Le Grand Trip to Ankarana
Thursday, October 5, 2000
Last night, we came back from our two-day trip to the reserve of Ankarana. We have seen more than I can write in this journal so I will concentrate on the most impressive things: the Grand Tsingy, the Bat Cave, the lemurs, and the Cathedral. A 4x4 brought us all the way to the reserve. I thought of the SUV (Sports Utility Vehicle) commercials on TV in North America and how SUVs end up being used in Vancouver. This time, here in Madagascar, we did need a car like that, traversing the wilderness, across rivers and sand dunes, with seven people in the car (plus two tents, mattresses, food, water, extra gas, some live chicken, and lots more). Included in the price for the trip was the experienced driver, the extremely knowledgable tour guide, Fideline our chef, English Anna and Dutch Frank (two biologists who joined us), my dad, and I. At night, we camped at the Campement des Anglais. We also had lunch, breakfast, and dinner there (we must have eaten all chickens because we didn’t take any back to Diego). Inbetween, we explored the reserve. In those two days, we must have walked 25km, sometimes in the forest, sometimes out in the 35°C heat with no wind at all, sometimes straight up rock climbing, and sometimes with flashlights in caves that were completely dark. At times, it was very exhausting and we must have sweat a bucket full of water (we drank tons of water and never had to pee), but we saw some of the most amazing things in the world.
There is a 95% chance that if you’ve ever seen a documentary on Madagascar, it was about lemurs. Ankarana has plenty of lemurs. You can see half of them jumping from tree to tree and half of them sleep during the day because they are nocturnal. They’re always in groups of four to nine (in this area) and may come very close to you if you happen to eat in the forest. Unfortunately, many tourists feed them. Unfortunately, some Malagasy eat them.
Among the countless animals, some of which are endemic in Ankarana, you can find bats in huge dark caves. Unlike in North America or Europe, these caves don’t have any elevators or stairs and you will have to use your own batlight and follow the tour guide around the stalactites and stalacmites.
The Petit Tsingy and the Grand Tsingy (outside again) are huge rock formations that formed a long, long time ago when the whole area was still under water. The rocks have hundreds of sharp edges and you have to be skilled at keeping your balance if you don’t want to fall in the cracks between the rocks. There is a deep cliff in the middle of the Grand Tsingy and at the bottom Lac Vert, a green lake.
During the rainy season, around February, Lac Vert is part of a river that flows all across the reserve. Since we arrived at the end of the dry season, we could walk along the river bed and thus saw some of the most amazing rock formations, including a 20m wide, 40m deep, natural plug hole that would certainly suck you in when the river flows.
We got to these sites on foot and were alone 99% of the time, just the five of us. Our tour guide was extremely skilled at spotting animals and plants (he had, apparently, little experience with computers, which is why in Diego, I got my first official job offer; he was going to pay me US$50 - a month). Without him, we would have missed many of the lemurs, the owl, and all of the other birds. Growing up in the woods, these people have eyes like eagles that pick up everything that can move. The vegetation changed every half an hour. At times, we traversed some completely grey areas, with grey trees and shrubs, dried leaves, and grey rocks. Sometimes, the forest was entirely green where plants grew just about everywhere in just about every direction. Towards the end, we did some heavy rock climbing to get to our final destination. Although it was exhausting to get up, it took much longer to get down.
Our final destination was the most amazing part of the trip and we wouldn’t have seen it if we hadn’t asked for it (it was not on the original agenda). After climbing down the wall, we found ourselves in front of another huge cave. It is inaccessible during the rainy season because it is filled with water. During the dry season, however, there are only dirt hills inside so you can walk there. After three minutes towards the inside, it was completely dark and, again, we only had our flashlights to see the next five meters ahead of us. After another 15 minutes, we saw a light at the end of the tunnel and heard some bats again. All of a sudden, we were in the biggest cave I have ever seen in my life: the Cathedral. The Cathedral is an enormous natural “hall”, with a big square in the middle and walls about 100m high. There was a hole at the top so light rays shone down on us. In the middle of this natural phenomenon, we seemed to be so small - the size of this thing was just way beyond my comprehension, extremely inspiring. And there was no way of capturing any of this on film.
After these two days of walking and climbing, we returned to our hotel in Diego and, absolutely tired, we fell asleep. The next day, we returned to Tana, the capital. The first part of our trip ended here.