African Photo Safari - The Wrong Panda
(with Nigel and Wendy Dennis)
The whale song echoed through the dank air. It came from the
tops of the lichen-clad trees a good kilometre away on the opposite
side of the valley. Whales in a rainforest? Of course not - but
what we were hearing sounded to me more like the song of a whale
than any other living creature. We were on the trail of the indri.
Having located a group of these rare animals by their eerie call
we were anxious to get our very first look at Madagascar's largest
After half an hour of slipping and sliding on a muddy path we
guessed we must be close. Craning our necks skywards, we could
see two feet and a black teddy bear face peering down at us from
the very top of the forest canopy. I was immediately reminded
of Hilary Brandt's wonderful description of the indri as a 'gone-wrong
panda' in her Guide to Madagascar. Scanning with binoculars revealed
four more of these odd creatures, but within minutes the indri
group decided to move on to another part of the forest. Swinging
from tree to tree with tremendous agility, it was clear we would
not be able to keep up with them. It struck me that photographing
this animal was going to be much more difficult than I had imagined.
In fact although I had allocated two weeks to explore the rainforest
at Andasibe, I wondered if it would be possible to get any worthwhile
pictures of an indri at all.
and I usually travel alone on all our photo trips. On this occasion
however, Tim, a friend from the UK joined us for the Andasibe
leg of our Madagascar jaunt. Thank goodness Tim was with us, as
his fluency in French proved invaluable in organising things.
If you don't speak French, or Malagasy then this country can be
a nightmare, as we discovered when we were alone later in the
trip. Tim's foresight in packing an extensive medical kit probably
also saved my life, but more on that in a moment.
And so with our guide suitably briefed by Tim, we set off for
the rainforest. During the first few days our guide showed us
many of the fascinating creatures of the Andasibe Special Reserve.
We managed to photograph the woolly avahi, a nocturnal lemur,
which was located sleeping in the fork of a tree. We even found
a yellow-streaked tenrec. Looking like an awkward cross between
a hedgehog and a mouse this was a bizarre creature even by Madagascan
standards. Every day we also saw indri, but always these brief
sightings were so high in the forest canopy that photography was
Just when it seemed we were starting to get a feel for the daily
routine of the indris, Wendy and I were struck by an all too common
affliction of travellers in Madagascar. We got sick - terribly
sick in fact. Wendy was the first to fall. The rainforest was
living up to its name as we were getting soaked every day, with
the result that she went down with a horrible dose of bronchitis.
Through sheer determination Wendy continued to plod the forest
trails each day - I really don't know how she kept going. Next
it was my turn. Despite extreme vigilance about what I ate and
drank I got the mother of all stomach bugs. For two days it was
about all I could do to crawl to the loo in our hotel room, something
which was urgently required about every half an hour around the
clock. Apparently my complexion turned grey and I began to feel
very ill indeed. There was no doctor in the village, the phones
were not working and no transport was available to get help. Stupidly
we had not packed medication for gastric problems. Fortunately
Tim was better prepared and had brought along several packets
of rehydration salts. I reckon these may well have saved my life,
and we have never again travelled without them.
After a couple of days laid up in the hotel I thought I could
face the forest trails again. But Wendy was still coughing her
boots up with bronchitis, and between us we felt like the walking
wounded. Tim organised a porter as well as the guide to help carry
our heavy photo equipment, and the quest for the indri continued.
Persistence pays off in the end, and sure enough one morning
we got lucky. A group of indri descended to the middle canopy,
in a good spot where we could get a clear view from the steep
hillside. Our porter proved to be a fantastic help as he swiftly
set up the tripod as I fumbled to pull the 300mm lens out of my
waterproof camera bag. I only managed to squeeze off a few shots
before the indri moved out of range, but at least we had achieved
our objective. This proved to be our only opportunity to photograph
indri in two weeks of hiking the forest trails for eight hours
each day. I like to think it was worth all the trouble. Madagascar
is not the easiest country in which to travel, but the place has
a haunting, other-worldly ambience I have not experienced elsewhere.
Certainly I shall never forget the whale song call of the indri
and the quizzical expression on their teddy bear faces.
About the Author: Born in England
in 1953, Nigel Dennis developed a deep interest in the natural
world from an early age. First finding expression in the form
of painting nature subjects, he also became interested in photography
just over twenty years ago. Living in England at the time, his
first projects included photographing red deer and the shy nocturnal
European badger. For the badger photography he spent over forty
nights photographing whilst still managing to hold down a busy
day job. Nature photography soon overtook painting as a means
of expressing his passion for the natural world and from the early
eighties his work began to be published in books and magazines.
He moved to Africa in 1985 with a view to
making wildlife photography a full time profession. During his
first few years in Africa he continued with his previous career
in sales and marketing, but still spent about one hundred days
a year photographing by utilising all his annual holidays and
weekends. Eventually having built up a sufficient stock of wildlife
images he launched into the rather precarious occupation of freelance
wildlife photographer in 1991. Since then he and his wife Wendy
camp in the African bush for up to nine months each year. Although
they work mainly in South Africa they also photograph regularly
in Namibia and have visited Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Madagascar.
Nigel Dennis photographs all natural subjects
including reptiles, insects, flora and landscapes but tends to
concentrate primarily on African animals and birds. His work is
marketed by fifteen stock photo agencies and has been published
world-wide in over twenty five countries. He also runs his own
photo library supplying images to the publishing and advertising
industries, and currently has over 40,000 transparencies on file.
He does not take on commercial or advertising assignments and
works primarily on book and magazine projects. Nigel Dennis has
had twelve wildlife coffee table books published to date.
You can see more of Nigel's work at the following websites:
- Nigel Dennis