Standing on a porch in Antananarivo, I sipped on my drink and pondered what Ben Luck had just read to me. The post on the Expedition Inception Facebook page was brief, “The Maningory was a crazy 7 day first descent the team completed in Madagascar. Hopefully another team gets in there with less water because it’s a certain class 5-6 classic”. It was hard not to be intrigued. The text was accompanied by a video of Dylan Thompson running a massive rapid on a clearly flooded river. The caption read, “Here is Dylan on a rapid that was mellow enough that we could paddle it”! A year and a half after their trip, with rivers running low at the end of Madagascar’s dry season, we took the bait.
Charles King, Ben Luck and I had been in Madagascar for just over a month. We had paddled two of the rivers on our agenda, however other objectives had eluded us. A combination of factors - including washed out roads, rumors of dangerous localized banditry, and the deliberate sabotage of infrastructure by moonshiners intent on keeping out law enforcement - forced us to seek adventure elsewhere.
The Maningory description left several looming questions. Mostly we were curious exactly what a “class 5-6 classic” was, if any of us had paddled one, and (if not) whether this scale of “classic” whitewater was conducive to an enjoyable vacation. With these queries in mind, and with heads and necks brutally sore from a Malagasy heavy-metal concert (in itself worthy of written description), we left Antananarivo and headed north.
Flowing from the central highlands of Madagascar to the Indian Ocean, the Maningory has its source in Farihy Alaotra - a massive, shallow lake converted by the Malagasy people into a network of rice paddies connected by canals. On the eastern boundary of the lake the canals converge and begin meandering lazily through open grassland towards a range of distant hills.
Locals in Pirogues (beautifully crafted dugout canoes) sail or paddle their way through circling flocks of Great White Egrets as they go about their daily business in this surreal, magical setting. The day we arrived at the river’s source, the whole scene was blanketed in an oppressive heat. At the heart of a rapidly growing crowd, we packed the kayaks and made our way down to the bathtub temperature water. In early afternoon, with an enthusiastic entourage swimming and running beside us, we slid our boats into the water and became part of the Maningory river traffic.
The first day was almost entirely flat and our greatest obstacles were man-made fishing structures, but with the river perched thousands of meters above sea level we knew this was soon to change. Sure enough, the next morning we paddled to the edge of a bedrock shelf and felt the world falling away. Clearly one criteria for a class 5-6 classic is massive, un-runnable cascades. With the river visible hundreds of feet below us it was obvious we had reached the first of these.
Backtracking several kilometers upstream we were able to find a local trail and make a fairly painless portage in a little over an hour. From here the true adventure began. In the next couple days the river wasted no time in plunging towards the ocean, often doing so underground.
In the sections where the river was flowing visibly we were able to paddle occasional drops, sandwiched between features that were either completely un-runnable, or too large for us to find them inviting. Taking time to appreciate their theoretical run-ability, we admired such drops as another integral feature of a class 5-6 classic.
Classic river trips of any difficulty have to include platinum camping, and the Maningory was no exception. We took full advantage of the lifestyle possibilities, rarely launching before lunch and spending countless hours scouring the banks in search of Rose Quartz, Ruby’s and other gemstones that make up a significant percentage of Madagascar’s river gravels.
We ate like kings, played music, enjoyed arts-and-crafts time with Charles, hung out with local fisherman, and even passed an evening constructing a fire sculpture. I can’t remember how many days we spent on the river, but we were definitely not in a hurry.
When we started running low on food we decided the time had come to make some miles and, with the majority of the gradient behind us, we headed downstream calibrated to the team’s “flat-water crush mode”.
At the end of a long morning we reached the take out in the midst of a fierce tropical rainstorm. Thinking back over the trip I was struck with the perfect accuracy of Expedition Inception’s sparing description. The journey had certainly been different than most other river trips, and required a willingness to give up time in the boat in favor of overland travel, but it had been an incredible experience nonetheless. The Maningory truly is a class 5-6 classic.