When the sun rises over the mountains, it sets the landscape below us afire, and the trophy of the lowlands is the Manambolo river that twists through it. We walk down the escarpment, past waterfalls, and after a while, reach small villages where we dance with the locals. They power their portable music stations through a portable solar panel, which is something we will see throughout the country. Ankavandra turns out to be a lively town, and there are hordes of kids following us and posing for our cameras. We do some shopping, get the necessary paperwork done, and walk down to the river. Ahead of us: one of the porters who has a stick from which hang bags with some of the shopping, and a duck and chicken, upside down. Contrary to what we imagined beforehand, we discover that the villages are not on the banks of the river. When we reach the Manambolo, two women are taking a bath, and a small crowd sees us off in our canoes.
We get into the rhythm of canoeing: paddling on the left, paddling on the right, looking everywhere to savour the landscape, to look out for animals, to steer clear of sandbanks, to enjoy the silence around us, and the warm light of the afternoon. We spot our first crocodile which rapidly disappears in the red water. In fact, there is nothing to see in the river: it is solid brownish red, just like the earth. The next days, we sleep on sandbanks, we eat surprisingly good meals, and even though we are going downstream, we still have to work with our paddles. There are encounters with people along the way: dancing in the bush with some, waving to kids washing their clothes, the odd person sitting at the riverbank. It surprises us that we hardly see any other pirogue on the river. Sometimes, we don't see a person for hours in a row. We walk to a group of houses, meet up with 90+ year old lady who has never left this neighbourhood. Never seen a car, never seen a city, never traveled anywhere. It is very hard to imagine. Apart from a short downpour one early evening, the days are warm with blue skies and a sun burning in our necks. We see some more crocs, a chameleon, and a plethora of birds of many kinds. We get used to taking a bath in the river at the end of the day.
After leaving the higher mountains behind, we canoe through flat landscapes, until we reach the entrance to the gorge. The second day, the duck appears on our plate, and while the chicken still makes a lot of noise, and sometimes seems to escape (the crew tie him up to a paddle so he cannot go far), we know its days are numbered. When we enter the gorge, there are vertical walls on both sides, with caves high above us, trees at impossible spots on the rocks. the Manambolo gets narrow and spectacular here. At the end of the third day on the water, we sleep on a sandbank under high cliffs. Amazingly, a family turns out to live just next door. That evening, inevitably, the chicken appears on our plates, and after having grown a bond with him, it becomes difficult to eat. The next morning, we cross the river, paddle upstream on a crystal clear tributary until we reach rapids. We walk the last bit, through different pools and past various waterfalls, before we reach a small paradise. A waterfall with a jacuzzi like pool, other rapids, pools - the perfect place for a wash and relaxation. We continue paddling through the canyon, under overhanging white cliffs, until, suddenly, we hear the noise of an engine - a sound we haven't heard for several days. Our adventure has ended: we are close to reach Bekopaka.
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