The journey was a long winded one, a full twenty-four hours was lost via shuttle bus (which took nearly 6 hours) and then had to wait till 2am for the Melissa Express boat, a gut wrenching and stomach turning twelve hours of constant rocking and broken sleep that is accompanied by the sound of nearly sixty people being sick into plastic buckets that are provided for this specific reason (Incredibly kind of them – That isn’t sarcasm, trust me). I do very well on any method of transportation, I can sleep anywhere even in the rainforest on a bed of leaf litter covered in leeches, but the sound of continuous vomiting was a bit much so I got out of my seat and went outside on deck.
The crew were startled at first by me venturing onto the deck but I sat with them, shared some Salto Crackers and had a few laughs with my broken Malagasy, then fell asleep against a very warm metal seal that led to the engine. Eventually, they woke me up once the first light appeared on the horizon an started pointing out the main sights to see, including Mananara – Nord and eventually the islands (Nosy) that lay in the middle of Antongili Bay, this included the beautiful little charming Nosy Mangabe. This island, I have wanted to visit since I was no more than a young boy, a place to tick off my bucket list.
Unfortunately for us though, we went straight past it, we would have to go to the Madagascar National Parcs office that is situated in Maroantsetra, a city where ships and boats port to relieve themselves of their passengers and stock items. Eventually, we retrieved the luggage and then made our way via Taxi-Brousse to the MNP office, which I heard was made entirely out of Madagascan Rosewood (Dalbergia maritima), an endangered species of tree with a deep red coloured appearance which is incredibly expensive due to the rareness of its’ existence, mainly believe it or not attributed to habitat-loss. How that works having the MNP office for Masoala National Parc made out of this, I don’t know, I tried not to think about it too much… But anyway, it was a mission to actually get there, with the Taxi-Brousse driver, who was local and been doing it years, having no idea where the office was and took us to several different hotels before finally understanding the same words I had repeated twelve times. Frustrating, to say the very least. But we got there and that was the main thing and I can totally confirm that the office was made out of Rosewood and unfortunately I wasn’t allowed to photograph it. But once over the initial awe I had for the building, I walked into the office and began to speak to the head of Eco-Tourism for the area and told her we wanted to be on Nosy Mangabe by Lunch time and she, to my surprise was very happy with this and I was able to arrange all the particulars. I had to state my personal reasons for being on the island and that I was doing data collection on the endemic population of Climbing Mantella (Mantella laevigata) and she stated what I was allowed to do and not to do which included the collection of samples and so on.
That wasn’t a problem, as that is not what I was after and I showed her the equipment I would be using to measure UV, Temperature and Humidity at the specific biotopes for the species which she claimed were numerous. After an hour of discussion, decision and friendly chatter the boat was secured, a guide called Donna Franklin was assigned to us and we were well underway with the adventure.
To say the very least, I was buzzing and eager to just get moving and after an hour of buying supplies for the four days and three nights we would be upon Nosy Mangabe, we finally boarded the speed boat and left Maroantsetra. It began to rain and it was slightly overcast, now to most people that would be a nightmare for them if they were to go to an island with pristine beaches to bathe upon and it was raining but, not for me. To me that weather is perfect conditions not just for me but for the animals I wish to see. I am not made for the sun unfortunately and am quite terrified by it, this is mainly due to the incident when I was young which involved the sun and a bed for 2 weeks suffering with severe sunburn and sunstroke. But that’s enough of my childhood dramas, finally we got into Antongili bay and saw the island and the only way to describe how I was feeling would be to say, it was like approaching Jurassic Park and the entire time that famous theme music was just playing in my head as we got closer and closer, until we finally got to the beach which every visitor lands.
I took that giant step off the boat onto the yellow sand covered shoreline, and immediately felt at home and soon after establishing our tent and getting our things together, I ran off like some excited child high on the atmosphere and prospect of not knowing what we were going to find. I stood in the middle of the main camp site, and heard a very familiar sound which I grew accustomed to after breeding them for quite some time in captivity. This was the sound of the resident species of Mantella, I walked to a Bamboo grove which was situated very closely to the Kitchens and immediately got onto my hands and knees, rummaging around, sitting still every so often and paying attention to every sound or movement I saw and heard.
Now, I am not going to lie, I normally have to go on some crazy trips and spend hours trying to find the species of interest to me but this time it was different. Just sat there, were approximately seven different Climbing Mantella (Mantella laevigata) specimens, minding their own business and unaware of my presence in their home. Well, I can be a very emotional man to be brutally honest depending on the situations and I can say without a care in the world to you all that I cried, I had a good old sob whilst on my own seeing something I had wanted to see for more than half my lifetime. It was a perfect moment for me, I didn’t know what to do first, take photographs of the area and the specimens, film footage on my video camera or start collecting the data I required so, I did what was appropriate and started streaming the waterworks.
Once that was out of my system, I was able to go about and do what I do, crawling around on my stomach remembering my favourite phrase “Mora Mora” or in English “Slowly Slowly” , which was drilled into me on my previous trip and to have patience. “Take your time” I whispered to myself , “Don’t mess this up” and eventually I was little more and a foot and a half away from the biggest individual, a female who was surrounded by quite a few males which were calling to their little heart’s content.
So I snapped away with my Nikon D3100, Macro lens attached and flashing away but after an hour of being still and watching, something else caught my attention in the form of a miniature swift movement. Crickets are everywhere, all over the floor you see flying and gliding movements of them constantly but this was significantly different and I moved closer and looked closer and saw the smallest frog specimen I had ever seen in person, sat on a leaf calling away situated quite close to what looked like a blob of spit between leaves.
It was little more than 13.5mm in size, possibly 14mm and absolutely perfect in every way imaginable and from the fact it was calling, it was an adult male or perhaps a young male. I picked it up after taking a few photographs of it on the leaf and took a perspective shot of the individual perched upon my thumb then one of its dorsal (Bird’ Eye View), lateral (Side View) and ventral (Underside View) and I must tell you now, encouraging Thanatosis (causing the specimen to play dead) on something this small was no mean feat, but I certainly achieved it. This was a member of one of the smallest genera of Anura on the planet, the Stumpffia genus and after much investigation, I concluded with a few other friends that this is more likely a new species or perhaps one of the two that are currently in the progress of being described. It was incredibly exciting, I had always wanted to see a member of this legendary genus and right there in front of me, and it was.
After little more than a few minutes, there was another species of miniature frog, a completely different species jumping around, it was heaven and I wanted to spend all my time there but I knew that it was time for lunch and we had walks planned further into the forest. Before I left the grove though, I noticed a Male Climbing Mantella (Mantella laevigata) on the edge of a Bamboo cane which was filled with water, once he noticed me he leapt from the bamboo and made his way into hiding. I looked into the hollow and it was too dark and I didn’t have my head-torch about my person, so I took a few photographs and told myself I would check later to see whether this bamboo hollow was important to the individual male guarding it.
In matter of fact, when I did check this photograph on my laptop, I zoomed in further and saw a tadpole, almost ready to hatch out from its egg that was perfectly positioned next to the water filling the bamboo cane. Seeing this behaviour in the wild, well, it was outstanding. The area however, was swarming with other species of anurans, all living sympatrically without a single thought on the other species.
After a hearty lunch, Donna took us along the forest path towards the Fisherman’s huts, near the southern part of the island. One of the guardians of the island, having spent already a month on his own upon Nosy Mangabe, went on ahead of us to do his daily checks and also to scout anything out for us, which included one of the largest species of the Leaf-tailed Gecko (Gekkonidae: Uroplatus) genus, the Frilled Leaf-tailed Gecko (Uroplatus fimbriatus). Our guide, who shared a huge passion for both Amphibia and Reptilia decided to create a competition between the three of us, who could find the specimen first. Whilst he had the upper hand, I still tried my hardest to spot this animal, having experienced pure frustration to the point of hair pulling in the Perinet region trying to find the local populace of Mossy Leaf-tiled Geckos (Uroplatus sikorae) and Satanic Leaf-tailed Gecko (Uroplatus phantasticus) but to be brutally honest, it wasn’t even remotely as difficult. In fact, annoyingly there it was right on the pathway upon a tree perfectly camouflaged (Well, we were looking for it…) against the moss and lichen covered tree bark.
It was huge, the entire length of the specimen was longer than my hand and this wasn’t easy to capture within image form. Sat there impressively, he didn’t seem remotely interested or bothered by us, which brought me to the simple conclusion regarding the rarity of the population of Uroplatus in the Andasibe region, there simply are far too many tourists visiting the Mitsinjo, VOI. M.M.A and Andasibe-Mantadia National Parcs causing the specimens to venture deeper into the more secure parts of the Analamazoatra, to non-ventured grounds where they can have peace and quiet.
It was really a bit of common sense, as we were practically all alone upon Nosy Mangabe and prices for visiting the landmark were already high enough, meaning less people venturing into these lush, pristine primary rainforests.
Back to my story though, we eventually moved on further along the pathway to the Fisherman’s Huts and I must admit, the island was more than impressive showing already an abundance of different species of Anura, Reptiles and Arthropods from the continuous call of the Mantella populations to the floor being covered in various species including Spotted Digging Frogs (Plethodontohyla notosticta), Thumbnail Frogs (Stumpffia sp.) and even different colourations of White Forest Frogs (Gephyromantis (Duboimantis) luteus) and White-marked Forest Frogs (Gephyromantis (Duboimantis) leucomaculatus) “Nosy Mangabe”.
Eventually, we turned back to camp after 3 hours of walking and our guide asked us if we would like to do a guided night walk with the guardians. Now I know for a fact that night walks are actually prohibited in National Parks however, on an island with no one else upon it and the opportunity being given to me on a plate… I could hardly say no, could I!? Of course, like everything in Madagascar I had to pay a fee to the guardians who acted as though this was acceptable, demanding over 100,000Ar per person and a fee for each Guide attending. I politely said no, explaining that I wasn’t stupid and that night hikes weren’t allowed in the first place and offered 50,000Ar and that would be all I would offer. Obviously they accepted this, realising they wouldn’t be able to make me budge on a perfectly reasonable price, so we enjoyed a hearty meal of rice, vegetables and the freshest fish I have ever had caught only 15 minutes before it was prepared.
We weren’t alone at the dinner table though, a mated pair of White-fronted Brown Lemurs (Eulemur albifrons) were sat amongst the branches of the closet trees watching eyes with the classic wide eyes of an inquisitive Lemur. We gave them no food, however whilst we were distracted, they had made their own way into our kitchen and decided to eat our pot of rice that was still on the embers of the fire. Classy.
After a little nap in the tent, we got ready for our night walk and found Donna eagerly waiting for us with a huge smile on his face, the guardians however didn’t even bother looking at us or joining us which showed they were not happy with the fee they were offered, we left without them and got on with our adventure. It wasn’t long though until we came across not just one, but several of the nights herpetological finds! A weirdly marked Nosy Mangabe Giant Stream Frog (Mantidactylus (Mantidactylus) sp. aff. grandidieri) perched itself at the bottom of a slow moving stream with a slight cascade, it stood there as though it was proud of itself allowing me to get reasonably close until it decided enough was enough and leapt up to the top of the miniature cascade and crawled under a boulder which was a common flight display for the species. However, it wasn’t the only animal here, in fact there were animals everywhere acting as if they were completely oblivious to our existence from Hermit Crabs fighting over their individual dug out holes in the ground to Fishing Spiders attempting to capture a freshwater shrimp passing by its hunting grounds.
It wasn’t long however, with the dying of last light of the setting sun, till we found a Frilled Leaf-tailed Gecko (Uroplatus fimbriatus) getting ready to start it’s nocturnal hunt. Waking itself up and cleaning its’ eyes by licking them, the first one of the night we encountered was none other than our friend we found in the day time and now it was dark, he was sporting an entirely new colouration which we simply couldn’t pick up hours earlier. Not far from it however, was a Boulenger’s Forest Frog (Gephyromantis (Gephyromantis) boulengeri) with a fantastic colouration that was rather unlike what I had normally came across in the forests of the Analamazoatra, this was a male specimen measuring roughly 26mm from my measurements, calling out from his platform.
We ventured on, walking slowly along the pathway, looking just about everywhere for any sign of movement or for a tiniest bit of eye-shine from our head torches. Wasn’t long until a spectacularly coloured and marked Frilled Leaf-tailed Gecko (Uroplatus fimbriatus) appeared out of nowhere on the trees next to us, attempting to run away from us before we even noticed he was there. It was definitely a male as well, mainly due to the fact his Hemipenis (only one, hence why it wasn’t pleural) was out, when we finally caught up with him! That night, I remember we came across not just two Uroplatus specimens but roughly five, which to me is a stupid amount… I am used to seeing probably that number in the course of a few weeks, so this was like a herpetological paradise.
As we neared the end of our walk, I had found several more species of anuran, including another weirdly coloured Nosy Mangabe Giant Stream Frog (Mantidactylus (Mantidactylus) sp. aff. grandidieri) and the most vibrant specimens of Cryptic Forest Frog (Gephyromantis (Vatomantis) sp. aff. silvanus).
We finished up the nocturnal hike and went back to the camping area, however as long as the past day had been, I just wanted to get back out there and look around. Eventually, I fell asleep ready for the next day ahead.
To be continued…