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Cruising the Loza River in north-western Madagascar

Loza River, MadagascarThe Loza, pronounced Lush, is in North-Western Madagascar and is an estuary connecting the town of Antsohiy to the village of Antalalava (the place of the long forest) at its mouth where it spills into the Indian Ocean; it is reachable only by water in the rainy season.

I am trying to hitch a ride down the estuary; there is a “boutre” at the quay loading bags of cement and granite stones of various sizes. The captain, Mustapha, agrees to take my motorbike and me down the 110 km, six-hour trip for $10.

Some young men load my motorbike on to the boutre with some hilarity. These sailing boats have been the work-horses of the Indian Ocean for centuries: they are large wooden cargo carriers and ideal for plying the coasts of this huge island where roads are few. As it works inland waters as well as the sea it has a small in-board motor.

“Slow but sure”, says Mustapha.

Loza river, MadagascarMustapha, fortyish, has a swarthy complexion, jet black wiry hair and a generous moustache: buccaneer style. His tiller man has the air of an old-fashioned pirate and his shirtless three-man crew have bodies which look gym moulded.

The massive tidal difference in the estuary must be respected; at low tide the estuary is just a trickle of muddy water along the quay where now, at high tide, the boutre rocks gently in deep water. We push off as the tide turns.

Mustapha is also mayor of a local commune, an important man locally. Our cargo of 25 tons of cement and stones is to set up a drinking- water system in his village. I express my admiration for the initiative but then comes scepticism: there are local elections next year, Mustapha buys the materials, sells them to the local authority, transports them and gets some credit: makes commercial and political sense.

We pass through a narrow channel densely fringed with mangroves; the estuary is busy with pirogues carrying goods and produce to or from the town: boats piled high with green bananas and bags of charcoal going to market, with mattresses and bicycles, boxes of provisions and many unidentifiable things going home. Against the tide paddlers backs glisten with sweat, at times pirogues are lashed together for shared effort or colourful “lambas” are tied to masts trying to catch whiffs of breezes. Water, for these people, is as much their element as land. Pirogues disappear into and emerge out of narrow channels in the mangroves. Houses and homes are somewhere away in the distance, invisible; soft folds of mountains are far away.
Loza River, Madagascar
I watch the mangroves slide by on either side; the trees with their rubbery leaves are indistinguishable from each other. Their distinctive roots – they can grow vertically up, vertically down, horizontally and twist into intricate Gothic shapes- are hidden by the swirling waters.

Slow forms of transport are seductive; a slow boat or train gives time to look around, to notice and let the mind wander, to reflect or, at times, fall into a light trance.

I take a photo of a couple in a passing pirogue. She stands and, with a smile, extends her hand for money. I throw her a kiss and her husband catches her as she threatens to falls overboard with laughter.

Our tiller man, wearing large red ear mufflers, stares fiercely ahead and at the mangroves as if expecting spear-wielding natives in dugout canoes to appear from hiding places; I think of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness but we pass in peace.Mealtime on the Loza River, Madagascar

Towards midday a tarpaulin is draped for shade, another spread as a table cloth; we share beans and rice. The kitchen on deck, with its two permanent wood fires, is furnished with three large very black cast-iron pots: they simmer with something or other throughout the trip.

After lunch the “fierce” tiller man shows his sensitive side; he makes coffee gravely and tenderly. He drips boiling water into a muslin bag filled with local coffee. He watches the liquid drip into a large plastic plug which, when full with the strong black brew, he tosses back into a pot of boiling water. He spoons in sugar, watching it sizzle and dissolve, tasting continually. He smacks his lips then serves me, with his pirate’s grin, a delicious sweet black coffee in a small pink plastic mug. As he grins I notice he has but two teeth, a right-sided top one and left-sided bottom one. They are long, yellow and fanglike; I think they suit him admirably.
290914Commerce (3)
The mangroves thin out and disappear slowly and thatched wooden huts and small villages begin to appear on muddy banks. The water is full of unloved jelly fish with their pumping motion. Mustapha, who has never tasted alcohol in life, chain smokes while squinting towards the horizon or brooding on the cloudy water.

The estuary widens into a great lake 10 km across, the water becomes choppy and Mustapha has one of the crew step gingerly out along the bowsprit to unfurl a double jib but the breeze is lackadaisical.290914Tide Out (3) As neither tide nor wind is favourable the boutre anchors in a sheltered bay near the mouth and will make for the town pier in the morning.

The two other passengers and I are paddled ashore and we cross a small hill and follow the path into town. We walk down the main street, its dust and sand quickly filling our shoes.

The passengers and I with a girl, who befriends us on the way into town, have a drink in a wooden shack in the centre of town. One passenger is prospecting for agate, the other is visiting family; the girl is looking for a drink and some company.

A red shaft of sun on a darkening sea suggests night so I head towards the beach to look for a bed. As I drift into dreams I picture the agate prospector swaying in a hammock and being fanned by a dusky maiden with dangling agate earrings. They say fortune favours the bold!

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