7. Ranomafana National Park, Our First Rainforest

Driving north from Isalo National Park, the landscape changed from desert to lush green rice fields as we climbed into the highlands. After visiting a paper making craft shop in Fianaransoa in southeastern Madagascar, we continued another 33 miles to the Hotel Thermal in Ranomafana National Park, which was 168 miles south of Antananarivo.

Tourists are warned that much of Ranomafana National Park can only be seen by climbing many steep and muddy hillsides covered in thick tropical vegetation. I’m sure there were flat places, but I would soon learn there were days of climbing straight up and then descending, only to climb up again. I rather enjoyed the exercise, often lacking on birding tours, even though managing my body temperature was a challenge in the unfamiliar humidity. Mark arranged for a private guide for the one person in our group unable to cope with the steep trails. She saw a lot of what we did, and sometimes something else just as exciting. I appreciated the flexibility on our tour to adapt to particular people’s physical restrictions and still show them interesting aspects of the country.


Wet, Wet, Wet

Rainforest gear

Ranomafana National Park was a rainforest at its wettest, so we always carried rain gear. In the heat, a poncho was a better cover than a sweaty jacket. Mark bought us umbrellas, which was the best idea because they provided good ventilation and rain protection. Most of the umbrellas were black but I quite liked my white one with purple spots. Fortunately for me, when we were after birds our umbrellas were down. I didn’t know then that the color white might scare the birds away.

I was never tempted to just let the rain pelt down on me like some of my fellow travelers. Wet clothing felt uncomfortable long after the shower. Sweat might slowly evaporate, but after a heavy rain shower I felt wet and uncomfortable until we returned to the lodge and a dry set of clothes. Many times, I just turned off that feeling of discomfort and stayed focused on the birds and the experiences of being in Madagascar. Seeing a fabulous bird after great sacrifice made it all worthwhile. Other times, I just got grumpy.

Ranomafana National Park was established in 1991 and is one of Madagascar’s newest rainforest parks, all of which are located on the eastern side of the island where tropical storms blow in from the Indian Ocean year round. More than 100 inches of rain fall annually on the island’s eastern side and there is no real dry season, only periods of less rain. The climate is always humid and hot. Thick plants fill every layer of the forest from the ground up. A changing variety of vegetation and wildlife can be found at each level, all the way to the top of the canopy, which can be more than 200 feet high. The canopy of a rain forest is where the greatest amount of bird and animal activity occurs. Unfortunately for us, we couldn’t see much of that rich environment, but we saw enough at ground level to make us happy.

Bamboo Lemur

The discovery of the Golden Bamboo Lemur in 1986 by Patricia C. Wright, Ph.D., a primatologist, anthropologist, and conservationist, spurred the government and the international foundations and organizations working to preserve Madagascar wildlife to formalize protection of what is now Ranomafana National Park. The Golden Bamboo Lemur was a strong indication of the area’s diversity of wildlife, which is why it was essential for the area to be protected. We hoped to be so lucky as to see the golden bamboo lemur along with many of the other eleven lemurs living in the park. While we toured the park, I thought of Dr. Wright with much gratitude for the crucial environmental work she did in Madagascar.



In an orientation on the park, we were told to watch out for leeches that lurk in the bushes. Let me first say that leeches get a bum rap. Compared to ticks, whose bites can make my flesh swell and ache for days, leeches are innocuous when they feed, although I did not know that at the time. I read that Willi Unsoeld, a legendary mountaineer, had spent an unplanned night on the top of Mt. Everest and lost all but one toe to frostbite. After nine of his toes were amputated, the wounds on his feet got infected and swollen to the point of almost splitting the flesh. The medical solution in India was to attach leeches to his feet to suck out the fluids.

Willi proudly showed his foot with the one remaining toe, a little one, to me and the other Outward Bound instructor trainees when he joined us for a few days in Oregon after my Peace Corps experience. I thought his sentimental attachment to that toe was sweet. After learning how the leeches saved Willi’s life, I thought, How can anyone not at least respect the work that leeches can do?

However, I admit it is quite revolting when leeches are discovered in the act—especially when you realize the leeches are sucking your blood. During our time in Madagascar, we tucked our pants into our socks and sprayed our lower legs and boots with repellent to protect against both leeches and mosquitoes. It worked quite well for me but some of my companions were not so lucky.

Our first morning in Ranomafana, the birdy group arose before dawn for our omelets and coffee, and then headed out for another birding trek. Seven of us climbed on the bus at 5:30 a.m., along with Mark and our local guide, taking a short ride up the gravel road that carries traffic between the highlands and the west coast in central Madagascar. It is barely wide enough for the heavily loaded trucks to pass, but at that hour we were alone. The small parking lot for Ranomafana National Park is located on a promontory overlooking a huge swath of dark jungle. From there, we watched as the dawn’s light struggled to break through the overcast skies.

Before we began our hike, we were drawn to a fascinating collection of moths resting next to the porch light of the ranger’s cabin. The largest moth was five inches across with furry tan wings. It clung to the wall, flaring its wings to expose the pink, red, and black, eye-shaped markings—no doubt presenting a fierce face to a predator.

After our moth observations, we followed Mark past a large map of the trails and plunged down the steep path through thick vegetation. Well-placed stairs slowed our slippery descent. We stopped to study a tiny insect, a giraffe beetle that looked like a spotless ladybug with a very long, black beak protruding from the front of its body. While observing this strange insect I thought, You never know what you might find in this odd place.

Giraffe Beetle

Fifteen minutes later, we were at the valley floor where a footbridge spanned a boisterous river. We crossed and ascended again into the rainforest getting wet in a warm drizzle. Along the way, we tracked birds and lemurs. Around 11 a.m., we found the second group of birders—the late risers—waiting at an overlook. They were as wet as we were. While Ross Smith, a retired Australian doctor in our group, rested on a bench, I noticed that his pant legs had several watery red spots below the knees.

“So, what’s with your legs?” I asked.

“Ah, just a few leeches,” he answered, nonplussed. “I don’t know why they stopped climbing at my knees, but they did and I’m glad of it! I guess they got their fill and left. The wounds kept bleeding for a while and messed up my pants though.”

Ross and his wife, Lesley, were world travelers. They carried only one small suitcase apiece during the trip, and washed their clothes every day. I knew the spots must have annoyed him.

I looked down at my boots and legs with new interest. A long skinny critter was just diving into the mesh in my boot. I pulled it off and tried to flick it off my finger. The leech didn’t flick. I wiped it off on an overhanging branch, hoping I injured it enough so it wouldn’t bother anyone else. Satisfied, I turned my attention to other interests, like lunch, which the guides with the later group had brought us all.

Hikers picking leeches

For the afternoon, the group split up again and about eight people followed a guide into the jungle to see a waterfall. I was tired and wet, and needed a break from the rainforest for a while, so I joined a few others returning to the hotel for an afternoon rest.

After the hike down to the river again and up the other side, we discovered our bus was not there, but an empty dump truck full of road workers had pulled over to let off some men. We asked the driver if he could take the five of us down the hill and he agreed, as is the custom in places with few vehicles. I clambered into the back followed by the others, ready to sit among the bags of cement and gravel. No sooner had I sat down then the truck’s owner jumped out of the cab and invited me to join him inside with another woman from our group. I was already settled so I declined. He seemed disappointed, maybe embarrassed, that a vazaha, (a white woman) would have to ride in the back of his vehicle. I considered briefly that he might think I was rude to refuse his offer—a possible cultural gaff—but from past experiences I knew that the workers would be more interesting to me than a polite conversation in a dry cab. Besides, I was already soaked and the rain had let up.

As the truck picked up speed, two men leaning against the back sang out the first line of a song. Men in the front of the truck answered them. They sang all the way down the hill, reminding me of the call and response songs I had heard years ago at the Malawi youth camp. My decision to sit in the back with the workers was the right one for me! I really enjoyed listening to the workmen sing for their own pleasure. So often, songs I hear in another country are performances, but these men sang for the shear joy of singing. What a gift for me!

Back at the hotel I took a welcomed nap. Afterward, I heard a commotion outside; the hikers had returned. I leaned out my window and fellow travelers Nancy and Charles passed by my room. Blood spotted their clothing and I mentioned this.

“Oh yes, they found us,” Nancy responded. “We stopped every ten minutes to pick them off one another, but we saw a lovely waterfall and had a very nice hike.”

They plodded off to their room, leaving behind a blood-filled leech that inched its way along the cement walkway where they had been standing. Later, after discovering a spot of blood on the seat of my pants, I realized that at least one leech had found me tasty, too.

The terrestrial leeches we encountered in the rainforest are smaller than the aquatic Asian varieties and they look like hair-thin inchworms. They wait on the leaf tips, waving their fore-bodies, until a warm-blooded creature passes. Then they grab whatever they touch and inch their way upward until they find a warm, soft place to feed. Unless the leech is discovered while attached, it can finish its meal in half an hour and drop back into the jungle to digest the meal for the next four months, leaving a weeping wound on the host. I comforted myself with the knowledge that leeches do not carry any known diseases and are harmless—except to the host’s psyche.


Two Rare Lemurs

Researchers estimate that there are only 1,000 Golden Bamboo Lemurs left in Madagascar and thus, on earth. Mark thought we had a good chance of seeing one that day, a rare opportunity and one I hoped we would experience!

We walked slowly through the rainforest single file, strung way out along a narrow path with big gaps between us. The birder ahead of me motioned to be quiet. He pointed toward a clump of thick bamboo, gnarly vines, and tough leaves on a variety of skinny trees that fill the space up into the canopy. Cracking and crunching came from that direction. At eye-level about fifteen feet away, a medium sized lemur chomped away on a shattered, three-inch stalk of bamboo. He had dense, grey-brown fur, darker on the head, a short muzzle, and fuzzy round ears. This one had white tufts on the tips of his ears, the field mark that differentiated this lemur from the other two bamboo lemurs. He had almost chewed the stem in two. Three strands of the tough outer wood kept the lower part of the stem from falling to the ground.

I looked across to my informant who mouthed to me, “Bamboo lemur.” Oh, my, I thought, another one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments. I need to study this little guy carefully.

I’ve never figured out how to do that exactly, but the impulse to preserve the moment overcomes me at times like that. Years later, this scene is still clear in my mind. Of course, I got a little help remembering thanks to the photo taken by the other birder who caught the moment the lemur and I stared at one another, only about ten feet apart. The collar on the lemur’s neck indicated that he was a study subject, wild but somewhat accustomed to people.

Bamboo Lemur watching Harriet                  Photo by Malcolm Burley

This had to be the Greater Bamboo Lemur, the largest of the bamboo lemurs, weighing up to five pounds. Of course, he was eating his favorite food, a type of bamboo, although the greater bamboo lemur will occasionally eat flowers, fungi, and fruit. As I watched this lemur calmly munching away on a plant that is toxic to every other animal because of its cyanide content, I thought, What a sweet animal. And what a tough digestive system he must have.

In a day, this lemur eats enough cyanide in his bamboo meals to kill twelve animals of the same size. This particular lemur’s belly was large and swollen, and I wondered if this was a pregnant female. Later, I learned these lemurs need to eat a large amount of the tough stems in order to get the nutrients from the bamboo. This makes their bellies protrude. As yet, scientists do not know how these lemurs detoxify after eating their favorite food.

Bamboo lemurs are also called gentle lemurs, perhaps explaining why this particular lemur didn’t mind my staring at him. I marveled at nature’s brilliance. Is that specialization or what? I thought. There is so much to study on this amazing island.


Night Adventure with a Brown Mouse Lemur

Mark invited us to join him on a night adventure. There was a good chance to see the rare Brown Mouse Lemur, the smallest lemur and the smallest primate in the world. An adult can weigh up to 3.4 ounces with a body length of less than five inches, and a thick tail of the same length. His agile tail helps balance him as he navigates the branches in his domain and the tail will store fat as needed. If the brown mouse lemur is able to evade natural predators such as the cat-like fossa, mongoose, hawks, and owls, he can live up to eight years in a tropical rainforest.

This lemur sounded so cute, I really wanted to see one. Tiny animals fascinate me, so I was willing to trek another steep and slippery hillside at dusk to reach the shelter where naturalists and park rangers observe the brown mouse lemurs. Park rangers have been putting out pieces of ripe bananas for years where these nocturnal animals show up to feast most evenings.

Mark warned us that nothing was certain, but we kept our fingers crossed and we waited patiently in an opening carved out of the thick dripping rainforest. Some people in our group escaped the drizzle by sitting under a picnic shelter complete with table and benches, similar to the one where we had eaten lunch earlier in the day. There were eight in our group, plus a few other visitors and several guides. One of the guides picked a ripe banana out of his box and smeared the smashed pulp onto a nearby branch. Then he cut another banana in half and impaled it on a pointed stick next to the trail.

We talked in hushed tones among ourselves, all lights off, anticipating the main event. A sharp-eyed guide suddenly whispered, “Here he comes.”

Brown Mouse Lemur

A chipmunk-sized lemur with thick gray-brown fur, his ears twitching, crept out of the bushes for his nightly gorge on the smashed banana. For a few moments, he looked at us with huge eyes and sniffed the fragrant offering. His long tail hung limp as he licked the banana pulp. Our flashing cameras did not bother him at all.

Another guide pointed behind him where a second mouse lemur sat on his haunches next to the speared banana. His tiny paws propped on the peel’s cut edge, he nibbled leisurely on the sweet pulp and watched us as he chewed. I wondered, Why don’t the flashes bother his night-sensitive eyes the same as most owls? He doesn’t even flinch at all as they go off.

Someone behind me observed, “That little mouse is worth millions to the country’s economy.” I hated that comment, possibly true, but it spoiled the moment for me.

The mouse lemur’s big eyes swept across our adoring faces as if acknowledging his own popularity. Suddenly he turned, flicked his tail, and sprang three feet up on to a branch and disappeared into the bushes. I was in awe of the incredible distance he covered effortlessly! Once again, it was another memorable moment in Madagascar.


On the Road Again

After two nights and days in the park cherishing the memories of the lemurs in Ranomafana, we returned to the main road to continue north toward our next birding site, stopping along the way for birds, as usual. The long day of driving included a visit to a country market and our only cultural experience, both rich with impressions and delights.

In the highlands, every available piece of land is terraced, primarily for rice cultivation. Here and there, small plots of vegetables and eucalyptus forests for timber crawled up the hillsides. Tile roofs topped the two- and three-story houses made from the mud bricks we saw being made earlier. Because of the mild weather and fertile soil, this is where most of the Malagasy live, and an even higher percentage of the Merina who were the first settlers in Madagascar.

We were on our way to our last adventure in Madagascar, this time driving north to Perinet Reserve, 85 miles east of Antananarivo in central Madagascar.