Monday, October 20, 2014

Anja and Andringita: Ring-Tailed Lemurs and Chameleons

Earlier this week, we resumed our tour of Madagascar’s reserves and national parks.  Heading south from Ambalavao, the community-run Anja Reserve was our first destination.  Relative to many of the sprawling national parks, the reserve was diminutive, with only 37 hectares of mountain and forest to explore.  The small area, bounded by three distinctive peaks, is home to hundreds of ring-tailed lemurs, various types of chameleons, and many weird-looking insects.

Hiking into the reserve, we were lazily greeted by the first of many troops of ring-tailed lemurs.  With their distinctive tails, these unique animals could briefly be confused with a raccoon, at least until they emit one of their cat-like calls or effortlessly jump to the next tree.  Although we arrived at the reserve just in time for the lemurs’ midday treetop nap, there was still plenty of activity.  A few were prowling along the rocks or descending to the river for a drink of water.

Following our local guide through the forest, we scrambled through the reserve’s shady caves where the lemurs sleep at night and clambered to the top of some of the largest boulders for the best views of the landscape.  Several Betsileo tombs sunk into the rocks were also scattered through the forest.

Although it was certainly exciting to meet so many ring-tailed lemurs, we were equally intrigued by the philosophy behind the community-run initiative.  Much like the impressive conservancy we encountered in Namibia, the local villages have created the Anja Reserve and are in charge of its operations.  Besides the obvious benefits to conservation in a region where much of the forest has been replaced with agriculture, the revenues from the reserve are directly invested into the community.

After our visit with the lemurs, we continued our southbound journey on the N7.  As a series of sharp peaks interrupted the landscape of the hauts plateaux, we exited the tarred highway to travel southeast along a bumpy dirt track.  We were headed to Tsara Camp in the Tsaranoro Valley, alongside Andringita National Park.  Several mountains, including some of Madagascar’s highest peaks, formed a scenic backdrop to the secluded tented camp.  This region of the country is known for its trekking and mountain climbing, and we had just one full day to explore.

To the west, the steep face of the Tsaranoro Massif loomed above the valley, with the aptly named Mt. Chameleon immediately adjacent.  Without the two full days required to summit Mt. Boby, Madagascar’s second highest peak, and without the free climbing skills to complete the ascent of the neighboring Tsaranoro Massif, we settled on climbing Mt. Chameleon.

On Friday morning, we set off in the heat from Tsara Camp, accompanied by our guides as well as a friendly British couple.  The neighboring villages and rice paddies gradually gave way to an allegedly lemur-filled sacred forest in the foothills.  Although we did not meet any new lemurs, we did come across a lovely natural swimming pool, several tombs of the Bara tribe, and various unique rock formations.  Climbing out of the forest, the blazing heat returned in full force.  Although we did not view this as an impediment to our progress, our guide Cedric disagreed, calling for the first of many breaks along the trail.  This turn of events came as no surprise given Cedric’s affinity for red, yellow, and green clothing, as well as for Malagasy reggae music.  If these clues were not enough of an explanation for our many rest stops/smoking breaks, Lala had also politely informed us that Cedric’s quirky and absent-minded demeanor was “because of the cannabis.”  Needless to say, our progress was slow, particularly with additional breaks for snacks and sightings of weird bugs. 

As we neared the peak, which looks more like a real chameleon the closer you get, we decided to finish the ascent ahead of the rest of the group and lackadaisical guide.  We raced up the final steep slope and took in the precipitous view over the edge, which our guidebook had warned would be vertigo-inducing.  We certainly weren’t disappointed by either the steep drop or the epic views of the surrounding chain of mountains. 

The trek down the other side of Mt. Chameleon offered similar awesome vistas, as well as a short section of path between two valleys reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings.  It seemed like the perfect location for the picnic we knew one of the guides was carrying, but instead of stopping to enjoy the view, we continued to trudge down the steep trail.  Just as Stephanie decided she couldn’t go a moment longer without a bite to eat, we arrived at a small hotel on the outskirts of a village.  It turned out that our picnic was much fancier than anticipated!  The guides had brought real plates for the pasta salad and we could buy a beer to accompany the meal.  It was well worth the wait.

Back at camp, we enjoyed the beautifully isolated surroundings complemented by three-course dinners.  We have been continually impressed with the food here in Madagascar, even in the most remote locations.  One evening, a friendly hedgehog even visited us at mealtime, perhaps also intrigued by the gourmet cuisine.  Of course, it’s not all cute hedgehogs and lemurs – we also encountered what we have determined to be a monstrous “cockahopper” in our tent, which once again put Giorgio’s manliness to the test.  (Stephanie, as usual, outsources all killing of bugs, spiders, and scorpions to Giorgio.)

On Saturday, we left the mountain-ringed Tsaranoro Valley behind and merged back onto the southbound N7 en route to Madagascar’s vast plains and Isalo National Park.


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