11 Jun 1996 - Diego-Suarez, Madagascar
It is still raining in Maroantsetra. I take off and climb into the mist. A swollen river snaking through the jungle disappears, and I am surrounded by clouds. I had watched the rain for the previous several days. It always stopped in the afternoon, and then as the sunset, the sky would be orange in a way that said that it was clear to the west. You can tell when you are near the top of the clouds, because the white around you becomes brilliant from the sun's light filtering through. After 30 minutes, the clouds are behind me. I am looking for a small town called Bealanana. It is in the highlands, and it is near the Tsaratanana Massif.
The high country beneath me is jagged and orange. Off in the distance, I can see a lush green valley of rice fields. To the north, the Massif rises up and down through thick bamboo jungle to the alpine summit of Maromokotro. It makes me feel a little strange inside, because I know this place.
I remember, down below, that mysterious lake. It had looked like a lush flat field. I was told to walk carefully. The vegetation on its surface was so thick that it supported me in a mysterious way - like walking on a waterbed. Halfway across, I had to test to see if this was so. I jumped, and then I jumped again harder; the vegetation gave way, and I immediately slid in up to the pack on my back. My feet were dangling in clear empty water. Roger pulled me back up with a smile that said he had warned me.
Roger was a Malagasy man from the village of Ambaturia. He didn't use a backpack. Instead he preferred a sturdy bamboo pole across his shoulders with woven reed baskets secured to either end. As I look out the window down on this village, I can feel my eyes water. I know that village. I know that terrible road. I seem to know every detail of the terrain below as though it were a scar on my soul. But it is a scar, and strangely, I wonder if it is not this "terrible" place that has brought me back to Madagascar.
I think we like to control things in our lives. We like to control our circumstances, when we can. However, this is a place where I had lost control, it was like a bad dream, and now, I almost want to see if it was real. I had come here seven years ago to climb the mountain. I like to climb mountains in Africa: Kilimanjaro, Ruwenzori, Mount Kenya, Virunga, High Atlas, Ahoggar, Mount Cameroon, Mulanje, Brandberg, Kartala, Inyangani, Thabana Ntlenyana, and yes, Tsaratanana. I like to stand on the very top, and I like to avoid the normal route if I can. For me, the mountain is to be climbed with passion. It can bring you great joy or tremendous misery. It is almost a war - you against it. And it should be climbed with someone from that place - one who knows the spirit and the mystery of the mountain and who can share it with you.
Roger had never climbed the mountain. No one in the village had. The ghosts of the "guerriers" lived in the forests. You could hear their screams at night, as they were being beheaded again and again. The forest was not a place for people during the night. Roger had that humble sturdy countenance of a man who could do well on a mountain, and he had a family, so he needed the money. It was only on the final day of our approach, before we entered the forest, that I became slightly aware of Roger's fear. He had purchased a "coq blanc" (white rooster) from the last village of Mangindrano. This was to sacrifice to the ghosts on our first night in the forest. He also then told me about the "fady ondrotilata." This is a taboo that one must not work in the rice fields on Tuesday. Women must not give birth on Tuesday - they have to wait. And on the mountain, there is a ridge called "Karantilata." We must not cross this on Tuesday, he said.
If I learned anything from this mountain, it was to beware of a line on a map. There was a line. There must be a trail of some sort. My map was from the 1950's. I had an altimeter and a compass. I have done this before, so it will take us two days from Mangindrano, maybe three. We will keep the food light, and we won't be anywhere near "Karantilata" on Tuesday.
There was a mad woman who lived by the river on the edge of the tiny village of Mangindrano. One week after we had left this village and entered into the forest, Roger's eldest son had walked the eight hours from his village to find out where we were. The rains had been furious every day and night after we had entered the forest. The mad woman said to this small boy that she had seen our bodies being washed down this river the day after we entered the forest. We were dead. The small boy returned to the village of Ambaturia with the news that his father was dead.
There was no path, and I had never been in a bamboo forest before. The bamboo grows tall, then collapses down on itself leaving an incredibly intricate maze of bamboo in every direction. It springs away under your machete, but when you do manage to hack through it, the sharp stem is under tension and slices past your face. The leeches drop off the leaves into your socks and begin to suck the blood from your legs. At first, I pulled them off in disgust, but the wounds would continue to bleed from the leech's anti-coagulant. After the third day of this, I just left them there until they dropped off on their own. The small insects were faster and smaller than mosquitoes. They went straight for the inside of your ear, and their bites made you bleed. My ears became caked with dried blood. In some places, the bamboo was so dense and entangled from collapse, that we climbed up through it then tried to swim and roll across the top. We lost track of time. We lost track of days. We couldn't see out of this world of bamboo. The compass said north. We would look at the compass, memorize the direction of north, cut through fifteen feet of bamboo, then look at the compass again - we would be off by 60 degrees in our estimation of north. It was impossible to see where we had come from; we were in a gigantic maze, and we would get lost if we turned back. The only solution was to continue north, to keep climbing, and to get out of the bamboo. We ran out of food after 5 days. The nights would pour with cold rain, and days would melt in humid heat.
For six hours one day, we hacked through bamboo. Then it almost seemed impossible, but we discovered a freshly cut path. There were footprints too. My heart jumped that we might be nearing some form of humanity and perhaps even a path out of this horror. We hurried along this path to catch whoever had made it. Roger followed with complete confidence in my navigation skills, but then I stopped and studied the footprints. These were our tracks, and this was our path. I didn't quite know how to explain this to Roger, but for six hours that morning, following my compass meticulously, we had gone in a circle. I looked at the map carefully. It was Tuesday, and we were on the ridge of "Karantilata."
I was trembling at night beneath a piece of plastic in driving rain. Roger was blowing on the smoldering wet fire, but the rain was too strong. Our hands were cut from the bamboo and black from the fire. We still were not out of the forest. We were hungry, cold and exhausted. My confidence was deeply shattered; I couldn't imagine how I could have walked in a complete circle. I still didn't know what "la bas" meant. Somehow, Roger would always use this word about a dozen times during the day. It was a silly little French word, but I didn't know what it meant. I became two people: one was here shivering, wondering what "la bas" meant, and the other was standing back with a smile - like watching a movie or reading a book - waiting to see what would happen next. I became very conscious of this second person; he was enjoying this whole thing, and he didn't care what happened.
I began to think that it would not be a failure to not reach the top of this mountain. This would be the mountain that won. We tried hard, and we failed, and this was okay. We came out of the forest, and for the first time in a week, I could see where we were. Madagascar folded away beneath me in all directions from this alpine ridge. We had done it; we had beaten the forest. Roger was a strong and proud man, but I was worried about him. He never complained or became upset about anything, but I could see lack of food, exhaustion and several nights of no sleep were taking their toll. I felt a responsibility to get him to a summit of some sort, so that he could be proud and tell his children that he had climbed that mountain. That ridge up there would be our "summit." We would camp there, then get off this mountain to the west. It was raining again. I was hating this mountain. It had beaten me. We collapsed under a rock out of the rain several hours later. This was our "summit." I congratulated Roger. He smiled his soft old wise and gentle smile. I studied the map, then we both fell asleep for the first time in several days.
I awoke at 3 o'clock in the light of the moon. I was wide awake. The sky was clear. I lit a candle and studied the map. I now had an idea of how fast one could move across this map; Maromokotro - the real summit - was only three hours away. I could see it. Roger was sound asleep, and I did not know what to do. I had pushed him for so many days. I had told him this was our "summit." It was our "summit," but suddenly this "other summit" was sitting there - waiting. I did not feel good about waking him and pushing him to another summit. I put on my boots and stepped off into the moonlight. I took only a walking stick, my camera and some water. I moved fast, and by sunrise, I was standing on Maromokotro. I was not exhilarated; I was deeply troubled. Who was I to decide if Roger was too exhausted or not? Maybe he would have slowed me down. Maybe this was just a job for him, and he didn't really care about another summit, but I felt as if I had broken a code of honor of the mountain. We had shared in this "war" together; we had fought so hard together, and now he was not here with me. I was two people again: one acting and one observing. It seemed as if the one part of me was there wholly for the amusement of the other, and I didn't like it. We started down the mountain with force, dreaming of a small village where there would be food.
Still to this day, I remember the words: pain, frustration, and hunger. I kept saying them over and over. I don't know which of the three was greater. I was supposed to be back in Kenya shortly to work on a documentary film called "Ivory Wars" about elephant poaching in Africa. I was looking forward to this. We entered the forest again, but this time there wouldn't be so much of it and it would be steep. I wanted to fall off this mountain and get away from this place. The forest had done something to me, and I wanted to be away from it, so instead of following a ridge, we followed a small stream. There was some light, and it was clear and fast walking. The slopes became steeper. The open stream became a narrow gorge with sharp mossy rock walls on either side. The rest of the mountain was falling away, and then came the waterfalls. It was now too steep and slippery to try to climb out of this gorge. At first, it was better to negotiate these little waterfalls along the clean rock with our section of hemp rope. The waterfalls became larger, and the rock walls became steeper. When my foot slipped off the tiny ridge on one of these walls, I slid down the face of the rock perhaps only twenty feet and landed on my feet. I didn't realize a bone had been cracked in my foot, but I knew I couldn't walk on it.
At night, the forest would scream with sound. It was an eerie long whining and howling sound. I used to reassure Roger that it was only lemurs, but now I wondered about the all warriors who had been beheaded so many hundreds of years ago. We made our way out of a ravine in the gorge and spent four more days in the steep forest. Slowly, they went. I didn't want to wake up in the morning, because I was dreaming of chocolate chip cookies, McDonald's cheeseburgers, and rich chocolate cake. While I was sleeping, I was eating over and over all these things; awake, they were gone. Roger, had tied my backpack onto his bamboo pole. He had his pole on one shoulder, and was supporting me and my wooden crutch with the other. I couldn't believe this man. I was weak. I could only complain about the pain in my foot. He was solid, lean, and wasn't about to let me give up.
At a fork in the stream near the edge of the forest, Roger told me that he would leave me and go to find help. I used my knife to cut down small sturdy green trees, then used the hemp rope to fasten a wooden stretcher. I designed it well, and then wove the rope between the branches with a plastic sheet mattress to support me. I was trying to imagine what sort of people would come to carry me out, and I would drink fresh water from the stream to fill my stomach. Roger returned a day and a half later. He had four pineapples with him; I ate all four of them in 12 minutes. The juice was running down my cheeks and all over my face when I noticed an old man in the forest behind Roger. For the four days, I had not taken my boot off, so as to keep my foot from swelling. Now, my boot was off and my ankle looked like a large grapefruit. There were no other people. This old man was a lemur hunter. He lived off the forest, and he was going to guide us to his hut on the edge of the forest. The next village was only five hours from there. There was rain again. I disassembled my stretcher and gathered myself slowly onto my feet. We started again, and after some hours, we came to a small stream. I can remember tears in my eyes; I don't know if from frustration or pain. I stopped to soak my foot in this cool water. The level of the stream seemed to be rising up my leg. I felt so stupid, but I had paused instead of crossing, and now this river was becoming a raging torrent before my eyes from all the rain. We were unable to cross it for another three hours. My second self was smiling again; this simply couldn't be happening, but it was.
In the old man's hut that night, I ate lemur meat with rice. I imagined that I was eating one of those screaming spirits from the forest. I was shaking again, but not from cold. I felt like I was in shock. I couldn't believe that I could not eat more food; my stomach seemed so disinterested. I stared out the doorway of his hut into the darkness of trees on the edge of the forest. Then I fell asleep on the floor.
Roger returned the following morning with 6 people from the next village. They were small people. They stood there looking down at me shaking their heads. I kept asking Roger to translate what was going through their minds. I was too big, he said. Money, which had been worthless in the forest, suddenly became worth a great amount. I would pay each one of them money if they would carry me. This was acceptable. I had been thinking of a stretcher in a conventional way - like the one I had built in the forest. This was not going to work here, I was told. I couldn't see it yet, but this land was like the Himalayas - no trees, but steep green slopes up and down with a tiny narrow path gliding along their surface. I was placed on a long pole that had been cut into two halves with the plastic on top as a cushion. Another longer pole was placed on top of me. My hands held it off of my face, and the hemp rope was wrapped around me and the two poles like a mummy. I was half directing this and half watching it be done to me. These little people lifted me - two on each end - and started to move me like ants across this green Himalayas. I remembered what Kent Kobersteen, a photographic editor from National Geographic, had once told me: "you must take a picture when it is the last thing that you should be doing," he had said. That other part of me started to laugh again, because my camera rewind lever had been broken during the fall and my camera was useless. I was reflecting on this as we came to a wild sounding river. I could not see it, because I was tied down, but it sounded big, and I could hear the frantic yells from my Malagasy porters telling each other how to negotiate this river. I took a deep breath and tried to imagine what I would do if they dropped me in this river. There were several more rivers like this. Roger would come and grab one end of the pole from time to time. He would call, "Monsieur Tom... C'est moi, Roger. Je suis ici." He was there helping, and I felt like a roast pig being carried to a feast.
"Tsaka-tsaka" is corn, and I was fed a lot of it for two days in this next village. My stomach was getting used to food again. When the next village arrived, I was hoisted up and carried again. This was the line between Socialist Madagascar and the bush. The first village charged me 5,000 Malagash Francs per man for their time and the trouble of carrying me. This second village carried me for free. It was their duty, I was told, because I am a visitor to Madagascar. After five hours, I was presented "on the stick" to the president of this tiny village, called Ampania (I think). The president of the village welcomed me and put me in his house. This is where I learned about "Cafe Malagash." It is sweet from sugar cane and strong, and the president's young daughter would bring it to me in a very small cup every morning. I became addicted to it.
For two weeks, I lay in a bed in this village. I could feel my heart pounding in my foot. The skin had burst on both sides of my ankle and the wounds were suppurating badly. I think they are called venous or tropic ulcers and were caused from poor circulation having left the boot on my swollen foot for several days in the forest. I took that same old piece of plastic and a wood frame and made a bucket. The president's wife would boil me water, and I would soak my foot in it. If it was a break, I was worried about infection going into the bone. I had brought some Ampicillin for pneumonia, so I took that. I also poured salt in the open wounds, and it hurt. Roger had gone to Mangindrano to get a military helicopter. It was Madagascar's duty to rescue me, he had told me. The hunger was gone, the pain was going away slowly, but the frustration was building. No one knew where I was, and I couldn't do anything to tell them. There was a young Malagasy French teacher from Antananarivo in this village. He would come and talk with me in the afternoons. He gave me a book of French lessons and he told me that "la bas" meant "over there." I dreamed my first dream in French, and in it, I was telling people to go "la bas."
There was no helicopter. I made a beautiful set of crutches, and Roger and I began a long walk out. We walked for days through rice fields full of cow and human manure. I could do nothing to keep my open wounds from the dirty water. We slept in various villages, ate manioc and bananas, and told our story over and over. It was late in the afternoon, when we came slowly into the village of Ambaturia. We could see children playing from a distance, but as we neared the village, the streets were empty. The doors were closed and the window shutters were closed. We walked to Roger's house and tried to open the door, but it was locked and there was no answer. We couldn't see nor hear anyone. We walked to the president's house, and banged on his door. He had a startled unsure expression on his face, and this is where the two worlds of Madagascar met. He walked us slowly to Roger's house. He knocked on the door and said something in Malagash. Slowly, the door opened. Tom and Roger were dead, we were told. We were not real; we were their ghosts.
Gradually, the doors and windows of an entire village opened and we were welcomed back to this world. But for some moments, I had been lost. I wondered what it must have felt like to have been accused of being a witch in so many countries so long ago. There was a celebration. I drank 3 cans of sweetened condensed milk, and we sat, surrounded by people, and to tell our story again.
The following evening, we began our journey to Bealanana. I hired an ox cart for 40,000 Malagash Francs, and Roger's family joined us. His daughters rode with me, and his son and wife walked behind. The road was soft mud with several washed out sections. Every time the oxen became stuck, Roger would pull back the strong one and dig out the muzzle of the weak one which had been forced down into the mud. He would let the animal catch its breath, then lean behind it and bite its tail at the same time he cracked the whip, pushed it from behind, and grunted. The animals would surge and pull the cart out of the wet mud. The journey took us ten hours. We stopped just outside of town by a stream to wash the next morning. Roger and his family then put on clean clothes, and we rumbled into town as though nothing had happened.
Seven years later, as I fly over this road, I can remember almost every bend. The ten hour journey by road takes me almost four minutes in the air. It hurts to be here. I feel a great debt to this strong and honorable man, and I want to find him again. I land at the airstrip on the hill above the rice fields. A tiny French car comes bouncing up the hill, and out steps "Ma Soeur Mathilde." I doubt she remembers me, but she is the same Sister who organized for me to fly out of Bealanana after my accident. She is the only white person in this village, and she must be almost 70 years old. She has several younger Malagasy "soeurs" working with her, and she is the agent for Air Madagascar in this village. When the weekly flight comes in, she takes the windsock to the airstrip, and once a year, in return, Air Madagascar flies her to France for free. We drive together back to the Catholic Mission in town for lunch. The town is more run down than I remember in my dreams. I recount a shorter version of my journey on the mountain over lunch, and explain that I want to try to find my friend Roger Gaillard Rakotondravola. She is not the least surprised to hear of my problems on the mountain. Dr. Alliote tried to go there, and he didn't even get anywhere near the mountain. He was brought back in the middle of the night to the sister. You must not go to the mountain on Tuesday: "C'est 'fady' le Mardi ici," she says.
I walk into the Hotel Ramalagasy where I first met Roger. This is a simple little concrete village restaurant with greasy walls and dusty corners. It is dark inside, and a woman looks up at me and pauses. "C'est vous L'Americain," she says. She smiles at me and starts explaining to all the people in the room who I am. I smile back, but feel sad for this little town. Time is passing it by. It is poor and forgotten, burning under the sun. I tell her that I have come here to find my friend Roger. She shakes her head and says that Roger has gone. He and his family left some years ago, and she does not know where. I wonder if it is good that Roger is not there. That man taught me a great lesson in humility. He was a simple man with strong and honorable values, and even though he was not a man of the mountain, he taught me much about this mountain. Ma Soeur Mathilde takes me back to the airstrip and offers to put the windsock up for me, but I tell her that I think I can manage without it. I climb up above the town, out across the rice fields, and on towards the mountain. It all passes so easily beneath me now. I go between the clouds and the bamboo forest, up across the ridge of "Karantilata" - since today is Sunday, and I feel like I am dancing between the clouds and the rock below. The clouds come closer to the rock, and still I climb. I know this place, then at last, shrouded in clouds up ahead of me, is the summit of Maromokotro.
I have a favorite quote about the mountain which somehow seems especially appropriate for this one beneath me. "The mountain is a harsh and hostile immensity. Whoever challenges it declares war. He must mount his assault with the skill and ruthlessness of a military operation. And when the battle ends, the mountain remains unvanquished. There are no true victors, only survivors." The man who wrote this was on the first American ascent of Mount Everest. His name was Barry Bishop, and he was recently killed in a car crash in Montana.
From one extreme to the other - the mountains to the caves - I am on an emotional roller-coaster. There is more "tsingy" in the northwest of this country, but this "tsingy" has holes in it. Just like the first impenetrable forest of rock that I flew over in Madagascar, there is another vast expanse of towering sharp gray pinnacles beneath me. This is also an ancient coral reef, but this one is different. Here, within the 600 foot cliffs of a limestone plateau are the sunken forests of Ankarana. This is one of the largest cave systems in the world. There are almost 60 miles of caves and underground rivers beneath the "tsingy." Some of the caves have collapsed with time and have created entire sunken islands of forest in this wilderness of rock. They look like little tropical islands in a sea of waste. I circle over one of these sunken forests to try to photograph it. I can see past the forest into the inside world beneath the "tsingy." It is dark in there - a very different place - teeming with exotic and rare species of wildlife like albino crocodiles. I wonder what it would be like to climb down into that world. These are some of the frontiers on our planet that we have not really explored. These are hostile places, and I wonder if we venture into them to learn about our world, or to learn about ourselves.
A voice on the radio begins to tell me about the "phenomenon" in Diego-Suarez. I assume that he is talking about the weather, but it is clear ahead of me. He likes this word "phenomenon," because he keeps updating it as I get closer. The part of the phenomenon that I am most interested in is the wind, because it is blowing about 40 knots up there. The town is named after the Portuguese explorer Diego Diaz and the Spanish pirate Suarez. It has since been renamed Antsiranana, but somehow "Diego" has a better more cavalier ring to it. As I come up over Diego bay, I can see the military base on the far side, which I am probably not supposed to see. Madagascar doesn't have an Air Force anymore. Their last DC-3 crashed last year. The bay is a huge flooded volcano making it one of the largest natural bays in the world. There is also a sunken World War II submarine along one of the shores, which must have an interesting story to tell, but I am unable to find it.
I have come here to refuel. This is the last place I will be able to find fuel, if it is here. There hasn't been any for the last month, so I am surprised to hear the man tell me there is. You can only buy it by the drum, and that will cost me nearly $300 for 200 liters, which lasts me about 4 hours. I guess this might be one reason why not too many people come here. Madagascar is one of these countries where you need a Visa and a flight clearance not only to arrive, but also to leave. I get a little nervous in countries like this. I wander through this pleasant little harbor town, and it feels much safer here than it did in the capital. The people are friendly, and they must be used to foreigners from the ocean freighters that frequent here. The popular beer in Madagascar is called "Three Horses Beer," and it is 4.5% alcohol. Someone jokes that after you drink it when you look at a horse, you will see three instead of one. Aside from it's colonial charm, this also seems to be a bit of a mysterious town. There are some shady looking French and Italian characters here. I imagine that if one were a bad or wanted person in this world, this would not be such a bad place to hide. Who would look for you in Diego-Suarez? I walk into La Candela Ristorante on the place Foch. Adelio Corno is a sturdy looking Italian who is the proprietor. He is very pleasant to me, but what in the world is he doing here? He looks like a man who I would not want to upset.
The Madagascar television station wants to come out and interview me about my
visit to Madagascar. I am sleeping under the plane. I also have not quite been
cleared out of the country, so I figure that if there are going to be any
problems, it would be easier to deal with them after I had been on TV explaining
my visit. It has been my experience in these parts of the world that if the TV
says something, even if it is you saying it yourself on the TV, then it must be
true. It can make potential problems disappear. None of the film crew has any
money, so I pay for their taxi to the airport. Then they invite me for a "Three
Horses Beer" with them, but I end up paying for all the beer. The crew are
amused by me. They invite me for dinner as well, but I politely decline.
"Mandritsara," they say (sleep well), and I return to my tent beneath the plane.