It took nearly five days to reach the tsingy. Three days out, the route deteriorated into a deeply rutted dirt track that plunged through troughs of dark mud. Ferries carried us across rivers red with soil washed away in the aftermath of deforestation upstream. Villages shrank, cars vanished, the forest gradually thickened. Every few miles Rakotondravony leaped from our truck and ran into the bush. He'd return hauling a large snake or some unhappy lizard.
From a trailhead near a small village, we hiked into the forest. After several months of rain, the prolonged dry period was beginning, when many creatures estivate, waiting for the wet to return. We pitched tents near a clear stream, with rust-colored crabs flitting through the shallows. Our kitchen was set beneath an overhang in a cliff that rose through the canopy and, far above, split and cracked into the needles and fins and towers that give the place its name.
In Malagasy tsingy means "where one cannot walk barefoot," but we found that the landscape demanded much more than sturdy shoes. In several spots we tried exploring using rock-climbing gear. The tsingy chewed equipment and flesh with equal ease. At times it was like climbing amid giant skewers, the consequences of a fall suggested in the mutilated trunks of toppled trees below. In other places we explored the labyrinth on foot, following faint trails used by locals hunting honey or lemurs.
We squeezed through passages, our pack straps catching on fingers of stone. Finding handholds and footholds required concentration and testing, to see if the rock was too sharp or if it would hold weight. We stemmed narrow ravines and nervously straddled fins that were like fences topped with broken glass. The rock pierced our boots, leaving holes in the rubber. Usually we came over needle-sharp rises only to descend onto mats of thin soil covering yet more serrated rock. We'd carefully find our balance, then try to figure out what to do next.
We were lucky to cover half a mile a day—imagine trying to cross a city by climbing up each high-rise and then down the other side. Our slow progress made us easy targets for mosquitoes and wasps, and it underscored how difficult biological research here must be, dragging equipment and specimens through the terrain. But even covering far less ground than we'd hoped, we saw hundreds of animals and plants, more than we could recognize. In quieter moments it was possible to imagine a thousand places humans had never been, might never go.