the ring-tailed lemurs of Tsaranoro
The plan had been to spend a day hiking in the Andringitra Mountains, which act as a boundary between the highlands plateaus and the Great South of Madagascar. However, Tsara camp, where we stayed, lay on the south side of the mountains and it was too far to backtrack to access the park entrance. Instead, we spent the day hiking in the Tsaranoro Valley, ascending the peak that gives the valley its name.
Our hike started with a walk through the Sacred Forest, where we lingered for close to an hour photographing ring-tailed lemurs as they sunbathed on the rocks. Unlike the other lemurs we had seen thus far, the ring-tails did not hide in the foliage. Instead, they chortled, clucked, and even meowed at one another as they hopped among the rocks.
After passing through the forest, we headed towards the base of Tsaranoro, taking a route that skirted its sheer face, which dominated the landscape, dazzling the eye with its scintillating green and red-hued rock. We ascended the south side of the mountain, climbing for the better part of four hours until S declared that she was too hungry to continue without stopping for lunch.
Once we returned to the trail, another 20 minutes of hiking brought us to a viewpoint at which the guide announced that there was no more up to go. We paused to eat a few oranges and take in the gorgeous views of the valley and the Andringitra Mountains, which extended on the other side of Tsaranoro. From the viewpoint we took a trail that led down around the mountain, and here our real hike began.
Turns out, “no more up” referred to the highest point of the Tsaranoro massif on the side that we had ascended. After descending a bit, we found ourselves fighting through a brambly strand of forest that ended at a slab of steep, hard, mostly smooth black rock. Rather than look for a way down, our guide scaled the smooth rock face and tossed down the rope he had been carrying when S protested that she was not following. The rope did not inspire much confidence. It was tattered in parts and, more importantly, was not tethered to anything. The guide, wearing broken plastic flip-flops, was standing somewhere 20-30 meters above us, barely clinging to the rock as he held the other end of the rope. Being careful not to put any weight on the rope lest we pulled our guide down from his precarious perch, we scaled the wall, hugging the rock and only occasionally using the rope to steady ourselves.
After navigating that particularly steep pitch, we walked up the rest of the wall. Pitons anchored a much more trustworthy rope, which we used to scale the last 50 meters, whose gradient D estimated at 70 degrees. Quite unexpectedly, we found ourselves on the summit of Tsaranoro, which at 1910m was some 900 meters (3000 feet) above the camp that lies at its foothills. The descent down the other side required us to climb down four rope-lengths of wall, which was even steeper than the one we had ascended. We were not clipped in, which made the experience somewhat nerve-wrecking.
At the bottom of the wall, D reached for the flat, firm ground that awaited and collapsed with a fierce cramp as soon as he let go of the rope. Visions of Joe Simpson’s ordeal flashed through his mind – we were still very high up on a steep mountain that would be impossible to descend on one leg. Fortunately, this was just a case of D’s brain placating his ego; he massaged the cramp away, and after a few minutes was again able to bend and put weight on his leg. Aside from a few slips, the rest of the descent passed without incident.
Coming off the mountain, we passed a hotel and spotted more ring-tails. As we hurriedly grabbed our cameras, the lemurs appeared en masse, completely impervious to our presence as they snacked on the shrubs in the courtyard. This was a perfect ending to our hardcore 9hr hike and what wound up being our favorite day of the trip thus far.