Into Madagascar’s Wild West Part I – Getting to the Tsiribihina

Precariously, we sat in a wooden pirogue on the Tsiribihina river. Finding ourselves fixated on the shadows cast by the setting sun onto the river top’s golden-brown gloss, we floated past the red-lined rock cliffs of the banks’ escarpment. Our day’s conversations trailed off into a collective silence. The intermittent rippling of the paddles on the water, as well as the lone bird calls from the shore, were the only intrusions on the hush. Just a few days earlier, we were in a city of millions, but now we found ourselves distant, and getting further, from settlement. I grew up in admiration of intrepid explorers who braved the world’s uncharted expanses and their audacious journeys. Before coming to Madagascar, my brother Max and I longed to see a one-of-a-kind geological phenomenon called the Tsingy de Bemaraha formations; we knew that it would be an arduous week-long endeavor, but what we didn’t know proved to be our amateurishness in appreciating the journey. For the real unparalleled richness we were seeking was found in the wildlife, the landscapes, and the people along the way.

June 18, 22:45 — Arrival into Tana (Antananarivo) Elsewhere, I’ve found that acquiring visas can sometimes be a hassle. For Madagascar, a country serious about facilitating tourism, the visa can be bought at the airport upon landing! The daily Air France flights arrive late, but the airport police desks are still bustling. The late arrival does mean that the taxi ride through Tana at midnight leaves a dour first impression of the city. Dog packs roam, street fires blaze, and men carry unconscious prostitutes; even the colorful hillside houses look grim in the absence of light. When I arrived at my hostel, I could see that the streets at night were no joke as the gatekeeper came out wearing a full ski mask. Locals say two things about Tana: one, do not walk around at night, just take a taxi, and two, when you get to Tana, leave and explore the rest of Madagascar.

June 19, 8:30 — Leaving Tana In the morning, the sun penetrated through the overcast sky, unable to really warm the capital. May through October constitutes the cool season in Madagascar, which I had known but still somehow neglected to pack a sweater.

I joined Max for breakfast and met Joost, a friendly Dutchman whom Max had run into at the visa line when they arrived a few days earlier. I had been in Tana for less than ten hours, and we were already headed out to Antsirabe by taxi-brousse. Taxi-brousses are the breakdown-prone transport vans that miraculously cram in crowds and potter across magnificent landscapes, through vibrant hamlets, connecting remote to urban. They are indispensable to the Malgaches’ intercity travel. They cover brave distances that pass through tiny villages and over dilapidated roads, inducing the most literal sense of the term ‘bone-rattling’. After waiting for a couple of hours for the brousse to be full, we set off over the rolling hills and through the terraced fields of the picturesque RN7 road. After five hours of numerous police checkpoints, several stops in villages for snacks where food vendors rushed to each passing brousse to nudge their goods into the window before other vendors could, we made it to the Antsirabe brousse station, an open field with a small concrete guichet. Our arrival was met with rain, so we huddled under the guichet’s roof, where dozens of old men were doing the same and were eager to chat. Max and I had thought that we’d get by in Madagascar with French, but Malgache is the principal language. Despite our not knowing more than a few simple Malgache words, Malagasies still wanted to converse and pulled out all the French phrases they know in order to start a dialogue.

The rain persisted for the rest of the day, but geared with ponchos we visited local workshops of the craft-focused city. From recycling aluminum cans into toys to fashioning silverware out of zebu cattle horns, they showcase the ingenuity of Antsirabe’s skilled workers.

June 20, 9:30 — Miandrivazo

Once we had picked up food and water at the local supermarket, we headed out on the RN34 to Miandrivazo, the road on which the petite mountain landscape changes cover from rice paddies to unbridled swathes of veld. We were to begin the river part of the journey the next day, so after arriving in Miandrivazo, we bought two live chickens — the freshest meals we could make on river banks. We talked over how we should not name an animal we’re going to eat, so of course we promptly named them Henrietta and Margaret. The rest of the evening was spent wandering around the humming streets straddled by textile shops and food stands. We stopped at the local pitch to watch the teenagers’ football match, but were encircled by sprightly children who ardently got us to take hundreds of group pictures. With our memory cards almost full, we then watched the sun’s rays set over Miandrivazo’s fallow fields in which men cooked bricks in makeshift ovens, laying the foundations for future dwellings.

June 21, 5:30 — Tsiribihina River Our early rise meant that we got to see the sun peer over the hills, radiating golden light through the tall grasses of the plains. Winding along the terrain, we came up to the tributary, pirogues — slender wooden canoes — waiting. From Tana, through incredible landscapes, we had made it to the precipice of ‘off the beaten track’, and the three-day river journey was to begin.