TRAVELS ON BOARD A CARGO-CARRYING SAILING SHIP OFF THE WEST COAST OF MADAGASCAR
The hot and dry coastal city of Mahajanga lies by a wide river mouth which pours into the sea water coloured so red by eroded soil that it resembles tomato soup. The vicinity of the Comoros Islands gives the city a Muslim flavour, which is expressed by the presence of mosques and the typical baggy clothes worn by some inhabitants.
We would like to travel southwards and are told in the main port that there is no ship bound for Morondava – 700 kilometres south of Mahajanga. From Mahajanga they tend rather to go north to Diego Suarez, Nosy Be or the Comoros Islands. The main ship in port is waiting to set off for the Comoros Islands once it is fully loaded with cargo.
We later visited a harbour where cargo-carrying sailing ships rested on the mud uncovered by the low tide, each one slightly atilt due to their rounded hulls. They call them »boutre« (pronounced »boochy«) and in the main port they told us that some of them sail southwards to Morondava. I began asking the people on the vessels where they were going and when. They waved to me from one of the ships to come over and as they were quite far from dry land I had to cross two other boats to get to them. The boats were connected with wooden planks which I had to cross with great care. Unfortunately, this one was headed for Nosy Be. However, it did not take me very long to discover a boutre that was getting ready for the long sail to Morondava. The captain spoke some French – with a nice accent – and he seemed reasonably trustworthy. He told me they would set sail the following evening after they had loaded up – 15 tonnes of sugar and 10 tonnes of soap. The total tonnage of this two-masted, fifteen metre long vessel with no keel is thirty tonnes. They are handmade in a place called Belo sur Mer, also on the west coast of Madagascar. The captain and I agree on a tariff of 300,000 FMg for the voyage to Morondava. We must bring food and drink with us. I ask what kind of food and how much water we should take and he replies that that is up to us to decide, that we should not follow their example. Apparently, it usually takes three or four days to get to Maintirano, but it can take six if there is not enough wind. Maintirano is a port of call where the boutre stops for a day or two to unload its cargo and Morondava is only a further day or two’s sailing from there.
We buy food and drink in the Magro supermarket where Alpine yodelling, or something closely resembling it, is being played on the loudspeakers. We purchase 24 litres of water, 3 kilos of rice, a jar of marmalade, two patés, one corned beef and two tins of condensed milk. They have run out of bread so I head off to search for it elsewhere while the two girls board ship. All the street-side vendors have run out of bread as has the main market where my attention is caught by turtle shells and sawfish rostra. On the way back towards the harbour I stumble across a bakery, which offers a nice selection of bread and pastries like somewhere in Europe. I buy six baguettes. Not far from the harbour, on the pavement in front of a house, a rickshaw puller is sitting on his rickshaw with a child on his lap and a radio beside him is playing upbeat music. I smile at him and he beams back at me, showing his beautiful white teeth.
I spent a little too much time searching for bread and when I at last reach the harbour, the boutre is nowhere to be seen! The people in the harbour immediately notice me and point to a dugout canoe that has come to pick me up. The boutre has no motor and makes use of the current that accompanies the ebbing tide to set sail, so there was no time to wait! It was a local who paddled me over to the boutre, which had by now already reached the broad river mouth.
We sit on the deck and watch how the city lights and the lights of the fishing boats anchored in the mouth of the river slowly grow smaller and more distant. All the other passengers are Malagasy and are already cooking their evening rice. As Malagasy custom demands, they invite me to eat with them with the word »mandroso«, so I join them on the floor where we all eat rice from the same bowl. A youngish woman with a headscarf laughs sweetly every time I say anything in Malagasy. We all share that pleasant feeling that accompanies a departure and the beginning of an adventure. Eva and Jasna are tired and are already lying on the roof of the cabin in their sleeping bags. The other people (we are 15 passengers and 9 crewmembers) go to sleep on the large cover which provides access to the hold, as well as on the floor.
Around two o’clock in the morning, the sailors hoist the sails and we accelerate gently out into the open sea. I am amazed by how they climb up the metal cables that hold the mast with their bare feet, gripping the cable with their toes and pulling on the sails with their hands. At night there are only the stars for navigation: the vessel does not possess even the most basic navigational aid – not even a compass! The water becomes a little choppier and we begin to rock. When we have gone far enough out into the sea we turn towards the south and pass the lighthouse. I fall asleep on the deck.
The following day I am awoken by the hot sun and the smoke from the fire on which the morning rice is being cooked. The fire is lit in a special box located in the forward part of the vessel, just aft of the foremast. The wind is very favourable but is kicking up waves and after some time I begin to feel sick. I make no real effort to resist the urge to vomit and soon get rid of what I had had for breakfast – bread and pineapple marmalade! However, the feeling of sickness continues to linger and I vomit a few more times, the taste of marmalade growing bitterer and bitterer. As I sit on the bow, emptying my stomach, I notice a large sea turtle on the water surface but it quickly dives into the depths.
In the afternoon we meet a motorboat which has been catching sea turtles – probably illegally. The sailors from our boat agree to buy one of the turtles. They tie it to a rope and pull it aboard. The magnificent yellow-coloured animal has an unpleasant smell, which spreads even more as the people pull it apart with knives. They discard the lower part of the shell together with the intestines and the entrails. They put the feet to dry in the dugout canoe that lies on deck and cut the grease into longish strips which they hang from the boom. The unpleasant smell accompanied us all the way to Maintirano. Meanwhile, they cooked the meat and offered it to us. Despite being pleasantly tender, its taste was just as unpleasant as its smell. Perhaps my sickness made the taste seem even worse.
A friendly middle-aged fellow passenger, who spoke good French, told me that turtles lay their eggs in December and that that is why it is forbidden to catch them in this period. He also told me that turtles eat fish and that they present no danger to humans. They catch them with a hook on a line like fish. The man works as an accountant for a construction company. He criticised the new president of Madagascar and said that he is a crook who only works for his own interests and that it is scandalous that he is raising the price of rice which recently reached astronomical levels. He said the president is a typical representative of the dominant Merina tribe. He himself is a proud »côtier«, as the inhabitants of the lower-lying coastal regions are called in French, and belongs to the Vezo tribe, which inhabits the southwest coast and whose members are known for being very capable seamen. He said he could also travel by taxi-brousse or plane but he prefers to sail because it is in keeping with his tradition. When at sea, he does not eat anything but only drinks because there are no toilets on board. You simply do whatever you have to do over the edge of the boat! The sailors, who are more agile, stand on a chain that hangs from the bowsprit where they have a little more privacy!
In the evening we anchor up and the waves rock us so vehemently that I vomit again. I left it too late before I began looking for a place to lie down for the night and am left without one. I do not want to lie on the deck as the boat is rocking heavily and seawater is coming through the scuppers. After some time the sea calms down and I lay down on the deck.
Calm followed by a storm
The next day there is no wind and the sea is very calm so I have no more trouble with sickness but the sun is unbearably hot. Everyone is looking for shade but when the sun nears its zenith there is very little shade on deck. People are hanging up blankets, pieces of textile or clothes and then laying down in their shade. When the sun is not directly overhead, the sails too provide some shade but you have to constantly move to catch it as the boat frequently changes direction and the shade moves with it. We also have to dodge the boom as it moves across every so often. I develop back pain from spending time in various contorted positions.
In the afternoon some sharks appear but they are not so large – the largest one measuring maybe one metre and a half in length. They circle us and when the sailors throw them something to eat they gobble it up on no time at all.
In the evening we see lightning flashes over land in the east. They provide beautiful illumination for the large, white, cotton wool like clouds. We don’t really even think that the storm could reach us and go to sleep on the roof of the cabin, but the first raindrops soon begin to fall. The sailors rush to set up an emergency »roof« by hanging a very big tarpaulin over the boom, rather like a tent. Unfortunately, the tarpaulin has many holes and we are soon drenched to the skin and become very cold. The lightning flashes light up the sea, lending it an unusual grey-white colour. After some time the storm subsides but the night is long. An additional form of suffering for me is caused by a small girl (her name is Sarobidy, which means »precious«), who is lying near me and waves her arms and legs so vehemently that I must keep moving to avoid her.
The morning brings hope of warmth for our frozen bodies and the possibility of drying our soaked clothes, sleeping bags etc. Although a radio (for listening to cassettes) is the sole technical object possessed by the sailors, they nevertheless have no trouble with navigation. At times we are so far from the coast that we can no longer see it; when we do see it we can only see a line on the horizon with small »needles« sticking up from it – these are palm trees which allow the sailors to know exactly where we are. The wind is stronger than the day before and in the evening we reach a small town called Tambohorano, which can be recognised from afar by a unique combination of slender palm trees. It is already sundown when we approach the mouth of the river. To avoid running aground, two of the crew go ahead in the dugout to check if the water is still deep enough (if it is not already low tide) to sail up the river. We watch how the dugout is thrown up and down by the waves. When it descends into the trough between two waves, the dugout and its two »pilots« disappear for a moment before rising up onto the next wave. After a fairly lengthy absence they at last return and we carefully set off towards the mouth of the river. In the shallowest parts the sailors check the depth with long stakes. When we reach the deeper waters of the river we can again sail more freely in the direction of the small town, which is situated a short distance from the coast. Tambohorano indeed has a »port« – a concrete dock on the otherwise muddy riverside, but we can see from afar the masts of two boutres which means that there is no room for us, so we anchor in the river, not far from the muddy riverbank. All this time that we are approaching Tambohorano, the setting sun is treating us to a display of beautiful colours. We particularly admire the white sandbank, which separates the sea from the river, with palm trees and mangroves silhouetted above it on the orange horizon – beautiful. How peaceful it all is! The only audible sound is that of water gently lapping against our boutre. We all admire nature’s wonderful display in silence. The dugout is used to ferry us across from where we are anchored to the riverbank. The captain (they call him »Caresse«) gives me money to buy cigarettes for him, but I later find out that it is not enough – he obviously wanted me to pay the rest!
When we set foot on terra firma, the night has already fallen. We walk into town along a sandy road; after three days on the rocking boat we sway like true sailors! We are accompanied by the French-speaking passenger who says there is no bar or place to eat in this town. He leads us into a shop, which hardly sells anything edible. The owners are of Indian origin and our friend appears to know them well. We order something to drink and they offer us some homemade biscuits but we also have to pay for them. Then our friend and the Indians agree that they will cook us some pasta. It is not hard for us to accept this proposition as we are quite fed up with rice. While waiting for them to prepare the meal we sit in the shop and chat with the Indian shop owner who has never been to India. This friendly man, a Muslim (Tambohorano appears to be a predominantly Muslim place), suffers from sciatica and is very keen to find out how he can treat his condition – especially after learning that Eva is a student of medicine. He has a very anxious expression on his face when enquiring about what an operation involves.
When supper is ready, a servant girl (Malagasy) comes for us and we follow her through the spacious ground-floor premises and up some stairs to a table that has been set in a long, wide hallway. We eat together with our friend – pasta with tomato sauce and some dried fish. It seems like my stomach may have shrunk a little as I cannot eat as much as I normally could! After supper the Indian proudly shows us his office – a large room with a small, insignificant desk on which there is a radio transceiver and little else. Our friend from the boutre kindly pays for the supper.
We return to ship satiated and happy, especially at the sight of the starry sky. But that night the mosquitoes made us suffer...
A day in the sun
In the morning we slowly set sail. The wind is weak and near the river mouth the sailors take down the sails and again make use of the long stakes on which they lean with all their weight to propel the vessel along. Then they send Little Claw (that is how we had named one slightly crazy sailor) with young Richard to go off ahead towards the river mouth in the dugout. They take with them an anchor and fifty metres of rope, one of which is held on the boutre. When they run out of rope they throw the anchor overboard and the sailors on the boat pull on the rope to get us moving. In this way we slowly advance to where the sea waves meet the waters of the river. It becomes clear that we are too late; that the tide is low and the water is therefore not deep enough for us to reach the sea. Feeling rather despondent (at least us three foreigners) we must resign ourselves to spending the rest of the day under the scorching sun in an otherwise idyllic, paradisiacal bay surrounded by idyllic, paradisiacal beaches. We are so lethargic that we cannot even muster the motivation to swim the short distance to the beach! The crew even offer to take us there by dugout but we are simply not interested...
Around midday, the crew ask me if I might want to go with one of the sailors in the dugout back to Tambohorano to buy food and drink. I immediately agree to this as I enjoy paddling and will also get some exercise! I am happy because I feel that I will be doing something useful. So we paddle off in the narrow dugout, which has a stabiliser on its right-hand side. We make quite rapid progress, probably because the wind and tide are on our side. My co-paddler and I exchange a few words and find out each other’s names. He is all smiles – and probably very pleased to have the company of a foreigner! I make an effort to paddle as »professionally« as possible, i.e. like him. After every stroke, the paddle must be pulled out of the water as smoothly as possible. If one person paddles more strongly than the other then the dugout immediately begins to change direction. Whoever is at the back has better control over the direction of the dugout and can adjust his paddling (either increase or decrease the force) to keep the dugout going in the right direction.
We land near the moored boutres on the slippery, red, mud riverbank, which is riddled with little holes inhabited by small crabs. The Indian’s shop is closed but a shop held by a man from the Comoros Islands on the other side of the road is open. He appears to be a serious man and wears glasses, a Muslim cap and acts very self-confidently. He speaks good French. The only drink he has is »Bonbon Anglais« – a kind of lemonade with a special taste. At the market I buy some coconut biscuits but unfortunately there is no fruit. I am helped in my search for fruit by a man who asks people where we might get some mangos. Walking along the sandy roads we come to a fenced courtyard. Alongside the house within the courtyard stands a large mango tree. The man of the house sends a young boy up into the tree and he proceeds to throw us down a dozen ripe mangos. When I offer him money he refuses payment; this is a pleasant surprise because in Madagascar people very rarely refuse to accept money! One could say that he is already »rich« living in such an idyllic place with soft, warm sand underfoot, beautiful palm trees and small wooden houses, which fit in perfectly with the environment. But the heat is so intense that there is hardly anyone in the streets. They prefer to keep cool in their little homes. Tambohorano gives the impression of being an extremely sleepy place.
We return to our mother ship with the dugout, this time paddling against the tide and against the wind. It is quite hard work and water regularly splashes into the front of the dugout so that my friend has to bail it out with the help of a cup.
We spend the rest of the day on board ship. Although the nearby beaches remain tempting, we are too lethargic and the sun is too hot for us to be able to gather the necessary motivation to swim or paddle across to them. We prefer to rest in what little shade there is on the boat. Meanwhile, the sailors make several trips to the beach, splashing in the water and running on the sand like children. I envy them their energy!
The following morning we succeed in leaving the bay with the help of the dugout and anchor.
In the afternoon we reach Maintirano. As the harbour is located south of the town and we are coming from the north, we get a good view of the town’s location and its beautiful beaches. Just as it says in the tourist guidebook, the town has »turned its back on the sea« – there are only a few wooden huts by the sea while the town is a little further back. We sail into the harbour along the mouth of a river lined with red mud banks which are covered with mangroves. Here too the mud is riddled with countless little holes that are home to crabs. The sailors take so much time tying up the boutre that we three foreigners find it very hard to remain patient! The remainder of our journey to Morondava is still in doubt as nobody knows how long it will take to unload fifteen tons of sugar and ten tons of soap. It is also not certain if we will have to wait for new cargo bound for Morondava or whether we will continue the journey without cargo. As the date of Eva and Jasna’s flight back to Europe is rapidly approaching, we enquire about the possibility of continuing our journey by taxi-brousse. Some very friendly employees of the local fishing company give us a lift into town in their car and help us look for a taxi-brousse. Everyone warns us that in this rainy season any overland trip can take much longer than planned. One 4X4 truck is getting ready for the trip to Antananarivo and is circling the town looking for passengers. Different sources give us different information concerning the length of the journey. In a nice restaurant in which we spent most of our time, a lady told us that a truck can take ten days but it is also possible that it never reaches its destination! A Frenchman who often came by motorbike to the same restaurant and who worked in Maintirano for an NGO that helps cyclone victims, said there was no way we should take the taxi-brousse because the girls would miss their flight. We therefore decided to wait and see when the boutre would set sail for Morondava. If this was going to take too long then there was always a plane which flew from Maintirano to Tsiroanomandidy, which is near Antananarivo.
We arrived in Maintirano on Monday and we were first told that we might sail again on Wednesday. So we had enough time to become well acquainted with Maintirano. Although the town is much larger and more important than Tambohorano, it is just as isolated due to the terrible roads. However, I gained the impression that people in the remotest places tended to be friendlier. In the four days that we ended up staying in Maintirano we came to like this town. It is otherwise known for being one of the hottest places in Madagascar and we almost found it a little harder to breathe when the temperature rose to 38 degrees centigrade in the shade. When talking to people we could see how the heat appears to affect behaviour: when we asked a question they slowly thought about it and it took a little longer than usual to get the answer. We also realised how the heat slowed down our own thought processes; it took us more time to think something out!
One day I met an Indian trader who spoke good English. He was born in Tanzania and grew up there before moving to Madagascar where he has family. He also has two brothers in England who keep inviting him to visit them there.
On Wednesday afternoon I went down to the harbour because no-one came to fetch us despite having promised us the previous day that they would do so. To my surprise, anger and incredulity I discovered that our vessel was no longer there… People told me that it had not sailed away but had only moved closer to the sea and had anchored in the mouth of the river. I got a »lift« with a man in a dugout who was also transporting a sack of rice and other things. I was relieved when I saw our boutre. There were a few sailors looking after it but captain »Caresse« was not there. I went back to Maintirano to fetch the girls by the most direct route along the beach – a distance of perhaps two kilometres. It was a beautiful but tiring walk in the evening hours along the tracks left by the sailors in the sand on their daily trips into town.
Jasna and Eva told me the captain had come to tell them we would be setting off around three o’clock in the morning (the hour of high tide). We went out for our last evening meal and invited the captain to join us. He was shy and did not want to eat much. The girls and I then set off with our heavy rucksacks along the sandy beach to the boat. We were again treated to the sight of a beautiful sunset. As the boat was marooned on the mud we had quite a challenge to hoist ourselves up onto the deck. A night out in the open again meant war with mosquitoes and despite tucking myself thoroughly into my sleeping bag, the nasty vermin still managed to disturb my sleep. When the tide rose, we were awoken by the sound of lively activity on the other boats while our own remained strangely tranquil. We watched with growing nervousness as the others departed while our crew showed no signs of preparing to sail. The reason: our captain had not yet returned from town... The tide slowly began to ebb and we missed our last chance for departure. In the morning we found out from the smirking sailors that the captain had had a little too much to drink.
Although we received promises that we would depart the following night, the girls (understandably) did not believe this and decided to fly the same day with an Air Madagascar Twin Otter to Tsiroanomandidy, from where they had only a short taxi-brousse journey to the capital.
As I was not in a hurry and was interested in continuing on by boat to Morondava, I spent another day in Maintirano, and the following night we did indeed sail on. The boat was almost empty; the only cargo was a large wardrobe, so we were able to hide from the sun in the roomy but stinky hold, from which water had to be regularly removed with a bucket. Thanks to a good, strong wind and our light weight we reached Morondava in less than 24 hours. The sailors found it hilarious that I had been »abandoned« by the girls and kept asking me where they were. As for the captain, he avoided me. He was probably ashamed and maybe even a little afraid. The girls had been very friendly to him – they had given him painkillers for his toothache and we had invited him to eat with us. He was well aware that the girls did not have time to waste and he had let us down.
In Morondava (a fairly large place) the weather was rather miserable; I also soon realised that it was no fun travelling on my own. I took the first available taxi-brousse to Antananarivo and saw the girls there before they left Madagascar.
From the book (in preparation) Stories from Madagascar. (Ed.)
Translated from Slovenian by author