Madagascar – Maromokotro (Attempt)

Maromokotro – attempt to 4,500 ft

Eric, Matthew, Katie, Amanda

August 8-15, 2016

Representative forms of transport along hike

Representative forms of transport along hike

Taxi ride from ankify lodge to bemanaviky – driver not sure if he could go the whole way, fee =400,000ariary
Car m, road conditions, 5 mph, Katie’s little seat
Did indeed make it all the way to bemanaviky, after about 4 hours. driver didn’t want to go any farther even though road quality didn’t really get any worse. So we started walking at bemanaviky. Everyone staring at us.
Walking, bonjour!
After walking for about 2 hrs and seeing trucks go by, we flagged one down and hopped in back of truck, with about 10 other people.
Then taxi-Brousse ride to big river crossing before marovato.
Then river crossings with tractor and then by foot
Passed thru marovato at sunset.

Representative forms of transport along hike

 

. Many different routes. Race to get thru town to start looking for a campsite.
First, wandered into some banana trees, but farmer kicked us out. Then walked 5 more mins and found a good spot. While cooking dinner, a taxi driver approached us but said it was ok to camp there. Whew. Big day.
Music blaring from nearby village all night.

Second day of hike
Wander out from orchard
Heat up quickly
First town market and boy motions for water then getting rid of bottles means side of street
Water one usd
Guy with motorcycle and cross. Man from Tunisia named Thierry. Says we should speak to village chief. Presumably, he thinks chief can help give us directions because we believe he thinks we are lost.
Met With chief and his associates. Not even particularly helpful.
Whole town pointing to map doesn’t help that’s maramokotro already marked
Then road tapers off trails thru field
Hot up grass hill – dry grass scraping against legs
Then town marotolana
River and stream crossings across dam, bamboo,
Then..

Dirt path through subsistence village farms

Dirt path through subsistence village farms

 

. People bargaining for oxen then people b
Big market. Selling everything from shovel blades and axe heads to tomatoes and fried dumplings.
No one speaks French apart from Bonjour so being Malagasy book
Camping attempt number 1: We set up camp on grassy hill that promises an awesome view
Then people follow us up children watching us Katie sees them thru binoculars
We try to explain to oldest boy (prob 17yrs) that we want to camp here. He points to village below to indicate we can sleep there. Then we say we are camping and he seems to be ok with that. But too many kids are watching, in fact it seemed like most of the village was approaching us. So we abandoned this spot and kept waking.
People followed us for 30 minutes and then lost interest.
Finally riverside camp. Big Boulder to cook behind and stay relatively stealthy. Camp 2.
Eric can’t turn Gps on, but dad and jake tell us reset sequence and it miraculously starts working!

Dry grass slope overlooks fertile valley

Dry grass slope overlooks fertile valley

Continued hiking next day. Big river crossing with no good route to rock hop. Amanda falls in up to her waist. Bad news. We begin to learn of high schisto risk via Delorme messages with Amanda’s mom and Jake.
Lunch by a small river crossing with little boys watching us for an hour while we filter water. At this point, we believe based on the messages we’ve received that schistosomiasis isn’t killed by aquamira or aquatabs, but filter is ok, so we panickedly switch to exclusive use of Eric’s filter, which is good to have but very time consuming.
By 130pm or so, we get to small village and start heading up a trail through the river valley, but a local woman stops us and points instead to a steep route up the mountain. We say thank you and proceed in direction indicated. This is consistent with out gps tracks.
At end of a rice field, trail climbs steeply. This is last spot you could get to by motorbike or bicycle.
After 30 minutes hiking steep hill in the sun, we get to nice shaded campsite. But too early in day and no water so keep climbing.
Brutally hot and dry and sun beating down on us with little wind. We rest frequently but still the sweat gushes out.
The more we climb, the more exposed it gets. Grassy hillsides with no trees makes it seem worse. With daylight running out, we need to find a campsite with water soon. Eric has a point marked “camp zebu poo” from previous expedition which we aim for.

Visit to village chief reveals few heard of hi pt

Visit to village chief reveals few heard of hi pt

Since it is wintertime around here (even though you wouldn’t think so with temps of 80F) daylight relatively short. Sunset 630am, sunset 540pm.
Around 4pm, we find quasi flat spot and, miraculously, puddles of water in a streambed. Perfect for Camp 3.

It is an evening of conflict… We won’t go into all of the details here. Many concerns are raised which are covered below. Rains hard that night, echoing the torrent of emotions and conflicting sentiments…

Sun rises to calm and clear morning. We have a group meeting to discuss the plan and options.

On one end of the spectrum: Amanda, who wants to go down. Uncomfortable with high exposure on trails, as well as nagging concern about potentially serious schistosomiasis exposure from earlier that morning. Combined with brutally hard day and likelihood that it’ll only get harder. As well as our increasing remoteness and distance from medical care. And uncertainty about effectiveness of our water treatment against schistosomiasis.
On other end of the spectrum: Eric, who wants to continue. Already invested tremendous effort and hardship in getting to this point. Wants to get to the top so we won’t have to do it again. Comfortable with level of exposure.
Matthew and Katie somewhere in between…

After much discussion it is decided that Matthew and Amanda will go down and Eric and Katie will keep going up. The two groups will communicate via satellite text messenger.

Sambirano river: water source for rural villages

Sambirano river: water source for rural villages

Brutally hot once again today. Amanda and Matthew take frequent rests. Eventually they get down to the fateful crossing which, the previous day, is where Amanda fell in. Matthew tries to find better crossing but can’t. He ferries both packs across. Amanda changes into sandals and puts trash bags over her legs in case she falls in. Eventually, appears that safest crossing is to ford shallow section, so Amanda aims for that. Better to cross there than attempt to rock hop with risk of falling in up to her waist. Entire village is watching us, probably 30 people all standing on the far side. Matthew tells Amanda not to worry about them, but to focus on her steps instead.

Seconds before she is about to take her first step into the water, an older guy (probably late 40s), marches into water and heads toward her. When he arrives, he motions for her to get on his back so he can give her a piggy back ride across. He carries her across without incident, and she arrives on the other side dry. Crisis averted! Meanwhile, Matthew rock hops across – his 8th time (!)

We push on back to Camp 2, next to the river and Boulder. We are glad to have a campsite that we know will work. Without a filter, we resort to boiling water. As we boil water, a big, fat, 5ft long boa constrictor slithers through camp and Matthew gets a good GoPro video of it.

We eat dinner – each a hot bowl of couscous – but immediately start feeling nauseous. Something’s not right. We ought to be really hungry but we struggled to finish the couscous. In the fading daylight, we quickly set up the tent and hop in, hoping that the nausea will subside when we lay down. It doesn’t. We struggle to fall asleep, but soon we are both throwing up, pouring out everything we had consumed since lunchtime. We start getting worried. Is it something we ate? If so, we will probably be better tomorrow. Did we drink bad water? If so, it could take a week to recover, as we know is the case with giardia. We try to sleep, but the fear and nausea keep us tossing and turning for most of the night.

In the morning, we both feel weak but less nauseous. We can either try to rest all day and hope that we recover or try to make a run for it back to Ambanja as soon as possible. Worried that it could get worse, we choose the latter.

We start walking and get some tea in the next village, which does little to help. Our pace slows due to weakness and it’s clear that we could use some help, otherwise it’ll be days before we get back. Do we try to flag down an ox cart? Or ask people to carry our packs? What about water? Concerned that the river water that we boiled last night is somehow contaminated, we are reluctant to drink the little that we have, but have no other choice.

We spot some ox carts behind some huts and approach the villagers to ask if we can get a ride. As Amanda draws an ox cart figure in the dirt, we hear a motorbike approaching. Decision time. We know that the driver could only take one person if he didn’t already have another passenger. That would mean that Amanda and I would have to split up. But there seems to be no other choice. As the motorbike turns the corner and we spot the empty seat, we flag him down. We indicate that we’d like for him to take Amanda to Marotolana – the next town – and he agrees. Amanda hops on and I tell her that I’ll hike as fast as I can or grab the next motorbike. They disappear down the trail.

Despite weakness and a heavy pack, I hiked at a healthy pace for 45minutes and eventually catch up to her. We walk together for 5 minutes and then she flags down another motorbike for the last stretch to Marotolana. After hiking about 3km, I realize that the local dude who said Marotolana was only one kilometer away had been way off. At that moment, in fact, I realized that the other two times that a local had told us a distance, they had also underestimated by a factor of 3x. So, let this serve as a caution to the future traveler in this area: consider multiplying any local distance estimate by a factor of three, just to be safe.

I caught up with Amanda again shortly, and we marched into Marotolana together. Under the blazing sun, with an air temp of probably 90F, and with practically no water, we embarked upon a desperate quest to find some Eau Vive – the bottled water that we had previously been able to find in some villages.

After looking in 5 or 6 stores, we finally found some Eau Vive and attempted to purchase a few bottles. I asked the woman at the counter what the price was, and it seemed that she said it would be “cent Mille” – 100,000 ariaries or $33. Ridiculous! I asked her to write it down. I probably just misunderstood her. She whipped out a calculator and punched in some numbers and showed it to me. 175,000 ariaries! Incredible! There had to be some mistake. In the last village we paid about 3000 ariaries ($1) per bottle, so I expected it to be more like 10,000 ariaries total. Not sure what she would do, I handed her two 10,000Ar bills. She grabbed them and handed me a bunch of change then said Merci.

This pattern was repeated three or four other times on our trip: someone would say one price, write down another, and actually charge something completely different. The spoken discrepancies are easy to explain: French is not their native language and neither is it ours, so there are bound to be mistakes. But the written discrepancies are inexplicable. Even if some locals don’t know how to read, how hard can it be to write (or type) the correct digits or even the correct number of zeros? In any case, these were all honest mistakes and the people were not actually trying to overcharge us.

Trying to push down the water, to the protest of our nauseated bellies, we waited in the shade next to the shop. A local man said that a taxi-brousse left Marotolana at 5am bound for Ambanja. But it was 11am by now and we had long since missed it. We could choose to rest the whole day in Marotolana and catch the next day’s taxi, or continue pushing towards Ambanja. Fearful that we’d continue to weaken, we decided to keep pushing onwards.

We elected to take a different route back to Marovato – a road that stayed close to the river rather than the previous route we had taken through the mountains. This would maximize our chances of being able to catch a motorbike.

The hike began on a low note, with multiple rivers crossings, the first of which Matthew accidentally plunged to his ankles in, the second of which we both unavoidably got wet. It wasn’t that the water looked unpleasant – it was quite clear and a comfortable temperature with a nice sandy bottom – it was the invisible risk of schistosomiasis that troubled us. Nevertheless, we marched ahead.

We hiked for a few miles, hopeful that at any moment a truck, tractor, or motorbike would pass by. A few tractors did, but they were going in the wrong direction. A few motorbikes also passed by, but they were full. With the sun blaring down, intense heat, extremely heavy packs, and weakness from the mysterious illness that afflicted us (which I believe now to have been heat exhaustion), each step forward was a real drag. We paused for half an hour to lay down and attempt to eat some food, despite our meager appetites.

We continued walking, even more slowly, and soon we spotted a motorbike headed towards us. Finally. It was going in the wrong direction, but it had an empty seat, so we flagged down the driver and asked if he could take Amanda to Marovato (the next sizable town), to which he nodded yes. Price would be 25000Ar. Eight US dollars to spare Amanda hours of walking in these conditions would definitely be worth it, so Amanda hopped on the back and the motorbike sped off down the dirt road. I told her I’d catch the next one that passed by.

I turned on the gps and learned to my dismay that I still had about 8 miles to go before Marovato. Normally, that distance on flat ground would take me two and a half hours, but in my current condition it would take much longer and likely further set back my recovery.

I also learned at this point that Eric and Katie had also chosen to turn around. They had camped 6km beyond Camp 3, and, surprisingly, Katie had also gotten sick. It must have been the same illness that afflicted all of us, I thought. In our own weakened state, Amanda and I could offer no help, other than encouragement to get down ASAP, with the help of motorbikes, ditching gear to reduce weight, or hiring locals to carry their packs.

Soon I reached a small village and spotted some motorbikes. I negotiated a price of 25000Ar and hopped on the back. Luckily I had looked up the French word for wife, so I could tell him “ma femme est dans le Marovato, et elle a d’argent” (my wife is in Marovato and she has money)

Do I hold on to the dude or the rack? I wondered. I opted to hold onto the rack so as to not interfere with the young man’s driving. With the added weight of me and my pack, it was probably a bigger burden than he was accustomed to transporting.

We blasted down the rugged dirt road at blinding speed, at times cutting through villages, under low branches, and in between houses to avoid exceptionally rough sections. It was an exhilarating 45 minutes and sure beat walking. Soon we crossed paths with Amanda’s driver, heading back empty in the opposite direction. Luckily the driver stopped and explained to my driver (presumably) where he had dropped Amanda off in Marovato.

Soon we were cruising down the streets of downtown Marovato in search of Amanda. She didn’t seem to be at the anticipated location so the driver talked to someone nearby in Malagasy. He probably asked “have you seen a white woman by herself?” The man pointed in one direction and we sped off again toward where he pointed. She wasn’t at the second location either, which seemed strange. Why would she try to hide? I wondered. Well, I figured, ask enough people in town and I’m sure that it wouldn’t be too hard to find the white woman. Since I hadn’t paid the driver yet (as Amanda, due to an oversight, had all the money), I had no worries that eventually we’d find her.

We eventually tracked her down in some trees on the banks of the big river – the Sambirano. Understandably, she had felt uncomfortable walking around town by herself, so she had sought some seclusion.

Finally reunited, we contemplated our next obstacle: crossing the river. Four days earlier, we had crossed via tractor, but the tractor was nowhere to be seen. The standard way across seemed to be to take a boat halfway across, then proceed on foot through the ankle-deep water the remaining 200ft. Our eagerness to get to Ambanja ASAP outweighed our trepidation for potential additional schistosomiasis exposure, so we opted for the standard crossing via boat and foot. I expect that during high water the boat could easily cross the entire river.

The itself boat was quite interesting – it was about 20ft long, 5ft wide, and could carry a significant load. We had seen it used to carry people and motorbikes. It had clearly been constructed on the spot by a skilled welder, using a combination of sheet steel and angle iron. There was no motor; instead it was controlled by a young man with a long pole. It was fortunately watertight and helped get us across without incident.

Finally on the other side, we breathed a big sigh of relief. One more obstacle to go: the 15 or 20 mile drive back to Ambanja. We hung around on the shore for a little while, drying off and chatting with a local boy whom we had seen a few days earlier. It sounded like we had missed the taxi-brousse and it was unclear if another would arrive.

Soon, another guy showed up and told us he was a police officer. He showed us his ID card and gently asked (in English) to see our passports. This seemed fishy, so we gently rebuffed his request and continued chatting, growing a bit uneasy.

“My friend here wants to learn English but has no money,” he said. “What should he do?” Now that he was starting to talk about money, red flags went up in the back of our minds.
“Read some books or use the Internet,” Amanda said with an uneasy smile. “Sorry but unfortunately we have to go,” she said. We shouldered our heavy packs and continued walking down the road, extricating ourselves from the somewhat uncomfortable situation.

A few moments later we were in the next small village. I suppose you could call it “North Marovato” since it was effectively the portion of the town on the other side of the river. We were hopeful, though not expecting, to find a truck headed to Ambanja. Soon we heard a voice say that a taxi was going to Ambanja, and we said a quiet hallelujah – what a stroke of luck. It turned out that the voice had come from the quasi-corrupt policeman, so there was a moment of dismay that we were going to be cheated. We negotiated a price of 90k Ariary for two people – probably astronomically high for any local, but $30 for a 3-5 hour ride back to comfort and hopefully an expedited recovery from our illness was well worth it to us.

We hopped in the back, expecting a full load, but mercifully there were only four of us to start with, and we hoped that number would remain low as we continued driving.

The ride from Marovato back to Ambanja took about 3 hours and 20 minutes to cover a distance of about 15 or 20 miles. (I bet you could significantly beat that time on a mountain bike.) We rolled into Ambanja at 6:30pm – well after dark – and searched around for a taxi that could take us back to our hotel. Well, I wouldn’t exactly say we did much searching, because taxi drivers swarmed around us, eager to get a piece of the action. A dude speaking English approached us, and we negotiated what seemed like a fair price. It would need to be a “Special” taxi because the taxi-brousses were no longer operating this late in the day.

Thirty minutes later we finally arrived back at our hotel. Thankfully, they had a vacancy. Still weak and utterly exhausted, we dragged our gear into the room, locked the doors, and breathed a big sigh of relief. No matter the course of our illness – whether we would improve or get worse tomorrow – we were in a much better location and situation to take care of it.

I slumped onto the floor, pulled out half of a smashed bagel and a jar of peanut butter and made some dinner. It wasn’t the celebratory feast that we had hoped for at the conclusion of the grueling expedition into the heart of Madagascar, but it sure hit the spot.

~~~~~~~~
Lessons Learned

We learned a lot on this trip. During the planning stages, precious little information was available online, and the people that we contacted were not particularly helpful. In fact, a company that had led previous expeditions to the mountain refused to give us any information whatsoever, probably due to a combination of liability concerns and their desire for us to sign up for their expensive trip.

Such conduct is not consistent with the ethics of mountaineering. Eric and I get nearly monthly requests for information from fellow highpointers around the world seeking beta about mountains, and we take great pains to provide them the most thorough and accurate information possible. Over the years, many others have graciously done the same for us and that is the proper code of conduct amongst mountaineers.

In any case, it is with pleasure that I offer the following advice to the future climber of Maromokotro:

-Use a mountain bike! The approach to Maromokotro is a mountain biker’s dream. You could save probably 4 days total, enabling you to travel much lighter, and thereby go faster. (It’s self-reinforcing!) Here’s how you could/should do it:
-Buy a mtb in Ambanja. Not sure of the prices, but you could probably get a decent one for $100 (no suspension). (I also hear you could rent one in Nosy Be and take it on the boat.)
-Ride all the way from Ambanja past Marovato, past Maraotolana, and to the end of the rice paddy at the village where the climb begins (contact us for the gps coordinates and track). This is a distance of about 50 miles or so, and is all on dirt roads. A strong mountain biker could cover this in a day. It would be epic and awesome. Many of the locals have bikes, so it’s likely you could get spare parts/repairs if necessary along the way.
-(You could also hire a taxi-brousse to take you and your bike all the way from Ambanja to Marovato. After Marovato, the mtb would be faster than the taxi.)
-When you return to Ambanja, sell your bike back. You can probably sell it back to the same store that you bought it from.
-Bring rubber boots! This would help hugely for the river crossings
-You can also buy basic food and snacks on some of the villages along the way.

Possible itinerary:
Day 1: fly to Nosy Be, taxi/boat/taxi to Ambanja and buy a bike.
Day 2: Mountain bike from Ambanja 50 miles to the village at the end of the road, where the first climbing begins. Lock bike to tree, hike up 30 minutes and camp in shaded spot on ridge.
Day 3: hike to final village at base of Maromokotro
Day 4: climb to summit of Maromokotro, try to hike back down to last village
Day 5: hike back to bike
Day 6: bike back to Ambanja

(Note: one day may need to be added to descend the mountain – we didn’t make it that far so we don’t know exactly how long that would take.)

Contact us for more info!

-MG

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