Limestone karst landscapes are not unique to Madagascar but the island’s extreme version – the spectacular pinnacle rocks known as tsingy – is so harsh, alien and inaccessible that it might as well be from another planet. The Parc National d’Ankarana, a tsingy landscape 30km long and 8km across, is the easiest place to experience this geological phenomenon: the RN6 highway passes just a couple of kilometres from the outliers of these expanses of needle-like rocky shards. Visiting the reserve is a fascinating experience, and very worthwhile, whether you have a few hours or several days.
The main park gate is located at the tiny hamlet of Mahamasina. The park can be visited all year round from the east side, but flooded tracks during the rains mean its hard-to-reach western entrance doesn’t normally open until July. It can be very humid and mosquitoes and biting flies are often a nuisance – take plenty of repellent.
Hikes in the park
The national park is around 25 percent shady forest and 75 percent rugged limestone pinnacles, though which very rough footpaths have been built, linked together with occasional stretches of wooden steps and footpath suspension bridges.
Short walks through the forest and up onto the two tsingy formations nearest to Mahamasina – the tsingy meva or “small tsingy” and the tsingy rary or “braided tsingy” (a reference to its stripy appearance) – are great fun, but some of Ankarana’s glories lie beneath the surface, in the subterranean cave and river systems. You can sense this as you stomp around, as your footsteps often sound hollow. Walking on the forest paths is relatively easy, but climbing up into the tsingy – which involves some scrambling and squeezing through gaps in the rocks, as well as some steep ascents – is much tougher. It will also destroy your shoes if they’re not suitable: you need good hiking boots or well-built trainers. To visit the caves you’ll need to camp out and devote several days, but they’re highly recommended.
Ankarana is a botanist’s delight, with more than 330 species of plants recorded so far. Ribbons of dense forest fill the sunken canyons between the major tsingy formations, and plants and trees continue to colonize the tsingy themselves, so while the pinnacles are all but impenetrable to humans except on walkways and bridges, Ankarana’s lemurs and other wildlife can happily feed and take refuge among them.
There’s a striking difference between the deciduous trees growing directly out of the tsingy, which lose their leaves in the middle of the dry season and burst into life again after the rains in December, and the trees in the forest-filled canyons between the limestone outcrops, which are evergreen or constantly regrowing and much more jungle-like.
Lianas (lianes in French) are common here, sprouting from any pocket of nutrient and searching triffid-like for purchase on a tsingy pinnacle or up into the branches of a more conventional tree, before sending their tendrils back down to the ground. Ask your guide to show you the liane-pête (péter is the French for “fart”), whose leaves, when squashed, smell strongly sulphurous. Malagasy school kids play tricks on each other with them, but they’re said to be good for your teeth and stomach.
Ankarana has at least four species of baobabs (Madagascar has seven of the world’s nine) and is one of the best places in Madagascar to see the bizarre, rock-like succulent Adenia neohumbertii. Other notable trees include the spine-covered tsagnaniamposa, meaning the tree that can’t be climbed by the posa (the phonetic spelling of Madagascar’s secretive large carnivore, the fossa).
While you almost certainly won’t see a fossa, these nocturnal predators are around, preying on the very high density of crowned and Sanford’s lemurs (Eulemur coronatus and E. sanfordi). These two species of lemur are found in the canyon forests at densities of up to 500 per square kilometre, making Ankarana one of the most densely populated primate habitats in the world. The local Antankarana people have a fady on killing all lemurs apart from the aye-aye, and the crowned and Sanford’s lemurs are naturally quite habituated here. Crowned lemurs need to eat huge quantities of leaves to obtain enough nourishment, and they defecate almost constantly to make room for more – as you’ll soon discover if you start taking photos from beneath a troop of them.
As for the caves, there are more species of bats here than anywhere else in Madagascar as well as various signs of early human habitation and some big crocs in Crocodile Cave. Look out for the handsome brown and green mottled frog, Tsingymantis antitra, only recently discovered, which has no close relatives and only lives in Ankarana.