Isle of Bones
“Cross in a crowd and the crocodile won’t eat you.”—Malgache proverb
I am Vazaha. He is Vezo. Between the uneven burdens of our two worlds we awkwardly balance a small wobbly canoe between us. Christian’s paddle dips rhythmically, expertly. We straddle the Tropic of Capricorn, a leg to each side, creeping like a resolute hermit crab through a primeval afternoon.
Vezo is Malagasy for “paddle”, both the object and the action. Vazaha means foreigner, in my case a white European foreigner since the villagers here cannot distinguish between an American and a Frenchman. To be labeled a white stranger, however, is not a racial slur. In a tribal nation such as Madagascar it’s essential to know who will pull the nets and tend the dead. One can be from a neighboring village less than a mile away and still be vazaha.
My limited high school French can access a first name or a cold beer, but little more. Christian understands the greeting “hello mister” and the identity of Rambo. In broad dumbshow I indicate a small dead squid sloshing around in the bilge, its expelled ink staining my feet a light grey. Christian’s sole catch for a day’s fishing.
“Les calmar…il son bons, oui?”
Christian smiles, a gleaming Cheshire cat of a smile that lingers in the platinum afternoon glare. “Oui, bon.”
I point to the waves on the outer reef and mimic a tube with curling fingers. I show myself falling from the lip and impacting the reef with a low explosive rumble. This amuses Christian.
“Les vagues…bon, no?!,” I bubble.
Christian humors me, keeps paddling.
So we’re agreed that the waves are good, and we leave it at that for the time being.
“Oui, bon vagues.”
Christian is a young Vezo tribesman, dark as a truffle, fit as a champion kickboxer from a lifetime of paddling canoes and pulling nets. He’d just rescued me from an hour’s swim to shore after my leash snapped during a flogging I’d endured from a large closeout set at Royales. My board had disappeared in an instant, flushed far inside or perhaps ensnared in one of the swift reef-pass currents flushing relentlessly towards the notorious Mozambique Channel.
I was suddenly alone, my erstwhile surf buddy Ross having vanished behind a large wall of foam. With no board I was left swimming a mile offshore on a wild remote coast that averages 12 shark attacks a year. My first reaction was a large psychic gulp.
Luckily, after allowing the next set to wash me in over the alien reef, I spotted my board bobbing unmolested over a deep spot a 100 yards away. I marked my position between two points and began a leisurely side crawl parallel to the shore. From my sea-level vantage, the village huts seemed small and remote, apparently deserted.
By early afternoon the fishermen were returning to the village with the day’s catch. Most days they’re able to catch enough of an afternoon sea breeze in their patched bedsheet sails to elegantly ghost their canoes up to the village landing.
But today the ocean was an untroubled blue mirror, sultry and shimmering. The fishermen bent to their oars in the blazing sun, sweat shimmering off coal-black bodies. I bobbed along in the wake of their flotilla. One of them spotted me and waved. An unspoken deal was struck.
My board, a thick Bonzer five-fin, rests delicately across the pirogue’s spindly outriggers. Remnant swell, filtered through the outside reef, lifts the hull rhythmically, gives us an added push on every fifth stroke.
Christian’s canoe, a narrow double-ender perhaps ten feet long by two feet wide, started life as a single massive baobab tree trunk culled from a nearby inland grove. The baobab—a bulbous alien-looking tree that grows 30 feet in diameter and can live for 2000 years— possesses a soft porous wood that’s light, easy to carve and buoyant as balsa.
For the Vezo, the canoe is a floating ox. It is food, labor, income, transport, status, shelter, recreation and the hearthfire of home. “Vezo nenga-daka, tsy misy raha vitany” goes one of the countless Malagasy proverbs. “Without a canoe, a Vezo is nothing”.
Vezo boys start their canoe life carving small models and sailing them in the afternoon shallows. From these toys they learn what makes a good pirogue; the correct hull shape and length of outriggers. They learn the best way to trim sails for a fast broad reach so their fish can reach the village first and fetch the best price from the vazaha merchants. They learn to read the reef, sky, wind and sea as a book, an ever-changing equation whose sum must always equal fish at the bottom of the boat.
Like surfers, the Vezo are a fairly recent hybrid tribe that split off from mainstream society to create their own unique ocean-based culture. They are innate oarsmen and coastal sailors, thought to be an offshoot of the inland Sakalava tribe, one of the 18 major tribes of Madagascar.
Although much about Madagascar’s pre-history remains a mystery, anthropologists generally agree Madagascar’s first people came not from Africa, only 400 miles west across the Mozambique Channel, but from ancient Polynesia over 1000 years ago. Sailing across the vast Indian Ocean on an epic generational migration, the Polynesian wayfinders interbred with Malaysian pirates and Arab traders, and eventually the seafaring Africans that crossed over from the African continent.
It’s not hard to connect the genetic dots. You can see the wayfinders’ voyage in their oval Asiatic features, their high cheekbones and broad flat noses. You hear it in their vowel-rich language, with singsong proper names as long as ocean liners. You see it in their elegant canoes; in the twisted palm lashings, the narrow outriggers, and dashing raked sails of the Arab dhow.
We were close enough to the village now to see the children playing on the beach that served their front yard. Some had marked off hopscotch squares in the sand. Others chased after toy canoes powered by plastic-bag sails. Stately Malgache women, wearing the traditional lamba shawl, washed chipped enamel bowls at the low-tide line and waited to help the men pull the canoes up the berm. Their houses were a drab collection of driftwood shacks that looked tossed up by an auspicious cyclone.
By contrast, the colorful crypt houses on the far end of the bight looked far more solid and hospitable. But that’s to be expected. This is an island of familial ghosts, the razana, who expect to be taken care of in style in the extended afterlife.
In Madagascar they wrap the dead in silk to keep them from getting cold. Over time, as the shroud disintegrates, the dearly deceased will be exhumed and rewrapped several times. This ritual, known as famidihana (literally “bone turning”) is cause for great celebration among the living kin and well-wishers. The whole village turns out with food, drink and joyous music to party with the dead. Oftentimes the cherished bones of Uncle Tana or Auntie Claudine will be brought inside the house, given a shot of vanilla rum and clued in to all the latest gossip since they last saw daylight.
If the ancestor is left untended, however, he will get cold and restless and go wandering the villages looking for the irresponsible heir. He’ll make himself a pest, giving all sorts of dream warnings and bedevilment—killing chickens and souring milk until he is made warm again.
These everyday ghosts, if kept happy, are no cause for concern. But there are darker spirits out in the night as well. The upland tribes fear red-eyed demons called kinoly that will eviscerate an unwary Malgache with long, razor-sharp fingernails. Or the songomby, an ox-like creature that moves like the wind and eats people. They also believe in the mpakafo (literally “heart stealers”), white cannibals who hunt the Malagasy to feast on their heart and other internal organs.
Good spirits and demons alike must be kept at bay through an elaborate set of taboos called fady (pronounced “fahd”). There are hundreds of fady and they change markedly from village to village. Some are just good manners such as not speaking loudly or pointing your finger in anger. Others, a bit more obscure, include never handing an egg directly to another or for a pregnant woman to eat rice in a doorway.
Since it’s impossible for a clueless vazaha such as myself to know all the local fady, strangers are generally given a bit of slack. Any broken taboo can usually be patched up quickly with a small cadeau (gift) of money or rum to the village headman.
Despite the technological divide between our two worlds, first and fourth, Christian and I both fear our unseen demons. I have Russian Internet phishes intent on sucking my bank account dry. He has the kolonoro, small hairy forest wild men that can cast spells and steal the burned rice crust from an untended iron kettle.
But more recently, heart stealers of another kind attacked the little Vezo village. Throughout the ‘80s and early ‘90s, the corrupt Marxist regime of President Ratsiraka sold off unlimited fishing concessions to foreign corporations. Korean and Russian factory trawlers sailed in and essentially vacuumed the reefs clean of fish. The indigenous fisheries declined precipitously, leaving the locals like Christian having to fish longer and harder for ever-smaller catches.
Such is the sad history of Madagascar, done in by an unbroken chain of homegrown despots, incompetent ideologues, misguided missionaries and rapacious colonialism. 80 percent of the island has been deforested, primarily for slash and burn agriculture. Soil erosion is so severe that after a rainstorm, the whole island appears to be bleeding. Corruption is endemic; economic outlook, dismal.
Despite all this, the Malgache remain upbeat and unfailingly gracious. “Poverty won’t allow him to lift up his head; dignity won’t allow him to bow it down,” goes another well-known Malagasy proverb. Life in the cities moved at a cheerful anarchic bustle. Smiles and baguettes never seemed in short supply.
And the word I’ve been getting is that the new president Marc Ravalomanana, a self-made dairy millionaire, has been giving a shot of desperately needed economic B-12. In the two years since Ravalomanana took over the presidency from Ratsiraka in a controversial election, Ravalomanana has tackled Madagascar’s infamously decrepit infrastructure significantly. Roads are being repaired, things tidied up, jobs created with a stroke of an accountant’s pen.
In the village next to the dive resort where I stay, a symbiosis of sorts has sprung up between the Vezo and the growing number of tourists. The fishermen take out divers and sightseers in their pirogues. Small beach-sand cafes offer grilled calamari and Three Horse Beer to the thirsty vazaha. To supplement their income, some of the village women formed a sewing collective selling beautiful hand-embroidered clothing and tablecloths.
Our canoe gently grinds ashore. The kids, most of them naked and sand-covered, run down to the water yelling “Bonjour Monsieur!”
Christian motions for me to help him pull his canoe up the steep berm. It’s the least I can do. The women and kids all lend a hand, and together we drag our precarious cargo of understanding to a high safe place.
“ I could not but endeavor to dissuade others from undergoing the miseries of such an adventure themselves for Madagascar…from which place God diverted the residence and adventures of all good men…”—Powie Waldegrave, Madagascar settlement survivor, 1646, St. Augustine, Southern Madagascar.
Sea Change tugged hard at her tether and shuddered as the last overhead set rolled through at Taboos. We were anchored unnervingly close to the edge of the reef, sighting down the throat of a seemingly endless Tavarua-style left that broke a half a kilometer out and reeled past the boat with machine-like precision.
I watched spellbound as Aamion took off on a dense heaving ledge that could only be described as Teahupoo-esque. His abrupt air-drop looked like a downshift into second with a bad clutch. Once at the bottom he set his edge, allowed the wave to invert even further, and then deftly parked his 6’ 4” frame in an oblate 8×8 cavern.
Ritchie was straight behind him, tearing the top off the following wave before putting the spurs to it for a 100-meter sprint. The two of them sped down the reef in tandem, ducking and weaving over the razor sharp coral heads lurking just a few feet under their feet. Frankie, who was casting for reef fish off the stern, let out a big whoop. Rickie continued napping on the foredeck, surfed out from the extended morning session.
We’d been sitting on Taboos all day, gorging on a glut of perfect lefts. We were the only surfers around for at least 100 miles, our only observers being the occasional fisherman who pulled up to sell us their catch. We surfed into a stupor, sated on waves and fresh grilled coral trout. There were long lulls where a train of flawless tubes went by empty and unremarked.
As world-class as Taboos had proven, however, we knew we’d only been allowed a maddeningly short window to access its full potential. While powerful south swells marched up from Cape Town with heartening regularity, the wind proved to be a diabolical joker. In the two weeks we spent tracking surf on Sea Change it blew from a different quarter daily, sometimes hourly, only occasionally from the direction required to create a good wave.
Besides Taboos, we surveyed an ideal right/left reef pass combo that lacked for nothing but an auspiciously sited swell. A gentler Kaiser’s-type right named Royales was a nice alternative to Taboos’ dangerous intensity, but was extremely tide dependant. A foot too high and it burgered out and then vanished altogether.
To get good waves in Madagascar, it seemed, required the patience and unrelenting vigilance of a Sphinx. And a large Evinrude.
But when the combo came right it blew minds. Ritchie likened Taboos to a longer, heavier St. Leu. “It’s f–king shallow, but bru, check the tube!” Aamion, who had grown up surfing the black-diamond breaks of Kauai, was equally impressed. “It’s like Macaronis…only five times as long.”
Taboos follows the reef contours of a small scrubby island about a mile off the southern Madagascar coast. The Vezo consider the island—designated an international nature reserve for nesting sea turtles—a sacred site. According to my guidebook, the island was reportedly the haunt of pirates, first “discovered” by the Dutch privateer Cornelius de Houtman in 1595. De Houtman, a ruthless fortune hunter who rampaged his way across Indonesia in search of spices and booty of all ilk, gave Madagascar the cheery sobriquet of “The Graveyard of Dutch.” Early explorers wrote in earnest of man-eating trees and giant eagles called “rocs” that snatched up elephants for dinner.
Madagascar has always presented a daunting face to the surfing world as well. Despite having nearly 3000 miles of varied coastline sited directly in the path of the same Indian Ocean swells that make Indonesia such a wave crucible, Madagascar has remained a curiously blank spot on the global surfing map.
The reasons vary. Madagascar has long held the reputation for one of the sharkiest destinations in the world. Surf info is sketchy at best and many early explorations came to a bad end of breakdowns, boat sinkings, disease, death and worst of all, skunk-outs. Bad roads and an abysmally decayed infrastructure veered most surf exploration off to more promising corners of the Indian Ocean.
Lance Slabbert, our veteran expedition photographer, had attempted to explore the southern Madagascar coast by catamaran ten years ago, only to become ensnared for ten days in one of the infamous Mozambique Channel currents. Since then Lance and I had plotted a number of Madagascar assaults but had to scrub each attempt due to various setbacks (including a cholera outbreak).
In the end we finally resorted to booking a charter through a Cape Town travel agency that had been specializing in Madagascar surf charters for years. Despite my misgivings about turning our hardcore expedition into a CPA’s two-week holiday, it resulted in our best call yet. We were booked in at a nearby dive resort and ferried out in relative luxury each morning to explore for waves aboard Sea Change, a comfortable 42-foot custom sloop skippered by Mark and Ross, two Capetonians who had spent ample time sailing off Madagascar.
The surf crew consisted of three amiable South Africans and one large Hawaiian charger: Frankie Obelhozer: perpetually cheerful Search veteran, ace fisherman, father; Richie Sills: garrulous Durban-bred surfer, one-time rugby wingman turned Pipeline warrior; Rickie Basnett: young air-savant from The Bluff, Durban. Quiet but deadly top-100 kid who wreaked carnage at this year’s J-Bay event as a wild-card trialist; Aamion Goodwin: a one-time haole hippie kid raised surfing and fishing in Fiji and Kauai. An easygoing road warrior with flawless world-beater style.
Our crew mustered in Johannesburg and flew into the charcoal-scented chaos of Madagascar’s capital Antananarivo (mercifully shortened to “Tana”) at dusk.
In Tana, our shuttle driver wended his way through unruly traffic that ranged from rickshaws and zebu-drawn oxcarts to shiny new SUVs driven by fat Madagascar bureaucrats sporting heavy gold bling bling. A battalion of ancient Citroen Deux Chevaux (“The Umbrella with Four Wheels”) taxis puttered merrily around the choked cobbled streets booming ubiquitous disco doof-doof from Chinese sub-woofers. From open stalls came Tsapiky, the frantic high-pitched Malagasy pop music that defies you to keep your hips still. The indigenous architecture, a surreal hybrid of French Colonial and tin-shack make-do, had a whimsical Dr. Seuss quality to it—crumbling top-heavy mud-brick villas canting out in mad grinning defiance of physics and building codes.
This is the Cuba of the southern hemisphere, a country of vanilla-scented coups waking up from a 30-year slumber as a forgotten colonial backwater. An otherworldly land of chameleons and lemurs; species that evolved in complete isolation from the rest of the world when the great California-sized island was shorn off modern-day Somalia. “A world out of time” some have dubbed it.
In three weeks, however, we saw neither baobab nor lemur nor night-creeping Aye Aye. We were in the Spiny Country of the far south, a sere, parched land filled with cacti and Euphorbia trees and all manner of indigenous stick and prick found nowhere else. The terrain itself, stark and scrubby, is a body double for Cabo San Lucas. No mosquitoes, hence no malaria. Air temperature, 82, no humidity, blue. Water, 75, blue. Perfect.
All clichs of Madagascar were off the menu, leaving us to discover, with a slow eye, a less otherworldly but altogether more remarkable magic.
“Although a little known, Madagascar calls for a visit. Many regions seem to be still a virgin.”—Madagascar tourist brochure.
As I made my way back up to Club Plongee to celebrate my survival with a frosty THB, I noticed the crew of village grommets heading out for their daily afternoon go out. They were slim little black boys, perhaps a dozen in all, between the ages of 5 and 12. Between them they shared two vintage sun-cancered thrusters left by traveling French surfers. The others rode literal logs; a motley collection of rough-hewn baobab planks ultimately destined to raise the freeboard of a newly hewn pirogue. A few had swimsuits but most paddled out naked into the piddly shorebreak.
Despite their primitive equipment they seemed to instinctually grasp the essentials of how to trim an ungainly slab of warped lumber on a wave no bigger than a boat wake.
For days now I’ve watched them from the beach, amazed at their innate spontaneous style. They pop up in a natural crouch free of pretense, laughing madly, stoked as hell. These kids, without the benefit of instruction or even a magazine to model from have somehow created, out of nothing more than a shared good feeling, Madagascar’s first generation of native-born surfers. No logos, no sponsors, no fins, no clothes.
Before the first cool touches of the THB take effect, I think about how long ago, as a pudgy 10-year-old with a complete inability to master the multiplication table to Sister Mary Xavier’s satisfaction, I sat in the stuffy basement of St. George’s parochial school in Ontario, California and watched The Endless Summer for a quarter.
I was absolutely entranced, as much by the coolness and fun of surfing as the joyful revelation that there was a whole exotic world of adventure waiting out there free of sour-faced nuns and long division.
One scene changed my 10-year-old paradigm for life. In the brief segment, Robert August and Mike Hynson blithely wandered into a little fishing village in Ghana and without the benefit of a translator quickly introduced surfing to the natives. Within an hour of their arrival they have the people ripping the doors off their houses to go ride waves.
From that moment I vowed that one day I would escape St. George’s, travel to Africa, find my own tribe of natives, and teach them to surf. After I learned myself, of course.
Fast-forward to the present-day, when I possess three filled passports that include five trips to South Africa, one to Mozambique. Ten years ago, in a touchstone coup, I rode the Table Mountain cable car to the top and hung my feet over the edge as Mike and Robert did 40 years ago. I saluted Sister Xavier for giving me the backhanded inspiration to get the hell out of that stuffy little burb and down to the beach where I learned to surf.
But now, looking out at these little black kids, who have somehow manifested the Endless Summer out of thin air, I realize how dreams really work.
And who is teaching whom.
For information on Madagascar surf tours, contact True Blue Travel: http://www.truebluetravel.co.za