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Africa » Madagascar » Tsiribihina River
September 29th 2009
Published: December 17th 2009
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Miandrivazo is where our expedition down the river Tsiribihina will begin, and we troop down to the bank where there's a gaggle of adults and kids waiting, as if for the launch of a new liner. One of the kids is wearing a "Titanic" cap. Our transport for the next three days will be pirogues, dug-out canoes seating five with a piroguier at the back and often the front seat occupied by a paddler. Another guy and a woman join the crew, though they do end up doing some work, unlike the guide's girlfriend. Our seats are folded-over foam mattresses on wooden slats - we'll later use the mattresses in our tents. The piroguier in my boat looks in decent shape but his counterpart is whippet-thin, with no discernible fat (or muscle).

It's not an auspicious start to the trip, as we "tack" backwards and forwards across the river to avoid sandbanks but still run aground several times (though not on a large iceberg). One of the staff lights up a cigarette and opens a beer - this at 9AM. There really is nothing better in the great outdoors than having to smell cigarette smoke. My spirits sink further.

I soon realise what will be perhaps the hardest aspect of the voyage. The sun is relentless, hot and strong from early in the morning until it finally slips below the horizon at the end of the day. We've each been provided with gaily-coloured parasols, and during the hottest hours we look like a geishas' day out on the river. I hate wearing sunscreen but engage in a comprehensive slathering, as any exposed patch of Englishman will really fry in these conditions. My skin seems to be covered in one or more of dirt/sweat/sunscreen/mossie repellent for the rest of the week.

At least the seating is fairly comfortable - at first. By the middle of the the third day, though, everyone's arses are crying out for a break.

The views are good but not spectacular and our haul of wildlife is dismal given that it takes place over 2.5 days. There are small, colourful kingfishers - one type greenish, another like a dwarf malachite. We also see bats and a couple of crocs but the latter, at less than 2m, are relatively unimpressive.

The first "Welcome to Madagascar" moment occurs when we encounter a large chameleon - maybe 50cm long - perched on a riverside branch. Instead of manoeuvring the pirogues to get to a good photographing position, one of the staff rips the chameleon off its branch by the tail, plonks it on his oar, then dumps it off onto a closer branch. I'm so aghast at this that I can't take a photo. We also see a few lemurs, whose name comes from the Latin for "spirit of the night" despite them being cute and cuddly, which sensibly stay well away up in the trees.

Lunch on this first river day is the first one the staff have actually prepared, and it's a good one - in fact, the food is one of the few things I'll have no reason to complain about over the course of the week. We eat under some shady trees, and it's good to be away from the sun for a little. However we soon attract a group of local kids who first watch, then come up and ask for items. The requests start at plastic cups then progress to food and eventually clothes. One of the staff then comes over and gives the kids a wodge of our leftovers, triggering a minor stampede. Given the environmental and social gaffes I've seen today, I wonder just what the staff will come up with next.

The end of day 1 finds us pitching camp at an attractive spot on the riverbank. We go for a swim, and it's blissful to slough off the sweat and dirt, while releasing sunscreen into the water table. The girls do their best impression of a Timotei advert and I chat with the guy about the Malagasy language. Apparently the tense of many verbs is changed by simply changing the initial letter. On the downside, interrogatives change depending on the tense of the question.

Dinner kicks off with a superstrong rum punch that I sip for 1.5 hours and eventually throw away as I know bad things will happen if I finish it. The punch is no doubt responsible for some people's later friskiness. I say that I've come to Madagascar because I want to see lemurs, to add to my collection of monkey pictures. One of the girls then says she has a collection of pictures of cocks. Given that some people are a little tipsy at this point, I decide to discount the possibility that she means cockerels and await further revelations. Sadly she does mean cockerels and a yawning gap in her English vocabulary had deprived her of the knowledge of what cock is a synonym for.

After the food, the guide brings out his Malagasy guitar, a ramshackle red thing with different stringing and fret placement to a Western guitar. However it looks, he can play the thing like a demon and, together with the chameleon-molester drumming a jerry can, the two sing us some Malagasy songs that are captivating. I remember reading that Paddy Bush, brother of Kate and no relation to George, is an expert on Malagasy music, which will mean I'll need to listen to "The Red Shoes" again when I get home, as he apparently contributed some Malagasy flavour to it. The rum, large dinner, sun time on the river, and the fact that no-one had slept well the previous night, send us to our tents by 9:30PM.

The night tells me that I've somehow ricked my neck, as rolling over is extremely painful. It's also uncomfortably stuffy - outside is fresher but a mossie zone. Sleep comes fitfully.

On day 2 we see motorised craft heading upriver. I don't know if they're going as far as Miandrivazo but they're awfully slow. Our own progress feels like a good lick and the rhythm of the pirogue consists of fairly gentle strokes interspersed with periods of turbo boost, the strong digging into the water making a noise like a deeper version of a horse snorting. We also meet other tourists for the first time, shattering the illusion that we're the only white people here. There are surprisingly few settlements near the river banks, but any children we pass will wave and shout "Vazaha!" (i.e. white person). Having one's hair bunched up into balls seems to be a popular female style. The terrain changes from flat to gorges, giving us the odd bit of shade.

We take lunch at an excellent spot near a waterfall. There are two green pools for swimming, though the approaches to both - over slime-covered, underwater rocks - are like skating rinks. It's tremendously relaxing to be in the sun but also be cooled at the same time. Nearby we see more lemurs and the thought begins to form in my mind that I may just need to buy a soft toy one.

I briefly speak to two of the other tourists, an Aussie girl and English guy who seem as surprised as I am to find other non-French people. Their trip schedule is nearly the same as ours so we are to encounter them again.

The afternoon sees us meet some choppy water due to a strong breeze that has sprung up. Its great for keeping cool but hard work for the paddlers. The approach of nightfall is, I'm assuming, the main reason why the guide picks for our camp a piece of terrain so flat that the girls have to walk a few hundred metres for toilet cover.

I'm introduced to Malagasy rummy by the others. There's clearly more luck to it than skill as I even win a game - a fact which is no doubt in their minds when they mercilessly maul me at poker later in the trip. It seems as though all French people deal left-handed, even if they're not cuddy-wifters (I've also noticed that door locks are left-handed too, if that makes any sense.) "Putain!" seems to be the most popular expletive, though I'm told its severity vastly exceeds anything that I care to bring out in polite company.

Dinner sadly marks the passing of two of our companions - a pair of chickens that had been boating with us since Miandrivazo. Out of respect I eat little of their remains. Recently I've become much more sympathetic to chickens as they seem to go through life constantly worried. By contrast, cows seem to not really care.

A cooler evening promises a cooler night, and that's the way it turns out.

The next morning, I learn that the piroguiers will take ten days to pole back up the river after the 2.5 days paddling down it. In the wet season, you can come down in 1.5 and take a month to get back up.

We start early on the final day of river travel but it's a gruelling seven hours until we land for the last time. Everyone agrees (as does everyone I subsequently speak to) that 2.5 days is too long and it would be better if a shorter stretch could be used. In fact, from day 2 people had been reading and listening to MP3 players. But that part of the journey is now over and it's on to alternative modes of transport.

Dull but possibly useful info
i. The general itinerary for all these trips is as follows:
Day 1 Private car transfer to Miandrivazo. Stay in Gite de la Tsiribihina.
Day 2 Day in pirogue. Camp on riverbank.
Day 3 Day in pirogue. Camp on riverbank.
Day 4 Half-day in pirogue. Zebu cart to village to meet 4WD. 4WD to Belo-sur-Tsiribihina. Stay in Hotel Karibo.
Day 5 4WD to Tsingy de Bemahara park (can't remember the name of the village). Camp.
Day 6 Visit Grands and Petits Tsingy. Camp (same place as for Day 5).
Day 7 4WD to Morondava, hitting Avenue de Baobabs at sunset.
Getting out of Morondava is a problem that's generally left for you to solve. You can fly out (expensive), get a taxi-brousse back to Antsirabe (there are several but they all leave at 1PM, taking ~12 hours, and costing Ar35-40K), hire a car (I was told a car and driver for the trip to Antsirabe should be Ar200K, i.e. not massively more than the taxi-brousse if there are 2 or 3 of you, but much more comfortable), get boats to Tulear (several days), or hitch back to Antsirabe (there's apparently a gas station in Morondava where you're pretty much guaranteed to get a lift, for which you'll pay about the same as a taxi-brousse).
Everyone I spoke to, in my group and others, said that 2.5 days on the river was too much - the sun, the seats, and the insufficient variety of wildlife and landscapes don't make for a riveting 2.5 days. If you can find an option for 1-2 days, or a stretch of river with more variety, then take it. Whatever, take a parasol.
You should not pay more than 30-35 euros per day for this trip and frankly, given what I got on mine and how cheap things are in Madagascar, 25 euros per day is no doubt achievable.
Don't expect to find a guide who speaks even good English, let alone great. I think all the better English speakers are working for tour companies.


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8th January 2010

Blog of the year 2009, for the Africa/writing cathegory
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