September 23, 2016
This post is part of a 10 day trip with Remote River Expeditions.
We hear the taxi brousse arrrive at 4AM and lie in bed until the alarm goes off at 4:45. Just a hint of light in the sky as we pack up our belongings and head out. Sydonie, our hostess, is there with her husband. We thank her again for her kind hospitality. She doesn’t understand our words but gets our emotions and gratitude.
She motions to the two bottles of water I’m carrying. I don’t understand at first but then realize that she want the empty bottle. Alex explains they have a still in the basement and sell alcohol. It all makes sense now – the happy drunks hanging about the evening before and the sweet smell of alcohol in the air.
Before our taxi brousse can leave they have to siphon off as much gas as possible from the old vehicle. They get a tankful but still they park the vehicle on a hillside to tilt the tank so they can get every last drop possible. We’re not sure how the now stranded driver is going to get his truck back home but such are the mysteries of Madagascar.
Nearing 5:45 they pack up the last of the gear; the sun just barely up we head out.
The Land Cruiser conquers with ease the deep muddy road crevices and steep dusty climbs the Toyota Helix couldn’t manage.
At the top of the plateau bright orange-red scars crisscross the landscape where heavy rains have washed out the soil. I find it beautiful but Alex says the eroded hills are ugly as they should be covered in forest.
The landscape doesn’t change much from here to Akavandra as the taxi brousse, Sanglier, climbs and descends ever steeper inclines. Just when I think we’ll never manage this hill, we cross yet another one even worse.
Our driver, a young man dressed in a bright red and orange T-shirt and flowered jeans to match, looks small behind the wheel. His choice of music alternates between Malagasy dance pop and hymns. He works the road with deliberation, driving fast along the relatively flat smooth sections while crawling up and down the deeply trenched vertical slopes.
We’re crammed in the taxi brousse that routinely hold 15-20, 4 to a row. Don is sitting in the second row with his legs up on the folded seat in front of him providing for a bad knee. I’m in the middle seat next to his legs only the seat has no cushion, just the frame. When I can no longer bear bouncing on the bare metal, I point out the condition of the seat and Vunje gives me a blanket to fill in the hole. I have to sit sideways to accommodate my legs. Alex is next to me. His small stature fits easily in the confined space.
At about 8 we stop for breakfast at a spot that the trekkers use on their way to Akavandra. It’s situated next to a stream but not very picturesque. As Alex and Vunje prepare eggs and coffee a few locals pass by.
Vunje offers them coffee, in reality the second pouring with the same grounds after they have made our coffee. He gives them each a half baguette as well. It seems paltry but they are happy to receive it.
After breakfast it’s more of the same, the road as rough as ever.
Alex explains that since we lost time yesterday because of the vehicle difficulties, the taxi brousse is going to take us all the way to Akavandra. Normally we would walk the last 3 hours. I don’t know that driving as slowly as we were really saved time, but it saved the need for porters.
We reach a high point where we can see Akavandra on the river. It’s a long slow crawl down.
If I thought the road before was bad this was even worse and noticeably slower.
We finally made it to town around noon.
It’s hot here. The sun super intense. There is a large dry square in the middle of town. Locals cram into the narrow strip of shade at the edge. Friendly but more used to foreigners they stare at us as usual. The children shout , “Vazaha” , stranger.
The taxi brousse takes us down to the river where under a mango tree they unload the supplies and equipment for the river trip.
A group of locals are hanging out cooking lunch. As Don and I sort out our belongings we feel the curious eyes upon us watching every move.
I start to write, Don reads as Alex prepares lunch. One of the locals has scrambled through the tree and taken some green mangos and shredded them for a salad. He offers us some. Tasty and tart it’s good but we don’t eat too much as we are not used to the green fruit. Alex takes the rest and eats it with gusto.
Alex finds out that they are here for a circumcision party. 5 boys between the ages of 1-6 were circumcised and are here to celebrate.
At one point the grandfather shows off the 6 year old’s recently circumcised penis. The boy is clearly in pain but stands quietly next to his exuberant grandfather. Later the grandfather tries to ask Don something but we have no idea what he wants. Alex interprets for us. He wants some medicine to help the boy. I remember that I have some antibiotic ointment. It won’t help the pain but may stave off an infection. Alex helps us explain to him how it should be applied. The grandfather in turn explains to the grandmother as she holds the tube turning it over and over gazing at it with skepticism.
Lunch is a nice vegetable curry.
Finally around 2PM we are ready to leave and the canoes are loaded. The river is full of very dark naked children playing in the water.
One boy a real ham poses at every opportunity. A short ways down 3 pretty young women with their breasts exposed wash in the shallow waters.
The hot sun beats down.
But before we leave we have to do a ritual consisting of a prayer, splashing rum on our forehead and paying of tithe of 2000-10,000 ariary.
Once we are on the water and past the crowds the river quickly becomes peaceful. We pass smaller groups of bathers, but fewer in frequency and in number.
The sandstone out croppings, dry grassy hills and greenery along the shore are pretty but nothing dramatic or spectacular.
The water is low. Locals run across the shallow waters to reach the other side. The low waters also cause the canoes difficulties. The paddlers get out to push them across the sand banks. Don gets out to lighten the load and to help push.
We weave back and forth across to the wide river following the deeper channels. We take a break and then finally stop at about 5:00 for the day at a pleasant sandy beach. We wait for the others to catch up.
We are 3 canoes. Don and I with a boatman in one, Alex in another with another boatman and his young son, and Vunje and a boatman in the third. We’re in a fiberglass canoe which is lighter and not as loaded down as the other two traditional wooden style canoes.
While they set up camp, a make-shift kitchen area and the sleeping tents, Don and I wash the dust off of our bodies and clothes in the river.
We go down to the fire to wait for dinner. Alex serves us some of the sweet wine from the previous evening and peanuts.
Dinner is Alex’s soup that he made from the cassava that we bought from the field workers 2 days before. It’s a thick starchy concoction with vegetables and meat and a hint of sweetness, one of our preferred meals of the trip. For dessert he melts sugar and coats sliced bananas – yum.
Don and I sleep well on the air mattresses we brought from home. The night is quiet. The night is too warm to sleep in the sleeping bags. By morning it’s a bit cooler.