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Big hot walkies: trekking across Madagascar

What is most striking about Madagascar, away from the sheer beauty of its landscapes, is the kindness and warmth of its people. Over the course of three weeks, a group of 12 complete strangers from across the globe had the chance to undertake a very unique challenge – to cross the island of Madagascar by foot from east to west (a world first) and summit the Island’s highest peak, Mont Maromokotro. Through this nearly 400km epic journey, each individual became a rare witness of what this magnificent country has to offer.

Lemur, MadagascarOur adventure started in the country’s capital, Antananarivo, where the team from Secret Compass established our meeting point. With the help of a few good pints of Three Horse Beer, strangers rapidly became friends and got to know a bit more about their new “brothers in arms” for the next twenty days… From experienced hikers with fancy GPS systems to first time adventurers with fresh-out-of-the-box
walking boots, our new-found family was quite diverse in experience and origin, which only served to make this adventure even more so promising!

Camping cuisine in MadagascarEquipped with French Army maps printed in 1962, we started our journey on the deserted beaches of Sambava, our official east coast starting point. From there, four to five days of grueling 25km+ walks were awaiting the group. What made the start of the trip so enjoyable, despite the hot and humid weather, heavy rucksacks and
the usual stomach disturbances, were the people of Madagascar. We came across countless villages during the first days, each time only to be welcomed by charming, smiling and intrigued Malagasies. White ghosts they called us- ‘Vaza’- in Malagasy. Kids by the dozen running around us, laughing and screaming with excitement at the sight of foreigners; ‘Vaza! Vaza! Vaza!’ went the chant! … As we were usually camping in the village football field, each campsite arrival created a special event of its own, attracting each time a larger crowd of intrigued villagers. Even more so when our second-in-command, Ali, had to undergo a series of foot treatment sessions due to a nasty heel blister. One such procedure involved a three-inch needle, in front of a crowd of fifty or so of our new-found friends!

Next came the jungle. We had all been looking forward to experiencing the jungle, and jungle we certainly got! . It is thick, unfriendly, rocky, branchy, slippery, rainy and full of leeches. To top it off, there was absolutely nobody there apart from us… and we loved it. How could anyone enjoy something so uncomfortable I hear you ask? Because it’s like nowhere else on earth. The jungle was so dense that we could barely cover five km over ten hours of hard work. I say “work” because trekking in the Madagascar jungle cannot be described by the word “walking”. Hacking, climbing, sliding, getting slapped, hurting and river crossing would be more like it!

As far as human encounters go, a total absence of it would be a totally appropriate way to describe our situation. Travelling for about five days and not meeting another soul is definitely not something you get to experience very often. It is in this environment that you come to realize how remote you are, how survival and success depends on the cohesion of the group. Each individual had to find an inner strength to help the team to keep on going. You have no means of communication; no phone call, no facebook, no emails to your friends and family. It’s just you and your teammates. That’s it.

Hiking MadagascarAfter our gargantuan struggle through the jungle we found ourselves above it. Perspective, landscapes, cool breeze, light andrelative dryness were back into our lives only to be replaced by steep climbs and even steeper descents. We were on our way to climb Mount Maromokotro – Madagascar’s highest peak at 2,876m. When picturing the ascent of such a mountain, starting at sea level, you wish for a nice steady climb to the summit, but that is not how it goes. From 1,200m you go back down to 400m and then back up to 900m and down to 500m and back to 1,500m repeated a number of times. Only then did we begin to truly appreciate the meaning of “Alefa!”; the Malagasy word for “Let’s go !!”. Being a group of twelve foreigners with nineteen guides and porters makes you slower, but with time and distance in mind we needed to keep on moving…and fast. So our guides greeted us with several “Alleeeffffaaaa!” each day. We became fans of the word ourselves; it’s perfect to crack the whip and get the group moving. Finally, despite a heavy fog covering much of the summit, we managed to reach the Maromokotro peak by mid-day. Whiskey, cigars and chocolate allowed us to properly celebrate our accomplishment.

Hiking MadagascarAccording to Malagasy tradition, our guides brought a chicken along the trip for it to be offered to the gods of the mountain at its summit. Our expedition leader, Lev, was honored to be chosen to make the final gift to the Maromokotro divinities!

Sometimes getting down the summit is harder than reaching it. It turned out to be our case, with foggy conditions reached its climax as we were trying to locate the base camp. Luckily after a few hours of wet and cold search we managed to reach it, less than thirty minutes before sunset. We truly were a bunch a happy campers by then!

Morale was high – we were starting the final stretch of our journey, and after successfully reaching Madagascar’s highest summit, the west coast was still attainable. We were hoping for a smooth downhill to the beach, but inevitably dreams were crushed and epic arduous trekking prevailed! The last days were met with more ups and downs, river crossings, narrow ledge walking and hacking that we could have possibly imagined. But isn’t this what it is all about? A real physical and mental challenge from start to finish; an adventure you will never forget. There was more jungle to tackle, more river crossings, swamp marches and several long days camping wherever we could and barely having time to wash our socks, but on the final few days- just as we had given up our search for the elusive lemur we were finally treated to sightings of several groups- swinging through the trees and peering down on us- the spectacle below.

On the final day we were a full day behind schedule and decisions had to be made if we were to reach our ultimate goal of crossing the landmasson foot. Some chose to take up the opportunity of a rickety old car to make it to the coast in order to enjoy at least a bit of time relaxing on the beach, but 4 of the team decided to continue on foot all the way to the coast. It was to be one of the hardest things we ever did. After 17 days of solid walking- often for 12 hours a day we were to attempt 93 km in just one final push. Wearing only sandals (since we anticipated several river crossings and swollen feet) the team woke up at 2am and set off on the epic final push. It took 12 hours to reach the town of Ambanja- the first proper habitation we had seen in 3 weeks! Delighted we ate the most delicious lunch I can remember and filled ourselves up with fizzy drinks and sugar before continuing a further 25 km to the port of Ankify by 21:30- it had taken 18 and we were bruised and battered, but incredibly happy. It wasn’t quite the end we had anticipated- running into the beautiful sea across a sandy beach- since it was pitch black and we were at a rather grubby port but still we had made it- and better still we had enough time to enjoy a day on the beach with the rest of the group ion Nosy Be- the tourist capital of Madagascar.

More Secret Compass epic adventure on their own site.

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