Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Exploring the Tsingy and the second car journey from hell

After the trials of the previous day, we wanted to make the most of our time at the Tsingy, and so set off early. We met with a fantastic local guide who went above and beyond during the day to not only lead us through the maze of rock, but also explain the uses of medicinal plants along the way, and entered the national park.

Although we'd seen many photos of the Tsingy when researching the trip, nothing could compare to actually being there. The sharp, jagged limestone spikes rose high into the air, silvery-grey and shining in the bright sunlight. Between the towers, bright green vegetation grew, making it seem like we were looking out over a vast forested mountain range.

Although the peaks of the Tsingy are most often the main focus for photographers, the maze below is just as interesting. We wove through tall canyons and squeezed into tiny gaps, clambering over boulders and edging our way along narrow ledges. It's a very physical day - climbing high up to a view point before descending back to the cool of the shaded floor, and then repeat over and over again - but not exhausting or technically difficult. Our tour finished with a walk through the forest close to the entrance of the Tsingy park, learning about the local plants and catching sight of snakes and chameleons.

In the evening we had dinner in the local village with our guide - the house we ate in seemed to be the entertainment hub (in that it had the only television), and when we arrived crowds of children were already gathering at the windows, squeezing forward in an attempt to get a better viewing spot. A DVD of music videos blasted at full volume out of the small TV as the younger population of the village sang along, enthralled. The creamy coconut curry was delicious, a lovely way to end the day.

The following morning we were up at 4am, allowing ourselves plenty of time for the return journey. Despite the absence of rain since we'd arrived, the track was still heavily flooded, and the first part of journey very closely resembled our arrival, digging the 4x4s out of muddy holes and towing them at times, hoping desperately that everything would hold (as they were beginning to look quite bashed). The return journey took merely 9 hours this time (as compared to the 12 before), but the heat was blistering so we were glad to stop for lunch and a cold drink. Unfortunately we still had some distance to go, as we were driving on to Morondavo in order to catch an internal flight the following day to the south of Madagascar.

After re-fuelling (both ourselves and the car!) we set off for a ferry crossing and then the final few hours of driving. And that's when it got really exciting/terrifying.

Due to a delay in the arrival of the ferry, it was beginning to grow dark as we started the second half of the drive. Thick forests reared up on either side, and at times the road crossed small, barely visible bridges over fast-flowing rivers. After a while, day-dreams clearing as I came to my senses, I suddenly realised that it was much darker than it should have been - in fact, I could barely see the road. And why was our guide hanging out of the window?

Naturally, the car lights had failed. We were driving in the dark, late into the evening, on a poor quality road through forest, and using a small head-torch to lead the way. With 80km left to go. Our driver crept forward, slower and slower, watching out for the many sudden bridges. Kilometres crawled by at a snail's pace, and at last the car broke down completely, the battery gone, with more than 40km remaining and nothing in sight.

Luckily, another 4x4 arrived not long after, and the drivers and guides stood hunched over the bonnet, trying to fix our car. The other vehicle had experienced problems too, and their battery was close to failing. After an hour of head-scratching and sympathetic noises, the drivers were running out of ideas, and decided to try swapping the batteries. By some miracle, our battery came to life in the other car (but still no lights), so we all jumped in/on, leaving our 4x4 by the road side, and made the remaining distance with a combination of luck and multiple head-torch batteries. We arrived after 2am, and immediately fell into bed...

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