Madagascar by Bike & Packraft – A Photo Essay

Alpacka Raft Photo Ambassador (& All-Around Badass Whitewater Boater) Casey Fulton Shares His Madagascar Bikeraft Adventure in Photos

We learned on this trip to not just look up and around, but also down. Madagascar hides mysteries and beauty we are still trying to comprehend. Biologists estimate that about 90% of the animals found on the island of Madagascar are endemic to the island.
We learned on this trip to not just look up and around, but also down. Madagascar hides mysteries and beauty we are still trying to comprehend. Biologists estimate that about 90% of the animals found on the island of Madagascar are endemic to the island.

Photos & story by Casey Fulton. Follow Fulton on Instagram, and check out the Alpacka Raft Instagram feed all this week (August 6-10) to see additional photos.

I love staring at maps and thinking of the possibilities, looking at contour lines as they get closer together and then give way to a blue line signifying a river or a creek. I imagine what the landscape looks like. Would there be people living in the canyon or not? Equipped with a packraft, bicycle, and this imagination I know I can go almost anywhere in the world and explore, replacing the lines on the maps with actual views of mountain ridges and river valleys. For 10 months I stared at maps of Madagascar, tracing roads and trails to the river’s edge, where I would mentally change my finger from a bicycle to a packraft, and would follow the river to the ocean. I would measure and remeasure the length of the river and think of how long it would take us to complete the descents. And then I’d consider the interactions with people who lived along the river and what we would do if we encountered one of the countless crocodiles that lives in the rivers of western Madagascar.

We travelled through many different landscapes while bikerafting across Madagascar, but this was the first river we saw of the trip.
We travelled through many different landscapes while bikerafting across Madagascar, but this was the first river we saw of the trip.

Finally, after months of planning I met up with Jessica in Antananarivo, Madagascar. We had our gear in working order and were literally on our way out the door when the last person we talked to at the hostel gave us a serious warning about our route. The man, a local tour operator, told us that he used to run tours going on the same route that we had planned, but no longed did because of the “Masalo,” a group of bandits that terrorize much of southern Madagascar and pockets of western Madagascar. While I know there are always people who will tell you can’t do something or go somewhere, there was something different about this man’s statement. He was able to describe the route we had planned, the towns that we would pass through, the conditions of road we would encounter, and the characteristic of the river we were attempting to reach in such detail that, as a team, we made the decision to stay another day in the capital and try to figure out just how real this threat was and what we should do.

Not all roads are paved. Not all adventure’s are in a guidebook.
Not all roads are paved. Not all adventure’s are in a guidebook.

These things happen during international travel. You have to asses the credibility of the threat and what the other options are. We began reaching out to all of our Madagascar contacts, my main contact has spent years researching wildlife and plants in the country, and when I explained our route and asked about his experiences, he told me he had been robbed on the route.  Yet another person told us that they had heard of another armed robbery on that route earlier in the year. After hours of questioning, we kept getting the same response. There was a 100km section of road that was not safe. We would be funneled into a valley between town where roadblocks could be set up, and there would be no escape.

I enjoy risk. I love paddling challenging whitewater, skiing steep tight tree-lines, and climbing questionable things, but I don’t like trusting my life in the hands of other people who are angry and have guns. Would we encounter these people? It wasn’t a 100%, but it seemed credible enough that we changed our route. After agreeing on our new route, we spent the next 11 days biking dirt roads and packrafting the Tsirbahana River, nearly 600 kilometers across the 8th continent of Madagascar. What did we learn on this trip? A heck of a lot. I hope you enjoy my photo essay.

As it is above, it is below.
As it is above, it is below.
We quickly learned why Madagascar is referred to as the Red Continent
We quickly learned why Madagascar is referred to as the “Red Continent.”
Every morning villagers gather around the town spigot in order to get water. Families can water for hours to get water and serves a spot to catch up with each other over coffee and food.
Every morning villagers gather around the town spigot in order to get water. Families often wait for hours to get water, and the spigot serves as a spot where they can catch up with each other over coffee and food.
Sometimes you have to sandbag your friends that their 1970’s touring bike is the perfect bike for Madagascar.
Sometimes you have to sandbag your friends. I insisted Jessica’s 1970’s touring bike would be the perfect bike for Madagascar.
Spending 10 hours a day on a bike does strange things to the brain.
Spending 10 hours a day on a bike does strange things to the brain.
Our plan of sneaking through the village down to the river didn’t really work. The village gathered by the river to see Jessica off properly.
Our plan of sneaking through the village down to the river didn’t really work. The village gathered by the river to see Jessica off properly. Throughout the trip farmers would often stop what they were doing to come investigate who we were and what we were doing when we pulled over to filter water.
Pastel sunset from our first night on the river.
Pastel sunset on our first night on the river.
No matter what the situation is, we seem to always find ourselves trying to contain a gear explosion.
No matter what the situation is, we seem to always find ourselves trying to contain a gear explosion.
The farther we floated downstream the closer we got to unspoiled Madagascar. The combination of rough terrain and remoteness left this section of forest relatively untouched.
The farther we floated downstream the closer we got to unspoiled Madagascar. The combination of rough terrain and remoteness left this section of forest relatively untouched.
Seeking food and shade we pulled over to stop for a lunch break. 15 minutes into our lunch we noticed two dugout canoes 10 meters downstream, at about the same time these five men walked out of the forest. Both parties were equally as starled to see the other, we had the perfect way to bridge the communcation gap, a bottle of whiskey. We offered each member a cap full, smiled, and high-fived each other.
Seeking food and shade we pulled over to stop for a lunch break. 15 minutes into our lunch we noticed two dugout canoes 10 meters downstream, at about the same time these five men walked out of the forest. Both parties were equally as starled to see the other, we had the perfect way to bridge the communcation gap, a bottle of whiskey. We offered each member a cap full, smiled, and high-fived each other. Through a game of charades we learned that they were hunting for honey. They quickly offered us a honey comb each. I had never had a honey comb before, and now I can’t imagine anyother way to have honey.
These boat, called pirogues, are the life lines of the river communities. They are incredibly fast and quiet. The boatmen use a canoe paddle to get down stream, and then use a 20-25 foot pole to push themselves back up stream.
These boat, called pirogues, are the lifelines of the river communities. They are incredibly fast and quiet. The boatmen use a canoe paddle to get down stream, and then use a 20-25 foot pole to push themselves back up stream.
While paddling and talking Jessica and I heard voices in the distance. It turns out the voices were our own, and this rock formation formed the echo chamber. Celebrating Jessica’s birthday we each had a cocktail, and entertained ourselves for a while with the echos.
While paddling and talking Jessica and I heard voices in the distance. It turns out the voices were our own, and this rock formation formed the echo chamber. Celebrating Jessica’s birthday we each had a cocktail, while entertained ourselves with the echoes.
A pirogues shuttles villages from one side of the village to the other.
A pirogue shuttles villagers from one side of the village to the other. Halfway into our descent we passed the only village serviced by a road. If we wanted to bail, it would be our only option. We opted instead to stop, buy baguettes, and carry on downstream.
White Egrets were the most common bird on the river.
White Egrets were the most common bird on the river.
On the third day we saw our first Baobab trees. We also started to encounter more farmers planting on the river banks meaning we had to work harder to find campsites that wouldn’t interfere with peoples daily life.
On the third day we saw our first Baobab trees. We also started to encounter more farmers planting on the river banks, meaning we had to work harder to find campsites that wouldn’t interfere with peoples daily life.
A local fisherman, who also gave us some honeycombs, decided to stop and fish in the presence of birds.
A local fisherman, who also gave us some honeycombs, decided to stop and fish in the presence of birds.
Having fallen into they rhytm of the river, we would start coffee and 5am in the darkness, pack in the dawn’s morning light, and be on the river by the time the sun broke the horizon. It’s one of the only routines of life that I actually love and look forward to. Before this trip Jessica’s longest bike ride was 10 miles and she had been in a packraft once. She’s one of the toughest people I have ever met and a great expedition partner.
Having fallen into they rhytm of the river, we would start coffee and 5a.m. in the darkness, pack in the dawn’s morning light, and be on the river by the time the sun broke the horizon. It’s one of the only routines of life that I actually love and look forward to. Before this trip Jessica’s longest bike ride was 10 miles, and she had been in a packraft once. She’s one of the toughest people I have ever met and a great expedition partner.
With everything in the boat, the only left to do is strap the bike to the boat. No matter how many times I put a bike on a packraft I end up smiling and laughing untill it hurts. It’s a crazy idea that has changed how I look at the world. With they right bike and boat anything is possible. Even at 5a.m. villagers would walk out of the forest to see who we were and what we were up to.
With everything in the boat, the only thing left to do is strap the bike to the boat. No matter how many times I put a bike on a packraft, I end up smiling and laughing until it hurts. It’s a crazy idea that has changed how I look at the world. Anything is possible with the right bike and boat. Even at 5a.m. villagers would walk out of the forest to see who we were and what we were up to.
The sunrise on our last morning of the river. The only thing that stood between us and cold beer was 65km of flatwater, a headwind, 100 degree temperatures and the constant thought of crocodiles.
The sunrise on our last morning of the river.
On our last day we paddled over 65 kilometers, which was tough. It was 100+ degrees with no chance of shade cover. Our options were get sun-burned or sweat non-stop. We opted for sun coverage and I was glad for that the next day, although the added dehydration played tricks on my mind as I started to think every stick that floated by was a crocodile I had to paddle away from. This section was more like navigating the Great Lakes than river running. There were many times that we couldn't see the shore, just islands scattered around and the constant thought of crocs. Paddling rivers that have an abundance of crocodiles adds another stress that doesn't leave your brain until you finally take off of the river for good. I was glad we were safe and that we finally had a sand free-meal and cold drinks in our sights.Â
On our last day we paddled over 65 kilometers, which was tough with temps at 100+ degrees and no chance of shade cover. Our options were get sunburned or sweat non-stop. We opted for sun coverage, and I was glad for that the next day, although the added dehydration played tricks on my mind as I started to think every stick that floated by was a crocodile I had to paddle away from. This section was more like navigating the Great Lakes than river running. There were many times that we couldn’t see the shore, just islands scattered around. Paddling rivers that have an abundance of crocodiles adds another stress that doesn’t leave your brain until you finally get off the river for good. I was glad we were safe and that we finally had a sand-free meal and cold drinks in our sights.