Welcome to Tsingy de Bemaraha, an unforgettable place where lemurs leap between knife-sharp limestone pinnacles. A place where nature and adventure go hand in hand.
‘It’s there, look, in the tree hollow’.
‘Where?’ I asked Tsara, our guide.
‘There! In the tree hollow! Can you see its eyes?’
I tried and tried, but I couldn’t see anything other than an ordinary-looking tree. Following Tsara’s instructions, I focused on the hollow. Finally, I saw it.
Two bulging eyes: a tiny grey sportive lemur, one of eight species found in Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park. We hadn’t even got into the Tsingy yet, and we had already seen two types of gecko and one iguana wandering about, plus the tiny lemur and a Decken’s sifaka, dancing from one tree to another with its long, delicate limbs.
Tsingy de Bemaraha is one of those places where I had promised myself I would go, one day. I remember seeing pictures of it on a Nat Geo cover at my dentist’s, when I was about fifteen or so. I was mesmerised by the look of the place. It was an aerial picture; I saw limestone spires, as sharp as needles, stretching across a double-page spread.
A landscape that didn’t look like it could support life. Yet, looking through the magazine, I saw the hypnotic eyes of lemurs, peering from the rocks. I saw bright-coloured lizards and slate-grey chameleons, birds of prey and weird-looking insects.
The Tsingy are an island of biological diversity within Madagascar, an island that is so biologically unique it has been called ‘the eighth continent’.
Where is Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park?
Fast-forward another fifteen years, and I finally fulfilled my wish. Tsingy de Bemaraha is not an easy place to get to. There are no paved roads to Bekopaka, the gateway village to the national park. Only a potholed track from Belo-sur-Tsiribihina, where we ended our Tsiribihina river trip. We drove 100 km in 4 hours – not a bad average for Madagascar.
The National Park is divided in two sections; Petit and Grand Tsingy. Petit Tsingy was the first one we visited. There, the limestone pinnacles are about 20 meters high. We trekked through the forest with our local guide Tsara, admiring the wonderful biological diversity and the way trees have adapted to the environment.
The Tsingy are an environmentalist’s dream; much of the area beyond national park boundaries is still unexplored, harbouring unknown species. Scientific expeditions always bring a plethora of discoveries; tiny frogs, long-legged lemurs, minuscule jumping rats, plants and flowers.
The looming landscape of spires, towers and narrow canyons (some less than a meter wide) have always discouraged humans from exploring. Local villagers believed the Tsingy were home to evil spirits and never ventured deep inside. Some caves were – and still are – used for ancestor worship. When we visited, we found melted wax and the remnants of a recent fire.
At the end of the day, we climbed to a viewpoint and watched brown lemurs climb over the rocks, then leap from a spire to another. One, then two, a male and a female, chasing each other and playing hide and seek behind the pinnacles.
The origin of Tsingy
The rocks were razor-sharp, and even with footholds, we had to watch where we put our hands and feet. As a rock-climber, I know limestone; but I had never seen anything like that. In Malagasy, the world tsingy translates as ‘walking on tiptoe’. Watching a bright red dragonfly land on the edge of a rock, it was immediately clear why it earned its moniker.
As is the case with limestone, the Tsingy were once under the sea. The ocean submerged the rocks, then retreated, repeating the process several times over the course of millions of years. The limestone was dissolved and sculpted by the action of water; rain seeped through the porous stone, corroding it into the knife-edge formations visible today.
The dramatic landscape is at its most spectacular in the Grand Tsingy section of the park. The circuit takes visitors to the top of the rocks, thanks to a via ferrata system of cables, ladders and footholds.
The entrance to the tsingy was pitch dark. No wonder the locals never made it in there. Two walls of limestone converged, leaving a gap that was barely enough to squeeze through. The opening over our heads was so narrow that only a slice of sky could be seen.
Gradually, we climbed. One rock spire after another; ascending, then descending, then repeating the process over and over again until we reached the top. And what a view. The landscape of the Great Tsingy has been called nature’s version of New York. The top looks like a chaotic maze of towers, pinnacles and spires; at the bottom, you’ll find they’re actually arranged in a grid-like system, criss-crossed by Broadway-like avenues of greenery and dotted by Central Park clearings, filled with trees.
The top of the Great Tsingy rise over 100 meters high. There’s no life above, save for a few insects and birds. A few lone trees grow between the spires; some of them have roots extending for meters to the bottom. The sun shines strong and unforgiving, the heat is stifling even early in the morning.
We crossed an Indiana Jones style suspension bridge, strung between two sides of a canyon. I stopped in the middle, and looked below. The bridge swung slowly back and forth, rocked by the breeze. At the bottom of the canyon was a triumph of green. Moss green, pea green, grass green, dark green, emerald green. Trees, bushes and shrubs, hiding mysterious wildlife, an ecosystem that scientists have only started exploring.
Carefully, we descended back to the bottom, holding the sharp rocks. In some cases, the knife-edge erosions were horizontal as well as vertical, giving the rocks an even more precarious look. We squeezed through ravines and caves, sometimes so low we had to proceed on all fours.
I stole a last glance before walking back to the park entrance. From the outside, the tsingy had been compared to a gothic cathedral. I found they looked more like a gateway to the underworld. The slate-grey spires reached high towards the sky, much higher than the treetops. I understood why the locals never went in. It did look like the abode of monsters. Now, I can’t help but wonder of the mystery the tsingy conceal, deep beyond.
We would like to thank Lanto of Madagascar Tropic Voyage, who generously offered a media discount in exchange for consideration for an article. We loved the experience and, as always, all opinions are our own.