I really had no idea what to expect exiting my bus in Miandrivazo under growing rain. Aside from the onslaught of “push-push” bicycle taxis looking for a faire that is. Somehow, in our effort to negotiate our trip of the Tsiribihina River directly with a boatman, we were funneled and joined by an ever increasing entourage of people (growing to over a dozen) looking for a commission and directing us like a magnet towards the Mayer’s office. Here we were back to negotiating down from an expensive package trip.
Unexpectedness like this permeated the trip like the silt in the Tsiribihina as we headed down river with boatmen that spoke “a little French” and it turns out even a couple words of English. I had not expected the sun to flash burn my skin, spending so much time in remote villages, such well prepared food, sleeping in a zebu grazing area or dancing with the local kids on the beach.
After negotiations (more on that at the end), it all started with a 1.5 hrs minibus to the river town of Masiakampy. Upon exit we were greeted a horde of kids saying the word Vazaha and in one way or another asking for any item they could see, including our clothes. They were interested and respectful enough to give us physical space, if not mental space from the constant queries. This was an introduction to what would become our common greeting when approaching villages along the river.
Shoving off at 9am we realized immediately that the sun and heat were much more intense than in Tana. Very quickly every passenger in our fleet comprised of one two person (Sadie and I) and one three person (Three older Austrians) canoe (two boatmen to each) had a sun umbrella pitched. This umbrella should be considered an essential river tool to keep the summer flash searing sun from our skin.
Our guide Claude and his other boatman spent the first day paddling us fast down the river with few breaks. They even cooked and served our lunch of rice vegetable stir fry in the boat. We realized later that they covered the first two days of itinerary on this first day alone.
The river for the first four hours widened as it merged with other water sources. A dense network of white foam blobs drifted on the mud brown river surface. The foam blobs looked like staring down on a vast landscape of small snow capped mountain peaks. It was that dense. The banks were wide and there was little visual stimulus among the sparse, scraggly trees and dry grasses. We also had no idea what we were looking at, lacking information on the landscape or even the day’s plan from our “speaks a little French” guide. If at all possible it would have much improved the experience if we had negotiated a guide who spoke our language.
Eventually the river banks shrunk to 100 ft across and a forested gorge appeared. Claude pointed out two lemers high in the trees and a chameleon clinging to a tree branch hanging over the river. These were only animals we had seen besides a couple birds and occasional zebu for the last six hours.
Despite the pace, we stopped at 3pm to visit a jungle waterfall whose water was clear enough to be sure it was absent of crocodiles. While cooling off in the moving water we spotted a few lemers overhead in the trees eating fruit. The visit, however, was short as Claude had us quickly back on the water over the impossibly slippery, smooth white limestone rocks after of course paying a 10,000 AR entrance fee per person.
The river widened as we left the gorge until we approached a large village (Begidro?). I kind of felt like we were intruding as we passed many naked bodies washing themselves on the banks. Everywhere here in Western Madagascar the children when they see you along a road, the bank of the river or in a village; wave, smile and greet you with the word “Vazaha” (the word for foreigner).
Vazaha Village Tour
As per routine, our boat pulled up to the bank of the village without explanation. We hopped out and a group of a dozen kids formed an escort, placing their hands into ours or on our arms as we walked toward an arbitrary point one hundred feet away nearby a couple trees. The canoes disembarked and paddled around to join us here with our baggage. Finally we could ask what we were doing here. Through some gesturing it seemed we were to explore the village and we started walking up a worn dirt path into the center of the several dozen mud walled and thatch roofed houses. I asked Claude to watch our bags sitting on a tarp in the open, but I would realize through the course of the trip that while everyone is immensely interested in our stuff, they are also extremely respectful of it. Theft really was not a worry on the river and the only time in Madagascar where something like that almost happened was a girl reached in and tried to grab a person’s water bottle from a 4×4. One loosely negative interaction from the majority hundreds.
Walking up the paths into the village the many calls of “Vazaha!” brought more and more children until reaching over two dozen behind and around us. Frequently people would see me, a bearded, white, incredibly tall foreigner and burst out laughing, smiling or a woman would give a “Woooooooo!” or “eeeeeee!”. The village was like most places we had been in both this commotion and its composition, only smaller. A small central market of vegetables and fruit next to a single general store with water, beer and other preserved items. With a little help we made a loop back to the boats, keeping half our child procession.
Looking off towards the water, we could see the two other motorboats, also descending the river, camped up on a sandbar. I thought, “that looks nice” as our guide pointed to an area with trampled hay and the occasional dried Zebu pie. An area we had seen goats grazing earlier and indicated we were to sleep there. I told them we should camp on the beach (like our itinerary indicated), but was told “tomorrow”. I found the whole rush of the first day and the less than ideal campsite strange. Thus forming my personal suspicion that all this rush and alternative camping was because some boatman had a romantic interest in the village.
REI Trade Show and a Midnight Visitor
Setting up our tent on the zebu pasture quickly turned into an REI trade show demonstration with three dozen people watching, most but not all children. The crowd surrounded me as we unfolded poles, pitched and staked down our tent for the night with kids peering in through open sections of mesh. It took literally climbing up a tree (I was a little couped up from laying in a boat all day) to get some respite from the curiosity and the incessant soft taps on our hands to ask for candy, a photo or a visible possession of ours. The tree also provided a non pasture place to sit for an hour of lounging.
It became sunset and then dark as clouds formed up in the humidity, resulting in an amphitheater of thunderstorms. Dinner on the river was often served late and in the dark, but it was cooked thoroughly over the boatmen’s raised charcoal beds and always tasted good. We never had to worry about being served something that would be too much for our foreign stomachs.
I brought my all purpose, extended season tent for my extended travel across many longitudes and ecosystems. Here in Madagascar summer, the two measly mesh vents were pitiful relief from the heat. I had to fan Sadie to sleep as I sweated lightly in my clothes with a light rain tapping on the rainfly.
At midnight we woke to an extremely agitated zebu mooing with enough ferocity to sound like it was on the other side of the tent fabric. This dissatisfaction followed by another zebu who is making a sound similar to a male lion’s growl and then finally a needy calf. The lion zebu was convincing enough that if we didn’t know there were no big cats in Madagascar we would have been worried. The concert kept us up for no more than an hour luckily.
Flash African Thunderstorm
The next day at 7am, after a breakfast of bread, jam, margarine, coffee, tea and maybe the best egg I’ve ever eaten, we were back on the water. The river was uneventful, passing small villages and open grasslands until we abruptly turned upstream towards a large sand embankment. Without explanation, our guides partially grounded the boats, disembarked and began furiously digging a large hole in the sand twenty feet from the bank. Finally realizing this was not going to be a quick stop we exited the canoe to investigate. Inside the hole they were scooping out pure, clear water! The natural river current was pushing this water through the sand embankment until all the murk and silt of the opaque brown river was removed.
Water jugs filled with the good stuff, they crossed the river to prepare lunch near a single family hut. After the typical Vazaha commotion things settled down. One of the Austrians played cards with a few kids, everyone gawked at Sadie and I hanging her hammock and two adolescent boys knocked down mangos by throwing a stick 30 ft up into a tree. The lunch was of noodles and chicken (a prior passenger in our canoe), a cold vegetable salad purified using citrus and an impressively sweet pineapple.
Decreasing in elevation as we descended the river, the ecosystem was changing. We saw our first Baobab trees and passed several cliffs with birds serenading us. Meanwhile, the sun grew more intense and I felt like I was cooking even through the umbrella.
At 3pm a flash thunderstorm hit us and poured for 20 minutes. My jacket didn’t work well but I felt lucky by comparison. All but Claude sat out the rain without any cover except their cotton clothes and our sun umbrellas. After the storm passed the boatmen procured their fishing net and drove whatever they could into the net before lifting it up for the catch. They caught a crab, a bug eyed hand sized fish, a crawfish and a bunch of smaller bait fish. They even scared up a small rat with a long thin 8 inch long tail! Spooked from its bush, it jumped into the river and swam its way up river past us before bounding across land to a safe place.
After the storm we were only on the river a short while until 4:30pm when we stoped on a raised sandy bank to camp for the night by a multi family village farming tobacco. The children, mostly girls, started playing drums on a pot while clapping and singing to the beat shortly after we arrived. It sounded good! The seductive, jamming sound eventually overwhelmed my desire to avoid the still sweating sun. To the absolute hysteria of all involved, I joined in the dancing. I did my best to bring out some different dance moves to much enjoyment of the group. One girl peeled away to run back to her home I can only assume to say, “you’ve got to see what this goofy tall Vazaha is doing!” Since her mom appeared to watch shortly after.
Capping off the day while waiting for dinner, Sadie and I started a drawing in the sand that, after some encouragement, became a collaborative art piece with the kids.
Heat, Sun and a Short Zebu Ride
The next morning, the heat somehow increased. Already at 7am I was dripping sweat. We only spent a short time on the river before an unexplained mystery stop at a village where our guide started charging his phone. Trying to make the most of our time we spent half our time walking around the village with children regularly and repeated asking the familiar “Vazaha foto”, “Vazaha bonbon” or some other “Vazaha (gesture to something of ours)”. The other half the time we spent pressed against a bamboo wall hiding from the sun.
After a little over an hour of this, we were back in the water for a while 15 minutes before departing at our final stop on the bank nearest to Atanambao. To our surprise, our guides began preparing our lunch. Just a couple hours after breakfast. Clearly (to me) they had cut our boat trip short the last day after paddling the first two days in one strong push.
After lunch we left departed to Atanambao on a zebu cart ride with an enthusiastic and joyful cart driver. The bumpy cart moved only a littler faster than walking but I climbed in to avoid some stagnant water getting too familiar with a foot cut. From Atanambao we took a 4×4 to the Belo-Tsiribihina ferry and started our Tsingy Park Journey.
Looking back, the river experience was unlike any of my other experiences in Madagascar. We spent much of our other time in the highlands. Near the national parks, rainforest, mostly paved roads, many hotels and people mostly over the whole Vazaha thing after seeing one hundred a day in the high seasons. This contrasted starkly with the Western river villages only connected to civilization by the water. Where the people were more natural and had more simple lives. The only occasional electricity coming from small solar panels. As a result, us Vazahas received unusually high attention in these places compared to elsewhere. Unaware of it at the time, we started our trip in a truly unique Madagascar experience.
How to Plan Your Own Trip
When to go?
In the shoulder season you will get a least one rain storm a day. A storm you will often be praying for to clear some of the humidity and heat. I sweated through my shirt every day and if there was not a breeze (which thank god was often was) you would sweat laying down motionless. However, it was only my party of two canoes and two motorboats going down the river (12 people total) and it was greenish in late November. That compared to 40-50 people a day in the high season when it is dry and 70 degrees.
Getting to Miandrivazo
Miandrivazo is the main town for the river trips down the Tsiribihina. Guides will act like it’s hard to get here, but it is not.
- €140 total – Private car (4×4 not necessary)
- €12.3 pp – first class taxi brousse
- €2-5 pp – taxi brousse (1-2 days)
We bought tickets the night before for the last two seats at the Cotisse center near the North bus station in Tana (10-15000 AR taxi from center). Actually when we called, the bus was supposedly full but not so when we went in person. You cannot reserve a seat without purchase of a ticket and credit cards are not a thing in Madagascar so you have to go in person. We booked to Morondava and asked to get off in Miandrivazo, everyone was cool with this and our driver was fully aware the next day. Leaving at 7:30am it took 1.5 hours to get out of Tana, we took a lunch break at 1:30 and arrived to Miandrivazo at 4:30pm.
If taking the taxi brousse it may take 1-2 days for the same ti p If you don’t want to travel at night (recommended). It can take a while for busses to fill up and the journey took 9 hours on the efficient first class bus. Regardless, you have to change brousse in Antsirabe to get to Miandrivazo which means you might spend the night here.
Getting down the Tsiribihina
There are two ways: a large motorboat the size of a river cruiser or a canoe. The motorboat has an upper lounging area under an umbrella and lower dinning area. Both open to air. They look like you could get 30 people on one of these things but we saw two on river (one with two people and one with six). This is the more expensive option.
The more economic way is a 2-3 person pirogue (canoe) with two boatmen. This may sound uncomfortable for all day, but it can be quite the opposite. A backrest constructed from our pack leaning against a cross bar. A foam cushion covering the pack and creating a seat. It was luxury. I even fell asleep with my legs outstretched a little on the first day.
On an aside, meals are typically included but it is advised you have a contract about the trip itinerary and what is included.l beforehand.
Getting a Good Price for the Tsiribihina
Honestly, I don’t know how to get a good price. I still felt I overpaid. One trip advisor said they booked with a boatman directly for 4 people costing 350,000 AR a few years ago but I don’t think that is possible anymore unless maybe if you speak good French. It felt like the town has unionized their boat business to bring you into the Mayor’s office to negotiate from a much higher starting point. The assistant Mayer told me all boats go though him. It might be possible to speak directly with the rickshaw people to find the right person. Be aware the English speaking “guides” you will meet in town are really just organizers and will not be going down the river with you. It may also be possible to go directly to Masiakampy where the boats really leave but I haven’t yet heard of this. I’m guessing the smaller truck taxi brousse to get there would leave from Miandrivazo.In general, everyone wants to sell you the 6-7 day itinerary including going to the Tsingy and ending in Morondava. Which is probably your plan anyways even if you don’t book as a package.Here are the prices for the Tsiribihina + Tsingy for canoe with two people:
- €900 pp if you book the alternate river directly to Tsingy (Manambolo River) with Western company
- €650 pp if booking through a western company
- €350 pp to join with another group of two through a guide introduced to us in Tana by Madagascar Underground
- €430 pp starting price in Miandrivazo when negotiating with assistant Mayor
- €211 pp was our final price we paid for two people in a canoe and 5 total in the 4×4 for Tsingy (details below)
Our Negotiations in Town
We were shocked when we came all the way to Miandrivazo for €80 pp higher starting price than was offered in Tana. We thought, “this is ridiculous!” So we split out the boat trip and booked it after much negotiation at 900.000 AR total including meals. Later that night a knock on our door of the Hotel Baobab we were asked if we would join a group of three Austrians for the Tsingy part of the trip covering hotel in Belo, park / guide fees and the 4×4. We eventually negotiated down to 650.000 total for this part reluctantly but convinced by his determination that there is no way to get 4×4 back without a lot of expense.
I go into the Tsingy and prices in detail here, but as adamant as the Mayor was, he was only partial right about availability of transportation and we should have been able to get even cheaper for the 4×4.
Transportation after the River to Belo
The canoes do not go to Belo-Tsiribihina because it looks like it gets choppy and there might be some upstream current. Our trip ended on the bank near Atanambao, the town itself is another 2.5 miles from here.
To get to Belo you have three options: boat, brousse and 4×4. At 9am a motorboat showed up with people shouting things like Belo and Morondava. I bet this is a boat taxi to Belo and likely the fastest and best option to town.
Otherwise you can walk or try to hire a zebu cart (4000 AR?) to Atanambao from the river. The route is straightforward and flat. The zebu cart is little faster than walking but saves you from crossing through three semi-stagnant sections of water never deeper than the mid-shin in November. At the third one (deepest and a river) you can take a walking path off on the right to bypass a forth knee height one that has absorbed some zebu smell.
In the village there are supposed to be taxi brousse to the ferry that can take you across the Tsiribihina to Belo-Tsiribihina. This road can be a little rough so expect a bumpy ride. We saw at least one taxi brousse overloaded with goods piled to a height of 15 ft above the roof.
We were told by the Tana guide (at the end of turning down his offer) there were bandits and if you go with just anyone down river you might not be safe. He (the guide) works with police to ensure a safe journey. I’m not sure the story here, there was an armed man at a couple stops but no police on river. However we camped by villages every night. Regardless, 40-50 people go down the river every day in high season, I bet most people know the deal.
You will start in Miandrivazo and miss the good area!
This is what our Tana guide said but actually we started out of Masiakampy like his itinerary when we booked in Miandrivazo (which he warned wouldn’t happen). Really, the only part of the river you don’t want to miss is the gorge where you can see Lemers and the waterfall you can swim in for 10,000 AR. The first day on the river was mostly boring until these parts.
There is no way to get to the Tsingy!
This was a negotiation tactic to book the whole package through the same guide. It is more convenient but not necessary. You will find people extremely adamant about this point and even saying there is no taxi brousse. I was swayed by it, unknowing what shoulder season in Madagascar was like. I suggest you read my detailed guide on that.
It takes 15 days to return back up the river!
Unclear whether this is true or not. We did see people poling up the river at the start of our trip but everyone later on looked local. It seems pretty easy to throw these canoes in one of the many returning motorboats going back up the river for more tourists.
You will miss the Lover’s Baobab!
We didn’t get this but I expected it. You see a lot of Baobabs on the road between Belo-Tsiribihina and Morondava. Baobab Alley and the “holy” Baobab are all seen from the main road. Only the Lover’s Baobab is off the road by ten seconds and it’s really okay if you miss it.