We float down Willy Wonka's chocolate river in a dugout canoe powered by two young Malagasy men. This murky river is the Tsiribihina, which flows from the center of the island to the Mozambique Channel on the West Coast of the island. Along the sandbanks children play in the water, swimming towards us as we float past. The people that live along this river rely on it for bathing, drinking and washing. They literally dip their toothbrush in to brush their teeth. Woman wash clothes and men fish.
The river's color comes from the top soil that washes in as the forests are burned for charcoal and small scale farming. Tobacco plants are grown along the water's edge.
The scenery changes almost as drastically as the weather. Large rock formations tower over us, vegetation dripping down the cliffs. Iguanas bask on rocks and bats sleep within the cracks high above the river. Around the bend the rocks are gone and tall grasses grow along sandbanks at the edge of the water. Large chameleons cling to plants and watch us row past. Purple flowers bloom from aquatic plants that we float past.
In this murky water lies the only dangerous reptile in Madagascar, the Nile Crocodile. Although this is the same species that is found in Eastern Africa, it stays smaller here, averaging 9 feet (compared to 16 feet on the mainland). In one village, we are told that several children are lost to crocodiles each year. This doesn't stop our rowers from occasionally hopping out of the pirogue to cool off.
I fall asleep floating in the hot sun and wake up as the sky turns dark. Thunder crashes in the distance. We rush to cover all of our belongings with large blue plastic bags as a storm approaches. I clutch my electronics to my chest inside of my raincoat and hide out under the umbrella as the rain began to come down. Within a few minutes, we are floating 6 inches from the river in a full storm with all of our belongings. The piroguiers keep rowing as the rain falls harder.
The storm soon passes and we stop for lunch under a large mango tree that stands alone in a grassy field. The large trees that have survived the large scale deforestation seem to be an oasis for wildlife. Geckos hide under the bark and iguanas bask in the sun. I lay under the tree and spot a tiny snake wedged in the bark of the tree about 8 ft up. As I am figuring out how to get a closer look at the reptile, a local quickly climbs the tree and knocks the snake down into my hands. Although there are no dangerous snakes on the island, most people seem to be afraid of them. Our guides won't even touch them.
Before long, children have gathered and watch attentively as I hold the tiny reptile in my hand. Instinctively they want to swat it and squeeze it. Without words, we practice snake handling techniques together. After a few minutes, they begin to gain the courage to touch it and quickly learn to hold the snake with open hands. By the time we leave, even the most shy kids are proudly holding the snake.
Both adults and children find themselves absorbed in my almost 500 page Field Guide to Amphibians & Reptiles of Madagascar. We sit in the sand and flip through together. I explain the range maps and show people what they can find in the area. They take photos of pages and I think about how so many people don't have access to the information about the animals that live in their own backyards.
I am working with the Madagascan Amphibian & Reptile Conservation to create an online guide to reptiles and amphibians creating access to this information to anyone. Stay tuned about how you can support this program.