STEPPING OUT ambassador and GB rafter, Georgie Preston, surveyed the swirling torrents of the river they call the Mania in Madagascar and instantly diagnosed: ”Certain death”. What with the violent thrashing of the mud-brown water AND the Nile crocodiles. A little further on she and her fellow expeditionists decided: “Almost certain death.” That was fine. They’d go in the water there.
To each their own adventure. This is the story of Georgie’s.
“Every adventure begins with the first step, as your motto says, and my first step on this particular expedition was a phone call I received at 3 AM in Galway nightclub. Between being slightly drunk and the booming music, it wasn’t easy to hear the voice.
“Oh Ben, it’s you,” I said, delighted to hear from a great friend and fellow kayaker, one of two brothers, hard-core adventurers, I’d met in Ecuador last year.
We talked about the trip he was planning with his brother and dad to tackle the infamous Mania for only the third time in human history, 191 miles east to west, in all its wildness. I couldn’t wait to tell him that my plans changed and now I was free to come.
“Are you sure?’ he asked.
“Yes of course,” I said without hesitation.
He called again the next day when he figured I’d be sober.
“How serious are you about Madagascar?”
So here we were, carrying two rafts, two kayaks, 400 kg of gear in all, through the wilderness to the most practical start point of the Mania at Ambositria. Maybe ‘practical’ isn’t quite the right word. It’s not ‘practical” to invade the territory of 6 foot long crocodiles who launch themselves in such aggressive attack you can see the teeth glistening in their widening jaws as they tank towards you. Nor to shoot the crashing rapids where the siphons can suck you under and hold you trapped in tunnels of rock.
The river was high and fast just after the rainy season and boiling with turbulence. Choosing the right line to navigate was a tricky business. We’d argue sometimes. “Certain Death” – don’t do it. “Almost certain death” – ok. Once I remember there was a particularly difficult lateral move to cross from one side to the other where the line was easier. The kayaks went first and made it. But the raft wasn’t quite as agile. There were three of us in there. I was paddling at the front. We could tell we weren’t going to make it. I knew then we were in trouble. I didn’t say anything. I just paddled really hard. The worst thing you can do is panic and stop. Your whole life comes down to this pin-sharp moment. Do or die. Well, here I am so we didn’t die. But it was scary.
But I don’t love adventures for their crazy dangers. I think that is more of a bi-product. What I truly love is bonding as a team with people who look out for you just as you look out for them. I was the only girl on this particular trip amongst six boys and that didn’t matter at all. (Although I did wash more – and with soap.) We were in this together whether it was negotiating with the wonderful local people in sign language to help us carry our stuff or just playing with the children and the women with games like ”head, shoulders, knees and toes” for fun. Communication, you realise, can go way beyond words, although I did learn Malagasy for ‘tree”.
And ‘train’. Because there is a universal fact applied to river adventures. You never want them to end. So having survived the Mania, we altered our plans to include one more river that we could apparently reach by steam train through the jungle. Who could turn that down? It seemed to be going so well as we discovered this platform and a little hut right in the middle of a wilderness but then we learnt the snag. The train didn’t stop. It just chugged past while we ran hopelessly alongside. Someone local consoled us with the thought that there would be another train along at 5am and locked us in a little hut for safety on the platform to wait for it. It was still pitch dark when it came into view and we stood on the track waving torches to flag it down. It was an oil tanker. No seats. Just clinging to grills on top of each rounded oil tank screaming “DUCK!” “TUNNEL!” “TREE” to each other as we steamed through the jungle dodging all the overhanging dangers. Very James Bond.
We were rewarded with a clear water river of great beauty with no crocodiles. The surface was so flat and gentle that you could paddle right up to the lip of a waterfall and look over without tipping to your doom.
I love this way of life. I don’t really know why it’s so addictive but it has something to do with living in nature, living WITH nature, respecting it and belonging in it without exploiting it. Living very simply, sleeping outside at night, travelling by river. Sometimes I find cities overwhelming with their noise, lights, concrete, people although it would be hypocritical to claim I don’t enjoy a browse around camping shops.
I’m at my happiest on these adventures although I’m aware of the invasion of sadness on the last two or three days of every trip knowing it must come to an end. But there’s always a next time. Another incoming phone call at 3 AM in a nightclub, not necessarily in Galway.
Would I be in?
A word from Georgie about Stepping Out: “I get it. I get completely why carers and the people they care for love being outdoors with new friends in nature, seeing beautiful things, learning to rely on one another, laughing together, coping together, eating together. Good luck to you on your adventures and I look forward to seeing you again soon.