Madagascar's Ranomafana National Park: Lemur-spotting tour

It's taken two long days of driving, on often-suspect roads, to reach Ranomafana National Park, from Madagascar's west.  

The previous afternoon, as we began climbing into the eastern part of the central mountains that enfolded the park, we were delayed for hours by a massive hole that had opened up in the main highway.  

With traffic backed up for kilometres in both directions, a single bulldozer cleared away debris and filled in the hole, while hundreds of stranded travellers watched on. 

Now, at 7.45 the next morning, having recovered overnight in our homey bungalows at Chez Gaspard in nearby Ranomafana town, my World Expeditions tour group is showing signs of irritation at the milling crowds at the national park entrance. 

Having had some places to ourselves in the first half of our 21-day Madagascar Adventure in the less-travelled west, it's a shock to be among other groups of overseas visitors. 

"This is the national park for all the people," explains our patient local guide Roody Rasolonihery, as we cross a bridge over the Namorona River that bisects the park. 

"Ranomafana is home to some of Madagascar's rarest lemur species, including the golden bamboo lemur," Roody says. 

The park encompasses swathes of primary and secondary rainforest and has 29 mammal species in all and 12 types of lemur. It is also visited by 100 varieties of bird, between September and December being the best time to visit to see the migratory species. 

With paths branching off in different directions, it doesn't take long to lose the other tour groups and by now we've already had several minimalist sightings. Among them are a brown tree frog and a tiny leaf-tailed gecko that Roody's brother, our spotter, manages to find among the trailside foliage. 

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All along the path, ranging up in regimental fashion, are stands of giant bamboo. 

"These bamboo plants can grow between three to five centimetres every day," Roody tells us, "and reach heights of 40 metres and it's these that provide a habitat for many lemurs." 

Our first lemur sighting is of a koala-like bundle high up in branches above our heads. It's a group of three golden bamboo lemurs, including a mother and baby. We have struck gold already; this is one of the rarest lemur species, discovered in 1986 by a researcher from New York working in the park. This group is one of only seven families of golden bamboo lemur in the park. 

Although their faces are hard to make out, what is visible are the mother's "hands", gripping the overhead branches with boney fingers, and her bulbous amber eyes gazing down at us. 

"They live mostly off bamboo shoots, flowers, fruit and insects," says Roody, "and use soil to clean their stomachs. They grow to two kilos, around the size of a pet cat, and live up to 30 years." 

Our next sighting, higher up in the forest, is still more exceptional. It's of the only two greater bamboo lemurs in the park, considered critically endangered and normally found on Ranomafana's lower slopes. 

It's a male-dominated species and this pair is a father with his juvenile offspring.  

Junior, broad-faced and with wispy grey-white ears, is busy chowing down on his favourite bamboo shoots, allowing us to observe his endearing expressions close up. Predominantly brown and notably chunkier than other lemurs we've seen, the greater bamboo species can weigh up to three kilos. 

By now, the crowds we encountered at the start are forgotten and we don't need to walk far for further sightings of a large group of red-fronted lemurs up high and then a family of Milne-Edwards' sifakas in the midst of some home schooling. 

For the next 40 minutes, we are treated to a David Attenborough-like audience with the dark brown, white-backed sifaka lemurs as Mum teaches her four-month-old some bare necessities of forest life. 

Mind you, its not exactly hands-on education. As her baby boy hops erratically between vertical bamboo shoots, the mother barely raises a beady eye. It's only when he plummets two metres to the forest floor that she picks him up, dusts him off and repositions him on a bamboo upright.  

There has been so much to see at Ranomafana that our four-kilometre trek through the rainforest has taken six hours, and so, after a late lunch at the Belle Vue Lookout, among brightly emblazoned peacock geckos, we make our way back to park headquarters. 

It's been a near perfect day for wildlife spotting but we're in need of some R 'n' R.  So in the afternoon, we adjourn to the local thermal springs – Ranomafana means "hot waters" in Malagasy – where I laze in a detoxifying bath and follow up with a swim in the warm communal pool.  

Back at Chez Gaspard, I take the indulgence further with a massage in my bungalow, surrounded by tropical vegetation, from a lovely and very capable local masseuse, Larissa. 

Ah well, I think to myself, over drinks that evening, there are benefits to being in this more accessible part of Madagascar and, in any case, 100 other visitors to Ranomafana hardly constitutes mass tourism. 

TRIP NOTES 

MORE 

traveller.com.au/madagascar

worldexpeditions.com

Madagascar-tourisme.com 

FLY

South African Airways has daily flights to Madagascar from Australia's east coast, via Perth and Johannesburg, connecting to the capital Antananarivo using SA Airlink.  Flights from $2440 return, including taxes. See flysaa.com.au or phone 1300 435972. 

TOUR

World Expeditions has a range of journeys exploring Madagascar. These include an 11-day " Unique Madagascar" itinerary and an eight-day "Madagascar Reef and Rainforests" adventure. Their 21-day Madagascar Adventure, from $4690 per person, visits Ranomafana National Park. Phone 1300 720000. 

Daniel Scott was a guest of World Expeditions, South African Airways and Airlink.  

         

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