What's this lemur doing in my lap?
Well, not exactly in my lap, but close enough for me to wonder about its next move.
I'm in the open dining area of rustic Camp Amoureux near Madagascar's remote Kirindy dry rain-forest reserve, where I've come to explore the country's flora and fauna. The pesky little creature is poised to grab the leavings of my mango.
He isn't the only greedy one. Lured by the smell of fresh mangoes, a bunch of lemurs have sprung out of the forest during our breakfast hour, giving our jet-lagged bodies a slight shock.
The camp is named after an unusual baobab specimen: Two of the tree's smooth thick limbs are intertwined, resembling a lover's embrace. Madagascar boasts more baobab species than anyplace else in the world. The tall trees with the bottle-shaped trunks are known as "the roots of the sky" because their limbs reach heavenward like wavy spokes. Getting to and from Kirindy, we travel along a famous road known as the alley of the baobabs, where numerous trees stand guard like sentinels on parade and where, because of the trees' iron content, the sun's rays turn the trunks red in the dying light at dusk.
Baobabs aren't the only natural phenomena of note in a country where 80 percent or more of the plants and animals are indigenous. Endemic birds and reptiles are plentiful as well. But outside of zoos and research centers, lemurs are found nowhere else in the world. There are dozens of species of different colors, behaviors and sizes, ranging from one ounce to 15 pounds. Most are tree-climbing creatures with sensitive snouts and agile hands and feet. The rarest -- and strangest -- is the aye-aye, with its rabbit-like teeth, bat-like ears, bushy tail and a long, sharp middle finger.
Realistically, we can't expect to see all the exotic bird and animal species that abound here, but we'll up our chances by spending time in three forested areas known for different native inhabitants. Of the three, Kirindy definitely is the biggest challenge.
Looking for lemurs
We camp two nights in relative luxury, in tents on platforms with bathrooms open to the woods (two of us find frog visitors in the toilet). The showers work by gravity; cold drinks, including good beer, are possible thanks to solar-generated power. Under these conditions, the meals we get are impressive; cold smoked tuna, spicy zebu -- the local humpback cattle -- stew and bananas in chocolate sauce.
It's the mid-November heat and humidity that nearly does us in. It's fierce enough to turn some of my tiny prescription pills to dust. With no cooling wind, the sweat pours down and dehydration feels imminent. Nevertheless, we head out in the afternoon and evening with our guides.
A few -- very few -- lemurs dash about in the forest canopy. A giant jumping rat -- a relatively small creature resembling a baby kangaroo -- is caught in our van lights as it crosses a road. We see two butterflies mating on a leaf. The birds are colorful, especially the paradise flycatcher, the blue coua and the white-headed vanga.
Except for the possibility of venturing into crocodile-infested waters, we don't worry about our well-being. We're seasoned travelers doing The Right Thing: taking anti-malaria medicine, sleeping under netting and downing only bottled drinks. Apart from crocodiles, the country's largest carnivore is the fossa, which looks like a cross between a cat and a dog and is a danger mainly to lemurs. The boa constrictors are small and harmless.
"Nothing can hurt you here," the friendly Camp Amoureux manager says, smiling. He can't resist confiding that the vanilla plant, a relative of the orchid family originally from Mexico, has an ingredient he describes as being "like the blue pill." Its seed pods, he suggests, contain a Viagra-like stimulant.
Full of surprises
A former French colony that achieved independence in 1960, Madagascar is full of surprises, medicinal and otherwise. But in the opinion of some in our group, it isn't quite ready for prime time, however worthy the attractions and accommodations. The infrastructure is sadly underfunded.
I'd signed up to visit the fourth-largest island in the world, a mini-continent off Africa's eastern flank, knowing that it's off the mainstream tourist map and desiring shamelessly to go where none of my acquaintances had gone. Everything was arranged in advance by trip organizers Skip and Elizabeth Horner, owners of a Montana-based adventure tour business, who rely on local agencies for vans, drivers and guides to handle domestic transport and hotel reservations. Being a small group, we're flexible and benefit along the way from the gentle, easygoing ways of the Malagasy people.
Lemur love can be a trying sport when there are few good roads and only a single (expensive and not entirely reliable) airline, Air Madagascar. In addition, the country has been under sanctions from such international bodies as the European Union and the United Nations since a 2009 coup put an undemocratically elected president in charge. Elections are planned but keep getting put off. Meanwhile, the economy of one of the world's poorest countries is in some disarray.
We go by van to the town of Morondava, not far from Kirindy, and get a slight break from the heat with a 24-hour stay at an upscale oceanside resort with a pool and a spa.
Then we move farther south on the coast to Tulear (alias Toliara), where we end up having a disappointing two-day delay caused by a last-minute Air Madagascar cancellation. Our itinerary is rejiggered, forcing the cancellation of a boat ride on an inland canal where there had been the possibility of glimpsing the reclusive aye-aye.
Finally, the transport gods smile on us, and we have a chance to go sightseeing for a day in the capital, Antananarivo (Tana for short), high up in the interior, where cool, pleasant temperatures prevail. It's a hilly, traffic-choked city of more than 2 million people, surrounded by green and brown rice fields.
A licensed city guide who answers to the name of Mama is only too happy to give us his interpretation of the red, white and green colors of the country's flag (there are several versions), but lowers his voice and speaks cautiously about the political situation when we question him, preferring instead to describe colorful customs of the country, such as ancestor worship in rural areas. Periodically, the bones of dead relatives are disinterred for a village festival amounting to a celebration of life, he tells us. A zebu is killed in honor of the occasion. Dancing and drinking are the highlights of the day.
We're eager to escape diesel fumes and crowds even when they include such sights as six live geese quacking away in a basket atop a man's head on the way to market. We head off to two tropical wetlands, one on Madagascar's northeastern edge, called Masoala National Park, the country's largest park, and the other inland, east of Tana. With luck, we'll spot some lemurs in both places.
Hopping from a pontoon boat onto a palm-fringed sandy beach at the serenely remote self-sustaining Masoala Forest Lodge, I feel as if I've reached nirvana. Hang the cliche, this really is where the rain forest meets the sea in a gentle primordial hush. Antongil Bay, outside the lodge, is where humpback whales come from Antarctica each summer to give birth. Empty beaches stretch for miles, and the only traffic on the water is fishermen in pirogues and occasional motorboats bringing fresh supplies and guests.
The terrain is mountainous, the weather mostly dry and sunny, and Masoala's dense green woodland is full of magnificent trees, ferns and vines. It's also favored by red-ruffed lemurs, which we spot on high during our daily walks. One of them is supposed to show up evenings in a tree near my thatched-roof bungalow, but it never appears when I walk by.
Vakona Forest Lodge, our last stop, lies deep in a misty green valley near Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, an area that's home to the indri. This diurnal lemur is known for its loud, eerie cry, a cross between a shriek and a wail and frightening to the uninitiated. A park guide leads us into the forest, teaching me the indri mating call (a puff of air followed by a kissing sound) as we go.
Eventually, we chance upon a group of large black-and-white indri singing and swinging together in the trees, their song echoing overhead. Known for their prodigious leaping ability, these are the largest and strongest lemurs.
Bushwhacking farther, we discover golden bamboo lemurs -- a flash of brown-gold fur -- and well-camouflaged mouse and dwarf lemurs.
Yakona, a Malagasy word for the palmlike pandanus plant, has the usual resort amenities and also maintains a small zoo as well as a private island set aside for "ex-pet" lemurs -- somewhat domesticated animals that have probably been given up by private owners. They live protected in the wild while putting up with rubbernecking tourists.