Thoughts on previous travels
Ecotourists or Intruders?
Beads of perspiration gave way to rivulets of sweat which now drenched my whole body, the heat and humidity suffocating as we slowly edged our way uphill, each step a supreme effort in the slippery red mud. We passed a small group of tourists who looked on in horror and admiration. ‘You are going to the top?’ their guide asked. I managed an exhausted nod in affirmation. His face showed concern, ‘Good luck’ he replied.
I was making my way, along with a guide and a porter to the far reaches of the Ranomafana reserve on the eastern slopes of Madagascar, to search for the elusive and now critically endangered black and white ruffed lemur.
The previous day had seen me following the hordes of tourists in the lower, secondary forest chasing everything that moved. My guide had sensed my displeasure at participating in this circus. ‘You need to go to the primary forest’ he ordered, ‘you will not find the black and white lemur here and you will have an experience you will not forget’ he explained.
A trip to the pristine primary rainforest would entail a long hard slog up the slopes of the mountain and an overnight stay in a tent and even then, there was only a remote chance of a sighting of those beautiful creatures, one of Madagascar’s largest, and noisiest lemurs. I was initially reluctant, my fitness levels were dire, but the enthusiasm of the other guides persuaded me.
Plans were made to purchase food, a porter was hired and a taxi booked to bring me from the comforts of my hotel early the following morning.
Assembling in the car park there was a buzz of excitement. Charles, the only guide fluent in English who had spent his whole life exploring the secrets of Ranomafana was about to lead this aging British female into the dark depths of the rainforest. The guides gathered around, shaking my hand, congratulating me on my decision. I was excited and my previous apprehension melted away in the glorious sunshine.
We set off, crossing the magnificent Namorona River and headed towards the steep path that would lead us up. Sticky red mud glued itself to my boots as I struggled up the steep incline, early visitors to the lower reaches of the park looked on in awe, or was that pity as I gasped for air and struggled to gain a foothold? My porter, barefooted and carrying my heavy backpack practically skipped over the roots and debris on the forest floor and I regretted my sedentary lifestyle.
As we climbed higher it felt as though the bush telegraph had sent messages to the forest above, warning of impending intruders. Vines wove intricate webs, trees lowered their thorny branches and roots jutted out at all manner of angles in an attempt to make the forest impenetrable, desperate to remain hidden and secret. And the heat rose with us. I felt there should have been a sign lower down ‘Abandon all hope ye who enter here’.
There was a brief respite as Charles pointed out a Sportive Lemur, awoken from its daytime slumber. It looked down on us in wide-eyed amazement, humans! I took the opportunity for a quick rest and marvelled at this extremely cute nocturnal creature. We were barely halfway there and the route got harder, the trees grew larger and the undergrowth denser. It also got quieter, the intense heat subduing all but the busiest insects. Occasionally a bird would begin its song, only to drift off as though it really couldn’t be bothered.
Several hours later we arrived at a stream and filled our bottles with its cool, clear water and I was thrilled to hear that we were almost at the camp.
A couple of tents nestled into the undergrowth and a small covered area that would serve as a kitchen; this was to be my home for the night. A ring-tailed mongoose greeted us, cleverly remembering that people came with food, and he soon tucked into a large chunk of stolen cheese.
After a brief rest Charles took me off to explore this rarely visited part of the forest and amazed me with his powers of observation. Barely visible, a leaf tailed gecko glued itself to the bark of a tree, only its eyes giving it away as a living creature. A Greater bamboo lemur, Madagascar’s most endangered, peered down from the treetops sporting a radio collar, the result of desperate attempts by researchers to preserve the species. I should have been content with a sighting of this very rare creature but I wanted to see the Black and Whites and there was not a trace.
As dinner was being prepared I was afforded the privilege of being able to wander alone; visits to national parks generally necessitate a guide dictating your every step and so I relished this opportunity.
What most surprised me most was a Brown lemur, common in many parts of Madagascar and habituated to the prying eyes of tourists, grunting angrily down at me. This was his forest, and I was an intruder. It was then that I realised how special this place was and I feared that this too could become spoilt; teeming with tourists, anxious for sightings of rare and endangered species, trails cut through the precious forest to ease their way. I silently wished I hadn’t come but at the same time thrilled to experience such wildness. I sat in the silence and breathed in one of nature’s miracles, magnificent trees towering above me, the tangle of vines and lianas and marvelled at the daily struggle of tiny seedlings, all vying for what little light reached the forest floor.
Darkness was approaching as I made my way to the babbling stream, the only sound in the still silent forest and came across a tiny leaf-nosed chameleon, inching its way staccato fashion through the bushes. As the last of the light disappeared the whole forest suddenly came to life, birds twittered, frogs chorused and a whole array of strange and eerie sounds filled my ears. This was party time in the rainforest.
After dinner I collapsed into my tent, exhausted. In the coolness of the night I slept, regardless of the rave that was going on around me.
The following day we set off in search of Black and White lemurs. Charles revealed that above the cacophony of the dawn chorus he believed he heard their distinctive call but in the echoes of the forest it was impossible to tell from which direction it came. As we crawled through the thick undergrowth I had a brief sighting of a Milne-Edwards sifaka. Looking for all its worth like an overgrown teddy bear with its thick dark fur and large ears. But still, the Black and Whites eluded us.
It was time to head home and the going was more treacherous than it had been coming up. I spent more time on my backside than I did being upright as I slid down the muddy path which had been hacked through the forest, ready for the expected onslaught of tourists. As we descended the forest opened out, almost forcing our exit and as I looked back I felt its attempts to close back in, struggling to preserve its fragile interior.
Charles and the other guides were most apologetic that I never did see the Black and white ruffed lemur but secretly I was happy. Had I been successful no doubt more people would have followed in my footsteps with the promise of sightings of this elusive creature. I knew they were there, and that for the moment, they were safe, and that was enough.
It is an unfortunate situation in that in order to preserve the world’s wildlife, many countries rely on tourism to bring in the much needed funds for conservation but in doing so huge tracts of pristine land are being hacked into to make way for trails, hotels and restaurants, disturbing the local populations of wild creatures. Would we not do better to make contributions to conservation organisations and view animals, birds and insects at the many sanctuaries across the globe, thus allowing our wildlife to be just that, wild? I am sure there are many arguments for and against, but I for one am content to do just that.