Very few days on a Voetspore adventure cannot be described as a perfect day. We are blessed to have had the opportunity to criss-cross Africa in four-wheel drive vehicles, exploring, observing and enjoying the experience for the past 15 years. And yet, few days can rival 2 November 2015 — day 54 of our expedition, Voetspore in Madagascar.
We had arrived the previous evening on the banks of the Menarandra River on the south-east coast of the island after a long sand track drive from Anakao.
The vegetation was interesting — a few baobabs, pachypodium and spiny forest, as well as the invading cactus. We were heading for Cap Saint Marie, the southern-most point of Madagascar.
There were two rivers to cross – the Linta and the Menarandra. Crossing the Linta was a simple matter because it was dry. The Menarandra was not. Actually, it was in flood after heavy rains upstream.
Andre Bester, one of our team, offered to walk through to test what the conditions were like. He did not even get halfway before turning around. “Impossible,” he said. “It’s getting deeper and deeper.”
As the water was muddy and the rocks were slimy, we decided not to attempt a crossing, but rather to set up camp on the river bank. We would decide what to do the next day, 2 November.
I woke up early. From my vantage point in my rooftop tent I had a view of the river. It didn’t look good. Before sunrise a small crowd had assembled at our camp. The people were from the village nearby. They had seen us arrive the previous evening and were curious about our next step. One guy asked for pain killers for a tooth ache, but he also had some news. According to him, the river level had dropped during the night by about one metre.
We packed up and went down to the river. At the point where most people cross in their zebu carts, it was still impossible. Too deep. Too slimy. And the riverbed was uneven.
I looked upstream and saw a cart crossing the river. The zebu (a humped ox) can swim and the cart is light, but I noticed that the water was only about a metre deep — at the most a metre-and-a-half.
Andre offered to walk across again. This time he went all the way to the other side, but he came back with the same opinion: “It’s not possible — too muddy, too uneven.” And in places the water was more than one-and-a-half metres deep.
While we were discussing our predicament, a local lady approached us. She did not utter a word or make any sounds, but gave firm hand signals and gestures with her head. “Go further upstream,” she seemed to be saying. “There is a point where you can cross.” Somehow she commanded authority.
So we went upstream. By now a crowd of more than 100 was following our every move.
Andre crossed the river once more on foot. “It may be possible,” he reported.
We started our preparations. The river was too wide to attach a rope to a vehicle when crossing. We connected all our snatch ropes to make one giant rope of about 30m long. This we attached to the bridle at the back of my car. Should I get stuck, one of the other vehicles would have to recover me, most probably from within the river. But we had no other choice.
The silent lady stood on the rockslider at my door. I entered the water. She indicated that I should drive upstream. I was constantly veering off to the other side, but she was persistent – go upstream. Then, at one point, she indicated with her hand, turn right. Cross the river. So I did.
Halfway through the crossing the scarf she had tied around her waist was swept off. She jumped into the water to retrieve it. She left me by myself! Now it was me, a V8 and four Mickey Thompsons, but the Cruiser’s engine roared. I was in third gear, low range with both front and rear diff locks activated. In front of the bonnet there was a perfect wave.
The Cruiser rocked to and fro, sometimes into a hole, a metre-and-a-half deep, yet I went forward. I reached the other side to great applause from the crowd.
Then it was the turn of Gideon Swart and Simon Wearne, our other two drivers. They had the benefit of knowing which line I had taken — the line shown to me by the silent lady. It was challenging, but they made it across safely.
We left the crowd behind and followed the zebu cart trails further south. Whenever we saw a local man or woman we asked, “Lavanono?” At one point a man who could speak a little French and a few word of English indicated that we should drive for some distance on the beach and through the dunes. He offered to guide us to that point — an offer we gratefully accepted.
On arriving at the dunes we gave him a bottle of water, a South African flag and some money. He turned back, and we continued driving south.
Simon is a guide in the Namib. Now he was in a mini Namib. It was fantastic. Dunes with slip faces. Challenging, yet satisfying. A few hours in the desert.
A rocky peninsula ran into the sea. We had to go inland. Once more we had to look for zebu cart tracks. They were narrower than the Cruisers. The branches of the spiny forest and cacti scratched the vehicles but we had no choice. There was no other way.
We reached a rocky mountain pass. The Cruisers, in low range, with their Mickey Thompsons, climbed it like a charm. Then we had to go down another, very narrow pass. Just after two in the afternoon we reached Lavanono.
Some of us went for a swim, but Simon went surfing. A young lad walked past with a crude handmade spear gun from which he made a living and fed his family. Gideon asked him if he had goggles and a snorkel. He did not understand the question, so Gideon fetched his state of the art set and give it to the boy. Gideon said he wasn’t going to use them for the rest of the trip, and the boy could put them to much better use. The youngster smiled shyly and said “Merci.”
An hour later the boy returned with a lady and two other boys. They said something like “cadeau” — the French for gift. We had become used to people asking for “cadeaus”. But they were not asking. They were bringing. The boy and his family, who were among the poorest people we have met, brought Gideon a chicken as a gift, to say thank you for the goggles and snorkel.
This was a perfect day. When the sun set over the Mozambique Channel we had a whole fish, flavoured with garlic and lemon, on the coals. It was served on a bed of rice with a crisp Guardian Peak sauvignon blanc. – Johan Badenhorst