After a tiring, but amazing, four days around Andringitra National Park, I headed out for the next stop – Isalo National Park.
The four-hour drive from Camp Catta to Isalo National Park was on one of the best roads in all of Madagascar. In fact, I can’t recall a place I drove in Madagascar where you could find a pot-hole-free road for this many kilometers like you see below. The red soil you see in the photo is what gives Madagascar the nickname “The Red Island.”
Along the way I had my driver stop so I could take a picture of this Royal Poinciana (Delonix regia). Native to Madagascar and easily one of the most popular flowering trees in the tropical world, this tree was the only one I would see my entire trip. I had to stop.
The hiking in Isalo is excellent. There are many different circuits to appease any fitness level. I would end up spending two full days hiking. The first day I walked across the Isalo massif from the Piscine Naturelle to the Cascade des Nymphes. The second day I explored Canyon des Singes (Monkey Canyon), Canyon des Rats (Rat Canyon), and the areas outside Isalo National Park.
Established in 1962, Isalo National Park is the most popular park in Madagascar and is famous for its beautiful landscapes. It has been described as a place “known for its wide variety of terrain, including sandstone formations, deep canyons, palm-lined oases, and grassland.” As you can see below, the sandstone formations, which have been shaped by the elements and date back to the Jurassic period, come in all colors of the rainbow.
The first thing I found of note starting the hike was this Madagascar Periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus).
This Oustalet’s Chameleon and the Spiny Tailed Iguana (second photo below) were both out warming up in the early morning sun.
This Walking Stick Insect was huge, but harmless.
I saw a lot of this in Isalo National Park. Steps carved in the sandstone rock.
This uncanny rock shape is a map of Madagascar.
An old tomb of the Bara (the local people that inhabit the area).
The first palm trees I would see in Isalo National Park were Dypsis onilahensis. While it may look like these palms are growing in an arid area, they are not. They are almost always growing next to a permanent water source along stream beds.
Isalo National Park is amazing in its ability to take you through one of the most contrasting landscapes you will encounter in an area this size. The Dypsis onilahensis above appear to be growing in grasslands. Those Dypsis onilahensis are actually much taller than they appear and are really growing out of this environment shown below. This is the oasis you walk down into on your final approach to the Piscine Naturelle (Natural Swimming Pool). Isalo National Park is a hot and dry climate. Temperatures can reach 86°F (30°C) or more. These Riparian forests found along rivers in the canyons are a great way to temporarily escape the sun and heat.
Along this part of the trail you can find a few different pandanus species growing.
This is most likely the most popular stop for tourists that visit Isalo National Park. This is the famed Piscine Naturelle (Natural Swimming Pool). Because I was in Madagascar towards the tail end of the dry period, this is the shallowest the pool gets. During the rainy season, water fills this pool and visitors swim in it.
Pretty purple dragonfly at the Piscine Naturelle.
Most of the remaining time trekking would be spent hiking through the Rupicolous vegetation on the exposed, sandstone valley. It is here you find the famed Pachypodiums that succulent collectors from around the world adore.
These Pachypodium rosulatum var. gracilius were very old and quite large, as my hat for scale shows.
A few Pachypodium rosulatum var. gracilius could be found growing right off of cliffs.
Aloes could also be found in the Rupicolous vegetation. Named after Isalo National Park, Aloe isaloensis wasn’t much to look at. It liked to hide in other vegetation.
While Aloe isaloensis might not have been an attractive aloe to me, Aloe imalotensis certainly was. I grow this aloe in my garden and I know it is not the fastest. So these must be some old aloes, as they were larger then a basketball.
Aloe imalotensis was found scattered in many parts of Isalo National Park.
My guide loved showing me scorpions.
I much preferred looking at one of the most beautiful insects in the world. The Rainbow Milkweed Locus.
Bari tribe tomb. Family members of the deceased find natural caves to place their relative after death and block the opening with with stacked stones. This is a centuries-old ritual for the Malagasi Bari tribe.
Before dropping into the canyon to continue our trek towards the Cascade des Nymphes, you get a great view looking back at the plateau of Isalo from which we hiked. The second photo below shows the panoramic view looking out from Isalo towards the east. On clear days it is said you can see the Andringitra Mountains.
Walking down into the canyon you come across numerous Dypsis onilahensis. This scene would play out a lot in this part of Isalo National Park.
I have always wondered why Dypsis onilahensis developed the droopy leaves. It is the only one from Madagascar that has this trait. Perhaps it was an adaptation to protect itself from the high winds that rip through the canyons?
Not sure which species of Chadsia this was.
Unknown Mimosa species flower. Many different plants were in bloom during my trek through Isalo.
Once to the bottom of the canyon, we stopped for lunch. The area where we stopped to eat our sack lunch was known for the lemurs. There are three diurnal (active during the day) lemur species in the park. I was fortunate to see all three. First up was the gregarious Red-fronted Brown Lemur (Eulemur rufifrons). These guys are so used to people, they will steal your food if you are not looking.
Ringtail Lemurs (Lemur catta) with babies.
Apparently this is the last Verreaux’s sifaka (Propithecus verreauxi) in this part of the park. The guide said he is a lonely male.
After lunch we continued the trek towards the waterfalls and natural pools. Once again the scenery changed.
It is in this part of Isalo National Park that you’ll find the other form of Dypsis onilahensis. These pictures below show the ‘Stiff Leaf’ form. The difference in these palms versus the ones shown earlier is that the earlier ones have the droopy leaflets. Dypsis onilahensis ‘Stiff Leaf’ have more erect leaflets like you see in the photos.
This was a cool sight. Dypsis onilahensis defying gravity by clinging to a cliff wall.
Finally! After a long, hot day, time for a swim in one of the many natural pools. This was the Cascade des Nymphes.
The Blue Pool had the clearest water and was where I took a dip.
The Black Pool.
After relaxing at the various pools and reflecting on what an amazing journey I had had so far through Madagascar, it was time to start the long walk back to the hotel. I would end up eating a big dinner and going to bed early, because the following morning I had another long day.
The first half of the following day I would spend trekking through Canyon des Singes (Monkey Canyon) and Canyon des Rats (Rat Canyon) to see Ravenea glauca in habitat. To get to the start of the hike you drive through grasslands where Bismarckia nobilis grow. In the photo below, Monkey Canyon is the one to the left and Rat Canyon the the one centered in photo.
My guide for the day is actually the president of the guiding association for Isalo National Park. He has been taking tourists through the park for over 40 years. The first canyon we would explore was Canyon des Singes (Monkey Canyon).
Not far into Canyon des Singes I saw my first Ravenea glauca.
Canyon des Singes quickly becomes narrow. It is a beautiful canyon with towering sandstone cliffs that Ravenea glauca makes its home on.
Contrast to what we find in cultivation in Southern California, Ravenea glauca in Isalo National Park have skinny trunks and bright green leaves. In the photo below, can you spot the imposter? It is a Dypsis onilahensis on the far right in this group of palms. This photo shows what a magnificent sight it was—one of the more memorable I had of Madagascar.
Crossing between Monkey and Rat Canyon, there are thickets of Dracaena.
Plataspid Bugs (Libyaspis coccinelloides).
Flatid leaf bugs (Phromnia rosea). The white nymphs will turn into the red adults you see. Depending on where I was in Madagascar, the adults could be any color from red, orange or yellow.
So do you remember that photo of the Bari tomb from earlier? Well here is a continuation story of their ritual. While I have heard different numbers, it seems the consensus is fiv years later after placed in the tomb, family members return and remove the remains of their family member. They then have a big celebration, as it is a time of happiness. After the celebration the remains are moved to their final resting place. They are re-entombed high up in the cliffs in caves. Closer to God.
If you look in the center of the photograph below you can see what I mean. I have no idea how they get the remains to those tombs, but they do. Still to this day the owners of those caves bury their family members.
Almost back to the car from Rat Canyon we ran into this interesting occurrence. Basically, these locals are making moonshine from sugarcane.
It was time for lunch when we got back to the car. So before exploring some of the sites outside Isalo National Park, we stopped in town for lunch. After a quick recharge, we were back at it. This rock formation with graffiti was called the Queen of Isalo.
The hotel I wanted to stay at in Isalo was booked a few months prior to my arrival. The Isalo Rock Lodge is a beautiful resort (odd for Madagascar, actually) built right in between the sandstone formations of Islao.
The reason I wanted to visit the Isalo Rock Lodge was that they had a short nature walk that takes you through some wetlands. In those wetlands you can find Ravenea rivularis in habitat.
The Isalo Rock Lodge had a nice garden planted with many native plants. One was this Delonix decaryi. It is from a drier area and is a smaller tree than the Delonix regia I showed at the beginning of the blog post.
On the western side of Isalo National Park is where you will find Bismarckia nobilis. It was an impressive scene to look out across the grasslands and see Bismarckia nobilis growing for almost as far as your eye could see.
National Route 7 (RN7) cuts right through Bismarckia nobilis habitat on its way to the west coast. The pictures above were showing the view looking north of the road. The view south tells another story. Zebu farmers light the grasslands on fire to promote new vegetation growth for their zebu. This has sad consequences. The area south had been burnt just a few short weeks ago.
Hyphaene coriacea can be found growing in the same grasslands as Bismarckia nobilis. However, you’ll never find large palms of Hyphaene coriacea. I believe they might be less resistant to fire than Bismarckia nobilis and eventually die before they reach adult size in the grasslands.
My final stop for the day was to visit the Window of Isalo. This is a ridiculously popular area for tourists at sunset as they try to capture the sun coming in from behind the rock window. I was in no mood to be around a bunch of pushy people all fighting to get their shot at sunset, so I went a little earlier. It paid off, as my guide and I were the only people there. While not as photographic as it is when viewed at sunset, I still found the Window of Isalo in late afternoon to be a wonderfully picturesque way to end my time in Isalo National Park