Max and Betsara were attacked by the Dahalo a few weeks earlier. The bandits took all their cooking supplies and warned them not to guide vazaha down the river. It is said that the only thing the Dahalo fear are vazaha, believing them to have superior weapons. Nevertheless it is a tense night and we take turns keeping watch. The wind and blowing sand add to the discomfort — sand for dinner and in our hair and eyes — but we are able to set up one tent behind a barricade dug in the sand and protected by the canoes.

At night the sand comes alive with insects. There are giant crickets longer than 5-centimeters (2 inches), small yellow scorpions, enormous earwigs, and a plethora of other arthropods.

In the morning there’s sand in everything. The bounty of insect life from the previous night has taken refuge in all our equipment, and as we pack, I’m frequently startled by hidden scorpions.

Sakalava boy on a sand bar.
Sakalava boy on a sand bar.
Sakalava boy near the Manambolo River
Sakalava boy near the Manambolo River

At breakfast we’re joined by a local Sakalava boy who’s finely dressed. He tells us that the Dahalo have crossed the river and appeared to be preparing an ambush in the late afternoon. Thus the concerns of Max and Betsara the previous afternoon were warranted, and they plan to take special precautions on their return trip upriver.

As we move downstream the landscape becomes more canyon-like. Increasingly there are little pockets of forest and we encounter more local people on the river.

We pass some fasana, or tombs constructed with neatly piled rock. These are the graves of the Sakalava, the ethnic group that lives in this region and most of western Madagascar. In the distance there is a mountain where local people bury their dead. Once you pass the mountain it becomes a serious fady, or taboo, to point with your finger. Instead, you are supposed to point with your knuckle, paddle or elbow when trying to call attention to something. Pointing with your finger angers the razana, or spirits of the dead, and offenders must make an offering.

We reach the Manambolo canyon, and it is spectacular, with colorful sheer walls and deciduous forests. We camp at a picturesque spot where a clearwater stream enters the muddy flow of the Manambolo. As we unload the pirogues, bright yellow and teal butterflies flutter about and black kites circle above.

I go for a walk up the clearwater creek (Max and Betsara call it “Oly”) and find a gorgeous pool full of several kinds of fish. Seeing these fish is a special experience; Madagascar’s native species are increasingly endangered due to habitat loss and degradation from deforestation and soil erosion. Additionally, the introduction of exotic species, specifically tilapia, has absolutely decimated native fish stocks. In some rivers, as much as 99 percent of the fish collected in surveys are now tilapia species, and several of Madagascar’s unique fish — especially cichlids, intelligent fish that care for their young — are no longer recorded in the wild.

While walking back to the camp site I see a group of Decken’s sifaka leaping about in trees high up on the ridge above our tents. We watch these lemurs as the sun sets.

Primarily tree-dwelling, sifakas are somewhat awkward on the ground due to their splayed feet. Since trees in their habitat are often dispersed, sifakas cross open ground by sashaying on their hind legs with arms aloft. This behavior has made sifakas famous the world-over as “dancing lemurs.”

Lemurs, a group of primates found only on Madagascar, are today highly threatened by habitat loss and hunting. At least 17 of the island’s lemur species have gone extinct since the arrival of humans less than 2,000 years ago.

In the morning, Betsara, Benja and I hike up Oly Canyon creek. The creek runs over white limestone rock, through channels and shoots, and over small waterfalls into turquoise pools. Pristine deciduous forests surround us. The trees have orange and yellow blossoms, and are alive with singing birds. We encounter a group of red-fronted brown lemurs that have come down to the river to drink. They grunt at us as we continue upstream through palm-lined pools full of exquisite Madagascar lace plant in bloom, a beautiful species often kept in aquariums, and other aquatic plants.

After a couple of hours of walking we come to an obscenely beautiful place, a 6-meter (20-foot) waterfall pouring into a blue pool. We spend some time swimming in the pool and jumping off the falls.

We press further down the river through the canyon and past several waterfalls and another group of red-fronted brown lemurs. The canyon continues to be gorgeous.

We see more locals in the lower part of the canyon. Some are visiting the remains of their ancestors stored in caves in the cliffs, while others are tending to their riverside rice patches. We stop to talk with a family growing rice on a sandbar. The family will stay long enough to grow one crop of rice before the river levels rise and inundate the sandbar.

Sakalava family in boat along cliffs of Manambolo River.
Sakalava family in boat along cliffs of Manambolo River.
Sakalava boys along the Manambolo River.
Sakalava boys along the Manambolo River.
Pirogues on the Manambolo.
Pirogues on the Manambolo.
Manambolo River canyon.
Manambolo River canyon.

Rice is the staple of the Malagasy diet, and most people in Madagascar eat it three times a day. Madagascar once grew enough rice to feed itself, but environmental degradation and resulting soil erosion has diminished the country’s agricultural capacity. Today Madagascar relies on imports from other countries to feed its population.

Toward the village of Bekopaka the wind picks up significantly, right as we hit a long stretch of slack water. We make slow progress through an area that is interesting geologically, with limestone slabs pancaked atop one another and then eroded by the river. These create bizarre rock formations and caves.

The village of Bekopaka is our destination. Here we’ll camp and then visit the limestone tsingy up close. As we drag our gear across the sandbar and up to our campsite, I can’t help but think about the beauty of the canyon. I’m already salivating at the idea of returning to explore more of the Manambolo’s side canyons and creeks. A place like the Manambolo reminds visitors that there are wildlands worth protecting, but also serves as a microcosm for some of the challenges facing conservation on a global scale.

Article published by Rhett Butler
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