With infants in tow, a hunt for Madagascar's lemur

By Jason Straziuso

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, April 11 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this Dec. 13, 2011 photo, a lemur sits in a tree at the Vakona Forest Lodge in Andasibe, Madagascar as Kaarli Sundsmo and son Kaleb, left, and Katie Moulton and daughter Harper, right, look on. Madagascar is the only place in the world to see lemurs in the wild, a fun family vacation even with infants in tow.

Jason Straziuso, Associated Press

ANDASIBE, Madagascar — The most charming animal I have ever seen apparently seduced my wife as well. How else to explain why she would allow a wild primate to tap dance across her shoulders a mere claw's swipe away from our 6-month-old daughter?

Furry and cuddly, bug-eyed and mysterious, the lemurs of Madagascar mesmerize onlookers with leaping bounds, sideways jitterbugs and Jordan-esque jumps. With luminescent eyes and soft hands, their demeanor is as gentle as a docile house cat.

Simply put, lemurs are really cool.

That must be why my wife Katie let one particularly playful lemur hop on her head and prance down her arms even as our firstborn, Harper, was BabyBjorned to Katie's chest. It might have been ill-advised, but it felt perfectly safe.

Ill-advised is how some might describe our whole trip — a lemur hunt on an African island with two newborns in tow. Katie, Harper and I traveled to Madagascar with another set of new parents — Aaron, Kaarli, and 3-month-old Kaleb.

The lure of Madagascar is clear. The East Africa island is hilly and lush with a countryside of rice paddies. From its French colonial days it retains a baguette-and-brie culinary tradition. The best beaches are unending strips of smooth, white sand.

But modern it is not. Many of its cars were built in the 1970s. On one post-dinner taxi ride in a Peugeot that Napoleon may have commissioned, Katie sat in the front, um, seat. Actually she sat on the metal hull of the car. It had neither cushioning nor fabric.

If the taxis are that bad, what of the hospitals? What if Harper or Kaleb had a medical emergency? The U.S. State Department's travel page for Madagascar says malaria is prevalent, plague is endemic, armed robberies and carjackings are rising, and that roads tend to be narrow and winding with frequent blind curves.

The U.S. doesn't even have diplomatic relations with Madagascar, following a coup in 2009 that brought a former radio disc jockey to the presidency.

"Are you guys nuts? Who takes a 4-month-old to a country that has regular coups?" a friend in Kenya — where we all live — asked.

Apparently, Americans in particular are not known for such undertakings. One Belgian tourist asked us if we were South African. He said he had never seen Americans breast-feed in public like Katie and Kaarli did. A woman from Florida staying at the lakeside resort we visited said, "You guys are to be commended. I've never seen anyone except Germans travel with infants like this."

Despite warnings and worries, we had almost no problems. In fact we had a great time.

The highlight was the lemur. Found nowhere else on earth, they're named after lemures — ghosts or spirits — of Roman mythology because of their bug eyes and other-worldly howls.

Our first interaction with them was on a small island near our hotel in Andasibe, the Vakona Forest Lodge. The lemurs here scurry around freely, but lemurs can't swim and thus are trapped on the islet. This is where common brown lemurs climbed on Katie and Kaarli as they carried the kids.

One brown lemur sat on my head with its own baby in tow shortly after I hand-fed it small chunks of banana. Usually I'm not a fan of such zoo-like situations, but these animals were too much fun not to enjoy the experience.

But you can also see wild lemurs at Andasibe-Mantadia National Park. Here, with a guide, you walk — or run, at times — through the forest to see lemurs hanging high in the branches and bounding from one tree to the next.

Because we built two mornings into our itinerary in Andasibe, we decided not to take the babies into the forest, which is hilly and requires short sprints to chase down lemur families. Kaarli and Katie took Day 1 as Aaron and I babysat. Aaron and I went on Day 2.