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Text – Sam Bleakley/surfEXPLORE
Photos – John Seaton Callahan/surfEXPLORE

The Ghosts of Antananarivo.

Antananarivo is the ghostly capital of Madagascar where cream coloured Citroen 2CV6 and Renault 4 taxis prowl the cobbled streets like tin animals ferrying invisible passengers to the underworld.

As the drivers disengage their engines to save fuel on the steep roads’ descent, the taxis are a goulash presence powered by solid air. Creaking suspensions and whining engines add to the mystery.

The crisp night air is a curtain ready to raise on a super-breed of mosquitoes, haunting the guesthouses

At 4,000 feet on a high plateau, winter temperatures dip below ten degrees centigrade and the crisp night air is a curtain ready to raise on a super-breed of mosquitoes, hiding in wooden floorboards and haunting the guesthouses, launching from behind cobwebbed shutters and antique furniture to stab flesh and suck blood. Like the city taxis, their engines are disengaged and noiseless as they strike home.

The crew for the trip (John Callahan, Emi Cataldi and Erwan Simon) gather at La Villa, a guesthouse in the Haute Ville (Upper Town), in the back garden under a giant ravenala tree (known as the ‘traveller’s tree’).

Wild west Madagascar and the Barren Islands

The group take a breather under a giant ravenala tree before the off

Madagascar has 3,000 miles of coastline fringed by offshore reefs and empty pointbreaks. Most surfers head south to ride snapping blue-green lips kissing flaming live coral. But the hardcore, the central wild west coast between Mahajanga and Morondava remains largely unexplored.

If exploration is the act of searching to discover new information and practices, rather than the colonial project of exploiting resources, documenting this area is the ‘exploration’ part of the trip we’ve been planning for over a year – to explore the sapphire seas of the remote Barren Islands offshore from Maintirano.

As far as we know, we are the first to surf (and document the surfing) in this archipelago, a web of Veso fishing communities, surrounded by shark-rich shallow reef passes. We thrive on this notion of surfing the clean slate. It’s not a conquering thing, but a traveller’s – or better explorer’s – delight.

With surfboards it is impossible to take our kit by small internal planes, plus Air Madagascar are on strike

“Hospitality to strangers is sacred here,” confirms Erwan. “The Malagasy are amongst the most welcoming people a traveller could find. But the exception to the rule is the Dahalo, roaming the arid plateau from Tsiroanomandidy to Maintirano. With surfboards it is impossible to take our kit by small internal planes, plus Air Madagascar are on strike. So we must drive. But the road is dangerous. The Dahalo are bandits and hold up the cars.”

Erwan knows better than any of us the acute dangers of this trip. He has done most of the research with Cécile Fattebert, a policy officer at the marine conservation charity Blue Ventures, which is developing locally managed marine areas and sustainable fishing policies in the Barren Islands and have a small office in Maintirano.

We have a trusty driver called Donnè booked, ready and waiting in Tsiroanomandidy for the punishing twenty hour off-road drive to Maintirano.

Wild west Madagascar and the Barren Islands

The journey is a fun but brutal 24 hour off-road fight against the best that Madagascar can throw

Joining the trusty surfEXPLORE collective is a French production company called Puzzlemedia, shooting a documentary for Planète + Thalassa, France’s equivalent to National Geographic.

We want to capture the wild drive to Maintirano, the homeland of the fiercely proud Sakalava people, and sketch an ethnography of the Veso fishing nomads. Sensibly, Puzzlemedia have hired a local sound man, Hery Harimanana, able to switch naturally between Malagasy, French and English. Once out of the capital, Malagasy is the mainstay. But he’s never been to the Barren Islands, nor has anyone we speak to. Game on.

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