Madagascar rocks

by Ruth.Rosselson

The dramatic World Heritage Site of Tsingy Bemarara in Madagascar is one of the most unique landscapes in the world

The drive up to the Tsingy National Park from Morondava wasn’t as tough as I’d been led to believe. We’d set off from the sleepy seaside town early in the morning in the 4x4 that we’d hired from there, complete with driver. Our journey took us past the famed Avenue of the Baobabs, where huge baobab trees towered over the road, dwarfing us as we craned our necks up to take it all in. Around 10 hours later, after a bumpy ride and two river crossings, we arrived at the World Heritage Tsingy National Park and were deposited at our lodge just before dusk. The small red mud huts looked basic, but were comfortable and, more importantly, cool in the day, warm at night.
Our Tsingy adventure proper began the next day. We’d decided, on our guidebook’s advice, to spend three full days in the Tsingy. This allowed us plenty of time to explore the area on four separate hikes with our wonderful guide, Narciss (guides are obligatory on all hikes in the national park). Words can’t do this sort of scenery justice, but I suppose I ought to try. “Tsingy” is a Malagasy word that roughly translates to “walking on tiptoes” - because the first settlers in the region collected honey, and the only way to walk on the spiky grey rock safely was to do so on tiptoes. Thus, the limestone karst rock got its name. These ancient coral reefs now rise up from the forest like spiky skyscrapers as a result of millions of years of rainfall erosion and tectonic action. Nothing I’d read about this area gave me any idea of the vastness of the landscape, nor how dramatic it would be to be in amongst it.
Being right in amongst the Tsingy was one of the best things of my trip. The first circuit I did was a gentle introduction to the area in the little Tsingy. We walked through the forest, spotting a snake and plenty of birds – which our guide was able to identify by call alone – with Madagascar’s famous lemurs staring at us from the trees above. The hike uphill to the top of the little Tsingy wasn’t too challenging, and we clambered down into the cool shadows of the Tsingy to get a different perspective.
The most dramatic circuits take place in the Grand Tsingy, where you really get to see the landscape from all possible angles: from the outside whilst in the forest; from the ground as we sidled in between the cracks; from underneath in the caves, caverns and crevices; and, most spectacularly, from the top, after clambering and climbing up rocks and ladders and across suspension bridges. We had been given climbing harnesses, which I was exceedingly grateful for, especially as we teetered precariously over huge drops, deep crevices and jagged rocks. Thankfully, you don’t need climbing experience to climb these routes – there are helpful bolts drilled into the rock in places, plus rope ladders, and strong metal railings to help you along your way. Even so, a little bit of fitness is essential and some of the squeezes in between the Tsingy would have been more than a little too tight for anyone over a size 18. Both hikes into the Grand Tsingy were almost full-day excursions, which left me both exhilarated and exhausted. Thankfully, our lodge provided a hearty home-cooked meal, which we ate with relish before crashing out early.
After three days, and four hikes in the Tsingy, it was time to return back to Morondava, but not before a 24-hour stopover in the Kirindy Forest, where we were privileged to see the elusive fossa – a Malagasy wild cat – four different types of lemurs, some lizards and a tiny mouse lemur peering at us through the trees on our night walk.  The accommodation was as basic as it was possible to get but as the hut was right in the forest itself, it didn’t seem to matter. The Malagasy schoolchildren staying in the campsite sang through the night, competing with the sounds of the wildlife – the singing lemurs, the frogs, the geckos and the insects. It wasn’t the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had. The drive back to Morondava the next day saw us achy from the hiking and climbing but buzzing from the wildlife and scenery that we’d seen.