"Tyler called it Class IV-plus,” says world-class whitewater kayaker Isaac Levinson. “Not quite Class V, but we were pretty remote and exposed.”
Levinson isn’t describing the rivers he ran in Madacascar this summer with Tyler Bradt, Ben Hjort and Will Pruet. He’s talking about sailing there from the Seychelles—a stormy 9-day, 720-mile crossing of the Indian Ocean that began the latest chapter in Bradt’s five-year quest to sail a 42-foot floating toy chest named Wizard’s Eye around the world in search of all things adrenaline, from base jumping to surfing, spearfishing to standup paddleboarding, and of course kayaking. Lots of kayaking.
“The sailing was more intense than any kayaking I’ve ever done,” says Levinson. “We had some pretty strong weather. Plus, we were in the middle of the Indian Ocean, which is heavily pirated.”
When he started the journey two and a half years ago, life under sail was a jarring change for Bradt. He had lived and breathed whitewater since childhood, run the world’s highest volume rapids on the Congo River and had appeared on Good Morning America to explain to incredulous anchors why he chose to launch his kayak from 186-foot Palouse Falls, still the tallest waterfall ever ridden. Now he was committing to the long crossing from Mexico to Fiji, with no immediate prospect for whitewater, and, it should be noted, almost no sailing experience.
“To be complete and whole I have to be out there on the edge and challenging myself,” he says. “It’s the situations where I feel myself stagnating that I have the most difficult time with.”
After sailing through the South Pacific and Indonesia, there was never any doubt that he’d point his compass toward the abundant whitewater of Madagascar. “The paddling has been kind of sparse up to this point and I’ve missed it,” says Bradt, whose whitewater interludes have included a first descent in Fiji, the Asahan River in Sumatra and an epic on the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea.
Bradt has taken an on-again, off-again approach to his world tour, flying home to indulge his love of whitewater between each ocean leg. A revolving crew of like-minded souls, many of them whitewater paddlers with little or no sailing experience, has joined him on each section.
“You need the right type of person,” Bradt says. “They need to be adventurous, light-hearted, and willing to tackle unknown adventures and get out of their comfort zone a little.”
For this stretch, Bradt and his soon-to-be-salty cohorts met in the Seychelles, where they re-provisioned the boat and cast off into an Indian Ocean roiling with high winds and heavy swell. Levinson, who’s more at home atop a 100-foot drop than the deck of a sailboat, was nearly incapacitated with seasickness. “All I can say is that I was glad I wasn’t in his shoes,” says Hjort, whose suffering wasn’t quite as severe. “Isaac had a pretty rough go of it.”
Even Bradt, who by now is well acclimated to such rough seas, was thrilled to make landfall at Nosy Be on Madagascar’s northwest coast. “Pulling up to Madagascar on the Wizard's Eye was pretty surreal,” he says. “Having sailed halfway around the world, we were finally arriving at one of the best paddling locations in Africa, with a great team of paddlers.”
Madagascar; a kayaks paradise See more videos below.
After the walls stopped moving and everyone regained their land legs, they set out for something they were a bit more familiar with: boating Class V. Stop number one, after 16 days of air travel, preparation and sailing, was getting reacquainted with their creekboats on the cascades of the Ikopa River. The paddlers likened it to British Columbia’s Stikine—high praise from this world-class team. Levinson, who ran it on his 26th birthday, called the big-water pool drop rapids some of the best he’s ever run.
Getting there required a 15-hour, mud-whomping drive—something else that wasn’t in the brochure. “Access in Madagascar is a challenge, whether you’re shuttling or portaging,” understates Bradt, describing deteriorating roads, long flatwater paddles and riverbanks choked with vegetation. Of course, that’s all part of the appeal. “Most of the low hanging fruit has already been scored, making first descents challenging to find. A lot of the new rivers are pretty far off the beaten path, pushing you farther into the wilds. Madagascar is as remote, rugged and raw as any place I’ve ever been.”
The next river mission, a four-day self-support trip on the Faraony, was all of those things. The team first hiked into a tiny Class II-III tributary and paddled in to the river’s rollicking main stem. Describing it as “Quebec-style whitewater, with Cali granite,” they ran most everything, trading turns leading just as they’d shared nighttime watch duty on the boat. What they didn’t scout, locals on shore often eagerly pointed the way through.
From there, Bradt, Pruet and Hjort headed north for a seven-day, source-to-sea first descent of the big volume Sandratsio. “That one was definitely pretty full-on,” says Hjort, who had paddled with Bradt before in Uganda and Norway. “The first rapid was a 100-meter waterfall. We were going, ‘Whoa, is this all going to be like that?’”
Like sailors wallowing in the doldrums only to be walloped by a massive storm, the boys faced long flatwater stretches that gave way to gigantic whitewater. Hjort described the Sandratsio’s lower reaches as being “as big as the Nile.” In testament to the team’s paddling chops, he adds that they only had one roll between them all seven days. “I think sailing together helped us on the river,” says Hjort, 36, an outdoor educator in Norway. “We were used to communicating and working together, which transposed over to river running.”
After ripping up the rivers of Africa, Bradt and whatever new crew he can muster after re-stocking his Dramamine will hit the rivers of South America before making a big decision: blast through the Panama Canal, or sail north through the Northwest Passage. Either way, Bradt is looking forward to the best part his journey. “Now the kayaking is just starting to turn on,” he says. “We’re entering some amazing paddling destinations and the boating is about to ramp up.”
Halfway through his five-year world circumnavigation, Tyler Bradt landed this summer in Cape Town, South Africa, after his paddling adventure in Madagascar. From here, the jury’s out on whether he’ll sail north around North America, or head toward the Panama Canal.
Leg 1: Mexico to Fiji, 2013
Leg 2: Fiji to Indonesia, 2014
Leg 3: Indonesia to South Africa, 2015
Leg 4: South America (forthcoming)
Leg 5: North America (forthcoming)
Eight days of treacherous winds brings the guys to the all mighty Madagascar.
The trek to the whitewater is all apart of the adventure.
The team takes on more then rapids in Tsaranoro.