Descending the mighty Mangoky

By Al Harris, Founder and Research Director, Antananarivo, Madagascar. The mighty Mangoky river, perhaps best known for its rich mangrove delta bordering the Mozambique Channel, is Madagascar’s biggest, starting its journey in the central highlands near Fianarantsoa, descending between the Makai and Isalo mountain ranges, before snaking through some of the country’s remotest and most inaccessible western dry forest, and reaching the sea just north of Morombe.

Each year dozens of carpenters from coastal fishing villages throughout southwest Madagascar make the hazardous journey by canoe round Cap St Vincent – Madagascar’s westernmost point – winding around the Mangoky’s meandering delta, then paddling far up into the central reaches of the river.  They make this journey in search of adult farafatse trees, a species whose highly prized wood is used to construct lightweight ocean going dugout canoes.  After locating and felling half a dozen or so suitable farafatse specimens (also known as Givotia madagascariensis), the trunks are dragged to the river bank where the carpenters spend months camped out in the dense forest, fashioning the logs into crude versions of the Vezo Laka, or pirogue.  The half finished craft are then hauled into the river, roped together, and rafted back downstream.  On reaching the ocean the rafts are then sailed on south to their destination villages, where the canoes are finished and eventually sold, the largest being suitable for high seas shark fishing – often taking teams of ten or more Vezo men dozens of kilometres offshore.

Fascinated by the journey of the pirogue, and eager to understand more about the threats facing farafatse as a result of the burgeoning Vezo fleet, we made a trip to the riverside town of Beroroha, a 15 hour drive offroad northwest of the sapphire mining town of Ilakaka.  From Beroroha we found 2 Bara pirogues – small open dugouts joined with a bamboo deck to form a crude catamaran – ideal for punting upstream or paddling with the flow.  We loaded the boats with supplies for several days, four of us with four local Bara guides recruited in Beroroha.

The Mangoky snakes its way through imposing ravines – often with precarious baobab trees clinging to cliffs high above us – and through the densest western deciduous dry forest we’d ever seen – so thick and spiny that it could take an hour to reach a farafatse tree just metres from the riverbank.  Bara villagers, living in indescribable isolation, looked on amused as our strange fleet, complete with yellow and orange sun umbrellas (courtesy of Antananarivo’s Zoma market) glided past.  For these communities the river is the lifeblood of communication and trade – no roads or tracks make their way to virtually any of the central Mangoky’s villages.

The river’s wildlife is nothing short of astonishing.  Lemurs, fossa, birds, bats, the list goes on and on.  Camped out under the stars on sandbanks hemmed between the dark river and reverberating forest, a torchlight would reflect a ring of red lights in the shallows just beyond our boats – inquisitive crocodile eyes checking up on our strange expedition as we tried to get some sleep above the deafening chorus of nighttime wildlife.

After seven long sweltering days of paddling, with our rice stocks almost extinguished, we made it to the first road at the sun baked town of Ambiky, around 50km from the river’s delta.  Here we reluctantly bade farewell to our diet of catfish and dry baobab fruit, and left our new Bara friends to begin the long, slow haul back upstream, a journey they predicted would take them a mere three to four weeks.

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