Kate lead the team and porters from Marolambo to Ambohitelo. Gorgeous vegetation lined the banks of the Nosivolo making my first trek in Africa spectacular. The sunlight breaking through the towers of bamboo projects a vivid green shimmer atop the river, creating a beautiful foreground to the mountain scene behind. Admiring the scenery made the hour-long walk fly by and we soon arrived in Ambohitello, greeted by a gaggle of children singing choruses of “Madex Madex”, and, amusingly, “bye bye”.
Following meetings with the village chief and elders we are shown to our accommodation – the village school hut. Children fill the doors and windows, clambering to steal a view of their new guests. I later realise they would remain a semi-permanent fixture throughout the entire expedition. We quickly setup camp before finishing the day with a swift game of football with the village children on the school field.
The next day the snail team (Rizy and I) met Emile, the local guide from Ambohitelo who would help us through the work. Emile was a local to Ambohitelo who had lived there his entire life and so knew the local geography well. Following our trip with Emile we returned back to the school-hut, our home away from home. Chicken and rice for lunch. Delicious. The food in Madagascar is wonderful, and this thought was later vindicated by a dinner of prawns in a creamy sauce prepared by the local women. Oh, and, of course, be vary be (lots and lots of rice!!).
The next morning was one to remember. The sheepish look on my face paired with a duo of giggling Malagasy men gave me away immediately. “Dan, what have you done…..” asked the team. Before I detail my morning exploits let’s put some context on the situation. Firstly, five days of a delicate stomach in Antananarivo and Marolambo had rendered me wary of even the slightest gurgle or sloshing sound. Understandably so, I tell myself. Secondly, dawn in rural Madagascar is dark, and the inky black sky is punctuated exclusively by the incandescents of the stars and their reflection in the moon. No street lights. No light pollution. Just pure, untainted nighttime. Now, back to my sheepish appearance. Early that morning I was awaken by a now characteristically loud stomach gurgle. In my haste, I grab my phone as a torch, bundle it into my pocket and dash to the long-drop. Stomach troubles dealt with I open the door to leave, take one step forward, and feel something fall from my pocket. I turn around, and, to my horror, witness my phone hurtling towards the floor. In the split second, I distinctly remember being thankful it was on a trajectory away from the long-drop, and my thick rubbery case which had saved my phone several times before would surely play the hero once again. “It is OK” I tell myself. But, to my horror, my knight in shining armour turned villain. The thick rubber case rendered my phone a rather wonderful bouncy ball, ricocheting off the floor and plunging my phone down a 10ft drop into a pile of, well, you can imagine. The girls were all at the stream showering and so I detailed my problem to my trusty snail team partner Rizy, who (with slightly too much delight in his voice for my now grumpy self’s liking) skipped off to the village to seek help. Two men were the first to arrive, and both found the situation utterly hilarious. “Dan, what have you done…..” ask the girls as they returned from their shower. By this time, a group of men were fashioning a baseball glove shaped object from leaves and lashing it onto the end of a 10ft branch. I reluctantly admitted to my error, miming it so the fifty-strong audience of Malagasy onlookers could have a laugh. After all, why not allow something positive to come from this experience I thought. The audience is now rolling around in fits of laughter, miming using a telephone to me. To lift my solemn mood, the team tells me that they think the men are not able to reach my phone and that it’s gone forever. Thanks for that, guys. However, a brief moment later, they are made to eat their words (and presumably put off eating their breakfast) as a glove-shaped leaf full of the long-drop’s contents surfaces, with the top-corner of a white iPhone poking out from the gloop. At this point I don’t know whether I’m glad to see my phone again or not, but before I can comprehend my feelings toward the situation I am interrupted by the sight of a local in surgical gloves running towards the river with my phone to wash it clean.“Tsisy tsisy” I proclaim, chasing the man down towards the Nosivolo. I retrieved my phone, cleaned it, and, to my surprise, it still functions.
Following my rather hectic morning I start walking back to the school-hut for a breakfast of croissants, fresh fruit and yoghurt – well, that’s what I tell myself. In reality I am greeted with the Malagasy staple of rice. Breakfast finished I head for a wash in the stream. A quiet washing spot exists shrouded by trees and herbaceous plants in the crystal clear water of this freshwater spring. Regretfully I do not possess the necessary vocabulary to accurately guide you to this enchanting forest enclave, but can merely suggest you imagine the most secluded, beautiful stream and then some. I have never before been anywhere so peaceful. Shower complete, phone retrieved and feeling full of rice I consider the morning a success, before heading out on my next snail adventure with Rizy and Emile.
Later that afternoon we trek out of the village to the house of a past village chief. The terrain is tricky – steep muddy hills are made treacherous by sprawling, gnarly tree roots, which are dimly lit by a rapidly disappearing sun. Dusk is coming. We arrive at the house atop the hill to find the ex-chief, his wife, child, and mother greeting us with open arms. Sour oranges, salt, and sugar cane are distributed amongst us as we pile into their beautiful mountain retreat and share stories of our adventures. Kind words are exchanged, and photographs are taken with the family before we leave for the evening. The walk back across the hills was made even more spectacular by the beautiful sunset – a common sight on a Malagasy evening. As I lay in bed feeling satisfied with the team’s exploits in the first village, I cannot help but think of the adventures to come in the next village, and that I could not have come across seven people more wonderful to share this experience with.