Gerry Ellis - September 4, 2006 – Berenty Private Reserve

Lemurs – Ringtail Lemurs – running everywhere on my cottage roof! Welcome back to Madagascar Mr Ellis.

As cute as these fellows appear in the Disney Movie “Madagascar” and in real life – at a quarter ‘till five in the morning they are not cute. They are every bit their Catta catta scientific names. Like cats they go scrambling across my roof first right to left then left to right and every other trip a chorus of deep whining “meows”. It’s been ten years since I was here last, and this much has not changed.

Ring-tails are the famous lemurs of Berenty Private Reserve. This about as far away from the Northwest as one can wander; I’m in the far southern extreme of the island of Madagascar, and the island is on the far southern extreme of the SW Indian Ocean. From the Pacific NW of the USA it’s a journey—some 27 hours of air travel and you arrive in the capitol Antananarivo (‘Tana’ for short); in the middle of the night.

Two days ago I landed in Tana and after a day of time zone and bearing gathering I caught another flight south 400 miles to the 17th Century outpost of Ft. Dauphin. Its here the French in 1642 thought they would make a go of it, build a fort (Ft. Dauphin) and see if they couldn’t control the sea traffic sailing past, ships destined for the spices of India and Indonesia. In the days and weeks between watching for the occasional ship, there were strange and bizarre plants and animals to discover—and the monkey-like lemurs were immediately captivating.

It’s these same lemurs that draw most visitors, especially photographers, to this far end of Madagascar. About 50 miles west and inland from Ft. Dauphin is Berenty, a sanctuary for three species of arid species: the raccoon-looking Ring-tailed lemur, the brown teddy bear-like Brown lemur and the dancing and acrobatic Verreaux’s sifaka (a special type of lemur). Photographically Berenty is the best place to come. All three species of lemur have had over four decades of habituation to researchers and visitors and are not camera shy. In fact, for camera crews and photographers it makes absolutely no sense to try anywhere else if your focus is one of these three lemur species. Long telephotos certainly give the wonderful portrait look and an 80-200mm will do everything you need, but this is a great opportunity to practice doing wildlife photography with a wide angle or super-wide. My traveling companions are all equipped with 20mm’s and wider and ALL are using them liberally.

How to get to Madagascar?

Unless you speak fluent French and are well skilled at traveling in the developing world AND have plenty of free time, it’s best to book your Malagasy experience through an agent. Even then you need a good guide on the island. We used Classic Escapes out of New York City (800-627-1244 or to book the whole trip. They have been focusing on nature and wildlife travel for years and service much of the zoo and aquarium travel trade.

Plan on spending $5-7,000 or more for a two week experience.

From the USA it’s 25-30 hours travel time via Paris. Air France flies six days a week into the capitol of its former colony Antananarivo and there are two or three upper class hotels in the city worth staying at. We were based at Hotel Colbert which has full service and an internet business center – how this blog and photos got back to Pro Photo Supply.

Best time to visit Madagascar?

April through September is the winter dry season. Temperature-wise it is pleasant 80-85F during the day and 50’s at night. Towards the end of winter the arid areas in the south and west (Berenty and Isalo) become a bit worn and look in need of rain, the wind also blows steadily.

The remnant Eastern rainforest areas (near Perinet, Ranomafana, Nosy Mangabe) remain wet and lush throughout the year. Prepare for the tropical rainforest like you would anywhere else in the world; rain can fall anytime, carry plenty of Ziploc bags, a water-resistance pack to hide gear in from the rain, and good walking boots for slipping along muddy trails and through wet vegetation.

Few animals are as photogenic as habituated lemurs. I’m certain wild lemurs are fun too, but they keep their fun to themselves. At Berenty the lemurs share everything they are doing within a few feet; a 200mm is the longest lens you really need. Berenty is surrounded on three sides by endless acres of sisal plantation (a main crop from which ropes are made) and on the eastern boundary by the Mondrare River; the result is the lemurs have no where to escape and so live protected in the gallery riverine forest of Tamarind and Terminalis trees that dominate the reserve. A small section of ‘Spiny forest’, a unique collection of spine laced cactus-like plants native to Madagascar, edges the perimeter between the gallery forest and sisal. Only the Verreaux’s sifaka and two nocturnal species the white-footed sportive lemur and the grey mouse lemur dare roam about the prickly spiny forest.

Staying at Berenty Special Reserve

Small individual cottages, basic but comfortable, with twin beds are the only accommodation. Fees are $60 per night. There is a central dinning area for all meals and a separate bar breakfast area. Staying is a package deal —room and board—unless you are planning a long filming project and then its best to contact the Berenty staff for special arrangements.