Stories of my adventures in Madagascar… for my daughter and son

Posts tagged “waterfall

Short Stories

There’s so much to say about Madagascar.  Here are some short comments about small events and the intricacies of the Red Island.


Early in my trip I met one of the Mission Aviation Fellowship pilots from Germany, Jakob.  He told me that I could go flying with him sometime when he had an open seat.  Loving everything aviation, that sounded great to me.  David dropped me off at the MAF hanger early one morning.  I watched as the local workers loaded the plane with UNICEF vaccines as we waited for the early morning fog to clear.  Once the outlook was clear, Jakob and I boarded the plane and headed off.

It was a beautiful day to fly (5 years later I would get a pilot license of my own).  The sky was clear and the visibility was infinity.  We cruised west over the central highlands gazing down on the endless strings of rice terraces and the red dyed rivers, bleeding the island into the sea.  Our first stop was Nosy Varika, which isn’t actually a nosy (island) but a small down on the east coast of M/car.  After circling the town and making a low pass over the runway (to scare off the cows), we made a 180 and landed on the long grass strip.  Instantly upon parking, we were surrounded by at least 75 people, all amazed to see the plane in town.  Despite all the people, no one wanted to help unload the plane, so Jakob and I unloaded it ourselves as the crowd watch.

Having half the planed unloaded, we packed up again and flew off to our next destination, Marolambo.  This is a small village in the mountains, about halfway between Tana and Nosy Varika.  We circled the town as we lined up for the airstrip, admiring the convergence of two rivers and the rapids and waterfalls that surrounded.  Joking with me, Jakob asked me to tell him when I was able to spot the airstrip.  Even as we lined up on final, I was still not able to find it.  It turns out, the runway was little more than slightly smoothed and cleared portion of a hillside, that during the dry season, blended in with the brown, bordering brush.  I could hardly believe we could land a plane there.

Here we unloaded the last of the supplies, with the help of the locals who were much more eager to unload than in Nosy Varika.  They even brought us some bananas for a snack on the home.  After unloading we hopped back in and flew into Tana.  On this trip, I was also able to vividly see the pollution surrounding Tana.  As we approached the city, we could easily see a brown layer of smog hovering over the city.  Once landed, I hung around the hanger until David came back to  pick me up.

Sunday Evening Fellowship

Sunday Evening Fellowship was a weekly gathering of the missionaries and other ex-pat Christians in Tana.  This is where I got to know people like Jakob above, and Nate and Scott with whom I took the Christmas trip.  The missionaries would gather at someone’s house on a rotating basis, and just fellowship and hang out while having a short Bible study.  It was a nice break from the often tediousness of living in a developing country, and a chance to speak English at a normal pace.


Bus rides between towns on a taxi-brousse are long.  Really long.  Long enough that you need one, two, or three meals to survive them.  A taxi-brousse, however, is no place for packing a picnic in an igloo to sustain yourself for the 20 hour trip (not that I had an igloo cooler or even a lunchbox).  So, strategically placed along all the major bus routes are Hotely, loosely translated as: fast-food-restaurants-on-the-side-of-the-highway-that-serve-leftover-rice-and-overcooked-loaka-to-the-poor-people-packed-into-taxi-brousse.  Hotely’s are of such disrepute, that some of my Malagasy friends would not eat there when taking the bus. I never gave it a lot of thought (purposefully) and ate whenever my bus would stop at one.  I would typically order chicken and white beans which always tasted good and was less overcooked than other dishes.  When eating Malagasy style, you get one bowl of rice, one bowl of stuff-to-put-on-top-of-rice (loaka), a spoon and a fork (no knives).  You eat your loaka, gradually mixing in the rice until the loaka is done.  Never would you eat rice plain.  Supposedly, whatever rice is leftover in your bowl, gets thrown back in the pot at the Hotely.  Needless to say, I always prayed a fervent prayer of blessing before eating at a Hotely.


Sanitation is non-existent in M/car.  It is not uncommon to see someone squatted on a sidewalk, or relieving themselves on the side of a building.  Contrary to most cities in the world, in M/car it’s often cleaner to walk in the gutter than on the sidewalk, as the sidewalk is far more likely to have been defecated on.  No matter what, always watch your step when walking.

School uniforms

All school children must wear uniforms.  In M/car, this means smocks.  Every school has their designated color/pattern of smock, designating their school. When walking through town, you often see gaggles of little kids all dressed in the same pink, green, blue smocks.  Little kids whose parents dress them have their smocks buttoned up to the top.  Cool teenagers wear their smocks baggy and unbuttoned.  Even far out in the country, such as at Andringitra, the school children wear their smocks.

City Buses and Taxis

Most of the time I traveled around town, I took a bus or walked.  There is no government-run bus system, so proprietors run their own buses.  Each bus has a number and a route they travel.  Typically, two or three bus numbers will run each route, with dozens of routes circling the city.  There are, of course, no bus maps or information to tell you which bus goes where, just a young man on the back of the bus yelling out neighborhood names.  Andravoahangy!  Antanimena!  Ampefiloha! Analakely!  Learning to navigate the city is often a trial and error process.  More than once I had to jump off a bus after realizing it turned the opposite way from where I wanted to go.  The buses are not large and seat five to a row with at least seven rows, it often stifling heat and an even more stifling scent.

When tired of the bus, a taxi is the next best option.  There are two rates for taxis (and everything else) in M/car, the local rate and the foreigner rate.  After a few months, you learn the local rate for things and negotiate for that rate.  Negotiating a taxi involves four steps: (1) Picking a taxi driver.  All taxis hang out in a bunch, so as soon as a foreigner approaches the bunch, all the drivers rush in.  Quickly picking a driver is key to avoiding a riot.  It’s also important to pick a driver, and not one of the random guys hanging around trying to drum up business for the drivers.  (2) Telling them where you are going, for instance, Amboditsiry.  At which time the driver stares blankly and gathers the other drivers together to ask where to go.  (3) Negotiating a price, which is always inflated, and negotiation length varied with my energy level.  Sometimes, if I was with a local, I would have them walk ahead of me and negotiate a price, then I would come up from behind and jump in the taxi, much to the dismay of the driver.  (4) Stop at the nearest gas station.  All taxis are perpetually out of gas.  This is partly due to their lack of money, and need for an advance on the cab fare before taking you to your destination, and partly due to the fact that the gas tank is an empty 1.5 liter water bottle kept at the feet of the driver, with a small tube running to the engine.  With the water bottle filled, you are free to go to you destination, often picking up additional passengers on the way.

In Tana, city law dictated that all taxi’s be painted a dull tan color with no additional decorations.  Outside of Tana, Taxis were free to paint and add decorations as they saw fit.  Which usually meant as many decorations as possible.  Stickers on the windows, lights on the roof, multi-color paint jobs, anything.  All in the hope of picking up more passengers.  In Tana, the number of passengers was also limited to the number of seats (about 4 passengers).  In other cities, particularly on Nosy Be, passenger count was unlimited.  I believe the most people I ever rode with in a taxi was 11:  four men including the driver, two women, a mom and her four kids.  The taxis in M/car are not big, typically a decades old Renault 4L or Citroen 2CV.   These cars are barely drive-able and held together with bailing wire and will power.

The taxi-brousse

Taxi-brousse are the bush taxis that take locals and frugal foreigners between cities.  This was my main form of travel when in M/car and I had little money and an adventurous spirit.  A bush taxi in M/car is about the size of a common mini-van in the U.S., perhaps a little longer, that has been converted into an 18-passenger van (read: no personal space or leg room).  All the bags are stacked in multiple layers on top of the bus.

There are bus stations in each large city in M/car, with the largest cities having multiple stations depending on the direction you are traveling.  Smaller villages will have a designated spot on the road where you can hang out and wait for a bus with an open seat to pass by.  Arriving at a bus station is much like picking a taxi.  Each bus company has a rickety wooden booth set up, all in a line, with buses parked in back.  As soon as a foreign gets near the station, a mad rush of men engulf you.  They are all yelling and grabbing at you and your bag, surrounding you in confusion.  To add to the chaos, none of these men technically work for any of the bus companies, but receive some kind of finder’s fee from the bus company for directing passengers to their booth.

You can make reservations and buy tickets ahead of time, which I did when traveling from Tana, as it assured that I could get a seat with the maximum leg room.  But, you could also just show up and book a ticket on the next bus leaving.  Doing this is a bit tricky, because all the bus companies say that their bus is about to leave, but really, the bus doesn’t leave until it is completely full, regardless of what time they said it would leave.  So you have to accurately discern which bus is actually full in the midst of a crowd of yelling Malagasy.

No matter what, the buses always take their time leaving.  You’re guaranteed to be waiting at the bus station for at least a few hours.  My rides on the taxi-brousse ranged anywhere from 4 to 20 hours.  10,15,20 hours on a packed 18 person mini van is more than enough time to sap every bit of sanity out of you.

A Perpetual State of Decay

M/car is in a perpetual state of decay.  The moment a building, road, port, railroad, boat is initially completed, that is the last maintenance that is done.  Each building looks like it did when it was built, but with the paint chipped and faded and worn.  The plaster failing in places.  Each car is improvised just enough to keep it running.  The roads wear away until the asphalt is no longer visible.  The reason for this is mainly economics.  Maintenance is expensive.  So the bear minimum is done to keep things operational.  Part of it is culture.  Maintenance is not an emphasized cultural norm.  Part of it is probably religion.  The traditional ancestor worship stresses keeping things the same as they are.

Sadly, the environment of M/car is also slowly decaying.  Most of the forest are gone, and the summer rains erode more of the island, and its rich farmland, each year.  From above, the rivers look like they are bleeding the island into the sea.  Since the coup in 2009, it has only gotten worse, as what little environmental protection that existed is now gone.  Without forests, there is no water table.  Without soil, there is no farmland.

Land Rovers

Tom and Lauralee two Land Rover Defenders, two door, turbo-diesel.  They were awesome, exactly the kind of vehicle you would expect to drive in Africa.  They felt invincible.  So powerful they could so anywhere, over any terrain.  The road to our compound was rough, especially during rainy season, and Land Rover was often needed just to get home.  I loved driving the Defender.


In the fall, Nate, Scott and I took nine boys from the youth group to Ampefy, a small town on a lake west of Tana for a weekend camping trip.  We loaded up on a Friday evening and drove out to Ampefy.  After eating at a restaurant, we set up camp late that night on a small river running from the large Lake Itasy.  The weekend was a good time for me to get to know Nate and Scott as well as some of the youth.

During the weekend, we swam a lot in the river (supposedly the lake has crocodiles, but that’s what said about every lake in M/car) and hiked around the lakes and rivers and villages.  We ate most of our meals at the same restaurant and also spent some time there playing ping-pong and pool.

The highlight of our trip was on Saturday, when we drove a bit up down the river to the Chutes de Lili, a 60-foot, beautiful waterfall.   The roar of the falls make them seem bigger than they are.  We hiked around the falls and the river, led by a couple local kids who were self-designated as our guides.  We swam in a few slow spots in the river and enjoyed the warm weather and water, before heading back to camp.

On Sunday afternoon we loaded everyone back into the bus and headed home.


Just a Five-Hour Truck Ride

Though not many, there were several non-French expat families living in Madagascar, particularly in Tana.  The kids came from a wide variety of families, backgrounds, countries and schools.  Embassy workers, NGO workers, missionaries, American School teachers, business owners, etc.

Life as an expat kid can be exciting: friends from around the world, experience in a foreign culture, learning new languages.  Life can also be difficult, especially for kids of government workers, who may move every few years, leaving friends behind and forced to make new ones.  It can also be difficult for those that left their home country later in their childhood, leaving a lot of established friends behind.

Of the many great things about growing up in a foreign country, the pure adventure may be the best.  A young couple living in Tana,; one a pastor from South Africa (Hennie), the other an American missionary kid who had grown up in M/car (Shelly); had started an outreach to the kids, organizing monthly hang-outs, trips to the favorite coffee shop, and best of all: the annual youth trip.

Countryside of the central highlands

The year I was there, the trip was to Mahajanga, Shelly’s hometown, where we would (theoretically) spend the majority of our time camping at a waterfall outside of town.  Our trip started by taking a bus (which of course arrived late) from Tana to Mahajanga, about a 10 hour trip.  When the bus arrived to pick us up, we quickly realized that it had spent the previous day hauling loads of fish.  It took several hours of the drive before we no longer noticed the stench.

The 10 hour drive went fairly quick, and I took the opportunity to enjoy the scenery of the central highlands.  We arrived in Mahajanga late Saturday night, and made home at Shelly’s parents house.  Sunday was Easter so we had a short service, then spent the afternoon hanging out at the beach.  Monday morning our real adventure began.

Early in the morning, all 20 or so of us loaded up our gear and ourselves into the back of a large lorry for a five-hour drive to the waterfall where we could camp for the next few days.  Starting out, even early in the morning, it quickly became hot and uncomfortable in the back of the truck.  But for five hours, we could endure anything.

Our home for the next two days.

An hour and a half into the trip, we got stuck for the first time.  All of the back tires were buried up the axles in mud from the rainy season.  The biggest hindrance to getting unstuck was the fact that all the tires on the truck were bald.  Through the course of our trip, several tires on the truck became so worn, that there was little more than threads holding them together.  Truck tires are expensive, maybe $500-$1000 each, in a country where most people make only $300-$400 annually.

The next four hours were spent digging out the back end of the truck.  Through this, I learned the Malagasy method of getting out of the mud: dry sand.  No matter how the truck was stuck, the driver and his helper’s answer was dry sand.  Everyone would dig the tires out of the mud, then promptly bury them in dry sand.  However, dry sand or wet, with bald tires its hard to go anywhere.

In the truck, we had with us four live chickens that would later be our meals.  The stress of baking in the back of the truck during those four hours caused one chicken to start laying eggs, and another chicken to die.  We made a small dish out of  a water bottle and attempted to feed and water the remaining chickens in the hope they would stay alive long enough to become dinner.

Eventually, after a lot of pushing and digging, and at the expense of a chicken, we got out and back on the “road.”  After a couple more hours of driving, we came to a river and took a break.  We all had a snack and jumped in and swam.  A small concrete dam had been built across the river to serve as a bridge, creating a beautiful swimming hole and a welcome break from the back of the truck.

After a half hour of relaxing, we loaded back in the truck to finish our trip to the waterfall.  We drove across the dam and onto the sand on the other side where we immediately became stuck.  Ironically, we were now stuck in dry, beach-like sand.  The driver and his helpers stared at each other confounded.  Their only previous solution to getting un-stuck was dry sand.  Now  stuck in dry sand, they had no way out.  Despite this, one of them still offered up the solution of burying the tires in dry sand.

Stuck again

Luckily, after about an hour of brainstorming, another truck passed by that was able to pull us out.  However, by this time, it was around 5:30 and nearly dark, so we decided the beach would be a good place to spend the night.  It turned out to be really great.  It was warm, the swimming was fantastic, and the sand was soft and comfortable for sleeping.  We all had a good time.

Our campsite the first night

The next morning, we repacked and loaded back into the truck.  We were all still expecting just a few hours left to go.  It wasn’t an hour out of camp before we were stuck again, for a third time.  Perhaps rainy season was not the best time of year for traveling dirt logging roads in the grasslands of Madagascar, but the weather was great for us, and the scenery and greenery amazing.  It just meant getting stuck in the mud.  A lot.

This time we only spent about three hours, gathering rocks and cutting down trees, trying to find anything we could to throw under the tires for traction to get the truck out of the mud hole.


What amazed me during the whole two day trip, was the fantastic attitude of the kids.  If this had been in America, it would have been nothing but incessant whining.  Though two days in the back of a truck seems extreme, even in hindsight, at the time, it seemed almost normal.  This was just how things go in Madagascar.  Everyone knew it and dealt with it.  It was frustrating at times, but expected, and everyone enjoyed it and had a good time.

After getting unstuck, we continued our journey.  Now deep into the bush, Shelly, our guide, began to realize that a lot of new logging roads had formed since the last time she had been out there, and began to lose her way.  We spent a lot of time testing roads trying to find our way.  Then we got stuck again, for our fourth and final time.


This time was inexcusable.  It was almost as if the driver drove directly into a ditch on the side of the road and dumped the front wheel in it.  Even the driver’s helpers gave up on him and took a nap under some trees.  The driver was either crazy or blind, or both.

While the driver worked on digging out the truck, I took a walk up the road.  While walking I discovered one of the more sinister insects of M/car.  I don’t even know what their called, like horse flies, but nearly impossible kill and relentless.  They began attacking my legs, at least a dozen of them, immediately latching on and digging into my skin.  No amount of swatting could keep them off, so I just ran.  I ran until they were gone, hoping not to see them again.

Somehow, I wasn’t paying attention, Todd was able to dig the truck out.  After a lot of revving, spinning of tires, and pushing, we got the truck out.  Now, it was only a matter of finding our way to the waterfall.  With the truck low on gas and Shelly at her wit’s end, we found the waterfall just before sundown on our second day of travel.

It was beautiful.  We camped on the smooth rock next to a trickling creek, above a magnificent 55-foot waterfall.  There were trees all around us and a huge pool to swim in below the waterfall.  That night we set up camp and swam in a few pools above the falls.

Finally at our campsite

We also had our first real meal in two days.  In addition to riding in the back of a truck, on hot summer days, that we had to dig out four times, we also barely ate.  We had some small sandwiches for lunch and some beans for dinner the first day, and nothing but some slices of banana bread for breakfast the second day.  That night, we ate chicken and beans and rice, and it was maybe the best meal I have ever ate.  The next morning we ate the leftovers for breakfast and it was still amazing.  We were all just so tired and hungry.

Camping in the bush was a special treat, because M/car is a country with few city lights, and being in the bush, were even more removed from any trace of artificial light.  The stars were bright and clear, brighter than anywhere else I’ve ever been.  The added treat was seeing the stars of the southern hemisphere, different enough that it’s noticeable, compared to what I’m used to seeing in the states.

First thing in the morning, we drove a short 30 minutes to the Anjohibe Caves.  This cave is truly in the middle of nowhere and rarely visited.  The first thing you come to before entering is a small patch of concrete and a flagpole.  According to rumors, the caves had been used by French soldiers at some point in time, and possibly also be Malagasy soldiers, though I can’t imagine what they would be fighting or defending out here.   At some point around WWII, the cave had been fitted with electric lights, which is phenomenal, considering you can barely get reliable electricity in the capital.  However, I don’t remember them working at the time, so maybe not so phenomenal.

Which brings up another funny thing about M/car.  Electricity is so fickle anywhere you go, that you spend much of your time inside using candles for light.  During my time there, the electricity would go out 5-6 times a day for anywhere from 15 min to several hours.  Many of the missionary wives would comment that their idea of a romantic dinner was one with all the lights on, as candlelight dinners were so commonplace.

Once inside, the cave, we were amazed.  It may be the most unique cave I have ever been to.  Most of the caves I had been to were in the Pacific northwest are old lave tubes, smooth and without mineral formations.  This cave was completely different.  Stalactites and stalagmites were everywhere.  From floor to ceiling in all parts of the cave.  We wandered in and out of all the tunnels, exploring as much of the cave as possible, gazing at the rock formations.  Part of our exploring was also a race to find the entrance to an underground river.

The entrance was little more that a crack at the bottom of an obscure wall.  One at a time we slid down through the crack and into a cavern holding the river (or maybe just a lengthy pool of rain runoff).  We walked out of the caves through the river, which was about 500 yards from where we jumped in to where it came out in the open and completely dark.  The water was mostly waist deep, but there were few places that we needed to swim, helping each other along with the few flashlights we had available.  Sharp rocks littered the bottom of the river and all our legs were pretty cut up.

After hiking back to the main entrance of the cave and grabbing our stuff, we headed back to camp for lunch.  One of the driver’s helpers, we called him Rasta because of his dreads (generally, anyone with dreads goes by Rasta in M/car), tagged along with us all day and had the time of his life.  The whole time we were exploring the cave he was talking non-stop.  When we found the entrance to the river, he was the first to dive through the crack , even before we could get flashlights.  Later that night, he continued to talk non-stop telling anyone who understood Malagasy about his day.  When some of the kids were dancing around the campfire, he was joining right in.

After lunch we went down to the pool below the falls to swim.  To get to the pool, we had to climb down roots of trees sticking out from the side of the cliff.  Once down, we all jumped in.  The pool was pretty deep, but littered with large boulders just below the surface.

Swimming below the falls

After swimming for awhile, a small group started walking downstream, crawling up and over the huge rocks blocking the river’s path.  We scrambled down until coming to another small pool where we swam for awhile until it got too cold.  While there, a family of lemurs came and perched in the trees just above us.  They didn’t seem bothered by our presence and hung out for awhile watching.  With lemurs becoming scarce, it’s rare to see them truly in the wild, away from any nature preserves or national parks.

After getting cold, we scrambled back up to the main pool and swam more until climbing back up to camp for dinner.  After dinner we broke into small groups and had an opportunity for the kids to talk about life as a missionary and relationships with their parents.  While being an ex-pat can be exciting and adventurous at times, it can also be hard on the kids.  The kids talked about never living normal lives; they have few if any close friends, they generally move around the world against their will, their parents are always focused on work of the mission and often don’t have time for them.  It was a good opportunity for the kids to share their feelings and how they work through them, and to let each other know that they were not alone.

Walking behind the falls

Afterwards, everyone gathered around the campfire and sang and danced until late into the night.

The next morning we quickly packed up and got back on the road.  The drive back to Mahajanga was quicker than the drive out, it took only a full day, but not without hiccups.  We drove to the river where we had made our first camp without incident and stopped for snacks and a little swimming to cool off.

Shortly after starting out again, our troubles began.  First, the truck ran out of gas.  We had another car with us, that Hennie and Wilfred (Shelly’s brother-in-law) took off in to find gas, however, they were nearly out of gas also.  Luckily, they found another broken down truck that they siphoned gas from and were back in 45 minutes.  The battery on the truck was also dead, so it took us nearly forever, and all our remaining energy, to push start the truck and get it gong again.

The falls

Shortly after starting again, the clutch went out and the truck could barely shift.  We now barely had any gas, with a dead battery, no clutch and threadbare tires.  Then it started raining.  The tarp over the back of the truck was tied up on top, and we couldn’t stop for fear of not being able to start again.  The rain just poured down on all of us, but by then, no one really cared.  Everyone just sat quietly and took it (needless to say, but I ended up throwing away most of the clothes I wore on this trip).  When we got to the top of a small hill where the driver wasn’t so worried about getting stuck, we stopped and pulled the tarp down.  But, this also had the side effect of making the back of the truck into a greenhouse.

It was then that the driver decided that he wanted to wait until after the rain stopped and the road dried before starting again.  Everyone immediately objected, and luckily, Wilfred was able to convince him to keep going.  The next stretch of road was crazy, it was probably good that the tarp was down and we couldn’t see.  The truck was sliding, and fish-tailing, brushing up against trees, spinning, and barely avoiding getting stuck.  But, the rain eventually stopped, we dried out and made it to the main highway before running out of gas again.

The famous thousands-some-odd-year old baobab tree in downtown Mahajanga

After Hennie and Wilfred got more gas, we made it back into town and back to Shelly’s parents.  We all crashed hard that night.  The next day we spent walking around town, shopping for souvenirs, and hanging out at the beach.  The following morning we all packed up early and got ready to take our bus home.  However, keeping in line with the transportation theme of our trip, the bus we had hired broke down that morning and they were scrounging to find two vans left in town that could take us home.

We left a few hours later than we wanted but still got out of town, and most everyone spent the ride sleeping.  Twelve hours later I was back home in the compound, where I could finally crash (however, I got up early the next morning to meet some friends to go to a concert and ended up staying up all the next night… oh to be young again).  It was a great trip, everyone enjoyed it, the kids had great attitudes.

Though the three days on the truck were obnoxious, it really made the trip.  Sometimes the journey is the adventure.