Rising 600ft from the dry savannahs of northern Madagascar, the Ankarana Massif hides its zoological riches behind a fortress of unclimbable cliffs, vicious limestone pinnacles and ferocious thorny scrub.
Entering this Lost World through 60 miles of caves and along deep forested gorges, we found not dinosaurs but other gentler ecological curiosities: a wealth of lemurs, strange endemic birds, chamaeleons, blind fish and much more. Ankarana has its guardians too, 20-foot long crocodiles live in the subterranean rivers and six-inch hairy spiders, lethal scorpions and huge venomous centipedes patrol the sunken forests.
Interspersed with descriptions of the antics of the lemurs, I write of the cameraderie, hardships, disappointments, dangers and excitements of exploring the Crocodile Caves and the isolated forests. I provide insights into the realities of ecological fieldwork, local conservation dilemmas, the difficulties of cataloguing the species, as well as the personalities of the team, the Antankarana locals and their strange rituals.
The work of our two expeditions drew attention to the ecological importance of Ankarana and contributed to the massif, its forests and its unique wildlife becoming better protected. Several documentaries have been made about the place since our early explorations. One producer sought advice from me on preventing scorpion stings before embarking on their filming expedition. This trip resulted in the brilliant short series, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, that was shown recently on BBC television. 'Our' crowned lemurs are amongst the stars, and the caves we came to know so well were featured in the second programme of the series.
It was all my husband’s fault. We married just after the second Madagascar expedition and almost immediately he was posted to Embilipitiya in southern Sri Lanka. There were two wars going on at the time: the much publicised one involving the Tamil Tigers in the north and in the south the war featured in Ondaatje's chilling novel Anil’s Ghost; we were in the thick of that one. My attempts to set up a maternal and child health outreach programme with local volunteers didn’t work out. Some days I’d see 150 or 200 patients, another day there would be less than a dozen, because the JVP terrorists had told people to stay away. With no real role except that of memsahib, I started to write about my adventures in Madagascar; I had plenty of time and no distractions but wasn’t confident that I could complete a book.
Dervla Murphy had used one of my photos in her book Muddling through in Madagascar and that had introduced me to her esteemed publisher. This was the same publishing house that launched Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Lost World, a book that had me dreaming of exotic adventures as a child. I decided to draft the first four chapters of my advenure, try approaching the publisher and if I was rejected, I’d abandon my idea to become an author. The late John G Murray was gentlemanly and encouraging, and wrote the nicest letter of rejection I've ever received. Tony Colwell, Joe Simpson’s first publisher, also gave me some useful feedback and motivated me to complete my tale.
Something disturbed the water deep inside the cave - it was the sort of noise a large animal would make sliding into a river. After so many days alone my mind ran riot. I tried to counter fear with logic. If there were crocodiles in my bathroom I would surely have encountered them by now, for I had swum the entire length of the little subterranean river several times. Perhaps it was mud sliding into the water. There had been only one splash and the ripples died away, as they always did. I strained to hear more but there was nothing in there. Still I could not convince myself that I was safe. My bath was hurried and I was soon out, dripping dry on a boulder, relaxed and enjoying the view out of the cave once again. Blue sky and fluffy clouds were framed by black limestone and green leaves of the trees outside.
As I stood up to leave I noticed a gentle grunting noise and, looking towards the entrance, saw the unmistakable silhouette of a Crowned Lemur. She paused, with her long tail held over her body like a furry question mark. She had spotted me. I stood motionless, hardly daring to breathe. If I frightened her away from her waterhole now, she might warn others not to return. Looking away, she grunted softly as if speaking to a friend outside. Then, reassured, the rest of her troop arrived, looked in my direction and, to my amazement, continued on their way down, descending the same familiar climb I had used… For generations, lemurs must have been coming here: tiny feet and hands had polished the rocks smooth down to the water.
(from pp 44-5)
An hour before sunset we reached Ambatoharanana. I was dying for a pee again. Abdulla invited us to see his hôpital. I accepted with as much enthusiasm as my bursting bladder allowed. I prayed that his hospital would be small. Abdulla led us through the village: a muddle of tiny houses, most thatched and all perched on stilts. The ‘hospital’ was not much larger than the other houses. It too was on stilts but had a corrugated iron roof which made it stiflingly hot and airless inside. There were four beds, each with a mosquito net full of holes. Under one, lying on plastic sheeting instead of bed linen, lay a man who groaned and rocked his aching abdomen. Perspiration poured off his emaciated body. Abdulla demonstrated his training and how ill his patient was by prodding him sharply in the stomach. The invalid curled up and his groaning grew louder. I felt sick. Aides sanitaires [like Abdulla], who are male, educated and leading village figures, are given a whole year’s training to provide a basic primary health care service. They organise immunisations, treat what they can with penicillin, chloroquine, aspirin and antiseptic, and may refer patients to the doctor. He showed us his meagre dispensary while I tried tactfully to ask about the man with belly-ache. Would the doctors come and see him? Shouldn’t he be evacuated to Ambilobé?
‘Maybe tomorrow,’ came Abdulla’s answer.
Abdulla asked if we wanted to use the bathroom. Baffled, but hopeful still of finding somewhere discreet to squat, I said ‘Yes’, and he led us out between the little huts to the edge of the village and waved vaguely towards some kapok trees.
(from p 49)
The long day speeding across the desiccated savannah turned us brick-red; smiling sent dust slicks avalanching off our faces. We stank of stale sweat and paraffin.
(from p 105)
A bat brushed by, and was gone more quickly than a whispered curse.
A quick dip
(from p 111-2)
exploring... deeper in. We continued along low mud causeways which meandered across awesome lake-filled chambers over 150 feet high... Attracted by twittering above me, I craned to see a bat colony high in the roof, and suddenly found myself skidding off the causeway into the water 12 feet below. I went right under, weighed down by my boots and a heavy day sack. The immersion extinguished my carbide light. I floundered in the pitch dark until I felt my feet on the bottom. I stood up, grabbed a breath, but slid away deeper into the lake and under water again... by the time I'd got my feet planted well enough in the mud so that I could stand up, someone had appeared at the top of the mudbank. I couldn't see who it was but giggles gave her away.
'What are you doing down there?' Anne asked.
[Blind shrimps inhabited other little underground lakes these] looked inviting but as soon as I slid in they turned from clear green to a sticky brown porridge and I kept losing my boots in the tenacious mud. The shrimps I pursued were eyeless yet amazingly adept at avoiding capture.
(from p 112)
Cave animals rely on floods or commuters like bats to bring in food. Moulds grow on such imports and are grazed by glistening white springtails. These are very small and totally harmless, their most offensive weapons being their sausagey antennae which they use to identify friends or beat the stuffing out of intruders. They never evolved wings, so their only defence is to jump and they manage an impressive eight inches - spectacular for a creature just a tenth of an inch long. Here in the cave, wherever there was a trace of mould or bacteria to eat, they were there dashing around dodging ants, mites, spiders and centipedes - all of which would have liked them for dinner.
(adapted from pp 136-7)
Having already spent so long travelling the entire length of the island on buses, I didn’t believe the journey right across Madagascar would only take a day. The scheduled 4am start began quite punctually at 9. By the time we’d driven 30 miles, the two extra co-drivers had demolished a whole bottle of rum and were giggling like schoolgirls.
The suspension broke. Our trio of drivers squatted in a huddle by the wheel to discuss what to do. More giggles. Several cigarettes and swigs of rum later they settled on the usual local solution: binding the suspension leaf-springs together with inner tube. Further discussions, cigarettes, games of tag, and the repairs took an hour and a half…
…we were awoken by attempts to bump us out of another huge boggy hole in the track. Often we’d stopped to survey the best way through waist-deep pools that blocked the way. Sometimes we could go around but in other places, scrub and trees forced us to drive straight through. The extra drivers often had to push the taxi-brousse and were clearly cheap substitutes for 4-wheel drive. They seemed to enjoy cooling off as they waded and fell about in mud-sludge. The sober driver would then take great delight in driving off at speed, spraying his drunk colleagues with soup-thick brown water, pretending to leave them behind.
“the finest travel book thus far written about Madagascar”
Dervla Murphy in the Times Literary Supplement, London
“excellent and exciting”
Good Book Guide
“Excellent travel adventure story and introduction to peoples, animals and environments in Madagascar. If you're thinking about going on an expedition to somewhere like Madagascar and fancy a dry-run in an armchair first, this is your book.”
Pete Kay, N.Yorks
“fascinating firsthand account of expedition life and work, as well as an exciting glimpse of the flora and fauna of Madagascar.”
Geographical Magazine, London
“Wilson’s nicely written and highly entertaining account is full of lively and colourful anecdotes.”
New Scientist, London
“an absorbing account of a unique place.”
The Geographical Journal
“a delightful account of exploring the caves and wildlife of the amazing Ankarana limestone.”
“this book fleshes out the ups and downs of the expedition… it is useful, lively background reading for anyone contemplating an expedition anywhere.”
“very readable book… clearly demonstrates that idealistic adventurers still exist.”
"Jane weaves a wonderful sense of place and people into this book."
Deanne Urmy, HMCO, Boston, Mass
“describes the zoological wealth of the caves and forests of northern Madagascar.”
Author-signed copies are available DISCOUNTED from the cover price of £5.95 to just £2.80 (plus £1.20 p&p within the UK).
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