Exploring Madagascar: Wildlife photography diary

Robin Hoskyns

01 Sep 2015

Crossing the backbone of Madagascar

As I write this I am pretty exhausted from an eleven hour journey crossing the highlands that are the backbone of Madagascar, arriving in Morondava on the west coast. The journey was supposed to have taken an hour by plane but thanks to Air Madagascar cancelling the flight we had to drive. Having been in Madagascar for a while, rearranging travel plans last minute is almost completely normal and it was actually nice to see the change from the green of the east to the dryness of the west.

Madagascar’s eastern slopes were once covered in continuous rainforest. Warm winds blowing in from the Indian Ocean condense on these highlands which run the length of Madagascar, giving this part of the island very high rainfall. We have spent the past few days exploring the two most visited parks of the eastern rainforests, Ranomafana National Park and Andasibe-Mantadia National Park.

Ranomafana

Although Ranomafana is the bigger of the two parks at 41,000 hectares, we quickly found golden bamboo lemurs not far from the park entrance. Originally discovered in 1986 this species is one of the two that Ranomafana was originally set up to protect. They were sleeping high in the giant bamboo that is their primary food source so we went looking for the second species, the critically endangered greater bamboo lemur. They are the rarest primate in the world and only two remain in Ranomafana National park. We found both of them not far from the golden bamboo lemurs and watched one feeding on a spike of bamboo ripped from the floor, chewing off the edible sections and dropping the rest to the ground.

Heading back out of the park way we saw two more species of lemur, the red-fronted brown lemur and the red-bellied lemur, as well as two satanic leaf-tailed geckos, one of the coolest and weirdest inhabitants of the park.

After lunch we went up the hill to the slightly higher elevation forest at Vohiparara to look for the Milne-Edwards’ sifaka. We came across a juvenile male separated from the rest of his group, making melancholic sounding lost calls. We followed him, off the trail through thick vegetation, whilst he tried to find his group.

On the way back to the road William, our spotter, found us a giraffe weevil, probably the strangest creature in a land known for its odd features but often overlooked because of its size.

Andasibe-Mantadia National

We waited for it to get dark before starting a night walk in search of chameleons.

After a stop in Antsirabe for the night we made it to Andasibe. Andasibe-Mantadia National park is smaller than Ranomafana and made up of two separate reserves, Mantadia National park and Analamazotra Special Reserve.

Mantadia is a one and a half hour drive up a bumpy mud road away from Andasibe village which meant that we had the trails around the primary forest almost to ourselves. 

We got amazing views of a group of six diademed sifakas which bounced from tree-to-tree right in front of us, groaning in communication with each other. We also got good views of black and white ruffed lemurs and red-bellied lemurs, almost in the same tree.

The next day we pulled up to Analamazotra Special Reserve to a jam packed carpark and crowds of tourists. Analamazotra was created specifically for the conservation of the largest lemur of all, the famous indri. We had heard the calls from a distance the day before but as we walked into the forest they were getting louder as we got close. Indri call to communicate territorial boundaries and one group calling seems to set off a chain reaction in nearby groups. At first we found two adults, one a mother with a baby although we quickly moved on to find a group with fewer people around. We soon found another group with five individuals feeding on leaves quite high up. We watched these for some time and waited until we got to hear the distinctive call, an amazing sound up close!

On the way back we checked the mother and baby indri again, as we had stayed a little longer the rush of other tourists had dispersed and we watched the baby starting to explore the branches around its mother. We lay on the ground to ease the strain on our necks and watched them without the distractions of the morning.

Tomorrow we set off from Morondava, along the Avenue of the Baobabs to explore the dry side of the island!

Avenue of the Baobabs

Heading out from Morondava in the early morning we had left a little late so we were racing the light in order to catch the “golden hour” at the Avenue of Baobabs. Getting stuck behind numerous Zebu carts and “pousse-pousse” men on the bumpy road didn’t help matters. As any photographer does when chasing the light I was starting to get anxious that we might miss golden hour altogether.

Fortunately the Avenue of Baobabs is only a short drive from Morondava and the morning was hazy allowing the light to stay nice for a little longer. Arriving at the avenue I had only taken a couple of pictures when a group of children spotted us. A first I thought they might ask for sweets or money but actually they just wanted to play with our cameras. One girl took control of mine and was happily burning through my memory cards with her finger clamped down on the shutter button.

The excitement and playfulness of the children was contagious and really lifted the mood after my initial frustration. The light was still good and I managed to wrestle my camera back from the kids long enough to get some shots. They were dancing and skipping along behind us as we walked back to the car to continue our journey to the Tsingy.

On the way we stopped at Kirindy Private Reserve to try to get a glimpse of the elusive fossa. Unfortunately we didn’t see one but got great views of Verroux’s sifakas, a sportive lemur and a grumpy looking scops owl.

Tsingy De Bemahara National Park

From Kirindy It takes roughly 6-8 hours to get to the Tsingy and depends largely on the timings of the two river crossings as sometimes there can be a long wait. Luckily we got across them both without problems and arrived at Bekopaka before dark.

The Tsingy De Bemahara National Park is the second largest National Park in Madagascar and covers a huge area. The two places with accessible trails are named Small Tsingy and Grand Tsingy due to the height of the limestone pinnacles. We went to the Small Tsingy in the afternoon but that was just a warm up for the incredible Grand Tsingy the next day. Yet again Madagascar amazes with its weirdness! 

The Tsingy is formed by the erosion of limestone and due to the unique geology this has created unbelievably jagged formations. The word Tsingy roughly translates to English as “where one cannot walk barefoot” and that certainly was the case. A fall here would could certainly do some damage!

The deep ravines carved in the rock hold fragments of dry forest where lemurs can be seen. We managed to see the all-white Decken’s sifaka moving like ghosts in the distance as well as red-fronted brown lemurs and a sportive lemur that popped out of a tree hole. We also went through several long caves carved out by water erosion, crossed the ravines on rope bridges and visited the main viewpoints to look out over the Tsingy.

Before having to make the long drive back to Morondava we took a canoe trip up the Manambolo River. The river has cut a gorge through the limestone and this is where all the caves and water channels in the Tsingy drain out to. We visited some caves used by the Vazimba people, the first tribe in Madagascar, to hide from attackers. In the rainy season the water levels rise drastically making access to the Tsingy nearly impossible.


We made it back to Morondava in time to catch our flight out, ready for the final stage of our trip, whale watching and relaxing at Ile Saint Marie!

Ile Sainte Marie

Ile Sainte Marie or Nosy Boraha in Malagasy is 60 km long and less than 10 km wide, surrounded by coral reef with lush white sand beaches and palm trees. After all the travelling it was nice to arrive at our luxury lodge in the knowledge that we would be in the same place for a couple of days and would be able to relax for the final part of the trip.

After about five minutes of lying on the beach I was picking across the exposed reef checking out the sea urchins and hermit crabs in the rock pools. I was not alone, at low tide people from the surrounding villages come out and explore the reef too. Whereas I was looking out of pure fascination they were looking for their lunch.

Our first whale watching outing was scheduled for the next morning. At breakfast I refused the offer of a seasickness pill thinking that the sea looked calm. We made our way slowly though the reef pass and out into the channel that separates Ile Saint Marie from the mainland.

Named for the distinctive hump seen clearly just before taking a dive, humpback whales come to this channel to mate and to breed in the warm shallow waters. After about half an hour of keeping our eyes peeled for signs of whales I spotted one breaching in the distance. Feeling pretty pleased with myself for being the first to spot a whale I hung on tight as the boat sped up and we raced to get closer before it took its next dive.

When humpbacks breach they can launch themselves completely out of the water. It’s hard to believe that such a large creature can manage this feat; however the reasons they breach are still unknown and explanations range from getting rid of parasites to social interaction. They might even just do it for fun!

We waited a while to see a breach close up, moving to another group when they disappeared or more than three boats were present to avoid too much disturbance. Actually managing to get pictures of the event rather than the resulting splash is a challenging task. It is impossible to predict exactly where and when the breach will occur and trying to combat the rocking of the boat and mild seasickness whilst keeping the camera ready at all times was more difficult than I had anticipated. I should have taken the seasickness pill when offered!

After a day to relax on the beach and snorkel on the reef we had our second whale watching trip. This time I felt slightly more prepared, I didn’t feel at all seasick and we saw a lot more breaching behaviour. One even breached only 10-15 metres from the boat, although it didn’t come from the side we were expecting!

We even got to watch an episode of fin slapping, another cool behaviour where the whales slap the surface with their huge pectoral fins that can be a third of the length of their body.

After another day relaxing and exploring a smaller island to the south it was time to leave Madagascar. 

It was a great trip; we saw an incredible amount of wildlife and got to see many different aspects of this amazingly varied and interesting country.

If you would like a us to plan a Madagascar safari like Robin's, please get in touch and our destination specialists can help!

Comments

Robin Hoskyns

26/9/2015 5:30 PM

Hi David, Sorry for the slow reply, I only just saw your comment. I use a 5d Mark 3 with several lenses. I would say that 200-300mm is enough for lemurs as they come very close and a macro lens and flash for reptiles, frogs and insects. The main problem with taking pictures in the rainforest is you are generally looking up with a dark subject and bright background. Careful positioning to get a nice background along with exposure compensation for a dark subject is key. Most of these shots would be with ISO1600 or 3200 and and f/2.8 aperture but even then it requires patience to get sharp images. I don't use a tripod for wildlife as the lemurs move too quickly and there are too many vines etc. You may find a monopod useful depending on your lens but I prefer not to use one. A tripod and polarising filter would be very useful for landscapes and forest shots. Hope this helps and enjoy your trip!

Diane Powers

16/9/2015 5:00 PM

Wonderfully written and photographed. Thanks Robin - always a pleasure!

David Kramer

12/9/2015 7:00 PM

Beautiful photos to accompany a fine story. My wife and I are doing the Madagascar trip with NWS this October 2015. Robin can you provide some information on your photographic equipment. What camera did you use, which lenses did you use, what was your preferred ISO setting, did you use a "substantial" tripod, any filters you would recommend. It will be a tough assignment but I hope I can capture photos as beautiful as yours. Thank you.

Ann Hoskyns

7/9/2015 6:30 PM

What a fascinating place to have visited. You describe it so well

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