Sandstone Massifs, Secret Swimming Holes, and Stunning Wildlife: Exploring Madagascar’s Isalo National Park

Madagascar’s Isalo National Park is brimming with hiking and backpacking adventures.
Madagascar’s Isalo National Park is brimming with hiking and backpacking adventures. Malee Oot
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I swear my kidneys are shifting as our van rattles over the dirt track running from the silken tarmac of the Route Nationale 7 to the southeastern edge of Madagascar’s Isalo National Park. Through the windshield, all I can see is an amber wall of rock, rising above the pockmarked road. After trundling through a coffee-colored stream, our beleaguered vehicle eventually shudders to a stop at the foot of a towering sandstone escarpment. Spreading morning sunlight illuminates ribbons of ochre, apricot, and gray, striping the stratified wall of rock. It feels like we’ve just rolled up to the doorstep of vast wilderness.

Situated about 430 miles southwest of Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital, Isalo National Park is nestled between the flaxen grasslands of the Horombe Plateau and the cavernous sapphire mines surrounding the town of Ilakaka. The 81,540-hectare national park is a geological wonder more than 145 years in the making, defined by the eponymous Isalo Massif, a rugged cordillera dating back to the Jurassic Period. Hulking sandstone turrets and sun-scorched mesas give way to riverine gallery forests and canyons bejeweled with natural swimming holes, creating a landscape evocative of America’s arid Southwest—and a place totally unexpected on an island renowned for blissful beaches and mind-blowing biodiversity.

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A panoramic view of the rugged Isalo Massif stretches out from the Korobe Plateau. Malee Oot

Spread along the RN7, one of Madagascar’s national motorways, highly accessible Isalo National Park is one of the island’s most visited protected areas. Yet, while rough-and-tumble travelers regularly seek out Isalo, most tourists explore only a tiny sliver of the protected area, and the park’s backpacking potential is largely untapped by visitors. While drafting the itinerary for a three-week road trip through Madagascar—a circuit crammed with five national parks and a handful of special reserves and protected areas—my travel buddy Andy and I both agreed Isalo couldn’t be missed. But, our overloaded schedule gives us just two nights in the national park, so to make to the most of our time we planned to tackle a nearly 7.5-mile circuit through the southeastern corner of the protected area.

Scrambling out of our dust-streaked van, Andy and I shake hands with our park guide, Noel. After slathering on sunscreen, we begin to climb, ascending a series of switchbacks sliced into the hillside. The vast grasslands below are pocked with scabs of dust, a sign the dry season is underway. Midway up the slope, we stop beneath a tapia tree, taking advantage of the shade. The fire-resistant tree is bedecked with tiny silkworm cocoons, which provide the raw material for artisanal silk production. In parts of Madagascar, including the central highlands north of Isalo National Park, income generated by silk weaving has helped safeguard some of the island’s disappearing tapia forests, providing a livelihood option in a place where economic opportunities are often scarce.

The ribboning footpath eventually deposits us at the top of a grassy plateau, hemmed in by turrets of sandstone. In the distance, a striking chain of craggy buttes spreads against the sky. Along the trail, sparse patches of grass bristle from the earth, making the landscape look barren and parched. We are still at beginning our hike, but I can already understand why Isalo was chosen by Discovery Channel for an episode of the survivalist series Naked and Afraid.

But sometimes looks are deceiving. Despite appearing devoid of life, Isalo National Park harbors an unexpectedly rich array of flora and fauna. Nearly 400 different plants are found in the protected area, including everything from a poisonous tree capable of stopping a human heart in minutes to periwinkle-like flowers used to treat Yellow Fever. Then, there’s the highly adapted fauna. The park supports nearly 80 types of birds, more than 40 different reptiles, and 14 primate species, including the island’s illustrious ring-tailed lemurs.

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Isalo National Park is home to an astounding array of wildlife. Malee Oot

Rounding a corner, we stumble onto a huge mound of stones, perched along the trail. Noel explains the stone pile is a tomb, built by the local Bara people who inhabit the sun-seared grasslands of south-central Madagascar. The Bara are renowned for managing to raise vast herds of humpbacked cattle—known locally as zebu—in a place with a notoriously arid climate and strikingly rocky terrain. Anthropologists have speculated the Bara may be descendants of peoples from the African mainland, and culturally the group has much in common with other pastoral tribes encountered in East Africa: namely, an existence closely intertwined with the survival of their livestock and a storied reputation for cattle rustling. A precious source of wealth and meat, zebu are still sacrosanct to the Bara and herds are minded fastidiously. Isalo is also sacred to the Bara, and in addition to this trailside tomb, there are several other burial places tucked into the park’s cliffs and caves. Cautious of local taboos, known as fady, Andy and I each add a stone to the pile out of respect, and continue walking toward the horizon.

Distant bluffs silhouetted by the mid-morning sun begin to take shape as we cross the vast mesa. Suddenly, a bronze-winged Malagasy kestrel dips from the sky. The spotted falcon grazes ground, and then soars skyward again, a young Oustalet’s chameleon dangling from its claws. Gradually, the trail begin to descend, snaking through cathedrals of Jurassic sandstone. The landscape changes in layers, slowly transitioning from khaki to green. Pink periwinkle blooms and Onilahy palms shade the trail as we delve deeper into the Namaza Canyon, on the way to the Cascade de Nymphes and a smattering of secluded swimming holes.

The bottom of the Namaza Canyon feels like a subterranean oasis, and the temperature drops noticeably as the trail begins to parallel the Namaza River. As the canyon narrows, we walk through a sandstone alley teeming with quarter-sized orange butterflies, wild frangipani, and pandanus palms. Overhead, a Madagascar bulbul calls. The dry season is just beginning, but already the Cascade de Nymphes is nothing more than a trickle of water, sliding over the amber rock like a silver chain.

We continue along the trail toward a pair of waterfall-fed swimming holes. First, we reach the Blue Pool, appearing like a cozy, rock-hewn Jacuzzi filled with aquamarine water. The adjacent Black Pool is larger and deeper, fed by a slender, rock-funneled flume. The dark water is breath-sapping and invigorating, and I’m instantly chilled as I plunge into the icy depths.

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Ring-tailed lemurs are among Madagascar’s most famous residents. Malee Oot

I still feel cooled to the core as we begin the trek back through the canyon to the backcountry Namaza campground, in time for a late afternoon lunch. As the gorge expands, the trails delves into a humid gallery forest studded with chinaberry, neem, and mango trees. Suddenly, I see a flash of movement. A ring-tailed lemur is crouched in the middle of the trail, slurping ants from a hole in the ground. Looking up, I notice the branches overhead are also filled with the grey and black primates. As we pause to frantically snap pictures, the lemurs scramble down from the canopy and continue along the trail single-file, a parade of prosimians.

We follow the lemurs into a clearing peppered with tent pads – the Namaza campground. Andy and I drop our packs in the shade of the campground’s straw-roofed dining area, and watch the ring-tails clamber into a feathery neem tree. The backcountry chef arranged by our guide appears with impeccable timing, toting two river-chilled beers and an artfully-carved pineapple. With just the lemurs for company in this vast outdoor wonderland, we sip our beers in the shade.

If You Go

Permits and Fees: The entry fee for the national park is 65,000 Ariary ($20). Park guides are required (and an invaluable source of information). Guiding fees are approximately 80,000 Ariary ($24) for a half-day hike or 120,000 Ariary ($36) for a full-day excursion.

Hiking Isalo: There are nearly a dozen circuits in the park for day hikers, catering to all fitness levels. Overnight excursions can be arranged by Momo Trek, based in the town of Ranohira, just outside the national park. Our visit (and 21-day road trip) was arranged by Madagascar Natural Tours.

Accommodation: Aside from the Namaza campground, there are nine different campsites scattered throughout the national park for backpackers already outfitted with gear. Just outside the park, a range of accommodation options are available, including the bargain-priced ITC Lodge, the eco-friendly Isalo Ranch (which also permits camping), and the elegant Relais de la Reine, complete with an onsite via ferrata.

Other Activities: Photographers can capture stunning twilight shots at La Fenétre (or Isalo’s Window), a gap-bedecked boulder positioned perfectly toward the setting sun. For adventurous travelers, the equestrian center at La Relais de la Reine can also arrange horseback excursions.

Written by Malee Baker Oot for RootsRated Media in partnership with RootsRated.

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