Madagascar marvels part IV: The most horrible thing in Madagascar, and why you need shoes.

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!

Madagascar marvels part III: What’s this tsingy?

After 10 days of sun and salt and sharks and palms, I did the Malagasy version of planes, trains and automobiles (pirogue and taxi and speedboat and 4×4), meeting up with a local guide and driver to see the national parks in the north of the country. On that first day, I had a bit of shell-shock with a 10 hour drive on terrible, not-quite-paved roads, from the port of Ankify to area near Joffreville. En route, I am sure I inhaled half a kilo of red clay dust, had a pit stop in one of the most unusual outdoor toilets I’ve ever experienced, and fully realised the value of a sea breeze as we drove towards dry season in the interior (hint: 39C feels quite different inland v the coast!).

I spent the hours in the car with a traveller’s guilt: the conflicting feelings of being privileged in affording this kind of trip while simultaneously observing straggly stick homes with no running water, outhouses, skinny zebu, over-farmed land; but also thriving local markets, self-sufficient small villages, and wide beaming smiles on everyone I encountered. I consider how complicated life back home is in comparison.

On this first day, a “travel day”, the saving grace was a quick stop for a nature thingy, a tsingy called Tsingy Rouge. You leave the main highway and wend through a maze of sand and clay-dirt roads to reach it, diggers and roadwork vehicles everywhere. They’re digging and paving in the name of modern infrastructure. As I watched the small rustic villages go by through my window, I considered whether modernization is really worth it. Water, yes. Sanitation facilities, of course. But the chaos these new roads will bring, and the tourism… can the ecosystems sustain the influx?

Tsingy was a new term for me. In Malagasy, it means “the place where one cannot walk barefoot.” As I was to learn, so named for good reason.

Tsingy Rouge is Madagascar’s miniature Grand Canyon. It’s a red (rouge) geologic marvel, formed of eroded laterite and looks like some prehistoric giant played sand castles and then got bored half-way through. It reminded me of a cross between a model of Bryce Canyon and a salt mine, out in the open even though it looks like the bottom of a cave. This place looks like it should be underwater – and it probably was, a million or so years ago – the formations were carved by the rivière Irodo.

At the time, I was road weary and dusty from the drive, but the short walk down into the tsingy and then the sight of some gray-headed lovebirds nesting in the red clay helped me reset. At the lodge that night, I chalked (clayed?) the day off to what it was, and delighted in the thought that tomorrow we’d be hiking through Parc National Montagne D’Ambre, Amber Mountain, and the hunt for chameleons would begin in earnest.

Zoom in on this map to see the different places I visited during the trip.

A slight detour about the climate of Madagascar. As the 4th largest island on this planet, Madagascar is simply enormous. So the country encompasses rainforest through savannah, with a dry season (of which we were at the end) and a rainy season. From zebu to man-on-the-street, it seemed like everyone was looking forward to the rains! In a recent article, The Guardian highlights that these inconceivable temperatures are a clear result of climate change. Entering Amber Mountain was like travelling through different worlds. On the one hand, it was hot and humid, and as we got into the forest the air turned almost sweet. On the other hand, it was so dry that the riverbeds were completely dried up and one of the waterfalls we were to see, there was not enough water for it to actually fall. I was thankful for the lush forest canopy to provide shade.

We hiked to the Cascade Sacrée (Sacred Waterfall) and the Mille Arbres (Path of a Thousand Trees) trail, all the while feeling ensconced in a terrarium separate from the hot and humid outside world.

Montagne D’Ambre feels like its own bioverse, with endemic birds, lemurs and chameleons found specifically in this reserve. It was very cool to actually find some of these critters, including the Amber Mountain rock thrush, the Amber Mountain chameleon, and the very adorable and teeny Mount D’Ambre leaf chameleon (note how small he is on my hand!). While not exclusive to Amber Mountain, the endangered Sandford’s brown lemurs were an amazing find, as was the very weird and master of camouflage leaf-tailed gecko (can you spot it in the last photo in this slideshow?).

Possibly the highlight of the day came as we were exiting the park and really more focused on lunch than seeing any more critters, since the day was already full of such wonderful sightings. As we were driving down the main reserve road, we spotted a beautiful little pygmy kingfisher perched on a branch where he gave us a fantastic view of his bright plumage.

Of all the wildlife experiences on this trip, I think this one wins for the most unexpected sighting. The grin and sheer joy on my guide’s face at the sighting was absolutely priceless.

And, no, I didn’t get a photo of that.

This concludes our tour of Parc National de la Montagne D’Ambre. Stay tuned for Part IV including the most horrible thing in Madagascar and why you need shoes. In other words, next up is hiking in the tsingys of Ankarana.