Rescue in Madagascar

 

As I pulled out the satellite phone, I thought to myself, “I can’t believe I’m about to do this. I can’t believe I am calling for rescue.” It was surreal and a situation completely new to me. My three-man reconnaissance team sat on a barren hill top, sweating and enduring the relentless buzzing of the “sweat bees,” which swarmed exposed skin during daylight hours. We were 9 hard fought miles from our base camp and nearly out of food and water. Our planned exit strategy involved at least another 5 miles of bushwhacking to reach a trail on the map. The temperature hovered over 100 degrees fahrenheit, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Tired, dehydrated and hungry, we were on the verge of descending into a deadly scenario.

 

The Beginning

Rescue in Madagascar

Thirty hours earlier, the three of us – Jim Mandelli (engineer and adventure racing legend), Travis Steffens (explorer and primatologist), and myself (adventurer and athlete) – all highly experienced adventurers, had walked out of our field camp on a 6 hour reconnaissance trek. We were camped along the edge of the Tsingy de Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve in Western Madagascar – a truly unique landscape and biodiversity hot spot that doesn’t get the research or tourism attention it should due to brutally difficult terrain and a general absence of roads and infrastructure. Here as part of Adventure Science’s 100 Miles of Wild: Madagascar’s Limestone Labyrinth project, we had arrived several days ahead of the bulk of the team to establish base camp and conduct several reconnaissance treks to ground truth the research plan.

Rescue in MadagascarHindsight being 20/20, we should have known that we were in for something epic as soon as we crossed the stream that bordered our camp, immediately impaling ourselves on sharp grasses and getting snagged on thorn-covered vines. It was already 85 degrees, and we were drenched in sweat less than an hour into our reconnaissance. As the day wore on, we pushed eastwards, through the heat, dense forest and the incredibly dangerous and knife-blade sharp tsingy limestone labyrinth.

 

The Descent

Rescue in Madagascar

Around 13:00 hours, we made the first of several decisions that resulted in our final predicament. Following a lunch break, we decided to push another hour eastwards in hopes that we would be able to cross the worst of the tsingy and gather useful information about the eastern part of the park, which would be helpful in planning the rest of the research expedition. Our enthusiasm got the best of us, and we blew through our 60 minute time contract, continuing our exploration eastward. Still confident and excited, we battled through a maze of limestone outcrops, skirting and down climbing cliffs, or ascending three-story limestone walls using a mix of rock and vines to scale upwards. Danger was all around us, and, although we were aware of it, we didn’t fully appreciate it, or acknowledge our vulnerability.

Rescue in Madagascar

As the afternoon progressed, we decided that it would be too dangerous to return to camp by backtracking (as we might have ended up crossing the tsingy limestone in the dark (which fell at 18:00) – a total death wish – and opted to continue onwards, with the hopes of reaching the savannah that bordered the forest on the east. Once in the savannah, we envisioned a speedy trek south for 6 miles, and then a 15 mile trek west along an established trail to the town of Antsalova, where we would arrange for a vehicle to meet us. We radioed into Keith at our base camp and advised him of our situation and that we would be on the move through the long night.

In the darkness, the kilometres slowly ticked by, and our rations shrank. We were alarmed to discover that, unlike the western side of the tsingy, the eastern side lacked water. We had been rationing a litre of water throughout the night and had treated some very suspect looking water from a tree well and a rock depression – both had to be screened through our Buff, as they were full of insect larvae and decomposing leaves. As we walked, we constantly scanned for water sources, ultimately resorting to splitting bamboo shoots to collect the meagre amount of water inside of each chamber, as well as sipping the morning dew from tree leaves.

Rescue in Madagascar

I’ve treated a lot of questionable water over my many years of adventure racing and exploring, but what we ultimately filled our bladders with was the worst by far. Around 08:00 hours, we stumbled onto a mostly desiccated cattle wallow that held a less-than-a-child’s-swimming-pool-worth of scum-covered water in a dry stream bed. Instead of mosquito larvae, we siphoned tadpoles and treated the ochre coloured liquid with three chlorine tablets per litre of water. To prove just how vile this chemical soup was, Jim proceeded to launch into a series of uncontrolled dry-heaves after his first swing of our life saving elixir. We blamed him for causing us to laugh, and expend unnecessary calories. The mood was lightened, albeit momentarily.

Rescue in Madagascar

Each loaded with water that none of us wanted to drink, we soldiered on – into the heat and the unknown, heading towards the savannah, and our salvation. As we moved through burned patches and forest, we were hopeful that one of the cattle tracks we followed would lead us out of the forest. This didn’t happen, and we walked from the searing heat of burned grazing land to the dense forests, which slowed our progress to a crawl, exhausted us and depleted our supplies. We were definitely beyond the point of having fun. This was now desperate work.

Low on food, out of gas and already rationing our horrific water, we trudged to the top of a burned hill top to get a clear 360º view of our surroundings. What we saw was deflating. Aside from the clearing on which we stood, we were surrounded by kilometres of the same thick forest that we’d been battling for the last day and a half. This was the tipping point for me. I realized that we were facing a serious situation. Should we continue to press on in our depleted condition, we would be gambling our lives on the prospect of finding more water and many kilometres of trekking had shown that water was a rare commodity on this side of the tsingy. With none of us ready to take those odds – I made the call.

 

The Rescue

 

Rescue in Madagascar

As the faint whirring of the helicopter intensified and relief swept over me, bruised ego aside, I knew that we did the right thing in calling for help. There was no shame in surviving. Had we rolled the dice and decided to self-rescue, we could have very well lucked out, found water and managed to trek to the trail, where, as it turns out, there was an unmarked water source used by the locals. It could have easily gone the other way though – and, with failing batteries on our GPS, a map lacking in critical detail and a nearly dead satellite phone – it’s possible that we would have perished out there.

Rescue in Madagascar

Explorers must accept certain risks when venturing into an unexplored region. These risks include death and suffering. While we acknowledge these as possibilities, I don’t think any of us could ever comprehended the how fast a situation can turn from good to bad in these environments. Our decision not to honour our agreed upon turn-around time led us down the rabbit hole, and the gravity of our situation spiralled rapidly as we pushed further into the unknown. While we did manage to collect valuable data and get a greater understanding of the environment for the betterment of the project, the cost was putting ourselves into a dangerous position – one that I hope to never repeat.

Our rescue was a true team effort, and we wish to thank Keith Szlater, Melissa Rae Stewart, the Adventure Science team, the office of the Honorable Ed Holder, The Canadian Consulate in Madagascar, Major General Dominque Jean Oliver Rakotozafy and the Malagasy helicopter pilots who found and extracted us.

Rescue in Madagascar

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