The Perfect Companion (my kind of safari)

Published in Travel Africa, Winter 2005

My love affair with Madagascar began 35 years ago. As with any long-term relationship I tend to be blind to its faults and too ready to leap to its defence; and when I introduce someone to the island I want them to feel as I do. Therefore for my kind of safari I need my kind of companion. My choice here fits the bill perfectly: an amateur naturalist with several years of travel around South America under his belt (lots of common ground here), with an insatiable curiosity and the resilience of youth (he is in his twenties). He is a man who appreciates the frequent absurdities of travel in the developing world, yet shows compassion for the plight of local people. Perfect. The only problem has been the time machine or Tardis but I have no doubt that Travel Africa can arrange that, so my companion is… Charles Darwin.

The time machine has scooped Darwin from the deck of The Beagle as it sailed towards Mauritius in 1836, missing Madagascar by a few hundred miles. With the benefit of hindsight I don’t want him to miss an island that demonstrates the principle of natural selection as well as – if not better than — the Galapagos. I have decided to take him to just one centre, the montane rainforest region of Andasibe, where a national park and two private NGO-funded reserves provide plenty of opportunities to see examples from Madagascar’s laboratory of evolution.

With a puff of molecular smoke my guest materialises on the road that cuts through Mantadia National Park. There are fewer tourists around here to stare at the young man dressed in the style of the 1830s, and anyway I want him to experience the primary rainforest. During our preliminary conversation I discover that the natural history of Madagascar is not entirely unknown to him. Reports from the men sent to the island by The London Missionary Society in 1820 have trickled back to England, so he has heard of lemurs and knows there are other “strange beasts” inhabiting the eastern forests. After I have introduced him to our guide, Mary (“My goodness, you have native guides now? And women?”) we enter the dark, inviting forest. As I expected, Charles is entranced. He immediately spots that, although at first glance the trees and shrubs look the same as those he studied in the Brazilian rainforest, they are subtly different – entirely separate species, in fact. He comments that the mature trees have huge buttress roots, just as in South America and other tropical areas he has visited, and suggests that this is a design that works well in the shallow soil of the rainforest. In post-Darwinian times we call it parallel evolution.

Like me, he is fascinated by the invertebrates. We watch a giraffe-necked weevil and wonder what advantage it finds in its ridiculous neck which to me looks like a mechanical digger. Natural selection doesn’t provide an answer here, I think to myself. By the trail in the forest we see an even more extraordinary sight: about 100 emerald-green pill millipedes. When they roll up defensively they form perfect balls, larger than marbles. On my hand they look like polished, semi-precious stones.

“Look!” whispers Mary. We have rounded a corner and there, clinging to a tree trunk and gazing at us with round, ruby-red eyes, is the most beautiful lemur I’ve ever seen. It’s the diademed sifaka or simpona. Its body is a soft, dove grey with silver highlights but its long arms and legs are golden orange. Charles doesn’t know that he is eyeballing the lowest branch of what he will later decide is man’s family tree, but like all visitors to Madagascar he succumbs to the animal’s charm. That’s what I like about him – there is plenty of the gawping tourist under his scientific demeanour. A clatter of branches behind us heralds the arrival of the rest of the troop, moving through the trees in effortless leaps. Soon they are all gone. “My goodness!” says Charles. “So like monkeys, yet their faces are different. Those long noses… more like a dog, don’t you think?” Indeed yes, I think. I know that post-Darwin research shows that lemurs, with few natural predators, retained the characteristics of their ancestors. In Madagascar, the evolution of primates stood still.

Returning to the road we spot a glint of grey-blue in the grass which reveals itself to be a large snake, one of two species of boa. This is a family found in South America and Madagascar but not in Africa. Later we find a tiny painted mantella frog which is a look-alike for the South American poison dart frogs. I tell Charles about another South American animal, the urania moth, which is almost identical in Madagascar. Charles is silent. I’m not sure if the concept of Gondwanaland, the forerunner of the separate countries of the southern hemisphere, is yet part of his knowledge, but to an evolutionist this occurrence of Gondwanaland animals in the once-joined countries is one of the most fascinating aspects of Madagascar.

Our next visit is to Mitsinjo, near the better-known Andasibe National Park. I expect us to be alone in this NGO-run reserve and anyway I want to support it because of its admirable policy of working with the local population to reduce their dependence on slash-and-burn agriculture. I am hoping Mary will find us some birds. There is one family I have in mind… “There! Do you see? Blue vanga!” Mary points to a royal blue bird with dazzling white underparts. It’s beautiful, and when Charles has duly admired it I show him illustrations of the other 13 members of this endemic family in my field guide. He makes the expected observation. “All one family, you say? Now that’s interesting! Look at the different shaped beaks. I saw something similar in the Galapagos Islands…”

“He’s found a leaf-tailed gecko!” Mary says, beaming with pleasure. Joseph, our Mitsinjo guide is beckoning excitedly. He leads us to a tree whose thin trunk is splodged with green-and-white patches of lichen. There is nothing there. “So where’s this gecko?” Joseph smiles smugly and points to a slightly thickened part of the trunk. Then I see it – but only because I know what I’m looking for. The leaf-tailed gecko, or Uroplatus, is perhaps the world’s master of camouflage, and this species, Uroplatus sikorae, beats the lot. It is the most amazing thing I have seen in Madagascar and an Andasibe first. Both I and my companion are speechless with admiration. Part of the camouflage of this little animal is to remain perfectly still, and since it is at eye level we can examine it minutely. The gecko has adopted its usual head-down day-time posture with back legs parallel with its tail. The skin, which can change according to its background, is an absolutely perfect match for the tree trunk, complete with white and green blotches. But what renders it invisible are the frills on its chin and abdomen which allow it to press itself against the trunk as though it were made of plasticine and its creator has pressed it around the edges with his thumb. Or His thumb. Even a diehard evolutionist can believe in a Creator when looking at a leaf-tailed gecko.

Charles rather likes the 21st Century so we journey to Tana by car so he can catch the Air Madagascar flight to Mauritius where his Tardis, The Beagle, – and amnesia – will await him. He comments that the slow oxcarts and “natives” trotting along bearing heavy loads on their heads feel entirely familiar to him. As a final visit I take him, as I do all tourists, to the Centre Fihavanana to see the work done by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd. As we enter the smell of unwashed bodies and the cry of hungry infants greets us. It is feeding day for the malnourished street children and mothers – and fathers – and their babies are spilling out into the courtyard. “So” says Charles sadly. “Nothing has really changed, has it? I thought this might be ended by now.” 

© Hilary Bradt

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