By Nate Klema
I was the last one ready for the portage. Given my level of disorganization on the trip, I wasn’t surprised. I haphazardly rolled my kayaking clothes into a bundle and looked over my shoulder at the four Malagasy locals who stood waiting on the hillside. They were all young (two in their late teens, and two no older than twelve) but they had enthusiastically agreed to help us carry our gear around the gorge. Their help was more than welcome. It was the second time that day the Onive River had forced Ben Luck, Charles King and I out of its corridor in favor of the commuter trails that ran parallel along the canyon rim. We were three days into a planned six-day trip, but had traveled less than a third of the one hundred and forty miles that separated the central highlands of Madagascar from the Indian Ocean. The going was slow and I could feel myself wearing down.
During the previous high portage I had made the argument that, since kayaks are awkward and difficult to carry without experience, we should allow the excited locals to take our bags but carry our own boats. Now I swallowed my pride as one of the older boys waited patiently with one arm around a kayak sitting hull-down on top of his shoulder, seemingly unencumbered by the weight and bulk. As I turned back to the task at hand, I could hear one of the youngest yelling angrily in Malagasy, a commotion I chose to ignore until Ben shouted down with audible amusement, “Nate, this kid’s pissed because he doesn’t have enough to carry. Do you have anything you could give him?” I looked back up at the boy skeptically; he stood fuming despite two fully loaded dry bags that hung from his shoulders nearly all the way to his bare feet. Not wanting to disappoint, I selflessly wiggled the only remaining bag free of my boat, and started towards him. As I handed over the bag his entire body seemed to disappear behind a pile of colored rubber, but his scowl turned into a contented grin. Without hesitation, our four heavily laden companions nodded and started bounding up the hill at a pace I had no hope of maintaining. Life was obviously hard in this remote corner of the world, but in our companions it was easy to see the generous positivity of the Malagasy people.
That’s when I fell in love with Madagascar.
I first heard of the Onive River while paddling in Peru with Matt Wilson and Evan Ross who had completed the first descent along with Henry Munter in 2006. I was twenty-one at the time with a reckless enthusiasm for river exploration that fed upon their many tales of adventure. This was to be the first of many paddling trips with Matt. Occasionally, he’d make an understated reference to the “ultra-classic big water” they’d found in Madagascar. As the years passed, his tales became increasingly hard to ignore. We listened to his stories selectively, ignoring his more sobering warnings of jungle groveling, monstrous spiders, and brutal portages over subterranean river channels. By 2016, we were finally preparing for our own pilgrimage to the island.
Ten years, almost to the day, after Matt’s first descent Ben, Charles and I had caught our first glimpse of the Onive as the sun was setting. Our local driver, Andry Ravony, killed the engine and let the car coast to a halt. He had been deeply focused since his clutch went out, forcing him to navigate the pitted clay track at speeds not generally recommended for such thoroughfares. Still his face had remained stoic as he swerved around pot-holes, his liberal use of the horn warning all pedestrians, bicyclists, and cow carts using the road of our imminent threat to their wellbeing. Once at the river, we quickly unloaded the car, and with the pushing help of a dozen Malagasy locals, and sent Andry on his long drive back to the capital. Taking little time for organization we hopped into the boats, stuffed the extraneous gear in around our legs, and were off. Matt had told us that if it looked like there was enough water for paddling at the put-in it would be way too high by the time we hit the whitewater, so we were thrilled that the river looked like a stagnant perched meander. Whooping with excitement, we paddled into the sunset, feeling the majestic pull of the adventure ahead. Thirty seconds later, we realized that we were, in fact, paddling on a stagnant perched meander. As darkness fell, we began our first portage to the great amusement of our building audience.
In the three days since we’d started I had lost count of how many times the river went underground. Now I stopped in a small clearing next to the trail where the rest of the group waited, the four Malagasy still holding their loads casually. We had run plenty of good whitewater between portages, but every time it felt like the gradient was mellowing, another hard rock band would force the Onive into chaos. More than once, as we shouldered our boats between biblical spider webs, we looked down on taunting slides and waterfalls bookended by deadly siphons. Finally on top of the hill, I saw where the gorge opened into a broad flat valley, and wondered if maybe this was the turning point.
We camped a few miles below the gorge. The next morning was mostly flat until we reached the confluence with the Mongoro River around lunchtime. With double the flow, the river – now the Mongoro – fell into a shallow bedrock canyon and picked up speed. Class III boils gradually built into corridors of beautiful read-and-run Class V, which in turn transformed into the precipitous horizon lines that would define the river’s character for the rest of the trip.
The following three days were filled with exactly the kind of steep clean big-water I often fantasize about. I was blown away with the scale of what we were able to paddle, but I found myself even more impressed by the rapids we portaged. Most were objectively runnable, and we found that what we ran was determined not by the river, as is often the case, but by our own mental limitations. In the flat stretches we enjoyed constant interactions with the Malagasy. With no roads nearby, the river is the main economic artery, so we often paddled alongside boatmen in sleek dugout canoes that worked their way between villages, even in the presence of substantial whitewater. Meanwhile hundreds of people stood on platforms in the middle of the river, digging mud from the riverbed, which they panned in search of gold dust and precious gems. Our spectacle would sometimes silence the songs and chatter that drifted from these groups, but more often it triggered hysteric laughter and raucous cheers. If a big rapid was around the corner, they would scramble to the bank and sprint downstream to watch. In camp we were brought bananas, eggs, freshly caught prawns, and hot coffee. They got in our kayaks, and we were impressed by their ability to make difficult ferries and attainments with little effort. Our interactions with locals were always positive, and despite the language barrier, we felt the strong mutual respect of people who dedicate their lives to the river.
By the time we hit the estuary on the seventh day it was close to midnight. Paddling in darkness had given us welcome relief from the sun, but the skin on my hands still burned from the heat of the day. We had been mostly on the water since seven that morning, and my exhausted mind had lost all ability to distinguish reality from the hallucinations that appeared on the moonlit water. As I contemplated the seemingly trivial task of stepping from my kayak onto land, I saw another broad white line appear in the distance just long enough to make me question its validity. Maybe they were ocean waves, maybe not, but they didn’t seem to be getting any closer. We needed rest. Once on land ominous shadows materialized in the darkness, eventually identifying themselves as cows. I made feeble attempts at inflating my sleeping pad and determining which cows were real, before deciding I didn’t care about cows or sleeping pads and lying down on the grass. As I let visions of massive waves, dugout canoes, and spiders carry me into sleep, I was more resolved than ever in my insatiable love for rivers. If there’s a better way to travel, I haven’t found it yet.
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