Thursday, October 9, 2014

Tsingy de Bemaraha: Giorgio Temporarily Conquers His Fear of Heights

The main reason we had traveled all the way to Madagscar’s remote west coast was to see the country’s famous tsingy.  If you’ve read our prior two posts, you’re probably wondering what exactly this tsingy is and why we traveled so far to see it.  Essentially, the tsingy are limestone rocks shaped like needles due to their unique erosion patterns. In Malagasy, tsingy means "where one cannot walk barefoot," which is a fairly accurate description of the sharp stones.  On Madagascar's west coast, the tsingy are found in rock "forests" where the land was previously underwater.  Near Bekopaka, there are small and large tsingy; visiting the petite tsingy is a fairly simple matter, but the grand tsingy is a rock climbing adventure, complete with harness and caribeners. 

On Thursday, we arrived slightly bedraggled at the petite tsingy directly from our unexpected camping trip.  The rickety ticket office and boarded up huts at the entrance did not convey the impression that this was one of the country’s most important national parks.  However, various construction projects appeared to be underway, perhaps to modernize what is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  At the ticket office, we were introduced to our park guide (required for a visit) and provided with a list of circuits through the park (in French of course).  Deciphering the list, even with our guide’s somewhat helpful explanations, was not the easiest, so we defaulted into taking some sort of combination tour of the park. 

Off we went through the gates with our guide, Zara, who would also accompany us to the grand tsingy the following day.  Zara briefly laid out the ground rules for visiting the tsingy, the most important of which we remembered from our guidebook’s description.  Whatever you do, don’t point with your finger outstretched at the tsingy as that is fady, or taboo.  If you want to gesture towards something of interest, use all five fingers or a knuckle.  Although Giorgio had no trouble following this fairly basic rule, Stephanie was not such a quick learner and is a bit concerned she has offended the locals and/or is going to Malagasy hell. 

As we followed Zara down the park’s paths, we first entered the labyrinth – a maze of rock formations to climb through, starting with a window, rather than a door.  Winding our way up, over and under the rocks, with repeated reminders to watch our head and not slip, we were soon hopelessly lost in the maze.  We also wondered how some of the less fit travelers that we had seen made the climbs and squeezed through some of the tight spaces.  The little tsingy are about 20 - 30 meters high and we scrambled up to two viewpoints overlooking the awe-inspiring sharp rocks.  Given the impressive views laid out before us, we couldn’t begin to imagine what our climb through the big tsingy would be like.

With the small tsingy under our belts, on Friday we moved onward and upward to the grand tsingy.  When Giorgio first read about the expedition while perusing the guidebook a few days earlier, he had a small panic attack.  The descriptions of the up to 100 meter heights and required harnesses had him wishing for multiple gin and tonics before our ascent, but unfortunately for him, our expedition departed at 6:30 am.  We thought that our driver was exaggerating when he explained that the 17 kilometer drive to the big tsingy would take at least an hour, but we were sadly mistaken.  Regardless, we still arrived before the intense heat of the day set in, donning our harnesses and setting off down the forest path with Zara.  At the petite tsingy the day before, Stephanie had been dismayed to see that Zara was wearing a pair of pink jellies for the hike.  Although it is not clear where he obtained a pair of girl’s shoes from the 1990s, they certainly did not seem adequate for the difficult climb we had been assured was ahead of us.  When he jumped into the car on Friday wearing real hiking boots, we were sure he meant business.

As we began our hike, it was difficult to imagine that we would be climbing any rocks, let alone ones 100 meters high.  The path simply wound its way through a forest with the sounds of lemurs and cicadas in the background.  Zara stopped to see if he could awaken any nocturnal lemurs known to nap in the trunk of a hollow tree and showed us the patterns made by the coral in the smaller rocks alongside the path, evidence that the tsingy were previously underwater.

Walking through the jungle, we gradually realized that we were entering in a canyon, surrounded by tsingy jutting out of the ground, with ficus trees and plants winding their way around the rocks like the local boa constrictors.  Here, our saunter through the forest became more serious, with steep scrambles up the rocks in our path.  After a particularly steep scramble, Zara directed us to take out our flashlights at the entrance to a dark cave.  Would making our way through this grotto be like the adventure tour at the Cango Caves we skipped?  We’ll never know until we make it back to Oudtshoorn, but our lengthy expedition through the grotto in the grand tsingy was certainly a spelunking adventure.  Without the torches, the cave was pitch dark and with the torches, the resident bats and spiders were readily visible.  Many sections required a crab walk with backpacks in hand.  Stephanie also kept anxiously waiting for her mother to jump out of the dark and scare her, just like on Tom Sawyer’s island at Disneyland. 

Exiting the cave into the light was certainly a relief for Stephanie, who is averse to both the dark and cramped spaces.  Giorgio, however, would have preferred that our adventure continue in order to postpone the vertigo-inducing climb ahead.  Blinking in the sunlight and stowing our torches, we clipped our carabineers to the safety cables bolted to the rocks and began to climb.  As Stephanie eagerly followed our guide ever higher, Giorgio was trying hard not to look down and wishing he were back at the Devil’s Pool in Zambia.  In his defense, he has pointed out: “I know how to swim, I don’t know how to fly.”  At the peak of the tsingy, we regrouped at the first viewpoint – marveling at the once in a lifetime view took the place of worrying about loose carabineers.  A friendly sifaka even left his leafy perch to join us on the rocks.  With the major climb behind us and just the traverse and descent of the tsingy ahead, we were both better able to appreciate the magnificent vista, like nothing else we had ever seen except perhaps an abstract painting.  (Terence: Can you find the Virgin Mary?  Our guide explained how she watches over the tsingy, that is, until erosion changes the view).

We made it across the rickety suspension bridges as they swayed under our weight, a few final short caves and a steep descent down the rocks and ladders.  It’s incredibly difficult to do justice to the experience of the grand tsingy.  All we can say is that it is magnificent and you should go before all of this climbing (and the annual rains) erodes the rocks too much.  Giorgio has suggested that visiting the tsingy now is like visiting Machu Picchu in the late 1980s or early 1990s when you could wander anywhere in the citadel.  As more visitors, rain, and time erode these unique rocks, we assume visits will be limited to more hands off viewpoints to preserve the site.

As we walked back through the forest we obviously encountered some more lemurs.

The grand tsingy was so amazing we had trouble refining our photo selection.  Below are some more attempts at capturing the experience.

Sidenote: In the midst of our rock climbing adventures, we encountered a perplexing scene at our hotel.  We were based out of a lovely hilltop location for our stay in Bekopaka, complete with the perfect pool to escape the heat, ice cold beer, and gourmet chocolate mousse.  Last Thursday night, what we determined to be the Madagascar army took over a large portion of the hotel grounds.  Pick-up trucks of uniformed and armed men arrived, including one briefly stationed directly outside our bungalow with a semi-automatic machine gun.  Was an important dignitary visiting the tsingy?  Was the military planning another coup?

As with many things here in Madagascar, we weren’t quite sure and kept a low profile and enjoyed the sunset.  When we asked our driver the next day, he mentioned that there was some sort of political meeting in Bekopaka, but was short on any details, leaving us to continue to concoct various explanations on our own.

Our adventures on the west coast came to an end as we retraced our path back to Morondava via the same rough roads and ferries and then onward to Tana via Air Madagascar.  This time, we hit the Manambolo ferry at “rush hour,” waiting for well over an hour to cross the 100 meters of shallow water.  While we waited, we met several little girls who wanted to touch and/or braid Stephanie’s hair.  When she politely declined, they turned their focus to Giorgio’s newly long and curly head of hair.

In Morondava, we made a brief stop at the wind swept beach for a glimpse of the Mozambique Channel before our Sunday morning flight.

Just a note for anyone else flying out of Morondava – the Malagasy police appear to be working under some sort of honor code security system without metal detectors or any other sort of modern machinery.  They briefly glanced at our carry-ons, verbally confirmed we didn’t have any of the dangerous items shown in their pictures and waved us through.  Eventually, the police/security disappeared and various stragglers simply made their way uninspected into the waiting area.  In addition, it is apparently entirely fine for passengers to head up to the cockpit and chat with the pilots on an Air Madagascar flight.  Who knew?

Lucky for us, we made it to Tana and onward a few hours east to Andasibe, home of the largest lemurs in Madagascar!


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