Pirogue Tour

From Bristol to Antsirabe: Cycling Madagascar with an awkward Brit

Blog 2 – Pirogue Tour

The journey from Ranomafana to the start of our river tour in Miandrivazo was not simple because of the famously flat and well looked after Madagascar roads, and we therefore had to stop in Antsirabe for the night. This gave us a chance to explore the local markets, and stock up on food for our descent into the wild countryside, where we would not see any sort of shop for days.

On the journey to Miandrivazo, we arrived slightly after dark, and it was saddening to observe two instances of illegal ‘slash and burn’ of the nearby forest, which I am told is done to make space for rice or maize crops, or even sometimes to make way for mines. Coming from Ranomafana, being inspired by Theo’s quest for conservationism in Madagascar with his story of the anguish of David Attenborough, and seeing locals burning down valuable forest for their own profit, was disheartening, although for them, this was just a way to survive. Some of this activity I can’t help but suspect is down to foreign companies, although I have no evidence to back this up!

On this same journey, an equally distressing sight was visible from the road: tens of children, around 10 years old, crouched in the river panning for gold. I do not know the whole story behind this, but according to the local guide they are employed by large foreign companies, for very little money, and are not receiving an education. It’s sad to see foreign companies adopting immoral practices, illegal in their own countries, just because they can get away with it, and profit from it.


Waking up early in Miandrivazo, a farming and fishing town on the mahajilo river, we packed everyone’s bags onto the bus to travel to the start of our pirogue river tour. The plan was to take four days to travel 180km down the Tsiribihina river, camping and cooking on the side of the river. The boats were waiting for us an hour’s drive away in a much more remote area. This rurality was apparent on the journey as the narrowing road lost all trace of tarmac, and the local inhabitants became more and more surprised to see us. The phrase ‘salama vaza’ on the tongues of kids began to become normality to us, which literally means ‘hi there foreigner’, and the demands from children changed from asking for money to asking for plastic bottles and ‘bonbons’. Throughout the whole trip, it was noticeable that the attitude to us was much more hospitable, kind, and friendly in the rural areas than the cities, if children were going to ask you for something, they would chat to you first, and then ask kindly if you could spare your empty bottle, a pretty innocent demand. In these areas, there was also minimal grid electricity, sometimes small local diesel generators to provide expensive electricity for those who could afford it, and some families had adopted PV cells imported cheaply from china to suit their small electricity demand.

My stressful set up for the week

The most impressionable example of local hospitality, was the attitude of the local boatmen to us, and how they looked after us. Although they were brought up living a very simple life in the ‘sakalava’ tribe, drinking the river water and only speaking Malagasy, over the years they have learnt how to accommodate foreigners. They have learnt to cook delicious meals, whilst taking personal hygiene very seriously for the sake of their guests, making sure they wash their hands frequently, and the fruit and vegetables in clean water. As well as being professional, they were hilarious, always entertaining the guests with their dancing, and in their efforts to teach me Malagasy words unfortunately ineffectively. One night they even arranged for a local tribe to come and give a demonstration of traditional dancing, which bravely, the lovely welsh team leader decided to join in on.

The pirogue boatmen

Along the river, the eagle eyes of the boatmen every now and then would spot an animal hiding on the side of the river. The highlight of these was the number of crocodiles we saw, basking in the sunshine, making us slightly uneasy in our fragile traditional canoes. It was also possible to make out several sifaka, the white lemurs, climbing in the trees. Throughout the trip, we were blessed with the most beautiful birds, all with their own unique feathers and songs, from guinea fowl to herons to kingfishers to many I could not name.

Each night, we managed to find a more beautiful camping spot than the last as we got further and further from civilization. Along the way, we stumbled across an amazing waterfall for lunch, which came as a gift to us in the heat, having not showered for three days. Castalina took this opportunity to freshen up and brush her teeth away from the guests:

This waterfall was also home to a family of lemurs, who were especially energetic and friendly:

Camping alongside the river was the perfect recipe for the most spectacular sunsets and sunrises, and incredible shooting star displays that lit up the sky at night. As we set up our tents and the sun started to set, the boatmen started fetching firewood, and set up their fires to prepare our dinner. Every night the food was different, but always delicious.

Chief Gaston preparing breakfast at sunrise

My one concern is that all the locals use wood to cook with, even when they are at home. The negative side effects of this are evident with the poor respiratory health of all the boatmen. All of them seem to have a nasty cough, but this is normal for them and I presume is due to being in proximity to an open fire three times a day. I have noticed several instances in villages of people cooking with fires inside, which seems mad to me, but I now realise that they have no other choice, and even I do not see an immediate solution for them. As communities grow in size, the amount of firewood available diminishes and the distance one has to go to find it increases making this process much more difficult. In previous research on this topic at university, I found that a popular suggestion was to use solar cookers, a seemingly genius and inexpensive solution as an alternative to biofuels, that focuses the heat from the sun using foil and cardboard. I do not however see how this solution would fit in in the communities that I have visited: For one, most people live so close together, and only have space to cook in the extreme vicinity of their home, that there isn’t any direct sunlight on the ground for most of the day. Secondly, the sun loses its strength at around 5 o’clock, and even though the Malagasy people eat early, they still cook at dusk, meaning that the solar cooker is useless for the largest meal of the day. This leaves a gap to be filled with an alternative cheap cooking method for people without much electricity, that does not have such bad health side effects.

After four beautiful days on the remote, peaceful river and as the sight of baobab trees became more and more common, it was time to get back to the city, but this was not simple. From the boats, we took cattle drawn carts which are known here comically as ‘Zebu 4x4s’ for two hours to where our actual four wheel drives were waiting for us. It wasn’t an understatement likening them to 4x4s as we crossed ponds, rivers, and the worst dirt track you’ve ever seen. How the wooden wheels of the cart stay in one piece, I still have no idea.

Zebu 4×4

We then proceeded in the 4x4s to Kirindy park for lunch, where we were lucky enough to spy a fossa, a rare cat like predator endemic to Madagascar, asleep next to the hotel.

Fossa snoozing behind the hotel

On our way in the afternoon to Morondava, we made it just in time for the sunset at baobab avenue, a real bucket list experience, although by far the most touristy part of Madagascar I have seen.

Sunset over baobab avenue

Having spent a week travelling around every day, it was welcoming to have a rest day in Morondava. We spent the morning on yet another boat, paddling around the floating forest of mangrove trees, and then to the village on this island that looked like something out of a desert island novel. I spent the afternoon swimming out to a sandbank out to sea, to the dismay of my local guide Castalina and the driver, who along with many people in Madagascar, do not know how to swim, an ability that I have completely taken for granted through years of lessons at an early age.

Sunset over Morondava beach

The nerdy engineer in me also got excited in the hotel at the extensive use of evacuated tube solar thermal collectors for the hot water here, a no-brainer considering the temperature consistently surpassing thirty degrees during the day. I liked the image of the relatively modern technology supported by the bamboo structure.

Thermal solar collectors in Morondava

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