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The Peregrine Fund Notes From The Field
June 2000 (Part II): Come Hell or High Water
Ruth Tingay — in Madagascar Project    Share
Darkness falls quickly in Madagascar. By 5.45p.m. we had reached the coastline peninsula of the Baie de Narinda and still had to negotiate the notoriously treacherous crossing over to Analalava, our final destination of the day. Our run up the coastline had been fairly easy so far as we had kept inland as closely as possible and were thus sheltered from the wind by the hills on the mainland. Once we entered the Baie de Narinda, however, we would be up against rough sea conditions as the wind has the chance to build up and create all kinds of problems for those attempting to cross. The sea was so perilous in this Baie that the Malagasy had built a prison in the middle of it on a small island called Nosy Lava, to secure their most dangerous criminal convicts.

Seeing as though we only had 15 minutes of daylight left to make a two hour journey across the Baie, common sense should have dictated this peninsula as our camping spot for the night. Unfortunately, Captain Rivo seemed to have undergone a common sense- bypass and to my utter dismay I watched the coastline gradually fade into the dark background behind us as we headed out towards the black sea abyss ahead.

I knew we were in trouble when I saw Lily and Thierry donning their life-vests (usually they never wore them) and Rivo pulling on his waterproof coat, a sure sign that he expected a difficult crossing. As the dark sky fell around us, so the sea swelled and the waves grew until each one was like a huge black wall of water bearing down on our tiny boat, which by now was bobbing around with all the power of a soap dish. Rivo managed to steer the boat sideways against each wave to lessen the impact and avoid capsizing but the waves were coming quicker and stronger and higher the further into the Baie we went and eventually we had waves crashing over the bow and into the boat, drenching us and threatening to sink our tiny vessel. Lily, Thierry, and I were desperately trying to bail out the water from the engine area but it was coming in quicker than we could handle. I shouted to Rivo to turn the boat around and head back for the peninsula but the waves were so strong now that he couldn’t possibly turn the boat and keep it upright. Instead, he was using all his concentration and strength to keep us horizontal to each wall of water. As they hit, we would rise up with the wave high above the sea and then dip over the other side just as the next wave was rolling towards us. In one dip all I could see was a wall of black water about 15 feet high on either side of the boat, obscuring everything else from view. One false move by Rivo and I knew we would be swallowed by the sea in an instant. I scrambled to the front of the boat desperately trying to look for the nearest land and could see the outline of Nosy Lava looming in the distance to the left. I shouted back to Rivo and pointed at the island but he just shook his head and carried on. I thought maybe he hadn’t seen the island so I fought my way back along the boat to his side and pointed again. Again he just shook his head and looked the other way. "Rivo! We’ve got to land this boat! Let’s go to Nosy Lava," I shouted above the chaos. "No, we can’t! It’s a bad island! There are bad men on it. We have to cross the Baie." I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Here we were in absolute dire straits, completely out of our depth and in very real danger of drowning but he didn’t want to land on the island because he was scared of the prisoners! I was furious and shouted again that we had to get to land but he was adamant and kept repeating, "Pas possible! Pas possible!" I threw my hands up in total frustration but just at that moment another wave smashed over the side and knocked me off my feet. Survival instincts kicked in and I managed to crawl my way back up to the front of the boat to start looking for the nearest pieces of land to swim to should the inevitable happen and we capsize. I wanted to scream at Rivo and make him head for the island but I knew that if I distracted him from steering we’d have no hope and would be in the water in seconds. Also if I opened my mouth I’d be swallowing seawater by the gallon. The recriminations would have to wait until we were back on dry land, should we be lucky enough to get there.

I squinted in the darkness to try and make out the mainland silhouette but it was still far away and not within reach. I wondered whether we’d die by drowning or whether we’d be eaten by one of the 50 species of shark known to lurk in these waters. The saltwater was playing havoc with my eyes, which felt as though they’d been gouged out with a fork and someone was pouring neat vinegar into the empty sockets. I could barely keep my eyes open for more than a couple of seconds to scan the horizon before I’d have to close them again to relieve the stabbing stinging pain. I was chilled to the bone, soaking wet, half-blind, and very very scared. I knew I was scared because at that point I couldn’t have cared less whether my beloved binoculars and scope were safe. All I was interested in was getting off this boat alive.

We struggled against the sea for a further three hours, nobody speaking, all of us focused on staying on our feet and bailing out water. By now I couldn’t open my eyes at all and I was at the complete mercy of Rivo’s boat handling skills. I have to hand it to him, he managed to keep us upright and pointing in the right direction against enormous odds, even when he was drenched, cold, exhausted, and also suffering the effects of saltwater in his eyes. Eventually he spotted the winking red beacon from the lighthouse at Analalava on the distant night horizon and shouted to us all to look. I’ve never been so pleased to see anything in my life! We were still about an hour away and our progress towards shore was excruciatingly slow but we prised open our eyes and didn’t let that light out of our sight, willing it to come closer and closer. Finally, about 10 minutes from shore the waves suddenly dropped and we found ourselves back in a calm, flat, seascape night.

I couldn’t believe we’d made it and my body remained tensed and ready for the next wave to hit. It never came though; we were safe. We drifted in to a beach at Analalava and Rivo ordered us to stay put whilst he went to investigate a place to camp. Not a chance in hell! I was off that boat in a flash and collapsed in an exhausted, shivering heap on the sand, marvelling at the feel of land again!

A young Malagasy family generously opened their backyard to us and allowed us to pitch our tents for the night. We off-loaded all our gear from the dry stash compartment under the bow, which was now a wet compartment, set up our tents by torchlight, peeled off wet clothes and put on damp ones and headed straight into the village in search of the nearest bar. A strong gin and tonic later we were reflecting on the night’s events. Now back on dry land, the male members of the crew had reverted back to typical machismo characters and refused to accept that (a) they had been frightened and (b) we were ever in any danger! As I crawled into my soggy sleeping bag that night and put my head on a makeshift life-vest pillow, I thought of home, of being safe and warm and surrounded by those I loved. It all seemed a long way away.

I was awoken at dawn by Thierry clearing phlegm from the back of his throat in the next-door tent. It was a familiar routine by now and I lay and waited for the next part…..the unzipping of his tent door and the sound of him spitting his projectile saliva behind the tent. I dragged myself out of sleep and went to collect some water in a bucket from the well for a much-needed shower. I found the shower cubicle at the end of the yard under a mango tree, which comprised a broken wooden palette platform shielded by a sheet of corrugated iron. I had the inevitable audience of 12 chickens, five ducks, and three children, all seemingly fascinated by the sight of a vazaha having a wash. I was past caring by this point and had long since ditched the usual western inhibitions. If people/poultry wanted to watch me bathe then who was I to stop them?!

We ate a quick breakfast of cold rice and hot greasy water before heading back to the boat for the day’s journey. We planned to travel to the town of Antsohihy today, some 60 km across the Loza Sea and inland down the Loza River. We had to buy more food supplies but more importantly we needed more fuel in order to reach the island of Nosy Be, a few days ahead and the last fueling stop before the end of the survey. We planned to return to Analalava that evening so left all our tents and equipment out to dry in the backyard campsite and headed out towards the Loza.

If I’d known what ‘Loza’ meant at the time, I doubt very much whether I would have climbed back into that boat. But, blissfully ignorant, in I got and took my usual place perching on the fuel cans upfront. We had an additional passenger with us, a young Malagasy woman, but I wasn’t introduced and neither did I ask for an explanation. I’d learnt last year not to ask personal questions as invariably the answer would be fabricated to suit a certain story, usually involving a second cousin or a brother’s wife. Infidelity was rampant in Madagascar as demonstrated by the recent figures on population growth and the spread of HIV/Aids, although it was still culturally unacceptable amongst many tribes. We passed an active fish eagle nest just before turning into the Loza Sea and spent a while observing and taking notes. Deforestation here was again quite stark, with small clumps of trees along the immediate shoreline but bare denuded hills behind.

As we left the site and headed towards the Loza I became suspicious when I noticed Lily, Thierry, and Rivo putting their life vests back on. I only had to wait a few minutes before my suspicions were confirmed and we found ourselves being tossed and thrown around once more by the swell of a threatening sea. It wasn’t long before we were all soaked again and back on the floor of the boat scooping out buckets of seawater and trying to keep the engines running. It wasn’t as desperate as the previous night as we were in daylight and the Loza was a narrow sea channel with land only a few thousand metres away on each side. Nevertheless, it was still an unpleasant and sobering journey, not least for our extra passenger who clearly suffered badly from seasickness.

After an hour or so we’d made it through the roughest area and the sea then ran smoothly into the Loza River, a long, mangrove-lined mud channel where the waves were reduced to mere splashes along the side of the boat. We searched for fish eagles along the way but found nothing except cattle egrets and a couple of hours later we arrived at a muddy sloped bank which heralded the main port entrance to the town of Antsohihy. The now rather pale looking Malagasy woman was offloaded along with all our empty fuel barrels and everyone headed into town, leaving me to stay and roast on the boat in the midday sun.

I spent a few hours writing letters to those I was missing from home and also chatted to some interested bystanders who wanted to know, once they’d established where I was from, whether I was friends with the Queen of England! It was during this conversation that I discovered that ‘Loza’ meant ‘dangerous’ but only, they emphasized, during the night. This was of no consolation as by now it was gone 4p.m. and I knew it would take at least three hours to return to Analalava, meaning we would have to traverse the ‘Dangerous Sea’ in the darkness. Not good. Shortly afterwards Rivo and the others returned but with only half the fuel cans filled. There was a fuel shortage in the region and it was thus severely rationed. We calculated how many litres we’d need to get us to Nosy Be and deduced we didn’t have enough so back they went into town to negotiate some more, leaving me with a welcome bottle of coke and a loaf of bread.

Thierry and Lily collect fuel in town.
Thierry and Lily collect fuel in town.
At 6:00 p.m. they returned triumphantly, dragging the two extra fuel cans we needed to make the journey. To my astonishment, Rivo began to prepare the boat for departure. I took him to one side and asked whether it was a smart move to be travelling at night again, especially after last night’s fiasco. "That depend the moon," apparently! But enough was enough and I suggested it would be safer if we stayed in Antsohihy overnight and headed back to Analalava at daybreak. Thankfully he agreed and we headed back to town to look for accommodation. The main hotel was far too expensive for us so we ended up in a small wooden shack built on stilts above an open sewer. We had to cross a wooden plank over the sewer to reach the door and I made a mental note not to venture out during the night without my torch. The owner showed me to the toilet which was a damp stinking room with a hole in the centre of the floor and nothing else. The shower room was next door and was identical to the toilet except there was a tap fixed above the hole. Raw sewage was flowing up through the hole and into the room. I decided I wasn’t really dirty after all and a shower could wait for another time.

At 4:00 a.m. the next morning we beat a hasty retreat back to the boat and slowly chugged our way back up the mangrove river in the darkness, reaching the Loza Sea at daybreak (6:00 a.m.). Another rough crossing but we were back in Analalava by 7:30 a.m. for another round of cold rice and warm water before packing up our gear and heading north once more.

We had an easy ride up the coast to Nosy Radama escorted by a fleet of dolphins and our worries from yesterday were soon forgotten. We scanned around some small rocky islets and found an old fish eagle nest but no sign of any eagles this year.

We anchored just beyond the reef off Nosy Berafia and swam to shore clutching the gas stove and a bag of rice. Lunch was eaten under the shade of a palm tree and we took a well-earned rest until the tide came back in and it was safe to leave. We dropped down into the Baie de Sahamalaza in the afternoon which, according to my map (1985) was an area of dense mangroves. Not anymore it wasn’t. We were greeted by more of the same deforestation we’d been seeing since Mahajamba Baie and Rivo estimated a 50% loss of forest since his last visit in 1995.

Thierry at beach camp.
Thierry at beach camp.
We found a pair of fish eagles close to their nest in a tiny fragment of mangrove forest surrounded by a vast expanse of grass-covered hills. These birds were literally hanging on in this area and it wouldn’t be too long before slash and burn agriculture wiped out the remaining mangroves. We set up camp on a tiny beach and Rivo told us stories over supper about the lemurs and birds he’d seen in this forest a few years ago. There were no lemurs to be seen or heard now and only a handful of bird species usually associated with secondary woodland. It was a depressing evening. I noted on the map that we were camping near a spot called ‘Bevoay,’ meaning ‘Big Crocodile’ and it amused the others no end when I dragged my tent further away from the water and back towards the trees. The chances were that the crocodiles weren’t here anymore but you can never be too careful!

The next morning we packed up and set off towards a large peninsula called Ampasindava, our last stop before reaching Nosy Be. Ampasindava was an important historical site for fish eagles as it’s often referred to in the literature from the late 1800s/early 1900s as a major location for those men collecting specimens for museums. During one French/American/British collecting expedition, which ran from 1929–1931, at least 18 fish eagles were shot at Ampasindava and Nosy Be, all of which are now housed in various museums across Europe and the US. Rather ironically these fish eagles weren’t killed in vain, as later in my study I would be using tissue samples taken from their corpses to help us to understand the genetic history of the species and to work out whether the population overall has actually suffered a drastic decline during the last 50 years, as suggested by many recent authors. By comparing tissue samples from the historical population with blood samples taken from the current population we should be able to assess whether the species’ genetic profile has become impoverished (which might suggest a decline) or whether it remains similar (which might suggest a stable population). But more of that in a later chapter.

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