Black & brown ruffed lemur in Vakona private reserve

Ok, so this post is about “what we did on our vacation,” but bear with me, I will get to healthcare towards the end.

As is our unfortunate habit, my husband and I did practically no preparation for our big annual year-end trip. Beyond getting our malaria pills and knowing we wanted to see 13 types of lemurs and some baobob trees, we were pretty ignorant about this island’s country that is home to 22 million people and some of the most charming and weirdest animals on the planet. Unlike prior years, we didn’t even bring along a guide book. Boy, were we in for some surprises.

parson's chameleon
Parson’s chameleon enjoying the sun on top of my head

Our first stop on the way from the noisy, traffic-jammed capital, Antananarivo (called Tana by the locals) to the Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, was a reptile farm. I had visions of the pathetic snake farm we visited in South Dakota years ago with its broken windows, filthy glassed-in cages and reptiles in varying stages of dying. But this, thank heavens, was nothing like that. The chameleon enclosure was filled with healthy native plants and an array of chameleons to make your eyes pop. Ok, it was like a petting zoo, but having a gigantic rainbow-colored Parsons chameleon climb onto your head was really, really fun.



collared nightjar
Nesting collared nightjar, Andasibe-Mantadia, Madagascar

Andasibe National Park is home to a number of species of lemurs including the Indri, the largest of the lemurs. The plaintive cries of these tree-dwelling, tailless, black and white creatures resonate through the forest. In contrast, if you are lucky enough to see it, the tiny nocturnal mouse lemur will charm you with its giant eyes and tiny body.

The birdwatching in Andasibe was spectacular—we saw three different species sitting on their nests, including a beautiful coal-black male crested drongo. It made me realize that in all our years of bird-watching, we had never seen birds in their nests (not counting watching the live-stream of the famous Decorah eagles in Iowa).

The absolute highlight of the nesting birds was a female collared nightjar we found sitting like a queen on her nest built in the center of the appropriately named bird’s nest fern. In two days in Andasibe-Mantadia, we saw over 40 of the 285 species that inhabit the island. Wow!


The passion of John

Tenrec, Voimma, nr Andasibe
A shrewlike tenrec spotted in Voimma, near Andasibe National Park, Madagascar

Our local Andasibe guide, John, was the absolutely the best local nature guide we have ever been lucky enough to have; he has passion! And better yet, he has otherworldly vision and hearing. He once spotted a stick insect on a similar colored leaf as we were driving by in the car! But, he won my heart on one of our night walks when he belly-flopped on the ground and caught a little hedgehog-like creature, the tenrec, with his bare hands. Farther along on the trail he said, “Listen, I hear a very young long-eared owl,” and voila, a few minutes later, we saw a three month old long-ear, high up in a tree, screeching its heart out.

We saw seven species of lemurs in our two days in Andasibe-Montadia. We hiked in a lovely primary forest and were lucky enough to spend a half-hour watching a family of black and while ruffed lemurs gorge on fruit high up in the canopy, before coming down lower where we could look at them in the eyes.

Our hotel, the lovely Valkuna Lodge, has its own version of a petting zoo—our trip guide, Jean-Jacque, purposely didn’t tell us that it was the lemurs who would end up petting us. At one point, I had three brown lemurs on my person. Because they have human-like fingernails instead of claws means they can gently climb all over you without leaving a scratch.

It’s hard to say what is my favorite animal is so far on this trip. We saw Scops owls, millipedes, jumping rats, a tree boa, and giant golden orb spiders. But I have to say that the one creature that I really fell in love with was this one:

Giraffe-necked weevil, Madagascar
Giraffe-necked weevil


Healthcare and other Madagascar factoids

I promised you a bit of healthcare, so here it is courtesy of our trip guide Jean-Jacque (JJ). We already knew that Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world. According to JJ, the average income is just $2/year. And, just like the US, the wealth is unequally divided with a small percent of wealthy living in comfort and the vast majority living hand-to-mouth.

When we asked about healthcare, JJ said no one has health insurance and most people can’t afford to access doctors and hospitals. Instead, if they get sick or injured, they rely on natural remedies. Indeed, people we met talked about applying different kinds of plants to their wounds and drinking a variety of plant-based potions to cure their ills.

We did see evidence of public health in a nation-wide campaign to immunize kids against polio but malaria and other infectious diseases remain major killers.

From what little we have seen of the country so far, it seems there is hope for the future. People we met, like JJ, value education, hard work and the natural beauty of this island. I believe that they will one day attract many more foreign tourists (and their $$$) than travel here today. If you love the wonders of natural world, then Madagascar definitely has to be on your bucket list!


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