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Tsingy de Bemaraha

Somewhat ideally for the Tsingy de Bemaraha, your first sighting of it is blocked by a river crossing that requires traversing, via a small barge, to the other side of the walled gorge. That—and the queue to board it—add delays, sure, but gives the kind of imposing, sublime atmosphere on arrival that Disney spends a fortune to contrive before their rides.

The national park reception and ticket office is right here, as is the entrance to the Petit Tsingy (see ‘Little & Large’ section on this page), but you'll likely be continuing onwards by the village of Bekopako to the majority of accommodation. These are dispersed out as separate compounds across the surrounding land.

When visiting the Grand Tsingy, the entrance is a further [15km] north again and you're lucky it's only that as the Tsingy de Bemahara is enormous. The vast majority is beyond the scope of tourists (you wouldn't get very far) but the southern area accessible to you has plenty of circuits suitable for all levels of interest providing you've basic agility and fitness.

Tsingy Formation

Tsingy de Bemaraha's Strict Nature Reserve and National Park are an incredible stretch of limestone formations on the west coast of Madagascar. Both were deservedly declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1990 back when they were under a single protection status. The term tsingy (‘Tip-toe’ or ‘Where one cannot walk barefoot’ in Malagasy, depending on interpretation) refers to multiple sites of similar formations in Madagascar and the Tsingy de Bemaraha are the largest and most famous of them all.

The grey tsingy areas of Madagascar, a type of karst, began life as limestone under the ocean. As limestone is quite porous, the slow rise to the surface resulted in cracks and breaks, which resulted in wider cracks and tunnels forming for water to wear through and widen these areas further. By the time the vast areas of limestone were pushed well above the ocean they were riddled with chasms, clints and caves. Falling acidic rain showers softly ate away at stone and eroded them into the sharp pinnacles we see today, sculpting a vast forest of limestone spikes on its surface and a network of tunnels, gorges and caves deep below.

The slight differences in rainfall, acidity, surface movement and temperatures can alter this affect on limestone dramatically. Karst formations are found around the world but most have a very distinct appearance and none look like the tsingy (or, potentially, that should be few. I've heard claims of similar formations but have yet to come across one). The Burren area in the west of Ireland has an abundance of clints and grikes from rainfall but remained level, without any sharpness, and contains mostly narrow grikes that can be walked over. Other famous karst formations include the Li River surrounds in China.

Little & Large

The area accessible to tourists is a national park known as (appropriately) Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park and is situated just south of the Tsingy de Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve boundary. Furthermore, it's divided into two sections, the Petit Tsingy and the Grand Tsingy. Both of these have their own separate entrances and distinct trails, with the Petit Tsingy’s circuits starting by the park’s reception, and the Grand Tsingy’s about a [15km] drive north of it. Should you not speak basic French, their translation as little and big tinsgy should explain roughly what to expect in terms of area covered and the potential size of features within.

As long as you can get to the Grand Tsingy's entrance it's just a matter of choosing whatever circuits appeal to you. The park reception lists which section of the park contains them, what to expect and how long they'll likely take to complete. You will also find guides at the reception who can escort you, as you will at every national park reception should you not be travelling with one.

A ring-tailed mongoose in Tsingy de Bemaraha.
A ring-tailed mongoose observing patiently deep inside a cavern floor of the Tsingy de Bemaraha.

How Big?

Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park

Size: 73,174ha

How many times could international city parks fit inside an area of this size?

Central Park, New York: 215

Hyde Park, London: 523

Phoenix Park, Dublin: 103

Status since: 1997

In 1997 the more tourist-friendly end of the strict nature reserve was split off as a national park.

Tsingy de Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve

Size: 83,411ha

How many times could international city parks fit inside an area of this size?

Central Park, New York: 245

Hyde Park, London: 596

Phoenix Park, Dublin: 118

Status since: 1990

Originally classified as an integral natural reserve in 1927 and now, as a strict nature reserve, it has become a UNESCO world heritage site

Getting Around

If unfamiliar with the road network in Madagascar, Tsingy de Bemaraha's location may look convenient at a similar latitude to Tana. As is the fashion in these parts, that would be too easy. Instead, the recommended route is a winding journey that passes through Morondava though there are regularly scheduled flights there from Tana that allow you to skip this slog.

By Road

From Morondava, get to the Tsingy de Bemaraha via the [RN8] turn off from where the [RN35] leads into Morondava's town centre. It's approximately an 8 hour drive to travel the [165km] and you will pass through the Avenue of the Baobabs as well as the entrance to Kirindy Reserve. I advise to stop and enjoy both on the way back, when you're familiar with the conditions of the road ahead and can more confidently schedule a stop—particularly in the rainy season. The [RN8] is maintained enough to be able to travel at a better-than-average speed (for a Malagasy unpaved road) through large sections of it but other sections, particularly later on and the barge crossings, deem it unsuitable for anything other than 4x4s and, for the first half, taxi-brousse.

Around half-way through the journey you'll reach the Tsiribihina River just after the village of Tsimafana. Though the popularity of the route with tourists may incentivise a bridge to be built, the seasonal flooding of the river means this isn't happening soon and you'll need a bac (barge) to get you and yours across. The bacs are two petrol-guzzling boats frankensteined together with a wooden deck that—tightly—packs about three to five 4x4s on board once they've navigated up wooden planks from the river edge. This is a well-oiled operation and bacs work together to act as extensions of each other to load cars onto the further one, departing when full.

It would be convenient if the docking point was across the river but you didn't come here for convenience. Familiarity with the changes in the water has deemed the town of Belo-Tsiribihina the point to do this at and you'll float down-river on your wooden square of optimism for nearly [4km] until you reach land. If not feeling so confident, the lack of wavering, obscured cars staring up at you from the river bed is reassuring. I loved this section of the route and was pretty happy that I got to repeat it on the return journey.

You know Belo-Tsiribihina sees more tourists than most when the main stop for lunch, Karibo, has hand-washing sinks installed throughout the restaurant for the more cautious eaters—a sight I've yet to see anywhere else in the country. Food here is also prepared for more western tastes. Whether that appeals or not, it's a perfect town to stop, eat and water before continuing on. The rest of the journey is straightforward until the final river crossing but expect rougher roads.

Taxi-brousse run from Morondava to at least the Tsiribihina River, as far as I'm aware. Across the river, I didn't see any on the way to Bekopaka and didn't enquire so cannot offer information for the moment except that few tourists attempt to reach the Tsingy via taxi-brousse.

By River

If you have more time, some tour groups offer river trips down both the Manambolo and the Tsiribihina rivers that lead towards the Tsingy. The former arrives right at the national park's southern end, beside Bekopaka, where the main reception and majority of tourist accommodation are found. The starting point can vary but Ankavandra is popular and is about [80km] northeast of Bekopaka. Most won't be seeing anything else near Ankavandra so it's likely you'll be travelling here specifically to turn back to Bekopaka via the Manambolo river trip and not as any form of convenience or serendipity.

Miandrivazo is a popular spot for departing for Belo-Tsiribihina along the Tsiribihina. Unlike the Manambolo trip, you will still have some way to go before reaching the Tsingy upon disembarking and it's a lot longer at about [160km], which could be a deciding factor for or against. A few details on travelling the remainder of the journey (Belo-Tsiribihina to Bekopaka by road) are detailed just above. Miandrivazo is described briefly on the ‘getting around’ section of Morondava. I would suggest making the journey by day, for reasons mentioned in that section.

The national park closes from November until April or May each year (June for the Grand Tsingy) due to the rainy season. If travelling in November or April please enquire with a local driver ahead of scheduling your time there as the weather is unpredictable and may alter the opening dates.

Our time there in November was meant to skip the initial gorge walk due to heavy rains the previous week. On the morning of the first circuit it transpired that the flooding was now low enough to allow passage. Instructions were demonstrated to find the small rocks submerged under the surface and step to each one but that didn't go so well. Bring waterproof boots.

When negotiating car rental we were originally given a very high figure for what was described as ‘private ferry crossings’ as opposed to ‘public ferry crossings’ to negotiate the two rivers. The public ferry crossings, we were told, could involve long waits for either the boat to fill or to just turn up. However, we were reassured that it was almost guaranteed that the private boat would wait for us and depart quickly.

Knowing that the public boat crossings are [MGA10000] each (times 4 in total), we agreed to compromise on paying an extra [MGA10000] (in total) for two ‘private’ ferries in case it was a ruse. At our first crossing, we did seem to cross instantly while other cars were waiting further down for the same. That was the last we saw of anything that resembled priority queuing so decide carefully before agreeing to this.

To be honest, it's certainly not a bad thing that barges wait until they're full before departing so think about how vital the (alleged) time saved is for you. It's a relatively busy tourist route for Madagascar so waiting times will never be immense. I may be digging up an old cliché by saying this but enjoy the journey as well as the destination. You'll miss it when it's over.

Pirogue trip down the Manambolo River with a guide at Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park.
Augustin, a guide from Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park, shows us nearby bats and a nile crocodile along the gorge walls of the Manambolo river.

Park Costs & Circuits

The cost of entering is the admission fee, per person, added to a guide fee that's divided between a group of up to four people (5 - 8 requires paying a second guide fee, etc). Admission fees cover an entire day so second circuits are just the cost of an additional guide fee. Duration times are averages to complete as advised by the park. You're under no pressure to leave other than being considerate of your guide expecting to get back. The park also offers slight price reductions on circuits if combined together, usually amounting to [MGA5000 - 10000] off the price of each.

As well as a regular, obligatory guide, Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park offers ‘extended guiding’ which is typically about [MGA5000 - 10000] on top of the regular guide fee. I have no idea what this entails or how a regular guide is holding back in any way but enquire at reception if interested. If you plan on ending select circuits with a prettier, north-western-facing vista, you may find yourself paying an extra [MGA10000] for the light show.

The park reception is open seven days a week (except when seasonally closed—as listed in ‘Getting Around’) from 6.30am to 4.30pm.

Credit & Debit Cards

As of May 2018, Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park , along with Isalo and Montagne d'Ambre National Parks, are accepting credit and debit cards as payment at reception (VISA, Mastercard, Maestro and UnionPay) and are the first national parks in the country to do so. The area is not on the electrical grid and relies on self-generated electricity so, given that the park reception likely won't have this 24/7, anticipate charging schedules or mobile reception creating incidences where payment terminals won't work. In other words, you should probably still bring cash for the time being even though this is a welcome initiative to reduce the amount of cash in circulation at receptions.

Park Admission Fees

CategoryAgeRate
TouristAdult[MGA55000]
TouristChild[MGA25000]
ResidentAdult[MGA2000]
ResidentChild[MGA500]

Circuits with Guide Fees

CircuitDurationDistanceRate
Andadoany4 hours[2km][MGA30000]
Andadoany-Ankeligoa5 hours[6km][MGA45000]
Andamozavaky4 hours[?][MGA60000]
Anjohimanitsy Simple[?][5km][MGA36000]
Anjohimanitsy Sportive2 days[9km][?]
Gorges de Manambolo3 hours[6km][MGA35000]
Manambolobe[?][5km][MGA50000]
Manambolobe (extended)2 days[9km][MGA100000]
Berano3 hours[3km][MGA20000]
Ranotsara4 - 6 hours[3km][MGA50000]
Tantely 1 hour[2km][MGA12000]
Oliha8 hours[?][EUR50 - 90]
Oliha (extended w/ camping)2 days[?][EUR90 - 200]