Published: March 18th 2008December 2nd 2007
On arriving in Tana we had booked ourselves into what turned out to be an awesome hotel called Sakamanga, Malagasy for Blue Cat, with the intention of shopping around the city for a few days for a canoe trip down the Tsiribinha river. "It's never a good idea to jump at the first offer to come along" is our first travel motto. So when the taxi driver who picked us up from the airport (and also the first person we met in Madagascar) happened to mention that his cousin had a trip leaving the following day for the river we jumped. "Never pass up an opportunity for a cheap river trip" being our second travel motto.
Our rough (and extremely open to change) plan was to do a fairly standard river trip down the Tsiribinha river through Western Madagascar. This involves a drive from Tana to the river via Antsirabe, and a few days travelling down the river in a pirogue (dugout canoe), camping on the river bank. Then, depending on how much rain they'd had, we would travel by 4x4 to the Tsingy De Bemaraha National Park and stay a couple of nights to have a look around. The
trip would then take us towards Morondava on the West coast, stopping at the Avenue des Baobabs en route. Apparently the rain was late this year so the trip was go.
It turns out they had snagged another backpacker that morning in Tana to join us on the trip, a French guy called Tom. If you can picture a long haired Will Shakespeare in fancy dress as Indiana Jones with a thing for heavy metal music then you're getting close. Tom had just arrived fresh off his plane from Paris. So the three of us headed South to Antsirabe where we picked up another Brit, Isabelle from London England, and a Quebecois squaddie on a leave from Afghanistan called Eric. It was with this motley crew that we set off to Miandrivazo, the starting point for our river trip.
The drive from Tana to Miandrivazo was our first taste of Madagascan towns and countryside and it was spectacular. The outskirts of Tana, and the towns en route, are like nowhere else we've ever seen. It's a bit like going back in time. Many of the buildings bear some resemblance to old French country houses with balconies, shutters, wooden
Village and terracing
en route from Tana to Miandrivazo
beams and tiled rooves. They are usually completely run down with sagging rooves and wonky balconies. In towns the houses are often all squeezed together in a higgledy piggledy mix of pointy tiled rooves which (especially at night, with light from oil lamps shining out through the windows) look almost medieval. In villages in the countryside, the houses are neat rectangular red clay buildings, usually with three floors and very uniform windows. Sometimes in the distance, nestled among the hills, the villages looked almost Tuscan. The usual mode of transport in the towns is the pousse-pousse, a kind of rickshaw pulled by a man running, rather than a bike.
For a long way out of Tana all we saw was bright green paddy fields in the valleys, the streams and rivers cleverly diverted through each and every terrace to keep them all soaked. The small curvy terraces, each with rice at a different stage, made a beautiful green patchwork. The work looked back-breaking; every single rice plant is planted by hand in neatly spaced rows by women wading through the water, bent double, carrying baskets of seedlings. Later in the afternoon the paddy fields made way for endless highlands,
the rolling hills with grey green grass were spectacular and seemed to stretch on forever. Really a spectacular drive.
That evening in our hostel at Miandrivazo we got our first taste of the Madagascan insect life. A lozenge shaped beetle the size of a bread roll (bap to you northerners) began hurtling around the table at head height, making the same amount of downdraft as a Chinook helicopter and about the same level of noise. A menagerie of other not-so-big-but-still-pretty-damn-big bugs joined it. It was like having somebody standing next to the table playing swingball with a bees nest and aiming for your head. He'd obviously invited his Mosquito friends around that night too as the carnage from our impregnated mossie net attested the following morning. There were literally just bugs everywhere. It wasn't looking too hopeful. You're a bit of a sitting duck sat in a canoe.
We headed off through the village to buy a few crates of water on our way to the river. We were also advised to buy some of the rather fetching floral umbrellas that were on display, as there isn't much shade on the river, the sun was relentless and it
was about 35 Degrees. Then a quick stop at the police "station" (bizarrely in the middle of the market) to register with the local rozzers before heading off in our boats armed with our flowery pastel coloured umbrellas. Well... everyone except Adam and Eric. Adam thought he was too manly for a flowery umbrella and he'd be OK with a hat and long clothes and a liberal application of sun tan lotion. Eric seemed to be under the impression that the glaring whiteness of his skin (I thought he'd have a demon tan from Afghanistan) would reflect all of the intensity of the solar rays, thus rendering him immune to sunburn. A theory he promptly put to the test by stripping down to his tidy whiteys and lying in all his dazzling glory in the full glare of the Sun. Hmm, an omen of things to come....
The first day on the river the landscape on either side was still quite rural and there isn't much forest at all. There were quite a lot of birds, Malachite Kingfishers and Egrets were abundant. We were expecting to be fighting off chameleons left right and centre but unfortunately they seemed to
be either very well camouflaged or not there at all as we didn't find a single one. There were lots of small farming and fishing villages and we passed several dugout canoes like ours with locals fishing. Our first pit stop was to buy lunch from the local fishermen clad in their technical fishing attire: a pair of worn underpants. Which Adam got closer to than he'd have liked. At this point we realised the river was actually all of 12 inches deep which wasn't too reassuring as it contains crocs. So they don't have to leap so much as lunge at your dangling arm.
We stopped for lunch at a convenient spot on the river where we ate our freshly caught fish under the welcome shade of a mango tree, watched attentively by a very spikey lizard. It's amazing how much cooler it was in the shade of the tree, a good 5-10 degrees cooler than out in the canoe. That evening we pitched our tents on a sand bar on a meander of the river, all the time keeping an eye out for the crocs that we spotted on our new camp site as we pulled up.
somewhere near Antsirabe
Normally the level of the river is a lot higher but unseasonably little rain meant that it was considerably lower than usual.
That night we met Gaz and Larry. Or Dinner as they came to be known. Dugout canoe trips on sweltering unshaded rivers in third world countries present a catering problem: how do you keep the meat for the meals fresh? You certainly don't have one of those funky travel fridges that plugs into a cigarette lighter. You don't have the cigarette lighter either. The easy solution: to keep dinner fresh until you need it, you keep dinner alive. Genius! Now I would have thought that investing some hard-earned in a couple of live chickens then bringing them on a boat trip is a sure-fire way of losing them / having them wander off, a much safer option being a couple of cheese and pickle sandwiches. However chickens are not renowned for their problem-solving abilities, and escapology has thoroughly escaped them. Tie the leg of one chicken to a leg of the other and they will wander around in a 2 foot diameter circle, blindly ignorant to their awaiting fate, idly pecking each other in the head. We
left them on the river bank when we went to bed, tied together and pecking, and they were still in exactly the same place the next morning, tied together and pecking. In the middle of a small circle of peck marks. None of this one wing around the other three-legged walk to freedom lark. Stoopid chickens.
On the second day the landscape around us flattened slowly becoming more forested, and we found our first chameleon. Well one of the boat crew found us our first chameleon, we would have sailed straight past it. Now you might think that catching a chameleon from a moving boat would be quite tricky but it's an absolute doddle owing to a slightly odd evolutionary urge the chameleon has. I have no idea why but if you put a stick in front of a chameleon it will happily clamber on, even if it wasn't really planning on actually going anywhere. It's like they think "Stick! Wahoo! I better get on!" then stop and wonder why the hell they're suddenly on a wobbly stick suspended above the water.
Our lunchtime stop on day 2 was at a narrow gorge ending in an ice cold
waterfall and natural swimming pool in the forest. Which was nice. Two days of sweating buckets, liberal amounts of suntan lotion, and not washing = rank. Jumping in fully clothed didn't take much consideration really. Apart from us being a bit grubby and generally not very super-model like, it was almost like a scene from that old Timotei advert.
After lunch, Gaz and Larry paid for their poultry brain power (geddit?). Unlike in the Timotei advert, our paradise jungle scene included two boatmen slitting the necks of two scrawny chickens on a rock by the river.
We also saw our first lemurs here, although our guide's lemur identification skills were in keeping with the general cost of the trip. "what kind of Lemur is that one?" "a white one" "And what about that one?" "a brown one" you get the idea. The brown ones were quite shy; the white ones were more curious and would let you get quite close under their tree before sproinging off into the treetops. (Sproinging is a word that was actually invented by Sir Charleston Cholmondeley Smythe to describe the motion of an alarmed lemur he saw in 1782).
It was at
shopping for sun protection at the market in Miandrivazo
this point that Eric's lack of sun tan lotion usage and total disregard for shade began to become obvious. I've had sunburn before, and thought "Ow. That's uncomfortable. I won't do that again". Not "Hmmm my skin is only pink, it hasn't even started bubbling yet. I better leave off the lotion for a few more hours and lie in the sun a bit more." Which apparently was what was going through Eric's highly trained desert warfare type squaddie brain. The back of his neck and forehead were actually starting to bubble and you could feel the heat radiating from his arms from a good 15 feet away. However no amount of polite offers of lotion or umbrellas or vomiting from the oarsman behind him was going to change his mind. He took orders 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 51 weeks a year dammit, and he wasn't going to be told what to do while he was on holiday. OK!
Later that afternoon we stopped at a small riverside village and bought some supplies - well, rum mainly, and some very warm soft drinks.
That night we again camped on a sand bar where we
enjoyed a panoramic view of the hills in the distance sporadically lit by a distant lightening storm, and saw the clearest night sky any of us had ever seen. Electricity is a valuable and rare commodity on Madagascar and any city other than Antananarivo is lucky if the street lights work, with most light provided by petrol generators or oil lamps. What this means is light pollution is practically non-existent, so unlike the European night sky where only the brightest stars are visible on a ubiquitous background of sickly orange, the Madagascan sky is a glittering airbrushed black full of stars, the milky way an enormous spray of light right across the sky. Truly breathtaking.
Not quite as breathtaking but almost as impressive was the moment when 'Danger' Eric (as we had now dubbed heatstroke boy), produced a 17 inch AppleMac from the silver metal case he'd been carting around for the last few days (a lot better than the assassin-style-gun-with-silencer / bowie-knife-set / ear-collection which had been the odds-on favourites up until then). Combined with our portable iPod speakers we now had our very own paddle-in cinema! Complete with surrou...errm stereo sound!
Unfortunately all the
Hot damn hot!
Despite thinking he was too cool for the floral umbrella, in no time at all Adam had stolen mine.
films he had were in French (well bad for Adam but OK for everyone else); the one we chose was 'Pitch Black' (chosen for it's relatively straight forward plot and practically no script). But that wasn't the point. The guys on our boats could not believe their eyes. There we were, on a river bank miles from anywhere, and certainly miles from any electricity, and we could watch a film! To put this in context, in most of the villages and small towns we visited in Madagascar almost no one had TV. Some towns would have a 'cinema' where sometimes a hut somewhere in the village would play a couple of knock-off DVDs some evenings on an ancient TV set for public viewing. We spent most of the film watching them watch the film. They all spent the next hour and a half with their mouths open in a mixture of wonder and astonishment that we had produced from nothing a window into another world. The only downside was the mozzies which took full advantage of our lack of movement to tuck in.
The following day the terrain changed again, moving into a wide gorge flanked on either side
Tom "white legs" bonnin,
Danger Eric working on his tan
by exposed rock strata innumerable millennia old, totally shrouded in jungle. The contrast of the bright orange/red river, emerald forest, deep blue sky and pale rock was really striking. The bird life becomes much more numerous with parakeets, eagles, egrets, bull-bulls and more kingfishers easy to spot, and the large drag marks and footprints of a croc were seen on one of the nearby banks. We also saw more lemurs and chameleons. One chameleon (having been picked up by the usual stick method) seemed determined to go for a swim and kept jumping off the stick into the river. They can actually swim - a kind of chameleon-paddle - but we were worried that it might run out of steam before it reached the banks of the wide river so the boatmen duly picked it out (repeatedly) on their oar. We returned it to the bank nearby, closely observed by some nervous local onlookers. The locals think the chameleon is a very spiritual animal and don't really understand the white-mans obsession with transporting them up and down the river by stick.
We were headed to a small not-on-the-map village where the river leg of the trip would end. The
kids that greeted us as we pulled in to the bank were a real bunch of characters, one had total mastery of the armpit fart, another could have easily competed in the finals of the world gurning championships, and a third seemed unable to open his eyes. They could all do Kung-Fu.
By this point Eric's back had popped. So had his head. Not his whole head, obviously, but the multitude of blisters that had formed over the last couple of days on his forehead, neck and shoulders. We couldn't understand what one woman was saying to Eric as she was closely inspecting the peeling wet mess, but the look on her face said everything. The fact that she was visibly trying not to heave and waving everyone in the village over for a look meant it must have been one of the better peely necks she'd seen.
Making use of all possible modes of transport for the true Madagascan experience, we were then to get an ox cart to a nearby small town to stay for the night. We headed off along the track between the villages, through bright green rice paddies, stinging nettles (those Madagascan ones
are MEAN) and trees with something called "eyeball fruit" on. They are about the size of a Lychee but have the consistency of gluey snot when you've got a really bad head cold. Adam will eat anything but he's not a fan of the 'eyeball fruit'. We were relieved to be out of the canoes so we mainly walked, occasionally getting on the rickety ox cart to ford rivers that smelt of eggs. After an hour or so we reached the town, where we were spending the night in some cabanas. Finally we could enjoy our first properly cold drink for 4 days, made all the more enjoyable by the fact that it was beer! And we showered. Bliss.
The only eventful thing at the village apart from being mobbed by hundreds of kids who tried to relieve us of anything that wasn't bolted down, was a couple of flybys by a government helicopter. The local elections were coming up and they were dropping campaign leaflets over the more remote villages from the air. It would appear that they don't see helicopters that often and it caused a bit of a stir in the village. More of a stir
than his campaign slogan "TIM. I like Madagascar" anyway. I mean that's rubbish. If I were him I'd sack his PR people.
The following morning we would be picked up by a 4X4 and driven to another small town adjacent to the Tsingy. But for the time being, one more beer won't hurt!
There are more photos below