I recall having a conversation with Alex just over three years ago, before the start of this voyage, basically pleading with him to add Madagascar to our destination list. It’s a country that has always fascinated me and somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit, mainly due to its abundance of highly unusual wildlife.
In Mesozoic times, Madagascar was part of a gargantuan supercontinent called Gondwanaland, which included mainland Africa, India, Arabia, South America, Antarctica and Australia. The primates of this era evolved into the most dominant animals on the Earth today – us. Those same ancestral primates on Madagascar, however, followed a completely different evolutionary path and became what are now known as lemurs. Due to the lengthy separation from the rest of the world the wildlife here has evolved into a collection of truly weird and wonderful species that are found nowhere else. You can imagine why, as an ecologist, Madagascar is at the very top of my bucket list!
To say it’s been a struggle to get here would be a massive understatement! We had to endure over 30 sea-days in the relentlessly lumpy Indian Ocean. My sea-sickness was like having a huge and chronic hangover, only without the initial fun of actually getting drunk. On top of that we had to divert to Rodrigues to avoid a 90-knot cyclone, which put us even more behind schedule. We’re now well into the cyclone season and are located in a particularly vulnerable part of Madagascar that could get completely battered at any moment should a cyclone decide to form. I should also mention that being one of the poorest countries in the world, Madagascar is known for its super high crime rates and boasts an intimidating list of horrendous infectious diseases. Cholera, tuberculosis, dengue fever, bubonic plague and the worst form of malaria in the world are just a few of the people-killers to be wary of. This is a hell of a lot to contend with all for the sake of some lemurs! At one point I was convinced that Madagascar would remain nothing but a pipe dream for me… but amazingly, we made it! Against all the odds, we’re actually here.
Our priority destination was a town on the east coast called Manara-Nord, where just up the river from the bay is a small privately owned reserve called Aye Aye Island. The Aye Aye is a nocturnal species of endangered lemur and according to my research, this is the most likely place in the whole country to see them (in the wild at least). The island is owned by a hotel called Chez Roger and through them, you can hire a local guide to take you on an evening tour.
A truck arrived at the hotel a few hours before dusk to take us, by road, the first part of the journey. The word ‘road’ is used very loosely in Madagascar and what is considered a road here looks more like the surface of the moon. After about 30 minutes of bouncing and hitting our heads on the truck’s ceiling, we arrived at a small opening to a river, across from which we could see our destination – Aye Aye Island. Our guide, Romanha, hailed down a man passing by in his homemade dugout canoe and paid him to take us across. We boarded the large piece of floating drift wood, but our combined weight caused it to immediately start sinking! We frantically bailed out the rising river water as our guide paddled us to the other side and, thankfully, we made it with all camera equipment dry and intact.
The island is not exactly an untouched wilderness. It’s a farmed property with cows, chickens, dogs and reams of planted fruit trees. Nevertheless, it’s extremely densely vegetated in places. We spent the hours after dark in a frenzied march, trying in vain to not step in cow pats (Alex racked up five strikes) while following our guide through the bush looking for signs of Aye Ayes.
After less than an hour of searching, there it was – just above our heads climbing along a coconut frond. Our reward for travelling all this way! A glimpse by torchlight of one of the world’s rarest lemurs staring inquisitively back at us.
This is a creature that, for many years, has fascinated me far more than any other. I feel a truly dizzying thrill knowing that I am one of the lucky few to have witnessed this animal in the wild. Still, I must admit that an eerie sinister feeling came over me when I first saw it. A feeling I was not expecting. Perhaps it was due to the strange and dark environment, or perhaps because the torchlight made the Aye Aye’s eyes appear hot and fierce, but it’s like this creature really can see over your left shoulder and into the gates of hell. No wonder some of the locals think they are deathly omens.
As creepy as these animals are, this visit has reinforced my belief that they are one of the coolest, most interesting species on the planet! I mean, where else can you see a real-life gremlin?!
Not only have we managed to see one of the world’s weirdest and most remarkable animals, but Madagascar has turned out to be a truly beautiful place in itself. Moreover, our worries about crime have been so far unfounded and most people seem to be incredibly friendly.
We’re now sailing south, working our way out of the (now non-existent) trade winds and away from the tropics, to Fort Dauphin in southern Madagascar. Hopefully there’ll be more wildlife adventures waiting for us there and, with even more luck, no terminal tropical diseases either!