Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Rock Climbing Adventure. The Big Tsingy.

Rock climbing in Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park.  We did it!!

Wow! What a great day we had today! We both tackled something that was completely out of our comfort zones and not only did we survive, we rocked!

Our day started bright at early.  We were back at the main lodge building at 6a.  Before sitting down and having breakfast, we dropped our our laundry.  By 6:30, I was standing next to our SUV, waiting for George and Jean Claude to show up.



At 6:45a, we were on the road, heading back towards the dock where the ferry had deposited us.  It was early but people were already out and about.  It was a chilly morning and I noticed that people had thick blankets draped around their shoulders and bodies.  Villagers can't afford a closet of clothes and jackets are just not something that many people can afford to have.  So the same blanket that kept them warm in bed last night keeps them warm in the early hours of a chilly winter morning.


Sharp eyed Faly caught sight of a small chameleon and stopped the car so we could get out and have a look at it.  I am not a fan of reptiles but I have to admit, I will make an exception for chameleons.  They are cool creatures!


Back at the ferry dock, we followed Jean Claude up a hill to where there was a small cluster of buildings.


Here is where we would buy our entry tickets for Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park.  The ticket kiosk was open but there was no one working yet so we had to wait a bit.


Looking back down at where the ferry dropped us off yesterday.

While we waited, I checked out the route options for the park.  Today's game plan was to spend the morning in the part of the park known as the Big Tsingy and then go to another part of the park, known as the Little Tsingy, in the afternoon. 


Today, we would be hiking and we had to pick the circuit for the Big Tsingy.  Of course, we had no idea which circuit option to take and asked Jean Claude for advice.  Without having any clue about our athletic or lack of athletic ability, he suggested the Andamozavaky route which is the one that takes you to see all the highlights of the area of the park known as the Big Tsingy.  The description indicated that it was a difficult level of effort but Jean Claude was convinced we would easily tackle it so Andamozavaky it was.

I also saw the words "pont suspendu", in the description, and I realized this was the route that would take us to the suspension bridge that I had seen so many photos of.  That also meant that we would be rock climbing because the suspension bridge is situated at the top of the stone forest and the only way to get there is to climb.  That also meant we would be donning harnesses and using carabiners.   There was a part of me that was really excited and part that was wondering if this was a good idea or not for two people i.e., George and I, who have never rock climbed in our entire lives.  I decided to to say anything to George just in case my memory was faulty and there was not going to be any rock climbing.  I figure worse case is that we start the circuit and turn around if we find it too difficult to continue.


Soon enough, a man appeared and Jean Claude did the needful to get our entry tickets.



By the dock, village life was starting up for the day.




We didn't have far to drive to get to the part of the park where we would be hiking but it was really slow going because of the roads here.  Not only do the large and often, deep ruts slow you down but we had the occasional *stream* to cross over as well. We were offroading!


Before we arrived at the park, we stopped for Zara to pick up the harnesses and caribiners.  Yep, we'll be rock climbing.  I still didn't say anything to George who did not seem to be alarmed at the sight of harnesses being thrown into the back of the SUV.  In fact, I think he was excited at the prospect of doing a bit of climbing.

When we arrived at the park, I noticed a very familiar orange colored SUV - Matthias and Trini were here as well.


Our first task of the day was to get *suited up*.  Zara helped George get into this harness.  I asked George if he was ready for a bit of climbing and he gave me a smile and two thumbs up!


Then it was my turn to get into the harness.  Zara showed me how to keep my carabiners clipped to the harness and how to remove them when I need to use them.  I had a bit of tricky caribiner because it had a sliding mechanism that kept the two ends of the carabiner in place so I had to unslide before I could unclip.



Time for a photo op before heading out.  He has yet to get tired of being my photo muse :-)


I didn't see a harness on Jean Claude so I thought he was going to be staying back but instead, he came with us.  He's been taking very good care of George and I - pretty much accompanying us on all our outings. 


From the parking lot, we took a path that led through a grassy area.  In the distance, I could see tall trees - we were heading for the forest.



A small herd of zebu - very curious about us.  We kept a safe distance from them.  I don't want to be gored by an angry zebu.

As we made our way into the forest, Zara stopped to point out to us the fossils embedded in the rock - a reminder that the forest was once situated under the sea.



Soon we were walking through the dry deciduous forest which is home to several species of lemurs. I noticed Zara scanning the forest as he walked - looking for any sign of movement that would be indication of an animal.


Zara also stopped next to a large clump of rocks.  It was obvious the clump was something that was man made.  According to Zara, this was a family tomb (crypt).  In Madagascar, there is a long standing funerary tradition known as *famadihana* that generally takes place during the dry winter months i.e., now.


Famadihana ceremonies, known as “the turning of the bones”, take place around various towns and villages to commemorate the deceased.  Once every two to seven years, each family holds a huge celebration at their ancestral crypt where the remains of the dead are exhumed, rewrapped in fine cloth like silk, sprayed with wine or perfume, and brought out for community festivities.  Family members then dance with the corpses around the tomb to live music.  In the Malagasy culture, famadihana is a vital element in maintaining links with revered ancestors, who still play a very real role in daily life.

Photo from oldgraveyards.com showing Malagasy parading around with a wrapped up corpse.

As we got deeper into the forest, we started to see more of the unusual limestone rock formations that are unique to Tsingy de Bemaraha.


I had read that the rock edges are sharp but didn't really have any concept of what that really meant until I saw the edges for myself.  The edges are razor sharp and I could see how easy it would be to gash yourself badly if you against one!




The forest floor sits several hundred feet from the top of the rock formation.   Here, trees have to compete not only for sunlight but for water as well.  


Zara pointed out many tree roots that were dangling down from high up just to reach the soil on the forest floor.


Once we got into the forest, we soon left any sort of a path behind. 


Bit by bit, we started to clamor over rocks.  This is when I started to wish that we had gloves.


It wasn't long before I put my camera away as I needed both my hands to help brace myself as I went over one rock or another.  Before we left the forest floor, we also had to crawl, literally crawl.....crab walk style, through a few caves.  The crevices were incredibly narrow.


One was so narrow that in order to pass through, I had to take off my backpack - I was squeezing though a space that was probably less than 2 feet in height.  It was scary; I was afraid I was going to get stuck.   But the guys, who are physically bigger than I am, were making it through okay so I figured I could handle it.  I took everything at my own pace.


In one of the caves, the cavern was large enough that we could stand up but we needed our flashlights to see our way.  Zara spotted and pointed out a blind gecko to us - very cool looking creature.  We didn't want to scare him so we took a quick look and then pointed our flashlights in another direction.  Zara also spotted a nocturnal moth.

Outside of the caves, we continued to clamor up and over rocks.  We had to be very careful where to put our hands because of the sharp rock edges.  In fact, at one point, there as a group behind us and one of there members had gotten cut.  When George and I looked at her, we saw she was wearing shorts.  Why her guide had not advised her to wear pants is a mystery.  In any event, it appeared she was upset but okay so we continued on our way.

Before we knew it, our time to really climb had come around.   Things really got tricky.  I had Jean Claude go in front of me so he could guide me on where to put my feet and hands.

There were spots where there were small slabs of stone nailed into the rock face.  We could step our way along by placing the tips of our feet....yes, just the front part of our feet, on the rocks.  Those were the easy moments.  More typically, there would not be any sort of a slab.  Just an indentation in the rock that we could place our toes on.

See the rock steps at the bottom of the photo?  That's where our feet went but where to put our hands?  Notice there's no step underneath where the steel cabling starts.  Nope, this is not easy!!


Every spot we were in, it was a far way down to the bottom.  I avoided looking down and thinking about what would happen if I did fall - I would be sliced by all the sharp rock.  Not a pretty picture.....no not all.

Other times, we had to cross over a chasm that looked so wide to me that I didn't think I could even jump across it.  I had to literally balance on a rock wall, hugging as tightly as I could to it, and step my way to a point where I could then leap the rest of the way.  Oh my God!  If I was of sane mind, I would have turned around and gone back but we were so far into the hike that I really didn't want to go back and I figured as long as I stay focused and go slow, I will be okay.  That and Jean Claude who was basically my life saver.  I can't tell you the number of times I wished I had much longer legs.


We also had many ladders to go up and down.  Usually, they were easy but several were challenges unto themselves. Sometimes, there was a big gap between where I was standing and the top step of the ladder.  There was no way I could just drop down.  With Jean Claude's help, I had to once again cling to rock and slowly make my way down.  Other times, it was challenge to figure out what to do when you got to the top of the ladder, like in the photo below.  You see the cable and you know that whatever lays ahead is not an easy walk or even an easy climb.


There were only stretches of steel cable here and there.  I was always relieved to see them but in all honesty, there were sections that didn't have cabling that I thought should have and vice versa.  Bottom line, I had to be extremely careful regardless of whether or not there was cable.

At the beginning, I had difficulty using my carabiners - the sliding mechanism was making it difficult for me to clip and unclip them.  So, Jean Claude traded his with mine and then things went smoother for me after that.

I also thought the weight of the backpack was going to cause problems for me - I was carrying my camera (which weighs a few pounds) as well as water bottles for both George and I.  I was afraid it would throw me off balance but as it turned out, the backpack was not an issue at all.

I was glad I had long sleeves on.  I got small nicks on the tops of my hands from simply brushing up against the rock.  I hate to think what the rocks would have done to a pair of exposed arms.

Clipped to the cable and ever so slowly and cautiously making my way up.

While I felt I was struggling, George was climbing with ease.  This may not be the element he's usually in but he was definitely comfortable....though always still being cautious at all times.  He and Zara were always well ahead of Jean Claude and I.  I was happy to see him enjoying himself.

Can you tell he's having fun?

I don't know if it was because of the adrenaline coursing through my body or that I was so focused on not falling and getting injured that time seemed to just fly by.  Step by step, we made our way deeper and higher up in the stone forest.  Unfortunately, I was concentrating so hard that I really didn't get to just stop for a few minutes and take in the surroundings.  Before I knew it, we were standing on the wooden platform, at the top of the forest!!  Yay!!  We had finally arrived and that meant we had a few minutes to enjoy the view and relax bit!

Happy to know I'm just a few feet from the top!

The view from the top of the stone forest was simply breathtaking!  We were literally standing in the middle so we had a stunning 360 degree view of this unique rock formation.  The platform wasn't very big but we were the only folks around so we could walk around and take in the view from different vantage points.


The forest floor is a long way's down!!


At the top of Tsingy de Bemaraha.  George posing with our two guides - Jean Claude on the right and Zara on the left.

We were standing above the forest - you could see how the spires of the rock.


There's always time for a selfie :-)

I had to capture a panoramic view of this place.  Single shots just don't do it justice!

Tsingy de Bemaraha
Panoramic view of Tsingy de Bemaraha. Use the scroll bar to pan to see the entire photo.

There was also a section of rock that was uniquely layered - it was slightly reminiscent of the fairy chimneys in Cappadocia, Turkey.


Water is slowly eroding softer rock to create a gap.  I wonder if someday, millennia from now, the top layer will fall off?




Zara enjoying his break.  Notice he's perched on a rock, not standing on the platform!

You can see how sharp the rock is.

Soon it was time to continue on our arduous journey.  Yes, climbing is arduous.  It was back to more rock, ladders, chasms, stone steps, steel cables, and the constant fear of falling and getting injured.  There better be another amazing view ahead to make all this *pain* worthwhile and indeed there was!!

In no time, we had made our way to the second wooden platform.

Looking back down at where I had just come from.  No path.....just rock to scale up.

I recognized the view as soon as I saw it.  It was the suspension bridge that I had seen in so many photos in my pre-trip reading.   I had to virtually pinch myself.  I can't believe we're actually here!


Before we crossed, we took a few minutes to savor the view.  Once we get to the other side, we will begin our descent so this will be the last time I get to see this amazing landscape from above!

When it was time to cross the bridge, we went over one at a time for obvious safety reasons.  Zara went first and then George was next.  He paused halfway to take in the view.


Then it was my turn.  I held on to the rope and slowly made my way across.  As I walked, I focused on my feet - there were a few planks that looked to be loose and therefore, not to be stepped on!  I too stopped halfway.  What a view!


Last but not least, Jean Claude made his way across.  From here, it was back to more rock, ladders, chasms, stone steps, steel cables, and the constant fear of falling and getting injured except this time, we were scaling down rocks instead of climbing up.  Not that going down is any easier.  In some ways, it's more difficult - especially when there steep drops between step stones or indentations in the rock face.  More than once, I ended up sitting down on my tush to make my way down.

Back on the forest floor, we had one last place to visit on our circuit - a very special place that's called the Cathedral because of the way the rocks from a triangular space as they come together at the top.  It was really pretty.



We decided to stop here for a short break.  Zara and Jean Claude enjoyed some oranges for a snack.  I was just relieved that our climbing days were over and that we were back to *relatively* flat land.  We still had some rocks to go over but no need for harness and carabiners.


Soon enough, we were back among the trees.  I've never been so happy to see trees in my entire life!

While we were walking through the forest, the guys spotted a pair of sifakas.  One was a mother with its baby on its back. I saw the sifaka but never had a good enough vantage point to see the baby.  In any event, we had to take photos.  There's no two ways about it, I simply these furry, cuddly looking creatures and it's been such a privilege to see them in the wild!


Well, hello to you too!


Before we made it back to the parking lot, I had Geoge take a photo of me in front of the circuit map.  This was a huge accomplishment for me and I deserved to have a photo to remember the day by.

With climbing harness and carabiners on.  At Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park.

Back by the van, Jean Claude and George took a look at our van.  Somewhere along the way, we had damaged and lost the left break light assembly.  According to Jean Claude, Faly would likely have to pay for it as there is no rental insurance.  George suggested we pay for it and I agreed - it wasn't much money for us but it would have been very costly for Faly.


Without our equipment safely stowed in the back of the van, we first went back to return the harnesses and carabiners and then it was on to the small town of Belo sur Mer, located a short distance from the ferry dock for lunch.


From start to finish, it took us four hours to do the circuit.  In my estimation, at least 2.5 hours was spent doing hard core climbing.  I can't believe that George and especially me, did this.  It's a huge accomplishment for both of us and as I close this blog posting, I am giving both of us another BIG pat on the back!  And once more, a very big and sincere thank you to Jean Claude for helping me every step (literally) of the way!

We have a full afternoon ahead of us but for now, we get to eat and relax a bit!