Masoala

For a year now, I have talked a lot about Masoala National Park, about its pristine natural beauty and unrivaled biodiversity, about the need to protect and preserve it. But the truth is, except for a couple kilometers of forest corridor on the trail to Antalaha, I had never been to Madagascar’s most famous rainforest. (And in that stretch of trail from Antalaha, my feet hurt so badly I didn’t care where I was). In my year based in Maroantsetra, I have criss-crossed the region: on foot, by bike, boat, or occasionally plane. I have pored over maps and environmental health data, harassed the researchers who come and go for “insider information” on their studies, and assembled countless environmental education lessons on the natural wonder of the land next door. I was a busy busy bee talking about a place I had never seen. 

      Actually, that is not entirely true. I see Masoala every single day, stretching enticingly south along the bay, a densely-forested peninsula that drops steeply into a line of white sand and the blue of tropical waters. For a year, opportunities to visit, to tag along on WCS expeditions, slipped again and again through my grasp. For this national park, there is an issue of accessibility: unless one is willing to walk four days out and four days back, the only mode of transportation is by boat. Due to an undeniable Maroantsetra boat monopoly, one trip costs the equivalent of a Peace Corps monthly stipend. Despite my questionable budgeting skills (in this country, I live constantly on the brink of financial insolvency), I managed to scrape together the funds by mid-December. I cleaned out my bank account and we were off. 

      [For the Adventures of Katie and Kerry in Masoala, see “If at First you don’t Succeed…”]

      You would think that with my expectations piled sky high, Masoala would be bound to disappoint. On the contrary, it far exceeded. In our four-day trek down to the peninsula’s southern point and back, we passed through the most amazing, uninterrupted, untrammeled stretch of forest I have ever experienced. Striking in from the shore, we followed rivers fed by streams fed by branching trickles of water running over the rock, until we were standing on the mountain ridges, completely disoriented, unable to discern east from west. The density of the vegetation swallowed sound and, hiking as we were on the summer equinox, everything reverberated heat. The humidity was inhumane. I could not tell when the rain stopped and started: there was no noticeable difference in the moisture of the air. Take this a tree-hugger talk if you will, but it was humbling to be so enveloped. 

       I was most impressed though by how alive the forest felt. I have been to my fair-share of forest on this island: from the plateau parks of Ranomafana and Andasibe, to the dry deciduous forests of the west in Ankaranfantsika and Sahamalaza, and the eastern rain-drenched forests of Mananara and Makira. Often these forests feel like a shell, as though all animate life has withdrawn to some distant, safer core, far away from the destruction of human activity. And the life one does encounter seems timid- as with a troop of sifaka lemurs who called all around my friend Max and I in Makira, but never to our disappointment appeared- or, on the flip side, utterly habituated- as with the lemurs in Ranomafana who clamor for human food. All these other forests are porous and fragmented, the human presence, pervasive.

      Not so with Masoala. At 230,000 hectares, it is the largest uninterrupted swath of rainforest in Madagascar. (Makira is actually the largest protected area, but it is partially inhabited). It feels this vast, and devoid of human impact. We walked for a whole day on an established trail and passed two people. Instead, without even stopping to look, we saw six or seven troops of lemurs: white-fronted brown lemurs chattering and swinging in the lower canopy, red-ruffs loud and territorial, hooting and hollering at each other and the intimidated browns in the upper canopy. The trees rustled as they flung themselves overhead. We saw three other renowned and elusive species: a leaf-tailed gecko, flinging itself to forest floor in flight from a predator hawk; a blue-helmet vanga, apparently the type of bird birders spend their lives looking for; and a brown-tailed mongoose, which wandered onto the trail and sniffed our toes, then wandered off indifferently. (The last of these interactions prompted an expletive-laden diatribe about a ferret, but that is a different story). 

      This is the point that I want to make about Masoala. It is not just an area of tremendous, untrammeled beauty; not just a paradise coastline, coral reefs overhung by ancient rainforest trees. It is a healthy and thriving ecosystem, not just inhabited by, but exploding with rare and elsewhere threatened life. For a full year, I read about this place on paper, heard about it everyday, taught about it almost as often, and stared wistfully its way from many vantages. I could have returned to Maroantsetra via my very expensive boat with the sense that all I had done in year was not worth it. But instead I left Masoala with the feeling that as much as I have done, I have not done enough. 

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