Spirit of discovery: Trans Madagascar Expedition

By Amar Dev Singh 10 March 2015
Reading Time: 9 Minutes Print this page
An opportunity to take part in the first Trans-Madagascar Expedition was simply too good to pass up. But it turned out to be a mighty big challenge.

The patter of cold rain on my tent wakes me to another dark and wet morning in the jungle. I can hear my companions rustling in their sleeping bags as they too are dragged from the comfort of their dreams. Somehow I bring myself to sit up and climb out of my warm cocoon and begin the odious task of sliding on my damp clothes; clammy from a mixture of a fortnight’s worth of sweat, mud and rain. I take a sniff of my T-shirt and wince; I decide to stay shirtless until I really have to.

I have trekked about 150km, am not even halfway, and the jungle is only just before us. The rain, humidity and frequent river crossings mean our boots and feet are wet all day. We are starting to get zombie-like pitted grey skin on the soles of our feet, the first signs of trench foot. Some of my companions have palm-sized blisters on their feet. I have no idea how they are still walking. Everyone’s feet are taped up with a combination of blister pads, band aids, duct tape and layered in combinations of Vaseline, nappy rash cream, Tiger Balm and insect repellent. Sandfly and leech bites, scratches and grazes are starting to get infected despite efforts to keep them sanitised.

Stomach bugs have laid a couple of people low but given that we are well over 100km from the nearest road, they have little option but to keep going and keep up as best they can. Luckily no one has twisted an ankle, or worse, come down with malaria; the jungle in these parts has a particularly nasty variety of cerebral malaria. Today we leave the path, enter the jungle and the unknown. Welcome to my holiday.

A first crossing in Madagascar

In an era where most people believe that every place on Earth has been discovered and there are no new adventures, when one turns up at your doorstep you sit up and take notice. I received an email from an outfit called Secret Compass who was looking for members to join a unique trip titled: “Madagascar: Coast to Coast Expedition”. It was billed as the world’s first recorded crossing of the island. When I scanned the proposed route on Google Earth, I couldn’t believe my eyes.

The route cut right across Madagascar’s northern section straight through the remotest, highest, most wild and rugged country on the island. Jungles, rivers, swamps, ravines, mountains; this route had the lot. It was a 400km trek from the port city of Sambava on the Indian Ocean in the east, to Ankife on the Mozambique Channel on the west coast. The route climbed through the Tsaratanana Mountains traversing Mt Moromokotro, the island’s highest peak at 2875m.

Studying the route closely I didn’t know how it would be feasible but, if someone was going to attempt it, damned if I was going to let them go on this crazy adventure without me. A month later, I was downing whiskey with the expedition team by a hotel pool in Antananarivo, Madagascar.

Fuzzy and hung-over the next day, we pored over a series of seven maps set out on the floor before us, French military maps from 1962; the best available. Lev, the Expedition Leader, connected the maps with a dotted line. The black line cut through the jumble of mountains, rivers and villages with strange names: Ambanjahilatra, Ambodivoanio, Antongamaria.

I have had enough expedition experience to know that the black line on the map was no more than an idea, the reality would prove to be quite different. I hoped my fellow trekkers, who had flown in from as far away as the USA, Canada, Egypt and the UK, knew what we were in for.

We caught an early morning flight to the seaside town of Sambava. At the coconut tree-lined beach we all symbolically touched the warm waters of the Indian Ocean before we started out on our odyssey. The next time we would see a beach would be 400 sweat-drenched-jungle-choked kilometres later on the west coast along the Mozambique Channel.

First steps in the Madagascan jungle

The trek started out as a 20km death-march on hot tarmac in the midday sun to the road-head near the village of Nossian on the banks of the Bimarivo River. Everyone started out at a cracking pace, all full of enthusiasm. The road wound its way through a verdant landscape of plantations of banana, mango, lychee, coconut and flooded rice paddies. A jagged spine of green mountains crouched menacingly on the horizon. That’s where we were headed – into and then over them.

The tarmac ended abruptly at Nosiana, and from then on we were on an ever-diminishing quality of tracks till we reached the jungle where we had to draw our machetes to make our own. The muddy and rutted track ran along the banks of the sluggish Bimarivo River as it meandered its way through the steamy tropical lowlands. The Bimarivo was to be our constant companion over the next week as we followed its course deep into the Tsaratanana Mountains.

As we passed through the numerous villages inquisitive locals smiled and greeted us energetically with “Mbola tsara vazaha!” or “Hello white person”. Kids streamed out of homes and we created a near riot at a school as children poured out to see us: the first vazahas to visit the area.

We camped our first night in a mango orchard. After making myself comfortable and seeing off an inquisitive snake, we gorged on a pasta dinner and lay on the tarp under the stars, chatting till late into the night. We were a group of experienced travellers and the campfire stories were legendary. We were regaled with tales of bravado and adventure: being blown up by land mines in Afghanistan; dealing with drugged orangutans in Borneo; climbing volcanoes in Kamchatka; Himalayan treks; smoking hashish with the Lebanese mafia and so on.

The next few days we spent covering impressive distances; 34km on one day. The dirt track was wide and in good condition, and we could walk two abreast. Trees created a shady tunnel and provided a welcome respite from the muggy 35-degree heat. The villages we passed through diminished in size and structure; brick and concrete houses gave way to those made of roughly hewn wooden planks, and finally to very basic bamboo huts.

Then the countryside began to get hilly, the Bimarivo valley became narrower and the path thinner. The rolling hills were covered with 2m high grass – a result of massive deforestation caused by slash and burn subsistence farming practiced widely in Madagascar. Only the steepest hillsides and valleys had sad isolated clumps of primary rainforest remaining. The reality of Madagascar is very different from the nature documentaries we are used to watching; over 90% of the island’s forest cover has been destroyed and the rest is going fast. This is a tragedy, as of all plant and animal species found in Madagascar “over 80% of them are unlike any others found anywhere else in the world”, according to David Attenborough.

The extent of the damage can be ascertained by the fact that we travelled through what is considered to be one of the most untouched regions. Even then we had to trek for 150km before we encountered pristine rainforest. To add to this, after spending more than two weeks in the rainforest, we could count our encounters with the famed lemurs on the fingers of our hands. Most of what you see of Madagascar in documentaries has been filmed in a few protected reserves.

At the village of Merofona we left the Bimarivo and headed west up the valley of the Anatongamaria River. Merofona was the last official village on our 1962 maps and was supposed to be the place we entered the jungle, but around us, all we could see was bare grassy hills.

Madagasca jungle: going in deep

We had to a hike another day till we reached the edge of the jungle. Ambinany Antsahakolokoka was the rather grandiose name of the last scrappy village consisting of a couple of bamboo huts at the jungle’s edge. While we had already had a week of hard trekking to get here, what lay before us was an entirely new scenario. There were to be no tracks, no villages and no means of backing out beyond this point. Heavy cloud hung over the dark forest as we set up camp in a clearing at the edge of the village. I stood and stared silently into the gloom trying to imagine what lay in store for us beyond the edge of our clearing. The jungle lay before us and things were about to get interesting.

At dawn the next morning we started out in the dripping rain and entered the jungle in a steep valley of the Anatongamaria River. The challenging terrain soon forced us to walk waist deep in the river and that’s where we spent the remainder of the day. From now on the river was the path. Thick leech-infested jungle dripping with vines covered the steep hillsides. Tiny patches of sky were visible through the gaps in the tall green canopy. This was to be the nature of the route for the remainder of much of the expedition.

Now we were truly in the capable hands of our local Malagasy guides and porters. These were tough men who were used to the most basic existence and were totally at ease in these testing conditions. The porters had minimal gear: barefoot, clad only in a pair of Y-front underpants, they balanced their heavy loads consisting of two bundles on a thick bamboo pole that they rested on their shoulders. It took an amazing amount of dexterity and strength to carry such an unwieldy load while manoeuvring across mossy rocks, fording mountain rivers and crashing through thickets of vines and bamboos. They made a mockery of us in our high-tech outdoor gear.

The ping of the machete blades and crash of vegetation became a familiar sound as we hacked, hauled, climbed, stumbled, slithered and sweated our way through the jungle. The riot of vegetation smothered us and you could only see a few metres around you in the claustrophobic bowels of the jungle. The jungle though was strangely silent and empty; we barely heard or saw any wildlife.

Our camps consisted of whatever tiny bit of real estate we could hack out from the jungle; it was rarely flat. All our gear was muddy, wet, musty and stank. Personal hygiene was a real issue as you had to look after any cuts, bites, grazes or blisters as infections could set in very quickly.

We crossed the watershed of the Anatongamaria River and descended into the valley of the Mahavavy River. After following the river for a day we emerged from the jungle into the grasslands at the base of the Tsaratanana Massif. Here we made our final camp in the tall grass on the eastern slopes of Mt Maromokotor.

We made a very early start and began the climb by the light of our headlamps. We gained a steep grassy ridge and were high on the mountain when the morning sun lit up the waist-high golden grass. I sat down panting and looked out at the green horizon for the first time in nearly a week. We were elated to be out of the clammy jungle and in the cool mountain air.

We gained height quickly as we crossed the lower grassy slopes but were soon slowed down by a densely vegetated ridge covered in prickly shrubs and spiky bamboo. At an altitude of around 2300m, shredded and exhausted we climbed out of the last of the dense vegetation and onto the knee-high heather of the subalpine region. We were now within striking distance of the summit of Mt Maromokotor, which lay somewhere in the dense tropical clouds ahead.

The final climb: Mt Moromokotro 

We established camp by a stream and spent a dreary evening shrouded by mist and drizzle. After swallowing a pasta dinner I slipped into a deep sleep hoping that we would be blessed with clear weather for summit day.

The next morning was a brilliant crisp day and we had commanding views over the jungle below; uniform green spread out over the lower hills as far as you could see. We wolfed down some breakfast and, just carrying light daypacks we made good time climbing towards the summit of Mt Moromokotro. The mountain itself is a massif with a huge summit plateau that has a number of minor peaks. We picked one that looked the highest and tramped our way through the knee-high vegetation towards it. Once on top, halfway through the handshakes and back slapping, the altimeter reading told us we were actually on the wrong peak. In the distance we could see another peak topped with a large cairn.

Another 45 minutes of climbing led us to the summit of the correct peak. Late-morning clouds swirled over the verdant jungle in the valleys below, the crumpled mass of mountains surrounded us and faintly on the western horizon the blue waters of the Mozambique Channel could be seen. I pulled out a worn case of Cuban cigars and handed them out to the group while a silver hip flask of celebratory whisky made the rounds.

Our Malagasy team, in accordance with local tradition, had carried up a white cockerel as an offering to the gods of Moromokotro. Lev made a short speech and launched the bird rather enthusiastically into the air. The travel-worn cockerel squawked, flapped and landed in an untidy mess a few meters away.

I sat down on the rocks on the summit, savouring my cigar and whisky, and gazed out over the jungles towards the west. The celebration provided a brief distraction from the fact that we were only halfway though our jungle odyssey. We still had 200 arduous kilometres of trekking ahead of us and many adventures were yet to be had.

The dense clouds were rising on the warm thermals. Through gaps in the swirling cloud I took my last glimpse of the horizon before we were enveloped in a whiteout. I stood up and stubbed out my cigar on the side of a boulder. It was time to go. The jungle awaits.

The essentials

Getting there: You have two options when flying to Madagascar from Australia, one via La Reunion and the other via Mauritius. Air Austral (www.air-austral.com) operates regular flights to the French territory of La Reunion and Air Mauritius (www.airmauritius.com) to Mauritius and both then connect to Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar; both routes involve an overnight stop. Air Madagascar (www.airmadagascar.com) operates domestic flights from Antananarivo to the roadheads at Sambava on the east coast and Nosy Be on the west.

Time out: There are plenty of options to do side trips before or after the trek. In Madagascar, the idyllic island of Nosy Be with its white sand beaches and warm azure waters offers everything a tired trekker could want.

The trek: This 22-day trek is run annually in the month of May by Secret Compass, a UK-based expedition company. It is a very demanding undertaking so get fit before you go.

Go to: www.secretcompass.com/expeditions

Accommodation: Antananarivo has a full range of accommodation but once you hit the roads outside the capital things are basic. You will be sleeping in tents for the entire duration of the trek.