EXPLORING MADAGASCAR'S STONE FOREST

December 12, 2016

The Tsingy de Bemaraha Nature Reserve appears to be a landscape from Dr. Seuss or Salvador Dalí’s imagination. The Tsingy are jagged multistory limestone formations made sharp by millions of years of erosion. The limestone towers can grow so tall trees are dwarfed between them. Located in Western Madagascar, the reserve is comprised of two major formations: Petit Tsingy and Grand Tsingy. In vernacular Malagasy, the word ‘tsingy’ is defined as ‘where one cannot walk barefoot.’ Yet, because of the razor sharp rocks ascending hundreds of feet in the sky, very few people walk here at all.

 

 

 

Naturally I was intrigued and determined to visit, despite the inopportune timing, rainy season. The Tsingy is closed to the human world from December to March during which time rains make roads impassable, even by Malagasy standards. From Morondava we braced for a grueling 200 km drive in some of the most intrepid off-roading in Africa.

 

Standing at the base of this nearly impenetrable limestone formation I knew the adventure ahead would be enthralling. We donned climbing harnesses and took our first steps. The circuit takes intrepid visitors to the top of the Reserve thanks to the dilapidating via terra system of cables, ladders, stemples, and swing bridges.

 

 

 

Gradually we climbed. One 200 foot limestone needle after another again and again. Some of the passes between limestone pillars so tight I, at 5’3” and 115 lbs, had to wiggle my way through.

 

We reached the top to find a spellbinding chaotic patchwork of green forest and grey rocks extending to the horizon. Home to some 11 species of lemurs. Most of the Tsingy de Bemaraha remains largely unexplored and unmapped. New species of lemurs, frogs, reptiles, and insects are continually found in the Tsingy. Rightfully so, researchers have difficulty navigating the life threatening spires to take measurements and observations.

 

 

At the top we crossed swing bridges connecting two sides of the limestone drops. One at a time we crossed the ravine. I briefly stopped midway and was gently swung back and forth by a breeze. My heart stopped. Carefully we began the descent. Delicately gripping razor sharp rocks praying to all of the gods in the universe that very rock would not crumble.

 

 

For humans, a haphazard landing on the Tsingy guarantees injury. Negotiating the Tsingy’s spires is far easier for the primates that evolved here, the Sifaka lemur. This seemingly inhospitable terrain has provided imperative lemur protection against human encroachment for thousands of years.

 

As we descended we squeezed through ravines and caves carved some 200 million years ago. Some subterranean tunnels were so small we inched though on our bellies like worms. To this day, I remain in complete awe by the beauty and diversity of the eighth continent, Madagascar.

 

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