailed geckos, which camouflaged themselves so well that even after he had pointed them out to us, our eyes had trouble distinguishing them from the dried up leaves where they had curled up to await nightfall. We also saw two different chameleons, both very different from the ones we had seen on our night walk. Sadly, we couldn’t linger too long in the enchanted forest of Ranomafana as we had to clamber back into the car for the afternoon drive to the foothills of the Andringitra Mountains.