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"Don't mind him, he's from ... Madagascar!"

The very idea that the irascible Basil Fawlty could have a soft spot for furry animals is a preposterous notion. How could a bumbling, neurotic like Basil fall for the charms of woolly, wide-eyed prosimian? In truth, Fawlty's alter ego, the English comic genius John Cleese, is a completely unabashed lover of lemurs.

Cast of Fierce CreaturesCleese's legions of fans would have had an inkling about his previously well-concealed passion when he starred alongside the altogether charming Rollo the Ring-Tailed Lemur in the 1995 movie, Fierce Creatures.

"What I like about [ring tail lemurs]," Cleese has said, "is that they've got bags of attitude. They remind me of football fans on their way to a match all waving their scarves at one another."

But Cleese's devotion to lemurs goes way beyond a cute snog for the camera. In 1954, at the tender age of twelve, he would regularly play truant and visit the lemurs at nearby Bristol Zoo. In 1997, Cleese helped raise money to support the work of the Madagascar Fauna Group, an international consortium of zoos founded in 1988 to conserve Madagascar's wildlife. And in 1998, he trekked for several days in one of the very few remaining tracts of lowland rainforest in Eastern Madagascar to make a television documentary in support of a conservation program.

Cleese and Ring Tailed Lemur (c)AP"Madagascar," explained Cleese in the documentary, "is one of the few places on earth that Michael Palin hasn't visited, which gives it a certain caché among truly intrepid explorers!"

The effort of filming in the steamy undergrowth was considerable, with Cleese fighting a "dodgy knee", and his quarry - five Black and White Ruffed Lemurs re-introduced to the wild six months earlier - remaining frustratingly elusive. The "little bastards" afforded his crew barely a few seconds glimpse.

At one particularly difficult point he sarcastically threatens to steal documentary footage from David Attenborough and turns to camera and says, "You just stay there on your sofas and your armchairs, make yourself another nice cup of tea... I'll go into the deathtrap! I'll be alright... or if I'm not you'll read about it in the papers. So don't worry!"

Despite his travails in Madagascar, Cleese's commitment to preserving the endangered lemurs continues.

John Cleese at San Francisco Zoo (C) SF ZooIn June 2002, he turned out at his own expense to headline the opening of the brand new Lipman Family Lemur Forest at the San Francisco Zoo - a modern, US$2.9 million, multi-species exhibit housing twenty ring-tailed, white-fronted, black and white ruffed, red ruffed and black lemurs in a spacious, natural environment. Clearly in his element with the animals, Cleese's only stipulation was for "quality time with the animals".

And why does he do all this?

"I adore lemurs," says Cleese simply, "they're extremely gentle, well-mannered, pretty and yet great fun… should have married one!"

Report by Roderick Eime

Travel Tips:

Female BrownMadagascar is best suited to open-minded travellers with an interest in nature, ecology and culture. Photographers and videographers will be in their element, so take plenty of film and tape. Be prepared for minor disruptions to travel schedules and have patience with service staff - they work at their own pace.

Fact File:

Best time to visit: May to October
Visas: Three month validity. Obtain prior to arrival.
Health: Take precautions against malaria, hepatitis and diarrhoea.
Best currency to use: Euro
Electricity: mainly European 220V standard

Getting There: Australians will need to fly via Mauritius utilising a combination of Air Mauritius, Air Austral and Air Madagascar. It can be complicated and schedules vary, so consult an experienced agent.

Getting Around: Air Madagascar operates a comprehensive internal network that is definitely the way to cover longer distances. Keep road travel to short distances as conditions vary enormously.

Travel to, and accommodation at, Berenty is best organised as part of a complete travel package, although committed independent travellers can make their own arrangements at local hotels in Fort Dauphin.

Adventure Associates organises annual group tours to Madagascar departing in September. Contact them on (+612) 9389 7466 or 1800 222 141 or visit

More travel stories

Other Web Sites: - Adventure Travel Experts - Madagascar Fauna Group - Lemur info from this site
Lipman Family Lemur Forest at San Francisco Zoo
John Cleese Official Site

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