We awoke early to a cool and pleasant morning, and were greeted by our guide complete with a fresh breakfast that he’d only just prepared for us. A generous helping of egg rolls and a steaming hot brew of Madagascan coffee.
After rushing to get here we were now feeling quite comfortable in the surroundings. Our tent wedged tightly in a beautiful gorge, with the area shadowed by high cliffs, surrounded by small trees and with the sound of a small stream trickling by. I didn’t imagine ‘Isalo National Park’ being this scenic, as the previous day when driving on the outskirts of the park I was beginning to feel a little let down, and disappointed.
I didn’t really have any great expectations of Madagascar, and sometimes that the best way to approach any new destination. It’s one of the few area’s of the world I had no real understanding of, except what I could piece together in my mind, from a topographical map and a few pages in a guide book. I suppose I just had visions of the country being more green and lush. During yesterdays drive, the scenery was beginning to mimic that of the remote areas of central Australia. Although central Australia is a special part of the world, I was hoping for something a little different. It’s amazing what lies within the confines of a mountain gorge, and not visible from a distance.
The feeling of disappointment soon waned and over the next two weeks, the vast and diverse landscapes of this country, with it’s warm and friendly people, exceeded my expectations upon leaving.
A Relaxing Walk in Islao National Park Before The Adventure Begins
After breakfast we had a short 40 minute hike further up the gorge to the ‘Piscine Noire’ and ‘Piscine Bleue’, a pair of beautiful natural swimming holes carved into the rock, over the passing millennia. Heading up the gorge was even more scenic, with it’s small sandy beaches and exotic palms dotting the trail. We rested at the pools for a short while, but opted out of having a swim as the water was icy cold. After returning from the pools, we relaxed for a short while, being entertained by a pack of local Lemurs. We then began packing up our camping gear and getting ready for the tough two and a half hour slog, up and over the escapement, and on to our next camp at ‘Piscine Natural’, all in the heat of the day.
It was at this point that things began to go a little pear shaped. We were ready to depart when our guide said we’d have to wait a little while, due to a small fire high on the escapement above, blocking the trail. I went for a look, and it seemed quite small in size, and you could just make out the flames rising above the rocks. After waiting for an hour or so I was getting anxious and wanted to get going, so I said to our guide, ‘Come on, let’s go, it’s only a a small fire’. He seemed hesitant, but agreed so I grabbed Liza and we made a start up the steep path to the escarpment above. As we gained altitude you could see that the fire was not as isolated as first thought, and there were several men fighting the flames in various areas around the gorge by thrashing at them with cut of branches. There efforts were gallant, but they were indeed fighting a loosing battle.
We kept marching on, this time with Liza in the lead, as our guide needed to take a leak. Rounding the next ridge, the flames were beginning to get little out of hand, as the winds were increasing. The smoke was also getting heavier, but we kept pushing forward, until the valley started to funnel down to a very narrow point.
The flames were now roaring straight towards us, ripping through the tall dried grass and shrubs on the other side of the gorge.
Running From The Flames – As Islao National Park Began to Burn
Liza stopped with hesitation but in a split second decision I told her to move it quickly. If we didn’t go at that exact moment we may have been stuck and have to turn around and run for it, or even worse got caught in the flames and be seriously injured or killed. It was quite an intense, albeit short moment. Even though the flames were not that large, the intensity of the radiating heat in our direction was formidable and it was quite a dangerous situation. Due to the steep angle of the cliff face where we were walking, there was no where to go and we could have easily been trapped.
Luck was on our side and we made it through (just!), and began to make our way to the very top of the escapement. The whole area had only been burn out just minutes ago, and the ground was still smoldering. There were small pockets of flames dotted all around the escarpment, and it was apparent that the small fire that had started a couple of hours prior, was now out of control, and the whole area was going to burn. As we reached the top, we were greeted by a dozen or so trekkers on a day trip. They looked at us bewildered as we made our way up and out of the valley, that was now totally on fire, and clogged with smoke and ash.
They were simply amazed at what we had just walked through, and as I turned around to take a look, so was I. The whole bloody valley was now on fire.
Rising further out of the valley and slowly gaining altitude, you could look around and see the size of the area behind us that had been burnt. It was only a small grass and scrub fire but the ground was blackened, and still smouldering in the hot midday sun. By this stage we were quite hungry and Liza was beginning to get a little tired. The adrenaline was wearing thin, so we stopped under the shade of a tree just out of the burnt area, and had a bite to eat and recharge the batteries. A prepacked lunch of tuna sandwiches and fruit juice got us up and moving again. It was now the middle of the day, and the hot Madagascan sun was searing down upon us. Another 45 minute slog and finally we’d be at our new camp ‘Piscine Natural’.
Arriving at ‘Piscine Natural’ the scenery was even more beautiful than the swimming holes from the previous day. I’m not sure if it was because of what we’d just been through, but the area was beautiful.
Getting down into this natural pool, with small waterfall’s of crystal clear water flowing down the rock faces and into a turquoise blue plunge pool, it was a totally natural environment, but looked as if it was built for Disneyland.
It just didn’t seem real, a paradise found, so we grabbed our towels and both headed down for a well earned swim.
We Escaped The Flames but Our Adventure Was Only Begining
That evening the sky was a sun burnt orange, with the smell of fire was in the air. It was a great time of the day to sit and ponder on the days events, but I noticed there was a slight wind change taking place. Although the fire had burnt most of the valley were we’d walked today, so there wasn’t much of a chance of it coming back upon us in that direction. If the flames made it all the way to the valley behind the next ridge, then it would be coming straight for us in the middle of the night, and fire runs much quicker uphill.
I told Liza what I’d seen from my vantage point at the top of the rise, and also discussed it with our guide. He seemed a little worried, but nothing over the top so we had our dinner, and bedded down for the night. Liza and I had a bit of a laugh and discussed our fire plan should the flames come roaring over the hill that night. We were semi joking, but also both new it could happen, so we packed us much as we could into our packs before going to sleep, being ready for a hasty getaway.
The inevitable happened and at about 1.30am, and we were abruptly awoken by our guide. ‘Quickly Quickly, The fire is coming! The fire is coming!’, yelled the guide, vigorously shaking our tent in the process. I immediately pulled down the zipper and glanced outside. The flames were now rolling down the hill a hundred or so meters from our position, and it was time to go. They weren’t approaching at any great velocity, as the wind very slight at this time of night, but we needed to get out of the area all the same. We haphazardly stuffed everything into our packs and made a beeline for the next valley, and down to safety. Fully loaded up with about 30kg of gear between us, and running along the path in total darkness was difficult.
We also had many locals streaming past us, who had been up all night fighting the fire, and were also heading out of the park and to safety.
After an hour of shuffling our way down the mountain we made it down to the safety of the national park shelter at the bottom of the next valley. This shelter is the starting point for many treks into the park, and was a good place to rest. The day before we wrote down our drivers phone number in case of emergency, so we though this would be a fair call to wake him up, and dialed his number. As it turned out he’d been up all night waiting for a call, as he had heard the news that a couple of tourists (that would be us) were last seen heading directly into the fire’s path yesterday afternoon. He quickly drove the 20 minutes to the park entrance to pick us up, and was glad to know that we were safe.
We then headed back into Ranohira, and parked the car by the side of the road and tried to get a couple of hours sleep, before continuing up the RN7 highway to the ‘Parc National D’Andringtra’, a further 5 hours away.
After A Poor Nights Sleep We Left The Fire at Isalo National Park
After a short and broken sleep, we whooshed down quick breakfast and hit the road. It was at this point our day was about to be turned up side down, literally. No more than 40km north of Ranohira, we were all pretty quite and the scenery was becoming monotonous, flat and arid. Liza was in the back seat counting our cash (due to the small denominations, the wads of Malagasy francs were quite big), as we wanted to make sure we had enough to continue on without the need to go to a bank. I was staring out the window in a bit of a trance, when all of a sudden we started to veer towards the side of the road and down the shoulder.
It seems that with all the commotion of the night before, our driver (Anghu) didn’t get much sleep and decided it was a good time to take a nap, whilst cruising at 70km an hour down the main highway.
Immediately I yelled out to Anghu, and quickly reached for the wheel to try and straighten us up. Anghu came back from the land of nod, and quickly turned the wheel back in the direction of the road. Our back wheels were now in the dust and we started to slide. As we hit the tarmac, all four wheels gained traction, but it was useless as we were now side on to the road and in the blink of an eye we began to vigorously roll. When something like this happens, your mind is churning at a million miles and hour. The brain falls into a state of sensory overload, whilst trying to process the vast amounts of information required for one sole task, survival. The part of the brain responsible for processing memory is not given any priority, and it’s hard to remember with any great clarity those exact last moments as they actually happened.
After two complete rolls with the first being with such a force the car barely hit the road, basically glancing the outer edge of the vehicle. The car came to a sudden halt on it’s side, and within an instant it was deadly silent except for the wind blowing through the now broken windows. We gathered our senses, and I asked if everyone was alright. We were all pretty stunned, although remarkably, we were all fine except for some bumps, grazes and bruises. Anghu climbed out of his window and onto the side of the car, and I followed shortly after. Once out side, you could actually see how far from the initial slide we had rolled. The car was absolutely trashed and was complete write off, with dents and damage to basically every panel.
Alot of our gear had been thrown out of the vehicle throughout the rolls, with Liza’s backpack finished about 20m way from where the car had finally stopped.
As Liza was counting our money at the exact time of the crash, she interpreted the feeling as being in one of those machines on a game show, where you stand in a glass box and try to catch as much money as possible in sixty seconds, as it blows violently around you. My wallet and credit cards were also some distance from the car. Strangely I found them laying face up, as if they had been dealt out in a game of poker. By this stage there were piles of cash blowing everywhere in the wind, dotting the landscape around us. It was like a scene from a Hollywood movie. You know the one where the bank robber gets shot at the end of the film, and falls into a heap on the ground, with his bag of cash fluttering in the dusty breeze.
Our Madagascar Adventure was Now Resembling a Nightmare
It was quite strange, as my first instinct after making sure we were all Ok, was to quickly begin gathering our money. Anghu, being the person he was, also began to help me gather the cash, even though he no doubt would’ve been thinking about the car, and the damage caused to it. After gathering as much cash as we could find, I made my way back to the car. Liza was still inside, haphazardly picking up Malagasy francs that were scattered all over the inside of the car. I then looked in the back and saw a liquid leaking from a side panel, and I though it was fuel and told Lyz to get out. After a second look, I realized it was a can of red bull that had been punctured and now leaking. I was no doubt feeling a little edgy by this stage.
After a short while of being stranded in the vast openness of Southern Madagascar, a couple of vehicles came by and stopped. With about 7 or 8 men we were able to right the vehicle back onto it’s four wheels. We changed a tire and with a jack we pulled the buckled metal away from the tyres and started her up. Amazingly, it was still drivable, albeit very very slowly and to say she needed a wheel alignment would be an understatement. We scrapped as much broken glass out of the vehicle as we could and re-loaded the car and crawled the next 80km back to Ihosy. The whole way back I wanted to express my joy of surveying the crash, but withdrew from this emotion. Even though Anghu had also survived, he was only the halfway through the ordeal at this point. He would now have to face his boss, and explain what happened, and you could see in his face he was worried for his financial future and that of his family.
Looking back on or little Madagascan escapade, and especially the car accident, I suppose sooner or later this was bound to happen.
It’s a Numbers Game – Sooner or Later It Was Going To Happen
Over the many thousands of miles of overland travel, I have come close to this many times before, in fact I was actually involved in a rickshaw crash in Rajistan many years ago where the thing rolled over and crashed into a road side market. From 47hr bus trips in Africa, to the terrifying jeep rides in northern Pakistan. You can also throw in the white knuckle ride in the back of a truck on the Yungas Road (more commonly known as the “Worlds Most Dangerous Road’ in the days when the actually drove down it), I’ve seen and had my fair share of close shaves or near misses over the years. I suppose my number was up this time though, and I just thank my lucky stars we were all wearing seat-belts, and also in a quality vehicle. Sooner or later were all going to die, there’s no stopping that, just delaying it.
I’m not afraid of death, but I am afraid of not living and for days after this event, I constantly reflected on what had happened and how close we were to being killed that day.
Anghu, was a very cautious driver, and I consider him to be very competent, but without sleep, this could’ve happened to anyone. After the crash Liza and I were more worried about him and his future employment with the company. The cost of the hire car with a compulsory driver was an extremely reasonable €56 a day, of which Anghu would no doubt only be paid €4-5 a day. With the cost of the vehicle destroyed being somewhere in the vicinity of €20,000, you can understand why he was a bit edgy after the crash. We made sure that we met his direct employer on returning to Antananarivo, and let him know that this was not his fault and also sent two emails after we left the country to enforce the same view. We’ve since heard back from his employer and I’m glad to hear that he still has his job and is doing well. As for us, the old saying rings true ‘That which does not kill us, makes us stronger!’