The Fairway

According to the guidebooks, there’s no official name for the coastal alley between Mananjary and Manakara.  The Fairway is just what we dubbed it, and is surely what the experts would call it as well.  We expected adventure in the wilderness.  For most of the way, we found something more like a golf course.

We had, at the time, five years of experience between us as volunteers in Madagascar.  Rob worked with the national parks service in the desert southwest.  Mike worked in a health clinic on the central plateau.  I was an English teacher on the west coast. 

We owned all the guidebooks and we met many of the tourists.  We knew all the popular spots for vacations, how to get there and what to do once there.  But we wanted to get away from those places, to do something new and unknown, something not suggested in the guidebooks and not considered by the tourists. 

We scoured our maps with an eye for adventure.  We saw potential on the southeast coast.  The highway that connects the two largest coastal towns in that region swings well inland between them.  Over a hundred kilometers of pristine shoreline separates the towns.  A broken footpath stretches part of the way along the coast.  There are few villages, and there are several large cuts in the path where rivers flow into the sea.

We decided to hike that coast, from Mananjary in the north to Manakara in the south.  It sounded wild and adventurous; it was a lot easier than we expected.

It was raining the morning we left.  Mike and I searched the market for food and other supplies, while Rob haggled with the boatmen for a ferry ride across the first major cut in our path, the river that empties into the Indian Ocean just south of Mananjary.  We bought six baguettes, two tins of sardines, six small triangles of processed cheese spread, and six oranges, enough for two skimpy days of food.  We hoped to scavenge more food along the way.  We also bought small plastic bags and large waterproof rice sacks for raingear.

Rob and the boatman never agreed on a price.  In the end, boatman let us on board, but he refused to paddle.  Instead, he sat in the back and heckled us as we paddled ourselves across.  Still, we had to pay a little.

The sky was clear and the sun was warm and bright on the other side.   We stepped from that dugout canoe into a fantasy vacation that, with only a couple slight hitches here and there, continued all the way to Manakara.

The path started right at our feet and led up a gentle slope to a flat lane of soft grass.  Low bushes lined each side of the grassy corridor.  Here and there, palms towered over the bushes.  Through the trees to our left, we saw the beach and then the long blue horizon of the Indian Ocean.  To the right, we saw the turquoise freshwater canal that runs the length of the east coast of Madagascar.  But before us was only that alleyway of grass.  It looked like a long and spectacular par five.  We took off his shoes and walked barefoot.

We had our only real trouble with the trail later that afternoon.  The bushes and trees grew taller and thicker.  They crept closer and closer to us.  The trail narrowed.  We lost sight of the sea to our left, the canal to our right.  Then the trail disappeared and everything looked the same in every direction.  We were in a jungle, with a thick, dense tangle of creepers all around us.

We still heard the crash of the waves on the beach, still to our left.  We decided to hack in that direction.

Our jungle was a lot smaller than we thought.  A few steps later we emerged onto a bright and sunny beach, right at the feet of a group of women bent to gather fallen coconuts.  They dropped their coconuts and ran to hide behind a one-legged man who seemed to be their supervisor.  This unusual party guided us back to the soft, grassy corridor; we never lost it again.

Early the next morning we came to a small village where we supplemented our meager supply of food.  We bartered for some rice and fish and then paid a little extra to have it all cooked for us. 

In the meantime, we entertained.  Everyone in the village came to watch, to gawk, to laugh.  Rob juggled and danced.  Mike made faces and tried to tell jokes across the language gap.  I photographed the whole madhouse affair.

Here, we saw the Madagascar that we hoped to find on this hike away from the colonial big cities.  The villagers were still using the ravinala palm tree for nearly everything:  the wood for the frames of their homes and the fronds for the roofs, for pliable fishnets, baskets, and even for waterproof clothes.  They all wore a small, unique palm frond cap with four points and no bill.

But they all wore evidence of the outside world, as well.  They had old, ragged shirts, cheap windbreakers, and stained shorts that had trickled down to them as donations from wealthier people all over the world.  In villages like this one, these discarded fabrics die their final deaths, first worn to rags and then scrubbed to shreds and only then discarded.

We hired two men in the village to ferry us along the canal in their dugout canoe, a ride that helped us cover almost fifty kilometers that day and shaved one whole day off the length of the trip, not that we wanted to rush.

The boat ride ended in the sort of paradise one expects to find at the end of a rainbow, a small village of stunning real estate named Tanambao.  It sits atop a high sand dune on the inland side of the canal.  The town itself is built on the fine, white sand of the dune, but all around it is a field of low, green grass.  Palms shade the town and line the grassy field.  Across the blue water of the canal is the narrow strip of land that separates the freshwater from the saltwater sea.  Tall pine trees, an unusual surprise on a tropical coast, tower over a grassy path.  Beyond that is the beach and then the Indian Ocean.

Just before dusk that evening, the trail came to a dead end at one of the cuts in the coastline where a river flows into the ocean.  We decided to worry about it in the morning.

We picked a cozy spot nestled in some pine trees and made our camp.  We went to bathe in the freshwater of the canal, always alert for nearby crocodiles.  That night we ate the last of our food.  We slept outside, around our campfire, under the stars.

The next morning, we waited only thirty minutes at the mouth of the river before a fisherman drifted by in his canoe.  A short but heavy downpour blew in and back out again while he paddled us across.  That was our last little bit of difficulty or discomfort in four days of hiking.

We ate boiled, unripe jackfruit for lunch that day.  We had come to another small village, and that was all they had to offer us.  It tasted terrible and gave us diarrhea for days, but it filled us when we had no other options.

We spent several hours in that little village.  We sat and watched an old woman weave a mat from palm fronds.  We drank coffee with a group of men.  And again, we played with the kids.

If we wanted to eat dinner that night, then we had to find the next village by dark.  After an afternoon marching doubletime, we made it with only a sliver of dusky sunlight left.

 We were now near enough to Manakara that the village had a small market.  We bought a gluttonous amount of peanuts and homemade biscuits which we ate ravenously right in front of people who never get to eat so much in a day.  We bought rice and fish and again paid someone to cook them for us.  And then we bought eggs because it was taking too long for the rice and fish to be ready.

No one seemed to mind.  In fact, a spontaneous party followed our arrival.  Everyone came to meet us, but this time they entertained us; they sang and danced while we ate.  Later, the Prezidenta ny Fokonolona provided us, for a modest fee, with a room for the night. 

We made it to Manakara the next afternoon.  It was another easy and beautiful day along an easy and beautiful trail.

We crossed a small footbridge and saw a hotel and a string of bungalows on our left.  Mike sat outside in the shade while Rob and I went inside.  We bought some snacks and asked about the distance to town.

“Twelve kilometers,” they said.  We were shocked.  We thought we had another hour of walking at the most.  “But a lobster truck comes here every afternoon to buy from the local fisherman.  Ask him for a ride into town.”

And that’s how our adventure ended, in the back of a flatbed truck, sitting on top of several coolers of live lobsters.

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