Madagascar, Mauritius and Round Island – Part 2. (Windsor Castle and French Mountain.)


Red Mantella - Mantella betsilio

Red Mantella - Mantella betsilio

Having conferred with Bill and Zack whilst on the island, our next few days of herping were already planned.  With only one good night’s sleep behind me, we set out the next morning for Windsor Castle (which is in fact an old look-out post at the top of a mountain) three hours hike away.  Bill decided he needed more recovery time and so stayed behind.  Within the hour I began to wish that I had done the same.  As the morning wore on the temperature rose, and continued to rise until our skin screamed for mercy.  The hill was aggressively steep, offered little shade and there had been no sign of a reptile all morning.  As we crossed a grassy flat stretch of land we stopped for water.  Then came a shout from Zack.

“Snake!”

Finding energy from who knows where I ran across to where Zack was pointing.  There on the grass in the blazing sun, stretched out along its entire length was a Madagascar Ground Boa (Acrantophis madagascarensis).  Our first snake!  And it was a monster!  I didn’t really know what to expect when we picked it up for photos.  Of course, in captivity these snakes are not at all aggressive, but wild snakes are often very different (and I have the scars to prove it!).  This one, however, was as tame as could be and indeed seemed to pose for us quite spectacularly.
The trip to the summit and back was littered with smaller herp species, more Green Mantella (Mantella viridis), and a selection of small brown Geckos and Skinks which Jim simply called LBJ’s.  “What’s an LBJ?” I asked eventually.  “Little Brown Jobbie!” Jim replied with a smile.  Anywhere else in the world I would be thrilled to photograph these animals, but here we were spoilt for choice by the big hitters such as Madagascan Ground Boas and Panther Chameleons.  Chasing LBJ’s seemed a waste of time by comparison.

One highlight was the snake that Zack told us had a reputation as a Zebu Killer.  Having been told that here were no dangerous venomous snakes in Madagascar, I was a little worried to hear this, as the Zebu Killer was, at that moment, wrapped around my hand!  In fact, Ithycyphus miniatus gets its name from the way it hangs, head down from overhead branches giving the impression of a spear, with its sharp triangular head.  Legend has it that these snakes impale zebu from a great height and then eat the carcass, bit by bit.  However, as we did not experience this phenomenon first hand I cannot confirm it to be true.
That night, we ate and drank and talked rubbish until the early hours, knowing that we did not need to set alarms or rise early.  Tomorrow, we had decided would be a great day for another night hike!

As the sun began to drop out of the sky the next evening, the mood of our group began to change quite noticeably.  The banter and beer drinking was replaced by serious planning the evening grew darker.  Over dinner we discussed the impending night hike and what we would like to see.  Listening to the species list, as we all threw our personal favourites into the conversation, made me realize how surreal the whole experience was.  This was not a fantasy conversation, like those I had with friends on their sofa back in England.  This was a real, quite probable account of what the next few hours would hold for us.  Jim and I were understandably raring to go at the prospect of finding Leaf Tail Geckos and Dwarf Chameleons.  8pm arrived, we switched on our head torches and off we went.

Again the terrain ensured that we made slow progress up the hill and we were walking silently, eyes peeled for the first herp of the trek.  As we followed the clay mud path that marked the route uphill I was wondering why we always went looking for herps up mountains and hills.  Do they not occur on flat ground?  Why did looking for herps always involve me being exhausted, covered in mud and gashed by the foliage?  I knew, however that I would not want it any other way.  Clay mud stuck to my boots making me walk as if they were made of lead and mosquitoes bit with malice as I slipped and scrambled up the mountain behind Zack (who seemed completely unfazed by the whole terrain).

Suddenly Zack set off at a running pace across the hill, zig zagging comically.  It took us a few seconds to catch up as he came to a stop, holding something in his hands.  It was a Tenrec, which looks much like a hedgehog but with slightly longer legs.  I held my hands out to receive it, as Zack said “Watch it, they bite!” and dropped it into my hands.

Unimpressed by the mammal, Bill and Jim were lifting rocks and logs looking for herps.  After taking some very poor shots of the Tenrec, I went to join them.  Zack was at least 2 meters behind me when he noticed the glistening silver grey Gecko on the log directly in front of me.  Having practiced the maneuver many times I shot my hand out to catch it.  Gently holding the Gecko, I opened my hand slowly, just enough to see the lizard wriggling free of my fingers leaving its skin in my palm.   I was mortified!  Bill arrived and saw the look on my face and the skin in my hand.  “Geckolepis!” he said with a sympathetic smile. “Fish Scale Geckos have skin like wet tissue.”  He wasn’t wrong and I didn’t make that mistake again.

Not much further we found our first sleeping Panther Chameleon (Furcifer pardalis), balanced on the end of a thin branch.  Having been led to believe that chameleons glow in the dark I was a little disappointed, but the pigmentation certainly stood out against the dark leaves and branches of the tree.  I thought it was very considerate of them to perch right on the edge of the foliage instead of hiding in the dense centre of the tree. This does of course make perfect sense when you consider that any predator would approach from along the branch, ensuring the thin bough gave plenty of warning of impending danger.

Our first snake appeared as we left the punishing uphill cave system that deposited us near the top of French Mountain.  As usual it was our guide Zack who spotted it and quickly caught the beast for us to photograph. It was pretty obvious that the glossy terracotta Cat-eye Snake (Madagascarophis colubrine) had eaten a large meal recently. (This was confirmed when the snake regurgitated a Ground Gecko (Parodoera sp.)  We were just finishing with that specimen when Zack turned up with another very different species that Bill thought was (Stenophis inopinae).   We were all agreed that this species was one of the unsung heroes of Madagascar and wondered how well it would do in captivity.  With its “python style” head and bright colours it was certainly pretty enough to catch the eye.

On the trek back the old guys Jim and Bill dropped behind a little as Zack and I strode ahead chatting.  I had long since retired from looking for animals if Zack was within 10 meters of me.  Repetition is the mother of all skill, and his trained eye would spot the animal long before I could hope to. This was demonstrated in spectacular style as we neared the bottom of the mountain, when Zack stopped still and pointed towards a low bush.
“Look” he said “Brookesia!”
“Where? I said, scrambling the 3 meters or so to kneel by the bush to search for it.
“There!”  He said coming closer “Three of them.”
By this point my nose was almost in the bush and my eyes were scanning for a two-centimeter Dwarf Chameleon.  Three of them?  I couldn’t see one!
“WHERE!” I exclaimed!  Becoming a little frustrated with myself.
“THERE!” said Zack laughing, now with his finger almost touching the creature.
“And there, and there!”
Now I saw it.  Right in front of my nose was a tiny Dwarf Chameleon (Brookesia minima) and on the same bush were another pair.  I was amazed at the skill of this guide who not only knew every plant, bird, reptile and mammal by their scientific name but could also spot our quarry at a thousand paces.  I was truly amazed.

Believe it or not, the highlight of the hike was still to come. It was Bill who spotted it first and nonchalantly called out “Lizard!”  Knowing that Bill would not allow it to get far, and considering how exhausted we were, Jim and I sauntered over to where Bill was already snapping away with his camera.  From the speed at which Bill was shooting film I guessed that we were in for a treat!  Sitting there on the branch, textbook pose and textbook cryptic was a beautiful Henkels Leaf-tailed Gecko (Uroplatus henkeli).  And my, was it beautiful.  In my imagination I saw Leaf-tailed Gecko’s doing exactly this.

As we were snapping away, Zack told us of a Malagasy legend about the Leaf-tail Gecko which is told to young boys.  According to the story if a Leaf-tail Gecko lands on a man, they are so sticky that the man will not be able to remove it.  In fact, the only person who will be able to free him is his mother in law!  So to be safe it is important that all men treat their mother in law with love and respect, just in case they may be needed one day!  Thankfully Zack didn’t wholly believe the legend and so was relatively happy for us to put the gecko on his face and take a picture.  I must say though, there was a quiver in his voice as we pretended that the lizard was stuck!

Dirty, tired and wet through from sweat we arrived back at Kings Lodge to the luxury of a real bed.  As I lay there, too wound up to sleep I looked through some of the photographs I had taken and pinched myself to see that it was all real.  I couldn’t believe I was this lucky and this privileged.

Published -Reptile Care Magazine

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

One Response to “Madagascar, Mauritius and Round Island – Part 2. (Windsor Castle and French Mountain.)”

  1. Interesting blog, I’ll try and spread the word.

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