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Consequences in Uncharted Madagascar

Grant Twiggy Baker's Avatar

by on Friday 19th July, 2013   52385 Visits   Comments

WE were down to the last of our food supply. Fresh water was scarce. We were days from civilisation, on the most remote corner of one of the least accessible countries in the world, and a cyclone was mere hours from making landfall. As far as escape plans go, we had none.

Our boat, The Blue Fin, had just enough fuel to get us as far as the horizon before the cyclone would inevitably blow us back to shore. The village we were anchored off — if you could call that God awful wood smuggling racket a village — had very little to offer in the way of shelter or supplies. The crew was looking at me for answers. Me, because this was my idea. Me, because I was the “tour operator” on this doomed expedition. I had delivered us to this mess and I was responsible for getting everyone out. But I had no answers. If they had asked me one more time I would have told them — shouted at them through the driving rain — that we were fucked. Finished. The trip was over before we had even caught a wave. Madagascar would again keep it’s wave-rich secrets.

We were heading into an area that no knowledgeable mariner would ever consider venturing — the East coast of Madagascar in March — during the height of the cyclone season, an area that had never been surfed, or even looked at with the intent-to-surf during the swell-happy months.

From the start we knew this wasn’t going to be a walk in the park and we were prepared for a hell mission, but two talking points kept popping up:

One: we were heading into an area that no knowledgeable mariner would ever consider venturing — the East coast of Madagascar in March — during the height of the cyclone season, an area that had never been surfed, or even looked at with the intent-to-surf during the swell-happy months.

Two: the place is also known as the one of the sharkiest on Earth, with a gluttony of rivers and one of the highest yearly rainfalls on the planet. And as luck would have it, Cyclone Bengiza had hit just seven days earlier, leaving the coast a complete mess with chocolate-brown water and tree trunks the size of houses scattered around the lineups.

Then, as if the obstacles facing us weren’t enough, we made a very bad call. Our sluggish cargo boat — weighed down by our clothing, supplies, fuel and creature comforts — couldn’t make the trip up north in the foul weather we’d experienced. Against our captain’s better judgment we left it behind. Our decision was based on the fact that we only had a short time to find a good setup before the next cyclone cut us off from reaching our destination 100 miles to the north.

So we set off, full of youthful abandon and dreams of finding our own treasure in this notorious pirate hunting zone. But that’s when things got downright messy. We were looking for waves, and a gritty and real experience, and we found them both. It turns out gritty and real are not as glamorous as one would think.

Our captain warned us this was a bad idea. He was intent on staying south with the mother ship, but we were surf starved and adamant that the unseasonal south winds would be offshore. It came down to us begging and pleading, and him eventually relenting when we finally made him understand that sitting out the best cyclone swell of the trip would basically send us all into a catatonic state of despair.

So we set off, full of youthful abandon and dreams of finding our own treasure in this notorious pirate hunting zone. But that’s when things got downright messy. We were looking for waves, and a gritty and real experience, and we found them both. It turns out gritty and real are not as glamorous as one would think.

The genesis of this expedition was my torn ACL ligament, followed by knee surgery, and a diagnosis of six months with no surfing. Replace nonstop wave riding and travel with an arduous rehabilitation program and you’re left with plenty of time to think about your life.

Mentally I was in a weird place. The massive El Nino season — and the fact that we had cheated death numerous times in the months prior — combined with the passing of my good friend Noel Robinson, had left me ready to swap size for a bit of empty perfection. It was time to surf waves that no one has ever seen before and take the Billabong Adventure division to it’s next level. In between rehabbing my injured knee, I scoured Google Earth for those empty corners of the African continent.

The island nation of Madagascar fitted my criteria perfectly. Its remote and inaccessible coastline faces the brunt of the Indian Ocean’s cyclone swells head on. For 20-odd-years I had been watching as it blocked swell after swell from making landfall on my beloved South African East coast. I thought it might be time to go and see exactly what these storms did over there. After checking the maps, I discovered a 100 mile stretch of coast with an assortment of setups facing directly into the seasonal swell window. The seed had sprouted before it even had time to take root.

My plan was to film a documentary about what it takes to find a new world-class wave- zone in this age of hi-tech, million-dollar-budget movies. I wanted to prove we could still do something core, gritty and real, and go back to the romantic days of when surf pioneers used local boats, camped on islands, and waited for swells to show on the reefs they had found, with no phones, e-mail, or internet forecasting.

Madagascar is as close to “the romantic days” as any place in the world. With very little infrastructure, there was a low risk of us lapsing into a life of luxury on this trip. The country is so underdeveloped that roads are still considered a luxury in most regions. It is also important to understand that Madagascar, while bearing some resemblance to Africa, and some to India, is most like Indonesia in culture. But rather than bring preconceptions here, it’s better to let the place speak for itself simply because it is unlike anywhere else in the world. There are at least 18 distinct cultural groups that are more or less coupled with racial distinctions that go back to the Indonesian migrations, and its African, Arabian, and Indian influences.

It is also important to understand that Madagascar, while bearing some resemblance to Africa, and some to India, is most like Indonesia in culture. But rather than bring preconceptions here, it’s better to let the place speak for itself simply because it is unlike anywhere else in the world.

In the highland capital of Antananarivo (where I am as I write this) the Merina people most resemble Indonesians, though the link is blurred after twelve centuries of separation. As I walk the hot streets, I am forced to look twice sometimes, as so many people resemble those of Sumba, in eastern Nusa Tengarra, Indonesia. These two populations have about as much in common now as southeast Asians and the Austronesian cultures of Polynesia and Melanesia, or as the average Peruvian might have to a Spaniard. It’s far away in time and space. But it is true that there are resemblances in their beliefs, practices, language, and race.

The word Malagasy is pronounced “Malgash” and serves a few purposes. It is the adjective for things Madagascar-ian; it is the name of the language and of the people. Malagasy belongs to the Austronesian family of languages, related to Malay, Bahasa, Indonesian, and the Fijian and the Polynesian languages. I was stunned to learn that in the northern dialect of Malagasy, the expression for “hello” is “bula,” exactly as in Fiji.

The strongest belief-structures of the Malagasy relate to their ancestors, whose continuing influence in current family life, and whose exhumation and re-interment six to ten years after death, is a joyous expression of love, remembrance, and community. The pillar-like monuments to the dead are so like those I have seen in Sumba it’s eerie.

What makes these similarities so remarkable is just how difficult it must have been for these cultures and languages to migrate here. After all, it took some of our crew, using all the modern technologies available to us, more than seven days to arrive. I find it ironic that you can pull-up any part of the world on your computer in seconds, but it takes a week to even get within striking distance of a Google Earth dream.

Granted, the last three days of our outbound trip were spent bouncing around aboard The Blue Fin, dodging heavy thunderstorm activity. But we soldiered on, heading north along one of Madagascar’s most remote coastlines. To make things worse, a south wind had whipped up huge seas, forcing us ashore to sleep in villages along the way — small, crazy, remote places, none more intriguing than the one where our supplies all but ran out, the town of Rutsinoria (fake) , direct translation: Port of the Clitoris.

Home to several major rose wood smugglers, this town, and the characters who greeted us, were dodgy to say the least. As the storm approached, we soon realised that neither the rose wood (nor the locals) would house and feed us long enough to explore the area for spots holding the cyclone surf. Looking at the crew, it didn’t take a psychologist to realise that our spirits were well and truly broken.

It was in this state of despair that we hunkered down for the night. Then, sometime before dawn, we heard a familiar voice. Against all odds, Sisi — the grinning deck hand from the mother ship, which was now parked just offshore — had found his way into our ramshackle camp. Our prayers had been answered, salvation had arrived. Our expedition would continue.

By the time the swell started to show on the outer reefs, we had found two great setups and some others that had the potential to be epic in cleaner conditions. Not only did we have the chance of scoring great waves, we were camped on a magical coral point break that reminded me of Nias before the great Boxing Day Tsunami.

As the water cleared from brown to a pleasant murky green, Laurie Towner and Greg Long traded wave after wave and took the level of performance beyond what I had expected to see. Even Fergal Smith, who had just emerged from five months of bitter cold in Ireland — and who had struggled to adapt to the sweltering heat of the tropics — was loosening up nicely on his backhand. Barrels on the takeoff followed by two, three, and four futuristic moves were commonplace. It made me think about how quickly surfing was moving forward, and about how, even in this remote corner of the world people were riding waves in new and exciting ways.

Finally we encountered a group of local fishermen who were shocked that we were anywhere near the water. According to them, the rivermouth, which was a few miles away, was a hotbed for shark activity. They told us they’d put their nets out a few months before and caught 100 full grown sharks of every variety.

The area proved to be so wave-rich that we set up camp and surfed for three days without seeing another human. Finally we encountered a group of local fishermen who were shocked that we were anywhere near the water. According to them, the rivermouth, which was a few miles away, was a hotbed for shark activity. They told us they’d put their nets out a few months before and caught 100 full grown sharks of every variety, including “lots” of the infamous Bull shark — or Zambezi, as we call them — some of which were up to 15-feet in length.

After the work we had put in to find this wave, we weren’t going to let a little story like that scare us off, so we quickly put it out of our minds and settled in. Soon we felt our perceptions of time shifting. Our camp was bliss, set up on the fringe of the lagoon, the cyclone swell pouring relentlessly down the perfect half-moon shaped reef. We surfed and fished until it was time for bed every night. Life was perfect and this was just how I imagined it to be in paradise.

Then on the most tranquil and perfect of the surfing days, right as the sun was about to set and everyone was hooting and as happy as larks, a bigger set loomed out the back. Our captain, Pierre, in a moment of panic, thought he was too far inside and decided to gun the engine and head directly towards the swell. The boat exploded over the wave with our trusty deck hand and all round nice guy Sisi on the stern. And suddenly our lives were thrust into chaos.

Sisi’s grin transformed into a shrieking gape as he sailed 30-feet up and crashed directly onto the side rail of the boat, shattering his femur. Afterward, he lay on the deck with his knee facing perpendicular to his hip. We knew immediately that this was a serious and life-threatening situation, and with the will of many we made a splint for his leg and stabilized him as best we could.
By the time nightfall came we had strapped Sisi to a SUP, and begun the blind search for a doctor, a hospital, or even a shack to last out the night. With Sisi up on our shoulders, we trekked down the beach until we reached the river mouth that matched the description given to us by the shark fisherman. There was no time to contemplate what lurked beneath. We jumped in and swam Sisi across the river using the moonlight as our only guide.

On the far bank, we soon found a small village where we attempted to explain the seriousness of the situation to a local who owned a car. Eventually, he agreed to take Sisi to a hospital, so we loaded him into the van and watched as he smiled, waved good-bye, and disappeared into the dark. In typical Malagasy style, he never complained, or cried out throughout the ordeal.

The next day still had small, fun waves and perfect weather. But there was an air of loss around the camp. Everyone wandered around like ghosts contemplating the night’s events and how vulnerable we were, out here, in the middle of nowhere. Talk of leaving early began to creep into our conversations. Whispers began to break out around the camp like brushfires of dissent.
I started to feel left out of the proceedings, like an alienated contestant on Survivor. Everyone knew that I would never bail before the trip was complete—but maybe if they ganged together they could force some kind of coup. I became anxious.

Then, over the next few days, good news began to filter in. Sisi had survived and made it to a doctor, who was impressed by our splint and the condition of the patient. A few days later, we heard that he had made it to Antananarivo, where an operation the doctors had performed on his leg had been a success. We were finally able to relax again, and reflect on a job well done, a situation handled to the best of our knowledge and ability.

Unfortunately the swell had waned, and our point was little more then a trickle. The decision was made to move south again, in anticipation of a fresh pulse that could hit in a few days. We packed up camp and spent the day chugging down the coast, fishing, chatting and checking reef after reef. What we found was nothing short of breathtaking.

By now the water had cleaned up completely and the reefs were clearly defined. One by one, we watched as the coast revealed an uncountable bounty of incredible setups. I was overwhelmed, and soon realized it would take at least 20 boats full of surfers, all working this coast for 10 years, before we could even scratch the surface of this zone’s potential. It was comforting to know that for now, this area, and many more like it, will continue be out there, waiting for anyone with a shoestring budget, time to burn, and a dream.

We found another perfect point—this one a left—with a shipwreck to mark the takeoff. There was also another beautiful beach to camp on, so we stayed for a while and scored fun waves before the weather moved back in, forcing us to return to civilisation.

We tend to make decisions like this based purely on the swell charts, with no reference to the past few week’s experiences, or any commitments back home. This time, however, was different — the decision to return to the harsh jungle of the north wasn’t made lightly. We were sapped of energy, beaten down from the previous excursion. But the charts had set the stage and we had no choice but to swap our boat transport for a battered 4X4.

We had been killing time in a sweaty hotel room in Antananarivo. Greg and I had grown intrigued by the look of a row of sand bottom points a few 100 miles to the north, and had started to make plans to go and scrounge for some right-hand barrels.

We tend to make decisions like this based purely on the swell charts, with no reference to the past few week’s experiences, or any commitments back home. This time, however, was different—the decision to return to the harsh jungle of the north wasn’t made lightly. We were sapped of energy, beaten down from the previous excursion. But the charts had set the stage and we had no choice but to swap our boat transport for a battered 4X4.

The crew was not as convinced. The boys jumped ship at a furious rate: Fergal and Laurie had had enough. With a family back home and his memory cards filled with images, our photographer, Alan, also decided to pull the plug. Then one of our filmers, Eldon, also disappeared along with our boat captain Pierre. It was now left to Greg, videographer Jason Hearn, and myself to see how far the road north would take us.

Our first stop was Amtala as it was the closest airport to fly into, which doesn’t say much. And we still had an extensive drive north to look forward to, not because it’s a long way, necessarily, but because it takes time on the “roads” due to the enormous amount of cows, goats, chickens, dogs, duck, geese, police and locals, who all seem to live within a few feet of the curb.
Once in Amtala we organised a driver and guide. Luckily for us, Mr. Skarf and Emile turned out to be assets we couldn’t have done without. Only 20, Mr. Scarf, a student, was the only person who spoke English in the area. And Emile drove like a man possessed in the gnarliest 4x4 conditions on the planet. With these additions to our crew, it was simply a matter of painstakingly making our way up the coast again to scout all the spots we had pinpointed on the charts. We soon found, however, that this was going to be an even tougher and less forgiving ordeal than the boat.

Now living amongst the general population, we each succumbed to chronic stomach disorders. We were also hindered by the fact that there are no maps of the area, and this, combined with torrential rain and side “roads” through thick jungle, forced us to take the best part of a week to only check a few different setups.

Each day we would take the 4X4 as far as it would go, then jump on a motorcycle for a few hours. This part of the journey featured adventure-style feats like locals carrying the bike across streams, and pirogue rides on crocodile infested rivers, until we had to leave even the bikes and slowly pick our way through the jungle on foot.

After a few average sessions at spots we could freely name with the knowledge that they had never been surfed, we finally came across “Twig Island” (my ego took over) and knew we had found something special. At first, we walked slowly because of the heat, then quickened our pace as the first lines swept into the bay As if in a dream, we watched as wave after wave exploded along the top of the point. Soon we were running down the path, hooting with shear ecstasy as the first set barrelled off into the distance. It was a magical, mile long, sand and rock bottom point that resembled a mixture of J-and Skeleton Bays.

This is the type of moment I live for. It’s what gives me the purpose to move forward with my surfing. I can truly say, without exaggeration, that there’s no feeling like it, except when you line up that first wave, paddle hard down the face, come slowly off the bottom, and set yourself up for a barrel that will be seared into your memory for the rest of your life.

Yet the swell we surfed was a paltry 6-feet at 9 seconds. Even still, this amazing point somehow shaped it into hollow, long, head high waves. What would happen, we wondered, here on the all too consistent 10-foot,14-second swells that line up this coast during each cyclone season? It was a topic we debated excitedly as we sat, waiting for sets. It was a question that went unanswered as we ate on the floor in a local fishing shack, and passed out afterward on its cool, wooden boards.

Thanks, Twig

*The documentary teaser behind this feature is HERE

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