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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 lemur.

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.

Wendy 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 impossible.

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:
Profotos - Nigel Dennis

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