leon jamaer - professional windsurf
Madagascar - the forgotten wave
In 1992 a young Frenchman and two of his friends travel through the south of Madagascar. Decent wind and wave statistics drew their attentions towards this remote territory and they were confident that this coastline must bear hidden treasures. They spent a week in Fort Dauphin, surfing, windsurfing and eventually came in contact with an influential local family. At a mutual dinner they hear a Fisherman talking about his home village and the wave that breaks in front of it: „All afternoon the winds blow the tips of the waves, that nicely order along a rock shelf, back out to sea.“ The newly found contacts helped them to organize an expedition. A few days later the French travelers loaded two 4x4 jeeps with water, food, tents, other supplies and, naturally, windsurfing equipment and left southbound. Slowly but surely they made their way across the hostile territory and finally arrived in Lavanono. „Jackpot! We were all amazed and knew we found something special!“. Gilles Calvet remembers the maiden voyage as it was yesterday even though the journey is now a quarter century in the past.
Nowadays, discoveries like that are rare. The globe has been put under the radar for the last decades and every corner of it is explored and scanned. From Kamtschatka to West Africa and from Iceland to Patagonia - almost every beach, bay or break has been named, filmed, photographed and in detail described and was later archived online. Gilles agrees: „The number of locations that surfers left untouched is shrinking. Though, the bare will to find these is shrinking in those peers too. When I ask pro surfers to come on a foto trip with me,“ Gilles explains, „in nine out of ten times their first question concerns the intensity of the travel and the chances for having a windless day.
I often find myself endlessly weighing pros and cons before committing to a trip. Too many possibilities and options exist: starboard tack, portack, hotel, bungalow, offshore, onshore, big waves, smaller waves, with or without wetsuit, travel by car or plane, around the corner or far away. It is hard to stay on track in this jungle of 1st world problems. Once there is a smaller selection of destinations intensive sighting of magazines and the Internet begins. Whatever the global archives inherit will be watched, read, compared and with friends, who might have been there, discussed. One knows precisely what to expect and how the trip will turn out to be before even stepping a foot out of ones own home. Hardly anyone ventures into the unknown anymore and, instead, returns to the same known places over and over again. The time of adventurers seems to have vanished and along with it the overwhelming moment that Gilles and his friends experienced when they saw the wave of Lavanono for the first time.
I get a call from a photographer whom I met during a contest in La Reunion a few years ago. My memories of Gilles Calvet, the insurgent who prefers to sail himself instead of taking pictures, are still bright and clear. He says he planned a trip to Madagascar to rediscover a wave that he found many years ago and asks if I would be interested to come along. By instinct, I ask about the travel and get long and difficult in reply. My mind starts spinning and I overhear the gnashing of teeth on the other side of the line.
The last days were hectic. I moved to a new flat and had to finalize my taxes, then all those emails of marketing people of agencies that want me for a campaign to advertise cars. As payment they suggest the new currency Facebook-reach. The bad weather hasn´t stopped for a while now, either. A cold has been constantly following me for a few weeks by now and there is no sign of wind anytime soon - the tough life of a pro windsurfer. It´s time to escape.
At 30.000 feet we draw near the equator. Thomas Traversa, next to me, is already asleep. I close my eyes and leave all negative thoughts behind. I try to grasp my excitement for this trip which has been seething stronger and stronger in the last days, then I fall asleep too. The next morning we arrive in Madagascar´s capital Antananarivo and take another plane to Fort Dauphin. From there we travel on land. From my German point of view our movements seem rather unorganized and improvised. I am not sure if group leader Gilles doesn´t want to share his exact plans with us or whether he simply doesn´t have any. However, I am happy when we arrive at a campsite by nightfall. We are still far from our final destination and I am already overwhelmed by Madagascar. I saw people in their villages and huts, on the fields or, most of them, somewhere on the road. They travel, trade, and transport goods, children play and many wave at us when we drive by. Some are smiling, some wear heavy expressions that must resemble their daily life, I assume. With an average speed of 25 km/h we move south through vegetation that becomes more and more hostile, people and cattle appear thin and starved. We cross a dry riverbed. Women dig for last bits of water to wash their clothes. I realize my first-world-problems must be far away from the people here, who actually struggle. Lavanono is a small village with a church, school, a small shop and lots of simple huts where a few hundreds, mostly fishermen, live. The Antandroy, how the tribe is called, gather mostly on the beach and center their life around the sea. They seem to accept us and are happy to share the ocean. Every morning the fishermen swarm out with their tiny trigger canoes while we play in the beautiful waves. They need the sea to feed their families whereas we use it for pure pleasure.. Even though our motives are so vastly different the people seem to like the commitment that we put into that outlandish looking activity windsurfing. Some try to resemble us in our artistic doings, either on surfboards that were left behind, planks or whatever was found and stays afloat. The atmosphere in Lavanono is despite Mada´s in general difficult socio-cultural situation warm and welcoming.
Madagascar belongs to the older islands even though it was inhabited by human only around 350 BC. Oder island because geographical Madagascar separated early from Africa and let plants and animals develop over thousands of years free from external influences. Many kinds live and blossom only here and nowhere else in the world. Mada´s ecology is unique. Since humans came across the island about 2000 years ago - first settlers came from East Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East - many species are heavily endangered. Great parts of the tropical rainforest were slashed and burned. Nowadays, only ten percent of its original forests are still intact, many animals extinct. In 1896 France established a colony against the influence of the Malagasy Kingdom. Until Madagascar´s independence in 1960 France´s military fought for their interests on the island. About 90.000 Malagasy died during a rebellion in 1948. The country´s politics have remained unstable with nature and it´s people being victim. Ninety percent of the people live underneath the poverty line. Food and medical supplies are limited. Children work to nourish their families - around 19.000 under heavy and unhealthy conditions in Saphir mines. Young girls prostitute themselves for easy money or in hope to meet a wealthy white. Chinese and European trawlers empty the fishing grounds and tropical woods are cropped for international markets. Madagascar appears too weak to prevent exploitation.
The at first so constantly blowing wind disappears and our idyllic adventure starts to loose its shine. Thomas, flea bites now cover his whole body, spent another night on the toilet and also Gilles is fighting hard to keep control over his stomach, however, mostly loses. The lack of sleep must have made him paranoid. He accuses our cook, a shy little girl, to had him poisoned for the disrespectful behavior of arriving late for dinner. „It happens all the time“, Gilles swears. A virus that is currently striving through the villages is the more likely reason for our sickness. My symptoms are different to the one´s of the others. A fever spread across my body and I can hardly walk to the house and eat. The bungalow turns more and more into a sickbay. We exchange paracetamol for charcoal, zink for Imodium. I rely on an onion-garlic-ginger tea to get me back on track. While Thomas and Gilles are better soon, I don't feel much change for over a week and consider to fly home early. Shortly after this trip the Worldcup in Denmark will start and at this point I don't see myself regain strengths. However, this would be logistically basically not possible. The closest city is 8 hours 4x4 road away. The dream trip seems to turn into a nightmare. Only a few hundred miles east is the windsurfing paradise Mauritius with ultra constant winds, half the travel time and western standards. Why cant I take the easy road for once and book a all-inclusive vacation?
Gilles explains his father was a seaman. When they were sailing it had been his task, as a little boy, to find bays or coves to anchor the boat. „One of the reason why I always change my focus while traveling and never take the same route - I improvise! A few years later no one will remember all the aerials one did. But one will always remember the unexpected accidents that happened along the trip. Those are the stories that my kids like to listen to.“
I ask Thomas what keeps him traveling to the most remote corners of the planet. „For me its something special to windsurf at a place where no one windsurfed before. Being on the water alone or with one or two good friends is pure joy. Even if the conditions don´t resemble Hookipa everyday. In these situations I just live for the moment. Also while traveling I will always encounter other traveller on the search that inspire me to take on new adventures!“ The trip comes to an end and we prepare for the return to civilization. While the Jeep slowly progresses north impressions of Mada run through my head. I remember the evenings without Facebook and TV´s but conversations about French and German differences - from the quality of bread to politics. We discuss the pros and cons of foil-sailing, study wave riding techniques or simply get lost in the stars that shine brighter than I have seen anywhere. I remember deeply red sunsets, strange animals, trees and bushes that better fit a dinosaur era. I imagine how the 3,6 Meter high now extinct Elefant Bird had strived only 300 years ago across these lands. I remember the sailing and fishing skills of the Antandroy, the people from the South, who navigate the ocean incredibly fast and precise. I remember the kids that carry my gear back to the camp after a session, singing and dancing. We arrive in Fort Dauphin and check in for our flights to Paris. I notice I am full of inspiration for future trips and simply happy that I came on this trip and experiences those strange but beautiful weeks in a different world and have quickly forgotten about the bumpy road that brought me there.