Thursday, Nov. 13
Ranohira, Madagascar

Madagascar has been isolated from the rest of the world for so long — it’s the oldest island on earth — that thousands of the country’s species of plants, insects, frogs, birds and at least 200 mammals exist no where else on earth. (Citation: Bradt travel guide.)

It’s paradise for serious biologists and researchers, plus amateur birders and other wildlife lovers. Many tourists visit Madagascar primarily to experience its nature, hopscotching amongst the country’s many parks.

But me? As much as I love being outdoors and taking in beautiful scenery, I’m not really one for identifying rare flowers or reptiles. As I explained in an earlier post about my visit to Ghana’s Mole National Park, I’m far more interested in learning about how people live. So it wasn’t until I had been in Madagascar for a week and a half, having already explored a handful of towns and villages, that I experienced my first park: Isalo, located in the south.

The visit was worthwhile before I even set foot in the park thanks to the view from my hotel, just a few kilometers from the park entrance. The group of bungalows that made up Chez Alice seemed on the edge of the world, looking out over dry earth and browned grass toward the rock formations, mountains really, that made up the nature reserve.

Just minutes after I settled in my very own bungalow, I watched the sun set behind those mountains, then turned to see the sky pink, with the moon full over the bungalow behind me:

Sunset at Chez Alice outside Isalo Park

Sunset at Chez Alice outside Isalo Park

The next morning, I hired an obligatory guide to accompany me inside the park. We hiked in the hot sun — so bright that I had a headache a day later despite my sunglasses — the tall rocks jutting out of the earth all around us. This part of the country is dry and desert-like, with bizarre spiny plants sprouting from the dry ground. But once we descended into a small canyon, water fed lush greenery and formed several natural — and warm! — swimming pools.

One of Isalos natural warm  pools.

One of Isalo's natural warm pools.

The unique insects and plants that my guide, Olivier, pointed out proved interesting even for a non-bio enthusiast like me. He spotted a stick insect, longer than the length of my palm, that camouflaged itself in the thin branches of a bush, remaining perfectly still. And a family of pink moths that, after escaping from their cocoons, remained together on the same branch where they were “born.” The species doesn’t fly. But my favorite? A tree with flowers that contract when you brush it gently, like a plant out of Pee-wee’s Playhouse.

Ring-tailed lemur in Isalo National Park.

Ring-tailed lemur in Isalo National Park.

I also saw my first lemur, the primate that exists only on Madagasar. There are dozens of varieties — some tourists make it their goal to see as many as possible — and the one we witnessed in Isalo, which reminded me of a raccoon, was ring-tailed.

Along with the wildlife, I got a bit of a culture lesson. Some locals bury their dead amongst the rocks, Olivier explained, and let the body decompose for years before digging up the bones for a funeral. We came across a small coffin, one that had been used for a child, that was empty for this very reason:

Empty coffin inside Isalo Park.

Empty coffin inside Isalo Park.

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