In the land of the lemur
Marvels of Madagascar
Travis Steffens tips on travelling to Madagascar:
Where should you go in Madagascar?
It is a massive country that is the size of France. You have everything from mountains, rainforests, dry forests and beautiful tropical islands and beaches. The beaches are incredible there. You can go and see the humpback whale migration. Visit www.parcs-madagascar.com/fiche-aire-protegee_en.php?Ap=15
What is the food like?
Typically it is a rice culture so they eat rice for three meals a day. They have this thing called hot rice water that they drink for dessert. I don’t like it very much. Because it was a French colony they have a lot of French cuisine in the country. If you are in the cities you can get fantastic duck. If you are going to eat local it is regional. Where I work, in the Ankarafantsika National Forest, it is rice and beans and mangos. In the west you will see a lot of cassava and rice. Along the coast it is always fish.
Can you pick up tours of the forests?
I do private and group tours. There are different tour routes you can take. The southern route, for example, might go through some rainforests, and cultural destinations. There are neat formations in the centre and then off to the southwest you will get the dry forests.
Are there any type of museums that you should see?
They have a few museums. The old Queen’s Palace in the capital, Antananarivo, burned down a few years ago and is being rebuilt. It is okay. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of museum stuff that is worthwhile. It is worth spending a day or two in Antananarivo. That is a city of about three million people. You can see lemurs at Lemurs Park in this city. Visit www.lemurspark.com
What hotels do you recommend?
There are lots of hotels. I stay in a guest house I highly recommend called La Maison du Pyla in Antananarivo (www.lamaisondupyla.com). A beautiful lady runs that. There are lots of hotels including a few high end hotels. High end would be between $150 to $300 a night. The guest house I stay in is between $20 and $50 a night for a private room and bath. It is cheap in Madagascar; it is just getting there that is the hard part.
How would someone from Bermuda get there?
I would think the best route would be to fly to the United States and then to Paris. In Paris you can get a direct flight. There are also direct flights from Bangkok, Thailand and Johannesburg, South Africa.
Lemurs look cute and fuzzy but being an expert on them is no picnic.
Travis Steffens has trekked for miles across hostile terrain in blazing temperatures to find them.
The 35-year-old primatologist runs Planet Madagascar, a charity that helps the residents and wildlife of the huge island nation off the southeast coast of Africa.
He’ll share some of his more exciting moments with audiences at the BUEI this week and next. It’s most likely he’ll describe how he and his team had to be rescued by the Madagascar military after they got stuck in an area of ancient coral reefs that are now above ground.
“It has razor sharp peaks,” said the University of Toronto doctoral candidate. “My team and I got to the other side and were surprised to find no water. Everything had pointed to there being water.” Because they were tired, they didn’t dare attempt to make their way back. Their concern was that they might slip into the crevices. Each was between ten and 30 metres deep; rescue would have been difficult.
In the end, the Canadian team was saved by a decrepit military helicopter. One of them called an MP in Canada, who in turn contacted the Madagascar government.
The rescue could have cost them a small fortune. They ended up paying nothing.
“The military chalked it up to a training exercise,” Mr Steffens said. “We got in a little bit of trouble with the local police because they didn’t expect us to go so far into the wilderness. Then I explained that the whole point was to go where people don’t normally go.”
The trek was successful as they found dinosaur footprints, massive caves — and lemurs. On another adventure, Mr Steffens spent seven months living in a part of Madagascar with no water or food. “Even the locals thought I was crazy,” he said.
Water had to be brought in by oxcart every few days.
Some of his less dramatic projects have involved living among the people in small communities, trying to raise their awareness of the importance of their environment.
Lemurs are found only within Madagascar. Although they are commonly seen on the island, the reality is they might disappear in another 20 years. Their docile nature makes them easy prey and they fall victim to frequent fires in the region’s dry tropical forests. Planet Madagascar has set up small fire departments in a few communities to try to put out fires when they start. Firemen are paid a small wage, which is greatly appreciated by the poverty stricken people. It’s a completely different life to the one Mr Steffens shares with his wife Keriann in Toronto. The couple met while studying lemurs but she left the field to work in academic publishing.
“It is hard to find a partner who can handle the city like she can and be in the bush and hold her own machete and cut through the forest,” he said. “I was quite lucky to find someone to share those two realities.”
He is now crowd funding to make a documentary on Madagascar and raise its profile in the rest of the world. His trip to Bermuda came through his cousin, Tammy Boss, who lives here.
“She was hearing about my adventures through Facebook,” he said. “She thought the BUEI would be interested, and they were.”
The Bermuda Aquarium and Zoo, which has a Madagascar exhibit with lemurs, is helping host his visit.
Mr Steffens hopes people are inspired enough to donate to his charity, and maybe visit Madagascar.
“The main draws are the incredible and unique wildlife including lemurs, fossa and endemic birds,” he said. “Otherwise, there are amazing beaches, snorkelling and diving and whale watching. Many people come for the unique cultural experience of visiting a large, yet isolated island.”
Mr Steffens will speak at the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute at 7.30pm on Thursday and Tuesday, May 19. Tickets are $20 for members and $25 for non-members available from the BUEI gift shop or by calling 294-0204.