My hat goes off to wildlife photographers. That's the way I feel this afternoon after spending several hours with a guide to find lemurs in the Ramofana Rainforest Preserve in Eastern Madagascar. This morning under leaden skies and a light, humid mist, Eliaza, my 25 year old guide, took me on the "short" two hour trek through what he referred to his tribe's native land. Running ahead of us was his "spotter", a sixteen year old local youngster wearing a recycled t-shirt, ill-fitting pants and cheap rubber sandals. The trail descended quickly into a gorge and crossed over, using a rickety bridge a roiling, rain-swollen, chocolate-colored river. I was well outfitted with rain gear and waterproof shoes but the red mud began to splatter over my clothing as we hiked steeply up the other side. I had said to myself that I had needed a workout, after the day before's long car ride, but began to feel out-of-breath, miserable and sweaty. I seriously wondered if the quest to just see some "big-eyed" animal would be worth the effort. Then the spotter suddenly appeared from around a bend and began gesticulating and whispering in Malagasy. With that, my guide moved with agility and quietly off the trail and urged me to follow him upwards into the undergrowth to wend through densely packed trees, vines ferns and lianas. With my camera swinging wildly from my neck and my pack, like a giant barnacle, attached to my back, I squeezed and strained my way almost vertically for several hundred yards to a place where the spotter almost magically reappeared. He pointed to the canopy almost directly above me, as my guide announced proudly that we had come upon a family of rare Edward's Sifaka lemurs. I fumbled for my camera, adjusted settings and saw, tucked peacefully on a branch, a beautiful black and white furry mass. I began to focus and almost immediately the damn thing left its perch and proceeded gracefully, and with amazing precision, to swing and leap from branch to branch further up the hill. I grabbed hold of wooden vines to help me climb onward and was cautioned to avoid certain thorny trunks. Finally we caught up with the our quest who was joyously munching on ripe guava fruit. As I reached for my camera, I felt a strange tickling pain in the hollow between my thumb and forefinger. There, attached to my skin, was a small black leach who had decided to join in the adventure. As I pried the "sucker" loose and began to bleed, the sifaka, which I was told was the male, was joined by the female and a baby. Without as much as a warning, they split up suddenly, with one of them leaping within ten feet of me. I grabbed my camera and shot wildly. Instantly I saw that I had captured some amazing streaks of light and nothing that even resembled a body of an animal. I cursed my existence and my lack of camera skill and again slipped and slithered my way through leaves, mosses, branches and wet goo to a new location. Finally I achieved a certain degree of composure and, from a decent angle, spied clearly the "wily" male. I aimed, saw a dark object on my screen with the white light of the sky behind it, and pressed the shutter. Upon review of the picture, I had snapped nothing more than a black silhouette. It was a humbling and another in a string of perplexing moments. Finally though, I had some luck and modest success which I hope the above photo demonstrates.
I don't know how people who tote tripods, cameras with giant lenses and a crapload of equipment do it. All I know, this kind of eco-tourism experience is intensely educational, often exhausting, and, best of all, thrilling. To achieve top-quality moments sometimes requires effort and, as I sit here now, showered and relaxed, I feel blessed to have lived through another fulfilling day on this journey.