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Leeches in Lemurland

When heading to a country in Africa I have not traveled to before I always do my homework. The only thing I knew about Madagascar when I booked that destination was I would find lemurs on the island, so I had a lot of research to do to find out what else I might encounter.

Since mainland Africa is known for several species of "five stepper" snakes - meaning if you get bit you have about five steps to take before you start dying - I first checked to see what venomous snakes were found in Madagascar. I learned the island only has mildly venomous rear fanged species that pose little threat to humans. No worries.

The next thing I looked up, especially since I had planned some night hikes to find the adorable mouse lemur, was what predators were native. The only large or somewhat large predator was a creature called a fossa closely related to the mongoose family. They are elusive and of no consequence to humans. Excellent. Again, no worries.

In my reading I came across other valuable information; one bit was what to do if a leech were to get on you which are indeed found in Madagascar and, unlike most places, the leeches there live in the leaf litter of the ground. The thought of a leech on me made me shiver with disgust but I was a big girl. I had already taken many trips to Africa alone and had been attacked by a monkey, had hippo come after my canoe and bush walked up on a pride of lion so leeches seemed doable. I just needed to know what I should do if I find one on me, right?

My research said you probably wouldn't realize one was on you until you saw the leech since they first inject you with an anesthetic before sucking your blood, (how thoughtful). I read they aren't harmful to you, nor do they carry any strange African diseases and in fact are used regularly for medicinal purposes. It is noted that leech bites do bleed profusely, especially if removed improperly. To properly remove a leech, according to my studies, you identify the sucker, put your finger on your skin next to his mouth then gently but firmly slide your finger toward the wound where the leech is feeding and push the sucker sideways away from your skin. Once the mouth is detached you quickly detach the sucker then flick the leech away.

Okay. No worries. I was armed with information and ready.

The day I was to trek for lemurs I had on boots and hiking socks; regrettably I made the decision to wear short pants due to the extreme heat. For four hours my guide and I trekked a forest so thick I became claustrophobic and occasionally sought a patch of clear forest to see the sky and catch my breath. Then, almost as if I were in the ocean preparing to go back under water, I would take a deep breath and duck back into the dense forest to continue our hike.

When the hike was over, my guide and I crawled out of the forest and onto a road; me disheveled, my hair - once neat in a ponytail - sweaty and frayed in every direction, my clothing a mess. As we stood roadside my guide took off his backpack to get out some fruit for us to enjoy on the walk back to camp. As he did that, I started to pull myself back together.

I went to pull up my socks and saw I had not one but four leeches on my lower right leg. I screamed like a leopard had just jumped on me from the tree branch above about to rip me apart. Instead of following the instructions I had taken time to read, I pulled those leeches off in a panic then slung them seemingly miles back into the forest. Realizing I "broke" one I began hopping around the road brushing at my leg like it was on fire. And of course, since I didn’t follow directions, each bite site was bleeding profusely

My guide rushed to my side not knowing what the hell was wrong with his client. When he found out it was only leeches and he was not about to have to deal with the death of his tourist - as he surely thought due to my behavior - he began to laugh uncontrollably, having to sit on the road after his knees gave way from hysterics.

I too had to good laugh..., but only after I knew for sure there were no more leeches on me. I am grateful no one filmed this horrific event. I can just see the headline of the viral video, "Frequent traveler to Africa survives vicious attack..., by leeches!

So much for preparing and studying.

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