Measuring 150km north to south, and 50km east to west Makay national park, home to the Makay Canyons, is a hiker’s wonderland and represents Madagascan adventure travel at its best. It is made up of hundreds of canyons which cut through the sandstone and have formed over millions of years of erosion. I was inside the park for nine days with my guide, Hery, and a local guide from the Bara tribe, Narinda, and visited five of these canyons. It is such a maze that even with a local guide from the tribe we got lost one day and only by chance we spotted one of the porters out looking for us that we made it to camp that night. The unexplored nature of the place means it is a haven for species which have not yet been discovered. The park is one of 11 global Hot Spots for biodiversity conservation because it has a record number of indigenous species: plants, birds, reptiles, mammals and amphibians, which are not found anywhere else on the planet1. There are also lemurs inside the park including the Brown and Sifaka species but they were very wary of us and glimpses are we got in the whole time we were there.
Makay itself it not an easy place to get to, the first canyon Misokitse, took us three and a half days to travelling from the village of Ranohira. This is including a delay because the 4×4 we were in couldn’t cross the Mangoky river so we had to look for another one at the other side. We were also delayed when the second 4×4 driver went so fast that he broke the right rear suspension so we had to delay the start of the hike by another day. Nevertheless even with the best 4×4 getting to the village of Bernoone where the hike starts takes one day and it is a days hike to the entrance of Misokitse. Once inside I realised it was worth it with the sandstone canyons providing some of the most impressive scenery I have ever seen.
Where there is water there is life and this is certainly true here, with the canyons inside the park ranging from theming with life to so dry that the only evidence of anything stirring is tough yellow grass high up on the sides waiting for rain. Small trees, shrubs and green grass populate the bank on the side of Misokitse where there is water all year round but when we got to the entrance of Sariaky canyon towards the end of the hike its wide sand floor felt like a little desert where shade is a sough after commodity. A river springs up inside Sariaky and the other end of the canyon has a tropical paradise feel about it.
Hiking in Makay was unique in all kinds of ways and walking in the river to get to my destination was a new experience for me as we spent the majority of the day in Misokitse walking in the Makay river runing through it. This was necessary because there are no paths in this section and going by land was too tricky and too long. The water proved refreshing in the sun and quite warm to walk in. Getting around for the rest of the hike was a combination of walking in canyons which more often than not had rivers running through them or hiking on the plateaux between the canyons which provided panoramic views of this vast sandstone wonder.
Misokitse canyon is truly spectacular, like some kind of magical deserted land where there is nothing else to be seen only its sides and the warm river which runs through it. The Makay river is the most pleasant river I have ever been in. In December time it is possible to take a dip and even sit in the river letting it flow over your back and shoulders which I did for an hour. Laying there with the flowing river propping me up into an almost seated position reminded me in a way of the movie, The Beach, where the people are in an almost mythical paradise location that is very difficult to get to. I am not normally a bit fan of hanging about in the water but this place is something special with perfect water so you could lay in it for hours without getting too cold.
Bravitsazo, the second canyon, is smaller and narrower than Misokitse with its sides more imposing because they are so close together. The river is higher here and flowing faster because of the reduced area of the canyon and at times was difficult to walk against. We did however have regular stops when Narinda looked into pools where there might be fish. It was still early in the wet season but the river here was waist high in places and will rise rapidly when it rains heavily. When the rains set in properly either you are inside Makay or outside because the rivers which run through the canyons can’t be crossed and this is the case from early January until April. The people in the villages inside the park stock up on supplies with schools having their holidays at this time of year as the children won’t be able to make in for a few months.
Mandramo canyon is very rarely visited and the path down into it which the local guide Narinda knew previously had been washed away. This was a bit of an annoyance as we had been walking in the blazing sun all morning on the plateau between it and Bravitsazo. The rains change the routes down into this canyon every year and because it is not being used often no information gets around about what has happened. All we could do was look for an alternative route which was easier said than done because all of the paths we tried came to a dead end so we had to go back along towards the start where it was shallower so we could get down safely. We eventually found the canyon floor and took shade under the first big tree we saw where we also had lunch. This was the first dry canyon we had been in with sand filling the expanse between the sides but later it turns into a swamp filled with trees which were quite difficult to walk through but I did get my first glimpse of a lemur when Hery pointed out a brown lemur up in the trees but a glimpse is all I got as it dived for cover as soon as it saw us. This was to be expected as the lemurs here are wilder than the ones in other national parks, like Isalo, where it is possible to get much closer due to them being more used to humans.
At the edge of the swamp Hery showed me a contraption which is used to trap Lemurs. It comprised sticks arranged in a fashion which the lemurs can climb along naturally and the end result is them being trapped. Hery explained they will probably be sold as pets either in Madagascar or abroad. Smuggling is very big problem in Madagascar and I suspect anything caught will be moved on for big money. It is no wonder the lemurs we encountered made themselves scarce very quickly.
Agnosilaty was the next canyon we visited and another with a river running through it. The highlight of this was standing on the hills near the canyon and seeing two lakes that are inaccessible on foot, the biggest of which is called lake Agnosilaty. These lakes have a backdrop of sandstone hills, and the dark clouds and lightening that hovered over them made it a very powerful scene.
The final canyon on the hike, Sariaky, started off as wide-open space with sand forming the floor between the two walls but narrowed as we made our way deeper inside. There were very few signs of life in this part of the canyon because of how dry it is but we did come across the odd lizard basking in the sun and some pig tracks, their little trotter prints visible in the sand.
This was the most imposing canyon of all with its expansive width and high sides, qualities that make the Makay canyons a great place to watch the stars from. I could just imaging camping in the sand and spending an evening stargazing.
I visited just five of the many hundred of canyons that the vast expanse of Makay holds within its boundaries and it gave me an idea how enormous it is. The Makay canyons are a place of countless undiscovered species and rare beauty, and are for me some of the best places to go in Madagascar.