Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Toffee water, emerald forests and lots of children: A multi-day boat trip in Madagascar

After an incredibly long journey, which involved multiple trains (including the eurostar), a night in Paris and an 11-hour flight, we finally made it to Antananarivo, the bustling capital of Madagascar.

We'd originally planned in just a couple of days for the city (more on the 'originally' part of that sentence in another post...), and scooted around the main areas - getting lost on account of an out-dated map - and in the process discovering small markets, steep stone staircases connecting different elevations, and friendly, smiling faces. We ate delicious food, hunted for cold drinks, and photographed Antananarivo's version of the Hollywood sign, perched high on one of the many hills surrounding the city. Although a warm and welcoming place, there's no too much to do and see, and the pollution is heavy - a heady combination when mixed with the humidity and heat, and we found that a couple of days was more than enough.

Having arranged a multi-day river trip with a local tour company based in the capital, we were collected by our very jolly driver and driven out of the city and towards the west. Although the huge distances between areas of the country require lots of time spent in a car, the incredible and diverse scenery more than makes up for the lack of movement. Rice paddies zoomed past us and huge brick furnaces lined the road-side, looking like monuments enveloped in veils of smoke. Children waved in every village, and the landscape reared up around us as we descended via tightly winding roads.

The boat trip itself was a three-day journey in a dug-out canoe down the river, accompanied by our guide, two fantastic boatmen and a chicken (well, the chicken was there for the first two days...). The heat was incredible, and although the clear blue skies allowed for some great photo opportunities, there was no break from the relentless sun, and I resorted to crouching under an umbrella at times for a little relief. We camped each night on the sandbank, avoiding the resting crocodiles, eating some of the best food of the whole trip - tender zebu (Malagasy cattle), vegetable salads, fresh, juicy fruits, and of course: chicken. In the evenings, once the sun had dipped down and dark was falling, we watched dramatic displays of thunder and lightning in the distance, the huge booms and streaks of white seemingly so close, although they never reached us. In the morning, the skies would be perfectly clear again (despite my desire for a little rain!) as we'd push off onto the water once more.

Although being in the boat itself is a relaxing experience, at least until parts of our bodies went numb and we had to find a new position, the real draw of the trip is the surrounding environment. The toffee water gave way to lush green forests on both sides, broken in patches to reveal small villages. Locals swam and splashed at the edges, some cooling off, others fishing and offering their catches up to passing canoes. Whenever we stopped for lunch or dinner, huge numbers of children appeared from no-where, sitting beside us and braiding eachother's hair. They built structures in the sand using bark, and happily chopped away at discarded wood using massive machetes as their adult relations casually watched.

As we drifted past thick grasses our guide would spot something, resulting in our boatmen paddling frantically backwards to allow us to see a brightly coloured chameleon resting in the shade, or a small bird. Grey herons and hawks swooped low over our heads, looking for fish, and we even spent one morning watching brown and white lemurs leaping from tree to tree. One of the best stops came in the form of an amazing waterfall, completely hidden from sight until we scrambled and climbed over rocks up into the forest. Tall and crystal clear, it crashed through foliage and over rock before settling into a shallow pool which eventually wound back in the river. After being caked in mud and sand and unable to shower, we dove in, standing under the fall and allowing the water to pummel us clean.

The boat trip was an unforgettable experience, and as we visited so early in the season, we spotted only a couple of other canoes which made it quiet and peaceful. However, after a few days of doing very little, and feeling extremely lethargic for it, we were relived to get back onto dry land and the opportunity for a good dose of physical exercise. Little did we know that our wish would be fulfilled, but not quite in the way we had anticipated...

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