Everybody else is still dreaming in their hummocks, under the protection of mosquito nets. A bluish mist conceals the river’s brown murkiness. Lemurs and mysterious birds yell their callings in the distance; the forest weaves its noises around me and only a paddle closing in speaks louder. A canoe carved from a tree-trunk appears out of the fog, as from a long-forgotten past, gliding towards the riverbank. Two children, a boy and a girl, jump ashore. They hurry to disappear in the dark forest, reminding me of Hansel and Gretel.
I’m in Madagascar, having just started a three weeks, 2500 km journey across the island, from the highlands, all the way to the Mozambique Channel. The memory of the crowded capital, Antananarivo, with its charming hills and ancient Citroen models from the ’60s quickly vanished as I drove further into the wild, to a tiny village called Miandrivazo on the banks of the Tsiribihina river. And here I am, my second day on this tiny boat which carries me down the water, towards the slate labyrinth of Tsingy de Bemaraha. The mist evaporated for a few hours now and the breeze tames the hot afternoon air. The lazy river trembles downstream in tangerine spirals. The sky is a blue explosion, feathered with clouds sprinkling their shadows overland. Leaning on a soldered iron chair, captain Fils is using his bare feet to sail this tiny boat, preparing to dock it once more to temper the overheated engine. And as soon as the boat docks, one of my fellow travellers plunges to freshen up into the warm, hazy river. Like a caring father, Fils lets him have his fun just for a short while before shouting in French: “you know, there are crocodiles in there”. The guy makes his way back to the boat, breathlessly jumping overboard. “They had just heard you, would have taken yet a few more minutes to reach you”, Fils laughs. Born in a village on the riverbank, he grew up by these waters. He found it funny that these Europeans knew nothing about croc behaviour.
“Bienvenue Polia”, an 18 year old man greets me as I slide towards the tiny kitchen on deck. “Bienvenue, that’s my surname”, he replies to my confusion. It’s warm and the flaky walls seem to close down upon us. He spreads the cauliflower gratin on a squash shell, building a sort of miniature baobab. Then he adds a duck, roasted and spiced to perfection, followed by a finishing touch of vegetables. “Where did you learn to cook”, I ask. “I didn’t. I’d like to”, he dreams out loud. A few minutes later I’m savouring the results back in the passenger area, as the sun shines low on the river carrying us to an invisible ocean.
As dusk settles in, orange hues turn purple. Fils docks his boat in a cove, preparing for the night. He then leads us through the forest to where a waterfall feeds a natural, warm and clear, swimming pool. Night has fallen and the Milky Way towers over the waters, overwhelming the skies; it feels like I could almost touch it. I float on my back, starry-eyed… “Happy birthday!” Cheering takes over the silence. We play like children, we plunge, splashing water at each other. Surrounded by the dark woods, under the watchful eye of Southern constellations, life adds another year to my story.
“I can fly”, I foolishly tell myself, in lack of anything better, my hands clenching on the rough rocky wall. I feel more dismay than fear – actually, I don’t know if I feel the fear, or I’m just thinking about it as my heart thumps in my temples. I’ll soon get tired and I’ll have to move somehow, I can’t stay forever glued to this wall. Or I might give a shout and Jimmy, my guide in Tsingy de Bemaraha, will get me out of here. Really, is that all?
I had long dreamed of arriving here, to this unique slate labyrinth and Unesco site in the West part of Madagascar, 500 km from the capital. The “rock forest”, as the natives call it, spreads across 1575 km2, but only the 666 km2 National Park area is accessible to the tourists, in the dry season, from April to November. Locals deem it as the sacred place of the ancient Vazimba, the first inhabitants of Madagascar. You are not allowed to point your finger at anything, as it’s considered a sign of aggression towards the spirits living here. And deep inside the labyrinth, I saw traces of recent ceremonies: a small mirror deemed as a gate towards the spirit world, or shells filled with offerings of rum and honey.
I have admired it all day, behaving myself with my harness and cords, on flawless routes created by a team of French cave experts, from the narrow, green depths of the slate labyrinth, all the way to the razor sharp peaks changing, as hours went by, from grey to orange, and then into blue, in the sunset’s dim purple. Climbing up and down, between darkness and light, felt like travelling through an odd city in the mind of a surrealist painter. Why not flying then? Harness off, I wanted to taste the experience of free climbing. But some minutes later, I am still stuck on this rock, unable to move. Jimmy’s voice was still echoing in my head: “don’t stray from the path”.
Perceiving danger is different from danger itself. I know it, deep inside of me. I’m in no real danger, this rock surface is exquisite, I have the adherence of a gecko – but my muscles and bones and tendons are living another reality, one full of fear. I have carried it with me as if it was a scar, ever since I fell off a wall while free climbing in my teenage years. And it’s what’s holding me in place on this wall, though all I want is to fly.
“Are you ok?” Jimmy’s head appears about 10 meters above me, from the narrow platform of the belvedere area. He doesn’t seem the least surprised that I’ve escaped the path and I’m hanging from a wall, five meters in the air, with no safety gear. He offers me an accomplice smile, then points his arm towards a pack of white lemurs promenading across the sea of slate which shines, in bluish hues, as the sun sets. As they climb, they reach the tops and their white furs suddenly turn red, lit by the last sun rays, pricking the violet sky. I know all of a sudden that’s where I want to be, I want to touch the light, that reddish rock above. “Of course I’m ok”, I boast to Jimmy. I caress the roughness of the rock, that texture of endless asperities and contact points. I push into my heels. And without realizing what’s happening, I let myself carried up, or maybe I fly, meter after meter, to another time, to the light.
It’s a sleepy afternoon that wraps me in a mist of light and forgetfulness. I have no idea what day is today. The sea rustles, green and silky, caresses the golden sand, swishes softly, tempered by the coral reef on the horizon. I vaguely remember I got here just a few hours ago, but I can’t yet believe it: at least a couple of days should have past by now, from when our car jumped over dusty hills and made its way through tall grasslands and rivers. From Tsingy we headed along National Road no 9 towards Mangily, a fishing village on the shore of the Mozambique Channel. “The road might be impracticable, the waters high, it’s a very isolated area”, a Malagasy diplomat had warned me as I was planning my trip. “But if you can take that road, then you’ll see the deep Madagascar”. We did 650 km in two days. Our old Nissan and Haja, the driver, worked together as one – a creature of steel and soul, a sort of knight fighting the endless snaking road.
On some bits, the knight would run in victory, propelled by its roaring engine. On others, it would kneel and crawl, wise and humbled, as it faced slide rocks, muds or puddles. It would make sacrifices along the way: a bearing broken to dust and water, then a back bumper forever lost in the middle of nowhere. Forgotten villages with three or four huts and locals seeing a SUV for the first time: usually, only trucks carrying people, cargo and animals go through there. On the afternoon of our first day, we drive 60 km without crossing seeing men or settlements, and our road looks more like a track through the savannah, two dusty trails with grassy patches in between. After darkness, Haja stops at every fork in the road. He gets out of the car, studies the marks under his flashlight, then chooses. Left. Right. He’s wrong, he goes back a few kilometres. I help him with my GPS. Late into the night, we get to a small town, with an unpretentious hotel. The next day, at 8 o’clock, we’re already back on the road. Around noon, the water seeps into the car, as we advance through a river. A couple of hours later, a ramshackle ferry that was once pink, groans and puffs under the weight of the old Nissan with six passengers and their luggage, and later spits it out on a sandy flatland.
Our car dances in bulky moves. Where the sand ends, on the banks of a stream, a child is playing with a toy-SUV, put together from iron plates and wood. More hours and endless kilometres, more orangey, dusty light. I photograph an entire village: three families and scores of barefoot children, in their torn T-shirts. The sea murmurs in the distance.
And here I am, on the beach in Mangily, losing myself in the sunset and then into the dusk. A fire lights up on the empty beach, fishermen are putting together a barbecue and dance for the few tourists staying in the bungalows nearby. A local accompanies them with his handmade guitar, another tam-tams a continuous rhythm. The music goes on deep into the night until dawn, when stars begin to fade away, the sky glows violet and fishermen chat and laugh, pulling their nets on the shore. As the sun comes up, the sea looks splashed with watercolours and canoes pierce the lagoon. Some hours later, I’m travelling in a narrow log canoe that glides on the green water, propelled by a sail improvised from raffia bags. The canoe stops at sea, next to a motorboat. I put on my diving suit, leave aside the camera after discovering holes in the waterproof case and I share the ocean’s green embrace with corals and flashy fish. A bit later I’m offered a plate of fresh fish at Chez Freddy, as well as rum on the house. The moon rises late, towards midnight, above the tourists bathing into the warm sea. Morning comes again. At some point I will have to head to the capital and from there, fly back home…
The sky starts to glow purple, as the dawn approaches. On the deserted sandy road at Morondava, I’m waiting to watch the sunrise on the famous “baobab alley” and I can almost hear the peaceful voice of Haja, my driver, telling this story a while ago, at the beginning of my journey. “Do you know more old stories”, I had asked him. “Yes”, he admitted, “but those I cannot tell”. Three weeks later, we get along so well that we can almost communicate without speaking. Yet, he would not tell me more than in the first days. I had reached the limits of fady, the taboo, that invisible boundary that his beliefs put between me and him.
“The tree became proud. He started scorning the other trees, scolding the animals for not praising it every day. And the world’s harmony went sour.”
Out of nowhere, a child approaches me, bare feet, wrapped in a green blanket. Nobody else around, no house in sight. The child looks at me in silence, wrapping himself tighter in the blanket. The baobabs start glowing diffusely, turning orange as their clumsy heads scratch the skies where stars are running away.
“It’s a selfish tree”, I thought, slightly amused, looking up at the massive trunks embedding centuries of the world. “Huge, untouchable, unshaken. But it’s always alone, it doesn’t make a forest, it doesn’t offer shadow, it doesn’t let you climb it.”
“God thought for a while; He liked the tree. And one day, He pulled it from the ground and planted it upside down, roots facing the sky. Since then, this is how the baobab grows”
For a second, the child seems to forget my existence, looking up to the sky, from between the enormous, impassable trees. Something drops from under his blanket: it’s a football made of rags. My grandfather had used one of those, in his childhood spent far away from here, in a poor village at the borders of Europe. Maybe this whole journey was for me a way to go back in time, to a world I had never knew. In this world, kids believe in magic and play outside, with ragged balls, slings or handmade car toys and swim, summer after summer, in orange waters. And they dream about our colourful watches, our gadgets and cameras, the very ones helping us see so much of the world, that we end up hardly looking at it.
Fortunately, I thought, we’re not baobab trees. Or are we? I wake up from my daydreaming and, along with my companions, wave our hands once more to Haja. We were the only tourists that he had this spring. We start walking under the Southern constellations towards the airplane awaiting for us on the runway.