I had spent six months in Madagascar before finally arriving in Ankarana National Park and getting the chance to see the dramatic landscapes and protected species that most tourists witness an abundance of on short, well-catered vacations. Although friends and family might think I sit under giant baobab trees counting lemurs and miniature chameleons in my spare time, I’m more likely found watching chickens run around a dirt school yard while absorbing the audial ambiance of small children crying and clanking cattle carts (known as saretys).
So, when the nine other Peace Corps Volunteers I was traveling with and I set off into the humid, buggy, rainforest of Ankarana for a pair of caves dubbed “The Bat Caves” by our guides, I felt almost hyper-sensitive to the near total lack of human presence, the enveloping hum of cicadas and the raw smell of earth and wet trees. We set off in the late afternoon, as several groups of morning trekkers were packing into their private vehicles and speeding off to Diego for the night, so that we only encountered two other hikers along the way. As if planted by the guides themselves, a family of Crowned lemurs loitered about the trailhead, jumping from tree limbs and casually posing for photos. Meanwhile the two guides, who were probably as accustomed as the lemurs to photo-obsessed tourists, took a seat on a bench behind us, looking terribly bored but patiently waiting for the end of our camera frenzy.
Finally, we tore ourselves away from the lemur-filled patch of forest and continued onwards to witness one of the less iconic animals indigenous to Madagascar, the Commerson’s leaf-nosed bat. A narrow path took us through tangled vines and alongside towering boulders, before arriving at a pair of caves the size of a five-story tall building, drifting thankfully cool air from their dark and mysterious depths. I felt pathetic and ashamed to admit that after this intermediate, hour-long trail, my legs were trembling from my re-awakened muscles. After months of mentally intensive work and minimal exercise, a trail that I would have raced down just last spring took the breath out of me. That, plus the buckets of sweat that poured from our bodies from the hot, humid forest air meant we were all relieved when the guides told us to take out our headlamps and take off our hats (to honor the dead ancestors whose spirits live in the caves) and follow them through the cool, hollow passages.
Once far from the entrance and collected in the belly of the cave, the high-pitched murmur of bat squeaks became slightly louder and a light shone upwards to reveal thousands of sleeping bats blanketing the entire roof of the cave. A couple fluttered around and I held my breath in the hope that none of the (20-something-year-old) boys would childishly throw a rock or shout loud enough to wake them up. Fortunately, we left the cave without a mass of bats frantically following our exit, and continued on the other half of the trail, which runs as a loop back to the trailhead.
On the second half of the trail, the lofty trees and greenery thinned out to lead us to an expansive, grey tsingy forest. Yet another one of the otherworldly geological features unique to Madagascar, the tsingy forest is composed of sharp, porous towers of deciduous forest. Many of the rock pillars are connected so that the trail took us over and above, rather than through, the rock forest. Carefully, we wobbled over the uneven path until reaching a lofty peak overlooking a field of spiky tsingy towers and lush, deep-green rainforest, before heading back down to finish the hike.
We arrived back at our bamboo-thatched hut hotel rooms, sweaty, exhausted, and all too happy to dig into the piles of freshly steamed crab and coconut rice the family-run hotel had cooked up for dinner.
On Getting to Ankarana
We entered at the Eastern entrance to the park, located on the road from Ambanja/Antananarivo to Diego just a couple of hours south of the cosmopolitan coastal town of Diego (Antsiranana in Malagasy). From this entrance, they offer two short hikes like the one described above, and a longer, full-day hike to a scenic lake. If travelling by taxi-brousse, take one going to/from Diego/Ambanja and ask to be dropped off. A lodge with electricity, comfortable beds, showers, and full restaurant for about 50,000AR per night sits several feet from the park’s information center. Meals are not included and for travelers on a budget, I suggest venturing a couple of minutes down the road to a local hotely where you can get similar food for a third of the price.
More Picture Love
Photos: (1) View of the Tsingys (2) Lemur posing for Sally Bull (3) Entrance to the bat cave (4) Pink moths (5) Tree frog and a twisty tree (6) Crossing the Tsingys one by one on a makeshift bridge (7) Cicada shell (8) Tsingy Landscape