Guide To Hiking The Tsingy Stone Forest, Madagascar

Johnny

First stop on my Madagascar trip is the Tsingy Stone Forest, an isolated and hard to get to place famous for its towering limestone rocks. Getting there is an adventure in and of itself but it’s all rewards at the end. This park has some of the most amazing scenery I’ve ever seen, great hiking, and is also home to numerous lemur species. To see my full itinerary, click here.

 

Antananarivo to Tsingy Stone Forest


Upon landing in Antananarivo, the nation’s capital, we wasted no time and decided to head straight to the forest. Our driver, Serge, was waiting at the airport for us, and although I specifically requested an English speaking driver (as my friend spoke no French), this guy was definitely not one of them. The rest of the 3 weeks we’d be spending together would just be me speaking French to him while my friend descended into extreme boredom.

Antananarivo's airport

Antananarivo’s airport

Meandering through Tana's traffic. The little 60s Volkswagen beetle looking car is the main taxi style of the capital.

Meandering through Tana’s traffic. The little 60s Volkswagen beetle looking car is the main taxi style of the capital.

Driving from Tana to Antsirabe

Landing in Antananarivo around 2pm, we only had a few hours of daylight left and drove straight for Antsirabe to spend the night. Driving through Antananarivo, it was evident that this was unlike any place I’ve ever seen. The streets were so narrow and packed full of people and animals. The areas that were not filled with old buildings were home to incredibly terraced rice producing hills (rice is the main staple in Malagasy diets). Words can only describe so much but this place was truly different than other parts of the world.

As soon as you leave Tana,the scenery changes to this for a few hundred km. Never thought I'd be captivated by farmland.

As soon as you leave Tana,the scenery changes to this for a few hundred km. Never thought I’d be captivated by farmland.

The area around Antananarivo are the highlands, characterized by rolling hills, terraced to perfection, making for a scenic drive all the way to Antsirabe. We enjoyed our first Madagascar sunset here and it did not disappoint. We arrived in Antsirabe four hours later and it was here we got our first taste of Madagascar towns at night.

Arriving in Antsirabe

Arriving in Antsirabe

Antsirabe is one of the larger towns in Madagascar, and home to many French colonial style homes. Nevertheless, none of the towns in Madagascar have any street lights so come nighttime, the entire town looks like a ghost town. Lights are seen coming out of people’s homes, usually by candle wax. It really felt like I went back a hundred years in time.

Our room at the Couleur Cafe. Most of the hotels we stayed at in Madagascar were in and around this level

Our room at the Couleur Cafe. Most of the hotels we stayed at in Madagascar were in and around this level

 

Night 1 at the Couleur Cafe

We checked into our hotel, Couleur Cafe, and were pleasantly surprised at the quality of the rooms. They were clean, had nice bathrooms, wifi, and a tasty restaurant (serving French style food). We had dinner here, then proceeded to walk around the town but with it being pitch black, we had no idea where to go. We heard some music down the street and turns out there was a big concert that night with a Malagasy musician! We saw the local population out in full force with street vendors serving quick bites and even a merry go around. There were hardly any other tourists around so we got a lot of curious stares but it was a good first night in Madagascar!

Concert and big Saturday party night in Antsirabe! Never have I seen so many perplexed locals after seeing us.

Concert and big Saturday party night in Antsirabe! Never have I seen so many perplexed locals after seeing us.

Random pitstop on the road. People here are looking for gold by striking the ground with a wooden log.

Random pitstop on the road. People here are looking for gold by striking the ground with a wooden log.

 

Driving west to Morondava

Proceeding the following day, we drove westward towards Morondava, a sleepy fishing village on Madagascar’s west coast. The drive from Antsirabe to Morondava really showcases how diverse and beautiful Madagascar is. The 400km drive pushes us from the highlands of central Madagascar to a semi-arid desert dotted with palm trees (ya I know, palm trees in desert??), to a tropical setting with lush green pastures and giant baobab trees only found in Madagascar. The setting changes so quickly but they are all so unique and beautiful, making the long pot-hole filled car ride a little more enjoyable.

Landscape flattening out

Landscape flattening out

First palm tree sighting!

First palm tree sighting!

First baobab sighting!! Very excited.

First baobab sighting!! Very excited.

We overnight in Morondava at the Sun Beach Hotel, before leaving early the next morning to head towards Bekopaka, the gateway to the Tsingy National Park. We would return to Morondava after our Tsingy excursion but it’s a mandatory stop for a night for anyone wanting to visit the Tsingy.

And finally, made it to the west coast!

And finally, made it to the west coast!

The road to Tsingy starts in Morondava as we go offroad, as if the roads weren’t bad enough already. We drive through the Avenue of the Baobabs, as it is along the road towards the Tsingy, where we stop and take a few pictures. It was during the middle of the day, there were no visitors but we would return after our time at Tsingy to spend a sunset at the Avenue of the Baobabs.

Enjoying the nice sunset over the ocean.

Enjoying the nice sunset over the ocean.

Avenue of the baobabs for the first time! Think this is cool? Wait until the sunset picture in the next blog post.

Avenue of the baobabs for the first time! Think this is cool? Wait until the sunset picture in the next blog post.

 

Ferry to Tsingy

As we drive through rice paddies, palm trees, and baobabs, our driver Serge tells us that the road would eventually stop because of a river and we’d have to take our car onto a ferry so it could take us to another road. Ferry? Really? All I see are dirt roads, and people herding their cows on our ride for the day. What ferry could possibly exist in this part of the world that could take a SUV?

Baobab d'amour (the love baobab.

Baobab d’amour (the love baobab.

Every now and then we'd pass through some villages

Every now and then we’d pass through some villages

Reaching our first "ferry"

Reaching our first “ferry”

Fully on the "ferry"

Fully on the “ferry”

Enjoying some 20 cent coconuts after our long ferry ride.

Enjoying some 20 cent coconuts after our long ferry ride.

And a video

After three hours of driving, low and behold, we reach the ferry destination. Turns out, the “ferry” is two canoes joined together by a wooden plank!! I should have used my imagination a bit more I suppose. Our SUV drives onto the ferry, and we’re joined by locals with their ducks, chickens, and god knows what else. Can’t say I’ve ever had any experiences like this. The locals seemed bemused by us as there really aren’t that many visitors to this part of the world and one kid would poke at my friend’s arms saying “blanc” or white in French as my friend is on the paler side.

Chowing down on a surprisingly delicious restaurant in Belo Tsiribihina

Chowing down on a surprisingly delicious restaurant in Belo Tsiribihina

After docking, we grab a few coconuts from some locals for about $0.20 per coconut, and we proceed to have a delicious lunch at the local village. Seafood is abundant when along the coast of Morondava, and we had plenty of Gambas, these giant palm sized river prawns. Delicious! Our drive the next 4 hours was straight offroad with bumps, holes, and obstacles along the way. It took us four hours to drive 120km. Eventually, we arrived at another “ferry” stop where our car again got on a canoe with wooden plank, but this time, people just used poles to physically push the ferry to the other side!

The journey continues! The road gets worse and worse.

The journey continues! The road gets worse and worse.

At the second "ferry" stop, we didn't want to wait anymore, so we hired our own private pirogue (canoe)

At the second “ferry” stop, we didn’t want to wait anymore, so we hired our own private pirogue (canoe)

Decided to walk the rest of the way to our hotel

Decided to walk the rest of the way to our hotel

Passing through villages along the way

Passing through villages along the way

We finally reached the hotel in Bekopaka at 5pm, our stop for the next 3 nights. All in all, it took us half a day to drive from Antananarivo to Antsirabe, a full day from Antsirabe to Morondava, and a full day from Morondava, to Bekopaka. Not the easiest place to get to, and another reason why traveling Madagascar requires plenty of time, but it’d be totally worth it in the end.

And FINALLY, we reach our hotel.

And FINALLY, we reach our hotel.

 

Tsingy National Park


Arriving in Bekopaka, we stayed at the Vazimba Hotel, a nice 3* option with a pool, large bungalows, and a good restaurant. It was the perfect place to come back to after a long and tiring day of hiking around the park.

DSC00648 DSC00647 DSC00646 DSC00645

The next morning, we wake up early, eat a breakfast, and are out the door at 7:30am. In “town”, if you can even call it that, is the tourism office for the Tsingy Park, where everyone must go in the morning to pay for park fees and a guide. It is absolutely mandatory to have a guide to do the hikes here as it is not for the casual hiker.

Entrance to the park

Entrance to the park

Arriving at the park office, we made sure to ask for an English speaking guide, which we got. Apparently only 10% of the guides speak any English (everyone is French), and having a guide we can communicate with makes the hike much more enjoyable.

There is a broad selection of different hikes that can be done here, ranging from 2 hours, to 8 hours. The two main areas to visit in this park are the “Big Tsingy” and the “Little Tsingy”. The two have to be done over two days and of course, we decide on the longest, most difficult hikes to do in both areas. All in all, for two days hiking, and park fees, we paid about 230,000 Ariary (90$) for the both of us.

Our fluent English speaking guide

Our fluent English speaking guide

 

Hiking the Big Tsingy


Once everything was paid, one guide joined us in our car and we drove to the launch point half hour away. We walked through the deciduous forests, seeing some lemurs along the way. Eventually, we reached the base of one of the large limestone rocks and how grand it was. At this point, we needed to climb up the rocks. We’re strapped in our harnesses and off we go!

Start of our hike in the BIg Tsingy

Start of our hike in the BIg Tsingy

Not much to see for the first fifteen minutes or so.

Not much to see for the first fifteen minutes or so.

Now the fun begins. Harnesses strapped in, and up we go!

Now the fun begins. Harnesses strapped in, and up we go!

The climb to the top can be scary for some but the peak is only 100m high so Vertigo isn’t a problem. The rocks here are as sharp as it looks, like a knife’s edge. Surprisingly, for a place in the middle of nowhere Madagascar, the rock climbing infrastructure here is top notch. At no point, did I feel like I was in danger of falling.

And we made it to the top!!

And we made it to the top!!

Once we got to the top, WOW. Just wow. The view is INCREDIBLE. The pictures don’t do it justice. With the strange limestone rocks and trees poking into the sky, I felt like I was on another planet. Plus, there was no one tourists around us so we felt like we had this amazing place to ourselves. One can’t take enough pictures in this place.

Not the easiest of hikes but certainly one of the most fun.

Not the easiest of hikes but certainly one of the most fun.

Hard to do this place any type of justice with pictures but this is the best I can do!

Hard to do this place any type of justice with pictures but this is the best I can do!

We walked through some suspension bridges that felt less than sturdy, but are in fact very sturdy. After spending a few minutes and taking countless pictures, we descend and hike towards the caves. These caves have only recently been open to the public. The hike lasts 1-2 hours and is not recommended for the physically unable. There are plenty of tiny holes and crevices that need to be traversed. This place is more rustic than the Cango caves in South Africa and has none of the tourists.

Cave splunking

Cave splunking

Stopping for a quick lunch after cave splunking before climbing to the top again.

Stopping for a quick lunch after cave splunking before climbing to the top again.

Once we finished the caves, we stopped for a quick lunch before climbing up another peak, seeing plenty of lemurs along the way. The second peak was even more incredible than the first. It was in the middle of the park so the panoramic views afforded here are even more spectacular in my opinion. We saw other tourists for the first time, two old French couples. Impressive. The climb up to the peak, and the focus needed to avoid stepping on the sharp parts of the rocks is not easy. The rocks are so sharp that taking one wrong step can mean a world of pain for the feet.

Leap of faith suspension bridge. No worries though, this bridge is stable and incredibly well developed.

Leap of faith suspension bridge. No worries though, this bridge is stable and incredibly well developed.

Scaling the side of the rocks. Careful when grabbing onto them, as some are sharp as knives.

Scaling the side of the rocks. Careful when grabbing onto them, as some are sharp as knives.

Action shot, courtesy our guide.

Action shot, courtesy our guide.

Last photo of the Tsingy, promise.

Last photo of the Tsingy, promise.

Just kidding, gotta get a photo of a lemur in here.

Just kidding, gotta get a photo of a lemur in here.

After admiring the views from the top of the Big Tsingy, we climb down one last time and walk out of the park. We see a few more lemurs, and it is mostly an uneventful walk until we reach the exit where our driver, Serge, is waiting for us. All in all, the hike took about five hours for three circuits (two viewpoints, and caves).

And finally, the end is in sight. Our car and driver in the distance.

And finally, the end is in sight. Our car and driver in the distance.

 

Hiking The Petit Tsingy


The next morning began just as early as our hike started with a relaxing pirogue (canoe) ride down the Manombolo river, where we had seen our car float across on a wooden plank two days prior. We started early to avoid the heat. We paddled through the calm waters, while admiring the deep gorges surrounding us. We saw more tourists doing this circuit as the petit Tsingy (small Tsingy) is an easier, less strenuous hike.

Our pirogue waiting for us in the morning

Our pirogue waiting for us in the morning

Leisurely and relaxing stroll down the river!

Leisurely and relaxing stroll down the river!

View from above

View from above

Our pirogue ride lasts an hour and we reach our starting point. We hike up the side of the gorge and eventually reach the petit Tsingy. The petit Tsingy is the same limestone rock formations portruding into the skythat we saw a day earlier but on a much smaller scale. No rock climbing is needed here and there are no trees growing in between the rocks. I think (but not sure) this is the more popular hike as it is less strenuous.

As you can see, the petit tsingy is smaller than the hike we did the previous day. Makes sense.

As you can see, the petit tsingy is smaller than the hike we did the previous day. Makes sense.

View is still spectacular however!

View is still spectacular however!

The petit Tsingy is a shorter walk and we elected to do the most strenuous hike here which means we’d walk back to the starting point via the route the pirogue took. Having already had a long hike the previous day, I wouldn’t recommend this approach. Best is to just take the pirogue ride to the petit tsingy, and take a pirogue back. You won’t miss out on much!

Posing with the guide

Posing with the guide

We finished our hike at the Petit Tsingy around 1pm and took a well deserved relaxing afternoon at our hotel.

 

Playing football with the locals

We brought our American football on our Madagascar trip and decided we’d go down to the local soccer field in Bekopaka and see what happens if we started throwing it around. Yep, we received an immediate following from all the kids. They had never seen an American football before as soccer was the main sport all the kids played. We were instant celebrities and had a good fifty kids following us around within a half hour trying to throw the ball. Kids would point at us and yell “Vaza, Vaza!” (Malagasy for foreigner), and the kids that could speak French would ask me questions about what we were playing.

Jesse playing basketball with the locals.

Jesse playing basketball with the locals.

This would probably be the first and last time these kids would ever see an American football! Great end to our time at the Tsingy. We left the next morning for our drive back to Morondava.

Continue Reading:

Guide To Hiking The Tsingy Stone Forest, Madagascar
Showing 11 comments
  • Avatar
    Erin
    Reply

    Hi Johnny!!

    I will be in Madagascar in a week! So excited!
    What gear would you recommend for the tsigny hikes? We are just wanting to not overpack, but make sure we have what we need.

    Thanks!

    • Johnny
      Johnny
      Reply

      Hi Erin! I don’t think you need anything in particular. Comfortable shoes, a bag for water and some snacks is all you’ll need. And of course a good camera too!

      • Avatar
        Erin

        Excellent. So hiking boots are not essential? We could get by with runners?

      • Johnny
        Johnny

        Definitely not essential! You can see I am wearing running shoes the entire time. You’ll see plenty of other people with hiking shoes but I guess most people like to be over prepared or they just feel more comfortable with them. Either way, I don’t think they are necessary!

      • Avatar
        Erin

        Thank you!!

  • Avatar
    Aditi
    Reply

    Hi Jhonny,

    I plan to visit Madagascar in December for 10 whole days and hence wanted to know if Tsingy NP would be open then? I read about it and in a few places they say that the road would be washed off and hence, this NP would not be possible. What is your view on this?
    And should we book hotels in advance? Any site you would recommend for that?
    Plus could you let me know the best NP as there are quite a few

    Thanks,
    Aditi

    • Johnny
      Johnny
      Reply

      Hi Aditi, I have definitley heard of Tsingy being inaccessible starting in December. It would be best to contact a tour operator in Madagascar just to confirm. I know starting January it is definitely closed but December is still in the shoulder season.

      I would recommend booking accommodations before you get there and any tour operator will be able to help with that. GMT+3 is the only company I used and they were great. Enjoy!

  • Avatar
    Khatereh
    Reply

    Tanx for your beautiful and complete description, if we choose small TSingi could we see suspended bridge yet or not ? Is that different directions?

    • Johnny
      Johnny
      Reply

      Hi there, the suspension bridge is only on the Grande Tsingy!

  • Avatar
    Tessa Gunn
    Reply

    Thank God I found your blog! Seriously! I have been wanting to go to Madagascar for aeons and have been tracking the flight prices and reading what I can. But I was just about to give up on going this year, having read the terrible reviews of Air Madagascar and how often they change the flights (we were going to fly with them as then the domestic flights are much cheaper). I was prepared for this on the internal flights – but not on the international ones as we have a tight deadline. Anyway, you have done at least half of what we plan to do, so some questions please! Did you book your car and driver ahead of time? and if so, stating what? (did you have the same driver all the time, and he just ‘rest’ when you were hiking etc.?) And ditto hotels, or did you book anything once there? We were hoping that we react to what we hear on the ground and change plans if necessary. We are a family of 5 and are planning to travel independently and hike in Tsingy, see the Baobabs, and go to Sainte Marie like you, but also hike in Andringitra National Park instead of Isalo. If we have time, we also hoped to do some river rafting and see lemurs/rainforest – but have to check budget and logistics as,a s you say, the infrastructure is poor. Would you have any other advice for us (e.g. on hotels near to airport if we are arriving at night? We are also going in July/August so weather will be different. Did you hear anything about which National Parks near to Tana are the best? (we like to avoid mass tourism at all costs but guess that shouldn’t be a problem in Madagascar?) Thanks!

    • Johnny
      Johnny
      Reply

      Hi Tessa! Thanks for reaching out. Make sure to also check out my other Mada posts, especially this one https://johnnyafrica.com/madagascar-travel-guide/

      Nevertheless, I booked everything before I arrived. You can either book “tours” or plan it yourself. I’d recommend the latter option if you are comfortable with that type of thing as you’ll save loads of money. I used a tour agency but ONLY to book the car and driver. I told them the places I wanted to see, and they helped make hotel reservations for me (which I only paid when arriving at the hotel). The drivers just drive you around, but they are also a great resource for Mada travel as they’ve normally been driving for years.

      They will just be chillign when you’re doing your hikes. They will stay in local style hotels and eat local style meals while you stay in a more western friendly hotel. It’s all included in the price of the car. Think of them as like a chauffer almost. The most popular and easiest to reach rainforest from Tana is definitely Andasibe. It’s also the most touristy as it’s super close and has a place where you can play with lemurs but most touristy in Mada doesn’t mean much!.

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