Western Madagascar... journey to the Great Tsingy
Africa expert Jonathan Fitzsimmonds went off the beaten track in Madagascar, heading to the lesser-visited west of the country. His final destination? The karst landscapes of the Great Tsingy of Bemaraha National Park. A true adventure, he encountered dusty roads, friendly locals and a couple of lemurs, and got under the skin of this truly fascinating area.
Madagascar is indelibly associated with the lemur – and for good reason. However, the country has plenty more to offer in between forest walks. For those with a sense of adventure who enjoy heading further afield, the west of the country offers the chance to experience a road trip you will be telling your friends about for years to come.
Along the way I marvelled at changing landscapes, rivers, twisted baobab trees, the authentic everyday life of the Malagasy people, sacred burial sites, impossible rock formations; plus I still had time for some primate spotting and relaxation at a beachside retreat.
My trip to this part of the country began with a one-hour flight from the capital of Antananarivo to Morondava, where I was met by my local driver and guide. Almost immediately we set off down the red dusty road and headed out of town, past some fine examples of the bizarre looking baobab tree, of which there are eight species in Madagascar. I was immediately struck by how much more arid the environment was, compared to the eastern rainforests which feature on most travellers’ itineraries.
My bed for the night was at Camp Amoureux, a simple tented affair run by a community trust, and set in a forest clearing next to two entwined baobabs (hence the lovers – amoureux). That afternoon I was taken on a really rewarding and authentic village visit. The village benefits directly from a subsidy from bed-nights at the lodge. We spent time with school children and visited a small hospital.
After dinner, on an evening walk through the Marofandilia forest, our torches picked out the tiny reflective eyes of over 30 mouse lemurs bouncing about.
The next day, following an early breakfast, we headed to Kirindy forest for an easy stroll. Dappled morning light filtered down and warmed our faces as we peered into the trees. A large group of endangered diademed sifakas were spotted sunning themselves in a baobab, as well as several nocturnal sportive lemurs who hadn’t quite got to bed yet.
Then it was time for the journey to the tsingy to begin in earnest. The roads are rough in this part of the country, and this means dozing off in the back of the vehicle is almost impossible as you bump down red dirt tracks. People with back complaints take heed. However, with a sense of adventure and knowing what you are in for, this all became part of the fun. After a few hours we reached our first river crossing at Belo. Here, all walks of life mill around the riverbank, waiting for passage one way or the other.
The vehicles drive onto huge pontoons powered by outboard motors. We stopped at a fantastic restaurant for lunch on the opposite bank, as reward for our morning’s endeavours. It seems the French legacy for good food has permeated to the furthest reaches of the country.
After another 3 to 4 hours of rough driving, and as the sun dipped low over the water, we reached the beautiful Manambolo river, where our vehicle was punted across to the town of Bekopaka. A comfortable bed and sunset beer by the pool waited at the relaxed Olympe du Bemaraha. For those wanting true luxury, there is now a 5-star option with sweeping views at Le Soleil des Tsingy.
The Tsingy of Bemaraha National Park stretch for 666 sq km, and have Unesco world heritage status. The area is characterised by impossible, twisted and jagged limestone karst formations forming a forest of stone, punctuated by bursts of green trees. The formations are in fact petrified coral from a long since retreated sea. Much of the area is unexplored and represents a ‘bio-fortress’ protecting many endemic species. As a practice run, most visits to the area start with a half-day walk in the ‘Little Tsingy’, close to the river. Save for a few tight squeezes, access here is relatively easy and often lemurs can be seen delicately making their way across the needle-like formations. The word ‘tsingy’ itself can be interpreted as ‘tip-toe’ in local dialects.
Meanwhile, a foray into the ‘Great Tsingy’ involves being kitted out with harnesses and carabiners. Safety is taken very seriously. There are a number of walks of varying length and visitors do need to be relatively fit and active, though guides are excellent and paths extremely well maintained. In some places you have to crawl, while at other times you need to climb steps and ladders. Those suffering from vertigo may find some sections challenging. However, the rewards are immense as you emerge at various viewpoints and survey the vast and strange primordial landscape. The walk also includes a section of forest, where we encountered a scops owl, paradise flycatchers, a jumping rat and numerous strangler figs. For those who are not too keen on serious clambering about, it is also possible to go to a slightly less dramatic viewpoint without entering deep into the tsingy formations themselves.
The next day, after the intense exploration, it was time to head back to Morondava, but not before I hopped in a dugout canoe to explore sections of the Manambolo river in the early morning light. The river gorge is flanked by high cliffs and much of it is sacred to the local people. Along the way we visited the cave dwellings of the area's first settlers, the Vazimba tribe.
The journey back to civilisation is long, but punctuated by the same unexpectedly lovely lunch spots and colourful river crossings, as well as a village stop or two. The highlight is a traditional sunset stop at the famous Avenue of Baobabs, which line the dirt road around an hour from Morondava.
As a reward for the long dusty drive, travellers may rest for a couple of nights at the Palissandre Côte Ouest resort overlooking the ocean in Morondava. The hotel has very comfortable rooms, a lovely pool area and a perfect position to enjoy a cocktail as the sun sets in the west – an idyllic place to relax after such a rewarding adventure.
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