A couple of hours north of Antananarivo, at the end of a rutted, slick red clay road that meanders for about 10 kilometers eastward from the town of Anjozorobe, where the winding rice paddies finally end in a jumble of primary forest, Saha Forest Camp is perched on a hillside. We arrived at a clearing next to a village made of small, rectangular huts made of mud baked onto sapling frames.
A woman with four children passed us – spaced about two years apart, everyone carrying something, all of them barefoot – and headed into the village. We parked our rented SUV next to another one which had arrived earlier as two men arrived to take possession of our bags and lead us on foot down a 3-400 meter path, across a steel bridge, and up the stairs to the lodge.
Saha Forest Camp is an eco-lodge in the truest sense of the word. As I understand it, the camp was set up by the NGO Fanamby in collaboration with the local, very much rural, community. With 10 “luxury tents” and a common area built on land leased from the community, Fanamby seeks to promote tourism with a minimal footprint, in a way that benefits the local community and also protects the environment. We had hot water and electricity most of the day, but no internet, TV or heat, and the delicious meals were prepared and served by trained local villagers using ingredients sourced from local providers.
Having arrived late on a Friday afternoon, we didn’t want to go on a full “night walk” with tour guide along one of the prepared trails through the rain forest behind the lodge – but we did want to explore a bit. So we grabbed our flashlights and headed out on our own. And we found about a dozen tiny chameleons along the trail leading to our car – all perched at the end of branches or leaves and settled down for the night. So we woke a few of them up.
Getting decent “macro” photos at night can be challenging. The majority ended up blown out or blurry or the wrong part of the picture was in focus. with animals, it’s always good to get the eyes in focus, if anything. So a lot of deleted photos of chameleons from that first night.
Staying on the subject of night photography, I’ll skip ahead to the next night, when we had a guide, and found out just how many things we probably missed completely. We did find more chameleons, but this time more species (Madagascar has about 150 of the world’s 200-odd species) and bigger ones.
None of them were all to happy about being woken up.
Once our eyes became a little better trained, we got better at spotting things. Anne spotted a tiny frog, less than a centimeter long, sitting on a leaf. Sadly, the photo was blurry. But also this stick bug. At night!
I found this dragonfly, and got pretty excited when our guide said “Uroplatus”!
Uroplatus is a gecko that’s virtually impossible to spot during the day. Cleverly camouflaged to look like tree bark, with loose skin that covers the gap between their body and the surface they are on, and a tail shaped and colored like a dead leaf, they blend in perfectly when they sit unmoving on a tree. Our guide spotted the first one, perched precariously on the end of a branch, and completely ignoring us while we shone our lights on it to try and capture a passable photograph.
I don’t know if they lose their tails like most lizards, but this one had an odd little pointy tail. And about ten minutes later, walking along the rain forest trail, I spotted a second one – this one higher up and the photo not as clear, but you can see its leaf-shaped tail rolled up as it hangs in midair.
Sadly, we didn’t see any of the shy, tiny nocturnal lemurs and could tell our guide was disappointed. But in fact we didn’t see any lemurs the whole trip, though they are quite common in this area. When returning to the lodge, however, we did spot a pair of bright green “lights” across the rice paddy. When we decided to go in for a closer look, we realized they were eyes. We’re convinced it was a fossa – pretty common in the area – Madagascar’s odd, dog/cat-like predator. We’re still hoping to see one more clearly to confirm.
Our guide would take us on a 7-hour adventure the following day, hiking up and down the hilly rain forest, slipping in the mud and drizzle, and eventually emerging into the open where he would lead us to his village – and back again through the ridce paddies to the Camp. I’ll tell you about the stories he told and the people we met on that hike, in my next post. Until then, here’s an orchid – one of 20,000 orchid species, of which 1000 in Madagascar, 85% of which exist nowhere else.