Tag Archives: chameleons

Striking gold at Ranomafana

Wednesday 12 June 2024 – Our accommodation in Ranomafana was the Thermal Hotel. It’s called that because it is beside a geothermal hot springs pool; indeed, the pool used to be part of the hotel complex.

Yesterday, having ascended into the clouds and fog, we then descended to the village and the hotel in the rain, fervently hoping (in my case, at least) that today’s walk in the park would be a, erm, walk in the park, rather than a bedraggled squelch in the mud.  We were lucky; the day dawned sunny, and so we could take some photos of the hotel.

It’s an appallingly middle-class British thing to have difficulties with place names in The Foreign; I normally take pride in getting the name right and the pronunciation approximately so. But I’m having a lot of trouble with some names over here and so I’ve had to resort to mnemonics to help me.  Take, for example, Analamazaotra; I kept thinking of it as Anamalazaotra.  To get the l and the m in the right order, I resorted to the 1958 song “Rama Lama Ding Dong”. I was six when this first hit the charts, which of course I don’t remember. There was a 1978 version by Rocky Sharpe and the Replays, but the one that made the impression on me was the Muppets version, which is spot on my cultural level. I have also struggled with the order of the n and the m in Ranomafana, and so I’ve had “Son of my Father” as my mnemonic and front of mind during my say here. Bloody Chicory Tip! I now discover that the man who should take the blame for this song is Giorgio Moroder.

But I digress….

The morning was taken up by a walk, or more properly a hike, in the Ranamofana National Park.  Our guide for the day was engagingly called Dauphin and did a very good job during the day, taking the trouble to find out what our expectations and preferences were, and stopping to talk to both of us rather than calling back over his shoulder as we walked along.  He also had a “spotter”, who was introduced to us as Tila; his job was to crash around in the forest under- and overgrowth to try to find us interesting wildlife. I immediately christened him “Tila the Hunt”.

The entrance to Ranomafana National Park is in a community reserve; to get to the national park forest, you have to descend about 100 steps to a bridge, which is the border to the National Park.  From the bridge, you then have to walk up another load of steps.

One wonders why they couldn’t have pitched the bridge a bit higher.

On the way down, Dauphin pointed out something to us

which looked like an ant-  or termite nest.  Actually, on closer examination

it turned out to be a very dense cluster of fruits.

Having entered the National Park, the morning proceeded like all forest walks – much wandering about with the guide showing us stuff which wasn’t wildlife whilst hoping that we would soon stumble upon something with a pulse.  So, we saw a massive, 40-plus-year-old birds nest fern

which was, as these things do, growing epiphytically on another tree; and we saw some bamboo which looked eerily like a man-made structure over the path,

having been blown to buggery and deposited there by a cyclone in years past.  We also passed a real man-made structure,

which was the original building of the Valbio Centre that we’d heard about from Tom, the distinguished academic up in Masoala.  The forest has taken this construction back, but the centre is alive and well – see later. We also saw some wild coffee cherries which were blue, an unusual colour to find in nature.

The unripe blue cherries are yellow; and there are also red wild coffee cherries in the forest, as we found later.

So, remarkably, it was less than an hour before the cry went up that someone had spotted a lemur. So we rushed over to where it was. Looking at it through my very expensive camera and even more expensive lens, it was just a silhouette,

However, when I could get at my beloved DxO Photolab, we saw that

we had struck gold! (By the way, Dauphin told us at the time what we were looking at).

This was a Golden Bamboo Lemur!

Why the excitment? I hear you cry. This is the species that was first discovered in 1986 by Patricia Wright, founder of the Valbio Centre, and clearly a formidable lady, because she used the discovery to drive through the preservation order that was the basis for the creation of the very national park in which we stood. This required the removal of people who were actually living in the forest, because people aren’t allowed to live in a preserved space; so providing the incentives to make the move worth their while required national government involvement. Many of these people remain involved with the centre as spotters, guides or other helpers, so Patricia’s determination has paid off in more ways than just one.

Anyway, there it was – the holy grail of today’s search. And we still had about three more hours of wandering about to go.  Apart from this small group of Golden Bamboo Lemurs,

It would be a while before we saw another lemur species, but in the interim Dauphin found a puzzle for us – a branch that was apparently devoid of animal life

but, if one looked carefully, revealed

a leaf-tailed gecko.  To make it easier to see it, I’ve over-processed the photo,

but in real life it was genuinely difficult to see, which shows that its camouflage was of the very highest quality.

The going, by the way, was quite hard work.

Even the official trails were narrow and (as we’d been warned) very up-and down.

My trusty Garmin recorded my calories expended as three times as much as any previous excursion into a rainforest.

We did see a red-bellied lemur, but he was basically lazing about and not inclined to be ready for his close-up

and we wandered around for the next hour or so without seeing anything worth noting. It was Jane, though, who spotted the next creatures.  The guides, who were looking deep into the forest, had failed to notice something clinging to a tree literally beside the path we were walking along.

It was a family group of Red-fronted Brown Lemurs. Like the Common Brown jobbies we’d seen in the Analamazaotra National Park, these were curious and playful, although they didn’t come as close as those had.

After watching them play for a while, it seemed that that was that, and we kind of started for the exit. Dauphin did spot a couple of interesting things: a tiny wasps nest

(yes, it was tiny);

and another puzzle for us.

You have to look closely to see it, all curled and looking like a leaf, i.e. more good camouflage.

It’s commonly called a Satanic Leaf-tailed Gecko, and, looking at its face, you can understand why. It seemed we were almost at the exit when there was a ripple of excitement and Dauphin bade us divert into the dense undergrowth, where we joined a bunch of other people who were looking at

a family group of Milne-Edwards’ Sifakas. They were reasonably active, but spent most of the time huddled together, grooming themselves and other family members, which made it very difficult to get decent pictures.  But I got a couple of halfway good images

and one decent one, purely by luck.

That really  was it for the visit, and we trooped back to the park entrance, with its gaggle of bloody nuisance entrepreneurial types. One of them was an artist who wanted us to visit his gallery there, but we were disinclined to do so at the time. We found out, though, that his works were also on display at the Valbio Centre, and we planned to visit there later, so we were able to put him off politely on the basis that we might see him later.

Accordingly, after lunch back at the hotel, we visited the centre,

and very interesting it was, too. Its mission is to protect Madagascar’s unique and biologically diverse ecosystems – and particularly the Ranomafana National Park – through conservation science and projects that directly benefit the local people. It’s an international research station which facilitates hands-on science to sustain the resources and people of Madagascar. It has equipment and facilities to support lab- and field-based research carried out by visiting students and researchers, as well as accommodation for them; it provides education to local school children and their teachers; it provides a level of front-line medical care and advice to the local communities on, for example, birth control.  Jane talked knowledgeably with a couple of the scientists we met about their projects; and a nice lad called Fabrice showed us around and talked about some of the things the centre is trying to do, such as to identify all of the insect species in the forest, which strikes me as being hugely ambitious; but they’ve already catalogued thousands and thousands.  Among other things, Fabrice showed us an example – the Comet Moth,

which is beautiful even in a display case and must be a lovely thing to see in real life.

We also met the artist, Alain, again in his niche at the Centre; he creates incredibly detailed and accurate representations of the local flora and fauna for use in educational projects, as well as purely artistic work of considerable talent.  And yes, we bought a little something!

Immediately after the visit to the centre, we went on a night walk, even though it wasn’t night yet.  We met Dauphin for the final time and walked slowly along the road at the perimeter of the National Park, looking for, well, things, you know?  It was actually quite good that we started early, while it was still light, because the first thing we saw was a Blue-Legged Chameleon.

Chameleons are more interesting by day, because their true colours appear; after dark, they become much paler and less interesting.

The most engaging thing we saw on the walk was a Rufous Mouse Lemur, which is very cute.

We weren’t the only ones trying to see it, though; there was one of those feeding frenzies that one finds on these walks.

We walked very slowly along, finding the odd occasional Big-nosed chameleon

though it takes skill to spot them because, while their noses may be big, they are tiny!

We did get one puzzle. There’s a chameleon in this picture. Can you spot it?

There it is, a Side-Stripe chameleon.

but that was about it.  The drivers for the various groups stood around, presumably trying not to laugh at us

and then it was time to return to the hotel for dinner.

So, that was Ranomafana; we hit what seems to be the normal strike rate for seeing things, which is about one and a half species per hour of walking about; but it was fantastic to see the Golden Bamboo Lemurs, and the Sifakas were an added bonus.

On the morrow, we continue our southward journey; some driving, some walking about in a forest, although it will be a dry forest, not a rain forest.  We’ve been very lucky with the weather today; who knows what it will be like tomorrow? Stay tuned to find out.



East to Andasibe

Thursday 6 June 2024 – The room that we had this time at the Hotel Relais des Plateaux was directly above the one we’d had on our first visit. It was very similar in size and organisation, however, the bed seemed a great deal less comfortable; but at least we had a chance for more sleep than on our first visit.

After breakfast, we met our driver from last night again. He had brought Kenny, our guide, with him, and I think we’re going to get on well with both of them. Kenny speaks excellent English and has a wealth of knowledge about local matters, including the correct way to spell our driver’s name, which is Haja (with a silent H).

As soon as we got under way, it was clear that it would not be long before our brains were full, as Kenny started explaining things. Some Madagascan history: it used to be split into several separate kingdoms which were perpetually at war with each other until the chap who ruled over what is now Antananarivo used 1,000 soldiers to establish some order and himself as overall ruler – thereby providing the name an (to) tanana (place, city) arivo (1000): the place of a thousand. Some politics: the island became independent from France in 1960; it has six regions, each split into multiple communities; it has a president, a prime minister, a house of representatives and a senate, along similar lines to the French model. He pointed out various plants and trees; told us about many of the places around us, whose names we haven’t a chance of remembering; some useful Malagasy words – excuse me, thank you, goodbye – which we also have no chance of remembering; and all in all it became clear that he is going to do a great job.

The first thing we had to do was to get through Antananarivo.  Given that Madagascar has a population approximately half of that of Great Britain, spread over two and a half times the land mass, and given that the population of Antananarivo is less than a third of that of London, you’d expect that to be an easy job.  You’d be wrong. The traffic was ludicrously heavy, and it took us the best part of an hour before we were free of the capital.  However, we learned a few things as we ground our way slowly along.

As well as the colourful and traditional buildings in many of the streets, there are quite a few funky modern buildings.

There are old cars being used as taxis (this is a Renault 4); heaven knows how they keep them going.

Unless you’re bang in the centre, there will always be rice paddies to be seen.

There’s a sort of “mobile phone taxi” service; if your mobile phone has run out of credit, you can pay for just a few minutes to make your calls.

The influence of France is still very clear.

The entrepreneurial spirit is strong, whether in formal market stalls

or chancing it in the traffic jams.

Madagascar imports fuel wholesale

and appears to operate an informal retail operation on the side.

The outskirts of Tana have many scenes of very colourful (and probably quite ramshackle) buildings,

and as you get further out of the city, the roads can turn feral.

I suspect that the road surface suffers badly because the road we were on, National Route 2, which leads eastwards to Andasibe, also continues on the the island’s main port, Toamasina; hence there’s a very significant amount of very heavy lorry traffic in both directions.

There is actually a railway connecting the two

along which freight is also run.

Kenny explained that some 80% of Malagasy people are farmers, tilling the fields both for subsistence and for selling.  Rice is the main crop, and the people consume it in huge quantities, but there’s still enough left over to export.  However, farming is not a full-time occupation year round, so many farmers have sidelines. One such is using the clay on their land to make bricks; ovens dotted our route, but we couldn’t get a satisfactory picture, sadly.  What we could get photos of, though was another major activity, which is quarrying granite.

This activity is responsible for some of the gashes in the landscape we could see on the flight down from Maroantsetra.  There are other gashes, too

and the impression we got from Kenny is that this is erosion which has deforestation as its root cause. It will be interesting to revisit those photos from our plane journeys, when we have time, to see how much more of the story this extra understanding reveals.

We also noted the dreaded eucalyptus trees, which so dominated parts of our travels in Spain: however here these seem to be non-commercial plantings representing another land owner’s side hustle, as they can be harvested quickly and the timber either used to make charcoal (much used in rural areas for fuel) or used for building work.

Going from the city of Antananarivo through the countryside to Andasibe also revealed a change in architectural styles.  For example, this house shows a typical Tana style,

brick built, with sloping roofing and balconies.  Our route took us out into the country, where clay and mud become a significant building material, based around timber frames and with thatched roofs

and then as we approached Andasibe, into rainforest country, wood becomes the principal building material.

We went through Moramanga, which is a substantial – and busy – town,

which is where we first came across cycle rickshaws as a mode of transport. You don’t see these in Tana because it’s too hilly.  In the UK, these are used only for ripping off carrying tourists, but  here they are a common mode of transport.  It’s ubiquitous, but not quite public transport.  This comes in the form of minibuses; different coloured minivans cover different destinations, but a common theme appears to be the bus conductor, who ushers people on and off and collects payment, quite often whilst hanging off the back of the bus.

What else did we see?  Piglets;

Traffic management for roadworks (known as “go go girls”, apparently);

the rather ritzy railway station at Andasibe, from the days when the railway carried passengers

and which is theoretically going to be used for passenger transport at some stage in the future, but which has done service as a hotel in the past, with lodgings opposite it;

and a slightly weird version of milk for your coffee, which we took at a slightly weird lunch stop at Pizzeria Diary, just outside Moramanga.  (Diary in Malagasy means something completely different from its English sense; I’ll try to find out what for you.)  We had tourist stuff (pizza for me, and tilapia & vegetables for Jane – whilst Haja and Kenny went off to a different part of the place (a staff canteen or something, we posit) and had pork, rice and beans, a traditional Malagasy meal which we would much have preferred to eat. After the meal we ordered coffee with milk, and this is what we got.

This was (sweetened) condensed milk; adding it to coffee made it sweet enough for me to drink, but it had a weird, gloopy consistency.

Quite soon after lunch we arrived at our accommodation for the next three nights, the very swish Mantadia Lodge. To get there, we went through Andasibe village and I hope we get a chance to wander round with a camera, because I think it’s really quite photogenic.

I suppose because we’d “wasted” most of the day getting to the lodge, Kenny had organised a night walk for us which was to happen before dinner (don’t forget that darkness falls with a crash here at about 6pm); this made dinner rather later than we would have liked, but actually I guess there was no other way to organise it, and it gave us a couple of hours off during the afternoon to draw breath.

The walk was at the VOIMMA Community Reserve, a wildlife reserve managed by the local community, just a ten minute drive away, and we were led by a guide called Abraham.  The route was through rainforest, but the conditions were dry, which made everything more pleasant for us.  There are prepared trails through the park, which gives it a more manicured feel than we experienced at Masoala, but there was a profusion of magnificent tree ferns, which we hope to go back and look at in more detail and daylight over the next couple of days.

We didn’t see any lemurs during the walk (barring the glint of a mouse lemur’s eyes at a considerable distance) but there were other creatures to admire.

Finally, Jane found another chameleon just outside our room at the lodge.

We eventually established that this is a male Elephant Ear Chameleon.

Dinner at the lodge completed the day, which, despite being spent almost entirely on the drive, was content-rich and quite satisfying.  The morrow’s plan is for a longer walk around the Mantadia National Park, which is primary rain forest and brings the prospect of some more varieties of wildlife.  Today was a lemur-less day; what will tomorrow bring?