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.
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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.
Tsiribihina and Manambolo river trips
Descending one of these two big rivers on a three- to five-day trip is a popular option for travellers with plenty of time. River trips are normally feasible between May and September, but as water levels drop towards the end of the dry season, navigation gets increasingly slow and difficult. After the start of the rains in November, flash floods and the rising waters rule out the trip until the following year. Various vessels are used for the trip, including traditional pirogue canoes, modern kayaks and rafts, and larger river craft with on-board facilities and canopies to protect you from the extremely hot sun.
You normally camp on the riverbank – check what bedding will be provided. Meals and bottled water are included; other drinks are extra. It’s important to note that in recent years there have been a number of attacks on overnight tourist camps, especially on the upper Tsiribihina, usually by cattle rustlers chancing their luck in pursuit of an alternative source of revenue. Tourists have been seriously injured in these robberies, so you should check out the local situation in advance before committing to the trip.
On this, the larger of the two rivers, the voyage is around 140–150km, depending on sandbanks and the precise route taken through them. It starts at the landing stage (embacadère) at Masiakampy, a tiny village on the Tsiribihina 35km south of the town of Miandrivazo. Most tours, however, start in a group vehicle at the start of the surfaced RN34 244km further east at Antsirabe on the central plateau. The trip ends near the coast, at Belo-sur-Tsiribihina.
The more scenic of the two trips starts at Ankavandra (look out for the British NGO Hoveraid, which has its headquarters here, and whose little hovercrafts scud around the sandbanks of the river), about 200km west of Antananarivo via Tsiroahomandidy – a very long day by taxi brousse or a slightly shorter, more comfortable one in a tour company’s 4x4. After passing through a spectacular canyon in the southern part of the Tsingy de Bemaraha, the trip ends at Bekopaka, leaving you perfectly positioned to explore the national park.