Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
By the time the sun set, again, over the dusty western horizon, I was beginning to question my decision to try to come here in the first place.
Tsingy de Bemaraha is one of Madagascar’s most famous national parks. In the northwestern part of the country, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its remarkable karst formations. The word “tsingy” in the local language Malagasy means “where one cannot walk barefoot.” Lonely Planet describes it as the thing to see in western Madagascar if you see only one thing.
Unfortunately, Madagascar’s roads are also some of the worst I have ever traveled on anywhere in the world. To reach the gateway to Tsingy, the seaside town of Morondava, I rode a bus from the capital Antananarivo for fifteen hours. And by now that the sun was setting, I had been riding in a four-wheel-drive truck with five other foreign travelers for another eleven spine-scattering hours. I was pleased now that I didn’t decide to head to Tsingy right away after getting to Morondava but went first to the nearby Kirindy forest to see the fossa, the big cat species that is Madagascar’s apex predator.
My companions were a Spanish girl of nineteen living in London, an Italian-Latvian couple in their early forties, a 33-year-old electrical engineer from China who decided to go “see the world” and has been on the road for a little over a year, and a Chinese woman working for a Chinese company in Ethiopia who always took care, like Chinese care, to shield herself from the sun.
When we finally, under the cover of darkness, reached the village of Bekopaka that is the entrance to Tsingy, we were all but desperate to find our bungalows and to wash the layer of dust off our faces in the shower despite the cold water. Afterward we ought to have gone straight to bed, but the magnificent Milky Way spread itself out across the cloudless sky unblemished by artificial light, with the long hook of the constellation Scorpio hanging from its side. So we spent the final hour before electricity cut off craning our necks admiring the stars.
The next morning we set off in the truck again. First we took a boat ride in the Manambolo Gorge, a river as muddy as any I’d seen and that reminded me of the Irrawaddy in Burma. The water was shallow enough that the boatman didn’t need to punt very deeply at all, and local women waded across it with baskets on their heads. Still, there were crocodiles in the water, we were told, even if they slept during the day. I asked our guide what would happen if one were to step on a sleeping croc. He smiled mysteriously and said nothing.
Then it was onto Tsingy proper. The first thing was for each of us to put on a harness. It came with ropes and two carabiners, gear I was familiar with from my rock-climbing days in New Zealand. Were we going rock-climbing? Not exactly, but the Andamozavaky Circuit, which would take us through the heart of Tsingy, would involve scampering over rocks and around cliff faces. Cables had been installed in difficult stretches, and we were told to hook on with our carabiners for safety’s sake.
A wooden sign with dos and don’ts in French marked the beginning of the trail. The most unusual don’t of Tsingy, as I’d read and as our guide explained to us now, was that the local population considered it taboo in this area to point at things with your fingers. They had ancestors buried in these forests, and they believed that the gesture of finger-pointing tended to anger the ancestral spirits. “If you want to point out an animal or something,” our guide demonstrated with one finger curled back, “do it like this.”
There was also a comically crude map of the trail on the wooden board. Halfway along there is a slightly menacing depiction of a face all in white. This was meant to indicate lemurs. The hike, the sign said, would take us four hours.
We got to work. The trail wound through the forest but was not initially difficult. A half hour in, our guide gestured for us to stop and wait. He wanted to go ahead and confirm something. A minute later he returned and told us to follow him but quietly. In a crook in the tree, it turned out, was one sportive lemur (what a wonderful name for a species). It was a dark and mousy little fellow with its brown eyes gleaming in the sun and one limb sticking out clutching the outside of the tree. Despite its wide-open eyes, though, it was in fact sound asleep — the sportive lemur is a nocturnal species. We left the uncanny sight of the wide-awake-asleep creature behind us and continued on.
Soon, the hike became as much a climb, and the carabiners came in handy. After a vertical ascent up the gray rocks, we found ourselves in a natural cavern with a wide view of the karst formations that were the heart of Tsingy. Another turn and we were atop a viewing platform with panoramic views. A second belvedere awaited us a short distance away. All around us now were the astonishing stones, jagged like swords and spears in an armory for some chthonic god.
The shaky suspension bridge followed after, leading us across a deep gorge onto another rocky plateau. To one side, a cactus grew dry but tall, with a lone red flower blooming on top. A turn, a duck. And we were heading back downward through some narrow spaces between rocks. In a shaded cavern, our guide let us know that this was typically where groups stopped for a picnic lunch. So we did as our predecessors did and took out our sandwiches. As soon we took our first bites, a ring-tailed mongoose, looking like an oversized squirrel, scampered out of some crevice and began begging us for bites. Almost as quickly, a second, obviously more dominant ring-tailed mongoose, appeared and chased away the first one, demanding to have all of our attention to itself.
It was time to go back to camp. By the next morning at six we would be on another long drive back to Morondava, and the day after that I would spend on another sixteen hours on a bus ride back to the capital. At dinner, though, everyone agreed that the long trek to reach Tsingy was worth it after all.
IF YOU GO
There is a way to drive a shorter distance from Antananarivo and take a long boat trip down the Manambolo before reaching Tsingy. The majority of travelers, though, seemed to opt for traveling to Morondava first and joining a guide there. Either way, you’re looking at long hours on atrocious roads. The regular “truck” tour with larger groups that I booked, at just over US$100 for three days, is likely one of the most economical options. Private tours will naturally be more expensive but less rigid.
A number of hotels are available in the Bekopaka area, offering different standards of accommodation. You can book ahead, or you can book through your guide, which is likely simply a matter of the guide making a phone call. We stayed at a relatively low-standard hotel, where a bungalow with a double bed set me back by US$7.50 per night, but bathrooms were shared, and the water coming out of the pipes looked a bit brown. The onsite restaurant is relatively expensive: also US$7.50 for a main. Wifi is available-ish at the restaurant from 5:30pm to 8pm.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."