Madagascar. An adventure through the heart of this wondrous island.
On this episode, we’re going on an adventure through the heart of Madagascar. Join us with British Adventurer Ash Dykes, as he tells us how he climbed eight mountains, survived malaria, rotten eel, a witch, leeches, and crocodiles. Click the play button below to listen:
CWALINSKI: I caught up with Ash Dykes, a British adventurer. His travels are always adventurous, like cycling the length of Vietnam and Cambodia.
DYKES: On ten-pound bicycles, really quite reckless, no helmet, no puncture repair kit, no gears no suspension, a tent that wasn’t waterproof; we found out the hard way.
CWALINSKI: When Dykes says the bikes were ten pounds, he means that the bike cost 10 British pounds. He did a trip on a really low budget and it took him 15 days to cover over 1,100 miles.
DYKES: We were hit by mopeds, chased by dogs, dodged by lorries.
CWALINSKI: A lorry is another word for a truck. Even though he spent so little on this trip, he was low on cash.
DYKES: Crossed over to Thailand into Burma. Couldn’t afford a permit, so I decided to cross through the jungle, where there was no border control.
CWALINSKI: You might be getting the idea that Dykes doesn’t do things the conventional way.
DYKES: And then I went on to do treks in the Himalayas, avoiding the Pakistani Army, again because I didn’t have a permit for that. Before settling down as a scuba diving instructor and Muay Thai fighter, for about a year and a half in Thailand.
CWALINSKI: Dykes is the kind of guy whose version of settling down is to become a Muay Thai fighter in Thailand. He says he’s been this way since he was a teenager.
DYKES: I worked as a lifeguard here in North Wales for a good two years. Doing about 240 hours a month, every month. Sold my car, bought a cheap bicycle. Started bicycling to and from work every day.
CWALINSKI: Dykes preps for his adventures this way. He sells his belongings, packs his things and just goes. This is how he got ready for his most recent adventure.
DYKES: Madagascar is a bloody big place. And I think a lot of people assume it’s small. The fourth largest island in the world. So I had told the world I had announced it to everyone, told them what I was planning, what I was doing, but yet didn’t have the money to make it happen until two weeks before.
CWALINSKI: He didn’t spend lavishly on expensive gear either.
DYKES: They’ve been such low budget, that it almost makes them hardcore. I went to sports direct in the 50% discount and bought myself some carriable trainers. (FADE) I’ve not got helicopter backup, I’ve not got a pickup around the corner, I’ve not got support crew.
CWALINSKI: Dykes would walk the entire route on foot. It would take him right through the middle of the island
DYKES: I’d be walking from the most southern tip to the most northern tip, via the mountainous range. Summiting the 8 highest mountains along the way. Covering a distance of 1,600 miles.
CWALINSKI: Not only is Madagascar huge, but it’s an incredibly unique country. To find out more about the island, I spoke with Charles Welch, the conservation coordinator at the Duke Lemur Center. He went to Madagascar once on a temporary research trip.
WELCH: We ended up living in Madagascar for 15 years, working in conservation. That wasn’t the original intention, but that’s how long it ended up. One year led to another.
CWALINSKI: Welch spent that time working on conservation projects in Madagascar, an island that’s been isolated for a really long time.
WELCH: Tens of millions of years. It’s been pretty much where it is today, completely isolated for around 80 million years. So you get species that evolved differently there than on the African mainland.
CWALINSKI: This made the plant and animal life here unique, compared to the rest of the world.
WELCH: You’d have around 80-80% endemic species in Madagascar, and that’s really high…
CWALINSKI: Endemic species means that it can only be found in the wild in one area.
WELCH: Over half of the world’s chameleons come from Madagascar… Madagascar has 3 times the number of palm species than the entire continent of Africa… There are 8 species of baobabs worldwide, 6 of those are native to Madagascar… Up over 100 species of Lemurs in Madagascar now…
CWALINSKI: Baobabs are these amazing looking trees with thick reddish-grey trunks up to 12 feet wide. They’re the most famous plant on the island. Madagascar’s diversity in life comes from the variety of the landscape here, much of which Dykes would be trekking through on his adventure.
DYKES: I’d be coming across the savannah, desert, tropical dry forest, tropical rain forest, mountains.
CWALINSKI: Instead of trekking through without any permits as he did in Burma and Pakistan, Dykes got permission from officials in Madagascar.
DYKES: I partnered with the tourism minister. With them, I partnered with the national parks office, to allow access to submit some of the highest mountains out there.
CWALINSKI: He would also need guides to help him navigate and act as his translator.
DYKES: The guides were in the thick of it with me. The guide, especially in the southern section, had never been that far down south before. So we were both lost together, we were in the thick of it together.
CWALINSKI: In September 2014, Dykes began his trip at Cape Sainte Marie; the southern tip of Madagascar. But after a coup of the presidency in 2009, there’s been a bit of civil unrest in this part of the country. A group, Dykes describes as ‘bandits’ were in conflict with the local military. He and his guide tried at first to trek through the jungle to avoid being seen.
DYKES: But I found that the bandits were utilizing the jungle to stay hidden from the military, so it wouldn’t have been a good idea. We made it back inland and that’s when we came across a drunken military officer, who pretty much had me and my two guides at gunpoint. Demanding for money. He was drunk, so his AK-47 kept slipping off his shoulder and he was catching it by the trigger.
CWALINSKI: For 25 minutes the Guides tried to reason with the soldier, while Dykes stood by contemplating his next move.
DYKES: But two sober offices came down and apologized to us and allowed us to continue.
CWALINSKI: After that incident, Dykes and his guides continued to push north. They had to go back into the Jungle, using machetes (FX) to cut a path through where they would face other dangers.
DYKES: As beautiful as it was, I haven’t seen another country like it; the challenges were constant. You’ve got your crocodiles; you have your diseases from the mosquitos. And one month into my expeditions, the Nile crocodiles were waking up after 7 months in hibernation and they were hungry. And I had a lot of rivers to cross.
CWALINSKI: Nile crocodiles are active in the summer months. Since the seasons are reversed South of the equator, Dykes was entering the crocodiles most active time of year.
DYKES: There was one river that we saw and it didn’t look like crocodile territory, it looked like the river came to a dead end and me and my guide, also called, ‘Me’, so it became very confusing. So me and Me, both waddled in the river and started washing and the next minute from the distance we saw a local running over the hill, sort of waving his hands and shouting in Malagasy, and I jumped out so I just followed straight away. And this guy was shouting that there are 3 to a 4-meter-long crocodile in that river, so get the heck out of there.
CWALINSKI: 12-foot-long crocodiles lived in those waters, but they weren’t the only threats of the rivers.
DYKES: On one river crossing, this was the scariest for sure. It was a night time river crossing, crocodile-infested and it was during the cyclone season. And we all had to link arms forming a human chain, there was now five of us. We were pretty sure that if one of us slipped, not only the weight of the rucksacks would pull us under the river, but we’d also hit these boulders on the way down.
CWALINSKI: On this portion of the expedition, Dykes was joined by photographer Suzanne Tieri. Dykes said she tagged along to capture some of the adventures in her photos. This meant she’d also be attempting these dangerous river crossings.
DYKES: The roar of the river was so loud that we had to shout to hear over our own voices. It was pitch black so we had to wear a head torch, and as we all crossed, Suzanna lost her footing. And she was in the grasp of Max’s hand and mine, my guide. And it was at that point that I thought, holy shit if we lose grip, it’s game over for Suzanne. That was a close call.
CWALINSKI: Besides the geographical dangers, Dykes says that disease posed another threat. The potential for catching Malaria there his really high. But this could be avoided by taking anti-malaria medication on a daily basis. Then there were other, less common diseases.
DYKES: I walked up into a community. And this community was one of only a small few in Madagascar that still suffers from the bubonic plague.
CWALINSKI: Bubonic plague is a scary disease. Without treatment, it kills over 30 percent of those infected. It’s believed that the famous European Black Death in the 14th century that wiped out 1 in 4 people, was a form of bubonic plague. But Dykes and his guide still need food, and they relied on communities like this one, for assistance.
DYKES: And they said, eat what we give you, then get into your tent and stay protected and leave first thing in the morning and we did exactly that.
CWALINSKI: Bubonic plague can be contracted through the bite of a flea or by direct contact with an infected person. Although Dykes and his guide avoided the plague, he says they still got sick, but from something else.
DYKES: The food that we ate was eel, and I and my guide were both in a bad way the next morning. We’re both pointing and laughing at each other as we both have to run into the bushes to let loose.
CWALINSKI: Dykes thinks the eel was rotten, which explains why both he and his guide got sick.
DYKES: And I guess that’s how, when I was taking my malaria pills, it was going in one way and out the other. And so that’s how malaria got a hold of me.
CWALINSKI: Malaria used to kill over a million people a year in Africa. Today that number is closer to 700,000. Those who are infected begin suffering flu-like symptoms, like headaches, fever, and shivering.
DYKES: It’s grim, really is. I went from being strong and capable to not even being able to pick up a glass of water for example. At first I thought it was the heat exhaustion, because it was very similar, the pain. But it was getting worse and worse until one morning I had a mental debate with myself, a good 45 minutes where a part of me was saying, ‘just go to sleep, it will be a painless death.’ A different part of me was shouting and screaming to wake up and get myself to a Doctor.
CWALINSKI: Dykes found the strength to get up and told his guide he needed help. They got him to a doctor just in time.
DYKES: The doctor came and she said, you just made it. Another few hours and you’d potentially fall into a coma. She acted fast, she told me that unfortunately, I had contracted the deadliest strain of Malaria and that there are four different strains.
CWALINSKI: The strain Dykes had could kill you in 24 hours, but it’s the only one that could be completely irradiated. The other strains can remain dormant in the human body for life, cause long-term complications.
DYKES: And fortunately Malaria was eradicated out of my system and I was able to move on, 13 kilograms lighter, but able to push on, none the less.
CWALINSKI: Where we left off Dykes just recovered from malaria, and he’s still in the jungle.
DYKES: We would be living off the land especially in the northern section. We would be gathering mangos, sugarcane, coconut. We’d be hunting Tenrec, which is a small rodent out there.
CWALINSKI: Dykes lost a considerable amount of weight, but he kept pushing. Hacking his way through the jungle and the mountains.
DYKES: The mountains were really really difficult. Challenging in its own respected right. And then jungle is challenging in its own respected right, now you merge these two together to make mountainous jungles, that is a different challenge altogether.
CWALINSKI: An expedition like this had never been done before. So there weren’t any maps or known routes he could take.
DYKES: Not only are you hacking through the density of the jungle, covering one mile every ten hours. You’re climbing up, trying to navigate your way around up this mountain. And a lot of the times we had to turn back. The biggest detour we did was turning back on ourselves for three days…words can’t describe that, you know.
CWALINSKI: The locals in Madagascar don’t travel unless necessary and they stay on the main routes and trails. They don’t enter the jungle for a variety of reasons. For one, they don’t need or want to, the brush is too thick anyway. They also have the superstitions that keep them out. And if they go up any mountains, they have traditions for that too.
DYKES: There’s one specific moment, where in order to summit the highest mountain… …White cockerel to the peak with you.
CWALINSKI: A cockerel is another name for a rooster.
DYKES: They say, by doing that, you keep away the bad spirits of the forest. You know I am all up for respecting the local traditions, their way of life.
CWALINSKI: Dykes says he bought a white cockerel for the trip and named it Gertrude.
DYKES: I do realize I gave him a woman’s name. And Gertrude came with me. He was in my backpack; he was fine he had his own compartment. It was funny, we all grew a bond to this bloody chicken.
DYKES: We then had to set him free on top of Maromokotro, but I couldn’t take him back down with me because the locals would have been offended, I would have basically led the bad spirits from the forest into their communities.
CWALINSKI: Madagascar, like other African countries, have a lot of superstitious practices like this. They even believe in other, more
DYKES: They truly believe in their spirits and their witches. I remember being in a hut in a tiny community deep within the mountains, you can’t get there by car or by bicycle, you can get there by foot only. And that night it was me, Max my main guide, Suzanne who was my photographer, and her porter to help carry stuff. And we were sleeping inside this hut made of mud and we had Gertrude with us as well.
CWALINSKI: Max woke up in the middle of the night when he sensed something very strange.
DYKES: The three of us were convulsing in our sleep… …And that’s when all three of us woke up at the same time.
CWALINSKI: Dykes says that Max grabbed his machete and went outside to have a look
DYKES: I remember him walking into the hut with a machete… …So maybe that’s why he didn’t fall into the trance as well.
CWALINSKI: Despite that unusual experience, Dykes was often considered the unusual one by many locals.
DYKES: Some locals, especially in the mountains and the highlands, had never seen a white person before, but only hear rumors when the French used to roam the bushes over 60 years ago now. So their ancestors passed down stories, quite negative stories as well, cause the French were pretty brutal.
CWALINSKI: Madagascar was under French control for around 60 years. Most of that time was peaceful. But in 1947, they revolted and demanded independence, in what’s known as the Malagasy Uprising. France responded by tripling its military presence on the island. They tried to crush descent my carrying out mass execution, torture, and rape. Not until 1958, did the island gain their independence. And they haven’t forgotten how they were treated. In some remote villages, they still associate a white person as a Colonial Frenchman.
DYKES: First thing that pops to mind is brutality and they’ll run for their lives. And so when these locals see a white man for the first time, they didn’t hang about. They sprinted off, they ran, hid in the bush. Sometimes whole communities would empty out, as I and my guide would walk up to a community. They would leave the fire running.
CWALINSKI: Since they’ve never seen one before Dykes says, local children believe white people are these ghost-like creatures that live in the jungle.
DYKES: If you see a white person roaming through the jungle, you run for your life. I’d be walking along a mountainous ridge, and there’s only one path. Either side it’s just straight down, either side. And as we’re walking we’d see these kids and instead of walking down back on themselves, they would run bloody down the hill to escape.
CWALINSKI: Dykes says these were a rare occurrence that only happened in the most remote places. Here is also where hundreds of species unique to Madagascar live, including their most famous animal.
DYKES: I came across a lot of different lemurs… …Just howling above our tents in the trees. And they’re always trying to get into the smoke of our fire.
WELCH: The whole story of lemurs is pretty amazing.
CWALINSKI: That’s Charles Welch again, from the Duke Lemur Center.
WELCH: These ancestral lemurs came across these mats of vegetation that were washed out to sea.
CWALINSKI: The current theory is that, 60 million years ago, a bunch of lemurs somehow survived an accidental trip from Africa to Madagascar. It could have been a tsunami.
WELCH: A giant tsunami that washed inland. And somehow arrived with enough individual and genetic diversity to survive and it sounds like a pretty fantastic story…
CWALINSKI: But today, many lemur species are endangered, and their habitat in the Madagascan jungle is shrinking every year.
WELCH: The deforestation and forest degradation problem there is really from just subsistence agriculture, people doing very simple, often slash and burn agriculture, just to grow enough rice to feed their families.
CWALINSKI: Slash and burn agriculture is when part of a forest is burned down to use as farmland. Welch says that Madagascar is one of the ten poorest countries in the world. When he lived there, he worked on improving their communities as a whole, so that they wouldn’t have to rely on practices that damage the forest.
WELCH: So as a result of that, a lot of our programs are community-based. Because if we can protect existing forest then we can protect not only lemurs but everything that’s in there of course.
CWALINSKI: Tourism can also help protect the forest. More visitors to the island can help promote the idea of conserving land and creating national parks. The income from tourism can also shift the economy to one that’s less dependent on slash and burn agriculture
WELCH: And it’s not very visited by tourists but it’s really an exceptionally beautiful area.
CWALINSKI: But he says, things there are changing.
WELCH: Tourism is growing; it continues to grow. The infrastructure has improved; it’s made a huge difference in the growth of tourism.
CWALINSKI: Although Ash Dykes travel methods are unconventional, he was appointed the UK Ambassador for Madagascar Tourism. After 155 days in the wilderness, he completed his journey at the northernmost tip of the Island. He climbed eight mountains, survived malaria, rotten eel, a witch, leeches, and crocodiles. Now he’s got a book coming out this September, called mission possible. And he’s currently planning his next adventure, but he won’t tell me what it is.
DYKES: I can’t reveal it just yet… I gotta keep it on the low key, another potential world first. So still a lot of planning to be done. –
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