The Berenty Reserve is in the south of Madagascar. The nearest city is Fort Dauphin (where we landed), which is on the coast. Apparently nearby there is great surfing (our French neighbors in the bungalow next door had a ton of boards). This is a 3rd generation reserve started in 1936 and the owners are still the same family- we even saw them briefly, checking on the property.
Naturally, I woke up about every hour, worried I would miss something or just because I was anxious. I was wide awake at 5- and heard the generator go on- but we’d said 6 so I laid around for a bit listening to the cacophony of the forest and then got ready early. With my hair short like this (which I am SO relieved I cut it), it is really easy to get going- although the color is fading super fast.
I got Bryan up so we could get some coffee and brekky- then to meet Lambert on a path right next to our room.
We saw tons of birds, more than I can recall the names of, though I do remember koas- there are 3 kinds and somehow, we were lucky enough to see all 3 in one walk. There’s a giant raptor called a yellow billed kite, which upsets all the animals when they fly over. There are weaver birds which make round hanging nests and then a magpie robin, which is like a black and white version of what we know as robins. There were many more, but as birds are not my jam, I can only remember some…
We came up on 3 sifaka that were close to the path- and as we approached, they got even closer. I was tempted to see what they’d do if I approached them- and much to my surprise, they came up to me and licked my hand! They seemed very interested in what I was and we shared some great moments together, investigating each other. It is amazing to think that you can just be walking along in the forest and wild animals will come up and greet you so gently. They didn’t even care that I didn’t have food, they just wanted to investigate me. I could have stayed there all day! The guys had to pull me away so we could move on and see a bit more of the forest.
We eventually came upon a clearing and a family’s “yard”: a couple huts, a fire cooking and a few people in and out. They live near the river- which currently looks like a vast, sandy beach maybe ¼ mile wide (maybe wider, we’re not good at estimating distance). Either way, you would hardly be able to see someone on the other side- and the people further down the way were tiny stick people.
There were 2 girls digging holes- maybe about 8 yrs old- and maybe their dad, or uncle, or just someone else…but they literally have to dig down about 5 feet- to find their water for the day. Off to the side there was a woman with no top, bathing in her hole, and washing some clothes. Lambert told us people come from up to 20km away just to get water like this- EVERY day. And then once they have some bottles or a jug (much like we’d use for gasoline for a lawnmower), they carry it all the way back on their heads! To think even children that young walk that far, maybe even without a parent, seems crazy- and sad. It really makes you understand and appreciate how simple it can be for us to turn on the tap. Certainly, the more we experience here, the more humbled we are.
Lambert asked us about our family, whether we had kids or not. He has one girl who is 3 and a wife a bit younger than him (at 33). We told him we had no kids and he said that EVERYONE wants to have kids in Madagascar, but that he differs in how many is a good number. For example, he feels like 3 children is a good amount- you can take care of them well and manage finances and resources for them- but most people have many kids, sometimes 10 or more, because they believe more kids bring you more resources.
Lambert said his cousin, not only has 3 wives but 30 children- and when asked why it’s because he “likes f%^$ing”. Simple enough. He spends much of his time thinking about which wife’s house he will go to that night- and then the next day he can make a different choice. Lambert said this makes no sense to him because more wives mean more problems- one wife and child is enough for him! We laughed and said zero children are enough for us 😉
He explained to us about other cultural traditions, such as how the Antanroy (ahn-tahn-drou-ee), the people in this area, value zebu- only zebu- which is a kind of cow. This is their currency. These cows have the typical steer horns that kind of point out in front- but they have a big hump on their back of their neck, kind of like a camel. It’s a fat deposit, and the bigger the hump, the more valuable the zebu.
We found out the one with the biggest hump is called “be kihloti”- big shorts…or the big boss. I said, “oh, like me”! He and Francois laughed really hard at that one- and from then on, that’s what they called me: be kihloti= big boss.
While we can gather that these cows are like money, what we couldn’t gather is that they don’t eat them, they basically just collect them. The more you have the wealthier you are. We saw herds of them going down the road with people tending them for their bosses- or maybe themselves…but it seems like a lot of work to do to care for them, move them, water and feed them, just to collect them!
What was even stranger and REALLY hard for us to understand was what happens when someone dies!!
So say the father of a house dies- they family kills ALL of their zebu. So 100 zebu, 10 zebu, one zebu- it doesn’t matter, they are all killed. They do eat some of the zebu at least then, but if there was way too much, I don’t know what they do…
But then they live with the body of the person for a while!? I don’t know if this is in the same house but they hang onto the body until they feel like having a funeral. The day of the funeral, all the family comes from all over- this takes days or weeks for people to gather.
The same 2 hour flight from Tana to Ft Dauphin is a 5 day and night drive (driving continuously)- and Lambert’s family was doing this as we spoke, since his grandmother died recently. Sadly, this meant he was going to miss the funeral, but his wife would call while they were on the road- for FIVE CONSECUTIVE DAYS AND NIGHTS- driving to the funeral.
The family of course sleeps over (a day that translates to “blood sleep”) the night before…and then, to make things even crazier, they burn the person’s house down with all of the man’s possessions, while the wife (wives) and daughters, stand outside and watch after shaving their heads. So after you die, suddenly your family has no house nor wealth- and stand watching everything burn while bald and crying…they could starve to death- but this is how it is.
Unfortunately, though not surprising, we learned a lot of other things are solved or resolved or blessed with animals sacrifices and blood as well…maybe what is surprising is that this is really still how many people live- even when they have cell phones, western clothing and connections to the rest of the world. They just follow tradition.
This is something I have a really hard time relating to, as I hardly have any traditions at all- and even many of the ones I grew up with, I don’t follow any longer. We definitely don’t believe in doing anything just for the sake of doing it, especially when it really doesn’t make some kind of logical sense or have a good reason behind it. And naturally, for us, killing animals for such reasons, is definitely taboo!
However, I do appreciate their ability and strength in sticking to their culture’s ways, when there are so many other influences- because honestly, their simple lives are not full of stress and worries as ours are. Introduction to the western world, electronics and the internet, while making life better in many ways, also brings more problems.
There’s definitely something to be said for living in the moment- just getting through each day and not worrying about the future. These people are happy- maybe because they know no better, but also likely because they appreciate life. They appreciate and respect their families and community. They work together, they have the same basic goals and needs…whereas we have so much coming at us all the time, I think it can be hard to even live life sometimes…which is why we find it important and desirable to travel and see the world in this way.
We know we are lucky to be able to afford such pleasures, but we work hard and save for these opportunities too- they do not come easy by any means and we are far from wealthy…but no matter what, it is a priority for us to make the effort to make a plan, save and then go on these “epic journeys”- just to put life into perspective and to see things for what they really are when you step outside your normal walk of life.
After the morning walk, we went to have lunch and secretly wished the lemurs could eat at our table again- but this time we were told that bread isn’t good for them, so we shouldn’t feed them even if we were allowed or encouraged. This bummed me out a lot, but certainly I had some tricks up my sleeve! I had not even thought of it for lemurs, but bought some trail mix with dried fruits in it that I knew they would love…I could not wait for the opportunity to arise when I could test this theory.
At this point of the day, it is so ridiculously hot. It’s routinely 95+ and this is just the start of the rainy, but very hot season. It’s spring and while most trees are still bare and dead looking, some are starting to bud leaves and even flower, which must be an amazing sight when in full bloom. The heat and our hikes make me pretty tired, so I have to nap, but after that we went on another hike.
This was to the spiny forest, which is a higher elevation and much more dry and dead looking than the forest near our bungalow. This is where spiny octopus trees have tentacle like branches that curve down toward the ground, like an octopus, and as they get taller, the tentacles reach up toward the sky.
They appear a lot like cacti from far away, but up close you can see they have studs on them that get sharper and more pronounced as you go up to the younger part of the tree. The main trunk is nearly bare of them but they are still there and you can see the pattern they made as they grow- it looks a bit like pin striping on a suit.
There are apparently 10 kinds of these trees- others have every sharp needles like cacti do- and none of them bother the lemurs at all! These are the trees they rely on, live in and eat from. Apparently their little people like hands have a very thick, leathery palm, so they don’t even notice. This seems really hard to believe, but there are so many of them- and more white footed and mouse lemurs- these trees, clearly it poses no problem for them.
Our guide in this spiny forest was a guardian for the plantation, and this was the territory he knows and watches over. We met him at his tiny 10×10 wooden house, where his wife was making his lunch. Looking into the bowl it looked like calamari or something meaty and broth like, but it turned out its casaba (or casava) which is some kind of root. This is what many of the people eat because rice is considered expensive (which is crazy to think). They cook up this root and make a stew of sorts and this was what the guide was going to have- I guess until perhaps we interrupted!
As we went through the forest he was amazing at spotting things and finding things for us to see. He would turn over some bark and produce a tiny scorpion, smaller than the first knuckle of my pinky finger. Apparently while they can sting and it hurts, it will just make you sick for a few days, but will not kill you. We were informed much is the same with other spiders and snakes- there is nothing deadly here, which is a bit of a relief. In Australia everything was deadly, so much so, you couldn’t really process that reality and really just had to pretend it wasn’t true…but to be able to walk through the forest, taller grasses and not need to worry about snakes or scorpions jumping out at you, was nice. We felt very safe.
We saw an orb spider, about the size of a palm- small again compared to Australia’s face size ones Bryan can tell you about! There are also little lizards who zip back and forth, called 3 eyed lizards, because there’s a spot on the middle of their head that makes it seem like they have a 3rd eye there. The chameleons though are really impressive- the kind you think of with the big bowl shaped eyes and the two fingers grasping the branch. We saw a few different sizes of them, both male and female, and we even got to hold a female one.
The guide pulled a millipede out of one tree trunk and I definitely recoiled, but Bryan was eager to hold it. Naturally, then I wanted to hold t too, so as not to miss out on the experience and it was kind of funny. It felt tickly- and I was fine with it, until it really wanted to take off up my arm, so I was like “Ok, done. Good. We’re good here.” In a bit of a panicked voice that naturally set the guys off laughing at me.
There were a couple really big baobabs and our guide even sat in one. He let me hold his spear so I could too.
We stumbled up ringtails and sifaka in tress, but these were more shy and would move away if you got too close within their bubble of security. Many had babies, which are so ridiculously cute it hurts. There is really nothing as cute as a lemur baby and my heart aches every time I see one!
We even saw a ring tail that had somehow lost it’s tail!
After the walk, I was super tired and hot, so I fell asleep pretty quickly for a nap. I woke up about 3 or so and saw ring tails clamoring around outside our sliding glass door. Bryan and I went out to investigate and see if the dried fruit would indeed be a treat they’d like!
At first, the one mama with baby, who seemed to be the troop leader, refused my treat! I was shocked, but slowly, others approached and took little bits of my food. I had a roll saved up from dinner on the plane a few nights back which I was going to break up and share with them, but one grabbed it so fast from my hand and ran off, scolding the others that tried to get near and share.
By now they were eager for the fruit and they were nearly climbing into my lap to get them, grabbing my hands with theirs and pulling my hand toward them. They’d lick my fingers when I didn’t have any left and one, kept trying to gnaw gently on my fingers but of course I didn’t want to get bitten accidentally, so I was careful to flash my hand open or move it another way…but really, they are quite gentle, even when being enthusiastic and I was not the least bit scared I would be hurt in any way by them.
Despite this amazing opportunity, I was starting to feel pretty exhausted and I had to lay down again. You know I am feeling out of it if I forgo hand feeding ring tails for sleep! But this was really a necessity- however, I was glad to wake up to seeing Bryan filming one of the little babies who had gotten off the mama’s back and was hopping around in the cutest way. I didn’t think our dreams could be topped any more, but every time I felt like one dream had come true something even more exciting and unbelievable would happen when the lemurs were around.
I cannot express how ridiculously cute it is to watch the baby, so you will just have to watch the video.
Later we took another evening walk and then dinner. This time we were going to watch the fruit bats fly off for the night. We left about dusk and walked nearly half the loop we’d done that morning, which was pretty long. At this point I was really questioning whether or not I could do the walk, but I really love fruit bats and always get excited to see bats flying around.
We got to where we could see their roost, which was actually quite a ways off. The area around them was protected though and we could not go there- never mind there was no path going to their tamarind trees- so from afar we watched and waited…and waited. And waited some more.
At this point I was super duper tired, maybe a little dizzy and my legs were weak. The bats seemed to be “late” as well, just hanging out cackling, but no one really in a hurry to get anywhere any time soon! We heard lots of birds and even cicadas, which was a little surprising. Lambert did not know that each sleeps for 17 years before waking up and singing, mating and then dying- so it was nice to be able to share some information with him!
After about 10 bats flew off- which had to have been at least 45 minutes- I told them I really had to get back…but instead of going the short way back I suddenly realized we were taking the longer way and finishing the loop, I think because I said something about seeing a civet, which is the only animal we had not seen yet. It’s a nocturnal, forest dwelling carnivore, much like a small opossum, raccoon cat that eats lemurs if it finds them, or birds, reptiles and other smaller things. We kept on, with Lambert shining his head lamp back and forth through the woods to spot some eyes- while I literally stumbled along, so tired I wasn’t sure I would make it.
We stopped suddenly and Lambert points his headlamp down to the ground, inches in front of my feet, where there’s a hairy spider, smaller than your palm, but the kind I really don’t like, called a night spider. Just as we shined the light on it, it pounced on a preying mantis (a very small one) that it was apparently hunting when we disturbed it. I don’t know HOW he saw this, but I am super glad he did- and that this beast didn’t climb up my leg or come down on my head! However, now I was really ready to get out of the forest and to bed- not even dinner, just bed.
At this point I was definitely feeling a bit ill and not hungry at all- more like, borderline sick. We stumbled into the restaurant and I informed Bryan there was no way I was eating dinner, but that I’d see what dessert was- maybe some fruit or something- which I felt I could stomach.
This was basically heat exhaustion and fatigue, nothing more, but I could hardly hold my head up at the table. Bryan tired to get me to eat some of his dinner, which started with fried zucchini, much like tempura style (probably the influence of the new Japanese tourists that had arrived that day)- and looked pretty good. I ate one little piece but that was it. However, dessert was caramel custard which sounded palatable and enough substance that I could take my antibiotics with later, so I did scarf that down before I left Bryan to finish the rest of his wine and dinner, while I went back early and crashed.
I had a lot of water, which definitely helped and I felt better as I was laying down- and by the time Bryan got home, while still tired, I was not feeling sick. It was 8pm though and I was done! I don’t think Bryan did much except putter around and then laid down too, because next morning we were scheduled for a 630 walk in a different spiny forest.