A chance encounter.
Clearly the most sensible epilogue to my few hectic weeks in Madagascar would have been having an utterly relaxing stay on Nosy Be before returning home. But good sense has rarely come naturally to me and neither has being a beach bum, even when in the midst of such undeniably fine surroundings. So inevitably, it was not long before I started yearning for previously cherished pleasures of the country's wilder places. However, having already found Nosy Komba's supposed charms to be actually quite distasteful and knowing that Lokobe, the only reserve in the region, was off limits to tourists, my hopes of rekindling the love affair were admittedly not high.
Fortunately, that all changed when I happened upon Donald Retsila touting for business in his own gentle way on the beach. He was an immediately likable person and very well-informed too, especially about the alluring possibilities of the national park's buffer zone, which is actually accessible to visitors.
The slow boat(s).
The very next morning we hit the dusty, bumpy roads. However, as the strictly protected area blocks direct access to our destination from the rest of the island, it was soon necessary to swap the car for a more time-honoured form of transport. So, we pushed on towards the awaiting pirogue, stopping only to admire the superbly vibrant markings of a panther chameleon, which surely proves that the alleged reptilian masters of disguise do not change colour to blend in with their surroundings.
After nearly sinking whilst in a modern contraption earlier on the trip, the traditional simplicity of our dugout canoe reassured me. I relaxed straight away, took up an oar, and felt thankful that the firm breeze would make the potentially hot work of rowing a much cooler prospect, as would the water sloshing around the deck. The realisation of what my increasingly wet feet might mean was less immediate, but fortunately before the thought, "oh no, not again," could fully come to mind, we were already heading back towards dry land.
As luck would have it, waiting for the skipper to track down a more robust, less leaky replacement did not really prove to be particularly bad news. In fact, the false start meant that we were privileged enough to be able to watch a mother teaching her young daughter how to fish for crabs in the nearby shallows, passing age-old knowledge down to a new generation.
Finally getting underway in a dryer craft, it was third time lucky for me as far as Malagasy boat trips go. Admittedly, our progress was much less swift without an outboard engine, but that simply increased the opportunities to appreciate the lovely scenery that was on offer. On the horizon, the blue skies merged with the turquoise sea and verdant hills rose from palm-fringed strands, whilst shoals of fish slipped by underneath the wooden hull easily seen through the crystal-clear waters.
Once more into the jungle.
Having swapped heavenly, sweeping vistas for the much more confined spaces surrounding the steep jungle trails, we also exchanged the easygoing tempo of the crossing for a much quicker pace that was urged on by Donald's assertion that "the early bird that catches the worm." Nevertheless, there were frequent breaks so that he could demonstrate in hushed tones both his impeccable English and encyclopaedic knowledge of any interesting flora or fauna found among the luxuriant foliage, from wild growing coffee plants to tiny colourful frogs barely the size of my thumbnail. But no one would have needed any assistance spotting the large and attractively striped snake that grudgingly slithered for cover in the thick undergrowth as we approached, and it would have been impossible not to notice the heady smell of unpicked vanilla pods that permeated through the humid air.
Of course, the main goal was sighting some of the country's famous primates, in this case a rather elusive group of black lemurs that took a little while to track down. The species takes its name from the appearance of the males, which are as dark as coal from head to toe and can be somewhat difficult to see in the half-light under the dense canopy. However, no such problem exists with the more striking females, which have rich chestnut-coloured coats and beautifully distinctive white tufts of fur protruding from their ears and cheeks. It proved to be immensely satisfying to do no more than just stand there, quietly observing the magnificent creatures going about their everyday business high above our heads. At any given moment some were leaping from one branch to another whilst others were more static, occupied with feeding or grooming, and at least one was always peering down at us with piercing orange eyes, presumably to ensure that our intrusion definitely represented absolutely no threat at all.
All good things must come to an end.
After what had seemed like a hugely enjoyable eternity with our newfound friends, the silence, until then only interrupted by the occasional birdcall, was well and truly broken when a large tour party approached with all of the stealth of a herd of elephants, making the reason for our earlier hurry quite obvious. The hitherto calm troop immediately scattered, and was only coaxed back when the guide brandished a bunch of bananas.
In a way, I can understand that approach from those that accompany such groups of people, who will often have had no better opportunity to encounter the creatures in a natural setting, and who will find it almost impossible to be quiet due to sheer numbers. But for me, feeding wild animals is rarely acceptable, and acting as though they are little more than furry tourist attractions to be bribed into performing on demand is never going to have the same thrill as the more hit-and-miss process of experiencing them on their own terms. As the old Malagasy proverb says, "Nothing is so full of victory as patience."
The art of conversation.
Leaving the excitable newcomers to their own devices, we headed for a quiet spot on the beach, pausing only to procure some Three Horses Beer in the local village. With both of us soon lulled into a wonderfully relaxed mood by the warm sun and the gentle lapping of the surf, not to mention the refreshing alcohol, a good old-fashioned chat flourished. We talked of my life in London and Donald's dream of saving enough money to settle in the country with a few zebus, thereby fulfilling his heritage as a member of the Bara tribe, Madagascar's cowboys.
The revealing and hugely enjoyable conversation continued long after we departed, returning across the open bay and weaving through the semi-submerged mangrove once more, and proved to be an unanticipated highlight. In fact, although the opportunity to exorcise past disappointments and revisit the mottled green world of the forest had more than lived up to expectations, on reflection, what made the day so memorable was the chance to spend time in the company of an articulate and charming local uninhibited by the usual language barrier.