Madagascar: Visiting the Tsingy de Bemaraha (Part 1)

Travel and Leisure has listed Madagascar as one of its 50 places to visit in 2017.  Since we’re talking about a country that would stretch from New York City to the tip of Florida, I’ll help narrow things down a bit.  Despite the hassle of getting there, the Tsingy the Bemaraha National Park is one of the places you should see if you make your way out to the red island in the future.  This post is chock full of lessons learned and travel tips in case you plan to go!

Tsingy Rock Formations

A Unesco World Heritage Site, the Tsingy National Park and Strict Nature Reserve are a geologist’s and a plant and animal biologist’s paradise.  Encompassing large areas of extremely eroded limestone karst, resulting in sharp, knife-edged rocks interspersed with deep crevasses, the area is also home to a wide variety of highly specialized plants and animals, nearly half of which are locally endemic – i.e. occur nowhere else.  Depending on whom you consult, the word “tsingy” either means “where you can’t walk” or “where you walk on your toes” but you get the idea.  There are a number of “tsingy” parks in Madagascar, but this is the most spectacular.

Loading the Ferry

Getting there is a bit of a chore, and there are a few tricks I’ll share.  As we live in Antananarivo, we rented a car and driver from there, and drove to Morondava (on the west coast) over the course of two days.  But many people take a flight and rent a driver from Morondava.  The flights are not always reliable or the cheapest, but you save some time as the scenery along the way is not super-exciting, and there’s a lot of driving to be done once you’re in Morondava.

You can see my previous post on what to do in Morondava.  From there, it’s only 70 km – but all of it on dusty dirt roads and you’ll have to take two ferry crossings.  So leave early and plan on being on the road all day – after you’ve seen the baobabs, of course!

Overloaded

There’s a steady stream of tourists and rented 4-by-4s on the road between Morondava and Bekopaka, the entrance to the park.  Not all of them know what they’re doing, but you’ll want to focus on two choke points:  the ferry crossings. An experienced driver will keep you on your time schedule.  The first crossing is the Mania River, just south of Belo Tsiribihina.  On the way north, you’ll want to hit that early and get across – and then you can take a break for lunch.  We stopped at the Mad Zebu, which is popular, not cheap, but very tasty.  Your driver will likely grab lunch elsewhere.

Boy on the Ferry

The ferry ride is an experience in itself, as you’ve probably realized from the photos above. The ferry consists of a couple of metal riverboats with planking on top of them.  Metal ramps which beeeeeennnd are used to get the cars on and off the ferry.  They lash two ferries to each other sometimes for loading and unloading.  Then we set off for a 4-km trip downstream to the offloading point.  For the unitiated, it can be a bit scary.  I took a collection of footage from our various ferry rides and stitched them together below.  Watch toward the end – we were delayed waiting for a ferry with a single 4×4 that wouldn’t start.  Successfully lashed to another ferry, the crew push-started the 4×4, and when it started, it literally ran into the car in front of it.  Success!

After this experience, we continued for another 4 hours or so – endless red dirt dusty roads with the windows down because our air conditioner had broken upon leaving Antananarivo – until we reached the Manambolo River.  Another ferry!  This one had additional excitement.

Ferry

If you visit the Tsingy, one thing you’ll want to do is ensure you arrive well before 5 pm at the park office, and buy your entry tickets the day before, to avoid a long wait the next morning.  We were pretty sure we would juuustt make it in time, when we hit the ferry.  It turns out that our rented Mitsubishi with the broken air conditioning lacked the clearance to make it on the ferry at the normal landing – so the crew gestured him off and we had to wait a couple of iterations before they would pull off to the side and we finally got on board.  You can actually see this on the video above.  Needless to say, we were annoyed – our Land Cruiser with good clearance, also with broken air conditioning, was at home.  We made it to our Hotel, the Orchidee de Bemaraha, in time for dinner.  While we waited for the ferry, however, I decided to send up the drone for a bit.

So the next morning we waited in line forever.  There were only 7 or 8 people in front of us, but the first person was a group of like 30.  So we probably lost 1.5 hours right there, because all of the entry tickets are hand written, receipts are hand written, and the guides are assigned right there.  It takes time.  So another travel tip:  if you don’t get there in time the day before, opt for the Petit Tsingy on the day you wait in line for tickets, along with the Manambolo Gorge.  We did the Gorge first and then the Tsingy – probably better to do the Tsingy first, and be out on the water and in the caves when it’s hot.

Entering the Gorge

To be honest, the gorge is nice, the caves are nice, but this part of the trip is not the most fascinating thing you can do in Madagascar. But the Petit Tsingy is only going to take you 3, 4 – max 5 hours, and there’s not a whole lot else to do in the hotels, which are basically just lodges for hikers. Ours had a pool, but I’d say go ahead and opt for this trip even though it costs a little extra. Plus it generates work for the boat guys.

From the Cave

The caves were mildly interesting, worth getting out of the boat and having a look around.

Looking Up

After the boat trip it was off to the “Petit” – or small – Tsingy.  As we entered the labyrinthine pathways – we were basically walking along the bottom of massive crevasses running in multiple directions – I couldn’t help wondering what the “Grand” Tsingy would look like if this was small.

Among Giants

We walked for some time between these huge cliffs, passing by huge, prehistoric-looking roots that belonged to unidenfied trees growing far above us in the sun.

Roots

Gradually we began to make our way upward, and from the patterns in the stone we passed we began to get an idea of what lay ahead and above.

Pattern

Entering the Park

Tsingy

Once we made it to the tops of the Tsingy, you could really get a sense of these rock formations and the razor-sharp edges that gave them their nickname. Despite the inhospitable terrain, there are numerous animals that thrive among the rock formations, including a species of lemur you’ll see in my next post. This place was also said to be the last refuge of the Vazimba, the native people who supposedly lived in Madagascar (according to legend) when the present inhabitants arrived. Our guide would point out broken pots later in our tour.

Knife Edge

At the top we were able to pause and enjoy an amazing 360-degree scene. There are numerous birds in the area, including bee eaters and this Eleonora’s Falcon, a bird normally found on Mediterranean islands, but which completes a 5,600-mile (one-way) migration every year to be able to spend the winter in Madagascar.

Eleonora's Falcon

The sun was setting as we departed the Petit Tsingy, passing cowherds bringing their zebus in for the night, kicking up red dust on their way, people performing last-minute tasks in the rice fields. Our guide waited patiently as we kept stopping to take pictures through the trees.

Jungle Sunset

At the end we passed through a small village, where kids were playing in something that looked more like a submarine than anything else. Of course Anne couldn’t resist passing out some Pixie Stix she had brought along for the kids, and she took the time to demonstrate their proper consumption.

We returned home exhausted by our long, hot day – buoyed by having seen something truly unique and fascinating – wondering what the “Grand Tsingy” would be like. More spectacular? The same, just bigger? More about that in my next post.

Malagasy Boys with Pixie Sticks

Sunset Ridge

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