Madagascar, Mauritius and Round Island – Part 1. (Nosy Hara.)


Nosy Hara - off Madagascar.

Nosy Hara - off Madagascar.

Back when I was a kid I used to dream of hunting for reptiles in far off exotic places.  I would let my fantasy run wild each time I fell in love with a new species, imagining trips to their country of origin and discovering them in their native habitat.  I’d read books about Carl Kauffield chasing reptiles in Florida or listen to Mark O’shea lecturing about being bitten by snakes in Papua New Guinea and be green with envy.  I wished more than anything in the world that I could do that.  I desperately wanted those experiences for myself.

My love of reptiles has only grown over the years, and so have my fantasy herping trips.  My list of places I want to go has grown too, Brazil, Australia, India… the list is endless.  Then sometime in 2005 I decided to stop dreaming and start doing.  It was time to live the dream.  I could not have known at the time, but the actual journey would surpass even my wildest fantasy.

Jim Pether and I have been friends for approximately 20 years and I blame him entirely for my fantasy field trip fetish.  I remember sitting listening to his stories about far-flung places and the animals he has seen and knew that I wanted to go with him someday.  Over the years we had often talked about going somewhere together but could never agree on a venue.  Eventually we decided on the place at the very top of my list.

Madagascar!

I have wanted to go to Madagascar for as long as I can remember.  I remember seeing my first Day Gecko and sacrificing a weeks wages for a pair.  Panther Chameleons were something I only saw in books and when I saw my first Sanzinia I was hooked. Dumerills Boas, Mantella, Leaf Tail Geckos.  It sounded like herp heaven! To go there with Jim Pether would be a dream come true and I couldn’t wait!  I started researching, finding out which species I could expect to see and making sure I could identify anything we might find.  Of course, I knew that the godfather of Madagascar field trips was Bill Love, the big Yankee herp tour leader.  His company, Blue Chameleon Ventures takes herpers out to Madagascar every year and the photo travelogues on his website are testament to Bill’s efficiency.  So as you can imagine, I was over the moon when Jim called to tell me that Bill would be joining us on our trip.  I couldn’t believe my luck!

I was already bragging to my herp friends about the trip and all of them were very pleased for me.  (Actually they were jealous as hell!)  Bill, Jim and I bounced emails back and forth, finalizing the details.
“How do you fancy visiting my friend in Mauritius?” said Jim in one email.  “He has a reptile park with hundreds of Aldabra tortoises and crocs.  It’s only a short flight to there from Madagascar”
“Why not?” I thought.  “May as well while we are in that neck of the woods!”
“Gee, you know how close Mauritius is to Round Island!” replied Bill.  “Sure would be cool to go there!”
“Forget it!” I said. “We have no hope! It’s a closed project!”

Round Island is well known to conservationists and to herpers in particular.  Gerald Durrell first highlighted its plight as a conservation issue during his visit in 1976.  Since then Durrell and Jersey Zoo have been active in restoring the island, starting with the eradication of the goats and rabbits and subsequent re-planting of native vegetation.  As a protected area, the Mauritian government restricts visitors to the island to scientists and conservationists, but that didn’t stop us dreaming.  We knew that Round Island was home to super rare reptiles, such as the world’s largest Day Gecko and the Telfair Skink.  The Keel Scaled Boa (Casarea dussumieri) is almost legendary amongst reptile conservationists as is its close relative (Bolyeria multocarinata) that has not been seen there since 1975 and is feared extinct. Both of these primitive snakes are special, as unlike the South American boas, they lay eggs.  An opportunity to see these snakes in the wild would be fantastic but there was little probability of us achieving it.  This was one fantasy too far!

Two weeks later I found an email from Bill in my in box.  “Hey guys, how do you fancy going to a small, uninhabited island off the north coast of Madagascar for a few days while we are there?  There’s a lizard I have heard of that may be un-described, it would be great to catch it, and if we don’t then hey!  It’s still a great side trip!”
“Too right” replied Jim “Count me in!”
This trip was getting out of control!

As the day of departure approached I was becoming more and more nervous.  Did I have all of the kit I would need?  Had I packed too much?  Did I know enough about the places we were going and the animals we might see?  It was daunting to think that these guys were seasoned herp hunters with big reputations!  By comparison, I was just the apprentice!  Having checked, double checked and triple checked my kit; I was dropped off at London Heathrow Airport to meet Jim.

We arrived in the capital Tana, tired and aching, Bill (who had already been in the country for six weeks) was there to meet us.  It was 11 pm and so after a quick beer and introductions it was time for bed.  We had another flight in the morning to take us to Diego Suarez, our destination in the north of the island.

Early next morning we boarded the plane for Diego Suarez, which was to include a brief stop in Nosy Be.  I mentioned to Bill that it was a shame we could not get off on this small island to look for the beautiful Nosy Be variety of Panther Chameleons.  “Don’t worry about it Tony!” said Bill nonchalantly, you’ll see Panthers that make these ones look ugly once we get to Ambanja.”  I thought about this for the rest of the flight, not sure if I could believe such a bold claim.  Nosy Be panthers are pretty stunning after all!

Not counting the taxi ride to the hotel, we had been on the ground for no more that 15 minutes before Jim found our first Panther Chameleon (Furcifer pardalis).  The green and red male was of course the most fantastic specimen I had ever seen.  As it walked slowly up my arm I almost missed Bill walking towards me with a branch, perched on which was a male Ostalets Chameleon! (Furcifer oustaleti)  This was too much!  I snapped more than 50 digital pictures of these two animals, whilst Jim and Bill laughed at my excitement.   After a few more minutes of searching we reluctantly made our way to reception to be met by Zack who would be our guide and driver for the next few days and would accompany us to Nosy Hara.

The boat journey to Nosy Hara would take approximately 3 hours so we made sure we had enough beer for the journey and set off as soon as the tide allowed.  Soaked by the waves and half drunk on strong Malagasy beer, we moored on a beach in a small bay. Supplies were unloaded, tents were pitched and firewood collected before we settled down with yet another beer whilst Zack prepared dinner.  Our plans for a night hike after sundown were discussed over a meal of Zebu steak and rice, which for me, a vegetarian of some 20 years was something of an experience!

That night equipped with cameras, head-torch and snake bags we set off across the island, following a small, bubbling freshwater stream steep uphill towards the centre.  It wasn’t long before we were rewarded with our first herp, which we heard long before we saw.  On the edge of the stream on a small log was a Green Mantella Frog (Mantella viridis) which we had heard calling from some distance away.  After firing off a few shots it leapt away across the mulch and rocks and out of reach.  It was then that we noticed there were two more frogs within a few feet of where we stood, and that more than one individual made the calls.  Giant Day Geckos were so common that we were tempted, even then, to walk past without taking more pictures; but we had not yet reached Day Gecko saturation point and so temptation inevitably got the better of us as I used up more memory on my digital camera.

As we battled our way to the summit we were all exhausted and our rest breaks were becoming increasingly frequent.  After 2 hours of steep uphill, we came to our final stop. We switched off our head-torches and the conversation died as we were overwhelmed by the darkness and the sounds of the forest at night.  The peaceful beauty of the mountain forest left a lump in my throat and I could not have been more contented than I was right there and then.  With some reluctance we prepared for the hike home.  Trekking back to camp in near silence even searching for reptiles became secondary to soaking up the experience and appreciating exactly how lucky we were.

The next day, over breakfast, we planned our first day trek on the island.  Top of the list was the Girdled Lizard Zonosaurus sp which Bill had been keen to find.  Apparently Bill had been shown a photograph of one from Nosy Hara that was very different from those found on the mainland.  Instead of being the dull brown grey colour, the photograph showed a beautiful blue and red animal.  Unfortunately it turned out that the animal had been described as Zonosaurus tzingy only a couple of years ago, but Bill was still eager to add this animal to his tick list.

As we made our way across the island we joked at how looking for one specific animal seemed to ensure you found everything else but!  Although we found many dull females of the species, we found only one brightly coloured male.  Bill seemed very happy though and so the day’s work had all been worth the effort.

By the time I had acquired three days worth of sunburn on the island I was ready for a proper bed and a shower.  My only regret was that I had been accompanied on this beautifully romantic island paradise by two hairy arsed herpers, rather than my girlfriend.  Next stop, North Madagascar.

Published: Reptile Care Magazine

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~ by Tony's Desk on March 17, 2009.

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