Mark crossing a bridge in Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park
From Morondava our goal was Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park, a six- to seven-hour drive north. This UNESCO World Heritage site is made up of an almost surreal landscape of limestone karsts (essentially limestone plateaus) that have been eroded into caverns and fissures creating dramatic “forests” of sharp limestone needles. Utterly unlike anything we’ve seen before. On top of the unique geological formations the park has an unusually large number of endemic species of both plants and animals, some existing nowhere on earth but in these karsts.
Standing amongst the tsingy
One thing that these pictures can’t (or at least don’t) display is how almost stunningly sharp the rocks were. As we spent three days tramping around the park with Francia, our local guide, much of the time was spent either walking through forests or through caverns. When we were actually climbing on the “tsingies”, though, you had to be genuinely careful where you placed your hands; it wasn’t quite knife-edge sharp but the tops were extremely hard and genuinely sharp. Let’s put it this way: if ever you were to slip and fall while you were in the tsingies you would be in a world of hurt. At least one definition of tsingy is “where one cannot walk barefoot.” To say the least!
Which made one of the sights we experienced particularly interesting: a group of lemurs hopping across an expanse of tsingies. (Tribe of lemurs? Family? OK, I looked it up and on one site they’re called a troop of lemurs while two other sites call them a conspiracy of lemurs. I’m going with conspiracy.) Francia seemed genuinely impressed; she indicated you rarely see lemurs on the tsingies themselves.
A conspiracy of lemurs crossing the tsingy. I pitied their poor feet!
Both getting to the park and then getting back to Morondava was quite the experience. As I indicated, it was something like a seven-hour drive up there, nearly all of it on gravel roads and much of it on roads in really rough condition. For a long stretch – a few hours – we seemed to be traveling in a caravan with maybe a dozen cards packed together kicking up an astounding amount of dirt. We had the windows open and after a while you couldn’t believe how dirty we were, just crusted in dust.
At one point, then, our car managed to break down, a broken fan belt or something. I figured that explained the caravan, as every single car in the group – even those in front of us – stopped to help. It took maybe 20 minutes to get us going again, with every driver there to help. My guess was that no one wanted to break down alone which explained the caravan. Wrong.
The collected drivers trying to fix our car. I was distinctly glad we weren’t traveling alone.
Just before leaving our lodge for the drive back people we’d met over our four-night stay explained that just the week before thieves had ambushed a driver taking German tourists up to the park. Apparently beat him pretty badly and robbed the tourists. So now drivers were traveling in a caravan. And as we learned on the return drive, with armed guards in the first and last cars. We happened to be selected as the last car so we traveled for a couple hours with an armed soldier riding shotgun. Literally. In the meantime as word got out about the robbery tourism was quickly drying up in the region which is a genuine tragedy for the people who make a living off the tourists.
As we traveled through some of the poorest, most remote villages you might ever imagine, lots of women had their faces covered like this. According to our driver it was their way to keep from getting too much sun.
And then eventually, after in this case maybe an eight-hour drive, we made it back to Morondava. For the return trip our driver had upgraded the car to one with AC so we could keep the windows closed; made a big difference. And this time back in Morondava I was feeling fine so I could enjoy our brief stop before a late afternoon flight to Antananarivo – visiting with friends we’d made in the park (a Bollywood director and his Bollywood actress wife!), a long walk on the enormous beach, lunch at a nice Italian restaurant. Genuinely pleasant. After another night in Tana we fly north to a beach resort which seems like a nice way to end our three-week trip through Madagascar.
We have lots of pictures of us hiking in the park
Some of the cliffs were pretty steep
On one of the hikes we had the kind of gear that allows you to clip onto safety cables. Just in case, you know.
Lots of time hiking up here
Back to them lemurs
Resting on what was kind of a natural throne
Can’t have too many pictures of climbing around the park
I think this is the last one
On the third day of our park exploration we took a boat maybe an hour upstream to get to our hike. Riding on that remote, peaceful river like that was bliss.
A group of Americans we got to know a little at the lodge, traveling upriver the same day
Francia, our guide
A local fisherman
Our boat, waiting patiently while we were hiking
We sometimes take a little break mid-hike to read but we still typically do the hikes a lot faster than the routes are supposed to take
The hike from the river up to the section of the park with the tsingies was steep and intense but the views were great
On each of our three days we would hike in the morning and then get back to the lodge for lunch. We were always the only ones there for lunch and then we’d head to the pool to relax. Felt very civilized.
Hours and hours of this, though sometimes the road conditions were a LOT worse
How the locals travel
Certainly one of the highlights of the road trip to and from the park was our stop in Belo Tsirbihina, a tiny no-account town. Except for the oddly named Mad Zebu restaurant. Here you are as close to the middle of nowhere as you can imagine and the most stunningly beautiful and delicious food you’ve ever imagined. Roughly halfway between Morondava and the park, so perfectly positioned for lunch both in and out. Amazing.
A street scene right outside the Mad Zebu in Belo Tsirbihina
More of Belo Tsirbihina
And more local travelers on our long road back to Morondava
Another highlight of the road trip up and back was the two ferries we took in both directions. Nothing fancy about these boats….
Enjoying one of the long ferry boat rides
And of course there are always cute kid moments
You never give kids money, but sometimes you can give them pens. This little kid was cute and shy, but when I offered him this pen – from a St. Regis hotel! – he seemed pretty happy.
The route back to Morondava took us back through Avenue of the Baobabs, this time as sunset was approaching
Lots of people were going to hang out here until the sun actually set but we were ready to be done with this long day of driving so we enjoyed the fading light and then got back in the car to finish the drive
The sun setting at our lodge in Morondava
Our flight out of Morondava was supposed to be in the morning, but I still had time to walk down to the beach and enjoy the local scene. Then it was back to the room to pack, when we were informed the flight was going to be delayed four or five hours. That turned out perfect; we had time to go back to our favorite Italian restaurant for lunch before heading to our flight back to Tana.