Isalo National Park
After checking into a hotel for the night in Toliara, we made our way to the bus station to try to arrange our trip to Isalo and back to Tana. The bus station was insane, as are all bus stations in M/car. We needed to (1) get a bus from Toliara to Ranohira, the city closest to Isalo; and (2) get a bus to pick us up on New Years Day a few days later. This is difficult for a couple reasons. First of all, we weren’t entirely sure that we could actually get someone to pick us up 4 days later. We were taking a chance on them just stealing our money. Secondly, on New Years Day, all the drivers will be sleeping off a night of drinking, so we would have to find the only bus driver in M/car not getting wasted on New Years Eve.
We proceeded down the row of buses and began talking with the bus companies. We explained our situation (in my broken French/Malagasy mix) and quickly booked a bus to Ranohira for the next day. Then we started looking for a bus to pick us up New Year’s Day. It was then that we found out that there would be no bus drivers that day. With no bus, we had to quickly change our plans. There had been a man following us around this whole time saying that he had a car to take us to Ranohira. We had been ignoring him because it sounded fishy, and it would cost 450,000, ~$45. Realizing that we would now need to leave Ranohira a day earlier than planned, we decided leaving right away would be better than waiting until tomorrow. We found the car, negotiated them down to ~$20, then ran back and cancelled our bus trip to Ranohira. We also quickly found a bus that would pick us up on New Years Eve and booked three seats on that.
The car was leaving immediately, so we went back to the hotel, got our stuff, cancelled the room, quickly said goodbye to Tomasina, stopped at a store for some supplies, and got back to the car before they left. We hopped in the car, picked up the front seat passenger and left town. It turns out the driver and passenger were cousins heading back to Tana, just looking for some extra money for their trip. Worked out for us.
The trip was quick and smooth, partly because our driver seemed to be friends with all the police. We had an interesting event along the way. We pulled over on the side of the highway near a small village not near any major town. After a few moments a woman came out from the jungle. The driver gave her three glass bottles and 25,000 franc (~$2.50) and the woman handed him a baby lemur! Lemur trafficking is highly illegal, and it was amazing that the woman would do it for so little. The rest of the trip, the lemur was kept at the legs of the passenger, a gift for his niece.
The trip was a nice few hours, we were all grateful to be riding in a car. The driver knew of a decent hotel in Ranohira and dropped us off there. We booked a bungalow, then went to the visitor center to arrange a guide. The tourist services at Isalo were pretty nice. There were many certified guides and camping gear was also available for rent. We arranged a guide, porters to cook and set up camp, and camping equipment. We would take a three day trip at a total cost of about $25 each.
We went back to our hotel just before thunderstorms hit. We sat in our room looking out as one thunderstorm after another rolled past. Being out in the grasslands, I imagined that this was what the settlers in the west must have seen as they came across the Oregon trail. We could watch the storms come and go and the driving rain in between. As the sun set, the whole sky glowed red in the mist and low clouds of the storms. It was one of the most amazing sights I have seen, and sadly one my camera could not capture.
The next morning we started out on our three day trip. We packed our clothes and went into town to get some bread and tea for breakfast from a roadside stand. Our guide met us there and we started hiking through the grasslands along the face of the hills.
The park consisted of a massive area of sandstone formations that rose out from an otherwise barren landscape. The eastern edge of the park formed a wall of stone, like the massive ruins of an ancient fortress. Small canyons broke up the wall, gates through which we could cross into the wilderness of the interior.
We walked north, parallel to this wall across rolling hills and small rivers. We came across small villages along they way, and watched as farmers prepared their rice fields for planting by running cattle around in the mud. We also saw the makeshift distilleries where toaka-gasy is made, an alcohol so primitive and strong it kills hundreds each year. We stopped at a grove of mango trees where we would camp for the night. We set down our stuff and once the porters arrived, we set out to explore a couple canyons.
The two canyons we hiked to were the Canyon des Makis, and the Canyon des Rats. Makis was heavily forested and we walked under the canopy and through the jungle. While in Canyon des Makis we were fortunate to see some ring-tailed lemurs lounging in the trees, grooming each other.
Canyon des Rats was much less forested and filled with giant boulders. We crawled up, over and around these boulders, as far as we could go when we came to a bright, open pool. We swam in the cool water and climbed up the canyon walls to jump in. We ate a snack of egg and tomato sandwiches, and pineapple so sweet it burned our mouths. Nowhere have I found pineapple that tasted so good. After our ‘lunch’ we all napped on the sand and relaxed the rest of the afternoon.
Late that afternoon we hiked back to camp where we found a fantastic meal being prepared for us by the porters. We had a tea and ramen appetizer, followed by the standard rice and chicken loaka. As far as cuisine goes in M/car, you have two food groups: rice and loaka (loosely translated as: stuff you put on rice). Rice is most important; you have not eaten until you have had rice. Our meal was finished off with some bananas flambee. Needless to say, we slept full and happy that night.
Breakfast the following morning was again bread and tea, before we began our hike back up the Canyon des Makis. Once through the jungle and into the canyon we hiked for about a mile and a half over, around, and under every rock and boulder. Deep into the canyon, we finally got over the last of the boulders and began walking along the small stream that flowed through the canyon.
This part of the canyon was very narrow, with sheer cliffs going up hundreds of feet on both sides. More often than not, there was no room to walk along the creek, so we just took off our shoes and walked through the water and mud up the canyon.
Remember, Scott had only brought sandals on this trip, and badly sunburned his feet on our long walk to Ifaty. While in Toliara, before driving to Isalo, he had bought some wool socks to wear with his sandals. Scott, now dressed in his socks and sandals, walked ahead of me tromping through the creek, not even bothering to take off his socks. The image is burned into my mind, and is so funny, that I could barely write about it in my journal later, without choking in laughter.
We eventually were able to hike out the side of the canyon, and onto the high prairie of the interior. It was then that our guide informed us that he had never taken this route before, but thought it would be a good time to try it since we looked like a strong group. We hiked across a few more small canyons before eventually coming to a trail. We hiked until we came to our second campsite.
This campsite was very well built. It had a flushing toilet, running water, flat tent sites and stone picnic tables. We chatted with some other campers then headed for a swim. The first pool we came to was called “Namaza.” It was a deep, dark pool, surrounded by high, dark rock walls, with a beautiful waterfall flowing into it from above. We swam, and jumped from the rocks, the cold water soothing our sore muscles and joints from the last two days. Each day we hiked about 9 miles. We then swam in Piscine Noire; a slightly muddy pool, with a warm waterfall; and Piscine Bleu; a small, crystal clear pool.
We finished off the day with large plates of spaghetti and again, bananas flambee for desert. We woke up the final morning of our hike and immediately started off with a long staircase, back up to another long prairie. On this day, we stopped at one of the most beautiful places I have ever been, the “Piscine Naturelle.”
The landscape we were hiking through seemed so barren, just grass and rock. It appeared in hospitable. Yet out of the wilderness, hidden in small canyons, were these amazing oases. This pool had a small water fall on one side, a rock wall on another, a small beach, and the exit creek with beautiful tropical plants on the other. It was such a surreal place. The seclusion of a place like this preserved their natural beauty and made it a cool place to visit.
After spending a good time swimming and jumping off the rocks, we hiked the rest of the way back to Ranohira and our hotel, stopping at a high overlook along the way. The experience was great; we found a good guide and porters that made amazing meals. Each oasis that we came to was more amazing than the next. Exploring the entire park would have taken months, but I was glad we could explore even a small section.
The next day we pulled ourselves out of bed and waited along the side of the highway for our prearranged bus that we hoped was coming. After a two hour wait, we found our bus and hopped on. Our bus was so loaded down, that it couldn’t make it through the largest pot holes on its own, so every once in a while we would all pile out of the van and push the bus through the mud. After a couple hours we were all dying of laughter. We laughed so much on that trip.
This may have been my best trip in Madagascar, though I loved everywhere I went. Being with Nate and Scott was a lot of fun and the places we visited were just amazing.