As our car rolled to a stop, the park ranger told us that we were the first to make it all the way to the entrance gates of Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park this year. The park is inaccessible during the rainy season in Madagascar, which runs from November to the end of March, and which transforms the dirt road leading to the park into a giant mud pit. I arrived at the park in mid-April and, while the roads were open, they were barely passable. It took our car seven hours to travel the final 25 kilometres to the park. I have lost count of how many times we got stuck in the mud.
The road to the park was littered with casualties. We passed an American couple whose driver had tried to cross a ‘puddle’ which turned out to be several feet deeper than anticipated. The water flooded the car, drenching their luggage and killing the engine. The tourists spent the night in a nearby village and at noon the next day were still trying to get the car started. A French couple had gotten stuck in a particularly bad stretch of mud and had spent the night in their car. We helped get them unstuck. Spanish and Italian tourists, whose car had gotten stuck early in the morning, had spent the day drinking their extensive supply of Madagascar rum. By the time we arrived they no longer seemed concerned with reaching the park.
Although frustrating, the journey to Tsingy de Bemaraha was filled with laughter. Every time our car got stuck, a group of villagers would rush to help us, filling mud puddles with sticks and branches and pushing the car. Eventually, our driver decided to pay a group of them to act as scouts and they jumped onto the back of the SUV, helping to navigate us through the worst stretches of road and testing the depth of puddles before we tried to cross.
Most of the people we encountered on the way to the park were friendly, but one small group of villagers decided to take advantage of the mayhem on the roads by demanding a toll for safe passage. They had set up a barricade of rocks and sticks and surrounded our car when we approached. They asked the driver for $10, and gently nudged our tires with their machetes when he tried to argue. After a series of lengthy negotiations, the driver paid the toll and the villagers moved the rocks and logs aside for us to pass.
Tsigy de Bemaraha National Park is worth the effort. The park is a stone forest – a series of limestone formations which are home to lemurs, birds, and reptiles. A few years ago, a Spanish climber outfitted the formations with steps and footholds, and it is now possible to climb up and down the limestone towers, as well as cross them on swinging bridges. I spent the day climbing up and down the formations, exploring caves, and watching lemurs jump between the rocks.