After sitting in the inky blackness for two hours, the call finally came. “Follow the President.”
He immediately disappeared along a forest track and we all set off in pursuit. Encumbered with camera gear and staring at a modest pool of light thrown from a head torch, it was challenging to pick an appropriate footfall for each step on the forest floor that was pockmarked with holes and tree roots. We struggled to keep up the pace. It was a hot, muggy night and in no time sweat began to erupt from every pore, drenching my face, arms and back.
Above the rhythmic thud of my stride I could hear the eerie sounds of one of Madagascar’s strangest forests at night. The high-pitched chatter of nocturnal fork-marked lemurs repeatedly pierced the air, the monotonous call of a lesser cuckoo set its own rhythm and in the background there was an omnipresent insect hum.
At the front the President of the village of Andranotsimaty picked his way through the forest with uncanny precision – even at night recongnising every log, branch and turn.
Two hours before our guide, Amidou, had left us in the forest beneath two often-frequented aye-aye nests. He disappeared to look elsewhere; we spent two hours staring into the canopy hoping something might emerge from one of the nests. It did not.
Now the President was guiding us back towards Amidou who had located another aye-aye. We were under no illusions, we had to hurry, as aye-ayes rarely sit still when awake and it would be difficult for Amidou to keep track of its movements in the canopy for long.
We route marched for over a kilometre before we could see Amidou’s telltale torch beam shining through the trees. For the last 50 metres we battled through a tangle of narrow trunks and scratchy undergrowth, with swinging binoculars and bulky camera bags constantly snagging. As we reached Amidou he pointed straight up into the canopy; although it wasn’t high, there were so many crisscrossing branches and twigs, it was hard to get a clear view and make out any detail – we were looking for a black animal in darkness.
With hearts still pounding, none of us could initially focus and concentrate. Using my torch and laser pointer, I did my best to indicate where the aye-aye was in the tree top, frantic that everyone in the group should see the animal we had all craved to catch a glimpse of. I needn’t have worried.
As the initial panic subsided, everyone did manage to see the animal clearly as it moved surprisingly nimbly through the thinner branches. Then it began to descend. Moving head first down one of the trunks, its fiery reflective eyes unmistakable and its remarkable hands pulled into shapes resembling gnarled, contorted tarantulas, the aye-aye came closer.
Stopping periodically, it tapped at the trunk with an elongated digit, then listened for any revealing sound from an insect grub hidden beneath the bark. It came further down the trunk. By the time it stopped to look around for the next branch or trunk to jump too, the aye-aye was just two metres away from me. Its leathery looking radar dish ears twitched and swiveled, no doubt picking up all the ‘unnatural’ sounds of cameras firing all around. The aye-aye leapt to a neighbouring tree, then paused again before climbing higher, again tapping at the trunk as it ascended.
We were able to follow the aye-aye for nearly an hour before we decided to leave it to forage in peace. At the start of the evening everyone would have been thrilled with a glimpse lasting a few seconds of the most bizarre and least-often seen of Madagascar’s lemurs. This encounter had surpassed our wildest expectations. It was gone midnight before we returned to the hotel and we’d be up again at 03.45am – but nobody cared.
This trip concentrates on forest areas in the east and north-east of Madagascar and visits some of the more remote and least frequented places on the island. With good reason, as these locations in combination offer a realistic chance of seeing some of Madagascar’s (and the world’s) rarest, most beautiful and charismatic species. The aye-aye sighting was undoubtedly the cherry on top, but there were so many other special encounters.
In Masoala there were numerous daily sightings of raucous red ruffed lemurs, a species that is restricted to the Masoala Peninsula, plus encounters with huge Parson’s chameleons and remarkably close views of secretive birds like the helmet vanga, scaly ground roller and short-legged ground roller.
Marojejy is one of Madagascar’s most rugged and spectacular places. It is also one of the few places the incredibly rare silky sifaka is found. These gorgeous snowy white lemurs live on steep forest slopes above 700 metres in altitude and tracking them down requires some effort. Which of course makes success all the more gratifying. Over two days we were rewarded with many memorable moments watching these animals, including mothers with young infants.
In addition to the aye-aye encounter, Dariana was the place we tracked down another species teetering on the edge of extinction – the golden-crowned sifaka. Despite their rarity, in forest close to Daraina, they are easy to see.
The tour finished in Andasibe-Mantadia, one of Madagscar’s most popular parks, because of its relative accessibility to Antananarivo. Here the tour finished in style with great sessions watching and listening to indri and diademed sifakas and very productive night walks tracking down leaf-tailed geckos, chameleons and various species of frogs and invertebrates.
Why not join Nick on our next small group photographic trip to Madagascar?