Critters and Other Annoyances

Cactus in Bloom

Many plants grab with hooks and protect themselves with spines, but none we encountered brought on the itching poison oak rash that plagues me after summer hikes at home. Central and South American rainforests are full of pesky and dangerous critters, but Madagascar was surprisingly free of annoying insects and poisonous snakes. There were no ticks that spread dangerous diseases and no biting ants that can leave the victim in agony for several hours. There were not even many mosquitoes while we were there, though they can be fierce during the rainy season. We were into our last week when we encountered the most dramatic annoyance. Leeches.

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, though quite revolting when discovered in the act. For both critters, we tucked our pants into our socks and sprayed our lower legs and boots with repellant. It worked quite well for me. Some of my companions were not so lucky.

The birdy group arises early for our omelets and coffee. Seven of us climb on the bus at 5:30 with Mark and our local guide. We arrive at the trailhead after a short ride up the hill on the gravel road that carries traffic between the highlands and the coast. It is barely wide enough for the heavily loaded trucks to pass, but at that hour, we are alone. The small parking lot for Ranomafana National Park is located on a promontory surrounded by dark jungle. Dawn’s light struggles to break through the overcast.

Before we can begin our hike, we are drawn to a fascinating collection of moths resting next to the porch light of the small ranger’s cabin. The largest is five inches across with furry tan wings. It clings 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.

We follow our guide past a large map of the trails and plunge down a steep path through thick vegetation. Well placed stairs slow our slippery descent. We stop to study a tiny insect, a giraffe beetle, that looks like a spotless ladybug with a very long black beak protruding from the front of the body.

In fifteen minutes, we are at the valley’s bottom where a foot bridge spans a boisterous river. We cross and dive again into the rainforest. We track birds and lemurs, getting wet in a warm drizzle, until about 11 a.m., when we find the second group waiting at an overlook. They are as wet as we are. One of them, a retired Australian doctor, is resting on a bench. His tan pant legs have several watery red spots below the knees.

“So, what’s with your legs?” I ask.

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

I look down at my boots and legs with new interest. A long skinny critter is diving into the mesh in my boot. I pull it off and try to flick it off my finger. It does not flick. I wipe it off on an overhanging branch, hoping I injured it enough not to bother anyone else.

We eat lunch and split up for the afternoon. A group of about eight forms around one of the guides who knows the way to a waterfall and they hike off into the jungle. I’m tired and wet and have had enough of the rainforest for a while. I join a few others who are also returning to the hotel for an afternoon rest.

After the hike down to the river and up the other side, we discover our bus is not there. A dump truck full of road workers has pulled over to let off some men. We ask if he will take us down the hill and he agrees, as is the custom in  places with few vehicles. I clamber into the back followed by the others. As I am selecting a place to sit among the bags of cement and gravel, the truck’s owner jumps out of the cab and invites me to join him inside. I am already settled and decline. He seems disappointed, maybe embarrassed that a vazaha would have to ride in the back of his vehicle. I consider briefly that he must think me rude to refuse his offer, a possible cultural gaff, but from experience, I know that the workers will be more interesting than a polite conversation in a dry cab.

As the truck picks up speed, two men leaning against the back sing out the first line of a song. Men in the front answer them. They sing all the way down the hill, reminding me of the call and response songs I heard years ago when I spent the summer at a Malawi youth camp. I am pleased that I stayed with the workmen.

After my nap, I hear a commotion outside. The hikers have returned. I lean out my window and Nancy and Charles pass my room. Blood spots their clothing.

“Oh, yes. They found us,” Nancy tells me, “We stopped every ten minutes to pick them off each other. But it was a lovely waterfall and a very nice hike.” They plod off to their room and I see a blood-filled leech on the cement walkway where they were standing, inching its way toward a damper environment.

Picking Leeches

Revived, I set about some domestic chores. I hang my damp pants in front of a fan and hope that the moving air will speed the drying. I notice a dark spot on the back and when I rinse it out, it is blood. I must have sat on it as it was feeding…on me.

The terrestrial leeches we encountered in the rainforest are smaller than the aquatic Asian varieties and looked 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 it is discovered while feeding, a leech is able to finish its meal in half an hour and drop back into the jungle to digest for the next four months, leaving only the weeping wound. They do not carry any known diseases and are harmless except to the host’s psyche.