When most of us plan trekking expeditions to far flung places, we have the luxury of using detailed maps and of having easy access to information useful for plotting an adventure. From experience, though, I can tell you that the real fun and adventure comes from planning an Adventure Science expedition to an uncharted part of the world— no maps, no trails and little previous exploration. The sense of wonder, discovery and gratitude can be overwhelming when traveling in areas such as these.

Tsingy de Bemaraha
All photos by Kensington Tours

This October, I’ll be leading an experienced group of researchers and athletes into the northern portion of Madagascar’s Tsingy de Bemaraha (a UNESCO world heritage site). Located only 200 miles west of Antananarivo (the nation’s capital), it’s a solid 8+ hour drive, much of it on poorly maintained and highly sinuous dirt roads. Known for its endemic lemurs that have been the subject of both IMAX and Disney feature films, Madagascar is an exotic island landscape that formed over 60 million years ago, following its split from Africa and the Indian subcontinent. The Tsingy (152,000 ha) is a unique geologic marvel, formed from ancient limestone that has been sculpted by erosion into towering cliff walls and deep valleys. For this reason, the project is called 100 Miles of Wild: Madagascar’s Limestone Labyrinth— the team will explore a seldom seen world in the Tsingy, which is a veritable stone forest, devoid of tourists and host to very few prior research expeditions. The geology that makes it inaccessible for most people has consequently protected the forests within the Tsingy— creating a refuge of sorts, providing an undisturbed habitat for several endangered lemur species (one of which was only discovered several years ago), rare chameleons, birds and other endemic species. With the human-caused habitat destruction that is rampant in Madagascar, a region like this is truly a biodiversity island.

Tsingy de Bemaraha
The limited research conducted in the park to date has generally focused on the southern portion of the park and has resulted in the exciting discoveries of a new species of lemur, dinosaur tracks and numerous large cave systems. The potential for further discovery on all fronts is tremendous— presuming that one can a) reach the area, and b) work in this limestone labyrinth.
Tsingy de Bemaraha

The Adventure Science Team members have been selected for their expertise in working in remote, unsupported locations. Endurance athletes, rock climbers, mountaineers, researchers, communications experts and medics will form the 10 person team. Kensington Tours’ Explorers-in-Residence George Kourounis (caver and storm chaser) and Travis Steffens (primatologist) are participating in the project and will lead various aspects of the research.

Tsingy de Bemaraha
The expedition will focus on the northern half of the park, which is off-limits for all but permit-holding research teams. The goals of the project will be to conduct daily lemur surveys (morning and evening), search for new dinosaur trackways, discover and explore new cave systems and, in doing so, also create the first detailed map for the northern region of the park. As a 100 Miles of Wild project, the teams will endeavour to cover a total of 100 miles during this expedition, which will be a significant first in this difficult region, as it lacks trails, maps and basic infrastructure— it’s a true wilderness, and we honestly don’t know what we might find in the labyrinth.
Tsingy de Bemaraha

Travelling at the tail-end of the dry season, we don’t expect to have to deal with some of the issues that make the region inaccessible when it rains— such as thick mud, raging rivers, impassible creeks and flooded gorges. The biggest risks for the team will be the mosquitoes in the region, which are carriers of malaria and dengue and, to combat this, the team will wear mosquito repellent clothing (i.e. Haeleum). Working in poorly explored regions, though, means that we will prepare for the unexpected – early rains, swarming mosquitos and impassible terrain.

Tsingy de Bemaraha

What we do know is that each day will be an adventure involving rock climbing, creek and river crossings, bushwhacking and significant navigation. Operating from a fixed base camp where the communications team will stay in contact with us using VHF radios and satellite phones, small teams will travel along pre-determined transect lines, with the goal of covering ~10-15 miles daily. Most days will see the teams returning to camp by dusk, although some extended transects may have teams camping remotely and without resupply for up-to 3 days as they explore the most remote areas of the park. Due to the nature of the terrain, the teams will travel light: 30L packs containing hydration kits,  survival basics, medical supplies, basic rations, climbing equipment, communication, GPS tracker (i.e. InReach) and research equipment.

Tsingy de Bemaraha

In planning expeditions that are off the grid, picking a capable team and conducting thorough research is a big part of being successful, but, as I’ve noted, there is so much that we don’t know about this region that we need to plan for the best, but prepare for the worst. We will undoubtedly learn much, but, in order to accomplish the expedition objectives, the team will need to be highly adaptable.

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