Hiking the Isalo Massif was quite simply the high point of our Madagascar experience, and I can't recommend it highly enough. However, it can get extremely hot - when we visited (November), the temperature climbed into the 40s and there is not a lot of shade as you trudge across the main plateau.
The perfect antidote to the heat was to take regular swims in the plunge pools of waterfalls in the forested gorges which are incised into the massif. I managed to fit in three of these swims in a single day, plus a wake-me-up plunge before breakfast and a late evening dip in the swimming pool at the exquisite Relais de la Reine where we were staying!
There is something primeval about swimming at the foot of a waterfall, surrounded by lush vegetation, and - if you're lucky - supervised by some sifaka lemurs. After all, this is the sort of experience that people only seem to have in commercials for shower gels, so enjoy your moment of exoticism!
Fortunately as it's so hot at Isalo, all you need to do is to attach your cossie to the back of your daysack - see photo - and it's dry by the next time you need it! This is where your trusty sarong - without which nobody should travel in the developing world (see my packing tip) -should also do duty as a makeshift towel!
On a more serious note, the springs, streams and waterfalls at Isalo (and elsewhere in Madagascar for that matter) are subject to fady, so however attractive a prospect skinnydipping might be, please show respect for local beliefs and wear a swimming costume.
La Fenetre (The Window) is by far the best publicised tourist attraction at Isalo, and one of the most accessible, being easily accessible in an ordinary sedan from the main road.
La Fenetre is an impressive natural arch formed by erosion of the sandstone: what makes it doubly special is that it faces pretty well due west, so it is possible to view the sunset through the window, when the fading light makes the rock glow in shades of apricot, orange and pink.
There were about 30 people at La Fenetre the day we went to watch the sunset: by far the greatest concentration of tourists that we encountered anywhere in Madagascar (indeed, the limited number of fellow tourists was one of the aspects of Madagascar we enjoyed most, as it made us feel all the more intrepid!). The spectacle was beautiful, but photographing the sunset wasn't the main attraction for us, as we were far more interested in watching the lizards and beetles scurry between the lichen-embellished rock and admiring the wild periwinkles and orchids. However, I have to conceded that watching eager photographers jostling for position and agonising about the perfect camera settings did make for a delightful exercise in people watching!
All the tour guides romance about the sunset experience at La Fenetre, and there is no disputing that it is impressive. However, I would argue that being at La Fenetre in splendid isolation at any time of the day would be more atmospheric, and would also give you more opportunity to appreciate the other finer points of the landscape rather than just the sunset. Stay nearby - for example, at the exquisite Relais de la Reine - and there's no reason why you can't visit more than once!
Ranohira is a bustling little town that serves as the gateway to Isalo. It is a good place to replenish your stocks, and a pleasant place to spend a few days, with some reasonable hotels and some attractive low key tourist destinations such as the colonial era church in the photo.
Ranohira is where you need to organise your ANGAP tour guide at the National Parks office by the Hotel Berny, without which you will not be allowed to enter the national park. It's difficult to miss the hotel, as when we visited (November 2008) it was distinguished by an arresting red and white colour scheme and liberally emblazoned with the logo of Three Horses (THB) brewery - for our money, one of the best beers in the world (and a welcome reward after a hard day hiking in the intense heat of Isalo!)
Finding a good guide will make all the difference to your time in Isalo. Make sure that you find one who is fluent in your language, and make it clear what you're interested in. There are so many facets to Isalo that it is impossible for the guide to focus on your particular areas of interest if you don't do him the courtesy of letting him know what they are. We were extremely fortunate to find a guide who was a knowledgeable herpetologist, and was therefore delighted to spend time on finding lizards and frogs: other guides focus on cultural aspects or more mainstream interests such as lemurs.
When you're budgeting for your Madagascar trip, take into account the cost of guides (consult a recent travel guide for the current rates) and the fact that it is expected that you will tip generously. By first world standards, this is not expensive, but the costs quickly mount up if you're visiting a number of parks and reserves (as you probably will) and it would be a pity to spoil what should be the experience of a lifetime by underbudgeting.
Ever noticed that I insisted on you hiring ANGAP guides while visiting national parks? Not only because local ANGAP guides are the ones who know about "their" territory. Also, ANGAP (association nationale pour la gestion ds aires partagees) aims at protecting nature.
For decades, nature parks, and other areas btw, have been under threaten. Peasants have been doing harm to Mother nature. For instance, local slash and burn technique, Tavy, was used not only in hills and more and more eroded soils, locals started to use it in parks and nature reserves as well. The cause: locals haven't had any education, neither awareness on preservation. They had to make do with they've known so, they haven't benefited from any specific program (like most of Malagasy peasants for decades, btw).
Then ANGAP was founded in 1990, a NGO that coordinates and manages the program for preserving Malagasy biodiversity. Soon this initial mission had to be extended in local development actions. It realized that preservation couldn't go along with poverished locals whose actions would go against ANGAP projects. Now, 50% entry fee amounts are allowed in micro-projects of neighbouring villages. Along with locals, other associations and financial aids, it helps in schools raising, setting of agriculture areas, rivers. ANGAP plays a role in orientating peasants too, according demands, markets. Especially in Isalo area, ANGAP had to orientate locals to NOT extract sapphire gems in the park. Tough job when one rushed to Isalo, ilakaka area for sapphire
Please, hire ANGAP guides. It encourages them to keep up their good work. It is reported that only 15% of Malagasy territory are covered by forests. Sad. "Blue island" then is now "Red island". The green, so deep that it tended to the blue shade became the red shade of the nude soil of the island. The guides contribute in showing the endemic species and educating us on the fragile balance of Madagascar's nature.
How would you know about this flora species, for instance, if you haven't taken a guide? Anyway, it shouldn't be a problem since guiding is mandatory, i was just told.
Now, I tell you. It is named "Rose du d?sert" or "Faux baobab" or "pachypodium".
I like the metallic grey shade of its trunk. It can grow big but would keep its features: the big trunk with some arms... sometimes very long arms.
This is, imho, the most specific flora element there. OK, for those who haven't seen bamboos, fern trees and palms, do kow that the trails would lead you to discover them too.
OK... writing those tips just remind me that what I consider as mundane experiences can be must-see for others (for them
not having experienced them yet) or even off the beaten track ones.
I wanted to limit myself to the lemurs as fauna must-see. Still, Isalo is home of other species too: apart from lemurs, Grives de Beson (Beson thrushes), chamilions.
Same goes for the endemic flora (incl. lush "rock" flora as aloe vera, pied d'elephant, euphorbs and pachypods)...
It seems obvious but one has to say that you need guiding when you visit the park. Without that, you would miss many things, you wouldn't know the places, the species, the interdicts.
Enlarge the picture. Look at it carefully: what's in there ? Can you say ? Yes, you may but if you were sent alone in the Lemur valley, you wouldn't have been able to spot it. Plus, you wouldn't have known that those rocks house tombs. Therefore, they are fady and very precious to Malagasy. Lemurs are the only ones who are "allowed" to venture there. Normal, since they are considered as spirit of the ancestors in this area.
Now, about why ANGAP guides? They are, for me, a guarantee of knowledge of the area. ANGAP stands for Association Nationale pour la Gestion des Aires Prot?g?es, a NGO that aims at preserving nature in many national parks and reserves. Note that, more than ever, fauna and flora are endangered species on the Red Island since locals are used to some slash and burn farming. That just contributes in suppressing acres of forest (primitive ones included).
ANGAP guides can be free-lance ones or working for the parks and reserves. They can be hired at the entry of parks, at hotels in the area. [Update May 20: I was just told that guiding is mandatory]. Asking the hotels you are staying or the restaurants you are eating in about possibilities can help too.
I prefer them to the guides who drive you through the whole island. Those latter know the island but not thoroughly each specific spot you would like to visit. [Update July 2004: anyway, ANGAP guiding seems to be mandatory within National parks]
Ticket is to be bought at la Maison d'accueil du Parc in Ranohira.
The park has a ruin-shaped relief (cf. intro pic), vast grassy plains. This seemingly dry area contains several rivulets and springs in the narrow canyons. Worth noticing, it is located in a hugely eroded sandstone massif. Yes, wind and rain combined their actions to erode and grant rocks with strange shapes.
As for Isalo massif itself, it results from a sandstone formation in jurassic era, more specifically during marine invasions and regressions. Then, two sorts of sandstone, of marine origin and of land origin.
When relief reached 1000 m height (altitude), it has flattened at this level. But an erosion had shaped this landscape of canyons, talus and what we know now as Isalo plateau.
Southern and Eastern areas of Isalo massif are made up by sandstone layers, with aggregates of different dimensions and resistances (strengths). Following an erosion, the massif had a new ruin-shaped relief whose altitude ranges from 820m to 1240m.
To be clear, the layers of different strengths were equally attacked by erosion but, say, reacted differently to erosion. The most resistant layers were less eroded and had kept the altitude of above 1000m. Some layers were less resistant to wind and rain, they are of lesser altitude.
Others were completely eroded and gave birth to deep canyons such as Lemurs canyon and Rats canyon.
All the contrasts on this site are simply amazing, you have to see it: rocks here, greenery there, canyons here, ricefields there, dry red soil here, rivulets and cascades there...
Just to show you about what I talked about in my previous tip. Enlarge the picture.
In 1995, this was a quite deserted area with some houses (small houses). In 2001, it was all different (date of the picture). The mine workers have dug the desert savannah. Here and there, one finds lots of sapphire galleries, deep holes of 10 meters, sometimes large. Like big open pits without water but vomitting the red soil that had been dug out in the nearby area.
The lure of gain had led the mine workers to tackle the Northern part of Isalo massif, where lies Isalo National Park. The trend is being contained but it's a fragile balance. Dealing with both economic reasons, (& as sometimes opposed to) social, ecological, spiritual aspects in Madagascar is not always easy. Supporting the economy, the efforts of NGOs is one reason to go there. The more they succeed in helping the locals, the less the latter would dig out the amazing Isalo park.
Also, if you pay attention, you would see this black part of the park (right part). It is the remnants of a recent doro-tanety I talked about in my General tips.
Canyon des makis has different names: Vallee des singes, Vallee des lemuriens, Canyons des singes, Vallee des makis...
I would say all is OK except the ones that include "singes" or "apes" in it. According to what I read and was taught, lemurs (a maki is a type of lemur) are not apes neither monkeys.
In Isalo park, 7 species: Cheirogaleus medius (nocturnal, Fat-Tailed Dwarf Lemur), Microcebus murinus (grey mouse lemur), Mirza coquereli, Propithecus verreauxi verreauxi (Verreaux' Sifaka), Lepilemur ruficaudatus (Red-tailed Lepilemur), Lemur catta (Maki), Eulemur fulvus rufus (brown lemur).
According to the website of Madagascar national parks (by ANGAP), all dayactive lemurs who used to be in Isalo Park and neighbouring areas used to be victims of poachers. Sifaka and Maki are amongst them. Besides, their habitats are under threaten (tavy, deforestation).
This canyon is the best area where to observe lemurs in Isalo national park. For that, choose "Les canyons des rats et des makis" circuit.
It is a large canyon with lots of bamboo and palm trees, with oddly lusher flora and a river. Also, the ricefields in nearby area reminds you that you are in Madagascar, not on the moon despite the landscape. :)
Walking there requires a good condition. Be sure to prepare yourself for the hike, esp. if you are (like me) not that well trained for that. This kind of circuit, as far as I remember, would lead you to hike for one day (or ideally 2) with a variation in level of 800 m. Still, you will be rewarded by the sight of the lemurs, especially the sifakas, the kings of the area. :)
OK.. give some 10 hours to do this circuit. People usually camp so to have the benefit of a great night in the park, after the hours of walking.
Scientific name: P. verreauxi. Sifaka is a relatively small-bodied species (under 4 kg on average). Funny enough, it is identified following its raucous "si-fak!" call. Hence its name in Malagasy: Sifaka
The fur of sifaka is mainly white, with the top of the head black or chocolate brown. The ears are white, slightly tufted & only moderately prominent. Sometimes, there may be silver gray or goldish tints on the back and flanks, and the base of the tail. A reddish-brown gland is said visible at the base of the throat in males. Still, I was not close enough to see the gland.
Not the cutest lemur but really funny... Nothing is more funny than seeing them bouncing, hopping about, with their joined legs. And they don't follow a straight path, they rather move on the ground with the manner of a crab. Of course, that is when they don't sunbath on the tree branches. When it's hot, they just have some rest and the noisy Sifaka remain strangely silent.
Do you have the feeling lemurs are lazy ones? Yes, lazy and slow. This is reported to be the reason why they couldn't survive in the other parts of the world for them being easy preys of mightier beasts.
To eat something, Sifaka barely uses its hands. Diner is generally made of leaves and buds.
Sifakas use to live in groups of 6-8 elements, hence the use of the call as communication within the groups. They can be divided in two allied families.
.. at the end of your walking and visit of the Isalo park, swim in a fresh rockpool water.
If you want the rockpools, make sure you would choose the walking circuits that include the rockpools at the end. In fact, there are several types of circuit according to the time allowed for the visit, to your physical conditions. Also, there is a circuit that includes 4WD ride, in addition to walking.
Just ask whether there are things you can't do, as usual, one may say.
Bring your swimwear. People are not used to nude swimming over there, at least, not at this spot. Plus, the area is kind of home of ancestor spirit so esp. there, respect the fady, the interdicts...
Also, near the rockpools use to be camping sites. Of course, you will have your guide with you so you wouldn't have to worry about safety. Hmm.. That's another idea of camping too.
Enlarge the picture. These are mythical makis. Those are ring-tailed lemurs, not all lemurs are ring-tailed but makis are. This Maki, more than any other lemur, is the Madagascar poster boy.
I would say that lemurs are the main fauna elements to see in Isalo. Still, as I said earlier there are other nice beasts to see as well. Not every park in Mada has makis. With microcebus and brown nightactive lemur, this is one of cutest, imho. Click here to see what I am talking about.. but don't forget to return to this page to see the rest of Isalo.
Maki has this triangular face with those ears. Sometimes, I find them beautiful, some know how to pose. :)) really cute.
You may check here for a close-up of a maki: http://www.alovelyworld.com/webmadag/htmgb/madag70.htm
But don't forget to return to this page to see the rest of Isalo.
Scientific name: Lemur catta
Now, some room for bright and lighthearted activity: Photography is a must do in this area.
I saw those landscape, features of Isalo park though I was running out of film when I visited. Hopefully, friends still had film rolls left so they could shoot those pic... This series, particularly is important and of good quality (IMHO).
Bring film, strong zoom lens, digicam and reflex... and material (cover) to protect photo equipment from dust...
Check the whole page to see my pics, travelogues included.
I haven't done it there but I am longing for it... One day, I would do it. Just imagine waking up in the middle of this weird area, lunar landscape, hearing the call of the lemurs...
How fascinating that should be. Though I haven't done it, I kind of advertise about it, realizing what I missed by just walking throuhg it for some hours, without any intention to camp, to stay overnight. We should have.
Latest news: no need to bring tents, Momo Trek (Ranohira) seems to be a good supplier of camping tools. I wonder though about basic kits (knife, pocket lamps..)