01-May-2004 -- We are Roger and Wendy Christen. Roger is French Canadian and Wendy South African. We first heard of the Degree Confluence Project on a Planète program on Canal+ while in Madagascar. Roger has been using a GPS for many years for his canoeing and hunting expeditions. Being in Madagascar since November 2003 with a strong desire to visit this fascinating country and after realizing that no actual confluence point had yet been reached in Madagascar although one attempt had been made south of Antsirabe (20S 47E) in August 2003, we decided that whilst on our honeymoon we would be the first to reach confluence point 19S 49E. How romantic. In addition, 1949 is Roger's year of birth! Well what an adventure we had whilst doing this: Roger was arrested by local authorities and went missing for 23 hours...
We got married in Madagascar on 5 December 2003, and only managed to take a real honeymoon at the end of April 2004. We plan to live here for the duration of our 1-year contract. Whilst on honeymoon, we decided to dedicate the last three days to attempt reaching at least two confluence points in Madagascar that lie along National Highway No. 2. Well, we reached this one, and came within 10 km of 19S 48E.
Attempt no. 1
On 30 April, we approached 19S 49E along the National Highway No. 2 that connects Toamasina (the main sea port of Madagascar) with Antananarivo, the capital, on our return trip from the coast. Some 13 km before reaching Ranomafana (pronounced "Ranewmafan"), our GPS indicated we were due north of our target by about 5 km. We spotted a track that led off behind some local huts with what seemed to be a practicable 4x4 "piste" (track). This track meandered up and down low hills, in open fields or light forest, always heading south and got us to about 18°59'13.4"S 48°59'07.7"E or 2.2 km from our target, before heading off into another direction.
Madagascar is an agricultural economy with, in this particular area, individual farms and occasional small villages. We came across several groups of people walking along the roads or paths. To the local villagers' consternation we stepped out of our 4x4 and headed along their trails in their stead. They indicated to us the main trails and where to cross the rice paddies. The going is tough, as the terrain is very marshy with many rice paddies, some dense tropical forestation, sugar cane fields and potentially crocodile infested rivers which would need to be crossed.
Unfortunately we could not cross the Iaroka River (pronounced "Iarewka"), for we could not find a dug-out canoe to hire or borrow one. This area is sugar cane producing for the national sugar company SIRAMA that Roger is involved in privatizing.
Attempt no. 2
We headed back out of this track back to the main road with the intent to find some way across the river. A Gendarme at a control point just around the next bend told us to our surprise that 100 m further along the national highway was an intersection heading strait south (N11b) with a bridge over the river in about 1 km. We were saved and the excitement of the hunt kept growing.
Some 3 km past the bridge a concrete pad lying over the left ditch along the highway was the start of another track that headed in the right direction. We crossed areas of forest that had been clear-cut by the local peasants to make charcoal. Madagascar has been devastated by slash and burn farming to the point where most of its forests have been wiped out. Picture #10 is along the track heading east, south of 19S 49E. These rock formations have risen from the sea bottom over the 165 million years Madagascar has been separated from the African continent. The latter being one of the main reasons it has so many indigenous plants and animals such as half the bird species on the planet.
We traveled along this track heading east for about 5 km, always some 2 km south of 19S 49E. At the end of the road was a large rice paddy we would cross the next day. We decided to camp on those desolated hills, or so we thought. We have our two dogs along with us.
We set up camp for the night... and around 22h30, the dogs started to growl, and coming up over the hill was a tribe of about 30 natives all carrying the local scythes (a knife edge at the end of a 3 ft handle) that they use for cutting fruit off trees, grass and sugar cane. Although it is the local tool that everyone carries, it was menacing to us in those circumstances. They surrounded our campsite, and Roger spoke with them. They told him that we were "scaring the villagers" and must get authorization from the "Chef de Quartier", therefore we must leave immediately. They kept inching closer and closer to us, Wendy kept the dogs close by, they were growling menacingly at them, and this we thought saved our hides or our stuff at this point. We piled our camping gear into the truck and raced off. We could see the natives checking out our campsite to see if we had left anything behind. Malagasy are not a violent people but understandably inclined to petty theft. We were in for more of a surprise...
On our way out of the area, further up the track, someone had blocked it off with many tree trunks and branches evidently designed to keep us in. This made us very afraid. We let the dogs out to check if anyone was waiting for us in ambush and worked quickly to remove the heavy branches that blocked our way. Eventually we reached the main road. We were 80 km from the nearest lodge where we could potentially stay over. We headed to the Forest Lodge at Andasibe in the Lemur reserve (in particular the Indri). We arrived there at 02h00 and luckily managed to secure a lodge for the night.
Attempt no. 3
The next morning, 1st May 2004, still determined to reach our way point, we headed back - only this time, we decided to take a couple of guides with us from the same village. And off we went back to the end of the track and the rice paddies. The locals helped us across. We went over hills, through forests and fields and eventually had to turn back for lack of water transport. This is the closest to 19S 49E we got in this attempt, 1.92 km from target. The terrain is just too difficult to go any further.
Attempt no. 4
It was now 14h00 in the afternoon, and we had to return home to Antananarivo tomorrow morning, we were feeling very dejected, we had almost given up... But we decided to give it one more try, we found some 2 km west an area of terrain that looked more accessible than the ones we had previously tried, so we decided to rush the confluence point. Wendy will wait in the truck with the two dogs, whilst Roger and a guide go off to try to reach 19S 49E. It is 14h30 when he leaves, and plans to return rapidly, before the sun sets - only he doesn't return...
Wendy is sitting in the truck with the two dogs, and the time is going by. Wendy begins to get really worried around 20h00 at night, Roger has not returned, and it is dark outside. This is also the same location where natives with unknown intentions chased us from our campsite the night before. Wendy worries for Roger's safety; he has been gone 7.5 hours now. Wendy has no driving permit but has had some driving lessons and certainly does not know how to handle a four by four. Well, at about 20h30, apparently the same tribe of natives comes up the hill towards Wendy, the other guide, and the two dogs. Suddenly she can drive, Wendy piles the dogs and guide into the truck, and somehow manages to jerk her way off back to the main road.
Meanwhile, after leaving Wendy at 14h30, Roger and his guide cross grassy hills and pick their way down through water filled gullies packed with Voyager palms, wade through creeks, cross small farms and eventually reach 19S 49E at 16h00.
Roger and the guide head back following more beaten footpaths to speed up the return to the vehicle. THE mistake. The paths bring the two through a small village where an enterprising individual asks for Roger's papers, which of course are back at the truck. In true African fashion the whole village, some 50 people, gets involved in the discussion. By 17h00 a consensus is reached to fetch the village chief who speaks some French. By 17h30 after more "palabre", some intimidation, and promises of bribing, the "Chef de Village" lets us go with the intention to accompany Roger and the guide to the truck and escort everyone to the nearest "Gendarmerie" (police station). But 500 m further he decides that we must be introduced to higher authority, the "Chef de Quartier".
Return to the village, and what was supposed to be just another 500 m further north turns out to be 1.5 km to reach a larger village. It is now dark and Roger and the guide are surrounded by some 100 villagers. What a commotion. We are led into a small hut with one table, a bench, and two oil lamps, to await the "Chef de Quartier" who is on his way. In the meantime, the president of "L'Association des Communes" happens to show up. More "palabre". The "Chef de Quartier" shows up and after quite a bit of discussion with Roger insisting to return to Wendy, a deal is struck. A party will accompany Roger to the truck and three villagers will go with us, the trespassers, to the "Gendarmerie". The guide will remain in the village until Roger returns the officials by truck to the village. Insurance policy to avoid the walk back. It is about 19h00 by then.
Meanwhile Wendy's trip to the nearest town to try and find a police station to get help for Roger is fraught with mishaps, she hits into things, takes out poles in nearby villages, anyway gets to the town, and no one can speak English or French, only Malagasy, and there is no one at the local police station. So Wendy goes back again to try and find Roger, it is now about 21h00, she drives all round the area searching for Roger, by now she is convinced that he has either been murdered by a hostile tribe, or else has been eaten by a crocodile, or at the least is hurt and not able to travel.
It starts to rain, Wendy is crying and cannot find the windscreen wipers. Also Roger had set the truck on four-wheel drive, and Wendy doesn't know how to disconnect it. Still no sign of Roger, she is too afraid to stop the truck in case the natives get to her, so she keeps on driving.
Roger and escort come out of the forests into the grassy hills and see the truck in the distance. The only light available to signal Wendy is the flash from the digital camera, which he sets off numerous times. Wendy sees this flash on several occasions but does not comprehend its meaning since it is so far away in the distance. So Wendy drives off to Roger's despair. It is now 21h30.
Wendy tries to drive to the next village heading east this time, to see if there is another police station that can help, still no luck. At midnight she goes back for a final look for Roger. Still no sign of him. She needs English speaking people to help, so she drives the 85 km mountainous pot-holed winding road, in the pouring rain, back to the lodge where they had stayed the previous night.
Roger is confident that Wendy has left the area because of the previous night's experience and has been going back and forth regularly to see if he returns. Roger and his escort continue their walk out of the area following the road Wendy has taken. A small village along the road confirms that Wendy has been in and out of the area several times. The group walks all the way to the main intersection on the Toamasina-Antananarivo highway at a place called Ambitobe. There, by banging on the door of the small café where Roger hired the two guides, they succeed in raising the owner. Much "palabre" later, he unhitches his tractor from his trailer truck and drives Roger, the President and another person 13 km east to Ranomafana and wake up the gendarme of this police sub-station.
He decides that the group must return to Ambitobe and a gendarme will be dispatched the next morning to fetch Roger. So the group heads back and along the way Wendy drives past heading towards Andasibe. They whip the tractor truck around and race to catch up to Wendy but with 16 gears it is no match for Wendy even if she is stuck in low gear four-wheel drive. They give up. Roger gets to sleep in the truck and gets his first drink of water since 14h30.
Wendy arrives in Andasibe at about 02h30 in the morning, and sideswipes another vehicle going into the parking lot. She is hysterical by now, convinced that Roger is dead. The hotel is asleep and no one is around. She does not even try to go to bed and awaits 06h00 when the first staff arrives. She is informed that there is no telephone and the word emergency doesn't seem to faze anyone, they just shrug their shoulders. No help. Finally at 07h30, a man walks up to her and says in French "You hit my car". Seeing she doesn't understand he addresses her in English. Alas, finally! Someone that can understand her.
She explains her situation, that her husband has now been missing for 17 hours, and to please translate her predicament to the hotel staff. He does this, and now everyone is taking action, they take her to place a call to Roger's boss in Antananarivo, Eljo Ratrimo, as well as lifelong friends of his, Olivier Ribot and Etienne Van Damme. These two leave immediately to make the three-hour journey to Andasibe (in two hours by the way). A search team is organized, medical kits assembled, a helicopter is put on standby, and the Canadian Embassy is being contacted with this story. The whole hotel is in a vibe of activity and excitement. Roger has now been missing for nearly 24 hours, he had walked off into the forest, and not come out...
Just as the rescue teams are boarding the vehicles to drive to Ambitobe and start the search, in walks Roger. He is filthy, exhausted and looking like a cave man, but he is alive and he is the most beautiful sight Wendy has ever seen. We throw ourselves at each other, and are both crying and laughing, and surrounded by a crowd of on-lookers.
After catching a few hours sleep in the truck, Roger was up at 6h00 to intercept Wendy should she return at first light and to await the promised gendarme. The café owner's wife offers him coffee and a French baguette for breakfast. Onlookers are gawking just outside the small café. By 10h00, having given up waiting for the gendarme, the café owner/truck driver commandeers a passing truck to take Roger the 13 km to Ranomafana. The gentleman is in the bath towel.
Waiting at the "Gendarmerie" in Ranomafana for the "Commandant" to show up, Roger spots a tall white individual who walks out of a hut across the street. Approaching him he discovers that Randy is a Peace Corps volunteer that offers him coffee and lends him the 50,000 Malagasy Francs (about $5.00) needed to get to Moramanga some 20 km past Andasibe where a telephone and transportation can be arranged. The Adjutant Landry decides to take Roger's deposition and asks if he wants to press charges against Wendy that has driven off with the truck, his papers and money! Having secured some cash, Roger boards a passing truck with the help of Adjutant Landry who negotiates 25,000 FMG to drive Roger to Andasibe and eventually Moramanga if Wendy is not at Andasibe, which fortunately she was. Finally Roger had reached Wendy at Forest Lodge at Andasibe at about 13h30 some 23 hours in all since he had last seen her. She was safe, but totally exhausted and so relieved to find him again.
All search teams were called off including the team that was assembled by the official organization ANGAP in Moramanga. THANKS EVERYONE, WE LOVE YOU.
It turned out that there was a serial killer in the area, since arrested, that was going around cutting off the protruding parts of young men's bodies (unconfirmed). He had already killed several people. Roger, being filthy from all the hiking he had done, unshaven and carrying a mean looking hunting knife, obviously fit the profile of this serial killer. It took much explaining, and all of Roger's diplomacy to get himself out of this one.
The fact that we had gone through so much stress, danger and uncertainty in order to be the first couple to successfully reach a confluence point in Madagascar, made the victory so much sweeter, and has made us all that more determined to continue reaching confluence points in Madagascar...
Look out for the next confluence point we intend to reach here in Madagascar. From looking at the terrain of the next confluence point, we doubt if it will be any easier than the one we have just reached. Our target now is 19S 48E.
Hope you enjoyed our story,
Roger and Wendy Christen