Madagascar Part 4 of 8: Manambolo River and the ‘Grand Tsingy’.
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Today I had a daunting morning ahead of me. I was starting off easy with a boat ride on the Manambolo River and then I thought I should try to tackle the ‘Grand Tsingy’, more on that later. After a quick breakfast I reached the river bank to take the pirogue, dugout canoe, along the river. The water was very still as the boatsman punted us down the river. As the sun continued to rise it started to light up the tsingys on either side of the river. These limestone pinnacles are natural formations, again unique to Madagascar. The forest clung on to them with intertwined roots falling over their edges. Some larger birds of prey came into view and were gone again. The river itself was a murky brown colour due to the high soil content and was only approximately one metre deep in most places. My guide for the day, Zafira, signalled that we were going to stop at one of the caves along the river. I gingerly disembarked trying to retain control of my camera and entered the cave. I knew I should have invested in a better flashlight as I could barely see a few metres ahead of me. Luckily Zafira’s was much more powerful as he lit up the stalagmites and stalactites which adorned the cave. We then stepped back into the pirogue and continued gently down the river. It was an absolutely tranquil scene as there were no other pirogues out on the water and just the sound of the boatsman paddling.
We returned to the shore to start our 1-hour drive to the start of the trek – there are two options – the Grands Tsingy (big) and Petits Tsingy (small). I had been warned the day before both by my driver and guide about the Grands Tsingy and how challenging it is. “Many clients start it, but can’t finish it … some can’t fit through the narrow crevices between the rocks, some have vertigo, some don’t wear proper shoes and can’t grip the small boulders to climb up the tsingy …” – hardly something that filled me with great confidence! However, for the sake of our clients, I signed up to the challenge so that I could report back first-hand! On arrival at the start point, Zafira strapped me into my harness and explained that there are steel cables along parts of the way and that I needed to fasten the hooks to the cable in case I lose my footing so that I don’t fall too far! With those reassuring words ringing through my ears we set forth into the forest. Zafira pointed up at a pair of white sifaka lemurs munching on leaves … they glanced down at us momentarily and then got back to their lunch. A Madagascar fly catcher perched watchfully on a branch next to me then disappeared … I saw something move from the corner of my eye … I turned around and saw a giant jumping rat leaping in the undergrowth … it was a fabulous setting and I had already put the thought of the tsingys to the back of my mind as I enjoyed the sights and sounds of the forest. We ventured deeper into the forest and came to a cave. “Mora mora” said Zafira (“slowly slowly”) … a phrase to be used constantly throughout our walk … I certainly had no intention of rushing! From then on the trek became tough, very tough … at times in the caves I had to remove my backpack and almost be on all fours to get through to the other side, at another point we had to squeeze through the narrowest of crevices. We started our gradual ascent using small rocks which had been fastened to the tsingy as steps in places. The tsingy being pointy in shape came in handy to grip to hoist myself up when required … “fasten the cable and better not to look down” advised Zafira … as is often the case when someone tells you not to do something you do the opposite, so I sneaked a glance downwards and it was quite a drop … “mora mora” I told myself … the tsingy was 60m high and slowly but surely via ladders crammed between the tsingy, steel cables to cling on to when required, and small footholes and steps I inched my way up. The camera dangling from my neck was proving to be a hindrance so I asked Zafira if he could keep it in his bag. The sun was starting to beat down now and the occasional fly annoyingly hovered around my ear … not ideal when one foot is balancing on a narrow rock and the other trying to find something to land on … Zafira reassured me that all was ok expertly and eventually I made it to the top of the tsingy. “You must come to the viewpoint” said Zafira enthusiastically, which involved crossing a wooden bridge with decent gaps between each plank and steel cables either side to grip … “photo?” asked Zafira … “ok, but be quick, not mora mora” I quipped back. I managed a grin of sorts and scampered across to the other side … fairly exhausted I slumped on a rock and downed some much-needed water … after catching my breath I could finally sit back and enjoy the magnificent 360 degree views of these grey slate coloured tsingy and trees all around.
We were to take a different route down which also proved challenging but not as arduous as when coming up. We stopped in an open cave area for lunch. I’d packed the remains of my breakfast (pancake, pain au raisin and cheese sandwich) as the hotel had given so much. As we sat savouring a well-earned lunch, some visitors popped out of a hole … they were a pair of ring-tailed mongooses … they must have smelt our food and they looked at us curiously. It was a very sleek looking creature which had a reddish/brown tinge fur and black rings on its tail. A bird also looked on from one of the rocks but didn’t seem as interested. We continued on