The popularity of the Parc National d’Isalo owes much to its location, midway between Fianarantsoa and Tuléar, and its accessibility, straddling the RN7 highway from Antananarivo. This 810-square-kilometre sandstone plateau is a dramatic spectacle, its towering mesas and sculpted pillars creating a desert-like, Monument Valley-style landscape that is especially striking at its southern extremity, where the tarmac highway twists past the cliffs. Cut by streams and springs into countless, sandy-floored, oasis-like canyons, filled with forest, with several alluring natural swimming holes of cool, crystal-clear water, the whole region offers tremendous scope for hikers and anyone aiming to escape the blasted heat of the prairies of the high plateaux. The park ranges from just over 500m up to 1268m above sea level and the canyons are in places as much as 200m deep.
Scenery aside, Isalo is less convincing as a wildlife destination: although still blessed with 14 species of lemur, 77 varieties of birds and more than 400 species of plants, there simply isn’t the range of ecosystems here to support the fabulous riches of some parks. Culturally, however, the region is richly endowed. This is the heartland of the Bara people, believed by some anthropologists to have come from mainland Africa. Their traditions, including the cult of warriorhood and pogo-like ritual dances, are similar in some respects to those of the Maasai cattle herders of Kenya and Tanzania. One of the old Bara clans’ royal family seats is at the village of Ampika, by the mouth of the national park’s Canyon des Makis. Bara burial caves are still scattered in canyon walls throughout the plateau, and in the far north of the massif, sixteenth-century Portuguese explorers are said to have married Bara women and lived in cliff dwellings – a good story for which there’s scant evidence.
The park headquarters is at the town of RANOHIRA in the park’s southeast corner.
For an interesting introduction to Isalo, visit the interpretation centre, 10km southwest of Ranohira, a small museum on the south side of the road, which explains the geology and ethnology of the area. There are photos of the tomb of King Ramieba, the last Bara king, ensconced in a rock cleft, with one of his guards shown in Napoleonic headgear.
Isalo has several standard options for brief and extended day walks, as well as multi-day camping circuits. Most of them are helpfully marked with point métrique stones at 50m intervals, though you will be accompanied all the time by a park guide, so you can’t get lost, or bite off more than you can chew. Nevertheless, take a good hat and carry enough water: above the cool canyons, the trails on the plateau can be hot and steep.
The easiest trail, the Namaza Trail (up the stream and canyon of the same name, 1.5km in each direction) starts at a car park 4km northwest of Ranohira. From here, the easy footpath runs for 800m through the beautiful Namaza valley to the Namaza campsite. Even at the height of the dry season, pretty greens and yellows fill the canyon, with purple-flowering Koehneria flowers, related to purple loosestrife, everywhere. After a further 700m, with a little climbing (60m gain), you reach a beautiful, cool pool at the base of dark cliffs, where the Cascade des Nymphes waterfall tumbles from the plateau above, and you can swim.
Circuit Piscine Naturelle
The well-known Circuit Piscine Naturelle (Natural Swimming Pool Trail; 3km from the car park to the pool in each direction), starts from a car park 3.5km west of Ranohira (the turning is on the south side of town, by the Toiles d’Isalo hotel). From the car park, the footpath ascends 70m over the Isalo plateau before dropping after 3km to the pool itself, the largest and most popular in the park, with its fringe of Bismarck palm trees. From the pool, a 3km path running northwards across the plateau descends (180m drop) to the Namaza valley, enabling a circuit to be made.
Canyon des Makis and Canyon des Rats
In the northeast side of Isalo, two spectacular clefts into the side of the Isalo Plateau, the Canyon des Makis (maki: ring-tailed lemur in Malagasy) and the Canyon des Rats, are accessed by a 13km dirt road along the Manamaty river valley from the RN7, starting just northeast of Ranohira. The Canyon des Makis is the southernmost and easiest of the two: starting from its car park, you take the footpath for 1km or so, crossing a couple of streams and irrigation ditches and then cutting through fields and gardens, before breaking through a tangle of bush at the mouth of the canyon to emerge in the glorious ravine. Here, multi-directional sunlight bounces off the orange sandstone walls, illuminating the stream and pools on the canyon floor, where lush flora bursts from the damp ground against a backdrop of dripping water and little rainbows fizzing over moss-covered boulders.
The mouth of the Canyon des Rats is just 700m to the north of the Canyon des Makis, though you’ll need a long half-day to do justice to them both (including driving time). Alternatively, explore the Makis canyon, then walk the 6km trail that starts from further up the canyon and runs southwards through the park to join the Circuit Namaza.
Isalo’s plants and trees are some of its most distinctive natural assets: spiky and fan-like Bismarck palms (Bismarckia nobilis; satrana in Malagasy) are scattered across the landscape in this, the heart of their natural habitat (the Bismarck is now found all over the world, and particularly popular as a garden tree in the suburban canyons of Southern California). More unusual is the extraordinary elephant’s foot (Pachypodium rosulatum, or vontaka in Malagasy). It looks like a stumpy little baobab with pipe cleaners for branches until it bursts into yellow flowers at the end of the dry season. You’ll see it on the canyon walls on the Circuit Piscine Naturelle.
As for animal life, while lemur sightings in Isalo are likely to be either far off away on the cliff sides, or scampering with rather too much familiarity around one of the campsites, the park does have some interesting denizens. You’re almost certain to see ring-tailed lemurs in the more open, rocky areas, and in the forest Verreaux’s sifakas (Propithecus verreauxi) are also likely. Look out, in and around the streams and pools, for the regionally endemic large western white-lipped tree frog (Boophis occidentalis) that’s often encountered around the Cascade des Nymphes. If you see one, you’re more likely to notice its red webbed feet than the colour of its lips. Also keep your eyes open for the very rare, strikingly green-black-and-red-marbled painted burrowing frog (Scaphiophryne gottlebei) – a species that is strictly endemic to Isalo and critically threatened by collection for foreign frog fanciers. Among Isalo’s seventy-odd birds, keen ornithologists won’t need reminding about the robin-like Benson’s rock thrush (Monticola sharpei bensoni) for which the park, and especially the plateau top above the Namaza trail car park, is a key habitat.