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.
Zaka, our guide, was a nature's magician. While walking through the thick forest, Zaka would stop, cock his head to the side, then dive into the woods, ending up after a 30-second sprint under a family of lemurs. Over two to three hours, Zaka led us to four lemur families. The catch of the day, though, was the family of indri he found.
Indri, the largest of all lemurs, are known for an eerie call. Professional wordsmith that I am, all I could think to say was that the call sounded "squeaky." Aaron thought it sounded like a small whale (a much better description).
Back in Nairobi, where we live and work, it's not unusual to see monkeys hopping and swinging through trees in our yards. The lemurs, by contrast, glide, as if they are swimming through the canopy.
A family of five sat above me and Aaron. They glanced at us nonchalantly, then sprang through the trees, as if on a rocket-fueled pogo stick. I made only a half-hearted attempt to take a picture. I preferred to watch. Zaka told said that on a busy day 20 tourists might crowd around one family. That day it was just Aaron and me with a front row seat.
Zaka was a great guide but not nearly as colorful as the one we had two days later while hunting for lemurs at a lakeside resort near the coast. That guide lured out the lemurs by imitation. "Aroo-wah, aroo-wah. Whap, a-whap, whap-whap-whap-whap," he sang into the forest, before adding a much more Americanized: "Let's-go-let's-go-let's-go-let's-go."
If You Go:
GETTING THERE: Madagascar's capital, Antananarivo, is served by South African Airways with connections from Johannesburg and by British Airways through London. Andasibe-Mantadia National Park is a three-hour drive from the capital. The road is in good condition though curvy and hilly. We rented a car and driver who also served as our translator, arranged by Boogie Pilgrim — http://www.boogiepilgrim-madagascar.com.
ANTANANARIVO: The country's hilly capital has several high-end hotels, including La Varangue, an enjoyable and eclectic hotel more known for its fantastic French restaurant, http://www.tana-hotel.com (three-course meal with wine is about $60 per person or 45 euros). Next door, the Colbert Hotel has a Paris-quality patisserie with lower prices for items like croque monsieur and eclair vanille: http://www.hotel-colbert-tananarive.com. Rooms at the Colbert start at about $129 or 98 euros, at La Varangue, about $92 or 70 euros.
LEMURS: Wild lemurs can be seen in Andasibe-Mantadia National Park — http://tinyurl.com/6lgqlq6 — with the help of a mandatory guide. Nominal entry fee. Nearby, we found Vakona Forest Lodge — http://www.hotelvakona.com — to be a fun, comfortable, hotel in a beautiful forest setting with its own lemur park; room rates start at about $95 or 73 euros, March-December. Near the capital, Lemurs Park — http://www.lemurspark.com, admission $7.50 or about 6 euros — offers a guided hike to see colorful species of lemur, including one that looks like a mini polar bear.
—January and February are low season due to heavy rains. We went in December. Very few tourists were around.
—Madagascar is a former French protectorate, and French is commonly spoken, though workers at high-end hotels and restaurants may speak English. Hiring an English-speaking guide helps overcome language difficulties in the countryside.
—Madagascar is among the world's poorest countries. In the local currency, the ariary, the largest bill is worth only $5. As in many third-world countries, tourists in the capital will be targeted by panhandlers and souvenir sellers.