Isalo National Park. Jurassic Park
Established in 1962, the Isalo National Park protects 820 km² of sandstone massif wildly eroded by wind and rain into bizarre ridges (known as “runiformes”) featuring wild forms, impressive gorges and canyons and tiny stalagmite pinnacles. The far Wild West reminiscent of the landscape, dominated by rugged massive that rises up from the flat surrounding grassy plain, attracts hikers from the whole world that gather here to admire the sweeping colors of this Jurassic scenery. This plateau is a dramatic spectacle, its towering mesas and sculpted pillars creating a desert-like, Monument Valley-style landscape that is especially striking at its southern extremity, where the tarmac highway twists past the cliffs. Cut by streams and springs into countless, sandy-floored, oasis-like canyons, filled with forest, with several alluring natural swimming holes of cool, crystal-clear water, the whole region offers tremendous scope for hikers and anyone aiming to escape the blasted heat of the prairies of the high plateau.
The park is the most visited protected area in Madagascar and a popular highlight when discovering the Great South. It is one of the country's most dramatic and pleasant national parks. The park ranges from just over 500m up to 1268m above sea level and the canyons are in places as much as 200m deep. Isalo offers a fantastic, colorful landscape and incredible panoramas. It is not just about the colors and shapes of the land damaged by the erosion, but also the great scenery and the general silence that surrounds everything. It is also a set that all "Bara" people consider as sacred.
The popularity of the Isalo National Park owes much to its location, midway between Fianarantsoa and Toliara, and its accessibility. This place should really be called 'National Isalo Jurassic Park' since the massive plateau and rocks were from the Jurassic era.
We invite you to experience what is quite possibly the most dramatic and stimulating scenery to be found anywhere, either on or off planet earth. Journey to the top of spectacular mountains, enjoy a mouthwatering meal, sip a cocktail, watch the breathtaking sunset and stargaze at the heavens.
On first sight, there is no life possible between those dry savannahs and weather-beaten sandstones, but nonetheless, nature developed a species-rich fauna and flora here. The park became home to 14 species of lemur, about 80 varieties of birds of which 70% are endemic, 35 species of reptiles, 15 species of amphibians and small mammals, endemics frogs, and more than 500 species of plants. There’s a lot to find in Isalo!
Isalo National Park, often referred as the Jurassic Park, is arguably the best place to see ring-tailed lemurs and white sifakas dancing and jumping. You’re almost certain to see ring-tailed lemurs in the more open, rocky areas, and in the forest Verreaux’s sifakas (Propithecus verreauxi) are also likely. You can see lemurs such as the Microcebus murinus, the mirza coquereli, the ruficaudatus sportive lemur, Eulemur fulvus rufus’s, etc, which life in the dense vegetation along the streams. The best place to spot lemurs is Canyon des Makis.
Among Isalo’s eighty-odd birds, keen ornithologists won’t need reminding about the robin-like Benson’s rock thrush (Monticola sharpei bensoni) for which the park, and especially the plateau top above the Namaza trail car park, is a key habitat. Colorful rock thrushes and ibis birds fly between beaked rocks and big stones searching for nesting material.
Look out, in and around the streams and pools, for the regionally endemic large western white-lipped tree frog (Boophis occidentalis) that’s often encountered around the Cascade des Nymphes. If you see one, you’re more likely to notice its red webbed feet than the color of its lips. Also keep your eyes open for the very rare, strikingly green-black-and-red-marbled painted burrowing frog (Scaphiophryne gottlebei) – a species that is strictly endemic to Isalo and critically threatened by collection for foreign frog fanciers. Do not forget the reptiles, such as Dumeril’s boa (Acrantrophis dumerili) or Madagascan iguanas (Oplurus ssp.).
The flora is indeed more interesting than the fauna. Isalo’s plants and trees are some of its most distinctive natural assets: spiky and fan-like Bismarck palms (Bismarckia nobilis; satrana in Malagasy) are scattered across the landscape in this heart of their natural habitat (the Bismarck is now found all over the world, and particularly popular as a garden tree in the suburban canyons of Southern California). More unusual is the extraordinary elephant’s foot (Pachypodium rosulatum, or vontaka in Malagasy). It looks like a stumpy little baobab with pipe cleaners for branches until it bursts into yellow flowers at the end of the dry season. You’ll see it on the canyon walls on the Circuit Piscine Naturelle. The flora is dominated by the "tapia" of the Euphorbiaceae family (Uapaca Boger kind) food of the landibe, a silkworm that produces natural Malagasy silk. 116 medicinal species, species of wood for construction, timber for furniture and craft work, as well as aloe isaloensis and a species of aloe specifically indigenous.
Culturally the region is richly endowed. This is the heartland of the Bara people, believed by some anthropologists to have come from Africa. Their traditions, including the cult of warriorhood and pogo-like ritual dances, are similar in some respects to those of the Maasai cattle herders of Kenya and Tanzania. One of the old Bara clans’ royal family seats is at the village of Ampika, by the mouth of the national park’s Canyon des Makis. Bara burial caves are still scattered in canyon walls throughout the plateau, and in the far north of the massif, sixteenth-century Portuguese explorers are said to have married Bara women and lived in cliff dwellings – a good story for which there’s scant evidence.
Nestled amidst the southwest terrains of sweeping canyons, dramatic bluffs and jutting rock formations, the Isalo National Park offers some rewarding trekking opportunities amongst natural pools and through uniquely Jurassic landscapes. Hiking in Isalo is superb. The park offers different hiking trails, of which the shortest can be done in one and a half hour yet. But you can also do longer excursions with picnic or warm lunch for day trips. In the late afternoon your guide will suggest visiting the natural rock window to watch the sunset.
Isalo National Park has several options for brief and extended one-day walks, as well as multi-day camping circuits. Above the cool canyons, the trails on the plateau can be hot and steep. The Tsingys d’Isalo make gorgeous photo motives, as well as the Nymph waterfalls, Maki canyon and the Portuguese grot. We can highly recommend a hike to “Piscine naturelle”, a natural pool inside the rocks, which is fed by a small waterfall. Piscine noire and Piscine bleu, two additional natural pools, are also worth seeing. If you bring bathing clothes, just step into the water and refresh yourself. Most trails are well to walk, but non-slippery, strong footwear is definitely necessary.
Those who prefer trekking and camping can spend several days or longer wandering around the Isalo Massif, which is undoubtedly the most rewarding but time consuming way to explore this place. A recommendable two-day trip would be visiting the Piscine naturelle and the Nymphes waterfalls with an overnight at the waterfalls campsite and making the Canyon des Makis on the second day. If you add a third day, you can visit the Rats canyon too. A Big challenge, only for very fit trekkers, is the Portuguese cave. The cave is at the northern end of the park and getting there involves 4 days back and forth through the beautiful Sahanafa forest with natural springs and a lot of lemurs.
Isalo is one of the exclusive national parks of Madagascar, which can’t only be discovered by feet, but also by car or on horseback. Horse riding holidays are readily available. While native ponies can be found in a number of villages there are few professional riding stables. Some pony trekking is possible. Riding in the valleys and mountains and through the villages is an experience to be remembered.
Watch more photos about Isalo National Park here.