Quest of big Waterfall in Ranomafana

Quest of big Waterfall in Ranomafana

This is a story about our search for the big waterfall in Ranomafana National Park, Madagascar. It turned out to be more discovering the river, forest, and the wetlands.


The jump attempt failed miserably. My shoes landed on a fallen, slippery tree log in the middle of the stream, and I started skating for a few seconds until I ended up in cold water and reddish sand. “Oh no”, I wept, feeling the water pouring into my shoes. I tried hard to keep them dry, but now they are soaked with water. And very heavy, I instantly felt the punishing weight. These shoes won’t dry for ages in this sultry tropical moisture with overhanging lead-colored clouds, ready to discharge any moment. “When is this marsh going to end?” I whispered, annoyed by the breach of my comfort zone, my inner enemy. We are working our way for hours in the labyrinths of the Ranomena River, and the mud is our constant companion. My trousers are dirty from the beginning, but at least until now, my shoes were dry…

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We are in Ranomafana National Park in Madagascar, true cloud forest on steep eastern slopes of the mountainous backbone of Madagascar, where clouds and fog often enshroud the rainforest, feeding the luxurious vegetation. We set off this morning from the wooden houses of the picturesque village of Ambatulahi, advancing through rice paddies until the forest. Soon, however, our small group of Malagasy park rangers and three Croats set foot on a flat swamp of Pandanus tree, entangled by other plants, and now we wander in it for hours.

Our goal is to discover the path to the biggest waterfall of Ranomafana National Park, one of the best parks in this island nation.  Wet and muddy, but undeterred, we continue following the Red River (Ranomena in Malagasy means exactly this). I lost count already how many times we have crossed the river, because of the bush and other obstacles. Mostly it is not a big deal, thanks to the natural bridges like fallen trees, but sometimes there is no other resort than to cross it wading barefoot with shoes in the hands. Unrelenting tempo due to the closing darkness and night drains my energy and concentration, so my legs don’t obey me anymore, tripping over without conscious control of my brain…This expedition is really not for the faint of the heart.

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Pandanus marshes

Occasionally, we take a break to regain our strength for a few minutes, an opportunity for the biologist in me to observe impressive Pandanus trees that dominate this swamp. Their most dominant feature is long and hard leaves, serrated at the edges, like a giant umbrella on the stout trunk. Often called Pandanus palms, these plants are not closely related to palm trees. They commonly have many thick prop roots near the base, which provide support as the tree grows top-heavy with leaves, fruit, and branches. Beside visually attractive, Pandanus is ecologically very important as a home for other animals. Frogs, insects, even crabs live here, protected by the canopy ant thorns. Unfortunately, it is a nursery for mosquito larvae, Anopheles among them, the infamous transmitter of malaria. The biggest dweller is one epiphyte, plant that lives on the other plant, big orchid Arangis madagascariensis. Its pink-red flowers are unreachable on the top of the Pandanus.

Emile, our leader and top guide in the park, freeze suddenly, visibly at loss where to go. I feel a twinge of misgiving – despite his experience and the intimate knowledge of the natural pathways in the jungle, we are on mostly uncharted territory. His dark, mustached face bore a smile after some long seconds, he clapped his hands and we continued our expedition once again. We have only an hour to reach our camp and adrenalin surge of hope gave us the energy for a final push. I sighed with relief, last in the column with young and silent guide Dauphin. At the makeshift camp, we toppled dead tired near the stream, ate the rice and pitched the tents. I fell asleep instantly.

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Unzipping the tent, the dawn of the next day promised even more humidity. Low, dark clouds flew ominously above our heads. The black kite soared above our heads, apparently baffled by the humans here. Our camp is near the Red River that meanders silently, and tops of the Pandanus trees eerily silhouette against the morning mist. I wonder such flat terrain, nestled in the steep mountains of Ranomafana. Emile explains in his slow, but sure English that it was the bottom of the ancient lake and this marsh is its leftover. The lake existed until some crazy adventurer blew the rock on one spot and water slowly oozed afterward. I find it hard to believe, this deluge story, smirking on my dark tanned guide with manly mustaches. It looks just the normal river floodplain that happens to be on a highland, but everything is possible on Madagascar.

Plodding through the marsh

It is cold. Our Malagasy colleagues are speechlessly getting warm by the campfire, where the rice for breakfast is already cooking. The blaze is the only warm light in this otherworldly, fairytale ambient. I glance at the white rice simmering in the old pot, the staple food of Malagasy people. I remember that once our guide Emile had the option to have a European breakfast with us in a hotel, but instead, he opted to go to the street to find some rice. Rice is also the reason number one for deforestation, as the forest is receding to make a way for the paddies. To get enough calories, bowls of our new friends are brimming with rice, but soon will be empty, unlike ours. It seems that our stomachs are not stretched enough for such quantities of the food.

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To our surprise, the clouds ebbed and clear blue sky let the sunshine through. It is so balmy now, but I know that later, we will sweat, even at the altitude of 1000 meters, these are tropics after all. Finishing with the breakfast and the tents, Emile looks in one direction, and like dog sniffing, he estimates that we need at least one more day in the swamp. My socks and the shoes have barely dried during the night; and after one more muddy crossing, I made the decision: there is no more sense to put them on and off every few minutes. It means that I will walk barefoot. I have always done this on the Drava River so it shouldn’t be a problem here. Beside Emile who sports his rubber boots, all Malagasy guides in our company are barefoot too, but they are walking on their bare, asphalt hardened soles the entire life!

We continue plodding along the fickle river that seems can’t decide where to go, left or right, constantly changing the mind like an insecure teenager, trying one, then another side. Furthermore, Ranomena seems to be wider and deeper now, with less shade. We constantly drown into the soft mud or lose in the tall grass and young bamboo shots…it is almost impossible to advance without slashing the jungle with our machetes on the river banks. Bamboo and Pandanus proves to be especially troublesome, as its thorny leaves are on the way. That’s why we are forced to leave our clothes on, despite the sweltering heat. The other reason is mosquitoes that buzz around even in the full daylight. They offer a range of diseases, so it is better to prevent them on time. While the rest of the body is protected, the feet are already suffering, full of bloody red marks and stripes from sharp leaves and boiled in the sweat from the previous day.

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Lost in the marsh

At one spot we stop. Emile reluctantly peeks in all directions once again, but to me, everything is the same, the uniform marsh and the jungle. While Emile looks hopelessly lost and it seems the big problem is looming ahead, one of the oldest guides steps to the front and raise the a head, something like sniffing the way. Emaciated and sun-scorched, bedraggled, homely and ungainly in his drab rags, this man never got into my focus until now, lost at the back of the column, slouching under the huge rice bag. In fact, when I think now, he can’t be a national park guide, but a local who knows the area or porter, outwardly shy in front of us, vazaha, or strangers in the Malagasy language. This old man that hasn’t seen much of the amenities of the modern world, gurgles few words, point the arm in one direction and Emile accept this way without a word. Impressed, Željko says that when nothing else could help, his ancestors’ genes will show us the correct way.

The Red River is getting deeper, so I unroll the trousers, the water is above the knees anyway. I try to forget all parasites that could mill in these waters, but with no success. Bilharzia bothers me especially, an infection pandemic to Madagascar. Small worms (nematodes) bore the skin and gather in the veins around the intestines and the bladder. The bloody pissing is sure sign of the disease. Parasites find the way to the liver and the lungs and cause the problems in the tropics around the world, with roughly 100 million cases yearly. For its lifecycle, the parasite has a water snail as the intermediate host. My hope is that worm needs some 15 minutes of immersed skin to get inside. Also, the absence of the settlements, the source of disease, comforts me further. The aforementioned bloody pissing is not only the painful symptom but also the spreading of the disease.

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To avoid annoying parasites, I make every effort to walk on the river banks as much as possible, but other troubles await me there. I trip over the young bamboo and to avoid falling, I grab the shoot of another bamboo…What a mistake!  The slender plant is covered by thousands of the tiny, but sharp needles, just loosely attached to the bamboo. All those just transferred to my hand. I see that others have similar problems. It occurred to me immediately the story about needles from one plant that causes incredible pain and itching, but luckily, this is just a bamboo. It takes a few minutes to remove them and that’s it. At least, we made the nice imprint of our hands, like cavemen!

Down the rapids

A new sound has emerged and foreshadowed the end of the marshy plain. The sound of relief – the running water! And the water not only the flowing, but also the free falling. Suddenly, Ranomena was squeezed in meter wide canyon and disappeared in the shadow of the stretch cabal. So abruptly, out of the blue, we followed her for two days. We stepped on the rocky promontory that materialized on the edge of the swamp and began to follow the big rock where the river was gone. The swamp is nowhere to be seen, and in front of us lays vast Malagasy rainforest. The sense of relief spread among us, just as the fresh air and the wind from the open space. It brought back our wilted enthusiasm. But, where to go now?

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We glance down to the abyss, with shivers. Emile however already knowingly begins descending down the slope, groping through the thick woods, and we have no alternatives but to follow him. There, we meet out the friend, Ranomena. But, she is no longer the sick old woman, but instead young girl, full of life energy. From the tunnel, she plummets down in a ten meters waterfall and starts a mad dash down the slope, wherever the eye can see the canyon. “No, it is still not the big one…” Emile reads my minds “…we have still much to walk”. He dryly, added that the rainforest, full of entangled epiphytes is hardly penetrable and better would be to descend through the rocky riverbed. The riverbed can we call it in this way the steep cliff, exposed to the falls and rapids elements for ages in this tropical environment. But, as I walk carefully on the edge and resisting the gravity, this is a really better option. Now, in the dry season, the river is not in full throttle so we have enough space between the rapids. We walk carefully, looking for the dry rocks, which were safer than slippery wet rocks with slimy algae. But that was not the easy task – the torrent in the rainy season washes all but big boulders. Branches, stranded here during the rains, even entire trees slow down, even more, our advance.

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Doing this in the rainy season would be very dangerous here. I picture the river full of energy, like a train going downhill, nowhere to hide or run away. Only rapids and small falls reminisce of the torrent. Despite the dangers and hurdles, it feels so nice being here! Now and then, I approach the forest on the river bank, silent in front of the rapids. But I can imagine all these buzzing from myriads of the insects, birds and other critters. Lush, fragrant, it is overhanging on the river, trees fighting for space and light. The thick curtain of the epiphytes doesn’t let me see much into its dark depths. I wonder have biologists ever walked here and explored its natural wonders…

Invasion of the leeches

Nothing is eternal in this world, and the land of the falls is already gone. Ranomena is quiet once again, and our group wading knee deep in the middle of its course. Luckily, the shade of the living, green, intertwined roof of the trees and bush protects us from the sun and heat. We plodded like this several hundred meters, on the very sharp gravel, so painfully sharp that it lasted for eternity… The opening in the bush finally brought a relief. The dark, fresh, cold and soft forest floor was balmy, compared to the rough granite. Safe in the forest, there’s no more need to hurt my feet. I finally put on my wet shoes, instantly gaining a kilo or two. Still, it was such a pleasure! We sped up as much as we can, trying to reach our second camp before the sun disappear and the darkness enshroud the wilderness and us in it. The pleasure of the forest didn’t last long, however.

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The strange feeling that hungry mouth clings to my skin was visually confirmed. The invasion of leaches. Everybody immediately began the unpleasant removal of these nasty animals. I just pull them off and left them alive to look for something else. I vividly recall my first encounter, on the other side of the park. My white socks were rose colored from the blood that flowed like a small stream, diluted with the diluvial rain that showered us.

It’s 5 o‘clock, almost a tropical evening. The light of the open space usher to the grassland with my old friends – Pandanus trees. Emile nods with the wry smile that we are close to the camps. But, the final challenge for the already intensive day still awaits me. What appears as grassland is actually a bog, waterlogged meadow of sedges, mosses and other plants. Almost as in quicksand, I started drowning in loose and soft soil and plants, filling the shoes with the mud and water again. I slogged for some time in this strange landscape, elfin trees ornamented with mosses, lichens, and orchids, almost smiling at our troubles. We reached solid ground ultimately, wet, muddy, bloody, but happy.

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«Riana be»*

First golden sun rays of the newborn day caressed the tops of the trees that now looked like fairies with glistening dewdrops like pearls. Closer to the ground, the Ranomena was still enshrouded by the morning mist, dancing gently as the temperature slowly rose. She is big now – wide and slow, silently snaking through the forest. It flows like a princess, but the ominous thunder is already penetrating the trees. We sped up, only three vazahas and Emile, as rumble was becoming louder. Our goal is almost there, from the excitement we stumbled on the trees, sliding on the wet rocks and branches, enchanted by the song of the forest siren. We hit the open space, welcomed by the rising sun on the horizon, above distant mountains still in the fog, blinding me for a moment that I almost fell from the precipice. It looks like the giant hand had sliced the mountain with the machete with the perfect precision and Ranomena crashed down with full force. Her scream of the surprise and horror left us deaf and voiceless. I stand on the very edge of the abyss and try to see the bottom, but with no avail. The fine spray and aerosol burned from the rays of the newborn Sun. Like madmen, we started running downhill with no regards to the dangers, catching the trees to saving from the breaking the leg, head or an arm.

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Finally, we bumped to the flat rock, slippery from the constant spray that covered us instantly with thousands of the shine drops of the water. More than 40 meters tall, the waterfall was tumbling on dark granite at the bottom. Big rainbow danced on the white drapes of the fall. The waterfall is mighty but squeezed on both sides by the luxuriant vegetation, the magnificent rainforest. Rainforest that protect it and feeds it with the water but which is dying on Madagascar, except in protected places like Ranomafana national park.

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*riana=waterfall, be=big