Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Grand Tsingy and the 17 Hour Drive Back

The reward, then, for our journey to the Tsingy de Bemaraha wasn't the sagging, pathetically cramped and musty room at our hotel. Nor was it the beautiful,nearly full moon rising as we watched from our dinner table.  It certainly wasn't the strange and unappetizing choices for dinner, which I was just going to skip entirely but David insisted I eat something, requesting they make me an ‘omelet simple’ (plain).
In some ways, the reward wasn’t even the Tsingy itself--but I’m getting ahead of myself.

We slept poorly but enjoyed a decent breakfast before getting back in the Nissan Patrol for 17 kilometers of rough, rutted, clay two-track to the trailhead where we would hike another 3 km to the Tsingy. Really, if you wanted to kill us, this is already the middle of nowhere. We don't have to go any further.
The Grand Tsingy is an amazing, strange, unbelievable place. We crawled all over it, wearing climbing harnesses and clipping in to safety cables before crossing bridges or climbing stones attached to cliff faces by large steel pegs.
It was an unreal landscape that seemed more foreign than almost anything we'd seen; we could have been on the surface of the moon. It was the kind of thing you’d never be able to do in the States, for liability precautions. Eventually, we decided that safety was a secondary perk to the cable/harness system.  It seemed like the primary goal was to make it possible to retrieve your unconscious body if you did fall. There were many deep chasms that tapered together like an inverse wedge.
We reached a point where Ludo suggested we could branch off and take a more leisurely approach, if I wasn’t feeling well enough to continue. I shook my head. I wasn’t about to have come all this way and not see what we’d come to see. All of it.
After scaling another cliff wall, we came to a viewing platform that gave a panoramic view of the Tsingy and the surrounding terrain.  You can see our local guide, then Lana sitting, and finally Ludo.  We’re all drenched in sweat.
After a very hot morning of walking for miles and climbing up one side of a cliff, down the other, and up again until my legs shook, we wandered back the 3 kilometers to the car, spotting a couple of white sifakas up in the trees as a reward for all our trouble.
The grass shot up to our shoulders, lobbing spiky seed heads at our clothes. The needles got in my socks, my shoes, my bra.
When we returned to the Patrol, Jose was sitting in shade chatting with the family that lived in the nearby stick and mud hut. I was parched; David and I had depleted two large (48 ounce) bottles of water on the way back. Our guides drank little, the local one brought none but borrowed a sip from Ludo, and gratefully accepted some cookies from us as a snack mid-way. Back at the car, I was generous with our two-case water supply.  Everyone took a large bottle and we sat there, in the dusty shade, and drank deep. Ludo smiled at me with that shock-white smile, shaking his head. “You are very strong," he said to me. I grinned, feeling my pulse beating in my exertion-red face. It felt good to impress him.
Back at the hotel, the afternoon was open for a number of minor outings, though the canoe trip was out due to the water being too low. I was shaky and exhausted, and waved off the suggestion.  We spent the afternoon reading, drinking a beer. Maybe we napped. Later Ludo found us sitting on the porch of our bungalow, and told us he wanted to get an early start the next morning. We had a full day ahead, the entire return journey, plus a visit to the Kirindy reserve, and the promised sunset stop at the Avenue of the Baobobs.  This was all fine with us, and we ordered a breakfast tray to be delivered to our room that night, so we could start driving at 6 am.  When it arrived, the bread was piping hot, and wrapped in foil.  We unwrapped the foil for a while, so it wouldn’t steam itself, and then re-crimped it before going to bed.
The night brought on the most fantastic storm. I awoke when the rain began, not a pitter patter of drops but the roar of a downpour. I woke again, to a violent storm, no breath between the lightening and the thunder. David and I were both awake (who could sleep through that?) and David said in a lull between lightening strikes "There's no way we're getting out of here tomorrow." We were both thinking of the 9 hours of clay roads we’d driven on to get here.  Every time I hoped the rain might be letting up, it roared back at the very thought of it.  The name of our hotel was the Hotel Olympe, and truly we felt we'd spent a night on Mount Olympus, when the gods were quite rambunctious.

Somehow, we eventually slept, because we woke up to our alarm way before the sun the next morning. We both felt that peculiar nausea you get when you’ve had far too little sleep.  Without any information to the contrary, we packed our bags to be ready to leave, and sat down to our breakfast tray.  When we unwrapped the bread, we found we had not been careful enough resealing the foil, as two large cockroaches skittered out.  We ate the bananas and the Laughing Cow cheese (straight up), and finished with cocoa from the grey, lukewarm themos. It was not much but we ate all we could.

Ludo appeared eventually just before six, his white shirt and nervous smile emerging from the gloom ahead of the rest of him.  "We must walk down," he said. "The rain has made it impossible for the car to drive up the hill."

"We're going back today, then?" David said, the weight of all our anxiety in that question.

"We will try," Ludo said with a smile.

As we picked our way down the set of wood stairs dug into the hillside and covered with rusty-colored clay mud, I thought about the parts of our trip here, and reversed it. There was the village at the bottom of this hill, and then the river crossing just beyond it. Then several hours of road that we knew would be miserable to drive when wet. Then lunch, another longer river crossing, then several more hours of sandy track. We were to make two stops after we crossed the second river, one to Kirindy, which we had not seen on our way to the Tsingy, and one to the Baobobs for sunset, which we had already seen.  By the time we reached the river, it was light enough to see that the clouds were clearing, and it was a beautiful day.  But everything was very, very wet.

Getting the Patrol on the first ferry didn't prove to be too much of a problem, but when we got to the other side we found we had to get up out of the river valley , which had no tracks yet, but looked impossibly steep and incredibly muddy. Several men from the ferry, as well as a few from the grouping of houses and lodges on this side of the river, wandered out to watch.

Ludo got out, and after looking at the mud, and talking to the locals, and some discussion about the route, Jose gunned it and we took a run at it.  We didn't quite clear the riverbed, and so we backed up again, all the way to the water this time.  I clutched David's hand and we held our breath on the second attempt. After much shouting, some violent hand waving, and some sickening minutes where we churned but advanced by inches for an agonizingly long time, we finally achieved the riverbank. 

All told the river crossing had taken us about 45 minutes. It should have taken maybe 20.  We were in for a long day.
This kind of day thumbs its nose at time, and after a while I realized there was no point in even checking my watch.  It went like this:  we would drive to a puddle. Jose would yank up the emergency brake and wander through the puddle, sounding the bottom with his bare feet looking for a section of harder ground we could drive across. 
Often, Ludo would do the same. Sometimes the water would be so deep they would have to lift the hem of their shorts, much like a woman might lift up her skirts to walk through a mud puddle. In this case the puddle was over two feet deep, however.  We would drive through it, then inch along to the next puddle.
Sometimes we would come across a group of boys, who had come out to watch the show. Their eyes wide, they would cheer and shout and bite their fingernails. A rainstorm might mean trouble for us, but it was endless excitement for them. Ludo would get a report from them about how the road looked, and occasionally pay them to help us get through the next muddy section. As we cleared any section where a village met the road, a trail of children would run behind our car and shout.

Eventually, when we ran out of kids, Ludo just remained on foot, scouting ahead for the best route—and easily outpacing us.  At one point, after reporting back to Jose, he offered to take my camera ahead with him to get a picture of the Patrol crossing one of the puddles.
Ludo is jogging ahead of us in this video clip.  Watch how much Jose is turning the steering wheel, while the car just plows on straight ahead.  Often, the tires simply followed the lowest grooves in the road, despite Jose’s valiant efforts to pick a different track.  In the end, it was that, and not the deep puddles, that stopped us.
This is looking backwards at the first place we got stuck.  Jose had the Patrol moving towards the left side of the road, where it was clear and not rutted, but then the car slowly started sliding right, into the old ruts, and suddenly we felt the impact of the mud hitting the floor panels under our feet, and the car stopped moving completely.  Jose and Ludo both got out to assess.  We offered to get out, to lighten the car, and let it ride a little higher, but neither of them would let us place a foot out of the car.  They tried a number of things; backing up, turning the steering wheel back and forth for different grip, digging at the high point of the mud (with their hands—it was soft enough that they could remove a lot), and forcing dead wood under the wheels.  After 20 minutes, a combination of those things worked, and David and I both cheered.  Jose laughed nervously.

Our enthusiasm faded quickly, as the road got even muddier.  Not long afterwards, the same thing happened—Jose was doing everything he could to keep the car pointed in the right direction, but the mud had other plans, and this time when the Patrol came to a stop, we knew it was different.  We were really stuck.  Ludo got out his phone and walked a short distance.  Jose sat dejectedly by the side of the road, a little ways behind the car.  He seemed to think he had personally failed us.  David and I were oddly relaxed.  There wasn’t much point in being otherwise.  We both had ebooks with full batteries, water, and snacks.  We were conveniently stuck in a shady stretch of road, and we were quite comfortable.  We just sat and read.  Eventually, Ludo came back to the car with good news.  There were two supply trucks coming our way from the village we’d left that morning.  Normally they would have made their weekly supply run the day before, but we got lucky, and they were coming today instead.  We might have been there until their next trip, otherwise.  Jose seemed to perk up when Ludo talked to him, and we all shared some only barely ripe oranges that Ludo had bought before we left.  They had a very hard skin, and peeling them was a pretty good distraction, but we finished them off and turned back to our books.  About two hours later, we heard the trucks.  It took another 10 minutes before we could see them—they were that loud, and that slow.  But they were incredible.  They passed us (you can see some of their tracks above, taken facing backwards after they pulled us out of our shady spot), stopped, attached a chain, and then just drove forwards, and the Patrol rose up out of the mud like it was on water skis.
They were surplus military trucks; the wheels were about 4 feet in diameter, and as we followed (one truck ahead of us, and one behind) we realized that the deep ruts in the road weren’t from erosion (or not originally from erosion) but from the deep furrows left by those wheels after a storm.  When the lead truck stopped to take the chain off our car, they also delivered a large bundle of tiny, green bananas.  Ludo had apparently gotten in touch with them before they left, and asked them to bring  bananas.  They were perfectly ripe (despite their color), sweet, and when it became clear they were for just the two of us, we insisted that Ludo and Jose each have as many as they wanted, and they dug in.  We were all pretty happy, at this point.  We got stuck one more time, but were quickly pulled again out by the truck ahead of us.  The road was still very difficult, and we were moving slowly.  This video gives you an idea of how rough the road is, even muddy.  And again, Jose is fighting the steering wheel, but the car often just goes where the mud tells it to.
Our convoy made slow but steady progress, and gradually the roads got a little better.  We encountered another 4WD vehicle headed towards  the Tsingy.  Ludo talked to the driver, while we talked to the passengers, who were from Switzerland.  They were alarmed by our description of the roads, and how much worse it was behind us.  They only had time for one day in the Tsingy before they had to move on; Ludo estimated it would be 5 days before the road from Bekopaka to the Tsingy trailhead would be dry enough to drive on, even if you could get to Bekopaka itself.  The Swiss tourists asked us if the Tsingy had been worth it.  We waffled a little (it had definitely been worth it), as we didn’t want to rave about something that was nearly impossible for them to reach.  Mostly we emphasized that they would have to hike through 17km of mud just to reach the trailhead.  The Swiss and their guide were unanimously for turning around, and they joined our convoy.
Eventually, we reached the edge of where the rain storm had ravaged, and were back on dry clay and soft sand again.  While it was still slow going over the rough—if dry—roads, we were much more relaxed, and able to appreciate the scenery a little more.  The tall grass of the savannah swayed in the warm wind, and we drove with the windows down, pointing out brightly colored birds to each other.
The rainbow was a nice touch.
We didn’t see sunset at the Avenue of Baobobs, but the sunset we got was beautiful, and we did not resent missing that or Kirindy Reserve—we were relieved that we wouldn’t be spending the night in the car, or hiking back to Bekopaka.  We were having an adventure; maybe not the one we’d planned on, but we knew it could have been much more of an adventure than we wanted.
We arrived in Belo Sur Tsiribina after 6 PM—some 12 hours after we left Bekopaka, 50 miles to the north.  As we drove into town, Ludo was speaking agitatedly on his cell with someone in rapid-fire Malagasy. We didn’t know exactly what was going on, but he was clearly negotiating something.

It seemed like a very long time ago that we’d come through Belo on our way north, and placed an advance order for our lunch, for today.  But our roasted chicken had been ready since noon, and we didn’t have to wait for it when we sat down.  It was a little tough, and in other circumstances, we would have been a little more leery of how long it had been waiting for us, but we’d had a sparse breakfast, and bananas and oranges for lunch.  It was quite good (and with no adverse affects later), if chewy; the pommes frites were amazing.  Ludo explained to us that the ferry usually stopped running at dark, but that he’d got the ferry drive to agree to take us across the river anyway. We started to rush, but Ludo said we had plenty of time. We knew he and Jose deserved a break and a good meal. It was dark by the time we finished dinner. Belo, and we knew we had another 4 hours to drive the 57 miles to Morondava, plus a half hour ferry crossing. Ludo apologized to us that our schedule for the day had got derailed. We waved off his apologies.

As we set out again, our headlights picked up people walking through town, seeming to materialize at the edge of the sweep of their beam. Despite the fact that there were no streetlights, the town was alive in the darkness. It seemed like when the sun had set the sky fell down on the rooftops, but the night didn’t douse life here. We got glimpses of local life, televisions glowing below bare bulbs, laughter and stray dogs threading their way through the crowds.

Down at the river the curtain had fallen all the way down to the muddy riverbanks, the darkness was so deep and complete that it seemed to have a texture.  The Patrol’s high-beams cut through it, but even then there wasn’t enough light to illuminate the two ramps—just wider than the tires—leading from the riverbank to the ferry. As usual, everyone left the vehicle but Jose for the tricky maneuver.  David and I got our headlamps out to illuminate the ramps, and Ludo used a flashlight. We had been nervous about getting the Patrol on the ferry in the daylight, but doing it at night seemed particularly perilous.

Once the Patrol was safely on board, and we clambered on ourselves, Ludo guided us to the edge of the deck and had us sit down over one of the two, canoe-like hulls. Ludo gave the ferry driver a wad of ariary in a handshake and we were underway.

Since the ferry wasn’t supposed to run after dark it didn’t have running lights; maybe it did, but they didn’t turn them on. They weren’t interested in anyone knowing they were running on the river.
Oh, I wish I could adequately describe that ferry ride. But out there, floating in an absolute darkness left us speechless, even in the moment. The sky was a thousand miles wide, and the stars were so bright it felt aggressive. It was as if the sky had cracked open, and we had floated out into space. The Milky Way seemed close enough to touch. We cut through the black water as slowly and quietly as we could, running dark.

As we got a little further down the river the moon began to rise above the trees on the far riverbank, fat and full—a great yellow wheel of cheese.

All I can remember thinking during that ride was this. This right here. People wonder how we could have traveled like this, taken these big leaps and gone to all these places. Many think it sounds fabulous, and amazing—a great idea. There are other people to whom it’s a terrifying idea. But the truth is, there were long bus rides and vomit on trains and hours spent stuck in the mud. But every hour, every moment of this long day was suddenly rendered a prelude to this.

That ferry ride—that moonrise—it was a gift. It was the gift we were given out of this day; there is no other way to describe how it felt. We didn’t seek this experience out (we had wanted to see the Kirindy and the Baobobs at sunset), which made it all the sweeter.  It was truly one of the most marvelous moments in my whole life. And there was no reasonable way to capture any of it. It was simply the Universe, the river, and us.

Eventually though, we could see a few flickering lights on the far shore downriver, and like all truly special moments, this one came to an end. There was much surprise and exclamation on the other side as we pulled up to shore.  A little more Ariary was exchanged, and Jose eased the Patrol down the ramps, and then we were driving on smooth, sandy roads, lulled into dozing by the hum of the car.  At 10 PM, we reached the Avenue de Baobobs.  It was moonlit, and beautiful, and David got out to try to capture it.  It was the one time on the trip when he really wished for a tripod.   But after several experimental shots, he got one shot that at least represented what we remember, even if it failed to capture the glimmer of moonlight off the grey baobab bark.
Ludo got out to chat with some people at the house next to the Avenue, and while he was gone, Jose and I had a broken conversation in French.  He said he was sorry that we had gotten stuck, shaking his head woefully. I told him that he drove very well, and not to be sorry. He remarked at how “tranquile” we’d been all day, despite all of the adversity we’d experienced. What else was there to do? I said. He commented that the French tourists (who make up the bulk of the foreign travellers in Madagascar) would have complained, said why are we stuck, why aren’t you fixing it? It was what it was, I said. It’s all good. It was an adventure. He grinned his gap-toothed smile, and I smiled back. I hope rather than know that he understood what I couldn’t express. It wasn’t the day we’d planned, but it was the day that happened. The good and the bad together. The mud and the Milky Way.

The reward then, for our long journey to, and our longer journey back, wasn’t any one thing; not the Tsingy, not even that magical, if illicit, ferry crossing.  The reward was the entire composite experience.  There were many times in our travels when it really was about the destination, not the journey—but this was not one of those times.  The destination was really great, but it was the context that has made it so memorable and special.