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Isalo: Journal | Pictures

More Isalo Pictures
The drive to Isalo from Tulear takes 3-4 hours (245 km) on one of the best roads in Madagascar. Along the way we pass many small villages. On the side of the people are selling bundles of sticks, wooden poles, straw/dried reeds, charcoal, and gravel or rocks arranged in neat little piles.

We pass through Zombitse-Vohibasia National Park which is a section of forest that suddenly appears out of the grassy plain. After a few miles the scenery is again savanna.

As we approach Isalo we enter sapphire country. This area has experienced a sapphire rush over the past few years and many Malagasy have come to seek their fortune in the frontier town of Ilakaka. Just prior to reaching the town, which now has roughly 60,000 people, we see the shantytowns where poor families camp in tiny wooden lean-tos. A family of four may live in a dwelling no more than a couple of feet high. They come with the intention of striking it rich and heading back to their home villages but end up getting trapped in the system where Malagasy workers are exploited by foreigners (mostly Sri Lankans, Thais, and Pakistanis) who make vast sums of money (by Madagascar standards) and are known smuggle large amounts of gems out of the country.

Ilakaka is very much a boomtown. The side streets are mud, hundreds of people mill about on the main street, armed soldiers patrol, young men huddle together trading, and gem shops line the road.

Shortly after Ilakaka we see the imposing sandstone formations of Isalo which rise out of the grassy plain dotted with scattered palm trees.

Camping in the park. Nice campsites but can get a little crowded. Other options besides camping: Les toiles d'Isalo which is located near the main town of Ranohira and has a great view of Isalo's mountains -- stunning at daybreak with the sun reflecting off the golden to red-colored rocks. Hotel consists of thatch huts with large tents pitched inside. High ceiling, bed, a single electric lamp when the generator is turned on. Nice communal bathrooms complete with showers. Management is inept and the responsible ("manager") is incompetent. Problems with overbooking -- groups of guests with reservations were turned away and I camped in a field. Relais de la Reine is a French-run hotel that lies a bit further from the park -- around 10 km towards Ilakaka. It has been beautifully designed to blend in with the surrounding sandstone.

The ANGAP headquarters for Isalo is located in the town of Ranohira which is named for a ferm-covered spring-fed waterfall in the park. Ranohira is derived from the Malagasy words for water ("rano") and the local name for the ring-tailed lemur ("hira"). There is a legend involving a king and ring-tailed lemurs at this location in the park.

Bara and Sakalava are the primary ethnic group in these parts, but Ranohira has grown quickly over the past few years with the influx of speculators and miners seeking sapphire riches in nearby Ilakaka.

The trails in Isalo are wide and well marked relative to Bemaraha (and a lesser extent, Kirindy). In steeper places, the path is laid with cemented stone.

Isalo gets quite hot, but the rain from last night combined with a slight breeze and some cloud cover makes hiking quite comfortable. When we first set out there are a couple of large groups of loud and disrespectful toursists but we quickly pass them and soon it is just me and my Malagasy guides*. [Isalo, like all national parks in Madagascar, requires a local guide for entrance. This policy insures that members of the local community can directly benefit from conservation. Guide and porter fees depend on the duration of the hike but range from 40,000FMG to 150,000FMG ($4-15 per day) per day for up to 6 people. At the time of my visit, entrance fees were 50,000FMG ($5)]

November to March can be very hot. September through October the weather is moderate, warm in the day. Rainy season January - March. June through August -- cool season.

Isalo's rock formations are colorful with layered sandstone and bright yellow green to orange lichens set against an intensely blue sky. Bara tombs have been set up at the base of clifs (for recently dead) and high up in crevices (for the bones of people dead longer than two years).

See a couple of snakes and miscelleanous skinks. There is not an abundance of wildlife in the open exposed savannas and rock faces of Isalo. Most of the animals are found in the narrow canyons and gallery forests.

Piscine Naturalle is like an oasis in the grassy plain. The pool lies in the bottom of a small garden-like canyon and is fed by a waterfall. The creek above the falls is palm-lined and has a sandy bottom. The pool is not crowded now but surely will be once the groups start to arrive.

We hike across savanna for about an hour, seeing some of Isalo's strange flora including elephant's foot (Pachypodium) and the Isalo aloe (Aloe isaloensis) along with a group of ring-tailed lemurs climbing along the sheer canyon walls. We reach the Cascade des Nymphes, a beautiful waterfall set in a canyon. There are several pools for swimming including Piscine Bleu and Piscine Noire. We climb through Namaza canyon on the way back, an adventurous route that requires walking along a slippery narrow ledge. At one time there was a cable for support but this has mostly rusted away. The moss and crumbling sandstone makes it a challenge not to fall into the water below. This section of the walk will likely leave you covered in mud and moss debrius.

Flash floods are a serious concern in Isalo but since you are hike with a guide the risk is lower. When rain clouds threaten it is best to proceed up narrow canyons with caution as creeks can rise 20 feet or more in a matter of minutes. You guide should know to look for signs of an impending flood.

Along the creeks we see a number of frogs and many tadpoles in a range of sizes. I don't observe any fish but there are 3" river shrimps and guide Joel says there are many eels in the waters of Isalo.

In the late afternoon we go to the Fenetre, a natural rock formation that frames the setting sun. As we arrive a thunderstorm threatens in the distance. We climb a 300m or so rock formation near the Fenetre. As we climb back down, the rain starts to fall so I make a made dash toward the Fenetre in an attempt to take a couple photos of the sunset. It makes for quite an exciting photo experience -- ear-splitting thunder pounds as lightening flashes while I take a couple shots. I race back to the car right as the weather starts to get real nasty.

We encounter a group of ringtails in the campground. They pretty much ignore us and go about their daily business. It's baby season so many of the lemurs have young.

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Almost all pictures on this site were taken with a Konica Minolta

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