Tourist on a boatload of guides: The Pangalanes canal runs for 650km from Farafangana in the southern half of the country to Foulpointe in the north and is a mixture of natural and manmade waterways with the route running the 100km south of Tamatave forming a very picturesque part which opens onto lakes with yellow sand beaches and laid back hotels.
Travel on these waters as an independent traveller can be expensive because the cost of renting a boat for yourself will quickly eat into your budget. I had hoped to be able to take canal boats which the public use to travel between the lakes but there were no sign of any when I stayed at the village of Ambila Lemaitso just south of the first lake, Lac Rasobe. I ended up walking along the train tracks northwards in search of a pirogue, or dugout boat, to where I was staying on Lac Rasobe. From there I had to rent a boat to the lakeside village of Andranokoditra which was more than I wanted to spend on a single trip but the other options were waiting around for something cheaper so I decided to fork out the money and get moving.
Luckily for the much longer journey to Tamatave I managed to get a place on a canal boat with a group of young Malagasy people who looked like they were on holiday and were sharing an early morning bottle of rum to the sound of a resident guitar player. This is where the joys of being a tourist on a boatload of guides kicked in!
They were a friendly group and it turned out they are students who work as tour guides on the side to help fund their studies. It was actually an information gathering exercise and they had visited Andasibe national park to see the Indri lemurs as well as the Pangalanes canal. Frederick, the leader of the group sat next to me and assumed the role of my unofficial tour guide as far as Tamatave. A shaved headed young man in his early twenties, he has a friendly way about him and speaks decent English which he used whenever my French wasn’t up to scratch. After seeing the Indri in Andasibe they had even been practising their calls which were surprisingly life like. Part of their trip had also involved speaking to local people about customs and traditions so they are more informed when they go out as tour guides. It is great to see people being proactive and doing this kind of thing as it not only helps fund their studies but also gives them knowledge of parts of the country they might not have otherwise visited. Trips to different places are organised every few months and compared notes to maximise what they learn.
The group consisted of English, French, German, Italian and Portuguese speakers and I got to chat to most of the group but Frederick and a young languages student called Mia were the most informative when it came to the canal.
Mia informed me it was initially started in the time of the Merina rulers in the 16th century who joined sections of waterways together but was expanded by the French between 1897 and 1904 to transport goods to the port of Tamatave from the regions up and down the coast. It is the longest Canal in Madagascar and was built by forced labour using Malagasy slaves. The section from Foulpointe to near Brickaville was dug out by spade which is about 150km and onwards to Farafangana which is about 500km was dug out with the help of better mechanical tools. Hard labour and diseases caused the death of many and is one of the reasons why the French are not universally liked in Madagascar.
The canal connects seven lakes together and stretches for 665km with the section from Foulpointe to Tamatave not passable anymore. From what I have seen the southern part of the canal is used mainly by locals who fish and use it for moving goods about within the area while the stretch of north of Andranokoditra has a lot more activity and is home to some heavy industry.
Some of the details the group learned about traditions, taboos and stories of the local people really added background to the trip. There are the obvious taboos like it is forbidden to urinate in the lakes to a more interesting myth about Lake Rasoabe and Lake Rasoamasay. The story goes that an ancient king had two wives, one named Rasoabe and the second named Rasoamasay and the two didn’t get on and were separated, so two lakes were made and each wife had one. Each saw their husband at different times and never crossed paths again but when Rasoabe is singing Rasoamasay is quiet and vice versa. Of the two wives Rasoamasay was favoured because she was the second wife whereas Rasoabe, the first wife, was one of necessity and not of love.
All of the chat and storytelling was to the sound of the group’s singer and guitarist, Andry, who had been strumming away and singing since we left Andranokoditra, giving the boat a party atmosphere in the early morning sun. I wasn’t just a tourist on a boatload of guides but a member of a happy band of travellers. At over six feet tall and of muscular build he looks more like a rugby player than most other Malagasy, who are normally shorter and lither in appearance. He enjoys his job as the group’s entertainer and smiles a lot in between singing local and pop songs. As I looked at his guitar I saw he was using an unusual capo, which was actually a dessert spoon tied to the neck of the guitar with a shoestring. Not easily moved he did stop and tighten it every so often make it more effective. After he broke a string he gamely continued with five and the sound was not too bad. Shortly after the first string goes another one followed and the guitar was put away but the singing continued.
The closer we got to Tamatave it became obvious how industrial this area is. It has been the main port in Madagascar for over a hundred years and a lot of heavy industry is based here. This is also the first time I had seen large industrial power cables anywhere in the country and they run to the factories we were passing while the smell of industrial fumes now filled all of our nostrils. The diesel fumes were particularly pungent here and some of the group pulled their T shirts up over their faces to help protect from inhaling them. I wouldn’t like to suffer from asthma or any kind of breathing problem here and people living in the area must be affected by the constant fumes they breathe.
We chugged on towards the port past boatyards and a line of pousse pousse drivers waiting for fares and it occurred to me that I had often seen a guide with a boatload of tourists but this is the first time I have experienced a tourist with a boatload of guides.