21 February 2012

Hiking in Isalo

The shoulder-height grasses bent and bucked in the stiff wind, almost obscuring the hiking trail.  Ahead of us, a trail of stone steps would lead us down to a treed rest spot for lunch.  We were in Isalo National Park in southern Madagascar - 81,450 hectares of majestic wind-weathered rock buttes, stony desert grassland and hidden cascades surrounded by palm and tropical plants. This is Madagascar's most popular park.  It protects some of the rarest plants and fauna on earth.

You could spend a lifetime studying the plants in this region and still have more to learn.  Our local guide, Zakatina, knew the botanical names for all the plants we passed.  A former teacher, he is one of the most experienced guides in the park; we were happy to follow him, even for a strenuous seven-kilometre hike.  

I was pretty happy when I made it to the anticipated viewing point.

Fortunately it was an overcaast and breezy day, otherwise we would have faced 35 or 40 degree heat.  Drinking water, and lots of it, was essential.  Dorique, our fun-loving guide from Cactus Tours, practiced his water-carrying technique.  That's Zakatina on the left.

We learned that the Bara people, the local tribe, considers the high sandstone rocks to be sacred. They still bury their loved ones in small caves, returning in three years for the dry bones which are honored in a celebration before being interred in a final resting place high in the rock face. Zakatina explained that it is forbidden to point at the sacred rock with an outstretched finger; instead, you must use a curled finger.

Rob, an entomologist at heart, was delighted with the insects were encountered, like this sowbug-type insect that rolled itself into a ball.

A large stick insect that blended perfectly with the twiggy branches of the shrubs.

A " technicolor" grasshopper that does not fly.

And then there was this boa constrictor that moved across our path.

The wind and light rain meant that we did not see many lemurs.  We had hoped to glimpse the all white Verreaux sifaka, but at lunch we did enjoy the antics of a family of ring-tailed lemurs.  They were habituated to people, but still rather wary of our movements.

Zakatina led us to a beautiful waterfall where Rob took a swim. Later we climbed to the Cascade des nyphmes, a hidden waterfall that captured the hidden beauty of Isalo.

After a long and demanding day, we are glad to return to our hotel, Isalo Ranch, to savour the memory and mystery of this place.


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