The Sussex Wildlifer
Trip Report: Madagascar, October-November 2009


Madagascar Lemur, Chameleon & Birding Trip Report:  20 October-11 November 2009 

Planning the itinerary:

I had been hankering to visit Madagascar for years, but the steep prices demanded by UK travel companies were a deterrent. Then I chanced on a trip report by an American wildlife photographer called Don Clancy who offered some excellent advice about what camera gear to take, tame wildlife locations and recommended using a Tana based travel agent called Le Voyageur. He had felt the same about the high costs, but by booking direct found them greatly reduced. What an excellent recommendation that turned out to be. His advice about wildlife locations to visit and Le Voyageur’s expertise allowed us to create our own 3-week tailor-made itinerary, far superior to anything on offer in England, and make very significant savings.

Money & Tipping:

We were uncertain about what money to take. Rumour had it that the banks might not accept Pounds and that it was only possible to get money out of ATMs in the cities, which only accepted VISA. We were warned against changing money in the city banks, as it took far too long. All information seemed to suggest that we should change our money at Tana airport, where the rates were best, excellent advice, as the rates in the far south were not good. So, we took a mix of Euros, US dollars, Pounds and plastic. We changed our Euros at the airport (500 Euros converted into 1.5M Ariary), shoved it into money belts and never once felt threatened. As things turned out we could just have taken Pounds with us and we would have had no trouble changing these at Tana airport.

Be prepared to tip and be prepared to tip generously. Our guides were first-rate, the majority outstanding. Their season is not a long one and recent political unrest has had a devastating adverse impact on the number of visiting tourists. All the guides we used knew their wildlife intimately and really went out of their way to help us enjoy it to the full. Although the cost of our trip included the services of all guides, it was suggested that 10,000 Ariary a day was an appropriate tip for a driver, or guide. We doubled that and then added some more and for outstanding results we tipped well over the odds. Be prepared to take on extra local guides at every reserve, even an additional ‘spotter’, and be prepared to tip them too. Remember this, unless more Malagasy people become involved with their wildlife, it will disappear. The writing is already well and truly on the wall. Over 35% of the island’s 20m people are 15 and under. At that rate, just imagine what extra pressures there will be on the land in the next 20-30 years, let alone where such numbers will find work. Believe me the unique wildlife in Madagascar really is worth saving. Don’t let this become just another case of “the last chance to see”. I really like the way they employ as many people as possible. The more there are involved, the better the chance for the long-term survival of the wildlife and if that means a few extra tips, then so be it. Just live with it! 10,000 Ariary is a little more than £3. Remember, a small amount to us means a great deal more to them. Madagascar is, after all, still a very poor country.

Photography Notes:

I never had the need for a tripod – in fact it would have been a huge encumbrance. I did take the third leg of my Uni-loc tripod, which doubles as a monopod and never once attached the camera to it. On the other hand what I did use it for was as a steadying third leg and in the rain forests and at the Isalo massive it proved of enormous benefit to me. In such situations a walking pole of some description is an absolute essential, as it gives the stability needed when carrying around expensive camera gear in sometimes extremely difficult terrain. My Nikon D3 behaved impeccably, nailing 99% of all the action shots, notably the dancing Sifakas, and the ability to use high ISOs in the rain forests and other dark locations and still get excellent quality images was a tremendous benefit. The D200 was less good in such situations; anything over ISO 400 tends to produce too much noise.

As for lenses, the 105 macro (with vibration reduction) was great, particularly when using fill-flash and also with flash as main light for close subjects. The 80-400 zoom (with vibration reduction) performed, as usual, very well but was less satisfactory with the Speedlight SB-800 flash at, or near, the minimum focussing distance on the night safaris. A useful lens to have had in such situations would have been a 200 macro, possibly with an extender. I also took a cheap wide-angle lens for general scenes and hardly used it, preferring instead my wife’s compact camera, which was very light and ideal for such purposes.

Many locations, particularly Berenty and Ifaty were windy with a lot of dust and sand blowing around, so it was impracticable to change lenses in the field. Having two camera bodies helped in this respect, although there were occasions when I clearly had the wrong lens attached to my preferred D3. At times there was so much dust and sand in the air that I shoved the cameras into dry bags between shots (last year when photographing tigers in India I used a pillow case). These dry sacks also proved to be of enormous benefit in the rain forests, for obvious reasons!

I did not use my flash extender, my radio remote release, or my flash cord and I wish I had left the heavy monopod plate at home. Lugging 10kgs of camera gear on your back and around your neck for up to 10 hours a day can be tiring; in Ranomafana where the terrain was like a roller coaster, it was utterly exhausting. My JOBO portable hard drive was not taken outside, as I feared the high humidity, heavy rain and heat could create havoc and cause a disaster. It performed flawlessly.

Photographing lemurs, chameleons and birds in the wild in Madagascar can for much of the time be extremely challenging; indeed in many of the locations we visited it was impossible to get any decent images at all. Lemurs in the rain forests tended to stay high up in the trees, chameleons tended to move around the branches to which they clung and as for the rain forest birds…

Don Clancy had recommended visiting certain lemur and chameleon parks. OK, so the animals there were habituated to humans to varying degrees, but they offered really good close-up photographic opportunities. That such animals were quite tame was of little relevance to me: I was not in the mood to travel so far and risk coming away without some really good close-up images. So, when planning our itinerary, I included several such locations and am now very pleased that I chose to do so. The trouble with lemurs in the wild is that they are more often than not hanging out high up in the canopy and it is almost impossible to get a close shot, and when you do invariably you find yourself shooting straight into the light. I found Ranomafana particularly frustrating in this respect. On the other hand, Berenty was great both for the lemurs and the birds, but we only saw one chameleon there. They can be really hard to see in the wild and even more difficult to photograph well.

Birding versus Photography in rain Forests:

I have to admit that I do not enjoy birding, or for that matter bird photography, in rain forests. I remember being asked what I thought of the birding at a remote lodge deep in the Amazon rain forest. I had been out for some ten hours, had got drenched to the skin and was extremely tired, hungry and thirsty. My response of “crap” brought a shocked silence from the group of Americans who had asked me. “Gee, you will just have to work harder, it is never easy” was their response. Who said anything about it being easy? I really do not understand birders who are there just to get a tick against a bird’s name. The trouble is this. Your guide will call out, “Blue-arsed Flufftail”, as he points vaguely in the direction of the canopy 70 feet directly above your head, or worse, into the impenetrable undergrowth. “Where”, you ask. “There”, he repeats, pointing skywards. “Give me a clue, which branch, how far away?” And so it goes on until you finally see movement and some tiny bird’s bum fast disappearing into the far distance. Now, those Americans treated that as a tick. They aren’t birdwatchers! What’s good about your guide calling out a bird’s name if all you see is its bum?

Take our final morning at Ranomafana. It had rained heavily overnight and cloud hung around the rain forest all morning. I don’t mean above it, I mean in the actual rain forest itself. We had gone to see the lemurs, but they were almost totally hidden high up in the dense canopy. The terrain was extremely rugged, more like a giant roller coaster, the paths slippery and we stumbled over hidden tree roots. We moved on to view a Goshawks nest, but despite waiting for almost an hour we saw nothing. Rain constantly dripped on us, the humidity was horrendous and leeches were falling from the foliage all around and on to us. Had it not been for my heavy duty monopod I would surely have fallen over many times and quite probably damaged my camera gear.

Now, I am generally a very patient man. I have to be as a wildlife photographer, but standing there in those conditions with leeches dropping on and all around us for the best part of an hour was really quite unpleasant. We picked off as many of those leeches as we could, but I still found three on my wife’s back when we at last stumbled back to the Lodge. If you expect to see nothing, then you will not be disappointed. Standing dripping wet to the skin, covered in leeches, deep in the most difficult rain forest I have ever had the misfortune to enter and carrying over 10Kgs of camera gear on my back waiting for the non-appearance of a Goshawk must surely qualify as the most sterile, absurd, physically demanding non-birding tick of my whole life! I hate bloody rain forests!

Useful things to know:

Don’t buy your water in the hotels, and buy it in six-packs. Realise that two small bottles of pop cost as much as one large one and that there is far more in a large bottle. We were glad we did not pay to go full board, as the lunches were all heavy 3-course affairs. Better to have something light, such as a cheese roll, or omelette, followed by fruit.

Madagascar Trip Diary:

Tuesday 20 October 2009

Terminal 2 at Heathrow was exceptionally quiet and we have never passed through all the checks so fast. An encouraging start, or so we thought! The CDGVAL (Airport Shuttle) at Paris, Charles de Gaulle took us effortlessly and quickly to Terminal 3 and our hotel, The Ibis, which had been booked in advance over the Internet. Here we suffered a very poor evening meal and an even poorer night’s sleep, but the room was clean enough, although there was no tea or coffee in the room.

Wednesday 21 October 2009

Unlike last night, we enjoyed a good breakfast, excellent coffee in really lovely cups and jam (cherry and apricot). Our Air France flight left an hour late, full to overflowing with something like 600 passengers. The food was OK, but they were stingy with the drinks; no doubt a sign of the times. Passport and immigration procedures at Tana airport took a staggering 2 hours (the longest we have ever had to endure and easily beating the Indian procedures), not helped at all by the usual French practice of pushing and shoving, rather than forming an orderly queue. Just why they do this is unclear, because it clearly puts them all in an absolutely foul mood. We were met by our young driver Danny and guide Fabrice, both of whom spoke excellent English, changed our Euros into Ariary and were then whisked away to our hotel, The Chalet des Roses, where we arrived at 1 am, and so to bed.

Thursday 22 October 2009: Tana to Andasibe

A basic but adequate breakfast, again with excellent coffee and we were at last off on our travels proper. Driving through the city, ablaze with Jacaranda blossom, we headed towards the Lemur Park at Katsaoka, some 21kms outside the city, and immediately got off the mark with some good birds: a multitude of Hamerkops, Black Egrets, Squacco Heron and before we knew it we had clocked up seven endemic species.

The Lemur Park at Katsaoka was just great and an excellent introduction to some of the wildlife of Madagascar, offering really good photographic opportunities, far better than almost any encountered in the wild. The list of lemurs there was quite impressive and included: Coquerel’s Sifaka (Propithecus coquereli), Crowned Sifaka (Propithecus coronatus), Mongoose lemur (Eulemur mongoz), Collared Brown Lemur (Eulemur collaris), Eastern Grey Bamboo Lemur (Hapalemur griseus), Black & White Ruffed Lemur (Varecia variegata) and Ring-tailed Lemur (Lemur catta). There were also some small cages housing Grey Mouse Lemur (Microcebus murinus), Dwarf Lemur (Allocebus trichotis), Fat-tailed Dwarf Lemur (Cheirogaleus medius) and Brown Mouse Lemur (Microcebus rufus). These lemurs are all fed, but it is forbidden to approach them too closely, a much better idea than in certain other parks we visited. An enclosure held several tortoises: Spider (Pyxis sp.), Bell’s Hinge-backed (Kinixys belliana) and Radiated (Geochelone radiata), whilst Spiny-tailed Iguanas (Oplurus cuvieri) scurried away as we approached and Hamerkops preened themselves in the trees. We decided not to lunch there and drove back to Tana, buying a picnic at a garage supermarket, and then we were on our way again, this time heading eastwards towards Andasibe (pronounced an-dass-a-bee).

After about 73kms, or the half-way mark, we stopped at Marozevo to visit the Peyrieras Reserve, which also seemed to go under a number of different names: Madagascar Exotic Farm/Reserve, Madagascar Natural Farm or even Madagascar Reptile Park. Take your pick! This was the place to see chameleons, iguanas & frogs close-up and personal and it offered the best photographic opportunities anywhere on the island: we had better views and saw more chameleons there than anywhere else on our travels. I would not have missed it for anything and cannot recommend the place highly enough. It is a bit run down, but good-sized enclosures housed the bigger chameleons, with smaller ones holding leaf-tailed geckos, frogs and the smaller chameleons, including the smallest one in the whole of Madagascar, which could fit on my finger nail. There were also crocodiles, but unfortunately their Comet Moth had died, a particular species I really wanted to see, but make no mistake about it, this was the best place to photograph chameleons in the whole of Madagascar.

Then it was a further 70km drive to Grace Lodge near Andasibe, comfortable bungalows within earshot of the Indri Indri in the nearby rain forest. These charismatic primates call for short periods throughout the day and we could not wait to actually enter the forest to see them. Grace Lodge is owned and run by a wonderful Malagasy lady called Henri (short for Henrietta), who having spent some time in England retains very fond memories of her time there and was keen to practice her already excellent English. She is a small bundle of incessant energy, always with a smile on her face, and one of the nicest people you could wish to meet anywhere in the world.

I was confused. What is commonly called Andasibe National Park actually comprises two Parks, Mantadia and Analamazaotre. Andasibe is the name of the village which straddles the two Parks and Perinet is the old French name for Andasibe. The Malagasy no longer use the name Perinet. It seemed to me that at times there was a clear anti-French feeling and after their behaviour at the airport I know just what they meant! I hope that clears matters up.

Friday 23 October 2009: Andasibe

The serious birding part of the trip started today in earnest, getting up at 4am for a quick breakfast (yes, breakfast was available even at that unearthly hour) and we were off up a rough old track to Mantadia National Park. As day broke we started along the main access track quickly clocking up Eastern Grey Bamboo Lemurs (Hapalemur griseus), Red-bellied Lemur (Eulemur rubriventer), Black & White Ruffed Lemur (Varecia variegata) sitting amongst the red blossoms in what looked something like a Flame Tree and, in the distance, we could clearly hear Indri Indri calling. An endemic Green Burrowing Frog (Scaphiophryne marmorata) emerging from its hibernation hopped around my camera bag at one of the entrances to the forest.

If I had any criticism of our guide Fabrice, he was overly dependent on his squawk box (a box of tricks with all the endemic bird calls), although at times it produced some of the most spectacularly close encounters with birds that can be seen nowhere else on the planet and so I even forgave him this one small fault. He was such a great guide and always phoned ahead several days in advance to book the best possible local guide, in this case ace-guide Julian. These guys were so dedicated and incredibly focussed on showing us all the local flora and fauna.

The forest paths were at times steep and I was glad to have my mono-pod as a third leg. Of course, this being a rain forest birds were generally never easy to see, but we steadily clocked up most of the endemic species in the area as the morning progressed, the only blip being the hard to find Scaly-breasted Ground Roller. Julian’s hearing was simply staggering. Back on the main track he stopped for a moment, then with a muttered “follow me”, he was off like a ferret into the forest, this time on the side where there no paths at all. Following him was a nightmare, the undergrowth was dense, vines constantly got in the way and we constantly stumbled over hidden tree roots. Up and up the slope we staggered, cursing under what little breath we had left and then we were at the top of the hill. We followed his pointing finger and there, quite low down on a horizontal branch, were a pair of Short-legged Ground Rollers. Julian beamed at us: mission accomplished!

Forest butterflies had gathered on the wet parts of the track, but I was far too slow to capture an image of a Giraffe-necked Weevil (Trachelophorus giraffa), as it flitted from bush to bush.

We enjoyed a picnic lunch and then were off again, this time retracing our steps to Vakona Lodge and its Lemur Island. A very short paddle in a dug-out canoe took us to a winding path through a small area of what I would call woodland and here there were several species of very tame lemurs: Brown Lemur (Eulemur fulvus), Red-fronted Brown lemur with baby (Eulemur rufus), Diademed Sifaka (Propithecus diadema), Black & White Ruffed Lemur (Varecia variegata) and Eastern Grey Bamboo Lemur (Hapalemur griseus). Now, don’t get me wrong, whilst all these lemurs offered excellent photographic opportunities, many were so tame (because they are fed by hand daily), they clambered all over us and that seemed wrong to me, especially when there was absolutely no chance of releasing any of the babies born there back into the wild. Another problem for me was when a lemur landed right on top of my camera and scratched the front of my macro lens. I swore!

Around the corner was an area containing crocodiles and Fossas in cages. A Cuckoo-roller appeared and I started photographing it. Then it hopped onto a nearby wall. I just couldn’t believe my luck. Then it hopped onto my wife’s shoulder, trying very hard to feed her an extremely large caterpillar. The darned bird was tame! As you can imagine, this caused a certain amount of amusement amongst the gathered local guides. We attempted a walk around the area, but heavy rain drove us back to our waiting car and we called it a day. We had, after all, been out for over 12 hours.

If we thought that was an end of things for the day, then we were sadly deluded. As darkness fell we were off again, this time to the road leading past the Andasibe Reserve. We tried hard to find Madagascar Crested Ibis by walking in the back entrance to the Orchid Park, but the now quite heavy rain must have put it off. We tried hard to find some local roosting owls but with similar lack of success, then lamping our way along the road verges we at last managed to see some wildlife: Grey Mouse lemurs (Microcebus murinus), Greater Dwarf Lemur (Cheirogalus major) eyes in the treetops and leaping Eastern Woolly Lemur (Avahi laniger) eyes, as they leapt from tree to tree. Elephant-eared Chameleons (Calumma brevicornis) clung off branches and Eastern Red Forest Rats (Nesomys rufus) scurried about their business until at last the heavy rain put paid to all the fun and we headed back for dinner and a very early night.

All our many night safaris were brilliant; they simply got better and better as the trip progressed and I would not have missed any of them for anything.

Saturday 24 October 2009: Andasibe

Another early start found us birding the Andasibe side of the area, where we concentrated on Madagascar Wood Rail, Madagascar White-throated Rail, Ibis and Vangas, although this was to be our Indri Indri day. These delightful primates thought as much about the rain as we did and yet they cooperated to a remarkable degree, approaching reasonably closely (a miracle to my mind in the wretched wet conditions). I know, the clue is in the name; we were in a rain forest, but I really disliked spending most of the day drenched to the skin. This was where I discovered that my waterproof lining had degraded and no longer kept the rain out. Next time I will take a lightweight plastic cape. Back at the Lodge an Elephant-eared Chameleon (Calumma brevicornis) still lurked in a tree and offered some great photographic opportunities, indeed the best really wild chameleon we found anywhere on the island.

Sunday 25 October 2009: Andasibe-Manambato to Ankanin'ny Nofy

After a 7am wake-up and early breakfast we were soon on the road again, still heading eastwards towards Manambato for the boat transfer along the Canal des Pangalanes to Ankanin'ny Nofy (which means "Nest of Dreams") and the Palmarium Hotel on Ampitabe Lake, with its own private lemur reserve. Much has been written about the roads in Madagascar, all of it true. There is heavy road haulage with numerous breakdowns and crashes, caused by the transport often being grossly over-laden, having bald tyres and over-tired drivers. There were also a lot of police road checks and money frequently seemed to change hands. I will say no more than that.

More shocking was the sight of so many burnt hillsides all along the route, the result of slash and burn and it has been said that 80% of Madagascar’s forests have already disappeared. There are a lot of churches represented in Madagascar and I got the impression that the majority of Malagasy people are so busy worshipping their gods they know little, and care even less, about their unique wildlife. Take Henri, for example. How anyone her age cannot name even the most common birds and chameleons on her land came as a huge surprise. She told me that when she first arrived in the area to build her hotel there were butterflies everywhere. Since she cleared the land there are none! That is such a shocking and depressing admission.

Eventually we reached the turn-off where we had to transfer to a 4-wheel drive. Well, it had four wheels and a driver, but the car would have been more appropriately driven by Mad Max! I cannot quite say that the 7kms we travelled was on the worst track in Madagascar, but it runs many others close. The boat trip to Palmarium went off smoothly, enlivened when we passed by a small islet in the canal with three Francolins flying around. We made a mental note to have a closer look on the way back. And so we came to the Lodge, with our bungalow on a low cliff overlooking the sea, with a lovely cooling breeze. There were really comfortable chairs and a settee on the veranda and a hammock. Sheer bliss!

There were enclosures with Radiated Tortoises and it was not long before we became acquainted with the tame Black & White Ruffed Lemurs, real hooligans these!

Monday 26 October 2009: Ankanin'ny Nofy

We had heavy rain overnight, and heavy showers continued throughout the day – the story of much of the trip really, especially on the wetter east coast. My wife had a bad night. Everyone had warned us in advance that getting the runs in Madagascar was inevitable. As things turned out, she recovered quite quickly and only missed out on part of the morning’s activities.

There seemed to be seven species of lemurs: Coquerel’s Sifaka (Propithecus coquereli), Black lemur (Eulemur macaco), Red-bellied Lemur (Eulemur rubriventer), Crowned Lemur (Eulemur coronatus), Black & White Ruffed Lemur (Varecia variegata), Indri Indri and worryingly several Eulemur hybrids. I also think there may have been Eastern Woolly Lemurs (Avahi laniger) as well. The trouble was that in Madagascar the locals were very sloppy about how they referred to the lemurs and so if you didn’t ask for the Latin name you might well be mistaken. All were fed and habituated, but the photo opportunities were endless and excellent, and hence the reason I went there. After breakfast with Crowned, Black, Brown and the Hybrid lemurs we were introduced to the forest by our local guide Bruno and it was not long before we managed to track down the Indris. They were so tame, perching in the bushes around us. I was so close to one female, on impulse I slowly held out my hand. She took it so tenderly and gently in her own, soft and yielding, and we both gazed around as though we had known each other for years. That was such a special moment! Later Bruno got the Coquerel’s Sifakas dancing along a forest track for us by enticing them with small pieces of banana. All the time we listened to the Black & White Ruffed hooligans, but apparently the very aggressive sounds they made are normal communication – I know some people like that!

Bruno showed us two frogs: a Geomantis sp. and a Mantidactylus sp., a Spiny-tailed Iguana (Oplurus cuvieri), Madagascar Skinks or Plated Lizards (Zonosaurus madagascariensis) and Large Day Geckos (Phelsuma madagascariensis). In the afternoon, basking in the settee on the veranda, I was suddenly aware of a Madagascar Serpent Eagle gliding by at eye level: later it reappeared with its mate.

Tuesday 27 October 2009: Ankanin'ny Nofy to Tana

Today we faced the long 5-hour drive back to Tana and our hotel, the Chalet des Roses, but first we had to negotiate the awful rutted track with Mad Max. This time he managed to dislodge a plank over a small river and stall the engine. We all had to get out while he decided how to extricate the vehicle. Later we suffered the indignity of being overtaken by a butterfly. Earlier, as the boat slowed down at what I now called Francolin Island, we were treated to the sight of 9 of these beautiful birds.

I suspect that there are many who might not enjoy the Palmarium experience. Me? I would not have missed it for anything. It provided me with endless excellent photographic opportunities at extremely close range and as for them feeding the lemurs. I simply do not care.

A highlight of the day was a visit to the Robert chocolate factory in Tana, although regrettably there were no tours, but the chocolate really is delicious.

Wednesday 28 October 2009: Tana to Antsirabe

We turned into pure tourists, spending the early part of the morning on a city your (despite the notorious traffic) and buying some good quality vanilla pods and coffee. Then we set off on the road through rural areas, hills and mountains to the south and our overnight stop at Les Chambres du Voyageur, a comfortable gated hotel on the outskirts of Antsirabe. The hotel garden was beautiful, full of blossom and Oustalet’s Chameleons (Furcifer oustaleti) and so I was happy I had something to photograph. Then we did the touristy thing again in the late afternoon: visits to a miniature toy maker, a jewellery centre, the main market and the spa at the end of the Avenue of Liberation.

It struck me as such a strange paradox that in a country renowned for the quality of its wildlife we saw no birds at all on that journey until we actually arrived at Antsirabe – nothing flying, nothing perched on the houses or telegraph wires, nothing perched in trees, not even the smallest trace of any road-kill. Despite the huge size of the country and a relatively low population, a mere 20M, there was a disproportionate amount of land that had been cleared. We saw huge tracts of burnt ground: what remained of the forests was pitifully small, with the wildlife increasingly being pushed into smaller and smaller areas, driven in many parts to, or near the point of extinction and then there were the babies. Everywhere you looked you saw babies and many of the mothers seemed to very young indeed…

By what right does mankind destroy so many habitats? By what right do the churches teach that man comes first? Do our Gods really condone such behaviour? Where is the leadership from the churches, which still instruct their congregations to go forth and multiply? This, I find, unacceptable in a world where the population is set to hit 9.4B by 2050; it is currently 6.8B, but this masks the fact that in the poorest counties the population is set to increase by 100% within that timescale. So much for the habitat and unique wildlife of countries such as this! This is a disgraceful situation. I was starting to feel uneasy for the future of the wildlife in Madagascar. Go there before it is too late, as it may already be a case of ‘your last chance to see’…

Thursday 29 October 2009 : Antsirabe to Ranomafana

We still had a lot of ground to cover. The countryside was most pleasing to the eye. There was so much that was dramatic and beautiful and the vast areas of paddy fields lent a distinctly Asiatic feel to the country. The houses fit so well into their environment, their colours changing with the region to match that of the land. As we approached Ranomafana Danny stopped for me to photograph a Carpet, or Jewel, Chameleon (Furcifer lateralis) bang in the middle of the road. Soon we arrived at the Visitor Centre where we were introduced to our local guide Theo. His brother Emile Rajery was the guide who showed Bernard Meier, one of the scientists attributed with discovering the Golden Bamboo Lemur, just where to find them: strange thing that, as Emile has never been acknowledged for his part in the ‘discovery’ of this species. Many of the locals feel that this is wrong. I can’t say I blame them really. In the evening we enjoyed an excellent night safari, being treated to excellent views of Blue Legged Chameleons (Calumma cryptica), a green coloured Short-nosed Chameleon adult (Furcifer gastrotaenia), the threatened Madagascar Bright-eyed Frog (Boophis madagascariensis) and Brown Mouse Lemurs (Microcebus rufus).

Friday 30 October 2009: Ranomafana

Today was a hard one; another 4am rise and up and running in the Park by 5.30. There followed 9½ hours of hard old slog, most of the afternoon in the pouring rain and drenched to the very skin, carrying heavy camera gear on my back and a seemingly increasingly heavier monopod to save me from sliding down the steep rain forests slopes. Our only respite came when the five of us lunched at a local hotely for the grand cost of 15,000 Ariary (£5), which also included the tip.

There were frustrating views of lemurs high up in the canopy, none offering any worthwhile photo opportunities: Red-fronted Brown Lemur (Eulemur rufus) and Eastern Grey Bamboo Lemur aka Gentle Bamboo Lemur aka Lesser Bamboo Lemur (Hapalemur griseus). This was an excellent area for the brightly coloured Baron’s Painted Mantella Frog (Mantilla baroni) and the Madagascar Wood Frog (Aglyptodactylus madagascariensis), whilst there were also lizards such as the Madagascar Plated Lizard (Zonosaurus madagascariensis) and the Ornate Girdled Lizard (Zonosaurus ornatus). We also managed to glimpse an Eastern Red Forest Rat (Nesomys audeberti). We somehow missed the Red-bellied Lemur (Eulemur rubriventer).

After lunch we relocated to a marshy area where, for once, Fabrice’s box of tricks performed in a spectacular fashion, bringing a Grey Emu-tail to within inches of us, but by this time I was so dispirited I didn’t even bother to get my camera out of the bag. I really did not want to be that wet when birding! This was definitely not enjoyment!

Saturday 31 October 2009: Ranomafana to Fianarantsoa

I woke to a slight feeling of unease in my gut, but a couple of pills and another half an hour later soon nipped that problem in the bud and that was the first and last time I had any cause for that particular concern for the rest of our trip. I have suffered greatly over the years in many countries and I probably didn’t even need to dose myself at all: it was just insurance!

Today was supposed to be a special day; the day when we saw the endangered Golden Bamboo Lemur, but the morning was a huge disappointment. Extreme wet conditions overnight saw wispy cloud around the hotel and mountain sides and it remained that way all morning. The lemurs were high up in the canopy and good quality images were impossible in the very poor light. As usual in the wild, whenever they did appear I was left shooting into the light and at very high ISOs. The brightest moment was when a Pitta-like Ground Roller appeared momentarily on the track.

We did indeed see the Golden Bamboo Lemur (Hapalemur aureus), the Greater Bamboo lemur (Prolemur simus), the Red-fronted Brown Lemur (Eulemur rufus), the Milne-Edwards Sifaka (Propithecus edwardsi) and we even heard the Black & White Ruffed Lemurs (Varecia variegata), but they were all seen badly, against the light, high up in the canopies and generally surrounded by swarms of flies. They showed their dislike for us and the weather by pelting us with fruit and trying to defecate on us. Great! I lost a lens cap and Theo ventured back to find it. That he did so was a tribute to his intimate knowledge of this rain forest.

To cap all this, we set off towards a far corner of the Park, where we were promised a good view of a Goshawk on her nest. The walk might have been quite pleasant on a nice day, although what passes for a nice day in this rain forest was hard to comprehend. It was bucketing down with rain when we arrived at a viewing point and could just about make out the nest across the valley through the mist and rain and there, with leeches dropping all around us, we waited and waited and waited…

When I later learned that day that we had not been told about a pair of Comet Moths (Argema mittrei) seen at the Visitor Centre first thing that day I was cross – that was the one species above all others I wanted to see in Madagascar! After lunch, we drove out of the Park, but not before we saw two of the huge Comet Moth cocoons, one of which had gigantic caterpillars hanging onto the outside in the still very windy conditions. We checked into our hotel, the Zomatel in Fianarantsoa. This is the place to buy your postcards. As we approached the outskirts we stopped at a shop owned by the renowned Malagasy photographer Pierrot Man. It really was worth a visit.

At last we managed to slob out and recovered our composure after such a hellish morning on those leech ridden slopes of Ranomafana. Never had I been so glad to see the back of a place!

Sunday 1 November 2009 : Fianarantsoa to Ranohira near Isalo

After yesterday’s sterile birding experience, today was much improved. Down from the gloom of the mountains, still wreathed in heavy cloud, we drove deeper into the south and at last it was getting warmer. Soon we were looking at the last of the terraced paddies, but the scale of burning in this country is such a depressing sight. We had a break at Ambalavo to see some local silk making and paper making, and then we pressed on along the long road south to Ranohira, our next stop, under the impressive Isalo massif, where we were expected at the Isalo Ranch. What impressed was, after all the twists and turns in the mountains, just how straight this road was; then suddenly we saw the shape of a large raptor, a rare Madagascar Harrier (Circus maillardi macrosceles) being seen off by a Madagascar Kestrel. Fabrice was chuntering; he had only ever seen two harriers before. I had told him on our first day that I was lucky. Now perhaps he believed me!

Another highlight of the day was a visit to Anja Park, a local community project, where there were several different habitats in quite a small area. Unfortunately, we arrived there in the heat of the day, otherwise I suspect we would have seen many more birds, but as it was we were treated to outstanding views of a pair of Benson’s Rock Thrush, Madagascar Lark and Long-billed Green Sunbird. It seemed clear that this was a poorly recorded location and one which could well merit some attention. There were cave-dwelling Ring-tailed Lemurs (Lemur catta), plenty of Madagascar Iguanids (Oplurus cyclurus), Grandidier’s Iguanid (Oplurus grandideri), Ornate Girdled Lizard (Zonosaurus ornatus) and other, as yet, unidentified Iguanid species, plus an Oustalet’s Chameleon (Furcifer oustaleti). Unexpectedly, there was some Rain Forest Cactus hanging off the face of a cliff and we saw our first Flatid Leaf Bug nymphs(Phromnia rosea).

Monday 2 November 2009: Ranohira

This was an absolute gem of a day with so many great bird and other wildlife images. Jules, our guide, spoke good English and had a wicked sense of humour. He also loved his local environment and showed us so many jewels. My lucky streak continued in the morning up on the high massif with a second sighting of a Madagascar Harrier, with a Madagascar Harrier-hawk in the same view. Fabrice was almost speechless! Now he really knew that I was a lucky man!

It was a fairly steep climb up to the top of the massif, but what great views greeted us. Wonderfully coloured lichens covered the rocks and steep mountain slopes in amazing profusion, more and better than I have ever seen anywhere else in the world. The air here was so pure and it was such a great privilege to visit this unspoilt wilderness. The political crisis earlier in the year had had a devastating adverse impact on the number of visitors and so we saw very few other people, this greatly adding to our experience.

There were many different species of chameleons and lizards: Carpet (or Jewel) Chameleon (Furcifer lateralis), Nancy Coutu's Skink (Trachylepis nancycoutuae), Madagascar Iguanid (Oplurus cyclurus) and Oustalet’s Chameleon (Furcifer oustaleti). The precipitous track down from the massif was an interesting adventure; very steep with, at times, a sheer drop to one side, meant we had to pick our way very carefully, but the profusion of wildlife made it all worthwhile. 

The day was not over. We witnessed strange bird behaviour by the roadside. Old grass was being burnt off ahead of the coming rainy season, which we were told would encourage faster new growth on which the herds of Zebu would feed. Yellow-billed Kites stood on the still smouldering ground searching out creatures that had been unable to flee the flames and we watched at very close quarters as others swooped low all around us. Later we visited the excellent Information Centre and were immediately treated to a close view of a male Benson’s Rock Thrush on a tree. As the sun started to set I was photographing Madagascar Bee-eaters in a mating display: the male tenderly fed the female then snuggled up close to her before flying off for more food. As far as I was concerned, this was my favourite location of the whole trip.

Tuesday 3 November 2009 : Ranohira-Zombitse to Ifaty

On and on we drove, through sandstone hills, along dead-straight roads and through several mining towns and our next stop, the delightful and excellent Zombitse National Park, an outstanding example of a transitional forest. Our local guide was Flaubert, yet another of Fabrice’s excellent choices. The track was beautifully level and shaded, weaving its way through the forest, where we were treated to great views of a White-browed Owl, Crested & Coquerel’s Couas, Blue, Rufous and Sickle-billed Vangas and exceptionally close encounters with the beautiful, small Appert’s Greenbul, which offered great photographic opportunities.

There were also lemurs, Verreaux’s Sifaka (Propithecus verreauxi), Hubbard’s Sportive Lemur (Lepilemur hubbardi), a species of Brown Lemur, small centipedes, a large male Oustalet’s Chameleon (Furcifer oustaleti), Madagascar Plated Lizards (Zonosaurus madagascariensis), and a Grandidier’s Velvet Gecko (Blacksodactylus sakalava).

On we travelled, stopping for views of the Baobabs, standing like lone, giant sentinels, marching across the landscape. The habitat was deteriorating, as we entered an arid region of bare rocks and at last we reached Tulear, where we lunched at a hotel overlooking the sea. It was time to say goodbye to our driver Danny. Fabrice was to travel the 37kms with us to our hotel, the Hotel de la Plage, at Ambolimailaka and here we would have to say goodbye to him as well. These partings were very sad: we could not possibly have had two better travelling companions and they would be greatly missed.

The road along the coast was a National Highway in name only. In truth it was an appalling track, the deep ruts full of soft sand, with over-laden lorries bogged down up to their axles. We had transferred to a proper 4-wheel drive and this enabled us to bird along our route, where we soon saw several species of plover, including the rare and endangered Madagascar Plover , a family of Madagascar Little Grebes, Thamnornis Warbler and Madagascar Bush-lark.

Time was passing quickly and I was beginning to wonder if we were to have our promised guided visit to the Spiny Forest. About 5pm, with the light starting to fade, we arrived at the Reniala Reserve in the village of Mangily, where we had a warm greeting from Mosa. He handed us over into the safe-keeping of Freddy and Regila, son and brother respectively, who took us at a cracking pace deep into the Spiny Forest. For the next hour these two amazing guides showed us close-up views of the Sub-desert Mesite, the Long-tailed Ground Rollers and their nest hole, Red-capped, Crested & Running Couas and Sub-desert Brush-warbler. Then, just when Fabrice said, “That’s your lot”, up popped a Lafresnaye's Vanga. That had to be simply the most incredible hour’s birding experience of my life. We left Mosa’s reserve, aware that other villagers were decimating the surrounding spiny forest and as darkness fell, continued on our way along the dreadful road, putting up Madagascar Nightjars as we progressed to the Hotel de la Plage.

The word Ifaty was used to describe this area and yet the village bearing that name had little to recommend it, and there was certainly no good reason to stop there from a wildlife experience point of view. Mangily is where you need to head for.

Wednesday 4 November 2009: Ifaty

Originally we had intended to spend several days here chilling out, but last minute amendments to our itinerary made this impossible. It was a great location for beach activities, but what I will remember this hotel for was the most beautiful, flavoursome, delicious honey I have ever tasted. If that’s the result of the local bees taking nectar from the Spiny Forest, then all I can say is this, “WOW”!

Our bungalow was the closest one to the sea, its decking right over the sea itself and being lulled to sleep to the sounds of the gently lapping waves and woken to the sound of Whimbrels calling was delightful. I enjoyed a productive bird walk after early morning rain and bought 5 mangoes for 400 Ariary, donating 600 Ariary to the young family selling them, a grand total of little more than 30p. The villagers let me photograph the Sakalava Weaver birds building nests in trees in the middle of their village and were fascinated when I showed them the images.

The hotel had an interesting garden with a lot of endemic spiny forest plants and among these a Chabert’s Vanga sat on her nest, at eye level, blending incredibly well with the branch onto which it had been glued.

What was nice about Madagascar was the relative lack of begging and even when it did occur, it was so low key as not to be any cause for concern whatsoever. It was so nice not to be pestered all the time when we were on the beach, as would have been the case in many countries.

Thursday 5 November 2009: Ifaty-Tulear-Fort Dauphin to Berenty

It would have been good to have had time to explore the extensive Spiny Forest here, but we had a deadline to meet, our flight from Tulear to Fort Dauphin and there were already 7 lorries bogged down in the soft sand in the bomb craters that comprised what is laughingly referred to as a National Highway. One more and the road would be blocked for most of the morning and so breakfast was a bit of a rush. We made really good time though and need not have worried. At the airport there was the usual long queue, but it slowly cleared. We need not have worried, as Air Madagascar was, as usual, late.

Some say the 85kms of road from Fort Dauphin to Berenty is bad. Let me tell you this. The road to Ifaty is really bad; at least the Berenty Road had some good stretches, but it was impossible to miss the rain-filled bomb craters and after 3½-hours of sheer purgatory, it was with a feeling of immense relief that we arrived. That is not to say that we did not have a few stops along the way. Mara, our driver, had this uncanny knack of spotting chameleons, all Warty Chameleons (Furcifer verrucosus), even when negotiating incredibly bad stretches of road.

On arrival at Berenty we were introduced to Mbola, our local guide, who at first seemed intent on denying us our night safari. We remained firm, showed him our itinerary and that seemed to clear matters up. So, soon after dark, we found ourselves in a small part of the Spiny Forest where we managed to glimpse White-footed Sportive Lemurs (Lepilemur leucopus), but no Mouse Lemurs.

Friday 6 November – Saturday 7 November 2009 : Berenty

Some reports on the Internet are critical of Berenty, but for me it was a really interesting place. Although the birding was excellent, I did not go there for that. I went there to see the lemurs, the famous Ring-tailed Lemurs (Lemur catta) and the even more famous Verreaux’s ‘Dancing’ Sifakas (Propithecus verreauxi) and these put on such amazing displays for me.

That first morning we had yet another early start, meeting up with Mbola at 5.30 and again after breakfast, quickly clocking up France’s Sparrowhawk, four species of owl, numerous couas, including the confiding Giant Couas. We also enjoyed fleeting views of Madagascar Buttonquail and Madagascar Sandgrouse. That afternoon we revisited the Spiny Forest and soon managed to see the Sportive Lemurs again, only this time the views were much improved, albeit the Mouse lemurs tried to hide high up in their tree and then we went back again at 6.45pm for another night safari. Good stuff, this!

Despite what you may read on the Internet, there are 6 species of lemur at Berenty: Brown Lemur (Eulemur fulvus), Grey Mouse Lemur (Microcebus murinus), Reddish-grey Mouse, or Grey-brown Mouse Lemur (Microcebus griseorufus), Red-fronted Brown Lemur (Eulemur rufus), Ring-tailed Lemur (Lemur catta), Verreaux’s Sifaka (Propithecus verreauxi) and White-footed Sportive Lemur (Lepilemur leucopus). We were also fortunate enough to see some really large Ground Boas (Boa madagascariensis) and the holes in which they lived.

The dawn chorus at Berenty was better than anywhere else we stayed, although by 5.45am it was all but over. We spent the second day birding around the place, visiting Anjapolo Spiny Forest Reserve and Rapily Spiny Forest Reserve. At the former we enjoyed close encounters with Spider Tortoises (Pyxis arachnoides), for once in the wild, great numbers of Grey Lovebirds, Sifakas & Sportives. With a little encouragement our spear-carrying local guide flushed a Running Coua right out into the open for me to photograph and seemed well pleased with the tip I gave him.

A nearby local Saturday market provided a good insight into the local culture, even watching locals betting on a crude, vertically mounted wheel resembling roulette.

Of course, we visited the excellent museum at the entrance to Berenty, but I was hankering to get outside to see if the Sifs were dancing. There were several different troupes of these really delightful primates and I was treated on three separate occasions to my own personal viewing, the final one on my last morning only being marred by a female English birder, who rushed right through the middle of them when they were performing. Some birders are like that! They have absolutely no idea of beauty in the wild: nothing must be allowed to get in the way of another all important tick. As it was, I got this image of a large running bum! Soon deleted, I have to report!

The Sifs were simply wonderful and I would have travelled ten times the distance along that disgusting road to have seen them. Unless you photograph them, you have no idea of the amazing way they move; such grace of movement, such agility, such obvious enjoyment on their part, such virtuoso performances and all for my sole benefit!

The strangest story I heard about Berenty was the number of mainly French tourists arriving after dark, doing a quick night safari, eating a late dinner, seeing the Ring-tails first thing in the morning, eating breakfast and leaving by 10am. They must be mad, but what about the French travel companies, which actually arrange such itineraries in the first place? They experience little or nothing of the dancing lemurs, which for me were such a life-enhancing experience. I will never forget those virtuoso performances, seemingly put on for my sole benefit and if I didn't know better, I would surely tell you that they were performing a magnificent ballet, just for me! Forget those ring-tails: go and see the dancing sifakas.

Sunday 8 November 2009 : Berenty to Fort Dauphin

It was still windy and very dusty, disastrous conditions should you want to change camera lenses. After a last morning birding around the area, another 3-hour drive all the way back along that dreadful road. We had renamed Mara the Chameleon Man. He had this most extraordinary ability of spotting them in the road-side trees. Our hotel, the Croix du Sud, was part of the Berenty set-up, as was the hotel next door, the Dauphin, which was where we had our main meals. The showers in most of the places we had stayed were generally low-powered and so at last we had a power shower that soon rid us of all that Berenty dust and we were properly clean for the first time in at least a week. We had a lovely first-floor suite, a mezzanine bedroom and a huge bed, and a balcony from where I could photograph the local male Red Fody and Warty Chameleon.

Monday 9 November 2009: Fort Dauphin visiting Andohahela National Park

We must have been mad: stark raving mad! Andohahela National Park is so large it is split into three parts and one of these is pretty well inaccessible using any form of transport. You simply have to walk in, and it’s a long way. We were headed for section 3 of the Park, the bit that is a unique transitional forest, part spiny, part rain. The Tsimelahy circuit is in a mountainous region with a picturesque river running through the middle of it, containing cataracts, waterfalls and pools, criss-crossed by stepping stones and boulders, which provided us with a bit of excitement.

The trouble was we had to return along that awful road and then travel a further 8kms along an even worse track, this last part taking ½ hour, until we reached the Information Centre. We had also left things far too late in the day for any serious birding, arriving at the hottest part of the day, but at least it was not raining. Yes, we were stark raving bonkers!

We were the only visitors of the day; why did that not surprise me? We had never seen so many lizards anywhere else in the world; the whole area simply teems with them. The Centre had produced an Information Leaflet, the only one we came across in the whole of our travels, detailing an amazing number of species which can be seen in the dry forest, of which we saw: Marked Madagascar Swift (Oplurus saxicola), Four-lined Iguanid (Oplurus quadrimaculatus), Broad-tailed Girdled Lizard (Zonosaurus laticaudatus) and Madagascar Iguanid (Oplurus cyclurus), but there were at least another 17 further species of lizards, geckos and small chameleons we missed, in addition to at least 16 species of snakes, all non-poisonous. It really was such an amazing area and a great way end round off a great trip.

At last we caught up with the Green-capped Coua and our only sighting of a Black-crowned Night Heron. On the point of departure a large Warty Chameleon (Furcifer verrucosus) decided to parade along a fallen log, as though to say goodbye. We watched spellbound as his colour changed from green to brown, almost in the blink of an eye. What a send-off! Then it was another 2½ hours of purgatory. Was it worth all that discomfort? You bet it was!

Tuesday 10 November 2009: Fort Dauphin to Tana

Fort Dauphin (why do the Malagasy still call it by its old French name?) was a small place, becoming dominated by Rio Tinto mining operations and the prices of basics reflected this. Water that cost 1200Ariary a bottle in Tana here costs 2000Ariary. This was the shipwreck coast and there was plenty of evidence to support the name: there are even wrecks on the town beach. We found it safe to walk along the main roads to see the markets. There is a lot of poverty but the beggars were few and soon left us alone and we were able to enjoy the local stalls.

I spent the rest of our time at the hotel photographing the beautiful and confiding Red Fody, another Warty Chameleon (Furcifer verrucosus) and a Madagascar Eastern Day Gecko (Phelsuma madagascariensis) before we enjoyed a last lunch of delicious freshwater crab, crevettes in a sauce with rice and a chocolate pudding, finished off with coffee and all washed down with lemonade. Can’t say better than that! Our Air Mad flight to Tana was, as usual, late but at least on the homeward leg we did not have to wait at the airport. Our hotel knew well in advance and so we spent our time in the shade in the garden watching the Red Fody.

We were met at Tana airport by one of the manager’s from Le Voyageur, who treated us to dinner in a really nice hotel. That was such a lovely surprise and meant that we had some 3 hours less to spend at the airport waiting for our Paris flight. Our bags had been checked all the way to London, our return flights went well and we got back nearly on time.

Postscript:

We travelled with Le Voyageur, who charged us 2610 Euro per person for our 3-week trip. This included return airport transfers, boat transfer Manambato-Ankanin'ny Nofy-Tamatave, domestic flights and their taxes (Tulear-Fort Dauphin & Fort Dauphin-Tana), return transfers Fort Dauphin-Berenty by a 4WD car, accommodation on half-board basis except on Oct 21st on Bed & Breakfast, A/C car with a driver (Tana-Manambato and return & Tana-Tulear), 4WD car with a driver (Tulear-Ifaty) for 02 days, fuel & driver's indemnities, English speaking guide from day01 to day14, park & reserve fees, service of local guide in park & reserve, tourist levy and vat. It excluded international flights and taxes, visa fees (which in our case had been waived until the end of 2009), lunches, drinks, tips for driver, guide, restaurant, porters, water sports in Ifaty, private shopping and personal travel insurance.

I cannot praise the organisation highly enough, nor the people they employed to look after us. Fabrice Rakotonizina was an outstanding guide and Danny was the best driver we have had anywhere in the world. Our local guides throughout the whole trip were excellent to outstanding.