Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Tourism in Madagascar not for wimps

My brother-in-law, Kevin Kerns of Kent, Ohio, has a degree in biology. He is in the middle of a several week trip to Madagascar, a large island off the coast of Africa, looking at the animals and plants. Kevin tells me that the flora and fauna is very interesting, more akin to what's found in Asia than in Africa.

Since he's arrived, two people have been struggling for control of the country, and at least 25 people were shot dead outside of the presidential palace over the weekend. Here's Kevin's e-mail, sent to us Monday:

Wow! Just unbelievable! I've been in El Salvador and Guatemala during their civil wars and in Nicaragua just after the Contra counter-revolutionary war. Those were some screwed up countries. But Mada beats them all hands down!

The Malagasy people are known for their politeness and orderly lines. They don't raise their voices or show visible anger. But through their history they have been known to erupt and lash out.

Just as I was flying out to the most remote part of Mada, the mayor of Antananarivo decided to make a coup attempt against the president who had dismissed parliament. The people erupted with looting, burning and killing in the two largest cities: Antananarivo and Toamasina.

Fortunately I was in a part of Mada that was unaffected except for bank closures and canceled domestic air flights. I'm fine but I've seen the roughest travel that I've ever seen in my entire life.

If any of you have four wheeler ATVs and can't find places to ride them, I've got good news for you. Mada has hundreds, thousands of miles of the wild roads (no these aren't roads). Bring plenty of spare parts though: Tires, axles, wheel hubs, gas cans, tools because you'll need them. While you're at it you'll need to hire porters to carry (I'm not kidding) your ATV or moto across some really rough stretches.

Land transport here is by a vehicle called a taxi-brousse. It's usually a midsize Toyota pickup with extra heavy suspension, modified double 4-wheel drive transmissions. The beds are then welded shut and then a steel frame is welded around it to make a heavy duty conestoga type cargo vehicle. They load these things with thousands of pounds of freight: Mostly agricultural goods and crops. After the freight is loaded in go the people: Three in front, four or five on a bench seat behind the driver, and as many as fourteen in the cargo area.

Now come the roads! The Route Nationale Nu. 5 would be hard for a horse. Nothing can get through this but taxi-brousse - and only if it's dry. It often isn't. At best you achieve top speeds of ten mph. More often it's walking speed. As a matter of fact you frequently have to get out and walk because of the danger of flipping, getting stuck, or careening onto the rear wheels. Often one of the two front wheels leave the ground for distances of two to four meters.

The ruts can be eight feet (not exaggerating) deep. You drive over boulders, around washed out bridges, and through holes that would swallow in one bite a regular car. The road south of Mananara, where I flew, takes twenty or thirty hours to trasverse a distance of about 100 miles. Inside the Taxi-brousse passengers hang onto whatever they can for this entire journey or they ride standing on the rear bumper. That sounds fun untile after about thirty minutes your arms are so fatigued you can't hold on. It is physically punishing!

Once I rode this thing back from the south on a return to Mananara. I expected to get in and see some very grumpy and exhausted people. To my utter amazement these Malagasy were singing and joking like they'd only been in it for twenty minutes, not twenty hours.

South of Mananara I visited a park called Mananara Nord which protects one of the very last lowland rainforests left in Mada. Its a UNESCO World Heritage site. I didn't see many animals but the half day of hiking through the rainforest was stunning. The water thqt runs from streams here you can drink without treating - just delicious.

The political situation mens that internal flights are delayed or cancelled so I had to take (you guessed it) a taxi-brousse to Maroantsetra which is a town on the inside of that thumblike peninsula on the Mada northeast coast. Our ride, two taxi-brousse, and thirty some passengers had to wait eight and a half hours to leave. We had to time the tides!

The route is fairly flat north of Mananara but there is lots of loose sand and several rivers. On every river crossing we had to all get out and walk. There were a couple ferries but most big crossings were done on rafts. That's right, they would put the vehicles on rafts and use poles to push the raft across the rivers. Mostly, the rafts were big enough. On some crossings low tide left a brief time window where the taxis could just race through the river but loose sand on the banks made pulling each other out a necessity. These were the good crossings.

The remaining bridges were made of local timber and many were collapsed. After dark the taxis would illuminate bridges with only a few single planks left so we could balance our way across in the dark. Then the taxi-brousse operators would take pieces of what was left of these collapsed bridges and rebuild by hand in the dark the first portion of the bridge.

They'd then drive the vehicles onto the bridge. You could hear the wood breaking and snapping and occasionally the headlights would move as a wheel dropped through. Then they'd disassemble the bridge from behind the taxi, carry it in front, and create new(?) bridge to continue. They did this three times. It was simply amazing - and sheer lunacy!

I made it to Maroantsetra to see the last extensive jungle left in Mada, Parc Nationale Masoula. The problem with banks owing to the political unrest meant however that I was beginning to run low on cash. This is a big area. It's very remote and rugged. To do things here means cash - lots of it because you need to hire boat transport everywhere. You also have to hire compulsory guides in all Mada parks.

Three or four days of taxi-brousse was a non-starter. Air travel was suspended until further notice. This must be Africa! The only option was to walk 63 miles north to the town of Antalaha. At least I would see a small portion of the Masoula wilderness this way. But missing doing major portions of it is the single largest disappointment of my trip here. The Masoula really had caught my imagination.

I hired the obligatory guide and we set off. First was an hour long trip by dugout canoe through swamp areas and then by foot for the next sixty miles.
The Masoula wilderness was always within sight but we only skirted small parts of it. Nevertheless I was grateful to be there even if from afar.

The first day was short and we stayed in villages of palm thatch and woven bamboo. The next two days we covered 25 miles each day. Major portions were spent climbing boulders and crossing rivers. It was really tough going. I'm a pretty tough hiker. Ask anyone who's been out in the woods with me. But this was about pain. My feet were always wet and after such abuse they were in shreds by the time we finished. I was one of the fastest trekkers my guide (his name is Ramiandry) had ever been with.

I'm back in civilization, such as it his here in Mada, with recovering feet and relative comfort in a place called Sambava on the northern northeast coast. I look forward to writing again.

No comments: