After Amber Mountain, I arrived at my lodging, nestled nicely in the forest on the edges of the Réserve Spéciale d’Ankarana. Compared with the previous night’s lodge where I felt like an over-catered-to tourist, the Ankarana Lodge felt homey and perfect in its unassuming way. After checking in, the first thing I was asked was what I wanted for dinner. And though I had become used to this courtesy, it continued to strike me as brilliant simplicity. For most of the meals I took here, one had to order ahead, sometimes up to a day in advance. It made perfect sense because they are using local ingredients and buying only what’s needed on each day. For me it was also an opportunity to do some quiet self-reflection on both sustainability and privilege. Excess food is a privilege. Refrigeration is a privilege. The magnitude of choices available in the developed world is a privilege (and, frankly, also somewhat absurd IMHO). At one point during the trip, I commented on the generous meals served and was assured that “nothing goes to waste here.”
I had a few hours to kill in the heat of the day between that morning’s hike in Amber Mountain and the evening night walk I had scheduled with one of the lodge’s naturalists. Ankarana sits at a lower elevation than Amber Mountain. That, combined with the heat absorbed by the nearby Tsingy formations plus the unseasonable heat here, left the air tropical and thick and the ground feeling like it could melt your feet, tested and confirmed by my walking barefoot to read by the pool, only realising too late that my only saving grace would be to dunk the feet in said pool and either wait out the heat or hopscotch back to my room as quickly as possible while chanting the local remedy mantra: “Ow! Ow! Ow! Ouch! FFS! Oof…” Read this recent article in The Guardian on the October Madagascar heatwave.
In which I meet the thing I like least about Madagascar.
That evening, I met up with a kind local guide who led me through the trails in and around the lodge. We hiked around for an hour or so in search of night chameleons and the very cute and very nocturnal mouse lemur. As we came around one corner of the trail, he excitedly called me over to look closely at a palm frond. In it is resting a ginormous insect with too many legs and too-long antenna things. I am noticeably horrified and ask if it is going to fly at or jump on me. Grinning, the guide says something to the effect of non, il n’a pas des ailles. It doesn’t really matter that it doesn’t have wings, more that it just exists is a problem was my response. This, my guide tells me, is the cockroach (the Madagascar hissing cockroach to be exact). And my brain flashes on the fact that people in my part of the world keep these things as PETS! Gah! This, I tell him, is the most horrible thing about Madagascar. As he tries to explain to me their purpose: they are recyclers – they eat rotting plants and bugs to help break down organic matter in the forests, I agree their role is important but wonder to myself if this role could be filled by something much less terrifying.
I’m eager to move on and spot some less-frightening critters. Which we did: we saw some sleeping magpie-robins, some skittering mouse lemurs, and a humongous panther chameleon sleeping in the big tree near the entrance of the lodge.
I got into bed that night thankful that hissing cockroaches prefer to sleep in travellers palms and not traveller’s beds!
Tsingy Rary: Défense de tomber.
A note about the tsingy: I am sorry to report that Tsingy Rouge is, apparently, an imposter. Or, rather, a geologic novelty with aspirations of tsingy grandeur. So while I’m loath to call Tsingy Rouge not-a-tsingy, I think just maybe it’s riding the coattails of its sharper and more massif (sic) national park cousins. I say this because the real tsingy is actually a limestone karst landscape, and is organised in formations, some of which UNESCO calls a “forest of limestone needles” in the Andrefana Dry Forests on its World Heritage Sites list.
Apropos, in Malagasy, tsingy means “the place where one cannot walk barefoot”.
And so as we set out for Ankarana early the following morning, I had firm instructions: bring a hat and sun cream; wear hiking boots. We were going to see Tsingy Rary.
While rocks were our primary objective for the day, we found ourselves on several kilometres of beautiful trails beforehand, and saw a few Sandford’s brown lemurs and the wide-eyed Ankarana sportive lemur, as well as a pair of beautiful Madagascar Scops-owls. Despite the efforts of a group of Italian tourists to chat up the forest, it was really a spectacular hike… I could have marched around this place for days!
After a while in the forest, we arrive at a clearing where my guide signals we should stop, as he makes sure I’ve got my hat and sun cream on and gives me some words of caution: défense de tomber. In other words, there is only one rule: no falling. On that note, we continue over boulders that are becoming markedly more razor-like with every step. This is where I understand why one cannot walk barefoot here. The forest of limestone needles has begun. It is as spiny as it is vast, with the weird gray rock formations as far as the eye can see.
We traverse the exposed tsingy field, arriving at a long wooden footbridge that crosses a tsingy gorge. While I am not particularly afraid of heights per se, I am particularly uneasy around high and precarious situations that I might fall off of, backwards. And so, hands gripping the rails, I tuck in my fears and cross the bridge. Only to find another one, shorter but more precarious, waiting for me at the end of the next narrow and quite sharp stretch of tsingy. Défense de tomber indeed. This mantra will play in my head for the next 3 days.
We exit the Tsingy Rary via another really nice, forested trail, my guide pointing out the baobabs and other endangered flora as we walk to our outdoor picnic spot. We had ordered lunch from a woman in a little house earlier in the morning, and as we waited for the food to arrive we were entertained by a cheeky family of crowned lemurs honing in on a German family’s mangoes. One sassy lemur would hop down on the table and do the distraction dance while one or two of the others would come around the back and grab their objects of desire (baguettes and mangoes appeared to be their favourite). Note the baby in a couple of the photos (and its little hand jutting out from below its mother while in a tree nursing):
Luckily, the lemurs appeared to be mangoed-out by the time we had our lunch, so I got great photo opps and we were able to keep our mangoes for ourselves.
While it was blazing hot out (I think the thermometer read 38 in the shade that day), this didn’t dissuade me from wanting to explore more tsingys! Good call, because the next day we’d be going to what would turn out to be one of the most delightful lodges I’d ever stayed at: Iharana Bush Camp, and with it their own private tsingy.
Stay tuned for more stories and thoughts from Madagascar!