Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler’s account of his trip down the Manambolo River in Western Madagascar where he was nearly attacked by bandits.This post is insider content, which is available to paying subscribers. Madagascar has been called the “Great Red Island,” and from space, astronauts have remarked it looks like it is bleeding to death. Soil conditions and poorly vegetated hillsides mean Madagascar loses more topsoil per hectare than any country in the world. Living in one of the poorest nations on Earth, the people of Madagascar can ill afford this loss. In 2004 I set off to see one of the rivers that is carrying away the island’s soils: the Manambolo of western Madagascar. Aerial view of the red-colored Manambolo River. Photo by Rhett A. Butler. My journey begins in the capital city, Antananarivo, better known as “Tana.” Tana is located in the central highlands of Madagascar where the climate is mild and the people, called the Merina, look ethnically Indonesian. Tana is quite unlike any other city I have ever visited, with colorful houses decorating the hillsides, extensive rice paddies running through sections of the town, and bustling streets full of cars and carts drawn by the humped cattle known as zebu. With the help of an outfitter I charter a Cessna and head west with my Tana-based guide, Benja, and our pilot. We fly over a largely forest-less landscape pockmarked with lavaka, deeply eroded gullies that bleed red laterite soils into creeks and rivers. While lavaka is often cited as a consequence of deforestation, they form primarily as a result of other factors, and vegetation clearing is now believed to play a secondary role in the expansion of such gullies. After about an hour and a half of this, the landscape changes and we pass over a large valley. Here we have the first sighting of the river that will be our home and mode of transportation for the next few days, the Manambolo. The Manambolo originates in the highlands of Madagascar (“Haut plateau”), about 130 kilometers (80 miles) west of Tana. The Manambolo, deep red-orange in color from eroded sediment, descends through a largely deforested landscape as it heads toward the Mozambique Channel. Google Earth image of the Manambolo River Canyon. We fly beyond the Manambolo, past a landscape dotted with plumes of smoke from land-clearing fires, over Bemaraha National Park. Bemaraha is one of Madagascar’s newest parks. It was opened to the public only in 1998. The 1,520-square-kilometer (590-square-mile) Bemaraha is best known for its tsingy — sharp limestone pinnacles that may reach 45 meters (150 feet) in height. Flying over the tsingy is an unforgettable experience. The pilot dives so low that we just barely clear the sharp spires. We spot sifaka lemurs — the famed “dancing” lemurs — and birds scattering from the trees. After a couple of flyovers we head east toward the landing strip outside a satellite village of the town of Ankavandra. As we come in for our approach to the grassy landing field, children sprint from their huts knowing that a vazaha, a non-pejorative term for a foreigner, is soon to arrive. Sure enough, upon landing, a couple of dozens kids mob the plane. It is immediately evident that this is an unforgiving land. Despite their bright eyes, beaming smiles and playful nature, most of the children look undernourished. They are slender and small for their age, and many have distended bellies and show other signs of illness. Their condition is not unusual for the country; about 70 percent of Madagascar’s population lives below the poverty line, while nearly half of its children under 5 years of age are malnourished. Children in Akavandra village. We hire a couple of porters from the village to help with the gear and make arrangements with two canoe men, Betsara and Max. As we load the boats I practice my Malagasy — the native tongue of Madagascar as well as the name for the people of the country — with some of the kids who want to be involved in the action. Our pirogues, supplied by a tour operator that specializes in Manambolo River trips, are about 4 meters (13 feet) long and are navigable in water less than 30 centimeters (1 foot) deep — which is important given the low level of the river at this time of year. The landscape around the river is pretty desolate, mostly scrub with scattered trees. Occasionally the river will have 10- to 15–meter (30- to 50-foot) cliffs, which are striated with layers of white, red and green clays. Sometimes we pass by children along the riverbanks and there are scattered huts. At one point we pass a pirogue with three boys, one of them playing a song with a string guitar as the other two sing along in perfect harmony. I’ve discovered in my travels around Madagascar that music often accompanies daily rituals in both rural areas and towns. Sakalava boys with a guitar in a pirogue. Sakalava boys in pirogue with clay laterite banks in background. Insects around candle. We camp on a giant sandbank. As night falls we are besieged by thousands of insects: large gnat-like miseries, thumbnail-sized black beetles that have an affinity for hair, and buzzing but dimwitted cicadas. These flock around our meager light source, our candles, and are drawn to the light reflecting off my light skin and my rice. I get a full week’s allowance of chitin, the material from which an insect’s exoskeleton is formed, from the creatures in my meal. After a lively discussion in broken English and Malagasy on politics and the realities of life in America, I head for the refuge of the tent. Back on the river we encounter a young Nile crocodile. The Manambolo was once full of crocodiles, but due to hunting for their skins they are now considered a threatened species in Madagascar. Here water levels are too low to support adult crocs, but lower down the river, below the canyon, crocodiles are still abundant. We stop at Tsianaloka, a village consisting of around 10 huts. The children here do not see many vazaha. Many of the kids are thin and most have signs of malnutrition. No one I meet in the village, including the young adults, knows their age. Children’s toy animals in Tsianaloka village Oplurus cuvieri (Collared iguanid) along the Manambolo River. We stop for lunch under a grove of mango trees, behind which there is burned-out scrubland and ash littering the ground. Betsara and Max talk with some men passing in a pirogue. Afterward they seem a bit unsettled, but there is no indication why they are concerned. We press onward and battle a fierce wind before Betsara indicates we should pull off the river. As we attempt to set up the tents in the wind, an unsuccessful endeavor for the moment, Benja explains the reason for the uneasiness: the Dahalo may be in the area planning an ambush. The Dahalo are bandits usually found in mountainous regions of Madagascar. Their preferred target is zebu cattle, but they will take almost anything when they raid villages and ambush people traveling by foot or pirogue. The Dahalo are typically armed with shotguns and carefully plan their attacks. Like the Kamajors of West Africa, the Dahalo rely on an elaborate pre-raid ritual that they, and the local people, believe makes them invincible to bullets. Villagers are easy targets for these bandits because of their isolation, beliefs strongly rooted in tradition, and lack of weapons, and the Dahalo count on intimidation to keep the villagers from taking effective protective actions. Police are said to avoid the outer areas where the Dahalo prey, either being paid to stay away or fearing for their safety. The Dahalo are an amorphous group and it is likely that some are often members of the very communities they raid. In some areas a man is required to steal a neighbor’s zebu before he can take a woman’s hand in marriage.