MAF storytellers Mark and Kelly Hewes set out by foot and by truck on muddy, unforgiving roads, to travel from Mananara on Madagascar’s east coast to the interior village of Mandritsara where MAF supports Hopitaly Vaovao Mahafaly, a mission hospital.
Today we drove as far as we could before the road turned into our walking trail. Everyone told us the roads in Madagascar are bad; that didn’t fully sink in until we started down this one! The mud was super deep in parts and we were shaken back and forth the whole time, especially Mark who was in the bed of the truck. But hey, at least we weren’t on motorbikes.
Distance Driven: 16.1 km
With our heads dizzy after a very bumpy ride, we left our truck behind and started walking. This would be our trail for the next three days! We had two guides, Gaston and Akim, to show us the way and help carry some of our bags. We started at the coast so we had a lot of elevation to gain over the next few days to reach the high plateau of where the next truck would pick us up. After walking for hours, the sun set and we reached the little village where we would spend the night.
Akim, one of our guides, had family in the area and they kindly offered us a place to stay and fed us a delicious dinner, all cooked over a little fire outside. We had boiled roots, (something both potato and cassava like), rice, shrimp, cassava greens, a tiny tin cup of very strong coffee, and a mug of ranovola, a very common drink we would be offered at every meal, that is made by boiling water in a pot that has burnt rice stuck to the bottom. The water takes on a pleasant, smoky flavour. We were given a mattress on the floor of the family’s bedroom and quickly fell asleep to the sweet sounds of their three children whispering softly in the bed next to us.
Distance Walked: 10.6 km
After a restful night, we woke up at 05:30, just as it was starting to get light. We packed up our mosquito net and sleeping bags and had a quick cup of coffee, (glad one of our guides needs coffee the way we do!), before starting out for the day. Neither of our guides spoke English so we were left communicating with our very small French vocabulary and lots of gestures. We did not know how far we needed to travel this day, (or any day), but we assumed our guides would set the pace and keep us on track. Before we left on the trip, no one knew the exact distance we would be traveling and could only tell us in days how long it should take.
We did know we would need to walk as fast as possible! The MAF plane was coming to Mandritsara in three days and if we missed it, we would be stuck with a 30-hour minibus ride back to the capital city of Tana. So, we started out day two feeling strong and ready to go the distance. After a morning of ups and downs and hills and more hills, we stopped for a quick meal of rice and sauce. We checked our phones and wow, it was only 10 o’clock! Just another seven hours of walking for the day to go before it got dark. Yikes, hiking all day at this pace might be harder than we thought…
This trail is a very well-worn path through the rainforest that connects a string of little villages to the larger towns of Mananara and Mandritsara. We saw lots of men carrying bamboo poles with loads attached to each end walking much faster than us. Some had bags of rice, others had chickens, and a good number were carrying empty beer bottles to be refilled. For the villages along this route, all the goods consumed from the outside must be carried in.
One thing that makes transportation difficult in this part of Madagascar is a landscape of small rolling hills and dense rainforest. From the comfort of our cushy airplane seats, this landscape was beautiful. But we quickly realized when you are in the thick of it, there is nothing pretty about endless ups and downs; getting to the top of one would just give a nice view of all the hills to come.
It was about this time that things also started to get muddy. Really muddy. Like mud-that-totally-covers-your-shoes muddy. Then it started to rain, so everything got even muddier. There came a point when trudging up a slippery hill was actually preferable to sliding down a muddy mess and the risk of falling down. There were places where the trail had spread out wider and wider as people had tried to skirt around the deep mud puddles. Our sore legs got more and more tired from the mud and we worried we were going too slow.
It was a long day and we were very glad when we reached a village at the top of a large hill and our guides told us we would be staying the night. We collapsed at a tiny restaurant while one of our guides asked around for a place to stay. People passing through stay for free in the homes of kind strangers. There are no hotels here!
Distance Walked: 27.8 km
We woke up early and quietly started packing, trying to avoid waking up our hosts that had generously shared their little home with us. We had heard rain pounding on the roof nearly the whole night and we knew we were in for a wet day.
We set out in the rain and Akim bought a blue piece of plastic to wrap around himself to try to keep dry. There was no time to wait and see if the rain would let up so we began trudging through the mud, with rivers now flowing through the trail.
Yesterday, we had tried our best to keep our shoes dry and took them off whenever we were crossing streams. Today we let that dream go, and muddy water squished uncomfortably between our toes.
It was sobering to think of the many people that had to make this trip through the rain and the mud to reach the hospital. For someone who was sick or frail, this slippery, mucky trail would be so much harder.
Summary of the day: mud, mud, mud. It was so deep in some places that it felt like the trail was trying to pull our shoes off. Blisters formed on our wet feet and our muscles ached but we knew that resting for long would just make it worse, so we kept going, stopping only briefly when the rain let up to set up our GoPro to capture some gnarly mud shots.
By the time we rolled into the little village where we’d spend the night, we were walking like zombies, plowing straight through rivers of mud, glazed looks in our eyes, deep hunger driving us forward.
Using MAF’s satellite phone Mark called Matt, our contact at the hospital who had arranged our trip, to find out where we were. Matt spoke with Gaston, our guide, and translated some good news. Going at the same pace, we would make it midday to the place where a truck could take us the rest of the way! A great way to end an incredibly exhausting day.
Distance Walked: 28.3 km
We woke up sore everywhere and pulled on our muddy clothes and wet shoes, hopefully for the last day on the trail. The road was still a mess but at least it wasn’t raining anymore. We passed large herds of zebu, a type of cattle, pounding and slipping their way through the muck while Gaston stood in front of us with his machete ready to defend us if one got out of control.
We were all tired and sore from the last few days of walking and the miles tromping through the mud really dragged on. A quick stop at a road side stand for some boiled sweet potatoes gave us all a boost. It wasn’t long before Gaston happily pointed out a village on the distant hill. This must be the town!
As soon as we hit the fringes of Antsiasiaka, we could tell it was different from the little villages we’d passed all along the trail. Access to vehicle transportation meant that there were a lot more amenities and people here. We felt a huge wave of relief knowing that we’d made it this far and that our feet had done their job.
After a champions’ lunch of more rice and sauce and meat at a little restaurant, we loaded our bags into the bush taxi that had been waiting for our arrival. This truck was an absolute beast! For most people living in rural Madagascar, riding in the back of a truck like this was really the only way to get from one place to another. Mark crammed in the back with dozens of other passengers and Kelly was given the seat of honour up front.
We rattled out of town and soon stopped to pick up a sick woman and her family to bring to the hospital. A bed was hastily made out of sacks of cargo and her family carried her to the back of the truck. She was incredibly frail and unresponsive, and looked like she might not even make it to the hospital. All of the difficulties of the road we had experienced the past few days suddenly became real as we watched this woman’s family trying to make her more comfortable, at the mercy of this steep, muddy road.
The road to Mandritsara was easily the worst road we’ve ever been on, but luckily we were in a monster truck! We drove over scary bridges and huge ruts, plowed through giant mud holes and rivers, and even reached a top speed of 40 km in one very flat spot. It started raining and without windshield wipers, our driver continued on, the truck rattling and crawling through the mud. At one point, the truck stopped at the top of a pass and everyone except the sick woman and her family got out and started down a trail. Our guides motioned us to follow. The road was so bad in this section that it was easier for everyone to walk rather than suffer the bumps in the truck. We felt for the sick woman who would be tossed around even more now that the back wasn’t crammed with people.
After hours of bumping around, the sun set and we began to pass more structures and then suddenly, there were lights and we were in a town. We made it! We’d covered 35 miles in five hours. After four days of travel, we made it to Hopitaly Vaovao Mahafaly, or Good News Hospital, in Mandritsara.
Everyone poured out of the back and began unloading. An ambulance arrived and the sick woman was carefully loaded inside. We rode with her to the hospital and when we arrived, watched as medical workers rolled her into the ward. In the morning, we’d have a little time to spend at the hospital and find out if she was going to be okay.
Distance Walked: 16.1 km
Distance Driven: 56.3 km
We spent the morning at our destination, Hopitaly Vaovao Mahafaly. MAF transports patients to the hospital when they are coming from a large enough place to have an airstrip. But for many people living in the dozens of little villages spread throughout the rain forest, there is nowhere to land to pick them up so they have to take the road. We heard stories of very sick patients being carried by four men on a plastic deck chair attached to bamboo poles, or of riding on the back of a motorbike, holding on to the driver. Most patients, however, just have to push through the pain and walk.
We checked in on the sick woman who traveled with us the last day of our journey by road and found that she was still very weak but was at least stable. She had been vomiting blood for days and the doctor treating her said she likely would have died if she hadn’t made it on our truck. The underlying cause of her condition was still unknown. She had been given a blood transfusion but still needed two more. Like many hospitals in rural Africa, there was no blood bank to rely on so family of the patient and even hospital staff were often called on to donate blood.
Our morning at the hospital passed quickly and we were soon packing up to meet the plane at the airstrip. After four days of wondering if we’d make it, the sight of the little plane coming in for a landing was truly a relief. Among the crowds of people that came to the airstrip, we spotted our guide Gaston, and thanked him again and again for helping us overcome the difficulties of the trail.
As the plane took off for the capital city, we looked down at the rolling hills and thick trees, thankful for the chance to experience the ups and downs of the road.
Distance Walked: 82.8 km (30 hours)
Distance Driven: 72.6 km (6.5 hours)
The same distance is covered by a single 23 minute MAF flight.
Watch the video of their journey by clicking on the link below:
Story & Photos by Mark & Kelly Hewes