A biologist by training, I ask a lot of questions, especially about the curious attributes and adaptations of plants and animals.
Questions at the ready, I headed to Madagascar. The world’s fourth-largest island sits off the east coast of Africa, a location it has occupied for more than 100 million years. For biologists, it’s an Eden. Considered to be a megadiverse country — one of 17 in the world — the island is home to substantial numbers of flora and fauna found nowhere else in the world.
I shared the two-week bike and trek adventure — and covered more than 300 miles — with a group of 13 other vacationers who’d signed up for the same trip, with Exodus Travels. They included a married couple who regularly cycled in the perfectly level Netherlands where they lived; a young Australian woman and her boyfriend, who both were novice cyclists; and an older Englishman who admitted that he had prepped for the trip with weekend pub rides. As for me, I’ve biked all over the world, but I’m not into speed.
It soon became apparent that Madagascar was my kind of place. Our Malagasy guide, Andriniaina “Mel” Armel, explained the island’s philosophy on the first day. “You’ll hear people say ‘mora,’ which means ‘slowly, slowly,’ ” she said. “They’ll say it when they see you cycling, they’ll welcome you with ‘Bonjour, mora’ — whatever it is, you’ll hear ‘mora.’ ”
Once we were on the gently undulating road, I settled into a laid-back rhythm, stopping often to take notes, peruse my naturalist books and snap photos of the wildflowers and other flora that lined the road. The arid landscape was blanketed with brick-red soil; we cycled past rice paddies and two-story adobe dwellings toward a horizon dominated by rounded mountains.
To my surprise, the rest of the group took off pedaling like it was the Tour de France — a pace they also kept during our hikes — and within moments they were so far ahead that their colorful bike jerseys were mere orange, yellow, blue and red dots cresting the hills.
On the descents and straightaways, they tackled hairpin turns at high speeds, deftly negotiating the deep potholes and other obstacles dotting our path. These ranged from motorbikes and minivans to wheeled carts, chickens and people carrying firewood or walking to market while balancing their wares on their heads. I hung back, most memorably when we cycled through a herd of zebu, an ancient breed of humped, horned cattle revered by locals.
After observing my relaxed pace, Mel assigned a junior guide or the bike mechanic to cycle with me at the rear. On hikes, Mel also divided us by speed — I was the only one in the “snail” group, which left me with my own guide, perfect for my inquisitive nature. Our southwestern route from the middle of the country and the capital, Antananarivo, to coastal Ifaty allowed me to study the full breadth of Madagascar’s landscapes and inhabitants.
Hiking into a forest
The scenery changed dramatically once the road meandered into Ranomafana National Park, an almost 100,000-acre UNESCO World Heritage Site where more than 90 percent of the plant species are endemic.
With my group far ahead, I relished cruising down steep switchbacks at a speed that allowed me to enjoy the sun-dappled terrain, fresh-smelling air and dramatically cooler temperatures, thanks to the thick cover of tree ferns, symphonia trees, wild ginger and other plant life brimming around me. I gawked at the gushing waters tumbling down a ravine into the Namorona River.
The next morning, after we donned hiking boots, Mel matched me with guide Rajeriarison Emile. “They call him ‘frogman’ because he discovered a species of frog, Anodonthyla emiliei,” she explained. When I told him I was a biologist, he smiled with delight. So did I. He was Ranomafana’s first guide when it became a national park in 1991, and his knowledge was expansive.
As he led me down a track dense with bamboo and banana, fig and avocado trees, my vision was suffused with vibrant greens. The eagle-eyed guide pointed out a baby peacock-green gecko clinging to a branch, and then tiny pink orchids hanging on a tree trunk. At our feet sprouted stink mushrooms, so named because their musky odor attracts insects that spread the spores. “You can smell many things in the forest; even the glands of each lemur species give off a different scent,” Rajeriarison noted.
All around us were soaring, gargantuan ferns. “These fern trees take 100 years to grow this big,” he said. Then he asked where I thought the park’s vegetarian lemurs — it’s home to 12 species — get their protein. “Each fig species has a specific wasp type that pollinates the flower inside the fruit,” he said. “The lemur eats the fruit, getting their protein from the wasp inside.”
In our hunt for lemurs, he took me down a narrow, muddy, root- and rock-laden trail that descended steeply through thickets. Our search was rewarded when, above our heads, a golden bamboo lemur jumped between tree limbs.
A piercing sound echoed through the forest. “That’s the call of the female red-bellied lemur,” he said. “They use it when they’re lost.”
Cycling through Madagascar’s vast savanna, with its tall grasses and granite buttes, I felt very small. The feeling persisted the following day as we trekked through Isalo National Park, a canyon land of wind- and water-eroded sandstone gorges and rock towers. My assigned guide, Jules Ravelomanantsoa, answered my questions as we wandered through the Canyon des Makis, where red-hued cliffs are honeycombed with caves that serve as temporary burial chambers for the Bara tribe.
My attention was immediately drawn to a tree bearing clusters of lime-green oval fruit.
“The fruit of this sakoa tree tastes like a sour mango,” Jules explained. “The bark can be used to make a tea for stomach problems.” I passed up the chance to sample it, and we proceeded through a sandstone-laden landscape whose contorted rock formations resembled a tortoise, a crocodile and other creatures.
I continued to lag far behind the rest of my group. As Jules and I reached an expansive, grassy plateau dotted with sandstone massifs, a sense of isolation and utter silence prevailed. I settled into a meditative reverie and dropped the questions. That is, until Jules stopped to point out some low-lying plants with ruby-red, hairlike structures. “It’s carnivorous, but you can boil it for throat problems,” he said.
Life was all around us, I realized, despite the seemingly arid landscape. To underscore the point, several ring-tailed lemurs scampered down the cliffs from their home high in the caves.
I became fascinated with the country’s oddly shaped baobab trees as I was cruising along its southwest coast. Endemic shrub, brush and trees, adapted to the drought-prone environment, have populated the spiny forests — as one of the island’s unique ecoregions is known. Madagascar’s national tree, the baobab, stands sentinel with a swollen trunk and fingerlike branches that appear to reach for the sun.
The next day in Ifaty — a designated rest day when most of my group cycled, snorkeled or relaxed at our seafront accommodation — I booked a trek through nearby Parc Mosa to learn more about the quirky trees.
My guide and I stood beside a cluster of soaring baobabs. “They grow slowly, one millimeter a month,” he said. He pointed out indentations that locals had cut into two of the trees as footholds to reach the fruit — they make a sour-tasting juice from the small, coconut-shaped fruits. The oil is said to have anti-aging properties, and Malagasy women crush the seeds to make face cream.
“Before these trees were protected here, people would also cut them for water and to make rope from the fibrous bark,” my amiable guide, Clovis Ratsaranandrasana, explained.
He led me from a short, skinny baobab sapling that is only 10 years old to the park’s oldest (1,400-year-old) specimen. I embraced its 40-foot-circumference trunk. “Thanks for sharing this park’s treasures with me. And sorry for all my questions,” I said.
My guide’s reply: “Never too many questions.”