In the “Great “man’s footsteps

During a downpour, I was sheltering by the flooded car park of Andasibe-Mantadia National Park. It seemed bizarre to be thousands of miles from home, knowing that fifty years earlier, a familiar figure had probably been standing on the same spot.

I was there on a similar quest to the “Great” man - indri. The largest living member of the lemur family, indri rarely survive captivity and can only be found in a few forested areas within Madagascar. I was fervently hoping to see and photograph them.

The car park was congested. I hadn’t expected that at seven a.m.! There was even a battered school bus dropping off animated teenagers. No doubt when the “Great” man had first arrived; he had just quietly walked into virgin forest. Now I needed a permit and an official park guide to follow in his footsteps.

As I headed into the park, the deluge intensified. I wistfully remembered watching him on television, pursuing indri in glorious sunshine. I recollected his early efforts at filming, achieving monochrome footage of indris’ backs and bottoms as they fled through the canopy. With several habituated indri groups now living in the area, the odds favoured me to surpass the quality of his original images.

Indri Lemur climbing a tree. Photo copyright Jon Issacs 2022
Indri - Lemur in a tree. Photo copyright Jon Issacs 2022

Initially, I moved along a stone path which rapidly changed into an ooze filled trail, following the contours of the beckoning, montane forest. Soon, I was surfing along, or tripping over, nutrient hunting horizontal tree roots.

I trudged on, surrounded by many nationalities including local Malagasy. I was wearing subdued wet weather gear and walking boots, while around me bright t-shirts, jeans and trainers appeared the norm. Everybody was excited and generally dismissive of the rain. Then, a unique moment as I heard my first indri call, the sound resonating through the moist forest. The indris’ calling is usually a morning event re-establishing their home ranges. It was why I was there so early for the calls would help Zack, my forest guide, to locate the groups’ positions.

Chaos ensued. Flip flops fell off and cameras were switched on as everybody plunged into the saturated undergrowth. The Italians became voluble, the Dutch cheerfully formed a line and the Americans milled around noisily. I quietly followed Zack. A Malagasy group trailed us, barefoot and now carrying their flip flops.

An Indri lemur with her baby clinging onto her back, sitting in a tree canopy. Photo copyright Jon Issacs 2022
Indri Lemur adult with her baby clinging onto her back sitting in a tree canopy. Photo copyright Jon Issacs 2022

Minutes later, and separated from the other tourists by dense vegetation, I scanned the canopy. With a strident series of cries, a pair of indri appeared, leaping powerfully through the towering trees and coming to a juddering halt above me. I prepared to photograph them as their teddy bear shaped faces stared curiously down. Photography wasn’t easy as thin branches and leaves trailed across their eyes, the light was abysmal and raindrops fell onto the lens as I focused upwards. Within moments the task became impossible as the world’s nations gleefully hurtled from the undergrowth. Multiple flashes followed as enthusiastic tourists rushed to snap the endangered creatures.

It was at this point that we pulled our masterstroke. Briefly directing everybody towards the bemused and increasingly agitated indri, Zack and myself slipped back into the wilderness. He led me down through the verdant valley and across a meandering rivulet. We made our own trails, hanging onto sodden saplings as we slid down slippery slopes. After two hours I was weary. Worse, voracious leeches were feeding happily on my bare head. I thought wryly that even the “Great” man might have found this trek somewhat taxing.

But there was a purpose to Zack’s punishing march for, once more, I heard nearby the haunting cry of indri. Proceeding, we almost collided with a small, multi-national group of tourists, similarly dressed to us, and with professional photographic kit, who abruptly emerged onto our trail. Zack spoke quietly with them and then cautiously led us all to an indri family, including a partially hidden ebony youngster, settled comfortably under a dripping umbrella of luxuriant vegetation. Zack appeared content as he carefully positioned me for shots of the exotic and incredibly cute juvenile. The downpour continued. I was soaked, mud-caked and had to frequently flick off wriggling leeches. However, satisfying images of the relaxed, rare family were secured. I was elated.

An Indri lemur climbing up a tree trunk. Photo copyright Jon Issacs 2022
Indri lemur climbing up a tree trunk. Photo copyright Jon Issacs 2022

As we leisurely retraced our steps, I thought how pleased the “Great” man must have been when he returned, after half a century, to successfully film indri for his latest Madagascar series. I was physically drained and that only increased my respect for somebody who, at over eighty, could cope with the rigours of the hunt in such conditions.