An African Beauty

The Tsiribihina River – Madagascar.

We love a good boat cruise and three days cruising down the middle of Madagascar was always going to be a winner although there was one concern. Only twenty bottles of beer had been loaded. We informed our guide this would barely last our group of nine for one day and when he informed the crew that we may need a little extra they laughed and swore we had enough. We didn’t. We drank the lot early on the first evening and also every last drop of rum they had on board but no fear they re-stocked. The journey itself was in a little boat with a lower deck where we could sit out of the sun and enjoy some food and a small upper deck with a few deckchairs where we could watch the world go by. The river was reasonably wide but shallow and so the boat spent the day zig zagging down the river, dodging sand banks where random fields of rice were being grown. The water was mud brown due to soil erosion (the river bank was constantly breaking away) and also came with a healthy dose of crocodiles. Beyond the river bank lay largely vast open space, sprinkled with trees, hills and villages and, your standard unimaginably large African sky. Other than the chugging of the boat’s motor we were surrounded by peace and tranquility. A walk to a waterfall is mandatory on every trip no matter how small or large and so on this occasion the boat pulled up and we made a quick stroll to a wee waterfall with a pool of freezing water at the foot of it which we all tentatively took a swim in. The real surprise was on the way back when our guide stopped us amongst some trees and made a few whistling sounds. Not sure why he whistled because the creature he was calling sounds more like a pig! We didn’t know what was happening but a few minutes later a group of lemurs appeared from the tree tops, scurried down a tree trunk and started helping themselves to bits of banana that the guide had for them. I was not expecting to see many lemurs and certainly not so early on in the tour. Native only to Madagascar most of the poor buggers are endangered. These guys rather conveniently appeared but to be honest we were treated to lemurs most days much to my surprise. Where there’s a pocket of forrest there seems to be lemurs and they are a joy to watch.

The night would be spent camping on a beach by the side of the river. It was a beautiful spot but strange forces were at work! Just as the crew had finished putting up our tents a storm came tearing down the river valley. I was about to say I had never experienced anything like it before but I had, on my tour in Bhutan a few months ago. Quite simply a heap of wind came from nowhere and started to send tents flying, along with the camp fires that some other groups had set up and, clouds of dust and sand. I ran to grab our tent before it took off whilst my tent buddy ran for his bag so it could be used to weigh down the tent. It wasn’t enough as the wind continued to howl and off I went to the boat to get my bag. As I ran to the boat I heard my name being called and I headed in the direction of the source to find one of my friends holding an AK47 with a big grin on his face. The owner of the AK47, our guard, was holding onto the chaps tent out of sheer African politeness. Of course there was only one thing to be done, take a photo. I dutifully took some shots and then we swapped so I could get a photo holding the old rickety and loaded gun with a big cheesy grin. All the while my tent buddy was desperately clinging to the tent. Within ten minutes the wind stopped, silence returned, order was restored and stories continued into the night about two heroes and their single AK47.

The following day we stopped at a few villages to go walkabout and meet the locals. This simply meant walking around a village with a hoard of children following us. Photos were usually all they wanted but sometimes they would ask for a pen or sweets. There is a very simple rule in these situations which is don’t hand anything out. This is for two main reasons with the first being that the kids will beat the crap out of each other for whatever has been handed out, say a single pen. Secondly it encourages begging which is the last thing any country wants it’s children to be doing. It can be difficult but it is justified and if you feel super guilty there is always a local charity or cause that would benefit from a donation that will have greater social impact. Once again we camped by the side of the river and watched a magnificent sunset with scattered baobab trees silhouetted against the dark blue sky over on the far shore. Out came the stars in spectacular fashion accompanied by a group of children and an old man with a banjo/guitar type weapon. Apparently this guy’s wife had been eaten by a crocodile only a few months before. Right now he looked to be handling it well as he started to play some tunes and the kids danced around the camp fire for around an hour. Predictably we were pulled up to dance as well which is a reasonably hideous sight but I’ve come to accept that the best way to get through such things is to go along with it!

The next day we bid farewell to the boat crew, jumped into 4x4s and set a course towards Bekopaka which would be our base for the next few days as we explored the surrounding parks. There was no road, just a single sandy track lined by thousands of acres of burnt tree stumps and grassland cleared for farming. The odd baobab added some beauty as did the vastness of the landscape. We had to travel in convoy under armed guard as every now and then cattle rustlers will attack lonely 4x4s usually after mistaking them for the army or police. It’s the Wild West out there. Zebu are everything to the locals and where there is money there is usually some nutcase out to rob it. A long and bumpy road saw us arrive at a very nice hotel in the middle of nowhere at dusk. This is as touristy as it was going to get and I think it’s the way it should be. There needs to be nice places for tourists to stay so it brings money into the country and the local economy but I also think visitors should be made to work a little bit for it, for instance putting some effort into getting there. Anyhow we arrived shaken but not stirred and settled in for the evening in anticipation of our next adventure.

There is a small Tsingy and a big Tsingy. Situated in Bemaraha National Park they are basically a network of limestone formations that have been weathered down into razor sharp killer rocks. The very word, Tsingy translates into something about not being able to walk barefoot. The small Tsingy was a good warm up to the big Tsingy which is the one we will concentrate on. It looked like it would be a long slog of a day hiking out in the scorching sun for four hours but turns out we would be spending a lot of time down in the forrest and climbing in and around caves. It was always going to be wicked fun when we were given climbing harnesses to wear before setting off. I had no idea what to expect and the first hour or so went by largely straight forward. We then appeared at what can only be described as the secret stairs to Mordor. A shear face of limestone that had a wire cable pinned to it that we would be latching onto as we scaled the mighty beast. I would not recommend it for anyone who is scared of heights. It even got my adrenaline going but then again I am not much of a fan of heights and I only deal with them in the pursuit of happiness. At the top we were treated to amazing views of the jagged limestone rock formations and the surrounding park. It was unique and quite spectacular to see. A rope bridge rounded off the adventure side of things and after a good forty minutes out in the sun we descended back down into the forrest, retreating back to the cooler temperatures below. Just as we were finishing the walk we stumbled across lemurs for the second time that day only these were close enough for my little point and shoot camera to get some shots. I’m too lazy to carry a big SLR around but sometimes I feel a little left out when I can’t get the good wildlife shots! Returning back to the hotel after lunch we relaxed by the pool with several beers and gins which brought great memories flooding back from previous tours in Africa. Great friends, great people, great scenery and great activities. This continent can never let me down.

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