Manambolo River Trip, Madagascar – Escaped Chickens and Zebu Rustlers

This post is part of a 10 day trip with Remote River Expeditions.

When we wake at 5:45 the crew is already busy packing up for the day.

At 6AM our breakfast is set out just in front of our tent – croissants, jam, cheese and hot coffee. The milk has, sadly, curdled.

Colorful sunrise over the mountains.

By the time Don and I have our affairs sorted the guys are ready to go. We’re back in the boat with Memena. He speaks no English and only understands a little bit of French. A very kind man, he helps me into the canoe and jumps out to push when we hit sand. They’ve added more weight to our boat but still we are out in front of the others.

It’s warm on the water as the temperature quickly rises. Pretty morning light on the rocks. We see only a few locals crossing the river or bathing.

This section of the river is generally deeper but there are still plenty of wide low water sections where Memena and Don have to push the canoe through the sand.

Escaped Chickens

Our second morning break, we rest in the soft shaded breeze of a mango grove. Just as Alex’s canoe arrives one of the chickens gets loose.

There were 3 live chickens stowed under the seat at the back of the boat. It’s one way to keep meat fresh when you have no refrigeration.

Memena chases the bird and it flies up a tree. He climbs the tree and the bird escapes back down the bank. Just then another bird goes up the bank in the opposite direction. Alex and the boatman quickly get out of the canoe. The boatman’s son goes after the chicken, eventually scaring it back by the shore.

The boatman hurls a rock at it, misses it and it flies into a thick bush where the son grabs it and ties it feet so it can’t get away again.

Meanwhile the first bird is still loose. A search ensues with no luck. The bird is gone. Just then it pops out of the leaves back where it started and is quickly captured. Alex says it will be the first to be eaten.

Once the birds are contained, we pack up and head down the river.

Photographing Wildlife

There are a number of water fowl along the way and I try for some bird shots.

Memena finds a great chameleon for us, our first in Madagascar, and tries to nudge it onto his paddle, dropping it in the water twice.


We reach the lunch spot, a wide sand beach with a big shade providing mango, at about noon. The heat is much more tolerable in the shade and it’s pleasant except for the incessant flies, some biting, which are not deterred by deet.

We wait for the third boat in order to cook lunch. Much heavier than the other two, it is far behind. Alex sends one of the boatman back to help.

Finally at 1:30 they show up and quickly get lunch together starting with a cucumber and tomato salad followed by pasta with ginger and cheese and a tough well aged zebu steak, a little too well aged for my tastes.  It had been lying on a tray in the boat. Alex and Vunje also eat meat. The boatmen share a huge pot of rice and some condiments with tomatoes. Pineapple and papaya for dessert.

We hang around until after 3. The other two boats pack up and take off. Alex shouts from the boat that we can leave when we want and leaves us in the hands of Memena. Tired of the flies we leave soon after.

Back on the Water

Hot in the afternoon sun, the breeze and a broken parasol offer some relief. Low water slows us down as Memena has to frequently get out and push us though the sandbanks.

After another short break we continue on past 5PM. The sun is getting low behind a rain cloud with the pink sky below reflecting across the water. A stiff breeze further slows our progress but feels good. We pass through alternating warm and cool air currents like you find in still lake water. The pods in the tree rattle like a rain stick. This is most pleasant moment on the river so far.

Zebu Rustlers

Alex explained at our last break that he decided to move camp further down the river as their usual spot was in zebu rustler territory. This camp, however, is just across from a more populated area and therefore safer.

Zebu rustlers are bands of men that steal zebu, the local cattle, for a living. It’s big business in Madagascar and the rustlers seem to have an almost mythical standing here.

We pass the other two boats and are the first to arrive at camp at 5:45. The others aren’t too far behind but we have just a little light to set up camp.

Don and I set up our own tent with Vunje’s supervision. We set up our bed and arrange our affairs, clean up a bit with wet wipes and change into camp clothes.

I wander down to the bank where Alex and his crew are cooking. I want to see how they slaughter and prepare the chicken. The chicken already cut up, Alex is busy chopping vegies. I notice there are some locals hanging about but otherwise everything seems normal. Alex answers my questions with a curt reply and suggests that we join them later for dinner. I walk back to our tent and sip gin with Don while we wait.

We watch the scene at the make shift kitchen in the darkness. We can make out figures in the dim light of a few head lamps and the glow from the fire. People come and go and are generally quiet, some cooking, some eating or standing about, but we are clearly not invited and are not told why.

At about 7:30 we decide to head down and find out what is going on. Vunje intercepts us before we reach the kitchen area and suggest that we stay “á côté de la tente. Beaucoup de personnes”,  he says in a hushed serious tone.

We head back and watch the figures with greater intensity trying to figure out what is going on. The scene is calm. An outline of a man with a riffle strapped on his back crosses in front of the fire. Slowly two by two or three they start to leave and disappear into the grasslands behind the camp.

When the last of them has left Alex comes up to us and says cheerfully, “Why don’t you join us for dinner?” “Alex,” I say a little irritated, “What the hell is going on?” Don says more calmly, “What’s going on?” He replies, “What do you think after what I told you before?”  An explanation ensues about the band of zebu rustlers passing through wanting something to eat. They were hungry and didn’t have time to cook so they exchanged some uncooked food for our cooked dinner. Women from a nearby village, girlfriends or prostitutes, I’m not quite sure, also joined them.

Alex hesitates to explain more fully, insisting that we were not in danger, but that it was better for us to stay away so they wouldn’t be “bored” with us. “They are really very friendly.  See the fish that they brought us. Zebu rustlers are only interested in zebu and don’t bother tourists.”

As Alex serves us our dinner, a tasty chicken stew with potatoes, carrots and canned peas, he continues to reassure us that this is life in Madagascar. If he were to marry someone in his tribe he would be expected to go far away and come back with 3 zebu, stolen from another tribe, to give his future father-in-law to prove that he could provide for his family.

But then as Don and I head back to our tent he asks me where I had put our shoes. I had asked him early if I could leave them in the vestibule of the tent. Now he thinks it would be better if I put them under the tent out of sight.

September 24, 2016

For links to all the posts in this series see the Madagascar page.