Isalo National Park was one of my favourite places we visited in Madagascar, and also very different to what I expected prior to touching down on Madagascan soil.
So what did I expect?
It’s funny how the mind creates an image of a place before we visit, perhaps a safety blanket to help us relax in new surroundings. I suspect the majority of these expectations are created by travel documentaries and movies, but I expected sweeping forest views and dense jungle walks. Instead I found deep canyons, crazy sandstone formations and wide open grasslands similar to what can be found in Ethiopia’s Rift Valley. However, amongst this dry landscape were pockets of lush oasis and fresh water swimming pools, towering mountains and a healthy lemur population with 3 species of lemur – ring-tailed, red-fronted and sifakas. Now you understand why I could never quite put my camera down.
Where to stay?
We stayed at the Hotel Toiles De L’isalo located slightly outside of town so it’s quiet. Bungalows are west facing so each night there is a beautiful African sunset, and there is a pool in case you fancy a swim and sundowners as the setting sun lights up the sky. Rooms are small but adequate, and equipped with a mosquito net, en suite bathroom and a shower which is more ornamental. Restaurant food is decent, they sell water and alcoholic drinks and the staff are incredibly friendly. They made the mistake one night of leaving us alone with a full bar fridge but we settled our tab honestly the following day.
How to get there?
If you’re travelling from Antananarivo (Tana), Isalo is located 15hours (700km) so it can be a scenic 2 day trip to get there depending how keen you are to arrive. Unlike many of the drives, this road just happens to be the best road in Madagascar. Your best option is to take a one of the several daily taxi-brousse connections from Tana and get dropped at Ranohira, from here it’s not far.
Visiting Isalo National Park
We stayed near Ranomafana National Park the previous night and it took roughly 8 hours and 330km to arrive, although we did stop a few times along the way. So what did we see? We started off at the Ambalavao Zebu Market which is a melting pot of people, cattle (mainly zebu which are like cows but with a camels hump), noise and the typical smells associated with markets.
What this visit offered was the chance to experience something so entrenched in the life of a farmer, who is wealthy enough to be either buying or selling zebu. It also demonstrated how strong these hardy animals are as a currency in Madagascar. Whips cracked, trucks idled waiting for newly acquired zebu to be loaded, barefoot farmers shouted for herds to fall in line and freshly kicked dust filled the air. These pictures show how exciting the day was, perhaps better than I can explain.
About Isalo National Park
Isalo was established in 1962 and protects a wide variety of scenery including 815 km’s of sandstone massif which has been sculpted and carved by the elements into beautiful gorges, canyons and strange ridges known as ‘runiformes’. They are similar to the ‘hoodoos’ of Bryce Canyon in Utah.
At times I felt as though I could be in the American desert but then I would see palm trees and sweeping oasis canyons, and be reminded how diverse and spectacular Madagascar truly is. The weather is hot and dry, but in the pockets of oasis it would suddenly become wet and tropical.
Isalo is very much a hiking national park. Sure you can be driven to different entry points but to really appreciate and experience all this park has to offer, including the smaller flora and fauna which can at times be overlooked, you need to hike. A guide is mandatory with your entrance fee, and they help bring the park to life as well as providing employment for locals, something a guide book will never do. My advice given the number of guides on offer, is to check reviews and ask the right questions. Make sure their level of English suits before agreeing a price.
Those with more time can hike for several days with a guide and I was told you could literally see thousands of lemurs. Although we only spent one full day hiking through the park, I felt happy with the amount we saw.
After a long walk through the national park and having made it to the lunch stop were greeted by a slowly cooking BBQ and cold beer for our troubles. All around us lemurs darted between trees hoping for a scrap of food without success and that was when ‘the great lemur revolution’ happened. The first ‘all-white’ lemur we had seen was spotted slightly down the track. With immediate effect, word spread through the restaurant and we leapt to our feet with cameras in hand to photograph it. Meanwhile, back at the lunch table, the absence of people gave the remaining lemurs the perfect opportunity to swoop down and feast on discarded bread during the commotion – therefore creating the perfect diversion! They look cute but these lemurs are crafty!
After a full day of hiking and a hearty lunch, a further 30 minute trail following the river brought us to Piscine Naturelle. Here we found two fresh water pools of varying temperatures (one very cold and the other medium) in natural stone caves. They reminded me of the underground cenotes which can be found in Mexico. These crystal-clear pools were surrounded by overhanging trees and provided a reprise from the sun. This is a great way to wind down after a day on foot.
The gift which doesn’t keep giving
It’s important for me to buy a little trinket for my desk as a reminder of where I’ve been and help spark a memory. In this case my travel buddy Laura pipped me to the post. After leaving Isalo National Park she bought 4 little stone lemurs from young children and handed me two. After closer inspection two of the lemurs had just been sculpted from mud and within seconds the tails had come off, legs squashed and became a pile of mud. The other two cracked and broke overnight. The laughter we got from this was worth more than the meagre cost however, when visiting if the call of the mud lemurs becomes too much to resist, keep in mind it won’t be a long term souvenir.
When timing reaches perfection!
I’ll leave you with something that happened on the way to Hotel Toiles De L’isalo. Something I grew up seeing on wildlife documentaries about the ‘black continent’ and featured highly on my ‘bucket list’.
The annual burning of the African plains is something which I’ve always been interested in. Not because of the fire, more due to the fact they are burning off old growth to leave room for new life to sweep across the baron plains. It signifies hope for a new year of feeding families, raising cattle, and also controlling fires which occur naturally.
We were driving across the flat plains at sunset when in the distance we could see a backdrop of what looked like a sandstorm twister. As we drove closer, a long snaking line of fire became apparent, working its way across the land like a methodical massacre, devouring as it went. We stopped the vehicle, jumped out and watched in awe as ash landed all around us and the heat lapped at our faces. For me it’s hard to covey in words just how impressed I was so I’ll leave you with this visual synopsis to help me.
Happy travelling folks!