It starts at 2am, an unearthly chorus of high-pitched wails that wraps the forest in a suffocating embrace. It’s as if the indri, the largest living lemurs, are singing at the door of my simple rainforest lodge in the lowland jungle of eastern Madagascar. In reality, they could be as far as four kilometres away.
Unique to Madagascar, lemurs are some of the oldest primates in the world, and their survival is thanks mainly to the isolation of this ‘lost continent’, which drifted away from the African mainland 160 million years ago and has been home to humans for just 2,000 years.
Sir David Attenborough has filmed wildlife documentaries here and DreamWorks animation studio even based a successful film franchise on the island and its cute and cuddly inhabitants.
Cartoon capers aside, this former French colony has been dogged by political instability since a coup in 2009. However, with democratic presidential elections planned this year, Madagascar appears to be starting a new chapter and Lonely Planet has tipped it as one of the top ten countries to visit in 2013.
The island is vast, and poor infrastructure can make journeys long and expensive. To save time and money I join a small group tour with adventure specialists Explore, travelling from the north-east to the south-west of the island.
It’s drizzling with warm rain as we set off on a muddy trail through Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, one of the best places to see indri in the wild. Native trees stretching almost 30 metres into the sky are draped with spiralling vines, like Rapunzel’s tangled locks tumbling from a tower. Curved buttress roots extend their grip across a forest floor wriggling with life – including maggot-like leeches that stick to my skin like superglue.
Lemur spotters – locals from the nearby village – race ahead through the dense undergrowth, hoping to find some of the nine lemur species that live here. I’m amazed at just how close we can get to the animals; a common brown lemur comfortably forages for berries only metres from our feet, while above us a family of indri propel themselves through the trees with an admirable combination of athletic strength and balletic grace.
Only the painfully shy but irresistibly cute grey bamboo lemurs are easily frightened. A mere 11 per cent of the original forest remains in Madagascar, mainly in the eastern region. In 2007 the Ranomafana National Park, which lies further south but at a higher elevation, was classed a world heritage site by Unesco.
At sunrise, the ghosts of palm-fringed hills disappear into a purple and yellow horizon. A female belted chameleon clings tightly to a branch by the roadside; by daylight she’ll return to the forest canopy. Only a few decades ago, this whole area was covered in forest. Much has been destroyed by slash and burn agriculture and, as a result, many species of lemur are now extinct.
Ranomafana is home to two of the last few true-breed greater bamboo lemurs, a father and daughter whose family were killed by a natural predator – a cat-like, carnivorous mammal known as the fosa. As they playfully grapple each other in the treetops, it’s sad to think that their sub-species will inevitably die out.
The transitional government enforces strict controls in Madagascar’s national parks, dishing out 20-year prison sentences to anyone who kills a lemur or cuts down a native tree. But coercion isn’t the only tool for change; by employing locals in the parks and giving 50 per cent of entrance fees back to the community, Malagasy people have good reason to take care of their environment.
Theo, whose family belong to the Tanala tribe, grew up in the forest, wearing only a loin cloth and sleeping in temporary huts. His family were relocated to a nearby village when the area was declared a national park in 1986.
He used to kill birds and lemurs, but now uses his skills to track them for tourists and even assisted Attenborough’s BBC crew when they filmed here. “These days I’m a bird nerd,” he says, smiling. “I say the lemurs are my boss, because without them people would stop coming and I wouldn’t have a job.”
There are around 22 million people living in Madagascar, and as the numbers continue to grow, so too does the pressure on natural resources; an alarming 85 per cent of the population live below subsistence level.
The capital city Antananarivo – which means ‘town of the 1,000’ in reference to the 1,000 soldiers who protected the newly founded city during the reign of the revered King Andrianjaka in the 1600s – is a crowded place, with passenger-crammed mini buses and zebu-drawn carts locked in permanent traffic jams.
Roadside stalls sell stacks of yellow foam mattresses and glimmering car exhausts hanging from bamboo frames like wind chimes. Leaving the city, we drive through a patchwork of green fields and irrigated rice paddies that dance with reflections of the clouds.
Rice is practically a religion for the Malagasy and forms the basis for every meal – delicacies include rice cakes (slightly sweet patties fried in sugar) and far less palatable ranonapango (a tea made by pouring boiling water into a burnt rice pan).
Crossing the central highlands, we pass mud-brick houses charred black by smoke from open charcoal fires. Ours is the only van on the pot-holed roads, passing local Merina people in typically garish, colourful clothing, walking to the local market – a social highlight of their week.
As we move further into the arid south, faces get darker, hair becomes curlier and the soil turns terracotta red. There are 18 distinct tribes in Madagascar, whose everyday lives are regulated by fady (taboos) and respect for the ancestors.
Home to the Bara people, a tribe of African descent, the Isalo National Park is formed of Jurassic sandstone formations where families of ring-tailed lemurs have been known to sunbathe on the rocks.
Spiny-tailed lizards scamper over the bulbous roots of 1,000-year-old elephant’s foot plants, seeking shelter from an oncoming storm. This area is prone to furious bolts of lightning and many of the trees have evolved to be fireproof.
The rocks in the area are filled with small holes, used by the Bara people as temporary burial chambers. Once a body has decomposed, the bones are removed from the temporary tomb, smeared with honey in a ‘turning of the bones’ ceremony, then finally laid to rest in a new elevated tomb.
Life here is hard, but the poorest region is Toliary, on the south-west coast, straddling the Tropic of Capricorn. Yet it’s in this region, in a fishing village called Anakao, that I encounter more smiles and laughter than anywhere else on my trip.
We arrive by boat from the region’s main city Tulear. The local village spills on to the exotic shell-strewn beach, with locals working, playing and even washing dishes in the sand.
The muscular and athletic Vezo people are fishermen whose lives revolve around the sea: young boys learn to sail traditional pirogues (flat-bottomed boats with sails made from bedsheets or stitched-together rice sacks) by playing with toy replicas; and when they die, fishermen’s bodies are wrapped in their fishing nets and sails.
Their lives feel far removed from political movements in the capital, but the call for change is growing stronger. “I think the Malagasy people are ready for something different,” says our guide Claude, referring to the upcoming elections scheduled for May this year. Like the cry of the indri, it’s a call that’s travelling far and wide.