In a country ravaged and scarred by deforestation, arriving at the Kirindy Reserve, 50 kilometres north-east of the seaside town of Morondova, in Western Madagascar, is both exciting and something of a relief.
Covering around 125 square kilometres, Kirindy's dry deciduous forest only survived thanks to an experiment in sustainable logging during the otherwise gung-ho 1970s.
That prescience not only helped the forest survive but kept it as a habitat for native wildlife. The area became a protected reserve, in which the fossa, Madagascar's largest predator, is more readily spotted than anywhere else. It is also inhabited by eight species of lemur, 32 types of reptile and a variety of colourful birds, making it as popular with scientists as it is with tourists.
Kirindy is another compelling stage in our 21-day Madagascar Adventure group tour with World Expeditions, following on from our visit to World Heritage-listed Tsingy National Park and its serrated limestone pinnacles.
To get here from Tsingy, we follow another dusty road to the riverside town of Belo Tsiribihina, before taking an hour-long car ferry ride. Actually, "car ferry" is too grand a description of this open-air wooden platform built over the top of three large canoes, carrying three vehicles and numerous passengers and powered by petrol engines at the back. However, it delivers us safely to Tsiribihina's opposite bank, to continue our drive south.
Like the ferry, the Kirindy Ecolodge, where we are staying, is in need of some TLC. Its dilapidated bungalows and shaded restaurant, which our group of eight causes to run out of beer, are nonetheless right on site for wildlife spotting.
Indeed, even before we've unpacked, a fossa enters the camp to drink from a dripping tap. It is an unusual-looking creature, feline in its features and its slinking gait but terrier-like in its big ears and muzzle. Reaching lengths of up to 1.4m, including its extended tail, it uses that muzzle to hunt fish, birds and small and medium-sized animals.
And sorry folks, those cute lemurs are on the menu.
To help us spot less audacious wildlife, we have local guide Jean. Jean has been working at Kirindy for nine years and accompanies us on two excursions into the forest. On our nightwalk we follow criss-crossing trails between the trees, Jean giving us the signal to turn our spotlights on when he finds an animal.
Out there tonight are several tiny grey mouse lemurs, with sticky-out ears and curious expressions, some colourful spiders and skinks that Jean somehow picks out against the ground-covering leaves and a red tailed sportive lemur, peering down on us from a tall branch.
Our morning walk brings us two David Attenborough moments, in which we happen upon families of different lemur species and are allowed right into their domain to ogle and photograph them.
Getting any closer to the seven red-fronted brown lemurs, with two babies hanging off their mums, or the family of Verreaux's white sifakas, would be intrusive. Yet, neither group seems fazed, and we get so close to sifaka babies suckling on their mothers, that we are startled by their older siblings' sudden display of acrobatics, during which they swing up to four metres from spindly branch to lanky trunk.
Jean also finds us a dozy Scop's owl, its beady eyes peering out at us from the hollow of a fallen trunk and back at the camp, there are two more appearances. One is by a chameleon doing a strange John Travolta-like shuffle – two steps forward, one step back, repeat – and another by the biggest cockroach I've ever seen, making a mockery of the little pests back home.
Leaving Kirindy and heading for the coast, we see several species of baobabs, relatives of my favourite Australian tree, the boab, found in the Kimberley. Whatever the variety they retain the same expressive qualities, full of personality, their branches like gangly tentacles or unruly hair springing from the top of their chunky, angular trunks.
It is not long before we arrive at the Allee des Baobabs, a short but impressive stretch of trees, near the seaside town of Morondava.
Probably Madagascar's most photographed sight, the Allee comprises tens of mature baobabs, some thought to be a thousand years old, seemingly deliberately planted in neat lines alongside the dirt road. They are particularly atmospheric at sunrise and sunset.
We are here two hours before sunset, giving us the time to figure out the best photographic vantage point and the bonus, for me, of joining a game of football with local kids, played with a ball made from tightly-bound plastic bags.
The sunset is worth waiting for, the Andansonia grandidieri baobabs growing ever more characterful in the diminishing light and shadows lengthening across the sandy surrounds.
Yet perhaps the most intriguing spectacle is that of an immaculately dressed Japanese tour operator, in impractical high heels, draped across the bonnet of a four-wheel drive, having her photograph taken, the baobabs a mere backdrop to the star.
For us, though, having seen much of Madagascar denuded of trees, these wonderful old baobabs and the survival of the Kirindy Forest, are sights to be cherished.
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.
World Expeditions has a range of journeys exploring Madagascar. These include Madagascar Reef and Rainforests, Madagascar with Kids and Discover Madagascar with Dr Karl Kruszelnicki. Their 21-day Madagascar Adventure, from $4690 per person, visits Kirindy and the Allee des Baobabs. Phone 1300 720000.
Daniel Scott was a guest of World Expeditions, South African Airways and Airlink.