Madagascar is sometimes called the eighth continent because of the uniqueness of its geology and its high level of endemism. Nowhere represents this otherworldliness better than Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park, located in the northwest of the island in the remote Melaky region. Covering some 579 square miles (1,500 square kilometers), the park is dominated by two incredible karstic plateaus known as Great Tsingy and Little Tsingy. These are interspersed with areas of dry deciduous forest, savannah, lakes and mangroves, creating an astounding variety of different habitats for the park’s flora and fauna to thrive in.
Because of its uniqueness, Tsingy de Bemaraha was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990.
Geography & Geology
At the heart of the park are Great and Little Tsingy—fantasy landscapes comprised of countless razor sharp limestone spires and pinnacles. “Tsingy” is an indigenous Malagasy word that roughly translates as “where one cannot walk barefoot”—an apt moniker considering the plateaus’ intimidating appearance. Their formation began approximately 200 million years ago, when the limestone seabed rose to create a plateau that was gradually eroded by groundwater into a labyrinthine series of caves, gorges and ravines.
Because the erosion occurred both horizontally and vertically, the remaining limestone was shaped into the needle-like structures we see today.
Things to Do
The dramatic topography of the park’s badlands means that the conventional jeep safaris popular in other African countries like Kenya and Tanzania are impossible. For this reason, the park remained largely unvisited by tourists until the late 1990s, when the French-founded Antsika Association unveiled a network of aerial suspension bridges that connected the limestone pinnacles and made it possible for visitors to traverse the tsingys and climb from one peak to the next. Today, several routes exist that can be explored with the help of a trained guide and a climbing harness.
These trails are challenging in places, and as such a head for heights and relatively good fitness levels are required.
Half-day circuits through the limestone forests of Little Tsingy and Great Tsingy are the main highlights of a visit to Tsingy de Bemaraha. Both include viewpoints that afford breathtaking panoramas of the karstic landscape; and both afford the opportunity to look out for the park’s rare flora and fauna. Located to the south of Little Tsingy, Manambolo Gorge also deserves a place on your itinerary. A green oasis of waterfalls and pristine forest, it is best explored via dugout canoe, with stops along the way to explore natural swimming pools and caves filled with stalactites and stalagmites.
The family tomb of the Vazimba tribe (who lived in the park in the 17th century) is housed in one of these caves.
Those that want to maximize their time in the park should consider packing their camping gear and tackling the two-day Anjohimanintsy Trail.
One of the park’s greatest attractions is the chance to see animals that you cannot see anywhere else on Earth. 85 percent of the flora and fauna found within Tsingy de Bemaraha is endemic to Madagascar, and 47 percent is locally endemic. The park is a great place to spot lemurs, with 11 different kinds living within the park’s boundaries. Of these, five are found exclusively in western Madagascar, such as the endangered Von der Decken’s sifaka and the vulnerable western lesser bamboo lemur. Other bucket list mammals include endemic carnivores like the western falanouc, the cat-like fossa and the ring-tailed mongoose.
All 45 reptile and amphibian species found within the park are endemic. A particular highlight is the endangered Antsingy leaf chameleon, which only exists in Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park.
A Birding Hotspot
The park’s birdlife is just as special. An array of different habitats supports 96 avian species, of which 39 are endemic to Madagascar. Top spots include the near-threatened Madagascan ibis, the Madagascan wood rail and the beautiful Coquerel’s coua (instantly recognizable by its electric blue eye patches). The Tsingy wood rail is one of the best examples of the park’s ecological importance. It is only found here, and was first scientifically described as recently as 2011. Keen birders should also keep an eye out for the Madagascan fish eagle, which with only 40 breeding pairs left in the wild, is thought to be one of the rarest birds on Earth.
Where to Stay
There are several accommodation options in the immediate vicinity of Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park, most of them located near the village of Bekopaka which marks the park's entrance. Of these, top picks include Olympe de Bemaraha and Orchidée de Bemaraha. The first option offers comfortable rooms, bungalows and family apartments to suit a range of different budgets; as well as a restaurant and a covered terrace overlooking panoramic Manambolo River views. The latter has 54 rooms in various budget categories in addition to two bars and a restaurant that serves tasty French and Madagascan cuisine.
Both hotels have a swimming pool.
Alternatively, you can opt to camp at one of three campsites within the park itself. A more luxurious option for those traveling with tour operator Scott Dunn is the private Le Soleil des Tsingy eco-lodge. It boasts 17 boutique bungalows, all with ensuite bathrooms and private terraces that overlook the forest canopy.
When to Go
Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park is only open during the April to November dry season. During the wet season, the dirt roads that lead to the park entrance are susceptible to flooding and often become impassable, cutting the park off from the rest of the country. Those hoping to exploring Great Tsingy should plan their trip for any time from June to the beginning of November—at all other times of year the formation is inaccessible. The weather is slightly cooler and malaria-carrying mosquitoes are less prevalent during the dry season, making it the ideal time to visit Madagascar.
The park is notoriously difficult to get to (which for many just adds to the sense of adventure). The easiest way is to book a tour with a company who can arrange your transfers, usually from the west coast town of Morondava. If you plan on visiting independently, the most reliable way to get there is to hire a 4x4 vehicle and drive along the RN8 road from Morondava towards Belo-sur-Tsiribihina. Once you arrive, turn off towards the village of Bekopaka, which is home to the park’s headquarters and the office where you purchase entry permits and hire guides and climbing equipment.
Be aware that the road is in terrible condition and includes a river crossing that can delay your journey significantly—plan to spend an entire day on the road.
Alternative options include traveling on the RN1 road from Antananarivo to Tsiroanomandidy, and from there navigating rural back roads to the park entrance. It’s also possible to book a river cruise up the Manambolo River and into the park; or to fly in on a charter aircraft.