Gazing up at the jagged pinnacles that surrounded me, I could see why the locals had labelled them as tsingy. Meaning the ‘place where one cannot walk’ in Malagasy, the tsingy have been shaped by time and the elements into a spiky forest wonderland. Not only are the limestone karst towers razor-sharp, the thought of trying to climb them is terrifyingly daunting.
Then again, nothing comes easy when it involves one of the world’s most difficult-to-reach Unesco World Heritage sites: Madagascar’s 1,500 sq km Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park.
An exhilarating attraction
The jagged pinnacles were largely inaccessible until the 1990s, when French explorer and speleologist Jean-Claude Dobrilla founded the Antsika Association (antsika meaning ‘together’ in Malagasy), an organisation designed to help the Malagasy preserve and profit from their natural resources.
With help from locals, Antsika Association members set up a comprehensive set of aerial suspension bridges, steel cables, pegs and ladders ‒ all of which can be traversed safely using climbing harnesses – and trained local guides in climbing, equipment maintenance and safety skills. Nine years after the Antsika Association’s founding, Tsingy de Bemaraha has become one of the country’s most exhilarating attractions.
A treacherous crossing
While even amateur climbers can now safely make it to the top of the tsingy, getting to the park is no easy feat. Located on Madagascar’s remote west coast, the national park is only accessible by dirt road, which becomes an unnavigable quagmire for six months of the year during the rainy season. There are also two major river crossings en route: the Tsiribihina and the Manambolo, both of which are infested with crocodiles.
I opted for a dry season visit; the plan was to drive 10 hours to Tsingy de Bemaraha from the city of Morondava on Madagascar’s west coast. I hired a four-wheel drive vehicle and driver and supplied a cash payment for the privilege of having our car ferried across the rivers on rafts made from wooden pirogues with planks on top.
An iconic view
About 20km from Morondava, we came upon the aptly named Avenue of the Baobabs, where imposing adansonia grandidieri baobab trees, endemic to Madagascar, line the dirt road. At sunset, the massive trees form silhouettes against the glowing horizon.
The gateway to a jagged forest of stone
After completing the second river crossing at the Manambolo, the road came to an end in the small village of Bekopaka, home to many of the park’s guides and employees as well as a handful of seasonal lodges. This is also the national park headquarters, where travellers can get entry permits as well as hire a guide and climbing equipment for ascending the tsingy.
Ascending the tsingy
It was an exciting and nerve-wracking climb through narrow gullies and rocky crevices. At the start of the ascent, I found myself flat on my belly, crawling through caves and sliding through tight passages. My guide led the way, pointing out the best hand and footholds as we neared the top of the tsingy.
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