Boabab Trees

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. (Handout / April 29, 2004)

Tropical Wetlands

Finally, the transport gods smile on us, and we have a chance to go sightseeing for a day in the capital, Antananarivo (Tana for short), high up in the interior, where cool, pleasant temperatures prevail. It's a hilly, traffic-choked city of more than 2 million people, surrounded by green and brown rice fields.

It's in Tana that we first hear the word "vazaha," the Malagasy word for foreigner, which laughing children call out after us as we make our way through back alleys. Unfortunately, historic buildings such as the Queen's Palace are closed — whether temporarily for repairs or permanently for lack of funds, we aren't sure.

We're eager to escape diesel fumes and crowds even when they include such sights as six live geese quacking away in a basket atop a man's head on the way to market. We head off to two tropical wetlands, one on Madagascar's northeastern edge, called Masoala National Park, the country's largest park, and the other inland, east of Tana. With luck, we'll spot some lemurs in both places.

Hopping from a pontoon boat onto a palm-fringed sandy beach at the serenely remote self-sustaining Masoala Forest Lodge, I feel as if I've reached nirvana. Hang the cliche, this really is where the rain forest meets the sea in a gentle primordial hush. Antongil Bay, outside the lodge, is where humpback whales come from Antarctica each summer to give birth. Empty beaches stretch for miles, and the only traffic on the water is fishermen in pirogues and occasional motorboats bringing fresh supplies and guests.

The terrain is mountainous, the weather mostly dry and sunny, and Masoala's dense green woodland is full of magnificent trees, ferns and vines. It's also favored by red-ruffed lemurs, which we spot on high during our daily walks.

Our group treats the search as a game of hide-and-seek. Between walks, we swim, kayak and paddle upstream on a slow-moving river past plentiful mangroves — the forest primeval. Scores of lichees line the path to the nearest village of Tampolo, less than a half-hour away, where women sit braiding crafts that they'll later offer to sell us, along with black pepper, cinnamon and vanilla — Madagascar staples.

Vakona Forest Lodge, our last stop, lies deep in a misty green valley near Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, an area that's home to the indri. This diurnal lemur is known for its loud, eerie cry, a cross between a shriek and a wail and frightening to the uninitiated. A park guide leads us into the forest, teaching me the indri mating call (a puff of air followed by a kissing sound) as we go.

Eventually, we chance upon a group of large black-and-white indri singing and swinging together in the trees, their song echoing overhead. Known for their prodigious leaping ability, these are the largest and strongest lemurs.

Bushwhacking farther, we discover golden bamboo lemurs — a flash of brown-gold fur — and well-camouflaged mouse and dwarf lemurs.

Yakona — a Malagasy word for the palmlike pandanus plant — has the usual resort amenities and also maintains a small zoo as well as a private island set aside for "ex-pet" lemurs — somewhat domesticated animals that have probably been given up by private owners. They live protected in the wild while putting up with rubbernecking tourists.