Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world and a guided walk in its forests can take an unexpected turn.
Just as unique as any nature destination are the guides that inhabit them.
In the Kruger National Park, for example, they are lithe and resolute and, when scanning the horizon, look very much like the big cats they’re trying to spot.
The guides that roam KwaZulu-Natal’s wilds, on the other hand, are brawny and percipient. Their ears prick at the slightest rustle and they will say things like, ‘Ah. That must be old Moses, the big bull. Sounds like he’s just woken up,’ even though they cannot see him at all.
Cape guides are a little different – they speak very slowly and take almost as long as the spring flowers to build up a head of steam. But in the rainforests of Madagascar the guides are something else entirely.
I was there on a motorcycle tour (you can read about it on page 78 of the February issue). My riding companion, François Serrano, and I had reached the southwestern part of the country and were spending the morning in Ranomafana National Park. Beneath its dense canopy of green is a network of footpaths that wind endlessly along the forest floor. And in the trees live some of the most unique creatures on the planet: lemurs. There are more than 100 types on the island – big ones, small ones, brown ones, striped ones, ones with eyes like saucepans and ones that dance like it’s still the 80s.
‘You’re here to see lemurs?’ said Gladys. Gladys was not dressed like any guide I had ever seen. He wore Adidas tracksuit pants and a Spongebob SquarePants T-shirt. Anywhere else and I might have requested some sort of identification. But Madagascar is not like anywhere else. And also we had already paid him.
‘Yes. Absolutely!’ said François and I.
‘OK. We go!’ said Gladys. And then he disappeared. The word lemur derives from the Roman word lemures, which means ‘ghost’ or ‘spirit’. The name Gladys, on the other hand, comes from the Latin word poof which means to be there one minute and gone the next.
‘Why you still here?’ Gladys was back. This time waving around a Nokia 3310. ‘Quick. Quick. You need to follow me!’
I was still fumbling with my DSLR and I suspect it was my lack of urgency that caused Gladys to change tack. He pulled my riding partner aside and they conferred in French. François returned from the pow-wow with news: ‘Look, there is a man named Celeste on the other end of the phone. He looks for the lemurs and tells Gladys where they are. Then we go to them. He is the seeker. If we do not hurry, they disappear.’
‘Good God Gladys!’ I said, ‘You should have told me we were playing Quidditch. I’ll be there right away!’
And with that, François and I disappeared into the thicket, hot on his heels.The next three hours was Planet Earth on fast-forward. With Jane Fonda as the narrator. We dashed from one end of the forest to the other, down muddy slopes, between vines and through spindly webs of flora that reminded me of an old man’s beard. Every time we got close to a group, they disappeared. And so did Gladys, waving his Nokia in one hand and launching himself into the void with the other. ‘Follow me!’
At some point we crossed paths with a family of American tourists. They, too, had a Gladys, waving his phone madly, and then disappearing to find his Celeste. Dad was red in the face. Mom’s hair was clinging to her forehead with sweat. And the children, outraged by this surprise forest workout they’d been dragged into, had all but given up.
‘Quite a business all this lemur hunting,’ said the father between breaths.
‘I know, I don’t even have a decent photo yet,’ I said. ‘Oh, we gave up on that. We gave our camera to the guide. We’re just exercising now.’ He looked around but their guide was nowhere to be seen.
‘Quick! Quick!’ came a voice from the forest shadows. And off they ran to find their Gladys.
This column first appeared in the February issue of Getaway magazine.
Our February issue features 12 of the best tented-camps around the country, fun-filled water adventures in Northern KZN, Madagascar by motorbike plus a guide to finding everyday magic in underrated Lisbon.