Mysterious Madagasgar the World's Fourth-Largest Island Is Full of Wondrous Surprises for Travelers Who Don't Have to Be Pampered

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MY pockets I have airplane ticket stubs from places called Maroantsetra, Antananarivo and Taoiagnaro. In my ears I still hear the call of the hoopoe bird, the metallic-like whine of a cockroach and the haunting song of the Indri.

My head is full of chameleons that are colored cerulean blue and grass green, of full-grown lizards half the length of my littlest finger. I still thrill to the memory of the feel of a young tenrec's back, and the gentle touch of a ring-tailed femur intent upon stealing the banana I was holding in my hand.

The femur is the telltale hint, for only on the island of Madagascar do these primitive relatives of monkeys, apes and humans survive; it was the chance to see femurs that lured my husband and me to this poorest of countries, situated a full 13-hour filght southeast of Paris. Once there, however, we marveled at the strange and wonderful flora and fauna that have developed during the 100 million years since the Mozambique channel separated this island from Africa. The catalyst for our trip was an article in Atlantic Monthly titled "Otherworldly Madagascar," which I handed to my husband with the casual comment that "this looks like our kind of trip." A few days later, we owned the Lonely Planet travel survival kit and guide book "Madagascar and Comoros." After that it was just a matter of time before I discovered that Cortez Travel of Solana Beach, Calif., was the only travel agent in the United States to send trips to this remote and beautiful country. We signed up for Cortez's 14-day discovery tour, but it still took us almost seven months to get ourselves ready. I began by reading selections from the bibliography prepared by Cortez. I researched shots, vaccinations and malaria medications. The panic engendered by the thought of flying an airline known as Mad Air was mollified when I determined that Air France pilots flew the international route for Air Madagascar. We gathered gear for humid jungles and looked high and low for things called mosquito coils. At least this was a trip where it was not necessary to ask whether one might drink the water (an emphatic no). Madagascar is the fourth-largest island in the world and probably has the fourth-poorest road system to match. Our internal travel was primarily by plane when it was necessary to cover large distances. Once we arrived in Antsiranana, or Nosy Be or Fon Dauphin, we were loaded into a series of motorized vehicles that ranged from vans in relatively good condition to flatbed trucks whose brakes required steady pumping on the part of the driver. Three times we took boats - a fiberglass fishing boat, dugout canoes and a wooden fishing boat that I was photographing for its picturesque quaintness before I discovered I was to board it. Our accommodations were more than adequate. We camped for two nights in tents provided by Cortez. We stayed in a series of guest houses or bungalows that sometimes were new and comfortable, sometimes were not. Our oasis was the Hotel Colbert in the capital of Tana, where we could wash our hair, have our clothes cleaned and sleep with air-conditioning. Still, the mosquito coils turned up in almost every room we occupied. We used them to discourage insects, but since none of our windows had screens and the coils burned for less than half the night, we were more often than not some mosquito's late-night snack. We were a group of seven Americans and Bruno, our Malagasy guide, who shepherded us from the northern tip of the island to the southern, using the capital of Tana as the wheel hub. At each nature preserve, we had a local guide who introduced us to its wealth of plants and animals. So much of the natural forest cover of Madagascar has been destroyed that it is only in a series of protected preserves that the plants and animals survive. The femurs were a thrill, and we never failed to find some if they inhabited the preserve. They won our hearts with their inquisitive, pointed faces, huge round eyes and hands with flat fingers and nails rather than claws. …