Following a journey to Parc National de l’Isalo, famous for its canyons filled with lush greenery and lagoons, Anthony Ham describes the region’s unique scenery and wildlife
The road south from Antananarivo bucks and weaves along Madagascar’s rocky spine, passing on its island traverse the well-watered hills and scattered settlements of the country’s interior. Antsirabe, Fianarantsoa, Ambalavao — we skirt cities that serve as gateways to wild and forested corners of the country, en route to a different, wilder Madagascar that bears little resemblance to this densely populated corridor, this tamed, emerald-green patchwork of crops. It is a restless land, a place where movement and noise and people hold sway. The forests have gone. There is no sign of wildlife. Green turns to yellow. By the roadside, grasses — drained of colour at midday, golden at sunset — stretch to a horizon of indistinct hills to which, in time, the road draws near. These hills at first stand in silhouette, but later they turn red, their glorious sandstone buttes surrounding broad valleys beneath scudding clouds. Isalo.
Everything in Madagascar seems built on an epic scale — the forests, deep and impenetrable; the extraordinary proliferation of lemurs, big and small; the otherworldly baobabs; and the long and glorious coastline. Arriving at the Parc National de l’Isalo is a little different. Yes, ridgelines rise dramatically from the surrounding plains and there is a sense from the very beginning of grandeur and greatness. But the magic of Isalo also resides elsewhere, in the intimacy of its canyons bursting with greenery and water, in the power of suggestion at large along the paths that snake between the sheer rock walls and into what lies beyond.
On my first morning in the park, I set out along the Namaza trail, one of many that meanders from where open plains end and tree-filled canyons begin. Still to cross the threshold into Isalo’s wild heart, I walk beneath a souimanga sunbird, its vivid blue crown one of the prettiest sights in nature.
Further along a trail leading deeper into a canyon that narrows and climbs, a party of ring-tailed lemurs approach along the path. It may be the best known of all lemur species, but no matter — I am immeasurably pleased to make their acquaintance. They are less so and make it clear that I stand in their way. Soon they loop up into the trees and continue their way along the path from where I have come, tails held high.
Less bold, but none too concerned, red-browed brown lemurs gambol through the branches close to the ground and disappear into the undergrowth without ever allowing me to study them closely. Their elusiveness, their unwillingness to fully reveal themselves, too, pleases me.
The trail rises. A Benson’s rock thrush, a lifer for me, poses on a boulder and then flits away as I climb, full of wonder, past chameleons on my way to an elevated stony plateau that is as devoid of life as the canyons are replete with it. From afar, I had thought the initial rock wall of Isalo, hundreds of kilometres long, to be like a film set — it is indeed cinematic in scope — no more than surface deep. But from here, high on one sandstone pinnacle among many, the park unfurls in layer upon layer of ridges and unseen canyons to eternity. It is the kind of landscape where you wonder whether any human being has ever set foot.
Back down steep paths, I return to the world of shade and gentle streams and birdsong, to the secrets of Isalo. And then, in the treetops high above, a flash of white and a whip-crack of branches announces the presence of a Verreaux’s sifaka. Surely one of the loveliest of all Madagascar’s dozens of lemur species, the sifaka has the languid economy of movement of so many tree-dwelling primates and the big, startled eyes of a child.
One moment it sits, immobile and seemingly settled in for the day. The next it springs with surprising agility, its four legs outstretched, its body appearing to freeze in mid-air as it describes a graceful arc on its way to a perfect landing. On sifaka business that I find impossible to read, it zigzags through the forest before finally coming to rest on a branch at eye level right in front of me. I could reach out and touch it where it sits. It is a beautiful creature, hauntingly so. I could watch it forever, but, in its own time, the sifaka launches away and is gone.
Wildlife retreats into the canopy and canyon clefts. With the sun high, the colours here — red walls, deep-green foliage, cobalt-blue waterholes — become muted. The forest falls silent. Isalo is still, unnervingly so. I retreat into the shade. The day passes. Later, with the sting gone from the sun and a cooling breeze funnelling down off jagged slopes, I feel drawn once again to the splendour, to Isalo’s scenes of wild and rugged beauty, to where rocky outcrops look out over a world tamed by fire and human settlement. La Fenêtre de l’Isalo (Isalo’s Window) is exactly that — a natural window in a perfectly sited rock wall that faces the sunset. La Fenêtre may be a cliché but to not visit at least once would be like visiting Paris for the first time without strolling down the Champs Élysées.
And I quickly learn that ‘the Window’ should only be a starting point of the sunset experience. It does indeed frame the sunset, but the best views are either behind me or to the side, where rolling hills and palm trees and gloriously hued promontories rank among Madagascar’s most picturesque. There are people, it is true, and their noise is a distraction. But it is easy to escape them.
I sit with my back to a red-rock wall, my face to the setting sun, big-sky country all around, knowing all the while that in hidden hollows not far away, the many species that call Isalo home must be stirring. I can hardly wait for tomorrow.
• Lemurs The park has at least six lemur species, three that emerge by day and three nocturnal. By day, you’re most likely to see the ring-tailed lemur (below), red-browed brown lemur and Verreaux’s sifaka. Good places to spot them are the Namaza campsite (along the Namaza circuit), at Canyon des Makis and Canyon des Rats. After dark, watch for the grey mouse lemur, red-tailed sportive lemur and Coquerel’s giant mouse lemur; night hikes are not permitted inside the park, so your best chance of seeing these nocturnal species is at the Namaza and Canyon des Makis campsites.
• Birds Of the 50-plus bird species that have been recorded here, the highlights are the Benson’s rock thrush, Madagascar sand grouse, Malagasy coucal and hooded vanga.
• Plants Keep an eye out for Pachypodium rosulatum, the beautiful spring-flowering ‘elephant’s foot’, which looks like a miniature baobab tree.
• Getting there It’s a two-day drive (including an overnight stop) from Antananarivo to Ranohira, the gateway town to Parc National de l’Isalo. And it’s a three- to four-hour drive from Tuléar, the nearest airport, to the park.
• Where to stay There are numerous places to stay across a range of budgets. At the top end, Le Relais de la Reine (doubles from about US$67) and Isalo Rock Lodge (doubles from US$120) are highly recommended.
• What to do There is a variety of hiking trails running from 2km to 80km, as well as some challenging 4WD trails. Toussaint (034 99 111 2; 033 71 029 66) is an excellent guide.
• When to go June to October is peak season, with September and October particularly pleasant. The possibility of rains during the rest of the year can make getting around difficult and some canyons become impassable.
• Health Malaria is present throughout the country and preventative medication and other precautions are recommended.
• Further reading Lonely Planet’s Madagascar guide by Emilie Filou, Anthony Ham and Helen Ranger; The Bradt Guide to Madagascar (11th edition) by Hilary Bradt and Daniel Austin.