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Madagascar’s ‘Silk’ Route

I’ve been visiting Madagascar for over 20 years: in fact I’ve returned each year since 1991. Back then it captivated me like no place had done before, or since, and my enthusiasm has yet to diminish. Since my first visit in 1998, one place on the island has been my favourite – Marojejy National Park in the far north east. It is one of Madagascar’s wildest places.

I initially visited the park with just one aim – to get photos of the incredibly rare silky sifaka (Propithecus candidus). After considerable effort, I managed to get something, but of course this was in the days of film and by today’s standards the pictures were very poor. In more recent years, I’ve returned to Marojejy several times to try and improve on those images and to document more of the park’s diverse wildlife.

Silky Sifaka in Marojejy National Park, Madagascar

On my most recent trip in October 2016, I was able to try for the first time some of Páramo’s tropical clothing range (Maui trousers). Marojejy is challenging terrain, mountainous, with very steep slopes covered in thick rainforest with often dense and tangled undergrowth.

I always engage the help of local park guides (wherever I am) and this time Désire was helping me track the sifakas. We concentrated our efforts above 700m in elevation: the montane forest areas preferred by the sifakas. On the first morning we found a group of animals only 20 minutes out of camp, then slid down slopes, climbed back up again, clambered over tree stumps and stooped beneath fallen logs and every time I thought we were getting closer, the sifakas moved away again through the forest – in a flurry of movement bundles of flowing white fur ricocheting through the trees.

Then finally we caught up with them. Dripping in sweat, I began to piece together my camera gear, while silently pleading that they not to move again. Eventually I got there and began taking pictures. Even though I’d been in this position many times before, I still pinched myself and marveled as I looked through the lens at a silky sifaka, one of the world’s most critically endangered primates.

Silky Sifaka

Inevitably my initial shots were rubbish, but as my heart rate slowed and considered coherent thought began to return the rewards came. Over the next pulsating hour, I followed the group of six adults with offspring, and watched them play, stretch, groom, feed and snooze. Each sequence of photos, seemed to be better than the last (at least that’s the way I perceived it in my mind) and by the time the sifakas moved away beyond reach into the depths of the forest, I felt drained and exhilarated in equal measure.

Silky Sifaka adult and offspring

Marojejy has other treasures too, including the rare helmet vanga, arguably Madagascar’s most distinctive endemic bird.  We found a nest in the fork of a tree adjacent to the trail and peering through the gloom I could clearly see the bird tucked into a deep bowl of moss. Suddenly an electric-­blue flash cut past my eyes with a blur of chestnut-and­-black plumage as another bird landed on the edge of the nest. The almost improbably large glowing blue beak was unmistakable. As one adult vacated the nest and flew off, the other immediately replaced it and settled into a comfortable incubating position.

Helmet vanga

After five magical days in Marojejy, I returned to the coastal town of Sambava to enjoy a cold Three Horses beer and excellent local crevettes. I peeled off my filthy Maui trousers and sent them off to be scrubbed and beaten clean in a local laundry. And next day they were as good as new.

Nick Garbutt

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