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Dancing with the sifakas in Berenty

The journey southwest from Fort Dauphin passes through the bustling market towns of Soanierana, renowned for its abundance of fruit, and fried-food hotspot Manambaro. Cross the wide, tranquil Ifaho river, and drive along broad, tree lined avenues. Pass by cyclists heading to town laden with huge sacks of charcoal, or a casual pillion rider sat sidesaddle. Barefoot men jog past carrying bundles of giant mahampy baskets, while women work the bright green rice paddies. Long, low mountains range on either side, blue-hued and inviting in the morning haze. The battered road teems with bright camions, filled to the gills with passengers, jerry cans tied on top to form a barnacled carapace. Watchful young boys drive herds of zebu cattle along the verge.

Chameleon in the trees at Androhahela

Further on, a deviation to Androhahela National Park is well worth it. Androhahela sits on the frontier between familiar rainforest and the alien spiny forest. There are three zones: rainforest, transitional and dry/spiny. Tsimelahy, in the transitional zone, is the most accessible for a quick visit. It lies in the foothills, amidst a thick green carpet of scrubby rainforest trees, punctuated by their spiny cousins. Tsimelahy is popular with birders as there are many species to see, and also chameleons, lizards, even lemurs if you know where to look. An easy three hour circuit takes in the scenery, time for a quick dip in the natural pools, and plant life.

The spiny forest is like nothing you’ve ever seen. Cacti with shield-like leaves mingle with leafless grey coral-esque plants which would look more at home under the sea. The spiny trees themselves are even stranger things. Long, thin, spires stretch from the ground to several metres high, like delicate tentacles grasping at the indifferent blue sky. Bristling with cruel spines to ward off thirsty wildlife, they seem well adapted for the arid climate.

Spiny forest trees in close-up

Outside the sprawling, dusty town of Amboasary the winding track to Berenty begins. Snaking through the sisal plantation also owned by the de Heaulme family, it’s lined with a mix of spiny, cacti and well-coiffed plants. The lodge is a picture of bush luxury: neat, roomy bungalows with ensuite bathrooms; attentive staff and a spacious restaurant. Food is a set three course menu for lunch and dinner and an extensive continental breakfast. Difficulty getting ingredients precludes anything too fancy but dishes are well prepared. The typical range of Malagasy beers and French influence cocktails are available. Polite notices inform guests of the hours the electricity will be available; outside those all you can hear is nature. The wildlife is inescapable. Paradise flycatchers wing between the trees, kites soar overhead, and lemurs roam everywhere. Sifakas, ringtails and brown lemurs are common here, plus tortoises, giant Madagascar flying foxes and an unfortunate solitary crocodile.

Ring-tailed lemur sitting like a human Group of ring-tailed lemurs on a wall

Conspiracies of ring-tailed lemurs are around every corner near the lodge. Banded robber tails held arrogantly aloft as they walk along rooftops, or hanging down like furry bell-pulls as they sit on the walls. In Berenty you can see the cacti are losing the evolutionary war – spines or not the ringtails chew through them. Hang around for long enough and you’re sure to see lemurs jumping between spiny trees, somehow avoiding the vicious spikes on landing. In the mornings though, they’re all about sunbathing. Lined up like fluffy beanbags, they sit with arms outstretched to catch the early sun on their chests. With their eyes half closed somewhere between dozing and delectation, it’s an almost human behaviour.

A small museum to culture and heritage on site gives an introduction to the local Androy tribe. The inhabitants of the area literally called “The Land of Thorns” are hardy and stoic, as fits a place with so little rain. Indeed, photos show how much more difficult its become to live in the region due to harsh climate change. The dusty exhibits include traditional tools, housing and musical instruments among other things. As well as information on birth, marital and funerary rites, there’s a fair bit of detail on the circumcision ceremony (an all day and night celebration culminating in the deed, after which the freshly hewn foreskin may be fired out of a gun!).

Walks around the reserve take you through the quiet gallery forest, the canopy overhead providing plenty of shade. Silken, ghostlike sifaka watch from the trees, engaged in allogrooming or idle snacking. Several times daily they cross the roads dividing forest chunks, providing a famous spectacle: the dancing sifaka. Each troop makes its way cautiously up to the tree line, before one bold pioneer inches down, and leaps to the floor. It then jumps across the clearing, gracefully bounding along to the other side and the safety of the trees once more. Some move sideways, arms outstretched for balance like bizzare gingerbread impersonators. Others face forwards, moving through phases like seasoned triple-jumpers, tails outstetched for balance. The most flamboyant combine elements of both, switching via midair twists and pirouettes. The reason for this stunning display is practical enough: their arms aren’t long enough for walking on all fours. As with all nature’s best solutions though, the result is equal parts practical and poetry.

Further out you can visit the chunk of spiny forest preserved by the owners. Narrow paths wind through thorny thickets and tangles of spiny trees. The odd baobab stands alone, a corpulent and eccentric great uncle to the much younger trees around it. Sometimes sifaka and ringtails are seen here; much more likely are the nocturnal mouse and sportive lemurs. Asleep and well concealed during the day, they emerge at night to feed and socialise. Although timid, they’re easy to spot thanks to the reflection from their big eyes in the torchlight, gleaming back as they scurry around among the branches.

All in all Berenty is a good choice for a few days relaxation and convenient lemur spotting. Good food, comfortable accommodation and multilingual staff make for an easy stay; a manicured rose set amongst the thorns.

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