MADAGASCAR — What's this lemur doing in my lap?
Well, not exactly in my lap, but close enough for me to wonder about its next move.
I'm in the open dining area of rustic Camp Amoureux near Madagascar's remote Kirindy dry rain-forest reserve, where I've come to explore the country's flora and fauna. The pesky little creature is poised to grab the leavings of my mango.
He isn't the only greedy one. Lured by the smell of fresh mangoes, a bunch of lemurs have sprung out of the forest during our breakfast hour, giving our jet-lagged bodies a slight shock.
They're aggressive, but not in a threatening way, these furry brown primates with the irresistible bug eyes. A mother with a baby curled around her body swings with the best of them, leaping on and off posts and benches and finally tipping over the wastebasket full of mango leftovers. The creatures quarrel and snarl in a frenzy over the scraps.
I pick up a piece of skin and gingerly hold it out to one, unsure what response I'll get. Do lemurs bite? The animal swiftly reaches over with a thin, leathery-fingered hand and snatches the skin away.
Such intimacy is thrilling, even if animal protectors might protest that getting too close and personal could accustom our visitors to handouts. On the upside, wild animals in our midst make for some terrific photos. And we don't ignore the black-and-white sifaka lemurs in the distance that dance like circus performers around an unusual baobab specimen after which the camp is named: Two of the tree's smooth thick limbs are intertwined, resembling a lover's embrace.
Madagascar boasts more baobab species than anyplace else in the world. The tall trees with the bottle-shaped trunks are known as "the roots of the sky" because their limbs reach heavenward like wavy spokes. Getting to and from Kirindy, we travel along a famous road known as the alley of the baobabs, where numerous trees stand guard like sentinels on parade and where, because of the trees' iron content, the sun's rays turn the trunks red in the dying light at dusk.
Baobabs aren't the only natural phenomena of note in a country where 80 percent or more of the plants and animals are indigenous. Endemic birds and reptiles are plentiful as well. But outside of zoos and research centers, lemurs are found nowhere else in the world. There are dozens of species of different colors, behaviors and sizes, ranging from one ounce to 15 pounds. Most are tree-climbing creatures with sensitive snouts and agile hands and feet. The rarest — and strangest — is the aye-aye, with its rabbity teeth, batlike ears, bushy tail and a long, sharp middle finger.
Realistically, we can't expect to see all the exotic bird and animal species that abound here, but we'll up our chances by spending time in three forested areas known for different native inhabitants. Of the three, Kirindy definitely is the biggest challenge.
Lodging In The Wild
We camp two nights in relative luxury, in tents on platforms with bathrooms open to the woods (two of us find frog visitors in the toilet). The showers work by gravity; cold drinks, including good beer, are possible thanks to solar-generated power. Under these conditions, the meals we get are impressive; cold smoked tuna, spicy zebu — the local humpback cattle — stew and bananas in chocolate sauce.
It's the mid-November heat and humidity that nearly does us in. It's fierce enough to turn some of my tiny prescription pills to dust. With no cooling wind, the sweat pours down and dehydration feels imminent. Nevertheless, we head out in the afternoon and evening with our guides.
A few — very few — lemurs dash about in the forest canopy. A giant jumping rat — a relatively small creature resembling a baby kangaroo — is caught in our van lights as it crosses a road. We see two butterflies mating on a leaf. The birds are colorful, especially the paradise flycatcher, the blue coua and the white-headed vanga.
I'd signed up to visit the fourth-largest island in the world, a mini-continent off Africa's eastern flank, knowing that it's off the mainstream tourist map and desiring shamelessly to go where none of my acquaintances had gone. Everything was arranged in advance by trip organizers Skip and Elizabeth Horner, owners of a Montana-based adventure tour business, who rely on local agencies for vans, drivers and guides to handle domestic transport and hotel reservations. Being a small group, we're flexible and benefit along the way from the gentle, easygoing ways of the Malagasy people.
Lemur love can be a trying sport when there are few good roads and only a single (expensive and not entirely reliable) airline, Air Madagascar. In addition, the country has been under sanctions from such international bodies as the European Union and the United Nations since a 2009 coup put an undemocratically elected president in charge. Elections are planned but keep getting put off. Meanwhile, the economy of one of the world's poorest countries is in some disarray.
We go by van to the town of Morondava, not far from Kirindy, and get a slight break from the heat with a 24-hour stay at an upscale oceanside resort with a pool and a spa.
Then we move farther south on the coast to Tulear (alias Toliara), where we end up having a disappointing two-day delay caused by a last-minute Air Madagascar cancellation. Our itinerary is rejiggered, forcing the cancellation of a boat ride on an inland canal where there had been the possibility of glimpsing the reclusive aye-aye.
It's not a complete waste, however, since in improvising, we visit a handsomely maintained private botanical preserve on Tulear's outskirts. A young guide, giving us an hour-long tour with only two other tourists present, has some fun calling our attention to an innocent-looking green plant known as the mother-in-law plant. "Fatal when eaten," she jokes.