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Wild Madagascar brims with weird and wonderful landscapes, but none quite compares to the surreal wasteland shaping the Ankarana Special Reserve TEXT and PHOTOGRAPHS Jacques Marais

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madagascar TRAVEL

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T The sun has barely shown itself when we traipse forth from the scattering of huts and houses masquerading as the village of Mahamasina. Ten hours of hard-core trekking await us, around 28 kilometres of rugged trail traversing a full house of ecosystems here in the north of Madagascar. High-canopy forest morphs with dry semi-deciduous woodland and, beyond this, even the hardiest of plants surrender to the onslaught of an intimidating expanse of unique desert. For now we’re lucky to be in the shade, and we’re cruising along in the wake of Joachim, our young guide. He’s one of a new generation of rangers employed here at the Ankarana Special Reserve, a bizarre limestone plateau bristling with an infinite maze of pinnacles. Known to many locals as the Crocodile Caves, this extraterrestrial landscape has been shaped over the ages by water erosion, Joachim explains. Carbonic gases combine with rain during thunderstorms, forming slightly acidic streams and rivers that eat away at the limestone bedrock. The corresponding chemical reaction erodes the karst plateau into a surreal landscape riddled with underground rivers and cave systems. To date, more than 100 kilometres of tunnels have been mapped, but much of this underground wonderworld remains unexplored. ‘The early Antakarana [the Malagasy tribe found in the immediate area] had no shoes, so when they walked across these sharp rock spikes they would do so tsingy-tsingy, which means very carefully, on tiptoes, and this is where the word tsingy [to descripe these geological formations] comes from,’ Joachim explains. We’re taking a breather, standing on the edge of the startling Perte des Rivieres, a sinkhole the size of an apartment block. The whole river course seems to have collapsed, and during the rainy season the water disappears underground to follow a subterranean route for many miles. The Perte des Rivieres is approximately an hour’s hike from Mahamasina camp, and apparently you can climb down into the 20-metre-deep grotto to follow the river as it wends its way within the bowels of the earth. Many of Ankarana’s underground rivers are the last refuge for Nile

crocodiles, which have been hunted to near-extinction, but according to Joachim there are none left here in the eastern part of the reserve. I decide not to test his theory. This is also where we bump into our first lemurs. A rustle in the overhead branches of a giant Adansonia madagascariensis [baobab tree] alerts us to a group of crowned lemurs sunning themselves high within the foliage of the semi-deciduous forest. They’re a bit antisocial, though – we’ve disturbed their morning routine – and they scamper off in a huff before I can get a good photograph. The birds are more cooperative and I get some great shots of the white-formed Madagascar fly-catchers, magpie robins, crested ibis and even a Malagasy Scops-owl glaring from its hiding place within a tree-top thicket. There are at least 92 bird species in the reserve, of which 54 are endemic to Madagascar. The furry ‘monkey-cats’ [lemurs] do eventually appear as we follow the trail through the sprawling vegetation sprouting within the ravines and canyons of Ankarana. ‘I think the park manager wants a word with you,’ Joachim smiles, pointing at a tree-trunk pillar next to me. I look up, right into the face of a lepilemur ogling our goings-on with a certain measure of aloof, big-eyed innocence. Also known as sportive lemurs, these tiny creatures are mainly nocturnal, and this little dude is parking off at the entrance of his sleeping hole. Limpid eyes and rounded ears, similar to the African bushbaby, dominate the miniature face, and petite fingers grip the bark daintily. The Ankarana sportive lemur has a body less than 10cm in length and weighs in at a minuscule 750g. This, however, is huge compared to Ankarana’s reigning featherweight, the grey mouse lemur, which barely tips the scales at around 50g. Shy Sandford lemurs, sporting distinguishing white ruffs, make their appearance further along the trail, peering down disdainfully at our upturned faces. Ankarana boasts one of the highest primate counts on the planet, with 10 species of lemur found within the boundaries of

Known to many locals as the Crocodile Caves, this extraterrestrial landscape has been shaped over the ages by water erosion

PREVIOUS SPREAD A curious crowned lemur, one of several species found only on the island left The new Hanging Bridge section makes it easier to cross Ankarana’s treacherous tsingy fields right Limestone karst bares its serrated-rock fangs at the sky

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left On the edge of the 80-metre tsingy cliffs above Lac Vert RIGHT (clockwise from top) The massive river sinkhole at Perte des Rivieres is the gateway to a series of tunnels; a green gecko brightens up Ankarana’s deciduous forest; an eroded rock tower within the Petit Tsingy fields

For utter jaw-dropping impact, nothing can beat the reserve. These include the aforementioned species, as well as Perrier’s black lemur and various sportive and dwarf lemurs. The word ‘lemur’ is derived from the Latin lemures, meaning ‘phantoms of the night’ – probably referring to their luminous eyes and hair-raising, night-time wails. Popular scientific theory points to early lemur species reaching Madagascar on vegetation rafts after the island broke away from mainland Africa. While they were evolutionally displaced by monkeys and other advanced primates on the Mother Continent, they were safe from competition on their faraway island and eventually evolved into a number of distinct species.

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Lemurs are not the only wildlife we encounter as we slog ever onwards towards the Grand Tsingy and distant Lac Vert (Green Lake). Spectacular neon-green geckos materialise, as if by magic, amid clusters of emerald leaves; a small slithering slip of a snake whiplashes across the trail at our feet; a ring-tailed mongoose scampers away into the undergrowth. But for utter jaw-dropping impact, nothing can beat the Mordor-like menace of the tsingy landscape.  We reach Lac Vert, the most distant point of our hike at well on 13km from Mahamasina, after nearly five hours of challenging trekking, but it is worth every step. Sheer, serrated walls plummet

80 metres onto a pale-green expanse of inert water, while serrated tsingy fields extend in all directions. The upshot is a plateau of razorsharp rock blades thrusting upwards from underfoot, slicing vociferously at anyone foolhardy enough to cross this rocky obstacle course without due attention. Stepping onto the stones is tantamount to tip-toeing on the unsheathed claws of 10 000 gigantic, upside-down tigers, their sharp ends razoring with vicious intent at the soles of your boots. ‘Cat-foot’ is the name of the game, and a fall here will see more than just a routine spilling of blood. I venture into the actual tsingy fields while the others seek out some respite

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the Mordor-like menace of the tsingy landscape from the sun, which is by now like the proverbial fireball in the sky. The rock is ridiculously unstable. Erosion has created a massive, interlocking puzzle of limestone blades, slabs and spears, all of which could potentially collapse to send you plummeting into the void below. Like Pleistocene shark jaws frozen in time, the serrated edges chomp and rip and slash unreservedly. And yet, within the onslaught of this lacerating landscape, a tiny pacypodium (the cactus-like Madagascar palm) blooms, its ephemeral flower blossoming amid the menace of this Stone Age violence.  I join the others in the shade of a contorted tree for a bite to eat, only to discover they are

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in a stand-off with a pack or troop or gang or whatever it is one would call a group of crowned lemurs loitering with intent. The lemurs have obviously been fed before and are quite tame, clambering right onto us and fondling our faces with their rubbery little hands. They seem rather disgruntled when we hoick up our packs to begin the return journey, rasping disconsolately before sauntering off across the tsingy. We detour onto an even better (or should that be intimidating?) section of tsingy along the Hanging Bridge Trail. This new circuit follows a wooden boardwalk and suspension bridge traversing a vast tsingy field rearing up fang-like beneath the sun-scorched dome of the sky.

After a good night’s sleep at Mahamasina Camp, we head out in the direction of the Petit Tsingy and Bat Cave, an hour or so away. Even here, the terrain spouts an incredible array of botanical species, all seemingly competing in the weirdness stakes. Spiky euphorbias and fat-bellied pachypodiums contort themselves within knife-edged crevasses to echo the Tim Burton-esque scenery created by the tsingy. It is surrealism for real. From the Petit Tsingy plateau, we descend into the realm of the Dark Knight. Batman would feel completely at home within the ammonia reek permeating the massive cavern constituting the Bat Cave. Or maybe he wouldn’t. Millions

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travel notes madagascar WHEN TO GO It is best to visit Ankarana Special Reserve between May and November, as the rainy season makes roads and trails in the reserve inaccessible. Summers are extremely hot; winter nights can be chilly. VISAS South Africans can obtain a visa on arrival at Tana Airport in Antananarivo ($90/around R700). Malagasy Consulate 011-442-3322. CURRENCY The ariary. R1 = MGA205 HEALTH Malaria is prevalent. Also take precautions against yellow fever, tetanus, hepatitis and the like.

Popular scientific theory points to early lemur species reaching Madagascar on vegetation rafts of bats (at least 13 species inhabit the cave) wheel and twitter and ping right on the periphery of my sixth sense, while a jumble of stalagmites and stalactites loom up in the beam of my head-torch. We stay until nightfall, watching big furry fruit-bat freaks swarm around like dog-faced owls, before eventually tramping back to camp by the light of a gibbous moon. In my torchlight, the eyes of tunnel spiders glitter like flint-edged zirconias within the leaf litter. Watching me, watching you, they seem to whisper, scuttling indignantly away at the last moment. It is late, but back at Mahamasina, I know there is a fridge full of ice-cold Three Horses pilsners waiting.

above A desert peninsula juts into the Indian Ocean near Diego Suarez

(Diego Suarez)

Montagne d’Ambre Ankarana Special Reserve

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madagascar Antananarivo

GETTING AROUND From the capital, Air Madagascar flies via Nosy Be island to Diego Suarez (or Antsiranana, as the locals know it); from here, it’s a two-hour (120km) potholed, obstacle-course of a drive south along the RN6 to Ankarana’s eastern entrance. SLEEP HERE Mahamasina Camp in the tiny village at Ankarana’s eastern entrance offers very basic, self-catering, palm-leaf thatched cottages (single room, bunk or double beds, outside cold showers, basic toilet, no electricity but with mosquito nets). There are also three wild campsites in the park, accessible on foot or sometimes by 4x4. Stock up on all but the most basic provisions in Diego Suarez.

Antsiranana Nosy Be

NEED TO KNOW Be prepared for a wild, off-thebeaten track experience. Madagascar is African with a Polynesian twist, and you need to be comfortable with Third World scenarios. First-time visitors should choose an adventure operator with on-the-ground knowledge, who can arrange transport, guides, entrance to the park and so on. Try Firecloud Adventures (firecloudadventures.com), who offer a 10-day Northern Explorer trip. For more info on the reserve (in French), see parcs-madagascar.com/ankarana

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EAT HERE The local community restaurant at Mahamasina offers reasonable fare. The menu staple is chicken, fish or beef stew with rice, and flambé banana (a Malagasy speciality) for dessert. The restaurant is open to the elements and anything goes – from kids wandering through to mongooses snuffling about. WHAT TO DO Apart from exploring the Ankarana Special Reserve, the north of Madagascar boasts a multitude of adventure and leisure options. Lose yourself in the dense rainforests blanketing Montagne d’Ambre, which has several beautiful waterfalls; sail the idyllic archipelagoes unfolding along the tropical northern coastline; head for Nosy Be island to laze on a beach, scuba-dive and kick back in heavenly Hell-ville, its laid-back main town. READ THIS Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine (Ballantine Books); Lemurs of the Lost World by Dr Jane Wilson (Impact). To plan a trip, see africaguide.com. For info on the country and its attractions, visit wildmadagascar.org. GETTING THERE Air Madagascar flies twice a week from Johannesburg. British Airways flies to Mauritius; from here you can fly Air Madagascar to Antananarivo. ba.com

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Wild Island Wandering