They don’t call this the ‘wild west’ for nothing. Red Earth, robust baobab trees and brownish rivers – the remote Western region of the country epitomizes Madagascar at its most exotic.
With few roads connecting here to the rest of the country, this hard-to-reach region is pockmarked with hidden caves, towering cliffs, winding rivers and pockets of unexplored forests; Amongst which, the most bizarre attraction has got to be the rock pinnacle forest: Tsingy de Bemaraha.
In the nature reserve of Bemaraha, strange-looking limestone karsts (tsingy) poke the skies with razor-sharp spikes and jagged peaks to create scenes out of a Sci-fi movie. Amidst the rugged pinnacles, groups of lemurs roam freely, while spiky pachypodium trees stretch sky-high. Sprawling across an area of 666 sq km (close to the size of Singapore), the forest is not just the largest reserve in Madagascar but also a World Heritage Site.
Rising hundreds of meters above the ground, these karst formations are an impressive sight, especially when seen from above. During our trip to Madagascar , we got the chance to climb to the top of the stone forest and take in the view for ourselves.
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Trekking the Tsingy
The nature reserve is mapped with numerous trekking routes varying in level of difficulty and length – it is mandatory to hire a local guide from the park’s head office. The park is generally divided into two parts – the Petit (small) and the Grand Tsingy (big) – not just based on the area but also on the height of the pinnacles.
Climbing on the top of the Petite Tsingy was relatively easy via walkways and iron bridges. From the gate of the nature reserve, it was an easy walk through the dry deciduous forest (where you’ll get to see plenty of lemurs) before arriving at the base of the karst formations. We started our short ascend from there – following a series of iron ladder and wooden walkways (designed by a French mountaineer) and gripping on to the naturally-sculpted crags for support. The pinnacles were steep but not too high out here, so it didn’t take long before we reached the viewpoint that opened up to a vista of the surrounding tsingy forest. Along the way, our guide regaled us with stories on local tribes and quirky snippets of myths from the area.
The next day we set out to climb the Grand Tsingy, which turned out to be far more challenging yet thrilling. On pinnacles that reached as high as 800m, the vertical drop can be quite intimidating, especially for those with vertigo. A large portion of the trek involved exposed and vertiginous scramble. In comparison with the Petite Tsingy, this climb was far more fulfilling in terms of both the difficulty in getting there and the scenic panorama that awaited us at the end of the climb.
To negotiate these rugged routes, we were equipped with harnesses that were clipped to the steel cable available on-site. I was honestly quite surprised by the well-developed infrastructure in the nature reserve – most of the iron bridges and steel ladders were newly constructed and looked very robust and safe. Our guide Mahara didn’t speak much English (and our French was equally bad), but he didn’t let that get in our way. With a wealth of knowledge and plenty of energy, he cracked jokes, told us local legends and most importantly, made us feel safe and at ease. “Don’t look down Nellie, you can do it.” His constant encouragement boosted me to make it through to the top.
Floating on a Dugout Canoe
At dawn, we floated down the Manombolo River onboard a pirogue (wooden dugout canoe), meandering along the edge of the tsingy forest. It was 6am and the sun had barely risen; the entire river was shrouded in a blanket of mist and wispy clouds hung low. In the dreamy setting, we paddled through the calm waters under the shadow of the towering cliffs through the deep gorge. There was silence except for the sound of water dripping off the oar. But soon enough, just as the sun spread its rays all over the reddish waters, we were joined by local villagers (crossing the river for their weekly shopping) and fellow tourists.
Comfort in the Jungle
By night, we checked into our comfortable wooden bungalow at Hotel L’Olympe du Bemaraha just outside the nature reserve (It’s our honeymoon after all). Located close to the village of Bekopaka, the rustic yet luxurious lodge is perched on a hilltop overlooking the tsingy forest. From our cosy hut, we watched the sunset as it washed the landscapes in a shade of gold. After a day of trekking (and spending the previous days camping in the forest), we couldn’t resist a dip in the swimming pool. This spot offered the best vantage point in Bekopaka – in the distance, the layers of muddy brown mixed with the greyness of the tsingy created a rather poetic canvas.
How to Get there: Most visits are organized as part of a tour. I visited the reserve with Remote River Expeditions and highly recommend it. Getting there independently can be quite tricky; you can possibly take a taxi-brousse from Belo-sur-Tsiribihina and then walk to the reserve office.
Where to Stay: Hotel L’Olympe du Bemaraha is extremely affordable for the quality of accomodation (Prices start from US$17, our bungalow cost US$50/night). There’s a wide range of accommodation available in Bekopaka, from basic camping site to luxurious hotel.
Cost: Entry permits to the reserve are priced at 25,000Ar (US$12) including local guide services and equipment rental.
Thirsty for more? Here’s a link to more of my Madagascar photos.