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“T.I.M. – This Is Madagascar” by ORYX Photo Tour Leader Daniel Bailey

On the 11th October I set of on an adventure of a life-time to Madagascar. I was set to co-host the ORYX Madagascar Photo Tour alongside, Dale Morris and our group of six guests. It would prove to be everything I had imagined, and so much more!

This was a whirlwind expedition that saw us travel to some very unique, special locations in order to experience and photograph an array of Madagascar’s endemic wildlife. Everything from gigantic Baobabs, the lanky Fossa, endearing lemurs, humid rainforests, and bizarre other-worldly spiney forests concealing an abundance of birdlife, colourful chameleons, frogs, geckos and snakes found no were else on earth.

Madagascar is an island off the east coast of Africa. It allures travellers, adventures and photographers from around the globe. Madagascar evokes immediate interest as it is a mysteriously attractive and fascinating destination. It is the world’s fourth largest island and has a growing population of around twenty-eight million people. Madagascar is a photographically unique destination and there is always someone, or something interesting or unique to photograph! It has a friendly and vibrant local Malagasy culture. People have only been inhabiting the island for the past 2000 years. In which seafarers sailed across from Borneo and later Africans (not more than 300 years ago) from Africa’s mainland. Today, all culminating in a strange mixture of French, African and Asian influences.

The bustling, vibrant street markets are a must visit and one can create beautiful imagery of the local people as they go about their daily lives. It is a destination of contrasts as there are beautiful wilderness areas, landscapes, wildlife and Malagasy people that live amidst some of the highest levels of poverty in the world. It all makes for an eye-opening adventure, that one should consider doing sooner rather than later, as unfortunately human-encroachment is ever present, placing increasing pressure on the remaining wilderness, private and national parks and the plethora of endemic species that call this island home.

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Chapter 1: The Fossa are coming!

 

Our time in the bustling capital city of Antananarivo, or “Tana” as it is more commonly known was short but sweet. I’m personally not one for the bustling cities! Tana was the starting point for our Madagascar expedition. Everyone had arrived safely and a group of like-minded explorers got acquainted over lunch. The decision was made to spend the first afternoon exploring the city, as we ventured out into the busy road network, congested with taxis, tuk-tuks, Zebu-oxen draw carts, street markets overflowing with people. We discovered the unique rice paddies (agriculture) within the bustling cityscapes, on route to our first photography excursion at Lake Alarobia. This is a private sanctuary nestled in the heart of the city, it provides refuge for a teeming population of water birds. It was here that we got our shutters clicking, as we practised our skills photographing several birds. The lake was teeming with a variety if ducks and egrets that seek shelter here. We enjoyed photographing: White-faced whistling ducks, Fulvous whistling ducks, Red-billed teal, Hottentot teal, Black crowned night heron, Black heron, Squacco heron, Malagasy pond heron, Little egret, Great egret, Cattle egret, and the undeniable highlight being a very cooperative Malagasy kingfisher.

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Early the next morning we left the hotel to head to the airport. We flew from Antananarivo to Morondava. We set off to the west coast of the island to start of our wild Madagascar adventure.  This was the start of the Morondava and Kirindy Extension of the tour in which we would focus our time on the Baobabs , encounter our first lemurs and go in search of the elusive Fossa. We arrived at Morondava and set off in our convoy of vehicles to our beachside hotel. On route we visited a local market in which we took the opportunity to photograph the friendly Malagasy people, and the daily life of the street scenes in the vibrant beachside town. After which we checked in and settled into our accommodation.

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In the evening we set off to one of the islands most celebrated landmarks, the ‘Avenue of the Baobabs’. A public dirt road runs through a grove of giant Grandidier’s Baobabs. Some of these ancient trees are thought to be approximately 800 to 3000 years old and stand at thirty meters in height. These Baobabs dominate the skyline and are truly a sight to behold! It is a busy tourist destination and a bucket-list for many travellers to Madagascar. Unfortunately, it has also become a popular Instagram selfie location! We made the decision to avoid the warm temperatures, crowds and arrive just before sunset. We arrived and took the opportunity to find interesting compositions of these impressive trees. Our group captured some great sunset silhouettes images. After the sunset most tourists disappear and we took the opportunity to get creative with silhouettes, light painting and try our hand at some night photography! There was an electrical storm out at sea, the sounds of thunder and lightning only added to the ethereal setting,  but due to this we only had a small window of twenty-minutes to photograph the mysterious Baobabs with stars!

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The following morning we retuned at sunrise, It is generally quite in the early morning and we captured some wonderful imagery of these iconic ancient trees at sunrise. The Grandidier’s Baobabs are so distinctive that they make an immediate and long lasting impression. Wonderful scenes of local Malagasy commuting to work, children playing, and Zebu-draw carts making their way through the ‘Avenue of the Baobabs’. The sunsets and sunrises at this destination only enhance the experience with a magical sense of wonderment!

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After a successful time amongst the Baobabs, we set off to Kirindy Forest Reserve. It was here that we hoped to find our first lemurs and the chance of finding the Fossa. The Fossa is a rare endemic predator species of Madagascar. The Fossa is a slender-bodied “catlike” creature with little resemblance to its mongoose cousins. It is the islands largest carnivorous mammal and can grow up to 6 feet long, and weigh up to 26 pounds.

We had one night at Kirindy and therefore two excursions in the forest, on the first evening we encountered our first lemurs, The Red-fronted brown lemurs, were a joy to see and photograph, after which our local guide spotted a Labord’s chameleon.  We also enjoyed a brief sighting of a Narrow-striped Mongoose.

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We saw some interesting birdlife, namely the Coquerel’s Coua, Crested Coua, Crested Drongo, Madagascar Hoopoe, and the striking pale morph of the Malagasy Paradise Flycatcher, As night fell, we went in search of the Fossa. We heard the call of the Madagascar Nightjar pierce to cool night air, and enjoyed sightings of the Grey Mouse Lemur and two species of endemic owls, the Torotoroka Scops-Owl and the White-browed Owl. We were delighted with our first encounters with Madagascar’s creatures and set off back to our accommodation for the night.

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I was very excited to visit Madagascar and see the lemurs of course, but had a secret desire to see the Fossa. Let’s just say it was high on my bucket-list. The ORYX Madagascar Photo Tour has scouted one of the best places to potentially observe and photograph this otherwise, rare and elusive creature. At sunrise we set off back into Kirindy Forest our final opportunity in search of the Fossa. We had a brilliant walk through the dry deciduous forest with wonderful sightings of the Verreaux’s sifakas leaping though the forest canopy and the nocturnal Red-tailed sportive lemur resting in a tree hollow.

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Whilst, viewing some Lesser Vasa Parrots, escape a Madagascar Harrier Hawk underneath a Red-stemmed Baobab we heard the forest guides erupt into a chorus of alarm calls! They were alerting each other that a Fossa had be found. We set off to try find the elusive creature, as we arrived on the scene, our group laid eyes on a Fossa.

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A young female Fossa that was relatively habituated to the presence of humans, due to the eco-lodge and researchers on site. Our entire group managed to capture some wonderful images of this individual. It was a very special to spend, intimate quality time with this young female Fossa, Kirindy boasts the highest concentration of Fossa’s than anywhere else on the island, so generally one has a higher likelihood of seeing this rare predator. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be able to lie on the ground within a few feet photographing a Fossa in the wild!

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Chapter 2: I like to Move it, Move it! You Like to… Move it!

 

The start of the Madagascar – Endemic Wildlife Photo Tour saw us travel to the south-eastern corner of the island, to Fort Dauphin. From here we were set to travel by road to the world-famous private lemur reserve of Berenty. In amongst the lodge at Brenety we enjoyed the opportunity to photograph the curious Ring-tailed lemurs, and the iconic “Dancing” or Verreaux’s sifakas. We enjoyed exploring and learning about the bizarre flora with octopus-like trees of the Didiereaceae family in the protected xerophytic spiny forest.

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Undoubtedly the most iconic mammal species of Madagascar are its lemurs. They are classified as primates and endemic to the island. Lemurs are part of the most basal primates, along with lorises, pottos and bushbabies. They colonised Madagascar from mainland Africa 50-60 million years ago, and with a lack of competition from other non-primate mammals, these species diversified to fill a wide range of unusual ecological niches.

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Today, there are over 100 species of lemurs in Madagascar! Exploring the gallery forest along the Mandrare River, we found astonishing abundance of wildlife in this protected oasis. Berenty is famous for its lemurs and is home to five species of these primitive primates. During the day we enjoyed sightings of the Red-fronted brown Lemurs, though the undoubted favourites were the Ring-tailed Lemurs and the Verreaux’s Sifakas. Photographically it was special as most of the lemurs were caring for small, adorable offspring! At night we encountered the tiny Grey Mouse lemur regularly on our night walks through the gallery forest.

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The Verreaux’s sifakas are highly adapted for treetop living and can jump around 32ft (10 metres) in one go. On the ground, it is a different situation altogether! They move or ‘dance’ along in a sort of sideways hop on their hind legs, their front limbs held up high to aid balance. This bizarre, bipedal dancing locomotion is a great hit and a lot of fun to observe and a great challenge to capture photographically!

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We enjoyed great evenings photographing the ‘Dancing’ Sifakas as they crossed over open ground to return to the gallery forest before nightfall. The beauty of the sightings was that a lot of the time we could photograph these fascinating creatures by just wondering around the footpaths of the reserve’s accommodation.

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At night we enjoyed walks through the xerophytic spiny forest. It is an eery and otherworldly place with bizarre vegetation, and in amongst the Octopus trees it was here that we encountered the White-footed sportive. We also enjoyed sightings of the smaller unusual creatures from scorpions to Warty chameleons.

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The birdlife was great, and we enjoyed a memorable sighting of a Giant Coua catching and feeding on an unlucky chameleon. Other notable birds included the rather drab, uncolorful Lesser Vasa Parrots, Grey-headed Lovebirds, Magpie Robin, Malagasy Coucal, Madagascar Cuckoo, Madagascar Cuckoo-Hawk, Madagascar Bulbuls, Madagascar Sandgrouse, Torotoroka Scops owl and Barn Owl.

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Other notable sightings in the Gallery Forest included snakes. Interesting enough there are no venomous snakes in Madagascar! We first encountered a beautiful Madagascar Golden Hognose snake shifting through the leaf litter close to the Mandare River. One of my personal favourite sightings was of an impressive Dumeril’s Ground Boa. This snake was close to six feet in length! What a beauty! They have the most intricate markings, in which their scales resemble traditional African masks running down the length of the body. These snakes are constrictors and she was relaxed and moved slowly over open ground, after sunning herself. It was special to see such a large snake as these snakes are endangered due to habitat destruction for agriculture, grazing for livestock, and simply killed due to superstition. Unfortunately, they are also exported to be sold in the pet trade.

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Chapter 3: The Call of the Indri “Babakoto”

 

After a flight back to Tana we commenced our drive eastwards across the highland plateau and made our decent down the escarpment to the famous Andasibe area, where we would be based for the next three nights to explore the famous rainforest areas of Perinet Reserve and Mantadia National Park. The focus here was to see and photograph the reserves famous, and largest lemur species the ‘singing’ Indri. We went on excursions to Perinet and surrounding community reserves to see these enchanting creatures.

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Whilst exploring the rainforests we had incredible birdlife. The highlight of the first excursion into the humid rainforest delivered a beautiful sighting of a Madagascar Pygmy Kingfisher. This little bird was a personal target species for my visit to Madagascar and we had great photographic opportunities with what is termed the little “chocolate bird”.

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After which we had a our first encounter with the Indris, Whilst, looking out over the forest from a viewpoint.  All of a sudden the forest erupted with the eerie, whale-like howling of the Indris. Their calls echoing through the forest canopy for close on three minutes. In the distance we could here other family groups responding to the territorial calls, Indris are the largest of all living Lemur species today with some individuals reaching nearly a meter in height. We had a glimpse at our first Indri as it jumped overhead in the treetops. It is quite a sight to behold this large, black and white lemur effortlessly leaping 10 meters between vertical branches in the forest. It settled briefly and allowed for a few quick photographs before all but disappearing back into the forest. It was a short lived encounter but a very special moment in time. Merely,  sitting on the forest floor and listening to them “sing” will to go down as one of my favourite experiences in Madagascar.

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A full day outing to Mantadia National Park was great experience in which we explored this scenically beautiful primary rainforest. It was here that we encountered our first Diademed Sifakas. They are considered to be one of the most colourful and attractive of all the lemurs, having a silky distinctive colourful coat.The Diademed sifaka is listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List, with the number of individuals decreasing.

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Whilst having lunch, besides a stream in the forest. We had companions in the form of the vocal Black-and-White Ruffed Lemurs. There were feeding and went to rest in a tall tree on the opposite bank of the stream. We enjoyed our meal in their company and got some great unique photographic opportunities by wadding through the watercourse and photographing them from below. It really was an immersive experience. The Black-and-white ruffed lemur is one of the largest lemurs and the second loudest primate after the howler monkey from central and South America. Its name comes from the large white furry ‘ruff’ around their neck. They are also unfortunately classified as critically endangered, which made it all the more special to share their space in the wild.

The natural beauty of the pristine primary forest, exploring the mosses, ferns, jungle vines, orchids, ancient trees and even a stroll to a beautiful waterfall were all highlights to our full day in Mantadia National Park. Here we also saw some notable birds, The Blue coua, Nuthatch Vanga, Crossley’s Vanga, Pitta-like Ground Roller, Madagascar Cuckoo-roller, and Frances’s Sparrowhawk.

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On one of our outings to Perinet Special Reserve we were treated to a sighting of the odd, and curious Giraffe-necked Weevil. This tiny red and black insect is named for its unusually proportioned neck. In which males have an elongated crane like neck that they utilise to joust against other males. We enjoyed the opportunity to try our hand at some macro photography of this highly unique, endemic species.

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Perinet Special Reserve delivered great sightings of the resident lemurs. We enjoyed sightings of the adorable Eastern Lesser Bamboo lemurs. One of the smallest diurnal species of lemurs. These were unbelievable cute and entertaining to watch move through the treetops and forage on the ground.

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We had an intimate sighting of the Diademed sifakas and even got to listen to the unique “growl” or contact call as they moved through the canopy in an attempt to locate one another. The Malagasy name ‘sifaka’ comes from the distinct call this animal makes as it travels through the trees: “shif-auk.”

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This particular outing to Perinet Special Reserve was a true highlight as shortly after the sifakas we came across a family of Indris. There was a male, and a female with a three-month old infant. They were high in the tree tops and whilst observing them they started to call directly overhead. The song of the Indri is just one of the many reasons why everyone should try to visit Madagascar. It is hauntingly beautiful, and to listen to them call only a few meters above your head is an experience that you will never forget! A moment I will cherish for my lifetime.

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We spent close on two hours with this little family and over time, they became more accustomed to our presence and began to move and feed through the tree tops. It was a close encounter, as they eventually climbed down and rested in the lower tree trunks. This offered us magical photographic opportunities. The ability to observe and photograph the mother and her three-month old infant was unbelievable. We got very special intimate portraits. Their mesmerising, emerald, green eyes pierce through the vegetation and when they make eye-contact with you it is as if time stands still, and they look straight into your soul.

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The evening night walks were fabulous. It is a special experience to walk through the rainforest in search of the nocturnal creatures. Many lemur species are nocturnal and a target species to try and see was the tiny Goodman’s Mouse Lemur. We encountered a number of these cute, little creatures and got some great photographic opportunities with one individual that was resting in a tree fern. Mouse lemurs are among the smallest primates, and Goodman’s mouse lemur is no exception. Head-body length of 9cm and a tail of 10cm, and a body mass of 45-48g.  We heard the call of the Eastern Wooly lemur but we didn’t manage to lay eyes on it. The one evening we were also treated to a huge electrical storm and listening to thunder in the forest after dark was a thrilling experience, even better we made it back to the vehicles before the rain arrived!

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The night walks revealed the islands reptile and amphibian fauna. It was on the night walks in Andasibe that we encountered a plethora of colourful frogs, chameleons and geckos. Madagascar is home to about half the world’s 150 or so species of chameleons. We had amazing sightings of the Parsons chameleon, Warty chameleon, and Elephant Eared Chameleon, to name a few.

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Throughout the birdlife in Madagascar was spectacular. Madagascar hosts a total of one hundred and forty endemic or near endemic bird species on the island. I managed to get many new species for the life list. The objective of the trip wasn’t birding but in-between moments I took the opportunity to listen, learn and identify as many of the birds. From the dry, spiney forests to the humid rainforests – in total I recorded 81 species for the trip with the vast majority of these being endemic to Madagascar.

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Chapter 4: Stranger Things!

 

After completely immersing ourselves in the forest environment of Andasibe, we now ventured further east to the coast. We set off to a location only accessible by boat. To a place the elusive Aye-aye calls home. Aye-ayes are rather strange, creepy looking nocturnal primates. They hold the title of being the one of Madagascar’s rarest, and the world’s largest nocturnal primates.

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These strange creatures feature big yellow eyes, are dark in colour, and have a large bushy tail. The hair seemingly stands on end, as if been electrocuted! The Aye-Aye has a slightly elongated but extremely narrow middle finger. This unique physical adaption is used for percussive foraging. It taps on trees to find grubs under the bark. Once an individual has found a hollow part of a tree, it gnaws into the bark and uses its middle finger to hunt for grubs and insects inside.

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Aye-ayes spend their lives in rain forest trees and avoid coming down to earth. They are nocturnal, and spend the day curled up in a ball-like nest of leaves and branches. The Aye-aye we saw was a female, if you look closely in the images below you can see her mammary glands. She was a mother to a young infant hidden safely in a nest high above us. What a privilege to spent time with and photograph one of the worlds weirdest creatures.

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The forest around the accommodation during the day offers intimate, up-close sightings of other lemur species, including habituated Indris, Black-and-White Ruffed lemurs, Crowned and Black lemurs, to name a few. It is a beautiful location and in-between our excursions, one can take the opportunity to sit back and relax on the beach of Lake Ampitabe. Or simply, take the time to read a book, review and edit images, or take a siesta in the hammock of their beach-side bungalow.

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Madagascar is an extremely rewarding travel and photographic experience! An ORYX photographic safari to this implausible island takes in much of its legendary uniqueness, ORYX guests can expect to return with fond memories, and full memory cards with countless images of some of the planets most eccentric creatures. I look forward to guiding and hosting future ORYX guests on this enchanting expedition.

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Daniel Bailey is a Photo Tour Leader for ORYX private and scheduled departures. As one of ORXY’s newest leaders, Daniel’s future expeditions are sure to be exciting adventures in search of nature’s rarest, awe-inspiring and intimate moments.

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