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    Travel: Madagascar boasts plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth
    • April 12, 2023

    Somewhere in the faraway Mozambique Channel, on Madagascar’s tiny, roadless, volcanic “Lemur Island,” a tawny-colored, wet-nosed, white-maned, utterly adorable lemur suddenly pounced from a tree in the tropical rainforest — and landed on my shoulder.

    She leaned over, wrapped her eerily human-like hand around my wrist and, with a silky tongue, licked a squished piece of banana from my outstretched palm. Another golden-eyed lemur leapt atop my other shoulder and sniffed my hair. I was in crazy lemur love.

    A pair of sifaka lemurs appear to play peek-a-boo near the Sacred Lake of Mangatsa. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

    After all, I had swung halfway around the globe to view lemurs in Madagascar, the only place on Earth where the primitive primates are native, live in the wild (112 species at last count), and evolved here over millions of years. This troop of lemurs, on the turtle-shaped island officially called Nosy Komba, had been habituated to people. Others I encountered in Madagascar were not but they calmly and profoundly gazed with their big peepers at two-footed admirers. Funnily, some lemurs resembled mini panda bears or black papillon dogs.

    “They are sacred animals for us. People think our ancestors’ spirits live in the lemur,” said Claudia Randrianasolo, a local Malagasy guide.

    The luxury Ponant ship, Le Champlain, anchors along the west coast of Madagascar. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

    Endearing lemurs were just part of my extraordinary, out-of-the-box odyssey. You see, I was on a Ponant small-ship expedition sailing its maiden voyage of an exotic brand-new way-off-the-tourist-track Indian Ocean itinerary, “Adventure in Madagascar.” During this inaugural 15-night cruise, the French luxury liner’s captain, crew and naturalists — along with its 132 well-traveled passengers —  were all authentically discovering the mysterious “eighth continent” of Madagascar together for the very first time.

    Dancers in a Vezo fishing village welcome the first-ever cruise ship passengers to visit their shores. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

    One afternoon, we arrived in rubber Zodiacs on a remote beach to visit rare “sea nomads” and found the entire fishing village turned out to greet the only cruise ship passengers they had ever met. Other days, we stood over a tribal king’s holy crocodile-infested lake, strolled among Madagascar’s iconic, towering “upside down” baobab trees, eyed three-eyed lizards, and snorkeled around stunning coral reefs. And we continually experienced the unique culture of this island nation 250 miles off east Africa’s coast —  women painting their faces with a paste ground from sandalwood as a sunscreen and for cosmetic beauty; fishermen hollowing out tree trunks to build traditional “lakana” canoes in a week; locals exclaiming “Maki! Maki!” meaning “Lemur! Lemur!”

    The underwater Blue Eye aboard Le Champlain (and other Ponant explorer ships) has to be the most unique lounge on the planet’s seas. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

    After every excursion, we returned to Le Champlain, our “explorer-class” ship featuring the Blue Eye, a “multi-sensory” underwater Jetson-style cocktail lounge with two large oval portholes to spy ocean creatures and hydrophones to pick up their sounds. While swathed in purplish-blue surroundings, you can quietly relax in curved, vibrating  “body listening sofas” and sip a complimentary Curacao-and-rum libation named the Blue Eye. No critters swam by for me, although digital projections of glowing jellyfish hypnotically wiggled up walls and pre-recorded audio played of whales, dolphins and other marine beings that had once vocalized near our ship.

    The back deck of Le Champlain offers dining, a small infinity swimming pool, and breathtaking sunset views. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

    Indeed, this trailblazing cruise was five-star like other Ponant journeys (note our caviar-and-champagne “tea time,” Laduree macarons, and the spa’s 24-karat gold hair follicle treatment). But onboard truly felt unpretentious. The easygoing French team of naturalists, often clad in tan safari clothes, presented eco-focused lectures; the affable  expedition leader, David Beaune, also conducted laughter yoga and had me cackling like an idiot. You also know the vibe is cool when the ship’s doctor dances in her red high heels to “Twist and Shout” with partying cruisers, some in their 80s.

    The world’s second smallest chameleon is barely noticeable on the Madagascar island of Nosy Hara. It was the tiniest until scientists in 2021 discovered a more miniature one in Madagascar. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

    Madagascar is astonishingly rich nature-wise, even boasting the world’s teeniest chameleon (we spotted the inch-long second puniest chameleon). Nearly 90 percent of its flora and fauna are found nowhere else on the planet. But economically Madagascar is one of the poorest countries; many inhabitants live on less than $2 a day. With tourism low but crucial, it’s satisfying to know our visit brought needed income — and Ponant,, repeats the same route multiple times this year into 2024 (starting at $9,770).

    “Mora mora,” the Malagasy guide Claudia said, referring to two words seen printed on women’s customary bright “lamba” sarongs. “It means slowly, slowly. It’s a philosophy for us. Taking what comes peacefully. I don’t have it today, but maybe tomorrow. Mora, mora.”

    Madagascar has more than 300 species of reptiles — most endemic — so it’s easy to spot weird scaly creatures. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

    Vehicles are scarce, but after our Zodiacs washed up to port city Majunga, locals ferried us in 4X4s for a lengthy bumpy ride past rice paddies, mangroves and zebu cattle-pulled carts to the myth-shrouded transparent Sacred Lake filled with carp, eels and crocodiles. We were among the Sakalava tribe, one of 18 ethnic groups in Madagascar.

    “Hello White people!” smiling, waving children yelled in the Malagasy language as we slowly drove on a rutted dusty road dotted with their families’ thatched huts. My Sakalava guide told me locals pray and ask for blessings at the Sacred Lake because a Sakalava king’s zebu died in quicksand there. Or the other story is a king’s angry sorcerer transformed a village into the lake and villagers into fishes. As we walked on a long dirt trail to the lake, accompanied by a spunky 10-year-old Sakalava boy with a myna bird atop his shoulder, we looked up at tree branches — white-and-brown teddy bear-faced sifaka lemurs stared back. Shortly, we’d see more. At the compact lake, tamarind trees sheathed in red and white fabric signified “holiness” and “respect.” A crocodile snapped out of the water to catch a chunk of thrown raw meat.

    Zebu-pulled carts navigate rickshaws and foot traffic in the Malagasy town of Toliara. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

    On a different day, beyond the busy town of Toliara, we passed hundreds of bicycled rickshaws and, again, rustic wagons drawn by humped, horned zebu used for plowing, transportation, and hauling goods.

    “In Madagascar, the zebu is very very important.  It’s a sign of being rich,” explained Sambo Ruffin, a Malagasy guide. “The zebu is like a bank. We put our money in the zebu. There is a tribe that steals zebu — it’s a custom but it is against the law. Sometimes, you have to wrestle a zebu to marry a woman. And when a man dies, his zebu is sacrificed and eaten.”

    Most heartwarming was our visit to Sarodrano’s simple coastal village of Vezo fishermen, known as “sea nomads” because their survival for centuries depends solely on the ocean. Sambo earlier informed me the Vezo can purportedly hold their breath underwater for 15 minutes and women give birth in the ocean to instill babies with strong marine skills.

    Side by side, a Vezo outrigger and Ponant Zodiac signify an incredible cultural exchange in the village of Sarodrano. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

    What I didn’t expect was the enthusiastic welcome as we alighted from Zodiacs into the knee-high tide, the first cruise ship voyagers to ever appear on their shores (and also mainly White and French). A tribal elder emphatically blew a whistle as she and others joyously danced, including male celebrants shaking fishing spears. Rows and rows of villagers watched, some looking curious or perhaps unsure. Afterward, we walked around with a Malagasy guide and witnessed daily life — women untangling seaweed (some sold to China for cosmetics); men repairing fishing nets; youngsters gleefully sliding down sand dunes on plastic water containers. When we ambled by one thatched hut, a mother surprisingly invited us inside to see her 2-day-old baby boy, Augustin.

    Vezo kids, unaccustomed to visitors in their small village, ham it up for a camera. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

    None of the Vezo seemed to speak English but we all understood each other. I soon was in the middle of the ocean bobbing in a five-person canoe hand-dug by my bow paddler, a Vezo fisherman named Bier. More Ponant passengers glided in similar outrigger canoes. At the same time, our naturalists encouraged village children to jump in our 10-person Zodiacs for rides. Kids boisterously piled in, a huge heap of them howling in laughter and shrieking out to sea. At day’s end, the fishermen lined up their guest-occupied canoes in the water; the boatman next to me energetically strummed a handmade guitar while his buddies whooped in song. Bier forcefully beat his paddles against our canoe like drums. Vezo boys and girls waded into the surf, uncontrollably giggling with our naturalists.

    Later, from my Zodiac, as I waved goodbye to the Vezo, I actually choked up.

    Dubbed “mothers of the forest,” baobab trees are an iconic symbol of Madagascar. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

    A couple days before, we meandered through the Reniala Reserve “spiny forest” among bulbous, soaring baobab trees, some 1,200 years old. “Many people believe spirits live inside the baobab and they will pray to it and bring offerings,” said Malagasy guide Rivo Rarivosoa. Other people, he added, use the inner bark to make ropes, the leaves to cure stomach aches, and the spongy trunks to help in droughts. (Incredibly, a baobab can collect up to 26,000 gallons of rainwater.) Reniala is also a lemur rescue, so we caught a glimpse of caged ring-tailed ones being rehabbed from the illegal pet and bushmeat trade before their return to the wild.

    A sifaka lemur, like other kinds of lemurs, only exist in the wild on the island nation of Madagascar. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

    Yes, not everyone believes lemurs are sacred.  All species — including the itty-bitty mouse lemur — are considered endangered and threatened with extinction due to deforestation and poaching. It’s mind-boggling, since lemurs supposedly floated here 60 million years ago on rafts of vegetation after Madagascar broke off from Africa. On Lemur Island, the forested sanctuary where lemurs are free to roam (although, remember, habituated ones will jump on humans to eat that handheld piece of banana), the long-tailed residents are protected by villagers who use tourism income from entry fees and handicraft sales to survive. We were also fortunate to see insanely cute “maki” (specifically the common brown lemur species) while hiking on the uninhabited island of Nosy Tanikely, a national park.

    A Ponant Zodiac motors to a beautiful snorkeling beach in Madagascar. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

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    Our expedition voyage spanned 2,633 nautical miles, and although centered on Madagascar, as planned it encompassed other international stopovers. We started in the idyllic island nation of Seychelles, where the world’s largest bats — known as flying foxes — eerily swooped over white-sand beaches and a vivacious community guide disclosed how to make booze from coconuts. Eventually, our ship had to leave Madagascar earlier than intended because of threatening Cyclone Freddy winds and we had to reach Reunion island before that French territory went on strike. We disembarked in the country of Mauritius and there I enjoyed a Ponant post-cruise tour that included time at an elaborate Hindu shrine where a priestess blessed me with a red dot between my eyes.

    I already felt extremely blessed to have visited isolated, unparalleled Madagascar.  And now back home in California, I keep thinking of what guide Claudia so poignantly urged: “Please remember the smiles of the Malagasy people. Mora Mora.”

    ​ Orange County Register