Words by Henry Munter, Photos by Evan Ross
A few feet above us, a huge web hung from a cranny in the cliff wall. In the middle was a jet-black spider that, legs and all, spread out almost the size of my fist. In this short but incredibly steep gorge on Madagascar’s Riviere Onive, the spiders strung up their webs everywhere—to cliff walls, between the boulders, and over the thundering river.
As Evan swam around in the turbulent pool below, though, we had a lot more to worry about than the spiders. Matt Wilson, Evan Ross, and I were three days into the first descent of the Onive. In terms of distance, we figured we were about half way through, but in the last three hours, we had made it less than half a mile. We had carried our kayaks on our shoulders when we could, and rappelled with them when we had to. Matt and I sat wedged between a house-sized boulder and a sheer cliff, slippery from the spray of the falls upstream. Below Evan, the river rumbled off a twenty-foot waterfall into a hydraulic reversal that looked inescapable. We waited, hoping Evan could find some way around the falls, and that he could do it soon. Dark was approaching quickly, and this was no place to sleep.
Evan looked up at us and shook his head, shouting over the roar of the falls, “It’s no good,” he yelled.
“Alright,” Matt replied, as if to say, “Well, then, what the hell do we do now?”
“Give me a second,” Evan yelled, and swam to the downstream side of the pool, careful to stay away from the current that chugged downstream. He disappeared into the boulders on the left bank for a moment, then came out and gave us a thumbs up before swimming back. “I need my paddle!” Matt pulled Evan’s paddle from his kayak, which was piled with the other two boats in the crack behind us, and dropped it down to him. Evan swam back across with his paddle. For a moment we could see him reaching into the boulders, swinging his paddle like a sword, and then he climbed up out of view. After a couple of minutes, Evan emerged fifty feet up on the cliff above. He hollered and gave another thumbs-up. “Camp!”
We threw a rope across the span above the pool to Evan, and hauled our boats across. Matt and I rappelled down into the pool and swam across it to the cave Evan had climbed up, and finally I realized why he had needed his paddle—broken spider webs dangled from the edges of the cave. As I reached for handholds to climb through, all I could do was hope to myself that one of my hands wouldn’t find one of the spiders.
Although it was a fellow kayaker who told Matt about Madagascar, it was Gilles Gautier, a French ex-pat and the guru of river-running in Mada who convinced him to come here. Matt is a true adventurer, and has kayaked big whitewater all over the world; he and Gilles were kindred spirits. Gilles (pronounced Zheel), who came to Madagascar originally as a big-wall rock climber, began running rivers here fifteen years ago. He had led expeditions on an impressive number of rivers, through the eastern jungles and the crocodile plains of the west. His photos showed a place of amazing potential for adventure, down long, difficult river canyons. Despite Gilles’ efforts, Madagascar, which is the size of California and Oregon together, still had many major rivers that were left unexplored.
Matt had actually found the Onive before we came to Madagascar. On the phone from Telluride to Ketchum, Matt told me of an epic gorge he had found on satellite photos. The first big river to the south of the capital city, Antananarivo, the Onive watershed drains Tsiafajavona, which at about 8,700 feet is one of the highest mountains on the island. The Onive plummets almost 4000 feet as it drops from the island’s central plateau to where the river flows into the Mangoro river about fifty miles downstream. Because of its severe gradient the Onive remained unchallenged, despite being a central, major river with relatively easy access.
Gilles himself had thought the Onive was probably too steep, that its rapid descent through the jungle and granite domes of the eastern mountains of Madagascar would be too much for a river expedition. Our style was different, though, than that of most expeditions in Madagascar. We paddled self-supported: rather than rely on rafts or porters to carry our gear, we carried everything with us, in our kayaks. Our small, light team could navigate harder whitewater and get around obstacles more easily. After showing us a few days paddling in the country to warm up, Gilles gave us our fair warning and then set us up with maps and a truck to get to the put in and pick us up at the takeout.
The next morning, day four on the Onive, my nerves woke me up. Still mostly dark, Matt and I struggled with the few slimy bits of driftwood we had left from dinner and got a pot water to boil. We had enough oatmeal left for a few bites each, but thankfully, plenty of coffee. We could hear birds sing in the jungle canopy above, but a fog hanging over the gorge kept the trees just out of view.
We left our cave camp at 7:30, in the same manner as we arrived there, by rope. For the rest of the morning, huge smooth boulders made downclimbing impossible at turn after turn, and the slow going of setting anchors and unpacking and repacking our climbing system kept us from emerging from the gorge until three hours later.
What happened then, according to Matt: “We got into the shit.” It started with a mile or so of awesome, big-boulder rapids, cascading ten feet at a time over and over again through big holes and tight, exciting lines. There was a clean, twenty-five foot waterfall with a perfect lead in. Then, we ran a few miles of read-and-run class V, the kind of whitewater where skilled paddlers are able to see down big rapids well enough to run from eddy to eddy without getting out to scout—excellent, fast-paced whitewater where we could make good progress. For a couple of hours, the whitewater was epic.
And then, just when we were looking for a place to stop for lunch, we came around a corner in the river and it looked like the earth was falling out from under us. The tops of huge trees were apparent below, as though we had come to the edge of a big plateau, and the river had nowhere to go but off the edge.
Surprisingly, we managed to run the first rapid. It was a twisting, sliding falls that dropped sixty or seventy feet on polished granite—the kind of awesome class V falls that would make a river at home a whitewater classic. The next drop was a forty-foot slide, perhaps runnable, but immediately above a nasty hundred footer. This waterfall led into two more. We could see about a quarter of a mile down the river, which appeared to drop at least three- or four-hundred feet.
This all made for an impressive, terrifying sight. There, the river was constricted into punchbowl falls, hemmed in by jungle and granite bedrock covered by a slime that made the rock slick like ice. Unlike yesterday’s gorge, where the river ran mostly underground, there would be no way to portage these falls at river level, even with ropes. We hiked our boats up to the boundary of the jungle. The foliage looked so thick that going through the jungle didn’t look possible either. For a few minutes, we stood paralyzed. Below us, unrunnable, unportageable waterfalls cascaded into a bedlam we could only imagine. Above us, the steep jungle ascended in weak soil above the slick, rock walls that dove back into the river.
Alas, Matt went first, into the jungle. He clipped his kayak to the tow tether on his lifejacket and started crawling up the steep slope away from the river. Evan and I followed. Inch by inch, we went on hands and knees; we went under the vines and through the thorny branches. We carried on a metered pace, as being separated by more than twenty or thirty feet could make it impossible to relocate each other, but we tried not to stop either because of the fire-ants that found their way into idle pants. It took us four hours crawling to reach a point where we could see the river again, where we were standing in jungle rooted precariously above a sheer, two hundred foot cliff. We built an unnerving but solid anchor in the last few bushes that were taken root in the cliff wall and rappelled the full length of our rope into a steep ravine, through which we could lower our boats to the river, and then climb down ourselves. When we were finally in our boats again, we looked upstream at the two eighty-foot punchbowl waterfalls that cascaded out of the jungle. Our slow, hot, and scratchy route around the maelstrom had earned us about a quarter mile, but an amazing view.
The next day, our two days of rare solitude on the river turned back into the real Madagascar experience. All morning, a crowd of onlookers had left their fields and followed us down the river. Now, there were about fifty people watching as Matt, Evan and I slowly made it down one class five rapid after another.
Most of the people watched from well away from the river. But at the bottom of a steep, sliding rapid, a man who had run ahead after watching us paddle the last couple of drops, was giving me signals with his kalasa, a wooden stick about a meter long with a sharp, hooked blade on the end.
“Looks like he says ‘go right,’” Matt said, as we strained to see downstream from the little eddy at the top of the drop.
“Feels like déjà vu,” I said to Matt, who had been upstream and hadn’t seen it the last time this happened. Five days ago, our the first day on the Onive, we meandered through flat bends for hours, until we got to a point where the people started to follow us down the river. They ran and ran, shouting to each other and smiling, and we paddled that way for bend after bend, in anticipation of what rapid must be coming. After nearly an hour, when some of the kids must have followed at least a couple of miles, we came to a horizon line above a big rapid. Several men made their way out onto the ledge that formed the drop, and swept their hands in a line with the water, indicating where we should run. It was the first rapid on the river, and I thought it would be a good idea to get out and have a look. As it turned out, the current ran through several potholes that could easily kill someone.
Now, five days later, this man kept running his kalasa in an imaginary line over the rapid, smiling and urging us on.
“Looks alright,” I said, and I paddled over the lip, my boat angled in the way that the man had indicated. It was a twisting slide, a bit bigger than I had thought. At the bottom, a big hole came in on a diagonal from the right, and I was glad to have the proper angle. I made a big stroke to punch the hole. Before rounding the corner, I tapped the top of my helmet to signal to Matt and Evan that the line was good.
I turned around and noticed the man with the kalasa had run downstream ahead of me. But before I could look downstream any further, I was thrown for a little surprise, and I struggled to catch another eddy. When I managed to stop again, I looked up and the man was applauding, but he hadn’t run downriver any further. I turned my head awkwardly from my boat to peer downstream, and my stomach sunk. Déjà vu was an understatement.
I got out of my boat and got my rope ready for Evan and Matt to run the rapid. As they pulled into the eddy, both noticed the unmistakable horizon just downstream. We pulled our boats from the river, and a small group gathered around us.
We did a quick scout, and once again we could see the tops of big trees and a long valley far below. For the third time in three days, the Onive was dropping off the face of the earth. We returned to the crowd.
“Salaam!” I said, loudly, making a tired but sincere smile.
In concert, twenty or so people exclaimed back, smiling, “Salaam, Vassa!” Vassa is the word for white person, which people here see rarely, if at all.
“Parlez-vous français?” I ask. People in the bush in Madagascar usually only know a few words of the old colonial language, but it was worth a try.
A man wearing a woven hat that could double as a little basket responded. “Oui,” he said. Between the man with the kalasa and the man with the basket hat, we struggled through French and signing. Indicating a trail, the men pointed to a plateau of sorts several hundred feet above the river, and then through the little villages we could see in the distance. Far beyond the waterfalls, they pointed to a little river coming in from the left, where the trail came back to the river. It looked like three or four miles, at least. “I’m going to go get some water,” I said to Matt. As I walked over to the little side stream rolling through the bedrock down to the river, I imagined the prospect of carrying my ninety-pound kayak four more miles. Even worse, we hadn’t even reached the Mangoro river yet, which meant we couldn’t be more than two thirds of the way of our total distance on the river. After a few minutes, Evan came down to the little side stream where I was pumping water. He looked a little bit distressed.
“Hey Hank,” he said, “you better get up here. Your boat is gone.”
“What do you mean, gone?” I asked, and looked up. There they were, running up the steep embankment carrying our kayaks two to a person. As we hustled back up to the boats, he told me he offered a ten-thousand ariary note for each kayak, and pointed up and around the big waterfalls below. Before a clear agreement was made, the men had picked up the boats and started moving.
Evan and I followed the trail that they had taken up the steep jungle embankment up to the plateau above. The older men were the ones doing the carrying, and they had set the boats down to figure out a better way to carry them. We heard some spirited talking in Malagasy between the two of them, and then one of the men ran over to a fence where a couple of skinny zebu grazed in a dried up rice patty. The man took three of the poles from the top of the fence and then came back. Then he made some sign language signaling rope, but before I could get out my kit for some string, one of the boys had run over to stand of trees that looked like big willows and stripped a long length of the bark with his kalasa. He stripped a fiber from the inside of the bark and tied each end of each pole to the grab bar on the kayak, and now they were easy to carry between two people. As quickly as they had in the first place, they took off running again.
The trail took us up high through Mandorominy, the name of the village perched above this dramatic landscape. The high mountain backdrop was dark green except for where the bright white and grey granite slabs shone through. To the west, the coastal lowlands unfolded in rolling hills around the river as far as the eye could see. A thousand feet below, the Onive plummeted over five waterfalls—smooth punch-bowls cascading a hundred feet at a time. In a little over an hour, a breathtaking pace for what we had been used to the last five days, we were back down to the river.
Before leaving our porters, I had a pretty good conversation with the man in the basket hat. As best we could do with tiny bits of Malagasy, French, and sign language, he assured me that there would be no more big gorges like this one. I told him he lived in a very beautiful place. We did the accounting and graciously paid our porters, and the thirty thousand ariary was the best spent five-dollars each that any of us could remember. For the rest of the day, we tried to cover as many river miles as we could. Every once in a while, we would be passed by pirogues, which were long dugout canoes that carried bananas or goats or anything else you might imagine.
That night, to be less attractive to visitors, we camped on a little island. It had just enough bamboo and driftwood to cook our last package of ramen noodles for dinner and a pot of coffee for breakfast. A pirogue pulled up just as we were getting our gear off, and the two men who ran the boat inspected our kayaks—tapping carefully on the plastic, and looking in awe at the shapes of the hulls.
We got out the map, and the men helped us figure out that the Mangoro confluence was just a few kilometers downstream. When I asked them how long it took to get to Toliandrava, our take out, one of the men said, “Pas possible.” He said the Mangoro was too rough for Pirogues.
A lesson that we would learn about Madagascar: once a journey turned into a struggle, that was when some of the most beautiful experiences would happen. The next day, we made the confluence with the Mangoro early in the morning, from which we had about fifteen miles to cover. Tired and hungry, and completely out of food, the whitewater got unbelievably good. With more double the water in the river now, we got into big-water rapids, steep waterfall drops, and everything in between. Racing to make it to our takeout, we had to run one big drop after another. In many years of paddling, that day on the Mangoro was one of the best days of whitewater I’ve ever seen.
That afternoon, we saw a couple of boys on the river, who left running downstream as soon as they saw us. A few minutes later, we rounded a bend in the river and saw a hundred people or so gathered around a couple of tents and a truck. We spent the night there and feasted on bread and chicken, and beer that had been carried down two days on foot, as our truck was the first to drive down to the village here in six months. The next morning, we drove up and up. Through the bamboo and banana forests of the lowlands, into the misty, light rain of the cloud forest, and twenty hours later, back into the barren hills and terraced fields of the highlands where we began our descent seven days before.
Rested and repacked, two days later we crossed the headwaters of the Onive on our way south to run the Riviere Mananjary. There, three days of rain turned us back to Onive-style jungle portaging and survival kayaking for the second half of the run, and on the seventh day we nearly reached the Indian Ocean after missing our planned take out. On the Faraony, we traveled almost three days to run a river whose three rapids were worth every bounce on the road and every flat tire. And on the Matsiatrah, the river was too low and we were constantly in danger of breaking our boats in the shallow rapids, but we saw as many as twenty crocodiles a day, sometimes as close as fifteen or twenty feet away—truly much more exciting than spiders. There, as we paddled across deep pools, the crocs would submerge silently ahead of us, reappearing after we passed.
In five more weeks in Madagascar, we would never suffer quite as much as we did on our first descent of the Onive. But every morning, as we dipped our cups into the coffee pot and waited for the dew to burn off or the rain to clear, we thought of the Onive—our first and hardest river in the country, a big first descent and maybe a last descent.