Equipped with French Army maps printed in 1962, we started our journey on the deserted beaches of Sambava, our official east coast starting point. From there, four to five days of grueling 25km+ walks were awaiting the group. What made the start of the trip so enjoyable, despite the hot and humid weather, heavy rucksacks and the usual stomach disturbances, were the people of Madagascar. We came across countless villages during the first days, each time only to be welcomed by charming, smiling and intrigued Malagasies. White ghosts they called us- ‘Vaza’- in Malagasy. Kids by the dozen running around us, laughing and screaming with excitement at the sight of foreigners; ‘Vaza! Vaza! Vaza!’ went the chant! ... As we were usually camping in the village football field, each campsite arrival created a special event of its own, attracting each time a larger crowd of intrigued villagers. Even more so when our second-in-command, Ali, had to undergo a series of foot treatment sessions due to a nasty heel blister. One such procedure involved a three-inch needle, in front of a crowd of 50 or so of our new-found friends!
As far as human encounters go, a total absence of it would be a totally appropriate way to describe our situation. Traveling for about five days and not meeting another soul is definitely not something you get to experience very often. It is in this environment that you come to realize how remote you are, how survival and success depend on the cohesion of the group. Each individual had to find an inner strength to help the team to keep on going. You have no means of communication; no phone call, no Facebook, no emails to your friends and family. It’s just you and your teammates. That’s it.
After our gargantuan struggle through the jungle we found ourselves above it. Perspective, landscapes, cool breeze, light and relative dryness were back into our lives only to be replaced by steep climbs and even steeper descents. We were on our way to climb Mount Maromokotro - Madagascar’s highest peak at 2,876m. When picturing the ascent of such a mountain, starting at sea level, you wish for a nice steady climb to the summit, but that is not how it goes. From 1,200m you go back down to 400m and then back up to 900m and down to 500m and back to 1,500m repeated a number of times. Only then did we begin to truly appreciate the meaning of “Alefa!”; the Malagasy word for “Let’s go!!”. Being a group of 12 foreigners with 19 guides and porters makes you slower, but with time and distance in mind we needed to keep on moving...and fast. So our guides greeted us with several “Alllleeeeffffaaaa!” each day. We became fans of the word ourselves; it’s perfect to crack the whip and get the group moving. Finally, despite a heavy fog covering much of the summit, we managed to reach the Maromokotro peak by mid-day. Whiskey, cigars and chocolate allowed us to properly celebrate our accomplishment. According to Malagasy tradition, our guides brought a chicken along the trip for it to be offered to the gods of the mountain at its summit. Our expedition leader, Lev, was honored to be chosen to make the final gift to the Maromokotro divinities.
Morale was high - we were starting the final stretch of our journey, and after successfully reaching Madagascar’s highest summit, the west coast was still attainable. We were hoping for a smooth downhill to the beach, but inevitably dreams were crushed and epic arduous trekking prevailed! The last days were met with more ups and downs, river crossings, narrow ledge walking and hacking that we could have possibly imagined. But isn’t this what it is all about? A real physical and mental challenge from start to finish; an adventure you will never forget. There was more jungle to tackle, more river crossings, swamp marches and several long days camping wherever we could and barely having time to wash our socks, but on the final few days- just as we had given up our search for the elusive lemur we were finally treated to sightings of several groups, swinging through the trees and peering down on us- the spectacle below.
On the final day we were a full day behind schedule and decisions had to be made if we were to reach our ultimate goal of crossing the landmass on foot. Some chose to take up the opportunity of a rickety old car to make it to the coast in order to enjoy at least a bit of time relaxing on the beach, but 4 of the team decided to continue on foot all the way to the coast. It was to be one of the hardest things we had ever done. After 17 days of solid walking- often for 12 hours a day- we were to attempt 93 km in just one final push. Wearing only sandals (since we anticipated several river crossings and swollen feet), the team woke up at 2am and set off on the epic final push. It took 12 hours to reach the town of Ambanja- the first proper habitation we had seen in three weeks! Delighted, we ate the most delicious lunch I can remember and filled ourselves up with fizzy drinks and sugar before continuing a further 25 km to the port of Ankify by 21:30- it had taken 18 and we were bruised and battered, but incredibly happy. It wasn’t quite the end we had anticipated- running into the beautiful sea across a sandy beach- since it was pitch black and we were at a rather grubby port but still we had made it- and better still, we had enough time to enjoy a day on the beach with the rest of the group ion Nosy Be- the tourist capital of Madagascar.
One of the key takeaways of this unique adventure was the chance to meet incredible people you wouldn’t have come across otherwise; especially people from Madagascar. Max, 29-years old, was our local guide. He was our eyes, our voice and ears all along this great voyage. He never stopped; he worked while we rested and worked even more while we slept. In three weeks we only saw him tired once - after the 93km /16 hours walk! Max also became the first Malagasy on record to cross his island from east to west on foot. It wouldn’t have been possible without him. I raise my glass to Max - and cheers to the other 18 courageous and brave guides and porters!
Madagascar is one of those countries where traveling is really different; the food, the smell, the customs, the disorganized organization, the constant negotiations, the incredible resourcefulness of its people. Did you ever think of using an unripe banana to patch a leaking radiator? Why not use a two gallon cooking oil receptacle as your car’s new gas tank? That is why I became so fond of going to such places; you literally have no reference whatsoever. You know you are nowhere near home and you know you will take experiences home with you to treasure for life!
Xavier Aubut is an avid backcountry snowboarder, downhill mountain biker, trekking enthusiast and founder of Aubut & Sons Woodworking. Xavier was part of the first ever expedition to cross the island of Madagascar on foot from east to west, which was put in place by Secret Compass. He will be returning to Madagascar in 2013 to be an expedition leader for Secret Compass’ expedition aiming to cross the central massif of the island by foot and raft. http://www.aubutandsons.com