Madagascar: The Adventure to the Unreachable (Tsingy)

tsingy

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….