Madagascar: The Climbing Baobab

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Thinking of all the adventures I’ve experienced while traveling, such as relaxing in a volcanic mud, cliff climbing and rock climbing, it was time to try a more unique adventure… Baobab climbing.

We were in the spiny forest of Reniala Private Reserve which contrasted the odd shape of the baobab trees with spiky cactus like trees.  The reserve was a short zebu cart rideIMG_2085 from the beach where we were staying in Ifaty and the plan was to have an early morning walk around the Reserve mainly to see it’s flora and fauna.  We saw many Baobab trees.  One that was over 1000 years old, and another that was just a baby at 20 years old.  One that resembled a rasta with its’ long leaves.  Others that took on feminine qualities while others were bunched together like a family.  We learned about the water carrying qualities of the trees and how the people sometimes cut into the trees to get water and yet the trees still survive and even continue to grow with new sprouts.

Then we met the tree that I will always remember.  The climbing Baobab.

This Baobab had indents in it that lined up in such a way that you could climb the tree.  In some of the grooves, sticks had been secured to provide easier holds for climbing.  Our guide scampered up to show us how you climb the Baobab.  From the top of his perch, he proclaimed that this was a tree for men to climb, not for women.  How to get a woman to climb a Baobab?  Say sexist remarks.  I placed the camera in the camera bag because you know I had to get photos from the top, tightened the strap around me and headed up the tree.  The grooves were actually quite nice hand holds so even with my long finger nails, I could hold on.  It was an easy climb up and then I got to the top, he directed me onto the branch and  then I started tIMG_2181o panic.  As a child, I wasn’t a tree climber.  As a climber, I’ve always been attached to a safety harness.  Suddenly, reality set in and I realized that I was up in a Baobab tree, with no safety equipment and unsure of my movements within a tree.  I pressed my back into the trunk of the tree and straddled the branch and tried not to look down.  My travel partner yelled at me to take photos.  I said no.  She said c’mon.  So I tentatively took the camera out of the bag while trying to keep my movements as minimal as possible.  Without turning my head and trunk, I took a photo in front of me.  Then she told me to take a photo of her.  I said no.  She said c’mon (please note that she stayed on the ground). I don’t even think I turned my head, but moved the camera in her direction and clicked.   Camera quickly back in the bag and it was time to go down…But how?

Again, I’ve climbed walls that were higher, rock surfaces that were higher, but I’ve never climbed down.  You abseil down.  After he pried the camera off of me so that he could carry it down, he climbed down and saw that I was still in the tree with my back pressed against the trunk, straddling the branch.  I didn’t feel safe to turn myself around and had visions of me falling to the ground.  He climbed back up and was going to stay just below me to guide me down but first he had to get me turned around.  He instructed me to put my foot on one of the holes and thought I was slipping off of the branch.  So he told me to put my other foot on one of the sticks and push myself back onto the branch.  When I pushed myself back, my foot snapped the stick and it went flying to the ground.  Uh Oh. Even he had a momentary look of panic cross his face.  He regained his composure and tried giving me instructions and I just wasn’t feeling sure footed with where he was telling me to place my feet. Finally, I placed my foot where in my mind it made better sense and was able to turn myself around and start the descent. I wish I could say it was a cinch from this point on, but it really is hard to climb down when you don’t know where to place your feet. So it was great that he was just below me, guiding my feet.  The other challenge compared to going up was that when you climb up and the next hand hold is just out of your reach, it is easier to stretch your arm and stand on your toe or even slightly jump to get it, then to do the opposite going down- hang from your arm while you try to get a secure footing with just your big toe.  But one notch at a time, we made it back to the ground all in one piece.  I will admit, I was shaken.  Putting myself through that all because of a sexist remark.  And I still didn’t earn his respect as the remarks didn’t stop.  He then brought us to a baobab that had been cut at hip height and had resprouted.  He jumped up and said this is a tree for women to climb. So I got absolutely no respect from him for climbing the Baobab tree for men because I couldn’t climb down.

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Madagascar: The Adventure to the Unreachable (Tsingy)

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I’ve previously written in another blog that the journey is just as important as the destination.  But what if you don’t make it to your destination?  Was the journey worth it or a waste of time?

When the idea to go to Madagascar crossed my mind, I was thinking of Baobab trees and lemurs.  It wasn’t until I started doing my research that I learned about Tsingy de Bemaraha, a Unesco site of rugged Karsts that you spend days trekking around the national park walking on rope bridges and climbing through caves.  This became the one activity that I wanted to do the most.  What I didn’t realize was that it was 3 days worth of driving from the capital city to get  there with the last day on dirt roads.

Although, the rainy season ended in March and theoretically the park is accessible, it was still going to be an adventure to get there.  On day 3, in our 4×4 jeeps, we headed off with two other vehicles (one with 4 Canadians and the other with a solo traveller from Pakistan) that just happened to be headed in the same direction (little did we know that we would be bonded for life from this day).  We had already heard stories that the roads were worse than normal and that in the previous week, people who left at 4:30 in the morning, were not arriving until 8:30pm.  So for the first part of the journey, the roads weren’t so bad, there were some massive puddles in the brownish muddy roads that sprayed into the open car windows.  There were many ditches in the road, that the driver had to slow down and maneuver around.  There were a few bumpy patches that flung us back and forth in the backseat.  But the real adventure didn’t start until the “ferry crossing” was completed.

We stopped for an early lunch at 10am because from this ferry town until the village of Bekopaka, the jump off town for Tsingy, there would be nowhere else to eat.  We were supposed to stick together so that we would be with each other to help each other out.  Since I didn’t want to eat a dinner sized meal at 10am, I had a sandwich made for me, and our driver headed off on the road ahead of our convoy as soon as it was made.  Shortly after leaving the village, we came to a fork in the road.  He turned left and then slowed down, reversed and re-read the signage and continued left.  This was when my anxiety started.  Let me stop and explain, that we were driving in the middle of nowhere, complete remoteness.  Surprisingly, 10minutes down the road, there was a man walking who the driver asked if we were headed in the right direction.  He pointed in the direction we were going.  Now this didn’t calm me.  If you’ve ever found yourself in foreign countries asking for directions, a lot of times, people will point in any direction, instead of saying they don’t know.

As we continued driving along, we hit this part of the road with two stones placed on it, which was indicating a diversion.  Possibly a really bad patch of road ahead, so it was better to drive around it….in the bush.  So the driver turned into the tire tracks in the long grass drove 10m and then second guessed himself, reversed reassessed the main road and decided to take the diversion.  Now this wasn’t some short semi-circular diversion, no no no.  This was a 20 minute diversion through proper bush.  Anxiety levels higher.  Then the tire tracks, became muddy tire tracks.  Anxiety levels even higher.  Then the muddy tire tracks became muddy tire tracks immersed in low levels of water as we descended into river beds.  Anxiety levels above 100%.  This whole time I’m thinking where are the other cars?  What if we are going the wrong way and we get stuck and we can’t go out?  I’m going to die in Madagascar (Okay I’m a bit dramatic, because even in the middle of nowhere, they get phone reception).  We did get stuck.  He went out and turned the 4 wheel drive on while I was hyperventilating. Then he got back in the car and just started spinning his wheels.  We were so lucky that the car eventually budged and we got traction and moved out of there because spinning your wheels can kinda make the matter worse.  The whole time while my travel partner was sticking her torso out the window, recording all of this with her camera, I was strapped in and praying.  Let me say, everyone would have been religious at this point, because I don’t care who you are, you would have been praying to someone.

We got out of tIMG_9071hat hole and continued through more depths of the bush.  Deep breaths were keeping me from panicking.  Some more muddy patches and then out of nowhere, a tiny village with kiosks advertising sim cards appeared and we found ourselves back on the main road.  I could breath again!  The driver found a villager and confirmed again that we were headed in the right direction.  But shortly after that we hit diversion #2.  Welcome back anxiety.  But just as we turned onto this diversion, our caravan materialized behind us. Yes we no longer were doing this on our own.  So we continued forward the three vehicles and I felt so much better because we must be headed in the right direction and we would have help if stuck again.

 

So it wasn’t us that got stuck, but the car carrying the 4 Canadians.  It was a long muddy patch and the wheels were just stuck in the tire trenches filled with water.  No spinning of the tires was going to get this car out.  So first solution was to do some good ole pushing of the car.  Nope.  Then they decided to pull the car out with one of the other vehicles and a fibre glass rope which had been halved and kept breaking.  They had to double it up so that it wouldn’t break.  But the car wouldn’t budge.  Now let me digress for a second.  So these 4×4 drivers know that the roads are bad.  So you’d think that they’d be equipped with shovels, planks of wood, towing rope.  But no, they had nothing but this fibre glass rope. Fortunately, the car got stuck just on the outskirts of a village and eventually our presence attracted their attention and they started to come down to watch the poor foreigners and then finally to help.  It wasn’t until they started to cut grass and shove it under the tires that the car finally had traction to start moving and get out. (I should mention that my travel partner said to do this right from the beginning but who was going to listen to a girl). We lost precious time, but we were finally out and on our way!  But were we…

So two minutes later as we drove into the village, we met with cars going in the opposite direction to us.  They had a stark warning to tell of bad roads and high levels of water as it had rained the last 3 days. There were many 4x4s stuck in that direction and that there was no way to get through.  Our drivers had a brief discussion and decided that we should venture on and assess it for ourselves as it was only 30minutes away.  As we continued minutes further through the small village, 3 cars passed us and each driver told our driver it was impossible, to not go forward, and our driver would say, I think we should keep going. Let’s go.  One car had a passenger women shaking her head vigorously and waving her arms no.  But on we ventured, but not that far.  As the lead car, we got stuck yet again just outside of the village.  It was much quicker to get the car out this time, but then we had a group meeting.

One of the other guides who felt bad that we had ventured all this way and wanted us to get to Tsingy offered us two options.  1) We abort and turn around.  2) We sleep in that village and at 3am they (I think he was referring to the villagers) would take us to the bad part and then we would walk 5 hours to Tsingy.  Then visit the smaller of the two parks and spend 5 hours there.  Sleep that night in the village there and then at 5am walk back and get picked up by them at the bad part and be brought back to the village.  The suggestion to walk during the early morning instead of from right at that moment was based on the fact that it is not safe to walk at night.  Why 3am is any safer than 8pm I don’t know.  He warned us of possible dangers on the road.  What kind of dangers, he was asked.  He shrugged.  Animals or people.  All he said was not animals.  So the car of Canadians said no.  The Pakistani said no.  Then they looked at us to decide what we wanted to do and I said this has to be an all or nothing decision.  So we all turned back.  It was a good thing we turned back, because that night it rained again.

On the drive back to paved roads the next day, we met some 4×4 vehicles who had driven through the bad patch.  They had made it to Tsingy and were returning back (so they had to proceed forward) and the stories that we heard were unbelievable.  A muddy patch of road 20km in length taking 8 hours to drive through.  All the villagers from all the surrounding villages had to be paid to help pull the cars through.  Water levels so high that the water started to seep into the cars to knee level.  Getting stuck in the cars at night and sleeping in the cars until the next day.  They wanted us to walk through this?!

We have now pledged to return to Madagascar during the very dry season so that we can finally make it Tsingy (I’m hoping that if we wait long enough, they’ll finally pave part of the road).  This experience leaves me baffled, was the 6 days of travel (to and from Tsingy); the constant getting stuck in mud in remote areas; the horror stories of those who had to venture through it; and never actually reaching the world heritage site worth it?  Potentially….

 

Coming Face to Face with the Transatlantic Slave Trade

My response to “Why did you choose to go to Ghana?” was to get a better idea of the slave trade that happened out of West Africa.  To explore what possibly is part of my ancestory.  You can only imagine how this experience chokes one with emotion at the depths to which man can be so cruel. 

Along the coast of Ghana are castles/forts where the human trade “cargo” was stored before shipping to the Americas.  I explored two castles, one in Cape Coast and the other one in Elmina.  One was run by the British and the other by the Portuguese.  The tours of the castles start in the dungeons where 1000 men were cramped into small rooms where they lived in their blood, vomit and excrement.  Many didn’t even make it to the Americas as they died in the dark, underground cells that had minimal ventilation.  The women were kept separated.  The prettiest ones were selected to be raped.  When ready to make the voyage to the Amercas, they walked through now sealed tunnels (that were sealed when slavery was abolished) to a narrow passage way called the Door of No Return.  They were packed onto boats sitting between each others legs so that they could fit in as many people as possible.  Many didn’t survive the boat trip with their bodies being thrown overboard to feed the sharks.  For every 1 person that made it to the Americas to be a slave, 4 people died.

Initially, when the Europeans arrived in West Africa, they were trading goods.  The human trade began when the natives of the Americas were dying because of the diseases that the Europeans brought with them.  It was suggested that maybe the Africans would be stronger and they trialled the first set of slaves in Haiti.  When it was found to be successful, the human trade was expanded to Amercia, the Caribbean, and South America.  When it was finally abolished, there was still an underground market that continued.  The reason for abolishing slavery was not out of some final sense of humanitarianism, but due to the technological revolution; no need for human labour.

Walking through these castles evoked so many different emotions.  What to learn from this, is how do we avoid an atrocities like this from happening again.  Unfortunately, the same mentality that allowed the Transatlantic Slave Trade to happen still continues to be prevalent in today’s society: child labour, exploitation of cheap labour, abuse of natural resources and the environment are just examples.  Traveling to Ghana to emerse myself in this history was an experience that everyone should take the time to go and visit.

Photos can be seen at http://cid-1db8a41159295e1e.photos.live.com/browse.aspx/Ghana%20September%202010

I’m Canadian not Coloured

It was interesting being in South Africa 16 year post apartheid and to see what the changes had been.  In the southern part of the country, you could still see the segregation with respect to jobs.  At the hostels, I noticed that the front desk was usually manned by white people, sometimes coloured people, but it was the blacks who cleaned the hostels.  There were areas called townships which were created during the apartheid for the black people to live (sometimes coloured and asians as well) and they are shanty towns of corrugated metal homes.  In contrast, there is a lot of money in the south and there were mega big homes all over the place.  In the north of the country, more economic progress is being seen within the African community.  It was eye opening to visit places like Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela and other political detainees were kept); the apartheid, district 6 and Hector Pieterson museum;  and doing a township tour in Soweto.  It was disturbing to realize what was going on in the world during the time of apartheid.  It started after world war 2 and it got worse in the 60s when the civil rights movement was happening in the US.  Being Canadian of Caribbean parents, it was hard to see the segregation between the coloureds and the blacks especially when in north america, they would all be grouped together.  There is so much I could say about it, but thankfully it ended and the healing process will be a journey.

Ostriches and Caves

Highlight of the South African trip was visiting an ostrich farm. 
Ostriches are farmed and I tried some meat and ate some eggs.  Ostriches are
quite stupid animals.  Normally they lay 15 eggs per year, but if their eggs are
removed after they lay them, they forget that they laid them and they lay more. 
If you cover their head up, they are quite calm because they think that if they can’t see you,
you can’t see them.  Even the busmen used their stupidity against them.   It was
hard to kill an ostrich from a distance because of their narrow neck and they
have good eye sight.  But the bushmen could using a stick for a neck pretend to
be an ostrich walk up right beside one and then kill it with their spear.  I
rode an ostrich. If you can call it that.  It was more like hang on for dare
life and see how many seconds you can last.  I didn’t do so hot. 
 
I also visited these caves and there we had an option of doing an adventure
tour where you could crawl and slither through the caves.  It was so much fun. 
There was one passage called the chimney and you had to climb up this tiny space
in order to get to the other side.  Another one called the post box, you had
commando crawl on your belly and then turn over onto your back and slide down
this narrow space.  After swimming thru caves holding a candle in Guatemala, and
doing this adventure tour, I will never be able to simply walk as a tourist
through caves again. 

Can I Wear Flip Flops?

I headed
over to spend sometime in South Africa.  My trip there was very rushed,
but I did have a good time.  In Cape Town, there is the famous Table
Mountain.  There are two rules to climbing Table Mountain.  Don’t go
alone  and wear proper shoes.  So as I was on my own, I wore my flip
flops since I was going to take the cable car up.  Since I wasn’t going
to walk up the mountain, I was going to walk to the mountain- a good
2.5 hour walk (with stops along the way).  As I was nearing where the
cable car was, I passed this lady who asked "You going to climb up?"
"No, I’m taking the cable car." "LAZY!" She was an experienced hiker
and convinced me that being Sunday there would be enough people walking
up and down that I would be fine and that the most popular path I would
be able to do in flip flops.  So there I went.  I headed off to climb
mountain in flip flops.  The first bit was steep then I came to a level
path that took me to the pathway on the mountain that I would weave
back and forth climbing and climbing and climbing.  As I climbed, the
mist rolled in, so I couldn’t see the top.  There were these Asian guys
that I met who were climbing down and I asked them how long they had
been climbing down for.  They said oh 20 min. I was very close to the
top.  So I walked about 10 min and met up with 3 people on their way
down.  I asked them the same question.  They told me 25 min.  Okay?  I
continued for maybe another 15min and met up with a mother and
daughter.  They told me 30-40min to the top!  Was this mountain
growing?  I continued for another 15min.  Then took my backpack off,
ate a roll that was in there, put on my sweater, refilled my water
bottle, and recharged myself for the rest of this climb up this growing
mountain.  Literally 2 min later, I reached the top.  The sad thing
about it was that with the 2.5 hours it took me to climb up, the clouds
rolled in and the view was blocked.  Had I just taken the cable car up
earlier I would have a had a clear view.  No view or not, the climb was
worth it. 

It’s an Expedition, Not a Holiday

We were constantly reminded this from Brian, our tour leader.  The saying to
excuse anything and everything that could possibly go wrong.  But hey, I’m
seasoned, I’ve experienced flat tires with no spare, jack or radio available,
worn out fan belts etc.  We ran out of gas in the middle of the desert.  There
was absolutely an expanse of nothingness in every direction.  There wasn’t an
emergency of can of gas in the truck.  So very fortunately, there was a car that
passed by and Brian flagged them down and went with them to the next gas
station.  Right after he left, another overland truck came by and they had a
hose and syphoned out some of their gas and gave it to us.  So we drove on
slowing down to see if passing vehicles had Brian in them.  (The driver and
other guide didn’t have Brian’s mobile number, of course because this is an
expedition.) We came to the next gas station…which was closed and so we drove
on again until we ran out of gas again.  So what can you do but laugh and pray
that Brian is going to return.  He did.  With gas and apple pie.

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