Today’s post is about hiking in Isalo National Park on Madagascar. It is one of the most remote, unusual and unique places. During my trip to the exotic island of Madagascar, I did a one-day hike in the Canyons of Isalo National Park. While visiting this amazing place, I had the opportunity to see various ecosystems, beautiful forms created by nature and traces of ancient traditions of Malagasy tribes. This place made me feel exceptional. Finally, I was able to admire what I had only read about in books. Isalo National Park is the most unique place in the world, and you are about to find out why!
I start hiking in Isalo National Park, early in the morning. The red shades of rock formations and the desert landscape are reminiscent of a scene from an old cowboy movie. The only thing I’m missing is a horse.
Isalo mountain range extends from north to south for about 62 miles and ranges from 800 m (2 625 ft) to 1,240 m (4 068 ft) in height. The entire National Park covers approximately 80,000 hectares. This monumental, natural museum is full of canyons, gorges and peaks. It’s carved by time and water, that make up an otherworldly, magical collection of rocks. Apart from the priceless natural values, this place is shrouded in mysticism. Probably not many of you know, that for thousands of years, there has been a graveyard in the rocks of this Jurassic sandstone.
Thousands of years before the founding of the Isalo National Park, these lands were inhabited by the Bara tribe, a people with very rich traditions that they cultivate to this day. Bara is a nomadic tribe breeding Zebu cattle (more about Zebu here). One family sometimes has up to 50,000 head of cattle. Apart from that, they have nothing more, they sleep on the ground and live poorly. Moreover, all the money they earn is being invested in even more and more new cattle. Does it seem strange to you? If so, you probably haven’t heard of the specific funeral rituals practised by the Bara tribe for centuries!
People from the tribe believe in reincarnation, so their ancestors, and thus also their remains, deserve great respect. So how do the people of the Bara tribe show their respect? First, they bury their dead in mountain caves. Then, every 5 years, Bara dig up their ancestor’s bones to wrap them up with a new shroud. The digging up of the remains of the dead is the whole ceremony called Famadihana. It takes place in the winter (July, August). That is why, there are many tombs in Isalo Park, some perched very high on the rocks. Although the people of the Bara tribe no longer live in the Park, they can still bury their dead there, due to traditions.
When the guide talked about the burial traditions of the Bara tribe and pointed to the places of the tombs, I had goosebumps. I realized that we are passing through a huge cemetery. On the other hand, to be buried in such beautiful natural circumstances doesn’t seem wrong. Interestingly, there is a local tradition saying that if you place a pebble on a Bara tombstone, it guarantees prosperity and safety. So I put a pebble on a pile and move on with peace of mind.
Isalo National Park is almost a desert. The sun is scorching mercilessly, so you must remember to stock up on water and protective filters before hiking. I am walking with my guide towards the mountain massif which rises majestically in the distance. Apart from this hill, the terrain is flat and dry. As you walk deeper into the park, the vegetation changes and Tapia trees appear. The bark of the Tapia tree resembles crocodile skin and is resistant to fire. On the branches of Tapia, you can see silkworm cocoons. Empty cocoons are collected by the inhabitants to make silk threads. Nothing is wasted in Madagascar!
You can wander around the vast area of the Park for a few days, of course with a guide. However, I don’t have that much time and I choose the one-day route that ends at the natural pools. You ask – where does the water in the desert come from? Well, deep in the canyon a new world opens up, like an oasis in the desert. Isalo offers a great variety of ecosystems. This is one of the reasons why it is one of the most visited parks in Madagascar.
After reaching the top, I can see the savannah landscape and the stone massif stretching to the horizon. Moving on, I enter the stone world of steep slopes of sandstone and dramatic rock formations carved by nature. A little further, I see the green slopes of the canyon. I go down to the ravine, and I have a problem not to trip over the stones lying on the road because my eyes cannot tear myself away from the views and my head is almost turning around.
Before embarking on the trail leading to the natural pools, we hiked at a campsite by the river near a deciduous forest. On the trail, this place is called de Canyon des Singes, or Monkey Canyon, there are no monkeys here, but you can see Sifaka dancing lemurs. They say seeing a lemur dance is a good sign, although very rare one. I thought it was just a story until I saw the white lemur Sifaka on the path. His legs were pointing sideways along the ground in funny bounces that did look like an exotic dance. Malagasy prepared lunch for me there, and curious lemurs with tabby tails raised high came up with the intention of stealing the fruit.
After the meal, I make my way through the gorge to the natural pools. I have to admit that hiking in Isalo National Parks is extremely exciting! The gorge is quite narrow and high. On the way, I pass the rich vegetation of reeds, bamboos and ferns. Streams of water run down the walls of the rocks, the falling water creates an invigorating haze that looks like a magical glow in the sunlight. This road certainly leads to the place of my dreams!
After crossing the gorge, two wonders of nature appear in front of me. Natural Pools were carved by the water falling from the waterfall. The larger pool is called The Black Pool because it is very deep and icy, the other is called the Blue Pool, where the water is much warmer, and you can touch the bottom. Jumping into the icy water after a hike in 30 degrees celsius is a dream come true. Additionally, I could enjoy this little paradise exclusively.
I have always dreamed of taking a bath in such natural circumstances. Even though the awareness of the depth of the Black Pool is a bit scary, I jump into the water and swim towards the waterfall. The water falling from above is pleasantly warm, warmed by the sun. I very much enjoy this moment. Feeling a bit like a nymph in the midst of a thicket of hanging lianas and crystal clear water around. The sun is slowly setting over the gorge so it’s time to go back.
I am also attaching a short video about my hiking in Isalo National Park, Natural Pools of Madagascar and my spectacular jump into the deep, cold Black Pool!
Full of new energy, after swimming in Natural Pools, I cross the gorge the same way I came. I need to hurry, to catch the sunset over Isalo’s window. “Isalo Window”, is a window-like rock formation through which you can watch the sunset. In high season there are many tourists here, but since it is April, there are only two cars apart from us.
My driver is a bit sceptical to come here, as this place is considered dangerous after sunset. Lots of robberies happen quite often here. Therefore, you shouldn’t go there alone and it is best to return immediately after sunset, together with other tourists as an escort.
The spectacular sunset in Isalo National Park is the perfect finale of this day. A last glance at the stone formations lit by the golden sun, accompanied by a blissful sigh of gratitude. It was another day that I will remember for a long time. If you want to learn more about my adventures in Madagascar, check out the article: Madagascar Travel Inspiration, A Day in Ranomafana Rainforest or Madagascar Lemurs.