Thursday, 24 October 2013

Into the Unknown - First Descent of the Sandrananta



The Team, preparing for the first descent of the Sandrananta
As we had come to expect, getting off the water we were once again immersed in faff.  Our guide who met us at the get out with the bus informed us that we were late and the plan would have to change.  With only a week until our flights we could only do a rafted section of relatively easy white water.  After a very long argument he agreed to take us to our contact in a town four hours away, with whom we would stay the night, and so began the long drive.
Packing our boats for the next adventure.

As usual, the four hour estimate was optimistic.  When we reached the town it was clear that our contact wasn’t there and we didn’t have a key so we hung around for too long while our guide shouted at the house hoping that someone would appear.  Frustration finally got the better of us and we checked in to a hotel for the night without him to give us some space to reassess the situation.  That night we managed to get some signal to tell our guide we would need a 4x4 to pick us up in the morning.  We drank too much of the local beer, wine and cocktails and we Conga’d like Madagascar had never seen before, and that night we went to bed a little merrier.

The long drive to the get in.  Good job we had a 4x4!
In the morning, miraculously, we were greeted by a 4x4.  Dan was flying back a day earlier and decided not to chance a quick descent so stayed behind.  With the vehicle loaded up, we were off.  We stopped at a market to stock up then turned off the road onto a dirt track.  Hours later we stopped at a tiny village and checked into a hotel.  We paid about £2 for an ox meal and a small room made of wooden planks and corrugated iron.  Even in this tiny village hours from the nearest tarmaced road they had a bottle of Coca Cola and... a Justin Bieber poster on the wall of their hut.  It’s amazing how far western influence reaches.

Geckos
We got up at 4.00 to finish the drive and 100Km later we reached the end of the road where our mud track dropped down a steep bank into the river where some people were running a ferry service with dug-out canoes.  This was our first glimpse of the Sandrananta.  Wide with small rapids broken up by pools and flat sections, it was a lot like a big Dee.  We reached a bigger drop where we camped for the night.

A small rapid along the way.
The map we used to find this river had not been very enlightening and even showed it crossing the same contour line multiple times which made it difficult to estimate the gradient.  With a flight to catch we decided to cut our weight by leaving behind the non-essentials, like a tent!  That night, perched on some rocks on the river bank, as we were pitching the tarp the heavens opened and that’s when we realised the tarp wasn’t waterproof.

Trying to stay in good spirits after the rain.
We didn’t sleep at all.  Being winter in Madagascar, the nights were long and the time passed slowly.  I lay in a stream of cold water running over the rocks through my sleeping bag eagerly waiting for the morning.  We got up at first light, 5:55 a.m. and quickly packed away our gear.  We were on the water by sun rise and set off for the day’s boating cold and tired.  The first rapid of the day was a steep rapid which did a good job of waking us up.

Rhod, getting his energy back.
While paddling a flat section people began running after us excitedly.  More and more joined until the crowd grew to over 100.  A little further we reached a monstrous double drop landing on jagged rocks.  The portage was a nightmare, clambering through dense jungle over slippery rocks down a steep slope.  I paid some locals to carry my kayak who put me to shame skipping barefooted to the river below.

First tier of the portage, imediately above...
...the main event!
The river was easy for the rest of the morning, never getting above grade four.  Around mid day the sun came out and we took this opportunity to dry our things.  We stopped on a small rocky island and spread our sleeping bags and clothes on the ground while we ate lunch.  An hour later things were just wet rather than dripping so we continued on our way.

Mandy's hole.
This river is very remote.  The people in some villages along the way had never seen white people.  At the end of one of the rapids was an island with a group of people sat on it.  As we approached they frantically tried to get off it back onto the main land.  In their haste they were tripping over each other.  A woman fell over and clung to a rock up to her neck in the river.  A child was washed about 10 metres downstream before he managed to swim to the shore.  It was hard not to help, but they were terrified of us and paddling towards them would have made things worse.  We passed a few groups who ran when they saw us coming.  Most though, were just curious and would watch from a “safe” distance.

Further downstream we had a very different reaction.  On a flat section a man on the bank was manically waving at us.  We tried to paddle by without stopping.  We had already been hounded by so many people on this trip.  He jumped in a dugout canoe and chased us, still shouting and enthusiastically waving his arms.  The big clapping actions he was making with straight arms were particularly concerning.  Was there a crocodile downstream?  We stopped and waited for him to catch up.  He didn’t speak any English but was clearly concerned and seemed adamant that we shouldn’t continue down the river.  Eventually we realised that he was telling us that the river downstream was too dangerous to continue.  When he realised that we were not getting out he quickly paddled to the bank and ran into the jungle.  We continued downstream wondering what we would meet.  Five minutes later we were greed by the same man and the inhabitants of the village that he had brought along.  We could see the river narrowed and funnelled between some rocks so we approached slowly.  As it happened this raging torrent was just a wave train, about grade 3, but the locals were suitably impressed.

Boulder rapid
That night we stopped early at a sandy beach to finish drying our sleeping stuff.  Thankfully the weather stayed dry.  According to the GPS we were six metres above sea level.  Soon, this expedition would be complete.

Drying our kit on an idyllic beach in the jungle.  A contrast from the previous night.
Surprisingly, the next morning produced some really good quality rapids.  We descended much more than six metres with numerous rapids dropping more than two vertical metres each.  The river was also a lot bigger at this point with more volume.  Combined with narrower rapids it made for some powerful white water.  The last rapid of the day was next to a school.  On a sweeping right hand bend the river dropped into the most difficult rapid of the day.  It looked like the novelty of these strange white people with their bright clothes was enough to close school for the day and the mud hut classrooms emptied so the children could watch us.  There were a few lines down this one.  A sneaky left line against the rocks or a long charge left to right down the main line avoiding the big hole at the end.  Both amused the crowds who followed us for the next couple of miles of flat water.

Rhod paddling a ledge
The School Run
We finished early enough to teach the local kids at the get out how to paddle and once they got over their initial fears of us everyone wanted a go.  I’ll never forget the panic when Dory stood up and how quickly the street emptied as he approached the circle of children that had gathered around us to offer them our remaining nuts.  Perhaps they thought that they were the second course.  We waited for our guide to show up for hours.  This was a good chance to see life in the Madagascan countryside.  Madagascar is a very superstitious county.  A circumcision party danced through the village with all the excitement of a carnival.  Later that day the grandfather would eat the severed foreskin to “transfer the power”.  Years from now, when he comes of age, his father will have to cross the river.  If he is eaten by a crocodile or fails, he will be shunned for life.  The boy will probably become a father by 16 and die before his 62nd birthday.  If he fathers twins he will have to choose only one to live according to the taboos of the island.

As night drew in a woman cooked us pasta and egg and when it got dark we were offered somewhere to stay behind a shop.

Teaching the locals to kayak.
Unfortunately our guide arrived during the night and we were forced to get up and leave.  Bleary eyed, we squashed into our bus along with some other people who we were forced to pay for their unspecified services while we drove the wrong way to drop them off at some remote location.  We then drove for hours to a grotty hotel where we finally got to go to bed.  The next morning we set off on the long drive back to Antananarivo.  We just had enough time for some sightseeing in the capital before our flight home.
The take out village

All the photos on this page were taken by Jo Meares

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