Mandrare River Magic

It was uncomfortably hot. To shed my hiking boots and socks, pad slowly through the cool water, was divine.

Walking toward our small aircraft at the airport in Antananarivo (Tana), Madagascar, I felt my stomach drop to my ankles. Parked far from the hangar buildings and the modest, read tiny, reception area, our plane appeared small. It looked no bigger as we neared. I circled the aircraft, not as pilots do before take-off because I know nothing about that sort of inspection. I was trying to figure out how four adults and one pilot were going to stuff themselves into a six-seater plane looking more like a model plane than one that could manage the three-hour flight to Mandrare River Camp in southeastern Madagascar. Sure enough, there were six seats, two of which resembled the back seats in the old style Volkswagon Bugs.

After many safaris, we’ve learned the value of traveling light, as in pack enough underwear for a few days, nothing dressy, couple pairs of long pants, one pair of boots and water sandals, a squishy hat, light wrap of some kind. I prefer traveling as unencumbered as I can. In the distance, I could see two people had arrived, no doubt our compadres in this excursion. As I approached, it was clear our fellow travelers did not support our travel light philosophy. Bags and bags of stuff sat in the driveway. I figured it could fill a decent portion of the baggage hold of a 747. I didn’t offer my hand as I usually do when greeting a stranger, I got straight to the point.

“Is all this going with us in—that? I waved my hand toward the teeny-weeny single-engine aircraft parked in the distance.”

Two oversized people smiled cheerfully, maybe a little defensively. “Yup, we’re amateur photographers.”

“We have two small duffels and two modest sized backpacks filling the cubby hole of the only luggage compartment, already.” I was not smiling.

Brushing off my concern, the strangers smiled which annoyed me even more.

“No problem,” they said in unison. Maybe not for them, but for me, there was—a problem—a big problem.

I knew without knowing for certain by the worn-down flip-flops, the faded tee shirts, the sixties style hair, the language; they had to be from California. I figured Berkeley or Santa Cruz. It was the later. At least we had something in common, other than stuffing ourselves into an airplane that to my tense way of thinking could not possibly lift-off.

My steps picked-up speed as we walked back past the hangars, their wide-open doors revealing an assortment of small aircraft, some larger than what we were about to board. Dennis was not saying much. I leaned in close and whispered, hopefully: “Maybe we could rent one of those.”

Turning to the young woman who had been guiding us around Tana, I asked, “Are you sure there’s room for two more people AND luggage?”

She didn’t say yes, and she didn’t say no. She shrugged. Sometimes it’s hard to know who to listen to in my head. Were we about to become a one-liner at the end of a news account on the back page of an obscure newspaper: Four Californians and one Malagasy pilot perish on take-off? Cause of accident: too much camera equipment.

More conversation between the pilot and our guide. I fidgeted, picking at my fingernails and made another circle of the plane. Meanwhile, the pilot and his helpers, loaded luggage into every available nook and cranny including the seat next to the woman who would have the worst seat on the plane. It was a matter of natural selection, she had the shortest legs and was the only one who would fit in the wee back. Camera equipment and duffels were her seatmates. I sat behind Dennis. Next to me was the other photographer.

I did what I always do when taking off and landing, I crossed my heart as Catholics do and I’m not one. I picked that up on a flight one afternoon, years ago, while flying into Quito, Ecuador. The man next to me crossed himself fervently, as the plane rocked side to side trying to land on a short runway surrounded by mountains. His intensity was such I figured it might help if two of us were gesticulating to the Lord. Ever since I seek the blessings of The Almighty, not just for the plane we’re on because I don’t want to be selfish, but for all planes everywhere.

Taxiing down the runway felt like watching a garden snail cross a sidewalk after rain.  For a while, I thought I could run faster than the aircraft. No one spoke. One of us barely breathed. Scenarios trip up my thinking when I’m in a situation over which I have little control. Stories of people who missed a flight only to find out hours later the plane had been lost at sea or plowed into a mountainside in the fog. I know I’m “what-iffing” and creating unnecessary anxiety, I know there’s a better way, but on this day, in this dinky aircraft, I was hard pressed to rely on faith.

In spite of my fears, the plane picked up enough speed to become airborne. We left behind Tana, located in the highlands smack dab in the middle of the island. Rice fields and houses disappeared into the distance. Ahead were a plateau and trees, the central part of the island looked raw and untouched, uninhabitable, except for the grey lines of smoke rising into the atmosphere.  In our intimate quarters, the noise of the engine hummed along, and my anxiety drained away. I heard no sputtering or long mechanical pauses; the plane seemed airworthy enough to get us to our destination. With my legs immoveable, my right one freezing from the cold air leaking around the edges of the door, I stuffed a blanket between me and the door and eased into meditation, my head dropping forward as it always does. It was the perfect anecdote for the anxiety.  Three hours later we arrived at an airstrip like so many we’ve landed upon only this time the soil was sandy, and the nearby fields were growing something that looked like agave. Perhaps we’ll be tasting tequila tonight. As our guide drove us to Mandrare River Camp, we learned what looked like agave was sisal, a relative, but not the variety used to distill tequila.

Arrival at Mandrare was like most beginnings to life in safari camp: something fruity to drink, hot or cool washcloths smelling of something divine with which to wash hands, smiling faces. Guests are warmly welcomed and escorted to the central gathering area for an introduction to the facility. We learn about our tent cabins overlooking the river, meals, the early morning and late afternoon game drives. On Madagascar, there are no large predators. Lemurs are completely disinterested in anything to do with we human types. We can walk unescorted at night. I’m good with that, except my playful imagination wonders who is watching. I like hearing the grunts of the lions and the snorts of the hippos. When morning arrives my first question to the night guards, is always the same: Who wandered through camp last night? Usually, there’s something. In big cat country, it’s often a leopard.

My enthusiasm for Madagascar was not where I hoped it would be. Due to a scheduling snafu, we ended up with only an eight-day rest after Uganda. I had no time to investigate what was going on with my hip and legs. All I could do was sleep, laundry, re-pack, and get up in the middle of the night to board another early morning flight. I was feeling tired the kind people describe as originating from their bones. Walking was painful. Sitting was uncomfortable and worse yet, were the toilets we encountered everywhere in Africa. Why in a country where so many men and women are tall, do they have the shortest toilets on the planet! Chairs, couches, anything requiring a butt first approach is low to the ground.

I didn’t want to be here, but as serendipity would have it, we hooked-up with Americans at Mandrare: Cynthia, Darryl, and Susan. Since hanging out with people from the states was something rare for us these days it was an easy pick-up friendship and added immensely to our experience. My sagging attitude improved. All of us were out to see lemurs. At sunset, we took-off for the Spiny Forest.   

The forest is as the name implies. Upon entering all I could think about was how easily one’s skin could be shredded, especially at night. Lemurs have adapted to the inhospitable environment, considered the most unique ecoregion on Madagascar. All plant life is endemic and regrettably disappearing in smoke. Charcoal is the primary cooking source for all of Madagascar. The hardwoods of the forest are harvested and through a grueling, hot process turned into charcoal. Charcoal making is on the upswing, as fishermen shift their livelihood because of overfishing and farmers are driven from farming due to unpredictable weather and global warming. The plants and trees of the Spiny Forest aren’t the only ones under threat, so are the fury lemurs. Their natural habitat is vanishing, and if that weren’t concern enough, they’re more likely to become bush meat, than ever before. Hungry people need food. It doesn’t matter where it comes from nor how endangered the critters are in the stew pot.

Much of the activity centered around the Mandrare River. It was uncomfortably hot. To shed my hiking boots and socks, pad slowly through the water, was sublime. One morning we crossed the river to see the ring-tailed lemur.

Late in the afternoon, we crossed again, to visit the Sacred Spiny Forest a burial ground for the Antandroy tribe.

At sundown, camp chairs were set up on the dry part of the river bed in preparation for the traditional sundowner. The air felt soft, the sand cooling, the sun finished with this part of the world for the day.

My attention drifted to a woman bathing in the shallow flow of what was left of the river at this time of year.

Serene and beautiful, I couldn’t take my eyes off her swollen midsection.  I was a distant observer, in more ways than one. I don’t know the experience of pregnancy. Being a mother was something I chose not to become. But on this afternoon with the sun drenching the horizon in pinks and oranges, the quietly flowing river, the day cooling, the gin, and tonic—probably all the above, I felt something I’d not felt before, a biological link to females, everywhere. All mammals whether swimming, crawling, walking on two or four legs, are incubators for replication. Though I did not take advantage of my reproductive capacity, I appreciated the virtue inherent in we girls.

Relaxed and enchanted with the sunset and the beautiful woman with child, I scanned the river. There seemed to be an unspoken sense of territory amongst the people tending to what we westerners consider a private matter. Used to a bath in a tub or a shower, I’d not seen many people bathing outdoors under a setting sun. No one was paying nearly as much attention to the process as I. It was hard NOT to see a group of young men in another location, The tall, smiling man had the kind of physique artists draw, and sculptors want to recreate in bronze.  I’ll never be too old to appreciate the smooth, muscular physique of a fine-looking fellow.

It was an easy transition to baobab trees, as much a part of the Madagascar landscape, as people bathing in the Mandrare River. Our last night in camp we were driven through fields of sisal plants to a place where the baobab trees, whose roots appear to spring from their tops, towered over the dirt road. Stately and solemn the succulents hold rainwater in their trunks and produce a nutrient-dense fruit in the dry season when the rest of the land is parched.

Like so many species of plants and animals in Africa, the baobab is threatened with extinction. Those that have survived are hearty, some very old. We were not in the area where “Grandmother,” estimated to be 1600 years old set down her roots, that is further to the west. The specimens providing the backdrop for our nighttime bonfire were believed to be in the 800-1000 year range.

Flames shot into the dark as the fire tender coaxed the dry wood into a snapping, popping blaze. Orange cinders streamed skyward only to flame-out and vaporize, while dancers and musicians emerged from the shadows. The music and rhythms of tribal dances are toe-tapping, finger-drumming, sensational. Gripped by the repetition and chanting the drumbeat of the African bush beats in my body like my own heart. The fire burned down too quickly.

I wanted the evening to stretch long into the night, but it was time for the dancers and drummers to return to their families in the nearby village. During the ride back to camp I replayed the scene  over and over in my mind. My life is but a leaf in the life-cycyle of the ancient trees, who have heard the music and sensed the pulse of earth beneath the dancer’s feet for centuries.



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