The Fourth Night: Embracing Anjanaharibe-Sud Special Reserve
The Fourth Night: Embracing Anjanaharibe-Sud Special Reserve

The Fourth Night: Embracing Anjanaharibe-Sud Special Reserve

The Fourth Night: Embracing Anjanaharibe-Sud Special Reserve

By Matt McGee, PhD Student, University of California, Berkeley

There isn’t anything like night in the rainforest.

There are no lights other than your headlamp. Sometimes there aren’t even stars. No matter how many times you hike a trail during the day, no matter how well you may know a study site, at night it becomes a different world, mysteries unfolding a few feet at a time.

I didn’t know this study site well. It was my first time in Madagascar and I had been at Anjanaharibe-Sud (ASSR) for only a few days. I was halfway through a month-long scouting trip to figure out where I wanted to conduct my PhD research—and to figure out exactly what that research would be. I’m a first-year student in Dr. Onja Razafindratsima’s lab at the University of California, Berkeley, and before my trip I asked her for her opinion on where I should work. She looked at me and said, “Tell me when you get back.”

So I jetted off to Madagascar on February 1, 2024, visited the Ihofa Forest near Andasibe where some other lab members worked, and then met up with the Wildlife Madagascar team for a weekend at La Mananara. With its pristine forest and gorgeous, crocodile-free lake, La Mananara was a magnificent site, and the night hike we did the first night there was bursting with mouse lemurs and chameleons. But it wasn’t quite the right site for me, not yet.

The beautiful lake at La Mananara, with nary a crocodile in sight.

We left La Mananara on February 12—my birthday!—and after a hectic, chocolate-fueled 16 hours in Tana, I flew to Sambava with Dr. Tim Eppley, Wildlife Madagascar’s intrepid Chief Conservation Officer, and Caren, my student counterpart from the University of Antananarivo. After a night in Sambava and a requisite swim in the Indian Ocean, we headed inland to Andapa, where we picked up Delaid Rasamisoa, Wildlife Madagascar’s ASSR Conservation Program Manager, and the rest of the team, which was followed by a not-strenuous-at-all, four-hour hike to reach Camp Indri in ASSR. I spent the first night settling in and rethinking my workout routines, and the next couple of nights featured lots of food, fun conversations, and early bedtimes after days spent searching for indri and silky sifaka.

Tim and Delaid leading the way to Camp Indri.

The fourth day was different. After tearful goodbyes to Tim and Delaid, who would meet us again in Andapa a few days later, we took it slow—napping in the tent, sitting by the river, chatting at the lunch table. We wanted to be fresh for the evening, when we finally thought we could take our first night hike in ASSR, as long as the heavy rains didn’t come. So we waited, and like so many other times on the trip, our waiting paid off—the weather held.  We hiked out of camp around 4 pm, walking down the main road that slices through ASSR until we reached Marolakana. This wide and wet clearing, just a few hundred meters from the river, used to be a campsite, and on this evening, it was our temporary resting spot as we waited for nightfall.


This was how the fourth night started—slowly, peacefully, beautifully. I had been so busy on the trip that all the incredible things I had seen hadn’t really started sinking in yet, but as I walked around the clearing everything started to hit me. The details sharpened in the evening light. The plants, the rocks, the dirt—it was all so similar to places I had lived and worked before, but everything was also so new and distinct. The world had been painted with different colors. Everything made sense.

I walked back to the road and waited with Caren and our guides. The evening chorus of bird calls—vasa parrots, white-eyes, blue coua—washed over us. We couldn’t see the sunset, but the sky gave us a show all the same, pink and orange mixing with so many shades of blue. Eventually those colors darkened into deep purple, then black, with a few faint stars appearing between strands of clouds. That was our signal to start slowly walking back to camp.

A vazaha among the vasa.
Waiting for the sun to set.

The herps shined brightest on the first half of our hike. The clearing was suddenly full of frogs partially submerged in water. Other frogs were perched on leaves and palm fronds, along with chameleons and a stunning snake that coiled along a roadside reed before vanishing into the vegetation. I could have stared at it forever. As Tim often told me, you never know if you’ll ever see a certain species again, so you have to make the most of the encounters you have. I took pictures where I could, but sometimes I was happier to just soak in what I was seeing rather than futzing with my phone camera.

Maybe I’ll never see some of those species again, and it’s quite possible I’ve forgotten some of them already. But I’ll never forget how I felt or where I was. I lagged behind the group, breathing in the night air. I looked up at the sky, the moon appearing behind torn clouds. On such a narrow, low road, the trees seemed to engulf me. Thunder rumbled in the distance.

You always have to remember where you are.

Of course, we were also looking for lemurs. We shined our headlamps through the trees until someone (usually Caren) spotted eye shine. We mostly saw mouse lemurs as they scurried along branches, their chunky tails draping behind them, but we also saw a greater dwarf lemur, the only one we saw on the trip. We peered up into the dark trees, trying to find the best angles so we could see as much of it as possible.

We watched it for 10 minutes until we heard more rumbling, closer and louder than before, but this time it wasn’t thunder. I turned and stared down the long, dark road until I saw the headlamp piercing through night. The motorbike roared past us, leaving behind a cloud of exhaust and a disturbed silence. The rainforest had withdrawn from us. But that was the reality—we were walking along a heavily eroded but still heavily trafficked road. We stood with our feet in multiple worlds.

You always have to remember where you are.

Submerged in the rainforest as night falls.

The spell was broken after that. We looked at our watches and saw how late it was. We were hungry, and we wanted to go find indri the next morning. Our pace quickened, we looked at fewer things. And that was okay. The night already felt complete.

Ready for dinner, but still looking for lemurs!

I lay in my tent that night, turning over everything I had experienced. I didn’t have my research questions yet, and my mind still splintered when I thought about which study species I would focus on. But every research project starts with something that grabs you, something that makes you want to leave everything behind and spend months alone in the field. For me, it has to take root in my heart before it can flourish in my mind. And on the fourth night I spent in ASSR, I knew what I had already suspected: this was it. This is where I would tell Onja I wanted to work. When the sun rose the next morning and I looked outside my tent, all I could see was the future.

My new research home.