The tsingy of Madagascar ate the thin, needle-like rock formations in the country with have a soft, sweet sing-song name.
As I teetered with one foot on a knife-edge and the other in the air, the word soft didn’t come into it. I gripped the tsingy and tried not to look down—a long, long way down.
In Malagasy, the word tsingy means “walking on tip toes,” or “the place where one cannot walk barefoot.” It’s a translation I’d overlooked for reasons that didn’t come to mind right now.
My hand grazed another and I did my best to ignore the pace of my pulse. I had to focus, to cling, to move. To grip and not to slip.
And then she appeared.
Light of foot and dancing.
A lemur. First one, then another. And another. Hopping, bouncing, chatting and calling, they danced and danced while I clung to the Tsingy.
And despite my heavy, dizzy legs, my heart joined in, fluttering like lemur tails to be here in the wild in Madagascar.
Visiting the Tsingy of Madagascar
Madagascar’s largest collection of tsingy can be found in the Tsingy de Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve near Morondava in the Melaky Region. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s received a modern makeover with wooden bridges, cables, pulleys and other supportive paraphernalia.
Yet we had headed north, seeking out tsingy in shades of lavender-grey, surrounded by blues and wildlife of green.
As a traveler to Madagascar, unless you have more than a month, it’s best to zone in and focus. Distances are considerable but infrastructure is pretty scarce.
Wildlife of Madagascar
Then again, that’s why the wildlife is so good, so it’s worth being patient with the various cancellations and delays you will surely face.
It’s hard to talk about the wildlife of Madagascar without the hit movie entering the conversation. Even as we left the UK, friends told us to say hi to King Julien, the kooky, ring-tailed king of the lemurs with a flamboyant, pineapple-inspired crown.
But while the movie brought the name Madagascar to many, it kept pretty quiet on the details of what and whom you actually could find here.
Like people, for example.
Our cartoon heroes (a lion, zebra, hippo, and giraffe in case you don’t have children and have never seen the film) wash up on a deserted beach.
The only known humans hang from a nearby tree, skeletal in aviation gear.
And while the pristine beach part is true, more people call Madagascar home than just the odd remain.
Its current population stands at 25 million, its culture stretches back centuries, and its people identify into more than 20 different ethnic groups.
And condensing all of that into the shape of one person, let me introduce you to our guide, the unmistakable, unshakable Floris.
Floris looks like a man at ease with his life, a man in his forties or even fifties, who in America I’d imagine leaning back with a cold beer in one hand, barbecue tongs over the other, while sizzling smoking sausages responded to his touch.
In the wilderness of Madagascar, he carries much the same demeanor.
Despite the loss of sight in one eye, Floris can, quite literally, spot a chameleon at one hundred paces. In the dark. Without a flashlight.
And it’s his dedication to the wildlife cause that helps brings the wildlife to life.
Unlike mainland Africa, you won’t find big game here. There are no lions, no zebra, no giraffes, and not even a hippo.
Madagascar floated away 250 miles east of the African mainland around 135 million years and has never looked back.
Instead, you need to hush your voice and ready your eyes to search for something else.
Something smaller but no less magnificent.
Chameleons stand out the most, perhaps because they don’t stand out at all.
Their legendary status for changing to suit their surroundings is not unfounded. But what’s even more interesting is that that’s not their most interesting feature.
Curiously curled with a bulging eye like a sock puppet toy, I wonder who made the criminal decision not to put them into the Madagascar cartoon.
These creatures were made to be on the big screen!
After all, their eyes can move independently.
Yes, you read that right. Eyes moving in different directions at the same time.
Their feet look like they’re wearing gloves and they walk like a swaying, clip-clop toy. Most of the time, though, they give the impression of never moving at all.
The smallest we found, all coiled up on a leaf, fit the size of my thumbnail.
The largest shimmered in rainbows of purple and blue like a content, slightly smug, purring cat.
At the roadside and in the Amber Mountain National Park, we (or rather, Floris) found them up on high and right down low, on each tree-lined side and limpet-like on an artificial fence.
But after sunset, Floris swore we’d have more luck.
Layered up with long sleeves and zipped on trousers, we sprayed up against the bugs and squelched through the mud and the trees.
I saw the stars, swerving overhead in a wash of milky, well, starlight in a place with so little light pollution.
But I had the same talent for finding chameleons in the dark as I did by day: none whatsoever.
Still, it was a beautiful sky.
It was, of course, easier to spot the Baobab trees.
The Grand Avenue of the Baobabs, beloved of brochures and Instagram feeds, live to the south between Morondava and Belon’i Tsiribihina in the Menabe region of western Madagascar.
But even the north has Baobabs aplenty and their rather haphazard arrangement guaranteed we had the view to ourselves.
Just a short ride by boat from Antsiranana (also known as Diego Suarez), we found an otherwise desolate island.
Desolate except for the baobabs: standing tall, their chubby tubby branches stretching to the sky.
As we scrambled to the shore, cameras swinging with glee, I caught a glimpse of the men we’d haggled to hire a boat from. Utterly bemused and slightly confused they watched us gaze and gawp at this curious clump of trees.
On girl’s dream is another’s routine, I suppose.
But while the baobab may be everywhere, the tsingy know how to use scarcity and anticipation to put on a show.
Tsingy Rouge Park
The bumpiest ride, with the greatest reward, took us high to the Tsingy Rouge Park.
Around 60 km from Antsiranana, near the town of Sadjoavato, a bottom-bouncing drive through creamy rock and slippery cliff-edge roads brought us to the outskirts of the red dust amphitheatre.
Unlike the others, the tsingy rouge radiate a flamboyant, majestic red, as the name would suggest.
Rivulets and streams wash scarlet crystals under foot as the razorblade honeycomb structure carried rocks straight up in the air.
Why had I never heard of this place before?
Where were the crowds? And why was I even wondering about that and wasting my thoughts when the best thing about being here was the chance to walk beneath the tsingy alone and undisturbed?
In scientific terms, red tsingy are a stone formation of red laterite formed by the erosion of the Idaro River in the region of Diana in north Madagascar.
In other scientific terms, neuroscientists still don’t truly understand beauty. They can’t yet explain what makes one place a worthy pilgrimage, while others are merely a backdrop, a place to walk on by.
What they do know is that change, contrast, the idea of difference excites our brains more than those things that remain constant, that look to be the same.
After the blaze of the scarlet tsingy, I almost felt bad for the more humdrum grey, their muted outlines spread across the mixture of tropical and dusty parched plains.
Until I ended up climbing them, when they definitely had the last laugh.
For they certainly made an impression. In a very physical way.
The day started with us leaving the comfy confines of the Iharana camp, walking through farmland and chatting with everyone we met (Floris, as you would imagine, knows everyone there is to know. Everywhere.)
And then we were in the Ankarana Reserve. Climbing, scaling, walking, tripping.
Staring across the tree-dotted plains.
The lemurs leapt. The sun rose high. The plumes of smoke from a farmer’s bonfire twisted slowly into the sky of blue.
And it’s at this point that I’d like to be able to tell you that I felt myself relax. That all the struggle of the ascent had been worth it (it had.) That the beauty of the nature erased fear from my mind and eased aches and pains into a long forgotten tale.
But let’s be honest with each other, shall we?
As they say in Madagascar, “truth is like sugar cane; even if you chew it for a long time, it is still sweet.”
This moment did occur. I did find myself overwhelmed by nature’s beauty.
But only when safely back on solid ground. Or, more accurately, aboard a boat.
With the slow ripples of the water turning mauve in the evening sun, I watched children paddle home, and songbirds fill the sky.
And it was then, in that moment, that I could look up at the tsingy, close my eyes and smile.
By Abigail King
Abigail is a writer and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. She writes the award-winning travel blog Inside the Travel Lab on luxury travel with a different perspective. She’s also on Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and Facebook, where she does her best to be interesting, inspiring and informative. Ever so occasionally she manages to pull it off.