Thursday, October 27, 2011

Justin got up a little before the alarm went off, while Crystal tried in vain to get some more sleep. We went to breakfast and then got our things together for our drive to the Tsingy. We knew the Tsingy was near Bekopaka, but we didn't know how close - it could have been 5 minutes or an hour for all we knew. Luckily, it was just 5 minutes, as the park office was right near where the river crossing was. We're not sure how we didn't see it the day before. We stood in line for a fair amount of time while the park ranger explained to the couple in front of us all the options for hikes and other excursions. We didn't know what all the options were, because when we tried to look up information on the internet it was all very conflicting, so we couldn't make heads or tails of it.

There were about 5 options, and we couldn't tell what was good, bad, or ugly, so we gave a general description of what we wanted to do, and then the park ranger recommended a combination of 2 excursions, which was to include a boat ride to some caves, plus hiking up to the roof of the Tsingy where we'd get a good panorama. We got a guide, TV (not sure of the spelling, but the ranger told us his name was like TV like television), but we also had to pay for a guide, which was news to us since theoretically it was included in the price of our tour. Luckily Justin had his wallet, and had enough to cover the guide. We decided we'd have to call our travel agent again, since we were rapidly running out of cash and not expecting to have to pay for as many things as we were.

We set off upstream on a small double-canoe, a bit like the mokoros we rode in Botswana. The river apparently was very shallow, as the pole the oarsman was using was not very long. We still couldn't see the Tsingy, but we could see some giant cliffs on both sides of the river. They vaguely resembled the large outcroppings we saw in Phang Nga Bay many years ago - steep cliffs with greenery somehow rooting on the cliff sides. Justin spotted what he thought was a pachypodium (a somewhat common thorned succulent that is seen indoors and outdoors in San Diego), and asked TV if it was indeed a pachypodium, which surprised TV.

After about 10-15 minutes, we arrived at a small sandy area on the south side of the river where we disembarked. We walked into a fairly large cave, which was full of stalactites and stalagmites - we still can't remember which is which. Crystal had the forethought to pack a torch, which worked well for her but not quite as well for Justin. The floor on the inside of the cave was a clay-like mud, which was pretty slippery. It was pretty interesting in the cave, but we were happy when we got out into the sun. Nearby, there were some gravesites well up on the side of the cliffs - we have no idea how people managed to get the bones up there.

We boated another 10 minutes or so upstream, then disembarked on the north side of the river and started walking straight up the side of the mountain. This is where all the time on the treadmill and elliptical would (theoretically) help. We were walking through a forest that had some Acacias, Euphorbias (succulents), Dypsis madagascarensis, and numerous other plants which we assume are on endemic but may be grown worldwide now. After a bit we saw some brown lemurs, which TV told us were similar to, but not the same as, the brown lemurs we saw in Kirindy. There was a group of about 6 of them, and the mom and baby left right away, and the alpha male stayed behind to "bark" at us and alert the others where he was and there was still danger (i.e. us) around.

We kept walking further up the mountain and TV spotted a small sportive lemur just hanging out the side of a rock face. It's a night-time lemur, so we apparently disturbed its beauty sleep. Most of the night-time lemurs don't see very well during the day, so as long as we didn't make much noise, we could sit and look at it and it didn't have any desire to move. As we moved higher up the hillside, there were less trees and more succulents such as the Pachypodiums, Kalanchoe, Euphorbia, and Pandanus. While trees were very useful for grabbing onto when walking uphill, the Pachypodiums and Pandanus were big no-no's, since they had spikes.

When we got to the very top, it was as advertised - jagged limestone pinnacles with vertical drops dozens of feet on the side. Walking on top of the Tsingy was difficult but not impossible - some of the areas were a bit more worn from previous hikers, and occasionally there were some semi-flat areas. We walked to a couple of different lookouts where we could see the river and the opposing bank. While the river is brownish during October, during June and July it is very clear. Only when the sediment from the highlands start to wash downriver when the rainy season starts does the river become brownish. The wet season in the Tsingy starts in November, so we just made it. That's why the Tsingy was our first stop in Madagascar, as opposed to the last - if we had saved it for last, the rainy season may have begun, making boating and hiking near-impossible.

On the way down, we were walking through similar forest terrain, and we saw a small group of Sifakas (dad, mom, and child) - again similar to what we saw in Kirindy, but different. We also saw the same group of brown lemurs, which was certainly irritated to see us again. We also saw another night-lemur species, the Avahi lemur, with a baby and its mom hoping we were not a fossa. They were very low in a tree, and TV told us that a fossa could easily jump from ground level and take them out. We did not see any fossas, so we assume all turned out well. Between the incredible landscape, interesting plants, and all the wildlife, this had the opportunity to be one of the best hikes we've ever been on.

Except it was one hour (at least) too long.

If the hike had stopped after the last wildlife siting, it would have been near-perfect. If we had simply walked down from the last wildlife siting to the river, and taken a double-canoe back, it would have been great. But instead, we walked parallel to the river, back towards Bekopaka, going up and down, side to side, over the limestone rocks, getting more tired and dehydrated by the minute. Justin kept asking what time it was, and finally broke down and took a couple of short breaks when we had less than 30 minutes to go. Crystal may have been in worse shape than Justin, but she kept her mouth shut and sucked it up. We were absolutely exhaused when we got to the bottom, roughly on par with how tired we were when we went on the hike up Mt. Gower on Lord Howe Island. Coincidentally, Justin was wearing a Lord Howe Island t-shirt, perhaps he should have worn something different.

When we got back to the ranger station, we sat down and worked out the logistics for the following day. We had originally planned to do 3 circuits, but told TV and the park ranger we wanted/needed to cut that back to 1. So instead of being gone 6 hours, we would be gone about 4. Today's hike had been about 6, so 4 sounded much better. Then we walked back to the vehicle and took the short ride back to the hotel. At the hotel, we went straight to the bar and ordered up multiple (non-alcoholic) drinks. Justin got two of the same mixed-fruit drinks, and Crystal got a Coke and a huge bottle of water. After that, we changed into our bathing suits and went straight to the pool to get our body temperature down. After that, we took luke-warm showers to clean up and also cool down some more. Finally, we changed and went to get "lunch" - it was now almost 3pm. We had started our excursion around 7:30 or 7:45, finished around 1:15, and were back at the hotel around 1:45. We were doing everything in our power to get our bodies refreshed so we could do the same thing again (albeit hopefully shorter) the next day. It's not like the Tsingy is easy to get to - two separate 10 hour flights, plus another 1 hour flight and a 7 hour drive. But at least - once we cooled off and got some food and drink - we felt it was worth it. We played some scrabble and otherwise killed time until dinner, then ate "early" (dinner doesn't start until 7pm) and tried to get to sleep early.