“Security!” came the shout from behind as four of us threw ourselves into the bottom of the raft, clinging on for dear life. We didn’t need telling twice! As we headed down the first section of rapids this felt a wilder ride than the previous days’, a suspicion confirmed when the raft hit a rock, deformed, and catapulted 3 of the crew into the white water. Unfortunately I was one of them, taking my first dunking of the rafting phase in style with – I am informed – a double somersault over the heads of my teammates, to land head first in the water a good distance clear of the raft.
So what are the first things that spring to mind when you think of Madagascar? Jungle? Beaches? Maybe the catchy animated movie and hordes of dancing lemurs?
Once I had decided to branch out into expedition in warmer climes (not hard when you compare everything to Antarctica!), Madagascar caught my imagination and wouldn’t let go, fortunately I found an expedition by Secret Compass that seemed to tick all the right boxes,
As of 2014, Madagascar had only been crossed, coast to coast, 3 times with our route combining 4×4 vehicle (until we ran out of road – it only took 5 hours!), hiking through farmland, upland and jungle to summit the highest peak on the island and then joining the Bemarivo River for white water rapids and lazy paddles to the next road.
So, in May, our little team of 7 adventurers, expedition guide and horde of enthusiastic locals flew to Diego in the far North of the island before driving south to our start point – let me just say that I will never again complain of potholes on British roads! After a wobbly canoe transfer in the dark to our campsite we settled in for the night with a quick bath in the river and some stargazing.
At the start of the trip our path stayed fairly low, winding between villages on cart tracks and shallow fords with idyllic lunch spots next to the water where we could escape the sun for an hour or two. Soon though the villages became scarcer and we started to attract more local attention as we tramped through previously peaceful areas with our expedition rucksacks and big jungle boots. In an effort to be more approachable, one team member asked a porter for a colloquial greeting to use and to his delight was promptly furnished with “itsa massacre”. Cue smiles, giggles and confused faces for the next week until it was revealed that our group of foreigners had been merrily tramping through communities asking “where is the meat?”.
As we progressed further inland towards the highest peak – Mt Maromokotro – fighting our way through jungle vines, deadwood and the dreaded ‘sticky bamboo’, we left the villages behind and made our camps in whatever small clearings we happened upon, keeping our eyes peeled at all times for the elusive lemurs.
The rapid change in scenery to upland moor came at the end of a hard, solid day of uphill jungle trekking when we finally broke free of the vegetation and were instantly transported to the rolling moorland of the Peak District. Once we decided that we were neither lost nor hallucinating we made camp and enjoyed a campfire briefly before retiring ahead of our summit push the following morning.
Leaving our bags at the base of the summit the whole team, including a rather fat, white chicken, made good time to the peak and ceremonially walked around the marker cairn. Once assembled, our local guide, Max, along with some of the more experienced porters stood to say a few words in Malagasy expressing thanks the team, the sacred mountain and similar sentiments. At the end of the speech, the (live) chicken was released on the summit as an offering to the mountain. Similarly a prize bottle of rum was opened and the first capful poured onto the stones before water was passed around to the team members. After asking if I should also offer this to the mountain, I was assured that no, I should drink it. Imagine my surprise, and the porters’ amusement, when I discovered it was in fact local moonshine!
Our summit celebrations soon turned into a full-blown party with music, more moonshine and plenty of dancing, not to mention the hilarity when the porters insisted we share some of our songs with them. After a moment of panic and an embarrassing attempt at ‘Happy Birthday’ we settled into a nearly complete rendition of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ which eventually became the theme tune to the entire trip alongside Hanson’s ‘Mmmbop’.
Racing back down the slope ahead of the cloud and rain we made the most of the open uplands for the rest of the day and the next before once again delving deep into the jungle.
That’s where we picked up our newest teammates – the leeches. Despite our best efforts the determined creatures still managed to find some exposed skin, rapidly ‘looping’ their way towards clothing seams and warm veins. Undeterred we pressed on through a never-ending series of valleys, rivers, steep slopes and (very) muddy paths, pulling together– often quite literally! – as a team through the long days and increasing number of blisters.
Despite reaching the summit of Mt Maromokotro, we weren’t finished with our adventure. After breaking free of the clutches of the jungle with a final (deep) river crossing, we found civilisation again in the form of a large village with an even larger football pitch which became our home for the night, much to the delight of the locals. After entertaining the surrounding youngsters with cameras, counting games and wringing out my socks, we headed to bed before the last push to our rafts.
If any of us thought the rafting phase would be relaxing, slowly drifting downriver surrounded by babbling water and beautiful scenery, we were right on only one count! Whilst the surrounding landscape never failed to amaze, the river was far from peaceful as it wound between large boulders, down narrow gorges and swept past remote villages.
Fortunately for us, the commands for rafting are simple: Forward, Back, Stop and Security. The louder and more frequently the commands were uttered, the more urgent the situation! As soon as you saw a group of villagers collecting in the distance the guides knew to pull over and inspect the route – the crowd always waited on the…interesting… stretches and we felt no shame in portaging the heavy rafts and equipment around dangerous sections.
Now, 2 weeks in to our expedition, we were used to trusting each other and working as a team – crucial in this environment whether paddling out of a ‘washing machine’ or coordinating the movement of a heavily loaded raft in the dark down a path less than half its width. In addition there was lots to learn from my fellow teammates, particularly Ian who managed to remain inside the raft for the duration of the trip – when asked for advice he replied “As soon as you even think ‘Security’, curl up and hang on with everything!” – obviously sound advice.
Whilst the challenges were different, the positive attitude from our trek continued and we continually found ways to amuse ourselves on the (very) occasional flat section, kept alert by hysterical screams of “CROCODILE!” – each and every sighting of which turned out to be a log! At night, we stopped wherever there was room on sandy beaches, boulder fields, borrowed kitchens or football pitches (with the added bonus of watching the local boxing competition) and made the most of the dark nights for stargazing.
After our final rafting challenge – which saw the unexpected swimming session – we cruised into a village, deflated the rafts and headed for the nearest tea shop. This was the end of the road, literally, where the local bus from Sambava turns around and heads back to the coast. Imagine the bus driver’s surprise when his small 4×4 (yes we packed 17 of us into that…) was overrun with porters, guides, team members, 2 deflated rafts, rucksacks, cooking supplies and a good supply of cold beer.
Despite the obvious sadness about the expedition finishing, the bus had a party atmosphere all the way to our luxury hotel (luxury: noun – containing beds, showers, electricity and a bar) accompanied by karaoke with the man whose sole job it was to hold the rear doors shut and sporadic shouts of “Security!” which sent Ian diving into the passenger footwell…..
So for my first excursion into jungle expeditions, did I enjoy it? Thoroughly. I would love to return to Madagascar and investigate other parts of the island, national parks and culture. Unfortunately there are many new destinations to explore before I return to old haunts.