Saturday, 20 September 2008

Lemur adventures

Last time I was on a cruise in the waters around Madagascar for several weeks, I didn't see a single lemur or chameleon. In fact, I spent all of about 3 hours on dry land if memory serves! This meant that a second visit to Madagascar without seeing any would make me extremely bleak. Tommy said that there was some kind of lemur park close to Toamasina, so, at 8 in the morning, after a few moments trying to find J├ęssica unsuccessfully to drag her along, Bradley and I more or less ran to the port gates, met up with Tommy, and then found out that not only did he not know where the lemur place was, he couldn't remember its name. And neither Bradley nor I had thought to bring the printout of the locally relevant chapter of the Lonely Planet guide to Madagascar I had purchased, downloaded and printed out the day before. Oops.

I was press-ganged into attempting to communicate with the bicycle taxi drivers near the port in my limited French. I supposed that the French word for lemurs was lemuriens (a group in one of my favoured musical genres is called "Lemurians". Interestingly enough that name has more to do with a hypothetical sunken continent than the primitive primates). Unfortunately, my French was met with fairly blank expressions, as was the word "lemuriens"; I suspect these guys didn't really speak much French. Tommy tried showing them a bank note with a lemur on it. Eventually they were saying "Maki! Maki!", so we assumed this must be the Malagasy word for lemur, and thought we would shortly be amidst a whole stack of lemurs. Maki is actually one of the Malagasy names for the ringtail lemur. Incidentally, for future reference, the Malagasy word for lemur is gidro.

Alas, this was not to be the case. We travelled in several directions around town, doubling back on ourselves at one point. The bicycle taxi is quite the experience, particularly when the guy doing all the hard work manages to get his flip-flop stuck in the chain, loosing the flip-flop and having the chain come loose. This lead to a fairly swift reduction in speed, the surprisingly speedy fixing of the chain and subsequent retrieval of the errant flip-flop. Tommy also heartily recommended the pousse-pousses (hand drawn rickshaws) as a rather unusual method of getting around.

Eventually, we came to a market area, and the bicycle taxi drivers triumphantly pulled up outside of a shop - I had something of a sinking feeling when I noticed that right in front of us was a shopfront, prominently featuring lemurs called... you guessed it... Maki Company! It was closed, but there were people inside - the clothes looked quite cool. They showed no real inclination to open up (presumably they opened at 9 and it was only 8:30), so we decided to wander past the market and hunt down a taxi. This time, one with an engine, reasoning that a lemur park must be some way away from the center of town. Tommy bought a lifetime's supply of vanilla from a stall-holder on our meander past.

We eventually found an impromptu taxi rank outside a petrol station, and tried to get ourselves understood. Again, this group didn't seem too hot on the old French (in fact, their French was worse than mine - but then French is not the national language of Madagascar). Eventually, we seemed to get ourselves understood and enquired about the price. First 5,000 Ariary was mentioned. As it had just cost us about 15,000 Ariary to come a fairly short distance on 3 bicycle taxis, and I overheard them saying something about 12 kilometers outside town, this seemed wrong, so I pressed the issue. We made ourselves understood that we wanted a return trip. Eventually, one of the petrol station attendants was saying "5,000 times ten" in French, so I asked "cinquante mille" (50,000)? This was met with fairly blank stares again, cluing me into the scary fact that I might actually know more French than they did. Finally, we decided both the taxi driver and ourselves were on more or less the same page regarding payment. We just hoped we were going to the right place! As taxis in Madagascar seem to do, the first thing our driver did was get fuel for the journey (they seem to sit around empty, and work on tiny amounts of fuel at at time - literally buying enough for the trip).

Now that we knew the taxi was going to cost us 50,000 Ariary, we suspected that the wildlife park might be quite pricey, particularly after my experiences of parks in East Africa and their dollar-rates for tourists, so we asked the driver to stop at the bank. Tommy and I withdrew money from an ATM (note: some ATMs in Madagascar accept both Mastercard and Visa for cash withdrawals - only Visa work in Tanzania, where Mastercard is generally frowned upon - annoying as my South African card is Mastercard). Bradley decided to exchange some dollars and that took a while longer.

On the way out of the bank, we spotted John Bemiasa and some of the other Malagasy people from the ship and asked him to please make sure that we were actually being taken to the right place - it turned out that we were. The three of us breathed a big sigh of relief, climbed back into the very rickety old French car (I didn't note if it was a Peugeot or Renault; I suspect the latter - there are also some very old Citroens still running around), and off we went. It was rather interesting getting out, as none of the doors had door latches on the inside; my door had to be lifted into just the right position before it would close.

As we drove along I noticed that, just like in the market place, everything that does one kind of activity seems to cluster. So, you'd have an area that sold wood, another that sold roofing materials another that sold furniture and so on. One village on the route seemed to specialise in collecting and selling river sand, whilst the next one along seemed to specialise in breaking rocks (by hand using either another rock or a large hammer) into gravel.

After going quite some distance along some at times rather bumpy roads, with several loud jarring crashes on the underside of the car, and asking the driver to actually go in the direction the signs pointed in, we eventually arrived at our destination, Parc Zoologique Ivoloina.

Lemur time!

First, we paid the very reasonable 10,000 Ariary each, and grabbed some drinks - after a long drive in the very hot car, and each nursing some degree of hangover from the drinks the previous day, all of us were rather keen to get something down our throats! Then we entered the park; we took a walk along a little path next to a lake, and finally ended up in the area of the park with lemurs. Ivoloina boasts around 10 species of lemurs and some other assorted wildlife; around 5 species are allowed to roam around the park at their leisure, whilst the rest are in cages. I was surprised how much noise the lemurs made; the black and white ruffed lemurs were particularly loud screamers; one of the smaller "bamboo lemur" species made extremely cute little whiny noises - and a whole range in between, depending on the species!

Anyway, I feel it is high time for a load of gratuitous lemur pictures:

I rather like the way one of these lemurs is hiding its face with its long tail. These are crowned lemurs, Eulemur coronatus.

This is a black and white ruffed lemur, Varecia variegata. These were the largest (and noisiest!) lemurs at Ivoloina. Lemurs are also rather active creatures, at least when they're awake, so quite a few of the pictures I took suffered from a little motion blur.

Stabbing lemurs in the face with a banana is strictly forbidden at Ivoloina...

Some lemur species occasionally get up on their hind legs and run along, and look overly-cute doing it.
These are white-fronted brown lemurs, Eulemur fulvus albifrons. Apparently, only the males have white colouration. Interestingly, lemurs tend to live in female-dominated groups.

You'll have to look at the larger version to see it (click the picture), but I think this individual has a rather smug expression on his face - a result of a lucky combination of him chewing on a piece of fruit and clicking the shutter at just the right moment. Or perhaps it's smiling at yet another blasted tourist and their camera!

I imagine this lemur hawking this bottle of water to passing tourists - Tommy happened to put it down, and this lemur came to check it out. The lemurs at Ivoloina are extremely tame; you can get surprisingly close to many of them. I imagine if you sat still for long enough, you might well find one climbing on you!

Lemurs have rather long tails!

So, what do you like to do?
Oh, you know, hang out...

By the side of the lake there were several of these unusually-shaped spiders. This is a crop from the original. If I'd had more time, I would have whipped out a flash, macro lens, tripod and 2x teleconverter. Here, I just used the 24-105 and rocked in and out until it looked more or less in focus and grabbed the shot.

There was an enclosure with at least one chameleon in it. They can be rather tricky to spot! They're fascinating animals to watch as they creep along very slowly, gently rocking, with their turret-like eyes swinging around. The enclosure was marked "panther chameleons", so I assume this is a member of that species (Furcifer pardalis).
Madagascar has a strong tradition of taboos, or fady. Chameleons are often the subject of fady, and touching them is generally forbidden by these traditions.

Some radiated tortoises.

The park also had a lot of labelled plants dotted around; this is the orchid from which we obtain vanilla. I'm a big fan of things that have labels attached so you know what they are. It would make my life a lot easier if everything in our nets was already labelled too!

Grass? What's so exciting about grass? Quite a lot if it's got a snake in!

On the way back, I tried shooting some random pictures out of the window, but they generally came out quite poorly - I stupidly didn't think to increase the shutter speed at the time, so they were blurry in the foreground and also generally terribly framed. Some of the least bad of them are in the section above the lemur pictures. (There was a time, not all that long ago, when such actions were almost reflexive - those reflexes have dulled after my camera has languished in a bag, unopened for rather large spans of time).

So, finally! Lemurs and chameleons in Madagascar! Yes!

I could happily have spent the whole day there, watching the lemurs and photographing them, but time was pressing. I had originally expected to get back to the ship by around 10, as there were tours scheduled, but with the unexpected length of time (and adventurous routing) to get to Ivoloina and back, we only made it back to the ship around 12:15 (the walk from the port gate is also rather long). This caused a certain amount of (not unreasonable) bleakness amongst those who had been left to deal with the "chaos" of the morning tour groups; in any case, I tried to make sure the rest of the team got off the ship in the afternoon and got to see a bit of the town at least, which they did.

However, having spent a previous cruise confined to the ship or lecture theatre for PR or technical support purposes whilst most of the rest of the party swanned around various exotic locales, I had decided that, for once, I would bend the rules a little and go and do something I had wanted to do for so long! The death stares, I feel, were ultimately worth it... The experience left me feeling rather less drained that I had felt after so long on the ship. I'm ready for the next section!

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