Madagascar Trip Report

Three great overseas destinations for wildlife photography are East Africa, southern Africa, or Madagascar. East Africa is the closest destination for Europeans or North Americans. It has a well-developed tourist infrastructure, relatively good roads, and much competition, offering the traveler good value for his money. Airfare is the lowest of these three destinations. I’ve been to East Africa three times. Southern Africa offers a less crowded experience, but higher airfare to reach the farther destination. Both Africas offer large, glamorous photography subjects: elephant, rhino, lion, leopard, and cape buffalo.

8462848

Madagascar’s main attractions are lemurs, chameleons, and very unusual plants. It is the farthest, and most expensive destination for airfare, and is presently served by two national airlines and a charter airline. It has very limited tourist facilities, poor roads, and limited ground transportation options. The two parks I visited in the north, required semi-camping (primitive structures with no water or electricity). No batteries could be charged for four consecutive days. There were no hotels available that I was aware of. Also, in my opinion, there is very limited competition by tour operators to provide good value for the traveler. If a traveler has never been to any of these three destinations, the two Africas offer much better value. Other experienced Africa travelers that I met in Madagascar voiced the same opinions.

If you’ve already been to Africa, Madagascar offers quite different picture opportunities. The Malagasy people, while seemingly reserved, are quite pleasant and easy to get along with. I felt completely safe and comfortable every day of my trip there. I did heed warnings and didn’t walk around Antananarivo at night. I also kept all of my camera gear out of sight in that city.

A one month visa upon entry at Antananarivo (Ivato) airport was easily and quickly obtained at a cost of 65 Euros/$95USD per person. Antananarivo is often abbreviated to Tana.

8462855

Searching for a Reasonable Travel Package

I tried to arrange a trip to Madagascar several years ago, and since I was paying for both my wife and I, I found it so expensive that I just gave up. This year (2008), I tried again, and for a second time, gave up due to cost. Finally, I located a tour company in Antananarivo, that arranged a custom, private tour for the two of us at a reasonable cost. They are listed at the end of this report. We flew non-stop from Los Angeles, CA, to Paris on Air France, and visited Paris for two days (partly to get over jet lag). Then we flew non-stop to Madagascar on Air Madagascar. We again stopped in Paris on the way back, to break up the long 23 hour flight time of the two flights.

I wanted a longer 20-day tour that went to few places and stayed longer at each park, to allow time for more photography. I visited two parks east of the capital city: Analamazaotra (Perinet) and Andasibe-Mantadia. Then we flew to the north of the island and visited Montagne de Ambre and the Reserve Speciale de l’Ankarana. We flew back to Tana and drove south to Ranomafana and Isalo. That was followed by a drive southwest to Tulear and then flew back to Tana. We had our own 4-wheel-drive vehicle and an English speaking driver everywhere that we went. French is the only widespread non-native language spoken there, since Madagascar was a former French colony.

8462850

While airfare to Madagascar was very expensive, and private car and driver was quite expensive, hotels (other than 5 star) were very reasonable, and meals were quite cheap.

The park fees were included in our tour price, but we had to pay our guides directly.
Guides were required at every park except Montagne de Ambre, and one guide for the two of us cost $20-40 per day, depending on how long we agreed upon. The guides were essential anyway, since even with them pointing to a subject, I often had extreme difficulty in seeing it. The camouflage of the stick bug, leaf gecko, and chameleon was amazing. They knew where to look.

8462794

The weather was quite hot during my trip, and the usual December winter rains started a month early. It rained every single day of my trip, except in the dry south. But the guides told us to get into the park early in the morning, since the rains almost always came in late afternoon and night. October might be a more pleasant month, but the early rains in November made the countryside lush with green growth.

Photography Equipment

For the serious photographers, I would like to go into detail in my choice of photo equipment and describe why photography in a rainforest is difficult. This might help prepare you for the challenges of very low light level photography in Madagascar

I used a full frame Canon 5D digital SLR, and since I prefer prime lenses, my choices were:

  • Carl Zeiss 28mm f/2.8
  • Canon 50mm f/1.4
  • Canon 100mm f2.8 USM macro
  • Canon 300mm f4L IS (imaged stabilized lens)
  • Canon 1.4XA extender
  • Gitzo carbon fiber tripod
  • Canon 550 EX strobe.

I had never shot in a rainforest before, and with my preference for available light, never carried a strobe for overseas photography. I practiced for two months in my back yard near dusk on dark, overcast days, and practiced very low levels of flash fill, using a stuffed toy monkey as my subject.

8459861

I experimented to see how slow in shutter speed I could go with the 300mm IS lens. I found that 1/80 to 1/100 second shutter speed gave very sharp results, and if I could shoot a group of 3 or 4 frames, and pick the best one later, that 1/40 to 1/30 second was usable. Since my camera will not flash sync at faster than 1/200 second, I was confined to using 1/80 to 1/200 second shutter speed, and adjusted aperture and ISO to accommodate different levels of light. My most used ISO was 800, then 400, then 1600 in decreasing order of use.

My main subject was lemurs, and they tended to be far away and high up in the trees. The natural tendency was to get directly under them to minimize distance and increase image size. This resulted in dark lemurs against a bright sky, a photographic disaster. So some level of flash fill was absolutely required, to fill in shadows, reduce contrast to a printable level, and add eye shine to the lemurs. A second, unexpected result was that my 300mm lens would flare terribly against the bright sky, destroying all contrast and image quality. This lens had never flared before, in 7 years of use, but was always used shooting parallel to the ground before.

8462796

The only acceptable work-around was to try to shoot more level, shoot away from the bright light, and try to get leaves or some dark background object behind the subject, to even out the contrast. Oh yes! And shoot in the semi-tame parks listed below.

I carried a tripod everywhere and almost never used it. The trails were up and down (rarely level), muddy and slippery. The rainforest was so dense that it was extremely difficult to get a clear shot of a lemur 30-40 feet away, without branches and leaves obscuring the view. By the time you got the tripod perfectly aligned to miss the leaves, the lemur had jumped four trees and 100 feet away. The tripod was nearly useless. Most days were light, bright overcast, yet the light was heavily diffused by the time it filtered down to the forest floor. The tripod was for heavy overcast days, where the shutter speed was so slow that even IS would not give a fast enough shutter speed to be useable.

Another big problem was that in trying to use flash fill, the flash would bounce off leaves much closer to the camera than the subject, resulting in white, overexposed, out of focus leaves that destroyed the picture quality. In that case, I turned off the weak flash fill and got lemurs with totally black faces, and no eyes visible at all. Can’t win either way!

8462863

I carried the 1.4X extender, but only used it once, on the tripod, for a distant lemur. I could often use more than 300mm focal length, but needed the f4 speed of the 300mm lens without extender. I left a 500mm f4 at home, and was quite happy not to be lugging that much weight around!

My recommendations for serious photographer in Madagascar is to have an IS (Image stabilized) or VR (vibration reduction) lens reaching 300mm to 400mm. Then use very low levels of flash fill on nearly every picture, to add color and eye shine to the subject. A digital camera body that can go to 1600 ISO with reasonably low levels of noise is needed. A true macro lens, capable of focusing down to 1:1 is useful. The colorful Mantella frog is about the width of my thumb and the giraffe weevil is much smaller. And a macro lens is useful on the day geckos, which can be approached quite closely. Some chameleons are smaller than your little finger.

8459902

Where to Go in Madagascar

The following semi-tame parks were very important in getting high quality pictures. One was Lemur Park, about 20 km west of Tana. Here the lemurs are confined by water in an open air (non-fenced) park. Lemurs do not swim and will not cross water. The lemurs could be approached within 6 feet and could be photographed at a low angle, avoiding bright sky backgrounds.

Another park was Lemur Island, near Vakona Lodge in Andasibe-Mantadia National Park. Here the semi-tame lemurs were encouraged to jump on your back or head, with the lure of carrots, which they love. That was quite an experience and photo-op, to have a lemur sitting on your head! I had one lemur walking on my back and sitting on my head, while I was photographing another lemur sitting on my wife’s head!

Reserve Peyrieras, located about midway between Antananarivo and Andasibe, offered more chameleon varieties and colors than I was able to see in all six National Parks and reserves that I visited!

8459907

Anja Park was another semi-tame opportunity to photograph ring-tailed lemurs. It is just north of Isalo National Park.

The photo opportunities of these semi-tame parks were so good, and lemur photography high up in the trees was so difficult, that I took advantage of my private car and driver. On my return trip from Andasibe-Mantadia to Antananarivo, I visited Reserve Peyrieras and Lemur Park a second time and got more high quality pictures. I have clearly labeled my semi-tame and wild lemur pictures.

Another semi-tame lemur opportunity, that I did not visit, was the private reserve of Berenty in the southern tip of Madagascar.

Tour Company Recommendation

I chose to go with the tour company Le Voyageur, based in Antananarivo, Madagascar.
Visit their web site for more information: www.simicro.mg/voyageur/

The address:

Lot II I 22AJ Morarano Alarobia

101 Antananarivo Madagascar

phone:

261 20 22 4352

261 20 22 43527

+261 20 24 55940

phone/ fax: +261 20 23 30928

I told them where I wanted to visit and how long, and they drew up a customized tour for me. I was extremely pleased their reliability and service, and hope other travelers will use their services. I have no business relationship with them—I’m just a satisfied customer.

8462904

More About Madagascar

Madagascar is a poor country and has an expanding population. The people have cut down the rainforests for wood for use in cooking and heating. The rivers run red-brown and thick like coffee, not clear, due to soil run-off, as a result of this deforestation.

8462903

National parks and reserves in Madagascar appear to be maintained and financed by tourist park fees and guide fees, and possibly the high $95 visa fee. I was told that 50% of all money collected is spent on the people living near the park to provide employment, to prevent them from killing animals for food, and cutting down the forest for firewood. It gives them an economic incentive to preserve the park and animals.

Madagascar needs your eco-tourist dollars to help preserve their rainforests, with their unique animal and plant life for future generations.

More

Original text ©2008 Don Clary. Photos ©2008 Don Clary.

Sign in or Sign up to post response

    • What did the trip end up costing? Or should I ask? :-)
    • To post a reply Sign In
    • Well written article and the detail of your photography is appreicated. Tks
    • To post a reply Sign In
    • My total trip for two, ending up costing $12,700. That includes 3 days in Paris, and absolutely all costs: maps, travel books, mosquito netting, preventative medicine, doctor visit for malaria prescription, food, beverages, batteries, Madagascar visa fees, guide fees, tips to driver, shopping for small gifts, and travel costs from my home to airport and back. Keep in mind that if you book with a tour, it usually doesn’t include visas, guide fees, tips, beverages, and stopover on the way, such as in Paris. Often, it doesn’t cover international airfare at all, just beginning in Madagascar. Also consider that the cheapest airfare that I know of, is first booking to Paris, and then booking Air Madagascar to Madagascar, to get a reduction in airfare on the three flights within Madagascar, which are expensive. When I used an internet travel site and just typed in Los Angeles to Madagascar, it came up with $21,500 for two! My airfare, from Los Angeles to Madagascar (but not within Madagascar) was $4780 for two. It is probably higher now. Tour costs to Madagascar, originating in Paris or London, are often quoted at $300 to $500 per person, per day, double occupancy. And this doesn’t include all of the extra costs I’ve listed above. My costs, after finding this excellent Antananarivo tour company, was much less than this daily cost. As I was planning my trip, I found a tour on the internet for 14 days, starting in Madagascar, for only $30,000 for two people!
    • To post a reply Sign In
    • Don, Nice article. May I suggest you include a map with your itinerary within the island? I spent months in Madagascar and the definite highlights were the Baobab Alley near Morondava, diving in Nosy Be and, as you mentioned, the Lemurs Park near Tana. Best regards, Axel G.
    • To post a reply Sign In
    • I appreciated the article and that location is definitely outside my affordability. And this is not to be facetious since you are well invested in Canon but Nikon d300, d700 have some very good low-noise results from High ISO like for example at 2500 or higher. Here is an example of 2500 ISO hand-held with my 70-300 VR. http://www.photo.net/photo/8447159. Warm regards,
    • To post a reply Sign In
    • Thank you. That was a wonderful travelogue. maljo
    • To post a reply Sign In
    • This report doesn't seem to link to my portfolio of 45 Madagascar pictures, which is here: http://www.photo.net/photodb/member-photos?user_id=364597 Click on each thumbnail to see a larger picture.
    • To post a reply Sign In
    • I added a map, showing the locations of the parks visited in Madagascar. Thank you, Axel, for this suggestion. The map is located in the last folder, and is here: http://www.photo.net/photo/8727311
    • To post a reply Sign In
    • I just want to say thank you very much Don for your excellent and really helpful trip report on Madagascar. I live in the UK and have just booked my first trip there. Like you, I found all the travel companies here and in places like South Africa very expensive and so followed your recommendation and have booked with Le Voyageur and am off in 6 weeks time. Can't wait. I too have followed your lead and am including as many 'tame' locations as possible and am hopeful that my Nikon D3 will cope with the darker rain forest conditions. It should. Should you ever want to photograph tigers in India (my last major trip) then I would be very willing to offer any tips you need. All the best, Paul http://www.thesussexwildlifer.co.uk
    • To post a reply Sign In
    • Hi Don,

      Wonderfull photo tips about the Madagascar conditions. I plan to go there next week. Hopefully I'll have some lucky photo oportunities like you had :) In the meantime I've equipped myself into this 2 relatively inexpensive macro gears :) 

       

       

      I found that the macro rings best work with my sigma 2.8  90-200 zoom, so I'll be able to catch the small guys, whilst without rings I hope to catch theese fast and bigger ones :) Extra light will be helpfull when getting very close to them.

      I plan to go from Antannarivo to Isalo, then back to Antananarivo, Ampefy geysers and waterfalls and further up to St Marie Island for some carribean views. I'll share my experiences after my come back, in the meantime I printed your valuable story and put in my pocket  :)

      In Kenya I made some portraits using strobbing photography, otherwise, you could see only their white teeths on the big black spot. :D  I wonder If I need strobes as well on Madagascar to get some nice coloured portraits :)

       

      _______________________

      More of my photos from Kenya and other places: http://www.michalstefaniak.com/kenya

       

       

    • To post a reply Sign In

Sign in or Sign up to post response