The world is a dynamic environment home to a trillion species. Full of beautiful landscapes pre-dating humans, impressive engineering feats that wouldn’t exist without us, and of course, the in-between. This is VK Nagrani’s Badass Places.
Limestone sculptures sharp enough to slice through the most quality climbing gloves rise 300 feet while even the slimmest body shapes struggle to traverse the fissures deep below.
Welcome to Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park on Madagascar’s west coast, more aptly known as the “forest of knives.” Here’s why it’s truly unlike anything on our planet.
1. Tsingy’s Origin and Geological Makeup
“Tsingy” refers to the karst limestone formations that make up the stone forests. Tsingy means “walking on tiptoes,” or “the place where one cannot walk” in Malagasy, and no report of a visit to the national park has come close to contradict that meaning.
Tsingy de Bemaraha owes its beauty to 200 million years of heavy tropical rainfall erosion. It’s believed that groundwater from these heavy rains entered the porous limestone to create caves and tunnels. When the roofs to these caves and tunnels eventually collapsed, the giant spires were left.
Tsingy National Park is comprised of two main formations: Little Tsingy and Great Tsingy, with both displaying karstic elevation characteristics true to their name. To the north, these formations border the Tsingy de Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve, which is closed to the public. To the east, a condensed group of mountains sharply gives way to the Bemaraha Cliffs, which overlook the Manambolo River valley some 1,000 meters below. On the western end, the slopes are more gradual and form a plateau.
2. A Biodream
Despite the unlivable image that appears at the thought of really tall razor sharp “trees,” Tsingy de Bemaraha is one of the most biodiverse regions in the entire world.
The site was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1990 and contains many ecosystems through gorges, mangroves, deciduous forests, tropical rainforests, lakes, rivers, rolling hills, waterfalls, sinkholes and an extensive underground cave system. The tsingy summit, slope and base make up three separate ecosystems alone.
Eighty-five percent of the park and reserve’s species are endemic, and an astonishing 47 percent are local endemic. Nearly a dozen rare or endangered lemur species frolic about the limestone needles while a hundred different bird species soar. Tens of endemic reptiles and amphibians roam around and even one species of rodent that’s local to the reserve.
The most fascinating thing about a place like Tsingy de Bemaraha is that it’s still relatively unknown. It’s not uncommon for new species to be found on biological explorations, but the park’s difficult accessibility in many areas limits research access.
3. A Beacon of Sustainable Tourism Amidst Massive Deforestation in Madagascar
Given the task of traveling to Tsingy de Bemaraha and the hard-to-navigate geological state, the park was only accessible to experts until the 1990s. That’s when French explorer Jean-Claude Dobrilla, who had been consulting for Madagascar’s national parks to develop tourist circuits in inaccessible, rocky sites founded the Antsika Association, which aimed to help the Malagasy people preserve and profit from their natural resources.
With the help of locals and funding from the EU, the Antsika Association made the park what it is today, adding a connected climbing system via aerial suspension bridges, steel cables, pegs and ladders. In total, 8 circuits of varying difficulty were created over a nine-year period.
Today, the Antika Association helps maintain the park, and Dobrilla himself routinely tests and repairs the climbing circuits, especially the suspended walkways and bridges that allow visitors to stand directly above the tsingy sharp points.
Since the project’s completion, the park has grown in popularity as a “true adventure” tourist destination while staying mostly undisrupted as a biodiverse region. This is remarkable, but especially in contrast to the rest of Madagascar. The country has lost 80 percent of its forests (half since just the 1950s), jeopardizing the approximately 90 percent of species endemic to the country. Thankfully, the Tsingy de Bemaraha doesn’t face quite the same risk, as the park’s overall inaccessibility (especially in the Reserve) act as a strong deterrent to endangerment activities.
The strong impact on the local economy makes Tsingy de Bemaraha’s natural awe even better, as tour guides, 4×4 drivers, restaurant and hotel workers all make their livings off the park. In a world that typically puts profit at the expense of preservation, Tsingy is a shining example of how focused eco-tourism efforts can benefit local people and still protect natural wonders.
4. It’s Not Easy to Reach
The best things in life are never easy, and getting to Tsingy de Bemaraha definitely upholds that sentiment. Transportation options include road or chartered plane to the nearest village (and then some driving). The most accessible route, driving from Morondava, is an innocent-sounding 150 kilometer journey—except that 150 kilometers is on rough, unpaved roads that require a 4×4 vehicle and eight to 10 hours of a tough gut. One TripAdvisor reviewer stated they’d rather take a 50-hour, triple layover flight than experience the off-road trek again.
Once in the park, an entire day hiking can yield a half mile in distance. And like another favorite natural wonder of ours — the Darvaza Gas Crater, Tsingy doesn’t have gift shops and other tourist facilities—just a toilet and a ticketbooth. Smooth.
Read about more badass men, women, places, and moments in time, all part of VK Nagrani’s Badass series.