TSIRIBIHINA RIVER AND TSINGY DE BEMARAHA – MADAGASCAR

Baobab Alley afterglow

A visual journey down the Tsiribihina River to Tsingy de Bemaraha and the Alleè Des Baobabs. What to expect, how to get there, tips and highlights.

Madagascar had been one of those countries we’d dreamed of visiting forever! When we finally booked a visit for October 2017, we were super excited. That was until the country experienced a plague outbreak, as they apparently do every year. But in 2017 it was particularly bad and reportedly extremely contagious. As a result, our flights were cancelled with no option of rescheduling, leaving us stranded in the Seychelles with no viable option of getting to Madagascar.

Fast forward one year and we finally made it to the land of lemurs and baobabs. We had 4 weeks to explore the worlds third largest island, so wasted no time in making plans as soon as we arrived. First up was a visit to Tsingy Bemaraha (Tsingy B) to the west of the country. With roads cut off during the wet season (sometimes from as early as mid-November through until March), the park becomes inaccessible. Accessing Tsingy B can be difficult to achieve independently due to bad, sandy unsealed roads (4×4 access only) and poor transport links to the area. So we quickly arranged a short tour which would take us from Antananarivo to Morondava, via the Tsiribihina River to Tsingy de Bemaraha and the famous Avenue of the Baobabs (Alleè Des Baobabs).

Antananarivo and getting to the Tsiribihina River

We had 2 days in Antananarivo (aka Tana), before the trip started. As Tana wasn’t the nicest or safest place to explore, we invested our time in planning the rest of our travels in Madagascar. Only venturing out of the hostel to visit the supermarket, bank, phone shop and for a quick visit to the lake which was surrounded by Jacaranda trees in full bloom.

Jacaranda lac Anosy

We were happy to leave Tana when our tour started. With only 3 other travellers, we had a nice small group. Our first two days were travel days, with a night spent in Antsirabe and then a night in Miandrivazo. It took around 3 hours driving to reach Antsirabe.

Antsirabe was much smaller than Tana and much safer. It had a nice vibe and we felt safe walking around. After a quick lunch, the next job was to head to the local market to buy hats for our upcoming river expedition and to stock up on water for the coming days. Conveniently, there was lovely local restaurant near our hotel for dinner. In the morning we followed our noses to Cafe Miranda, serving amazing croissants and fresh coffee, before starting our drive to Miandrivazo. About 7kms out of the city, we stopped at Lac Tritriva, a large lake with nice views.

Lac Tritriva

We then spent the rest of the day driving through the countryside, stopping for photos and coffee along with a stop at a local village.

village kids

The villagers were mining for gold by banging large wooden poles into rocks by the riverbeds, making divets in the rocks and then collecting the gold dust. Working in groups of around 5 people, each group would collect around 500gms of gold in a day and then sells the gold for around 100,000ar a gram (approx US$28). The children were obsessed with having their photo taken and for the most part, were very sweet.

kids photo

The roads were quite narrow and their quality varied drastically from good to terrible, with large potholes and badly deteriorating sections. Our driver skilfully avoided these as well as ox-carts, cars, trucks and taxi-brousse (bush taxi’s) cyclists and locals herding their zebu. All of which sprawled across the road seemingly oblivious to oncoming and passing traffic. All of the above, coupled with the lack of street lights across the entire country and the higher risk of banditry at night, meant we only travelled in daylight hours. Most of the landscape was bare, having been cultivated for rice terraces or burnt off for a variety of other reasons. We were a little taken back by the complete lack of trees, something we later learnt, was a common theme around the whole country.

The further west we got, the hotter it got. We were all pleased when we finally arrived at our bungalows in Miandrivazo just in time for a sunset beer. After a meal there was a briefing on the upcoming few days out on the river and a last shower for a few days.

The Tsiribihina River

We spent the next two days floating down the Tsiribihina River in dugout wooden canoes, with everything we needed for the trip neatly packed into our 2 canoes. Another group joined us for the first day down the river, although they stayed quite separate from us. In total, there were only 5 canoes out on the water. Our guide said that in the high season, there’s as many as 20+ canoes a day doing the same itinerary!

Tsiribihina River canoe

The canoes weren’t the most comfortable. Our thin foam sleeping mats doubled as a cushion, but didn’t offer much padding. The scenery, however, was beautiful, especially in the mornings when the water was calm. It was also a lovely temperature from sunrise through until about 9am. After that we popped our umbrellas to shelter from the scorching sun. For that reason, we started each day at 5.30am for breakfast and were in our canoes by 6 am.

Tsiribihina canoe

There were dozens of encounters with beautiful Malachite Kingfishers, which much like our travels through West and Central Africa, managed to elude our camera. But, one bird we did manage to photograph was the endangered Humblot’s Heron, who’s motionless fishing stance made photography in a fast moving canoe a little easier! Our canoemen also pointed out numerous chameleons in the reeds, allowing us fleeting glimpses of these beautiful creatures as we swiftly passed them by.

Humblot's Heron

It was also really interesting seeing locals go about their daily lives as we floated past their villages. With everything from fishing to washing themselves and their things in the river to working in their rice terraces and knocking down mangoes from trees. It was fascinating.

Tsiribihina River locals
Daily life on the Tsiribihina River

The afternoons weren’t so pleasant, as we encountered extremely strong headwinds, forcing our canoemen to work extremely hard paddling us down the river. The experience left us feeling quite guilty as the sun was still blazing and the wind was relentless. The water levels also happened to be at their lowest, so we were constantly getting ‘bogged’ on the river bed.

Tsiribihina River

We camped both nights. The first campsite was on a small elevated beach area. It had a waterfall just behind, which was nice to cool down in and wash the sunscreen and sweat off.

Tsiribihina campsite
Tsiribihina waterfall

There were also Red-Fronted Brown Lemurs at this campsite and although they were wild, local rangers were feeding them and allowing them to sit on tourists for photos. Our guide didn’t seem to understand the problem with this or why we were upset about it. Sadly this is a recurring issue in Madagascar, as we were to experience all too often.

Brown Lemur

It was such a tranquil place to watch day turn to night. It was our first really magical Madagascan sunset. Sitting on the river bank watching the colours light up the dusk sky was great way to end our first day on the Tsiribihina River.

Tsiribihina Campsite sunset

The second evening’s campsite was also a sandy beach area, minus the waterfall and lemurs. As you can see from the pictures below, once the tents were up we quickly laid out our sleeping mats/canoe seats out to absorb the last of the suns rays. The strong afternoon winds and resulting choppy water meant they were pretty sodden by the end of the day.

We were again we were treated to another lovely sunset with its ever-changing colours. It was beautifully peaceful falling asleep with only the sound of the Tsiribihina River flowing beside and lapping against its sandy banks..

Tsiribihina River Sunset

Our cook whipped up some delicious meals of Zebu, fresh catfish, chicken (which made the boat journey with us alive until the last night) rice and veg. He often cooked from within the moving canoe as we made our way down the river.

On the last morning, we only spent around 2 hours on the river. We were all pretty pleased with that, as by that stage, we were all feeling a little bit over it.

Tsiribihina River mornings

Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park

From the river, we were picked up by a 4×4 and driven to Bekopaka, the gateway to Tsingy de Bemaraha. The roads to Bekopaka were unsealed and seriously dusty and bumpy. It was also incredibly hot and there was no A/C. We had an interesting ferry crossing along the way too. With the ferry being nothing more than a wooden platform resting on two motorboats! Why not, it works!

Tsiribihina River car ferry

We reached the town of Belo Tsiribihina where another traveller joined our group. The town had an edgy vibe and the locals were far less welcoming than anywhere we had been. After lunch, for safety reasons, all 4×4’s heading to Bekopaka were to meet at 2 pm and travel in convoy. Somehow, when we arrived (on time), the convoy had already left! We eventually caught up with them and were waved past the last 4×4 carrying military. Our guide suggested the convoy was a safety precaution due to upcoming elections. However, we were also told that there had been an incident a few years before involving bandits and tourists in a 4×4. So, perhaps the convoy was a more permanent precaution.

After another ferry crossing as the sun went down, we finally reached our campsite in Bekopaka. The long awaited cold bucket shower after two days on the river without facilities, covered in sweat and dust was amazing! We had a lovely dinner and managed to get our hands on some not so cold beer!

Madagascar car ferry sunset

The following day we visited the ‘Grand Tsingy’ (part of Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park), which was loads of fun. We found some of the amazing Lemurs, who call Tsingy B home. Firstly the Deckens Sifaka. They didn’t stay around long, but really were beautiful.

Deckens Sifaka at Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park

This was followed a nocturnal Red-tailed Sportive Lemur. And, it wasn’t just Lemurs we came across. Other highlights were a scurrying Ring-tailed Vontsira (locally referred to as the Ring-tailed Mongoose,) plenty of Iguanids and a foraging Giant Coua as we completed a 4 hour circuit of the park.

Red-tailed Sportive Lemur at Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park - Madagascar
Giant Coua at Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park

The circuit included making our way over and under, through and around some pretty tight spaces between the limestone pinnacles. Most of which we were expected to unnecessarily use a harness for. Yes, even all the way out here, there’s OHS.

rock climb at Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park

Reaching the viewpoints was a highlight. It gave awesome views over the tops of the razor sharpe pinnacles, that the park is famous for. Resembling a forest of limestone needles, this dramatic scenery, made the effort and expense of getting here more than worth it. Rugged beauty! It’s incredible to think that lemurs bounce across the tops of the pinnacles unscathed!

Crossing the suspension bridge with a 60m odd drop over razor-sharp pinnacles was probably Imbi’s least favourite part of the day! The gaps between the wooden planks meant that you had to look down!

Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park suspension bridge

After our visit to the Grand Tsingy, we returned to our campsite for lunch and a break from the heat before visiting the Petite Tsingy in the afternoon. It must have been about 35° but felt like 40° and after 4 hours of sun exposure, we were all feeling fried! The Petite Tsingy, as the name suggests, was a smaller version of the Grand Tsingy. We were the only people there and enjoyed wandering around the smaller limestone pinnacles for an hour or so. No lemurs to be seen, but we saw some Broad-billed Rollers and lots of Iguanids. Visiting the Tsingy’s was definitely a trip worth making. The landscapes were truly unique and the wildlife was beautiful. But, it was seriously hot at this time of year!

broad-billed roller at Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park

Avenue of the Baobabs (Alleè Des Baobabs)

Our final day of the tour was a long one, as we drove from Bekopaka to Morondava. It was extremely hot and dusty, made worse by having all windows open, to compensate for the lack of A/C. After our convoy back to Belo Tsiribihina where we had a quick lunch stop, we made our way down to Morondava. That stretch of road was incredibly sandy, dusty and pretty rough! We made a few stops along the way, starting with the ‘love baobab’, which was simply two baobabs trunks intertwined.

love baobab

The next stop was the sacred baobab believed to be over 800 years old and the largest in the area. Locals visit the tree and make offerings for good luck and fortune and we can confirm, it was huge!

sacred baobab

Finally, we reached the Alleè Des Baobabs in time for sunset. It was a slightly different experience to what we had envisioned. There were dozens of baobabs either side of the main road, which was actively used by locals and tourists alike.

Golden hour at the Alleè Des Baobabs

There were a lot more tourists around than we expected and we were surprised to see some small-scale development popping up at the southern end of the road. This included stalls selling souvenirs, small cafes, toilets and a parking space which cost 2000ar per car. With sunsets like this and those magnificent silhouetted baobabs I suppose we shouldn’t have been surprised it draws the crowd, despite its relative remoteness.

Avenue of the Baobabs sunset

The sun seemed to take forever to set, however, as soon as it did, all of the other tourists left, missing the best part – the afterglow. We were literally the only 6 people left and the afterglow colours were amazing! It really was special watching nature put on a show and a sunset we will never forget!

Avenue of the Baobabs colourful sunset afterglow

That also meant that we had to drive the 45 mins to Morondava at night, which we can honestly say, was a little scary. The roads were so dark, it was hard to see anything at all. We were just outside Morondava when the traffic came to a complete standstill. There were hundreds, if not thousands of people filling the road and it transpired that a presidential candidate had just visited the city. People had flocked from near and far to hear him speak and the roads were a mess! Thankfully after about 40 mins, the traffic started to clear and we were able to get into town. When we finally arrived, we said goodbye to our group and guide, before checking into a nice hotel for a much-needed shower and sleep!

Getting to/from and around

Ivato International Airport is located around 15km from Antananarivo. Taxi’s are available from the airport and ranges from around AR50,000-AR80,000. What you pay will depend on where you’re going and your negotiation skills! Hotels/hostels should be able to arrange a taxi for you in advance. We paid AR50,000 at night and booked this through our hotel.

Antananarivo – Morondava via Car-Boat-Car: These 6/7 day trips can be booked through hotels/hostels in Antananarivo and Antsirabe. Depending on what you want, you may be able to arrange a private or shared trip with other travellers.

If you don’t want to do the river trip, notoriously unreliable flights are the quickest way to get to/from Morondava, the gateway to Tsingy de Bemaraha and Alleè Des Baobabs. Be warned, flights are cancelled frequently and often with no notice.

The cheapest and most popular way to to travel between Antananarivo and Morondava is via taxi-brousse. Regular journeys take up to 16hr (sometimes more)

If travelling by taxi-brousse, Cotisse Transport is an awesome option to travel to/from Morondava. This company offers reliable and well-maintained vehicles, safe drivers and is a comfy way to make the long journey. Seats sell out fast and well in advance, especially during peak seasons. We recommend pre-booking tickets. At the time of our visit, foreigners couldn’t pay online. If this is the case, ask your hostel to call and reserve your seats. You will then need to go to the Cotisse bus station 24-48hrs prior to your departure to pay.

From Morondava – Antananarivo, Cotisse buses take about 12 hrs and at the time of our visit cost 45000ar (€11p) p/p, departing from 5:30am. From Tana to Morondava they departed from 7:00am.

Accommodation

In Antananarivo we stayed at Madagascar Underground (€16-22 per night for a private). We can’t recommend this place enough. Well priced, great location, friendly and helpful staff.

In Morondava, we stayed at Hotel Trecicogne (€11 per night for a double room, with fan and hot water). This was another hotel we highly recommend. Peaceful, clean and with a nice restaurant. They happily store luggage if you’re going off to one of the parks like Kirindy Forest (Reserve Forestiere de Kirindy) for a few days.

Best time to visit

Madagascar is a massive island and its climate varies from east to west and from north to south. But as general rule April to October are the drier months, with January to March, the wettest period.

Things really start getting busy from June with the peak months being the European school holidays of July and August. If you can avoid those two months you will have a quieter experience in parks and accommodation will be far less busy! The shoulder seasons of April-June and September to November are ideal times travel.

Tsingy B specifically can become unreachable from mid-November through to April. Heavy rain causes the poorly maintained roads to be unusable, so factor this in your planning if you want to visit this amazing place.

In November the Tsiribihina River was at its very lowest. At times, our canoes got stuck on the riverbed, causing us wade through the shallow waters and push the boats. This was also the hottest time of year and with no roof top/shelter on the canoes, the sun was brutally hot on the river.

For wildlife, October through December are great for lemurs, as babies are born at this time. Birds, also breed in this period. Lizards and snakes tend to come out of hibernation from September through to December. The Jacaranda’s also flower at this time.

How much time do you need

Generally speaking, allow a minimum of 6 or 7 days for the river trip from Antananarivo-Morondava. From Morondav,a we highly recommend heading to Kirindy Forest (Reserve Forestiere de Kirindy) to try and find the elusive Fosa and the Lemurs and Chameleons of its dry deciduous forests. You will need 2-3days to visit Kirindy, depending on your mode of transport (private car or taxibrousse). As Kirindy is located between Tsingy and Morondava, you may be able to incorporate this into your river trip. If this is possible, allow an extra day.

Essential Information & Packing Tips

  • So important, we’ll repeat it again. Tsingy B can be unreachable from mid-November through to April as the rains cause the road to be unusable!
  • Shop around if planning on doing the river trip. There can be a huge difference in both price and quality of packages offered. Likewise, there can be a huge difference in the quality of 4WD’s.
  • If you choose the river trip, you MUST camp for the nights on the river as there’s no accommodation.
  • Check if your guide is qualified, or if hiring a 4×4 and driver, that they speak English. This can make a difference to the local information provided and the cost of the tour.
  • Take loads of water with you. Your guide/driver should be able to advise what is appropriate.
  • If you chose to book a river trip, we recommend taking the following with you:
    • Sunscreen, and sunglasses.
    • Long, lightweight clothes for sun protection.
    • An umbrella for extra sun protection. We know it sounds ridiculous, but there’s NO shelter on the canoes and the sun is scorching!
    • Water. Lots and lots of water.
    • A waterproof bag or bin liners to protect your backpack. Water easily splashes into the canoe, especially if it’s windy.
    • Waterproof case/cover for your passport, camera, phone etc.
    • Sleep sheet. It’s Madagascar, so blankets/sleeping bags aren’t always the cleanest.
  • Sturdy shoes, especially for walking around Tsingy. B.
  • Band aids for blisters are handy to have on hand, just in case.
  • Biodegradable wet wipes.
  • Antibacterial hand wash as there was no running water
  • Decent reusable water bottle(s). By bringing a couple of decent-sized reusable water bottles, you can minimise the impact you have on your travels.
  • Head torch
  • Quick-dry travel towel
  • Pre-charge you camera batteries/phone as you’ll want to take a lot of pictures.
  • If you have a passion for wildlife photography, we highly recommend taking a decent zoom lens as sometimes the animals are far away. We shoot the majority of our wildlife pics with a Canon 100-400mm.
  • A good wide angle lens is highly recommended.
  • The Madagascar Wildlife – Bradt Guides book was so informative and helpful for identification purposes.
  • Download Maps.me to your phone so that you have offline maps. We love pinning our journeys as we travel.

Prices as of November 2018

  • The cost of a 4WD and driver will depend on who you book with. We were quoted €80 a day, NOT including fuel, food, accommodation, entrance and guide to Tsingy.
  • The cost of the river trip will depend on who you book with. Average prices were around €350 p/p on a shared tour for 7d/6nt. We negotiated with our guide on a price which we were happy with. This included:
    • All transport including 2.5 days in dugout canoes on the river
    • Driver and guide (however ours was not certified)
    • 2x nights in hotels, 4x nights camping
    • Tent, thin sleeping mat, blankets
    • 4x breakfast, 4x lunches, 4x dinners (all meals while camping)
    • Entrance & official guide at Tsingy
    • Stops at the love baobab, sacred baobab and
      Alleè Des Baobabs.
  • Water and a few meals were not included.
  • Tips weren’t included.

Our Highlights

  • Everything about Tsingy B was awesome. The landscape was spectacular and seeing some lemurs there was also cool.
  • Sunset at the Alleè Des Baobabs was also a highlight for us. The afterglow colours were amazing!

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