Marojejy National Park © Frank Vassen
Marojejy was to be the highlight of my first visit to Madagascar in 1976. I had long anticipated exploring the country, and here was a reserve that looked so wonderful on the map – all brown swirling contours and green forest, with no roads for miles and miles. The map showed a path running across it which, we reckoned, would take two days to walk.
As we flew into Sambava we could see the green peaks of Marojejy poking up through a covering of cloud. But there was something strange: it looked as though a box of matches had been strewn over the soft crumpled landscape. There had been a cyclone the previous week which had felled numerous huge trees as well as destroying much of Sambava. Unperturbed, we hitched towards Marojejy. A shopkeeper offered us his floor for the night and an introduction to a representative from the Département des Eaux et Forêts. To our relief we now had the required permit but we had mixed feelings when he said he was coming with us. He didn’t really seem dressed for a two-day backpacking trip: he had no luggage apart from a briefcase carrying his official papers, a clean shirt and three hats. He was wearing plastic sandals.
We would never have found the way ourselves. The narrow trail climbed steeply up the mountain to a large stone which marked the edge of the reserve. Our Man then told us that he had never actually walked in the reserve. Never mind, the trail was clear and we made good progress, until the first fallen tree blocked our way. For the rest of the day we scrambled over or crawled under trees. Our heavy packs unbalanced us, the heat debilitated us, and sweat ran into our eyes. That night we cooked a sumptuous supper. It had been a strenuous day so we deserved a treat.
Next morning we followed the path to the river, which we crossed. There was no path the other side. We boulder-hopped after Our Man as he followed the river upstream. With a heavy pack this was very tiring, and we asked plaintively where the trail was. He didn’t know. Should we turn back? No, if we followed the river we would soon find another path. We didn’t.
The river entered a canyon, impossible to boulder-hop or even to wade. We climbed the steep, slippery clay sides, hanging on to lianas and hauling ourselves up to the overhanging jungle. I learned later that the high-altitude rainforest in Madagascar is the densest in the world. I believe it. Without a machete to slice away the vegetation we could only move very slowly. The forest floor – what we could see of it – was composed of moss-covered logs and spongy leaves. Each step was a false step, the rotting matter giving way and plunging us into hidden holes. When we grabbed at plants or branches they hit back. There were plants that stung, plants that stabbed and plants that sliced. Blood soon mixed with the sweat that ran down our bodies. Huge trees, toppled by the cyclone, blocked our passage. Their overhanging branches harboured fire-ants which dropped down our necks when we crawled underneath. I started to cry.
Back at the river, we sat down to consider our situation. We were lost. The map didn’t make sense, Our Man was silent. We turned our attention to our blotched and blood-streaked arms and legs. Fat leeches were fastened to our ankles and between our fingers. Since I refused to turn back and repeat the cliff and jungle trek, the only course was to follow the river. The map showed it winding towards Ambatobe, our destination. We no longer cared about wet boots nor safety when we crossed the river on moss-slippery tree trunks. Your sense of balance seems much better when you don’t much care whether you live or die.
After 12 hours of unmitigated effort we stopped for the night. Wordlessly we set up the tent and cooked the last of our food: soup followed by tea and raisins. We were up at dawn. Knowing the rigours ahead, we drank our tea and ate our three raisins in even deeper gloom. The first six hours were the same as the previous day: slither, trip, sweat and push our way through water and jungle with no lunch to give us renewed energy. Then, in the early afternoon, Our Man shouted in delight. He was pointing to a human footprint in the damp sand by the river. Robinson Crusoe’s heart cannot have lifted as did ours at this sign that our ordeal could be coming to an end. A few hours later we saw the sight we had long dreamed of – a solitary hut on the mountainside above the river.
The climb up was one of the hardest yet and we were bitterly disappointed to find the hut had long been abandoned. Still, there were some edible plants growing in the garden and Our Man was thrilled to find tobacco. He also found some other tasty food, collecting a bag full of large weevils. They were delicious roasted, he said. Supper was an almost cheerful occasion. We ate boiled leaves, Our Man coughed happily over his home-made cigars, and we found one last teabag at the bottom of my pack. We didn’t roast the weevils.
Our mood was shattered again the following morning when we topped the hill above the hut and saw, not a village, but miles and miles of unbroken jungle. Six hours later we reached a trail but felt none of the anticipated elation. We were too tired. We just trudged onward until a voice greeted us from behind. We sat down and let Our Man and the woman chatter away. ‘She knows my family,’ he told us excitedly. ‘My wife is wondering where I am!’
The woman led us to her hut and we lay down on the palm-leaf mats while the family regarded us with gratifying respect and sympathy as Our Man told our story. Each newcomer was entertained with an ever lengthier version. Then a huge bowl of rice was brought in, along with several kinds of vegetables. Feeling almost human we set off along the path to Ambatobe. With Civilisation at hand we realised the appearance we presented: our clothes had been wringing wet with rain and sweat for four days, we were covered in dried blood from scratches and leech bites, and we stank. When we came to a stream we motioned to Our Man to go ahead. With clean bodies and fresh clothes we approached the village. The inhabitants were all lined up on each side of the path, hands outstretched, shouting ‘Salama! Salama!’ ‘Salama!’ we grinned, shaking the outstretched hands. It seemed a huge population for such a small village. Then we realised that the people at the back of the line were running to the front for a second go.
Reverently we were guided to the biggest hut where we found Our Man already enthroned and talking. The room filled with people and we smiled and nodded as the epic journey was described. It had the audience enthralled. Our Man was evidently a master of the art of storytelling. Then supper arrived. They had killed a chicken in our honour, so we had not only rice and greens, but chicken stew. Then came a plate of what looked like large peanuts. The weevils! They had a pleasant nutty flavour. The next day two youths were enlisted to carry our packs and we almost floated along the trail to the road. We arrived in under two hours, having covered about the same distance that we’d achieved in the previous three days.
This article was first published in Africa Geographic magazine.