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whale song

Located just three hours east of Tana, Andasibe is Madagascar’s most accessible national park. It is comprised of two distinct patches of rainforest – the smaller Perinet, which borders the main road, and the more rugged Mantadia, which can only be reached after an hour of jostling along a bumpy dirt track. We had been planning on making Andasibe the first stop on our tour of the country, but Vakona lodge where we hoped to stay was booked, so we started our travels in Anjozorobe, saving Andasibe for last. That the lodge was full was a worrying indicator of Andasibe’s popularity so we were pleasantly surprised when we found ourselves practically alone on our visit to the forest.

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This being our last opportunity to experience Madagascar’s unique wildlife, we signed up for one more night walk upon our arrival at Vakona. Unfortunately, there was not much to be seen and our guide seemed to give up on pointing out the beady, reflective eyes of the mouse lemurs because they were so far away. It started drizzling, and after photographing a few giant moths and phosphorescent butterflies, we were happy to return to the lodge.

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We had been hoping to visit both Perinet and Mantadia, but time was not on our side. Flights from Anjajavy, which only arrive and depart three mornings a week, are subject to change. The 8-seater that had deposited us in paradise was not available, and the four seats on the smaller plane that arrived in its stead went to two British couples with insanely short connections to their international flights home. We only had our rendezvous with Roland, and possibly some lemurs, so we wound up waiting for another plane to take us back to Tana. Our disappointment quickly dissipated, however, when we learned that Mantadia was not accessible on account of the damage caused by a cyclone that hit Madagascar in February.

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Andasibe is home to the indri indri, the largest of the extant lemur species, whose whale-like moaning can be heard outside the park. The Malagasy call the indris babakoto, which our guide book translated as “Father of Koto,” referencing the legend of a young boy named Koto, who was stung by bees while climbing a tree; when he fell, an indri caught him and carried him home on his back. The authoritative “Lemurs of Madagascar” field guide has a more probable explanation, noting that in addition to “Father of Koto,” the term translates to “old man,” “ancestor,” or “father,” and is used to show respect. The field guide also explained that indri is a corruption of the Malagasy word iry, which means “there.” French naturalist Pierre Sonnerat was looking for lemurs and when his guide cried, “iry, iry!” he took the word to be the animal’s name.

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We heard the indris as we entered the park and headed in their direction. Before we could get too far, however, we took a detour to admire a pair of diademed sifakas that another guide had spotted calmly munching on leaves and berries a few feet from the main trail. Of the lemurs we’ve seen, these sifakas are without a doubt the prettiest, with intense orange and grey fur that stands up on end as if charged with static electricity.

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We lingered a while with the sifakas, but the indris were calling, the forest resonating with their cries, so we followed our guide as he left the trail and led the way down a slippery slope deep into the brush. Unlike the indris we had seen in Anjozorobe, which were almost entirely black, the three indris we encountered this time had much lighter white-and-black coloring (due to the fact that the foliage is less dense in Andasibe). All was relatively quiet until the trio felt the need to lay claim to their territory and let out their foghorn-like wails, which evoked visions of beached whales crying out for help. After this territorial display, they hopped off into the thicket and we returned to the trail in search of more lemurs.

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We had been hoping to find bamboo lemurs, but try as he might – and it looked like he was sweating his socks off – our guide could not find them. He did, however, come upon a family of four diademed sifakas that had come down to the ground from their tree perches. Unless we moved too much, they were not alarmed by our proximity and proceeded to wrastle with each other while we snapped pictures from a few feet away. First to enter and last to leave, we made the most of our half day in Perinet.

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Part of the appeal of staying at Vakona Lodge, so we had heard and read, was easy access to its “private reserve,” where we planned to spend the afternoon of our last day in Madagascar. This, it turned out, was a reserve in name only. The lemurs, taken from the wild and unable to swim, are trapped on a man-made island, and the fact that there are no cages did not detract from the impression that we had gone from the wild to a petting zoo. A black-and-white ruffed lemur was waiting for our canoe to dock, happy to jump on our shoulders for a piece of banana proffered by our “guide.” Before we had walked another dozen feet, we found ourselves swarmed by a troupe of brown lemurs, the most squirrel-like of the species we encountered.

While his friends were looking for scraps of banana, this little guy fell in love with D's hat, spending a good ten minutes licking it and chewing on the strap before D finally shrugged him off.

While his friends were looking for scraps of banana, this little guy fell in love with D’s hat, spending a good ten minutes licking it and chewing on the strap before D finally shrugged him off.

We also saw grey bamboo lemurs, the smallest of the diurnal lemurs, who were too shy to battle the brown lemurs for our affection. The experience of having lemurs jumping on our shoulders, while novel, left us feeling dirty in more than one sense. Although we were able to see two species we had not been able to encounter in the wild, the visit compared poorly with the sense of awe and discovery we felt when coming upon lemurs after an arduous hike through the woods.

Bamboo lemurs are so tiny; no wonder we had such a hard time finding them in the forest!

Bamboo lemurs are so tiny; no wonder we had such a hard time finding them in the forest!

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