5 mins

Finding Neverland, Madagascar

Most come to Madagascar for its wildlife, but in the island's wild west the highlight is a strange limestone forest the locals call 'tip-toe'...

Locals call the limestone forest 'tip-toe' (Nick Middleton)

Approaching the island, everything on the river changed. The low banks gave way to sheer cliffs, the river narrowed and the water began to flow with greater speed. We slipped past overhangs as high as two-storey houses and draped in cascades of creepers dangling from precarious trees. The constant buzz of insects was still loud, but now their calls echoed against the canyon walls.

The landscape had taken on a third dimension and the timing was good. The canyon was the stretch of river I’d been waiting for. For two days the mountains had beckoned me onwards and now, at last, we’d arrived. It was almost as if the topography was opening up to draw us in.

Emerging from the shadow of a meander scar into brilliant sunshine, we were met by a ticker-tape parade of wildlife. The air was full of dazzling turquoise butterflies that flickered around my head. At water level a squadron of giant, fiery orange dragonflies was buzzing our bow. Up above, two parrots flew across my line of sight, their plumage shot through with a radiant sheen containing every hue imaginable.

It was like crossing a threshold into a new zone of creation, an appropriate welcome to the enchanted world of the Bemaraha Mountains.

Lost world found

Most visitors come to Madagascar to marvel at its unique animals, lemurs being the headline act. I thought I’d see some wildlife and get some adventure too, but my river trip had a secondary motive. Paddling down the Manambolo River – which wends westwards through central Madagascar, starting 130km from the capital Antananarivo – happens to be the most spectacular route into the Bemaraha Mountains. The Manambolo Canyon, which we’d just entered, was magnificent to be sure. But this was also a taster for one of the most amazing landscapes on Earth.

Over the past couple of days we’d seeped slowly into rural Africa. The river was high, which meant there was no need to push the canoes when we came to a large sandbar – a nuisance earlier in the dry season. Another plus point was the notable absence of crocodiles – they were too busy breeding to bother us, my guide, Ludo, explained.

Each morning we’d be up with the sun, eat breakfast, strike camp and be out on the river by 7am. The canoe’s movement generated its own light breeze, which made the temperature perfect. As the sun reached its zenith we’d find a shady spot on the riverbank to stop and eat lunch before paddling on.

The territory we slipped through was remote, people few and far between. A lady washing clothes in front of two stick huts on day two had waved and asked if we could spare any salt, so we stopped to hand over a small bag. Her nearest village, she said, was a day’s walk away.

On the river we were self-sufficient. Before taking to the water, I’d followed Ludo around the market in Ankavandra buying provisions: a duck, a chicken and a box full of vegetables. The live duck and chicken travelled with the chef in his canoe and were carefully disembarked, their legs tied to a bush, each time we stopped. Almost instantly, a large bird of prey would materialise and stare rudely at our dinners-in-transit. Chef dispatched the chicken on the second day and served it with frites.

The duck survived until Manambolo Canyon

We stopped for a late lunch and liked it so much we stayed the night on a giant sandbank that had wrapped itself around an island of limestone. I explored while the others made camp. This wasn’t glamping but it was comfortable all the same. Ludo, the chef, and his assistant, Georges, took most of the strain, putting up tents and preparing the meals. I could muck in if I wanted, collect some firewood if it took my fancy, but it wasn’t expected. I was free to pass the time as I pleased.

I clambered to the highest point on the sandbank to sit and take in the imposing scenery. Tufts of luxuriant vegetation sprouted from the giant blocks of limestone all around me, the rock daubed with grey-black streaks by the humid tropics.

Cicadas were loud and echoing off the canyon walls, an audible backdrop to the squawking of the parrots. High above, sitting nonchalantly on the branch of a fig tree, a red-fronted lemur studied me with interest. Thoughtlessly, I’d assumed it would only be the other way round. That evening, tucked up in my tent, I briefly felt like Robinson Crusoe, marooned for one night only in a lost world.

Claustrophobes beware

It was like awaking in Neverland. The sun fired up one side of the canyon, gradually infusing the tranquillity with raw light, energising the insects to turn up the volume on another day.

Before breakfast, Ludo led me up a side stream for a welcome wash in a brook of crystal-clear water that seeped from the smooth rock face. My trip was in early November, the tail-end of the dry season. The rains were starting, which meant the mangoes were plentiful (and I’d been gorging myself on their sweet, sticky flesh), but it also made the main river murky. Its water was a deep orange-red, the colour of lentil soup.

The canyon walls closed in further on the last leg of our journey, a leisurely paddle down to the small town of Bekopaka. This was to be my base for the next few days, giving me time to explore the interior of the modest Bemaraha Mountains. Bemaraha roughly translates as ‘big and scratchy’; the reason for the name lies tucked away behind the northern wall of the canyon: a remarkable landscape fashioned over millions of years by the dripping of rainwater and the trickle of streams. It is a stone forest of jagged limestone pinnacles, some reaching 60 metres in height.

This unusual, deeply dissected terrain is known in Madagascar as tsingy, which means ‘tip-toe’ – a fanciful vision of how you might traverse the needle-sharp peaks. In a way, the tsingy is not a landscape at all. Most landscapes you can stroll across, but tsingy you have to clamber over and squeeze through, climb up and scramble between. It’s very hard and more than somewhat scratchy.

Fortunately, after declaring this area a Unesco World Heritage site in 1990 and inaugurating the Parc National des Tsingy de Bemaraha in 1998, a team of climbers and scientists established some routes that give visitors access to this spectacular topography. Even so, you can’t manage without a park ranger to guide you. To the novice, the trails are by no means obvious and you’d very soon be lost, with little chance of finding a way out. There was even a signpost, early on the first track, suggesting an alternative route for claustrophobics.

But persevere you must, because entering the world of the tsingy is to go where just a handful of others have ventured; the national park receives only a few thousand visitors a year. Its seclusion was underlined for me when I stopped on my first day for a breather and a snack in a deep, cool ravine.

The park ranger, Narcisse, raised his eyebrows and gestured with his forehead behind me. I turned slowly to see a mongoose ambling towards us. It nonchalantly wandered up, sniffing the air, and gave us each the once-over. Its fur was thick and russet-coloured with distinctive black bands on a bushy tail: a ring-tailed mongoose, Narcisse told me afterwards. Having checked us out, the creature strolled on and disappeared behind some rocks.

Later, following another twilight path along a shoulder-wide chasm, the canyon walls towering more than 20m above, I could appreciate the advice on claustrophobia. Narcisse stopped at the foot of a vertical cliff and I assumed we’d have to turn back – but not a bit of it. He delved into his small backpack and produced a climbing harness, pointing out a metal safety cable to attach myself to with a carabiner. It followed an otherwise invisible set of stone steps that ascended towards a distant patch of blue sky. He smiled, and disappeared like Spider-Man straight up the sheer rock face.

Although the rock-climbing gear made me nervous at first, I had no option but to follow and, emboldened by the safety harness, I found the ascent surprisingly straightforward. I emerged into the blinding sunshine, on to a lookout platform that scanned a 360-degree expanse of spires and pinnacles. I listened to the familiar cackling of parrots as the grey stone forest shimmered before me in the afternoon heat haze.

On an island celebrated for its unique wildlife, this 1,500 sq km patch of tsingy is tantamount to an island unto itself. Remote, rugged and all but impenetrable, it is largely unexplored. But this small accessible section offers a privileged few a panorama like no other in the world.

The author travelled with Abercrombie & Kent

Five more Karst landscapes

Karst is created when carbonate rock – usually limestone or dolomite – is dissolved by slightly acidic rainwater. Joints and cracks are widened to leave towers and pinnacles. Here are some of the most impressive sites worldwide:

1. Shilin National Park, Yunnan Province, China

The classic Stone Forest is part of the larger South China Karst region.

2. Gunung Mulu National Park, Borneo, Malaysia

Pinnacles on Gunung Api and Benarat reach up to 50 metres high.

3. Nambung National Park, Western Australia

An unusual example of modest, widely-spaced limestone pinnacles in a sandy desert.

4. Saint Paul Mountain Range, Palawan, Philippines

Ridges, towers and cones in a coastal setting that also harbours an extensive underground river system.

5. Mount Kaijende, western highlands of Papua New Guinea

The most remote and dramatic of all, with pinnacles rising to over 100 metres.

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