The huge Parc National de Bemaraha and its far-flung northern extension, the Réserve Naturelle Intégrale du Tsingy de Bemaraha, are located on Madagascar’s most extensive plateau of tsingy or limestone karst pinnacles. The two protected areas are located on the 5000-square-kilometre Bemahara plateau, an immense limestone slab that stretches north from the banks of the Tsiribihina River for more than 200km towards the northwest coast. It’s a region that competes for remoteness with the most inaccessible parts of the island, incorporating a landscape of spectacular strangeness that is home to a host of endemic plants and animals. In recognition of its uniqueness, it was the first region in Madagascar to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As well as vast areas of needle-like limestone pinnacles, eroded to such an extreme extent that they resemble a stony forest, some 850 square kilometres of the 1570-square-kilometre protected area is actual forest – deciduous dry woodland in the more exposed areas, with moisture-loving ferns and other vegetation tucked into the crevasses between the outcrops. The Bemaraha plateau is cut clean through its middle by the deep gorge of the Manambolo River, near the small town of Bekopaka, on the southern boundary of the national park. The southern boundary of the plateau itself is effectively formed by another river – the Tsiribihina – with its own spectacular Tsiribihina Gorge.
Trails in the national park range from an hour to two days. From just outside Bekopaka, the most frequented entry point is the Bekopaka Gate, which gives access to the Petits Tsingy trailhead. The other entrance is at the Grand Tsingy trailhead, about 17km north of Bekopaka on a rough track
The tsingy experience
The climbing and steps required in many of the areas of the park can be quite steep and some of the gaps between the rock faces are narrow. Even the relatively easy hikes near Bekopaka in the Petits Tsingy can be quite challenging, especially if you’re short or a little broader than average. Furthermore, swaying aerial walkways and stretches of via ferrata (where you wear a harness that’s provided to secure yourself to a safe cable route fixed to the rock face) make Bemaraha a park that’s only really suitable for fit and adventurous visitors. But it’s emphatically worth the effort: from the belvédères or viewpoints, there are some stunning panoramas.
The first few minutes in the tsingy can be quite disorientating: the huge limestone shards that make up this natural environment may make you feel like a particularly clumsy ant trying to walk through the bristles of a hairbrush. The towering peaks and walls of limestone are as alien as a hall of mirrors. But there are routes through this geological maze, where erosion has cut so deep that ribbons of soil at the base of the rocks provide narrow pathways, often crammed with vegetation and scattered with frog-filled rock pools.
At the base of the tsingy, springs burst out and run into the Manambolo River, which also provides boat access to fascinating bat-filled caves, some of which were once used as cemeteries by the Vazimba. Claustrophobia-sufferers need to be prepared for a tight squeeze.
Lemurs found in the park include the all-white-with-a-black-face Decken’s sifaka (Propithecus deckenii), one of the least known of all the large lemurs, and the locally endemic Cleese’s woolly lemur (Avahi cleesei), the only primate named after a member of Monty Python, honouring the actor John Cleese for his film work in support of lemur conservation. While Cleeses are hard to find, Decken’s sifakas are quite widespread and you’re likely to see them on the forest trails or from a boat trip on the Manambolo.
At least a hundred species of birds are found in the park, though actual birdwatching in the tsingy can be quite difficult. The going is easier for herpetologists, who can find Guenther’s as well as Henkel’s leaf-tailed geckos (Uroplatus guentheri and U. henkeli or seseke in Malagasy) and the remarkable spiny chameleon (Brookesia perarmata), endemic to the Bemaraha, where it is known locally as ramilaheloka.