Madagascar: The First Half
Madagascar is the first place I have ever visited that I didn’t know a single person who had been there. It is a land of mystery, with many endemic species and lots of wonder and awe. My wife has wanted to visit here since she was a child, and like Patagonia or the Trans-Siberian, a little extra travel experience as well as a fuller wallet was in order before we decided to pull the trigger and visit.
After doing the previously mentioned trips, we felt confident that a visit to Madagascar was in order; Carmen started, almost daily, looking up flight prices. Some very attractive things came up — 24-hour layovers in the Seychelles and what have you — but they were priced at 1500 beans a person (at the time of this writing, one bean = one USD). Then, she found a deal through Ethiopian; 740 beans per person, which was basically a two for one deal. SOLD! Well, “bought!” was more like it. This is about where in the process I usually check-out, save for providing a simple “sure” or “nahhhh” occasionally as I browse reddit and ideas are fired across my keyboard. I’m not really being facetious here; Carmen does well over 95% of the planning on almost all our trips. I cannot thank her enough for the research, time, effort, and enthusiasm she puts into these trips. Not a single one has been bad.
The tickets were bought, which meant it was time to figure out just exactly what we were going to do. Normally, we would rent a car and traipse all over the place, hooting the hooter (this is what my friend Matt, from the UK, called beeping the horn) at other people beeping their horns, stopping at places for photos, all that stuff. Unfortunately, in Madagascar you need to hire a driver if you want to rent a car, which made it seem like a better option to just go through a tour company. Carmen chose Jean Be Tours who were very fairly priced. We basically mashed two tours together for our 12-day trip. The entire trip, with the exception of two days, was going to be with our tour guide Manda.
This is the point I got to writing a week and a half ago. I don’t know why it takes me so long to finish these posts, I’m not Edgar Hemingway.
Jean Be and Manda picked us up from the airport, which had one runway; we got to the end of the landing strip and our plane turned around to get back to the terminal. Customs was a fiasco; luckily we were first in line, then second in line, and after we got to fourth in line, we decided to do as the Malagasy do and just cut in line back to first. We changed over some money, got a huge stack of half a million ariary and walked out to meet Jean Be and Manda. I’m very impatient and Jean Be decided to recount the entire trip pamphlet for us even though Carmen had already meticulously read the tour itinerary. I pretended to listen many times. We finally hit the road to head to our hotel to get some snoozydoodles done before heading to the bus station in the morning.
At the hotel, we got our first taste of Madagascar, where there are power outages every night. The hotel was ok — not good, not bad, and worked just fine for our purpose: sleeping. In the morning we met Manda and Jean Be and went to the bus depot, which was a dirty market that happened to have mini buses leaving from it. We were there for about two hours before we finally hit the road with a bus packed with people.
The bus took off around 8 am. The trip, at least I thought so, was going to take 14 hours; we would arrive in Miandrivazo and then get on our canoe for a two night three day paddle. We stopped around four hours in for some food (I got duck) and was told we were half way. I was excited. Apparently, the 14 hour trip was was on the way back. The drive was largely uneventful; the bus was full, Carmen got motion sickness a little bit, the women next to Manda was eating mangos for much of the trip. We stopped for gas at one point; all the men got to pee in the bushes.
We got to Miandrivazo, walked to our hotel, had dinner, sat in the darkness for the power outages, and I shot some longos. We also gave some instax photos to the kids in the area, also I can absolutely guarantee that a dog got a number of pets from me. We also were given some information about our trip the following days from Manda: Keep our wallets and passports on us at all times, there are robbers on the river. Apparently our bodyguard was not responding to Manda’s calls and he was a bit worried. I figured let’s just go for it, Carmen was much more apprehensive. Manda said it wouldn’t be a big deal and we probably would not get robbed.
The next morning we drove in the pitch black to our canoe, picked up our body guard and cook then walked quite a ways where we did finally get in our canoe. This thing was huge, carved from a tree, and patched up all over.
I’m going to be honest, the one part I was looking forward to above all others on this trip was the canoe paddle. It would be two days and three nights, totaling almost 70 miles. We got in our canoe in the early morning and watched the sunrise and the mist rise over the river. The river itself is muddy, we saw a big snake on the bank which is wholly unrelated to the first part of the sentence.
Most of the first day was paddling in the hot African sun. Our canoe was situated like this: Manda up front, Carmen, me, Belo, Body Guard/Paddler, and the other paddler (I hope they don’t read this post, I forgot their names). Belo was our cook and paddled at times. He also wore a down jacket and long sleeve shirt the whole trip.
Our food was cooked on the boat with a charcoal stove and I’m just going to say the food was delicious. We would pull up to someone on the side of the river and buy their river catchings — first was prawns, HUGE prawns.
The paddle itself was uneventful, we did end up visiting a crystal clear waterfall, Anosinampela, around midday. We got to swim and take a bath, I cut my foot slipping in the water on some rocks.
Right before we got up to the waterfall, we saw two more boats on the river in hot pursuit of us, umbrellas open. It was a group of French people and their tour guides. They caught up to us, we all got out for the waterfall. After the fall, we got in the water and headed on our way. Some guy paddled up to us a mile or so down the river, we gave him some rice from our supply. This is where the French group met up with us again. We found out later that they did not have a body guard so they were going to tail us the rest of the trip, boo-urns.
The rest of the paddle for that day lasted an hour or so. We ended up pulling up to the shore of a small village. I think the name of the village is Begidro. When you think of an African village, you’re thinking of Begidro. No electricity, mud roads, kids and people without shoes, stick huts. The kids here flock to foreigners yelling “Vassa vassa! Bambo vassa!” which, we were told, means foreigners! candy, foreigners! They want something, anything. They followed me all over, loved playing with my cameras, kept holding my hand; I really felt like a celebrity. I let one of them take my photo the next morning, he did a pretty bang-up job, too!
The night was spent in a tent on the ground in a little clearing with a fence. People who camped on the river bank the night before had been robbed, so we paid something in the area of six dollars to stay in a fenced in compound (read: yard) and feel safe. When the sun goes down, it is dark, very dark. The Milky Way is gorgeous, the campfire was warm and the sleep was great.
The next morning we had breakfast, packed up and got ready to leave. We paid for our plot, the French people did not. This is about when I really started disliking the French people. I ended up giving the guy who owned the yard a bit of a tip. Walking to our canoe, we walked past the local slaughterhouse, which was just the ground. They were slaughtering a cow and a pig with about 20 people around waiting for their meat. One guy was walking away with the head, I ran him down for a photo, which he seemed just fine with letting me take.
We loaded up in our canoe ready for the day. We didn’t have a waterfall to stop at today but we did, after a few hours, stop to eat lunch in a cave across from a Baobab tree. The food was delicious and our body guard was hungover and passed out. Luckily for us the danger of the river bandits had passed earlier in the day. We started seeing Baobab trees for the rest of the day, otherwise this paddle was just a pleasant paddle. I’d add here that I did help paddle quite a bit on the trip, however I’m sure I was doing nothing helpful, like a kid mowing the lawn with his fake lawnmower just looking like a doofus.
The French team was with us the whole day, with the exception of our lunch spot, they just stopped on the river bank without a cave, we clearly had the better view.
We got out of the water later in the day and setup our tent. I thought we would be getting back in the canoe the following day for a bit of time, but we were done. I was sad. We spent the night on the banks of the river about an hour from Antsirarakara, a village we were getting in the 4x4 the following day. A local guy who ended up being our cart driver the next day found a huge chameleon for us to look at. I was watching a movie on my tablet only to turn around and see about 15 people watching with me. I put on WALL-E and handed them the tablet. That night I tried to take some long exposures, but there were us and our crew and both French boats of people, all with flashlights and headlamps. I was able to sleep pretty well though.
The next morning we were to take zebu carts for two hours to a town where we would meet up with our 4x4 driver. Carmen and I opted to walk the length instead of riding in the cart. We loaded our bags up in the cart and about four minutes into the walk our cart and one coming in the opposing direction had a bit of a clash, wheels stuck on each other in the mud, of course. It was a pretty funny sight to see, Madagascar traffic jam. After about 20 minutes of pulling this way and pushing that way, our tailgate falling off 28 times and a lot of laughs from everyone involved, we were on our way.
The walk was nice, we saw a lot of people heading somewhere, working in fields, and this was when we really started to see tons of Baobab trees. I eventually had to put my shoes back on when we met our 4x4, as there were a lot of sticker bushes around. This was the end of our primative transportation methods. I also gave my headlamp to our cook, Belo as well as tips all around. We met with our driver George here. He would be our driver for the next few days.
I’m really going to Peter Jackson this post and split this bad boy into three parts instead of two because there is more story to tell. Hopefully, that’ll come quickly.