Expedition to Namoroka

By Dr. Tim Eppley

Our intrepid Wildlife Madagascar team was out in the field in October exploring a new site in northwestern Madagascar.

In August, Wildlife Madagascar received an email from Edd Tucker Brown, the man behind Madagascar Classic Collection’s Mandrare River Camp, a luxury safari-style camp in southeast Madagascar, who was interested in meeting with us. We made plans to meet as soon as we were back in Madagascar in October. Debra, Lytah, and I went into the meeting very open-minded, half expecting that he might be interested in discussing conservation-oriented initiatives for the remaining habitat along the Mandrare River. However, he began telling us about his new venture: building a new high-end tourism site, the Namoroka Tsingy Camp, adjacent to the remote Namoroka National Park in northwest Madagascar.

Open area within the dry deciduous forest of Namoroka, bordered by eroded tsingy.

This was a surprise. I rarely hear anyone talk about this park, and it is certainly far off the typical tourist routes. But, for Edd, this lack of publicity/tourism at such a large and relatively untouched site of tsingy seemed like a perfect opportunity. His team was already on the ground, building a safari-style ecotourism lodge on property they were leasing (this is common in Madagascar, as expats are not allowed to purchase land). His guides were off exploring the forests and the vast network of tsingy canyons and caves, noting the best places for landscape and wildlife viewing. He told us that Namoroka has everything and more, and you are able to experience the beauty in peace without crowds of people.

Edd had been searching for a conservation NGO that could help create and manage conservation initiatives, as well as conduct research programs that can help expand the general knowledge of Namoroka and support how their guides package that information for future guests. He was quick to mention that he wants to build a conservation center to support these efforts and would be happy to host us at his site if we were interested. With such an incredible proposition, Debra, Lytah, and I decided to set off on an expedition to the least-visited corner in Madagascar the following week!

Day 1: Antananarivo to Mahajanga

We decided to forego taking our chances with the airlines and drive instead. It would be a long 14-hour journey, but everyone was up for the challenge. We departed Tana shortly before 6 a.m. Before leaving the city, we stopped to stock up on snacks and drinks, since much of the road to Mahajanga is across highland landscape with nothing but hours of rolling mountains and valleys. I had hoped that I would read the entire way, but after about 30 minutes I looked up from the far back of our three-row vehicle and immediately felt nauseous. I had to lay down and cover my eyes, but unfortunately that sick feeling stuck with me for the full-day journey. Thankfully, by the time we arrived that night, I started to feel better. Escaping the car and feeling the coastal air was refreshing, and we were all ready to pass out in anticipation of our second long day of travel.

Taking a short break along the road somewhere between Katsepy and Mitsinjo.

Day 2: Mahajanga to Namoroka Tsingy Camp

We loaded up the car and headed to the bustling port a little before 7 a.m. To get to Namoroka from Mahajanga, the first step is either a slow vehicle ferry or a high-speed boat across Bombetoka Bay to reach Katsepy. We had arranged to do the boat ride. Once on the beach in Katsepy, we transferred our things to a new vehicle and tied everything down on the roof rack. The journey would take us 150 km along secondary road, a dirt track that is mostly in poor condition, to the coastal town of Soalala. There was little to see along the way—it was mostly rocky landscape of red soil with occasional scattered trees. For a large portion of the journey, the road meanders through the Mahavavy-Kinkony Wetland Complex. This vast landscape of dry deciduous forests, lakes, swamps, and grasslands is a Ramsar site that is also known as an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area. Yet, the area receives less than 100 avid birders annually, likely due to the lack of tourism infrastructure.

A few hours into our journey, we came upon the Namakia sugar cane plantation along the banks of the Mahavavy Sud River. There were many towns scattered throughout this area, with the large river providing necessary water for agriculture. After crossing the river, we stopped for a quick lunch in the town of Mitsinjo, allowing us to escape the vehicle, stretch our legs, and have a cold drink. Along the way, we had gained a few locals, who had been sitting on our roof. I believe one was our mechanic, which is necessary when traveling in remote regions, but as for the others crammed in the back and on the roof, we weren’t sure where they came from. They all appeared quite tired; I am sure it was exhausting holding on all that way over poor road conditions, especially in the midday heat.

Sunset along the route between Soalala and Namoroka.

We arrived in Soalala a little before 4 p.m. We had already been in communication with the ferry, and we were able to quickly drive aboard. It was here that our extra passengers departed, and, coincidentally, the roof rack fell off the car. Once on the other side of the estuary, we moved our things into the back of the vehicle and continued along our way. While the distance to Namoroka National Park from Soalala is only 70 km, the road is awful, with many areas under several feet of water, and it would take 3 hours to reach our destination! Along the route, we stopped for a short break as the sun was setting. After such a long couple of days stuck in a vehicle, it was a nice way to reset. Despite how tired and sore we all were, I wouldn’t have changed anything. These long overland journeys are part of the adventure, and working in Madagascar, it’s part of this country’s charm.

We finally arrived at our destination: Namoroka Tsingy Camp around 7 p.m., and being a new moon, it was pitch black. We were greeted by Edd and introduced to his team, led by Patrick. We set up our tents near a wall of tsingy, and they provided us with some thick sleeping mats that were excellent. Thankfully dinner was ready too, so we enjoyed rice, lentils and vegetables, a great ending to a long two-day journey. We discussed our schedule for the coming days. We wanted to see it all, but particularly the lemur species and other wildlife.

Our camping spot at Namoroka Tsingy Camp, nestled between tsingy and a baobab.

Day 3: Namoroka Tsingy Camp – Exploration of Ambovonomby

Waking up in a new place and being able to see it for the first time in the morning light was great. Towers and walls of tsingy bisected camp, creating small, partially hidden canyons protected from the elements. It followed along a spring-fed gallery forest that extended into the distance, with the occasional baobab tree towering over smaller vegetation. It was all perfect!

We quickly discovered that Namoroka is an excellent birding site. There were raptors seemingly floating in the sky, while smaller birds sang in the early morning light. As a biologist, I am always keeping lists of everything I see, and within 20 minutes, I had filled a full page in my small notebook! Not to let the morning get away from us, we had a hearty breakfast and then headed out to explore.

We spent the morning at Ambovonomby, which is an area along the southern end of the main tsingy/forest block of Namoroka. This site was incredible, with towering tsingy and a labyrinth of limestone caves that appeared endless, all surrounded by a healthy dry deciduous forest. It was unlike the other tsingy sites I’d visited in Madagascar, and being here alone, in our own small group, made it that much more special.

tsingy rock formations
Amazing formations of the tsingy rock.

We saw kestrels, lesser vasa parrots, broad-billed rollers, bee-eaters, and even a barn owl. We made our way through the forest in hopes of observing lemurs, but we were instead greeted by crested couas, giant couas, and the footprints and scat of large Nile crocodiles. We learned that throughout Namoroka, there are many large open areas that become seasonal pools during the rainy season from December through March, so they are only accessible during the drier periods. Apparently, crocodiles retreat into the extensive cave network during this time, and then only emerge when the landscape is a scattering of seasonal pools and streams.

After this short hike, we found ourselves on the back end of a large tsingy, which Lytah, our driver Ernest, and the guides climbed for a better view. It should be noted that tsingy are incredibly sharp and can cut right through the sole of hiking boots if you hit it at the wrong angle. So free climbing this stretch wasn’t my idea of a smart decision. I stayed down below with Edd and Debra as we discussed more about the site and what he envisioned for his guests.

Tojo Lytah braving a climb on the sharp tsingy rocks.

We returned to the cave network about an hour later, had a short break and then ventured into the caves. There were many stalagmites and stalactites through the large, cavernous passageways, and some were still wet from previous rains. This area didn’t appear to have any of the fossils we had been told about, so we went to a different area about 15 minutes away to look for them. We did see a number of bones and partial tusks from Madagascar’s extinct pygmy hippos, though there was a full subfossil tusk that had disappeared since Edd’s last visit. This was a disappointment, and it shows that there may be a larger issue with authority figures selling, and/or visitors simply taking, these important artifacts from the park.

We got back to the camp just as a strong thunderstorm moved in. We ate lunch as heavy rains lasted for at least a couple of hours. Many of us went back to our tents to read and/or nap. I tried to nap but couldn’t seem to drift off, so once the rains subsided, I wandered around observing birds and small mantella frogs. When it got dark, Ernest and I decided to go on a night walk along the gallery forest. It was a simple plan, walk along the forest edge for maybe 400 meters, cross the streambed, and walk back to camp on the other side. The gallery forest here is no more than 20 feet across and is akin to a thin line of trees meandering through the landscape. Having worked for decades in dense jungle, this seemed like a relaxing evening.

We walked along the edge and saw many dwarf lemurs and mouse lemurs. In fact, there were two mouse lemur species here, one medium sized (Microcebus murinus), and the other tiny (Microcebus myoxinus). It’s always remarkable to observe two similar and closely related species living in the same landscape, sharing habitat, and that’s what appears to be happening in this fragmented landscape. We also saw a tenrec, and decided to cross the stream bed. Once on the other side, we immediately saw more eye-shine, and this led to even further eye-shine. It seemed like every 50 meters or so, we would see another mouse or dwarf lemur, which we would rush to in hopes that it might be something new, like a fork-marked lemur or a giant mouse lemur, but it was always one of the species we had already seen.

After about an hour, both Ernest and I noticed that we could no longer hear the camp’s generator, nor could we see the faint lights. We decided we needed to cross back over, but when we entered the gallery forest this time, we seemed to walk for a very long time and eventually were surrounded by tsingy. There hadn’t really been any tsingy in the section of forest near camp—we had gotten turned around. Well, this pattern of attempting to cross the stream bed, getting turned around by tsingy, and then emerging on the same forest edge where we entered continued for the next two hours! We kept going further and further along, attempting to cross, and then backtracking. Eventually, Ernest was able to pick up a signal on his phone. We discovered that we were only a kilometer from camp, but in the exact opposite direction from where we thought we were. It took another 25 minutes, but we finally could hear and see the camp and made our way back. It was a bit nerve-wracking, but all ended well!

Day 4: Namoroka Tsingy Camp – Exploration of southeast trail system

Our focus this day was on wildlife. We had seen a lot of birds throughout the day and some nocturnal lemurs in the evening, but we still hadn’t observed any Decken’s sifaka or red brown lemurs, the two largest lemurs in the area.

We drove to a nearby forest block that was typical of other dry deciduous forests, with smaller trees and a low canopy. It’s possible that some selective logging has been occurring here, as there were many small trails, though according to MNP, this is not an area that they bring visitors or monitor. The forest was abundant with birds, and we recorded a pair of Tsiombikibo sportive lemurs, a critically endangered species endemic only to a small portion of this remote northwest region. Also, this forest had very curious large open areas scattered throughout, and it was clear from watermarks that these become inundated during the seasonal rains. In some cases, they may be a few meters deep, so there must be a lot of water that accumulates here. As we hiked, more and more tsingy appeared, and the route became quite difficult to navigate. Passing through tight rock formations of sharp tsingy and crawling and climbing on them can be quite dangerous, but it’s also an adventure.

Tsiombikibo sportive lemur

Toward the end of our morning hike, we had an unpleasant surprise: both Debra and Lytah were stung by wasps that came out of a large nest! Wasps in Madagascar often live off the end of low-lying leaves, so if you quickly pass by, you may inadvertently knock one into your shirt and get stung. Most of these “nests” only have 4-5 wasps, so the threat isn’t usually that bad. However, the nest today had at least 30 wasps, and for whatever reason, we made them angry. Unfortunately, Debra received the worst of it, with multiple stings as we mistakenly backtracked right into them a second time. She was okay, though, and eventually we found our way out of the forest.

Our original plan had been to visit the nearby village of Vilanandro, however, the 4-wheel-drive gear on the vehicle broke along the route, so we made our way back to camp. We were supposed to stay the next day and visit a lagoon area that is another highlight of the park, but given the issue with the car and potential complications, we decided that we would return to Mahajanga the next morning.

After lunch, Edd’s team noticed a group of Decken’s sifaka feeding in the gallery forest just beyond camp. This was incredibly exciting, as no one had yet seen the sifaka in the gallery forest, so knowing that they come so close to camp is excellent. We watched a group of five individuals for over an hour, and while they scrambled a bit, they didn’t really mind us watching them. This would be an easy group for a student to collect data on.

Decken’s sifaka

By late afternoon, Lytah, Ernest, and I returned to the same area we explored in the morning, this time from a different side. The large open areas here were incredible, with lots of seemingly softer tsingy worn from millennia of rains and winds. Our top observations included Chabert’s vanga, a greater vasa parrot in a nest hole, and a large group of red brown lemurs, including at least three infants riding on their mothers’ sides. As we waited for the sun to set, we were greeted by a mixed flock of birds, including giant coua, crested coua, and a pair of Schlegel’s asity. This species is one of most heavily sought after birds to observe in Madagascar, so it was an incredible treat for us to experience! Once it was dark, we observed numerous mouse lemurs, sportive lemurs, and even a very fast and raucous fork-marked lemur. The forest was alive with frogs, snakes, chameleons, and lemurs. It was exactly what we had hoped for!

Schlegel’s asity

Day 5: Namoroka Tsingy Camp to Mahajanga

We woke up around 5 a.m. and quickly broke down our tents and packed the vehicle. Our driver and mechanic put everything back together, and though we would not have the option of 4×4, they felt it was possible to get back to Soalala where another vehicle would meet us and take us to Katsepy. Figuring out logistics in Madagascar requires a lot of pieces to fall into place. Our major constraint was making it to Katsepy before 4 p.m., as none of the private speed boats are allowed to cross Bombetoka Bay for Mahajanga after that time. So, it was a race against the clock.

Pirogue ride across the estuary to Soalala.

We made it to the docks around 8:30 a.m., moved our luggage to a large pirogue (canoe) and paddled across the estuary to Soalala. The tide is low in the mornings, so the car ferry isn’t operational until after midday. Once on the other side, we loaded up our new vehicle, briefly met with our colleague at the Madagascar National Parks office in town, and set off for Katsepy. The trip was rough as our new vehicle had little extra room all of us jammed in there. By the time we arrived in Katsepy at 3:30 p.m., we were ready to escape that vehicle and get across the bay.

Unfortunately, our driver was upset and complained about money as he apparently was not provided the full details by both his boss and his brother, our original driver that we left with the semi-broken 4×4. This debacle lasted for another hour, in Katsepy, the boat, and at the port in Mahajanga. Finally, Lytah was able to get through to him and all ended well. It’s important that we don’t burn any bridges this early on, as it is likely we will need their car/driver services again if we are to work in this region. The day then ended at a wonderful hotel with an ocean view.

Days 6-10: Mahajanga to Antananarivo

After so many long, bumpy, and generally uncomfortable car rides, we decided to lay low at the hotel in Mahajanga. The extra time allowed us to discuss plans with Edd about the Namoroka Tsingy Camp and think about our schedule for the upcoming months. Also, it didn’t hurt that the food at this hotel was excellent. It’s rare to find a hotel in Madagascar with such a large menu that they are able to execute so well.

One of the things that we intended to do was set up camera traps near the camp, but for whatever reason, time got away from us. However, knowing that we wouldn’t be using these camera traps over the next month, and that Edd’s team would be continuing to build their lodge and explore the national park and surrounding area, I suggested we send our camera traps back to the site with Patrick, who had come to town for supplies. I showed Patrick the settings that work best and how to set them up to maximize the number of “captures,” so I am very hopeful that we will have some fascinating photos to go through.

It was our intention to fly back to Antananarivo on Tuesday, November 15, but we were surprised to find very few people upon arriving at the airport. This is unusual, since Malagasy airports are typically packed many hours before a flight. Unfortunately, we discovered that our flight had been cancelled. With only one domestic airline with a limited number of planes that are constantly in need of repair, we decided to bail on the rescheduled flight the next evening, and instead rented a car to drive us back to Tana in the morning. Our drive back wasn’t all that bad, despite taking the entire day. The views of the highlands were spectacular, enhanced by storm clouds in the distance. To me, it was an appropriately dramatic end to our Namoroka expedition.

Left to right: Tim, Lytah, Debra, Ernest, and Edd at Namoroka Tsingy Camp.

One comment

  1. Diane Murbach

    Thank you so much for this detailed journey of your Expedition to Namoroka! This area is truly fascinating. Do you have a route map showing the locations visited? I love the trip log however I am a “map” person to understand surroundings. Is it possible to include a route map for these expeditions? Thanks for checking

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