One of the most interesting aspects of travelling around Madagascar is enjoying the dramatic landscapes the country has to offer. With magmatic volcanic rock predominant in the north, granite running down the centre and east and limestone prevalent in the southwest, the country is a veritable cornucopia of differing topographies, all of which offer wonderful walking locations.
But for us, first up of our four day hikes on the “Christmas in Madagascar” tour, was Isalo National Park.
Stretching for more than 80,000 hectares across the centre of the south, this sandstone massif is as wild a land as you could wish for, made up of a series of deep canyons and high plateaux, dramatic pinnacles and hidden crystal pools. With a clear sky above us, an excellent guide called Momo brought the place to life with tales of geology, natural history and compelling local customs. Explaining how over 200 million years ago the land was a sea, he showed us the differing strata of sediment and how the rocks have been eroded into the weird and wonderful shapes we see today.
Among other plant life, he showed us the elephant’s foot, a bulbous rock-clinging plant that is a species of aloe, endemic to Madagascar. And he took us near to the tombs of the Bara tribe that are placed under high hanging rocks and explained about some of their customs, including the annual ritual of exhuming their ancestors, to clean their bones and let them know that they are not forgotten. We swam under a waterfall in a delightful hidden pool, enjoyed an amazing BBQ lunch and later that evening were privy to one of the best sunsets I have seen in years.
From here, we travelled northeast to Andringitra National Park, which is home to equally dramatic granite formations. From a wonderful luxury tented camp, we climbed high up onto a ridge some 600 metres above the valley and sat on a rock known as The Chameleon, as that is what it resembles from below. This time, guided by Clovis – a rare, shaven-headed Rasta – we also found many ring-tailed lemurs, swam by a weir and ate a picnic lunch by a deserted stretch of river.
Travelling on out of the highland savannah and back into the rainforest, we continued on our journey to one of the country’s newest national parks, Ranomafana, in the hope of another good walk and a glimpse of the park’s most famous inhabitant, the golden bamboo lemur. We were not disappointed. Only discovered in 1986 by the American scientist Dr Patricia Wright, these usually illusive rainforest dwellers were happy to show themselves. This time, led by another good guide called Rodin, we spent a wonderful couple of hours creeping through the undergrowth spying out and enjoying both the golden bamboo and a few other species of lemur that call this place their home.
And finally, for our last big walk of the tour on New Years Day, we hiked for around 10km. Walking between 1,500 and 1,700 metres, with majestic views out over the Madagascan Highlands, we walked from one Zafimaniry village to another. The Zafimaniry are master woodcarvers whose trade has been recognised by UNESCO and their traditional homes are made of wood and decorated with elaborate carvings. These are some of the original descendants of the Malay and Indonesian boatpeople that first arrived here some two thousand years ago and they maintain some of their ancestor’s traditions, like never having a window on the east of their homes. Here, we spent a fascinating half hour with the chief of the village learning about their way of life before heading back to our lodge.
When I decided to come to Madagascar, I honestly hadn’t anticipated quite how varied the walking would be. Each of these walks was different yet each equally compelling in their own way. Just as much as the lemurs, chameleons and baobabs, the walks are what have made this trip so special.
I’d come back to this country in a heartbeat.