Sitting On the Dock of the River
Sitting on the Dock of the River: Numerous rivers cross the 250km route between Fort Dauphin on the southeast coast and Vangaindrano further north. With no bridges between the two cities the 10 crossings are completed using ferries in varying states of repair, in the kind of scenes from a national geographic special. Lush green banks separated by wide stretches of water with the ferry labouring back and forth between the two. So sitting on the dock is a great observation point.
The first four ferries are hand powered with a winch being used to power the crossing from one bank to the other. A very peaceful mode of transport because all there is to be heard is the sound of the winchman and the chatter of passengers. The fifth crossing which is well over 100m wide in fast flowing water is serviced by a ferry and zooms across in no time with barely enough time to admire the wilderness.
When I completed the trip with 12 other passengers in a 4×4 in December 2018 we didn’t make it across all 10 ferries in one day. Instead the final 3 had to be navigated after a few hours sleep for the driver Eddie who was back at the wheel at 2am on day 2 to try and make onward buses from Vangaindrano.
After a lot of rocking and rolling we arrived at the last ferry of the trip at 6am but it was immediately obvious something was up as this was the first one we had come to that had a queue. I looked across to the other bank and could see repairs going on to the engine of the ferry.
“There is something wrong with the starter motor so we will have to wait until it is repaired before crossing,” the pastor we had picked up in a village yesterday afternoon informed me.
“Lets have some breakfast, I think we will have plenty of time,” I replied, pointing at the stalls which serve breakfasts ranging from pastries to fried fish. What could beat eating fresh fish while sitting on the dock?
Looking around I could see two 4x4s in front of us and one behind in the queue which kept getting longer as the morning progressed. The atmosphere was jovial considering some people needed to be in Vangaindrano in the morning to get their onward connections for Christmas. There is a pragmatism about Malagasy people and complaining won’t improve the situation so instead breakfast and a chat was on the menu.
“Lets get a pirogue to the other side and see what’s happening,” the pastor said to me, curiosity getting the better of him.
“Sounds like a good idea,” I agreed, as it will help pass the time as we wait to get going again.
On to the other side the pastor spoke to the captain of the boat and reported to me, “It’s not looking good.”
“So what are the options?” I asked, thinking back to the seventeen hours spent in the mud on the camion brousse between Tulear and Fort Dauphin. Anticipating more sitting on the dock for hours.
All was not lost and the pastor continued, “They are bringing a rope across and they are going to pull the ferry over by hand.”
“Oh right,” is all I could say relieved that at least something was happening to get things moving.
“This is a very old ferry and it has constant problems,” he informed me, pointing at two young men in the hull of the ferry emptying out water with plastic drums which have been cut in half.
“So the ferry is leaking too?” I asked.
“Yes, they have to empty the water out of it every morning before work begins,” he clarified.
“I’m glad we got the pirogue over,” I said, and laughed.
“I am too,” he replied, and started to laugh also.
After the rope was firmly attached on both banks the first two vehicles were loaded on to the ferry, one a very expensive new looking 4×4 and the other a battered old jeep. After that five men began to pull on the rope and edge towards the other side. Luckily the rope didn’t come loose at either shore as it would have meant the ferry drifting downriver without any control and was glad it’s wasn’t my expensive 4×4 on board.
There wasn’t much to do while we waited so I sat on the shore and watched things going on around me. Even though there was a lot going on there was a Sunday morning relaxed feel about the place and no one seemed unduly put out by the delay. I sat on the concrete landing dock and watched as pirogues took the place of the ferry and transported everything from foot passengers to motorbikes across in a slow and steady way while the men on the ferry laboured to cross with the vehicles. Indeed the pirogues were having a really busy day and they must look forward to when the ferry is not running as they will make a decent amount of money from breakdowns like this.
Ferry breakdowns don’t matter that much to people on foot as they can get a pirogue and carry on about their day but it was nice to watch these little craft go back and forward using their reliable methods when more modern ones don’t work.
Day to day life continued in and around the river with women washing clothes and keeping one eye on bathing youngsters, men fishing and others swimming in the early morning sun. Some just sitting on the dock. Amid all the activity my eye was drawn to four men standing close together struggling with something heavy under the water and I assumed their fishing net had been caught in something. This struggle went on for fifteen minutes until the four of them crouched down together in the water and all lifted a bamboo pole. There were two men at either end of the pole and attached to it was a car engine. I could hardly believe my eyes. They took a few steps and the pole slipped dropping the engine back into the water. Luckily no one was injured and all the men were clear of it when it landed. They lifted it again but only to waist height and got it ashore. It looks like they were washing it, but I don’t imagine the water will have done the internal workings of the engine any good.
After the engine incident things returned to normality and our 4×4 finally made it off the ferry just before midday so we had had a six hour delay which had almost flown by and before I knew it we were speeding towards Vangaindrano.