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Published: October 31st 2014
The trek starts somewhere to the east of a village called Ambohidranandriana. We take off up a rough track to get there, in a rather old 4x4 filled with all our gear and provisions for four days. We bump and slide our way into the hills. After an hour or two, we suddenly turn left onto the merest hint of a footpath and over the horizon an isolated farmhouse appears.
My mother-in-law's house, says our guide Marcel, she will cook lunch. There is no one in sight but within minutes we attract a crowd, including mother-in-law and lots of curious children.
Zebu is the local cow or ox and zebu steak, a local delicacy, is for lunch, medium-rare. Not to our taste really. The caramelised bananas, however, are wonderful.
Soon we are ready to set off. We four trekkers, a leader, a guide and 19 newly recruited porters/cooks/helpers! It is quite a sight.
Initially we cross paddy fields, hopping across man-made irrigation channels and skirting the paddies. The porters overtake, bouncing along with a load on their head or balanced across a shoulder on a bamboo pole. We pass women working in the fields, often with a
child strapped to their back with a shawl. Men greet us carrying bananas or cassava to market, sometimes a live chicken too. Soon we start to climb into the rain forest, slowly ascending, looking for a clearing to camp in. We find a suitable spot and erect our tents. G & t's in the rain forest, wonderful.
The second day's trek is all in the rain forest. It is a dense jungle of palms, ferns, trees large and small, vines and, at our feet, a few small flowers. We slowly climb over increasingly high ridges but it is the river valleys that provide the challenge and entertainment. Each river has to be crossed. Some are easy - a small bridge, perhaps, or stepping stones or a log. Some are more challenging. For these we have to first remove our boots and long trousers and put on sandals. Then we wobble across wide spaced stones, assisted by our amused porters as the gaps are so great and the stones so slippery. Or we wade in, stumbling across the river bed in thigh-high water, assisted by at least two porters lest we be swept away. In the stronger rivers, it takes
the support of four porters to ensure our safety.
The guide's favourite camp site is too wet to use but he has a great alternative, over there beside the river. We sigh and start taking our boots off, it is on the other side of the river! Our last wade of the day and we erect our tents among the boulders as it starts to rain. We are lucky, the rain pauses for dinner but then it rains most of the night.
Day three is "the easy day", a gentle walk along river valleys through villages, passing rice paddy and bananas; coffee and cassava. We even spot our first lychee tree but the fruit are not ripe.
"Sallama" is Malagasy for hello but in these remote villages they speak their own native tongues, so we have to learn a new word for hello once or twice a day! In the villages we are watched wide eyed by adults and children alike. We take photographs and show them the pictures on the camera screen, usually causing hoots of laughter. Marcel is able to explain who we are but we don't know what they make of it all.
The easy day becomes the longest day, with frequent rain showers. The guide had modified the walk itinerary for us and something is not working out. Darkness falls at 6 and we are still walking. Suddenly we are at a river with no bridge and no stepping stones. In the dark, we get our sandals on and wade in, porters ensuring our safety as usual.
At last we get to the school yard, the end of our trek and where we are to camp but there is a problem. Everything is wet - the tents, the bedding, the sleeping bags, our clothes. The frequent rain showers have penetrated everything. There is a robust conversation but Marcel comes up with a plan. They will sleep in the school, we will sleep in the hotel.
Hotel, we question? Visions of a bed bug infested shack come to mind. It is a 15 minute walk across the village and, to our relief, we find the hotel is basic but OK. The walls are thin and the toilet is undescribable but the beds are clean. It does for the night, a hotel at the end of the universe.
The next day
we take-over a local taxi-brousse to drive out. This is a 4x4 Toyota pick-up with our luggage on the roof, us in the back on top of camping gear and the last four from our team sitting with their legs hanging out over the tailgate. The other 17 porters started their walk home at 4:30 this morning, it will take them a day and a half.
Our four hour drive out includes numerous bridges and an equal number of fords, where the bridge has collapsed or been washed away. At one very wide river, bridge gone, we board a ferry made of four steel pontoons lashed together. It is punted across the river by six men with long bamboo poles. Another three men swim out to stand on a mid-stream sandbank, chest-deep in the river. With a long rope, their job is to hold on tight and stop us from drifting down stream in the current.
At the end of the drive we reach Manakara and the pounding Indian Ocean. After a hot shower, we head for the beach restaurant. Dinner is freshly caught tuna with a nice Chilean wine. With flambéed banana for desert, it all tastes
fabulous and costs under £6 a head.
More soon ...
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