Kyle Cunningham: Madagascar

In third place in our Travel Writing Competition 2015, Kyle Cunningham searches for the ghostly silky sifaka in Marojejy National Park, Madagascar

By Kyle Cunningham
Published 3 Apr 2019, 09:32 BST, Updated 5 Jul 2021, 09:38 BST

In the north east of Madagascar lies a massif carpeted in dense, emerald foliage, known locally as 'the place of many spirits'. In the days spent wandering Marojejy National Park's verdant forests, I heard talk of diminutive, hobbit-like spectres with furry hands and feet inhabiting these mountains. I heard of a ranger quitting his position as he was haunted by a silent, female spirit watching from the cloud forest of the upper slopes. I heard of people falling asleep in one camp, only to be levitated from the ground and awaken in an entirely different camp.

Mt Marojejy is a sacred mountain to the local people; its fertile soils provide them with crops and medicinal plants, while its many caves and rocky outcrops provided refuge for their ancestors from harsh colonial rulers. It was perhaps suitable, then, that my reason for visiting this most sacrosanct of places was to search for the angel of the forest, a pure white lemur of almost mythical status known as the silky sifaka.

I'd read that this lemur was of such a wild spirit that it was impossible to raise in captivity, and, as such, not a single specimen existed in a zoo. So rare is this creature that it's confined to this singular mountain range and numbers fewer than a thousand.

After two days — including a treacherous walk to the summit during a 24-hour-long downpour (my guide joked that this is also called 'the place of much water'), we spied a flash of pearlescent white in the canopy. Like a true spirit, the white seemingly evaporated like a droplet of rainwater on the ground in the heat of the rising sun.

We walked on. The blinding white reappeared, this time a little closer, before flickering off into the distance. As if hunting a mirage — for a creature that felt real in sight and sound, but not quite tangible enough to touch — we reached the tree where we'd last seen a shimmer of white.

Above us sat our forest angels, their icy fur juxtaposed against the chestnut bark of the tree's branches like salt encrusted on granite. A group of eight were inspecting us with their gentle, otherworldly faces. For all the remarkable stories of apparitions and spectres I'd been told, none were as astonishing as seeing this palpable, seraph-like creature.


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