Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Manambolo River: An Unexpected Camping Trip

With three full days in Bekopaka, we had more than enough time to see both the small and large tsingy (more details in the following post).  Our travel agent had emailed indicating that we could spend our extra day on a pirogue trip up the river – a pirogue is a dugout canoe similar to a mokoro.  Not only would we be able to explore more of the area, there would be spelunking and swimming in natural pools.  Since our itinerary stated that we would be spending four nights at the hotel in Bekopaka, Stephanie had assumed this river trip was a day excursion.  However, when we received all of our hotel vouchers, we found one for Camp Oliha, with one night in Bekopaka beforehand and two nights after.  What was this Camp Oliha and why had no one mentioned it before?  Furthermore, why does it not exist on the Internet?

Everything became a bit clearer once we arrived in Bekopaka.  We met the pirogue operator and discovered that we would spend Wednesday paddling upriver, followed by a night in camp and a short trip back downriver Thursday morning.  We were going camping!  However, as with many things in Madagascar, our river trip plans never became crystal clear.  Despite instructions to meet on the north side of the Manambolo, our driver decided to take us via ferry back to the southern bank, where we then waited for our canoes to follow us across.  Furthermore, we saw two canoes crossing the river to pick us up along with four different people, possibly guides.  Why were so many people required to accompany the two of us upriver?  Three did not speak English, but we were introduced to one who was nominally our “guide,” two paddlers, and one cook. Was there anyone in the area who possessed all three skills and could cook, paddle, and guide?  Apparently not.  We were also a bit perplexed when they suggested that we wear life vests for the trip.  This was certainly not part of our plan for canoeing along a river measuring no more than two feet deep in the searing heat, so we stashed them under our seats as our guide anxiously asked if we were sure that we could swim.

The six of us slowly started to make our way upstream, stopping to see some “eagle fishers” and a bat-filled “grotte” hidden up one of the banks.  By leaving Bekopaka, we had left behind all traces of civilization.  Over the next four hours, our canoe glided past just one or two huts on a sandbank, a few men fishing from pirogues, and a pair of grazing zebu.  Eventually, our paddler, Zack, turned the canoe up one of the streams feeding the river and the water became so shallow we were forced to stop.  By this time, he had left the other canoe, which contained the only other English speaker, far behind, leaving the three of us to make half-hearted small talk with the limited Malagasy, French, and English phrases in our respective repertoires.  Although Giorgio is rocking the three Malagasy words that he gleaned from the guidebook, Stephanie’s ninth-grade French class with Madame Cassavante has left her with the skills to order a croissant at a cafĂ© and little else.  Clearly, we need Anna to join us in Madagascar and be our interpreter/adventure companion!

As we were about to give up hope, the canoe carrying our other three companions arrived.  They were also carrying all of the provisions for the expedition, which meant that lunch was served!  Seemingly out of nowhere, a delicious meal of fried rice and a special kind of banana that Giorgio calls manzanitas was served atop an incongruous picnic blanket. 

After lunch, we embarked on what Giorgio has dubbed “Operation Relax.”  Our guide vaguely gestured in the direction of the river’s upstream path, telling us to follow Zack that way, where we would relax for 20 minutes and then head over to "the visit."  At least that’s what Giorgio heard.  Stephanie heard that we were going to walk for an hour, then relax for 20 to 40 minutes.  The only thing our differing versions of the instructions had in common was relaxing – we were going to an indeterminate location, an indeterminate distance away, to relax for an indeterminate amount of time.  After following Zack through some reeds and over several large boulders, we found him with the same random picnic blanket in hand, looking perplexed and shouting at the others, who had gone back to the canoes.  A field of boulders of varying sizes didn’t seem to be the best relaxing spot along this stream.  We had no idea what Zack was shouting about while gesticulating with the picnic blanket, but we assume he was equally perplexed by the prospect of relaxing in the boulder field and shouting at the others, “Operation Relax has failed!” 

Eventually, the rest of the group arrived and it turned out that we were not in the correct relaxation spot.  Off we trooped further upstream until we arrived at Piscine 1 – here we would relax for an hour and a half.  This clear natural pool, complete with a small waterfall, turned out to be a perfect relaxation destination, particularly after the hot trip up the muddy Manambolo.  An hour later, a whistle from our guide indicated that relaxing was complete – we were off further upstream for a mysterious visit.  Making our way through the river and the surrounding jungle, we enjoyed the lush scenery and wondered where we were heading.  After passing Piscine 2, which looked like a very inviting stop in the heat, we came to Piscine 3, which provided an even more idyllic setting.  In addition to cooling off underneath the small waterfalls, we perched in the calm pools atop those falls, wishing that our visit to the Devil’s Pool had been sotranquil.  Soon enough, we were off for the aforementioned visit, which turned out to be a much larger pool created by a gorgeous waterfall.  While one of our guides considered an ill-advised dive from the top of the falls, Giorgio taught the other guides how to float.  All things considered, it was a perfectly relaxing afternoon of pools and waterfalls – Operation Relax was a success! 

Returning to the main river in the dusk, our guides pulled the canoes onto the beach at Camp Oliha.  Despite the name, Camp Oliha is simply a sand bank where river trips occasionally set up a tent.  There’s also a village somewhere nearby, although we aren’t quite sure where, and the villagers were constantly in and out of the camp.  As far as we could tell, they were in the midst of constructing a slightly less temporary camp out of wood and thatch and the construction workers were also living in the vicinity.  After the canoes were unloaded, we settled into a comfy spot on the sand to watch the comings and goings.  A few more local pirogues “docked” at camp.  It seemed that some of them had come all the way up the river from Bekopaka full of supplies.  One particularly unusual vessel appeared and unloaded both a live rooster and a small child, both appearing somewhat bewildered by their journey.  In the meantime, our “cook” who had spent most of the day relaxing, got to work.  As we watched, we weren’t quite sure what our meal would involve other than the pineapple from the top of the supply bag and a live chicken tethered next to the fire.  We did not witness the chicken as she was sacrificed for our meal, but the meat was so tough that it’s likely she had lived a long and productive life. 

After spending a warm and windy night in a small and flimsy tent, listening to the cacophony of lemurs and Malagasy owls screeching and hooting, we are closer than ever, ready to tackle any further camping trips that may or may not be noted on our itinerary.

A peaceful canoe ride back to Bekopaka completed our expedition, and we even spotted a few sifaka!


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