The Tsingy in Tsingy National Park of Bemaraha, Madagascar represent not only a rock formation endemic to Madagascar but also one of few rock forests found around the world. The Tsingy represent a maze of multi-tiered gray limestone finely carved by tropical acid rain into sharp pointy tops. Their sides resembling machined corduroy. Erosive acid rain rivers have carved canyons through these rocks to create a maze of rock one can walk, climb or crawl through. They are so unique to Madagascar that the Malagasy words for tiptoe are “Me Tsingy Tsingy” for how the locals would have to walk through these areas (on their toes). It is also one of the most expensive places in Madagascar, hard to get to and well worth the visit.
Via Ferrata on the Andamozavaky Circuit
Getting to the Big Tsingy for the Andamozavaky Circuit from Bekopaka (the village off the Manambolo) was the most wild driving I’ve ever experienced. This was my thought as our 4×4 exhaled black smoke, sliding over loose silt in low gear. The silt forming a thin, tractionless layer over hard clay. Deposited there by a flash river using the road as a waterway the night before.
The conclusion reaffirmed after crossing a 3-4 ft high river requiring a vehicle snorkel. Even with the best off road driver I’ve ever seen our vehicle eventually succumbed to the rutted, deep, muddy roads after getting stuck in 1.5 ft of the soft stuff. Forcing us to walk the last couple kilometers to the Big Tsingy.
These drivers were impressive: walking the water to check depth, driving off the path through brushy trees around a rough section and maintaining a surprisingly fast speed through any number of obstacles.
Once at the park, we were joined by four other 4x4s to total 4 guides and about a dozen tourists on the circuit that day. This was fantastic considering 100-200 people visit the park a day in the high season. We started hiking in towards the Tsingy with our guide pointing out some brown common lemers with a baby, five white lemers, a couple 3ft long hook nose snakes, charmeloen, iguana and multiple birds. Eventually we reached a T and the people who didn’t want to stoop through some caves left with our guide to meet us on the other side as we merged with another guided group for all the fun. The caves were cool and I even managed to worry our guide by climbing down a side cave in the beginning, plenty dark to require a headlamp.
Rejoining our guide after the cave we put on the harness for the Via Ferrara up to a platform overlooking the tsingy. In addition to cables and ladders there were rock steps driven into the rock using large metal pins. Modifying the rock is typically treated as unethical in rock climbing and I tried to avoid these almost completely throughout the day.
The view of the Tsingy was really something interesting. From the higher view we could see an eroded weak rock layer between sections. This created a top layer ballooning outwards on top of what looks like a precariously small base.
Shortly after the platform we took a suspension bridge over a couple hundred foot deep canyon. Even Sadie, who expected this as novelty, though this was a pretty rad bridge crossing.
There was probably another hour of Via Ferrara through this maze before we reached the jungle and returned to the cars. After leaving at 7am, we returned back to our hotel at 2pm, followed by a long 1.5 hrs break. Finishing the day with a short tour of the maze at the Little Tsingy. It was a wonderful experience.
Planning your own trip
Where are the Tsingy?
So actually the Tsingy run the entire length of the park but there are only establish trails (guide required) in two main areas: Big Tsingy and Little Tsingy. The Little Tsingy is right by the park entrance at the Manambolo river with tours 1.5-5 hrs in length.
The Big Tsingy is 15 km North of the river on extremely rough road that took 1.5 hrs at the beginning of the wet season in late November. The Big Tsingy is the place were you the suspension bridge photos are all taken.
If you can make it, the Big Tsingy is much better than small Tsingy. Most tour packages do a half day at the Big and the evening at the Small. Lemers can be found both places.
Finally, there are also the “Red Tsingy” in the North which is more like walking on platforms on top of the Tsingy rather than going through.
Getting to Tsingy
There are a number of ways to get to the Tsingy:
- Taxi brousse (cheapest)
- 4×4 from Morondava
- Tsiribihina River + 4×4
- Manambolo River
The road from Morondava to Belo-Tsiribihina is much better than Belo to the Manambolo Ferry. In the shoulder season only the massive army infantry style trucks can make it. Not the smaller Toyota trucks. These army trucks are extremely overloaded with bags of rice and people for an incredibly rough ride on the leg of the trip from Belo. Taxi brousse leave Belo twice a week to the Tsingy in the morning. Going by taxi brousse is possible May – November only to the little tsingy. You will have to convince someone going up to Big Tsingy to allow you to join their 4×4. These trucks head north around 6:30-7am. Your best bet might be joining up with people by hanging out near the park / guide office all afternoon. Many people are willing to split costs given the opportunity. It will probably take a day from Morondava to Belo and a day from Belo to Manambolo ferry if you catch the second taxi brousse just right.
4×4 in Morondava
This is the next option if you don’t want to spend so many days in transit, are traveling shoulder season (like us) or want to ensure you get to Big Tsingy. Prices range widely but the best found in November was 250,000 AR per day covering gas, car, driver and driver accommodation. Make sure you know what is included and not. We saw ranges of $60 USD pp / day for two people and $30-40 USD pp / day for five people. It takes 4-5 hrs for each of the 100 km legs separated by the 30-60 min ferry ride at Belo-Tsiribihina.
To get to Morondava from Tana is 2 days if traveling only by day via taxi brousse or 1 day by first class bus (Sontara, 45000 AR)
Tsiribihina River + 4×4
This is a common package to go down the river from Miandrivazo to Belo-Tsiribihina (3-4 days) and then up to the Tsingy from there. I talk about the Tsiribihina River in another post but canoe packages typically range from 900 EU / pp to 250 EU pp which we heavily negotiated down to in Miandrivazo. The 4×4 cost was much higher than it should have been ($30-40 USD pp / day for 5 people) but we couldn’t shop around like in Morondava.
This river trip ends at the Tsingy, however is only available when the river is high enough in the wet season. That means going to Big Tsingy might not be possible due to literal rivers over the road. Also it is a much more difficult thing to arrange yourself and you may end up paying a Western Guide company to help you. Making this the most expensive option.
Getting a Guide
Just after the ferry crossing of the Manambolo River the park office is short walk off to the right. Guide prices are as fixed as the established sign at the park entrance. There are about 50 guides here but also 100-300 tourists a day in the high, dry season (Northern Hemisphere Summer). Our guide we were given was TeVe who spoke very good English. Which was a surprise because English is so in common in Madagascar, let alone conversational English. French is the most common but a surprising number of people only speak Malagasy.
There are several super markets to provision in Morondava and you can get most of the stable Malagasy foods.
In Belo-Tsiribihina stable food choice is pretty limited. there was a little bread, some fresh. A square block for fresh foods in market. Several supermarkets with jam, margerine, cookies, candy, crackers, consolidate milk, noodles, and even one place with Nutella. Rice, beer and water are also sold here.
Tana wasn’t much better than Belo but did have several things canned like pasta, mushrooms and corn. There is pasta but not really sauce. There are fried potato chips and a wider variety of chip and cookie and candy. I am guessing Morondava is similar to Tana since it has at least one large grocery store in addition to the general store style super markets.
Only way to cook for yourself is probably to pay a hotel for hot water, or use the local method of lighting charcoal on a stand. I did not see any gas.
Can I rock climb here?
The Big Tsingy tours offer a Via Ferrara experience and there is an optional rappel off one of the Little Tsingy circuits. There is no bolted climbing that I saw. There is potential for protecting pockets and slinging holes in the rock, flakes or cones. There were a small number of larger cracks (#3 and above) formed by river run off and a number of doable chimneys, some protectable on lead.
The rock is sharp and top ropes could get eaten up but the rock is not too sharp to climb. It only really gets sharp on the tops and even then most places you can use the rock in ways that won’t hurt your hands. The rock is very hard limestone so most protection placements seem like they would be solid. Not sure how I’m not sure how much convincing it will take to get a guide to allow you to technical rock climb (something outside of their preplanned trips).
It does look like there is a campsite near Big Tsingy that could be used as a base camp for you and your guide. Check Mountain Project for developments since this was posted.
When to go?
If you are going to try to avoid the expensive 4×4 and have the time to spend then your only real option is dry season (link). If you want less people then October and November are good times where the park will be green and migration and mating seasons have begun. However the road deteriorates quickly starting in November and will eventually become impassable for periods of time given the rain.
Also the heat and humidity is oppressive and inescapable in November. With a clear sky it can feel like it is searing your flesh. Laying down without a breeze in the shade you could find yourself vigorously swearing in the middle of the day. Compared to the 70 high / 50 low of the dry season.
What else to do here?
Many people see the Holy Baobabs off the main road but they don’t really need any extra time beside a quick stop for a photo. These are massive baobabs but the only thing Holy about them seems to be their ability to draw souvenir buying tourists.
The small Kirindi Reserve North of Morondava is supposed to be the best place to see the endemic cat-dog-bear predator of the Faussa. It has night walks and October is supposed to be their most active time.