Three days on a pirogue down the Tsiribihina River, travelling through an ever-changing landscape of sandbanks, cliffs and mangroves. Nothing but silence and nature around us. 

What’s the sound of silence? Nothingness doesn’t exist. You may escape cities and towns and run to the darkest corner of the Amazon, or the deepest reach of the Sahara, but you’ll never find total silence. Insects will keep chirping, branches falling, the wind blowing, shifting sand dunes.

Perhaps silence is the sound of nature. When you leave ‘civilisation’, leaving the sound of engines and electronics behind, nature is all that is left. And it is never ‘silent’. Sounds travel with you. Keep you company. Soothe you.

Madagascar Tsiribihina River baobabs

Baobabs growing on the riverbanks

We spent three days descending the Tsiribihina River. Three days huddled in a dugout pirogue, floating down the river, accompanied by the rhythmic paddling of the piroguier, the whisper of the breeze drawing wavelets on the river surface, the ruffle of branches after the jump of a lemur.

Madagascar Tsiribihina River Chameleon

A chameleon wandering the trees

Where is the Tsiribihina River?

One of the main rivers of central Madagascar, the Tsiribihina is born near the village of Miandrivazo, at the confluence of two other rivers. It flows for about 100 km through a surprisingly diverse landscape, until it reaches the Mozambique Channel.

white heron take off

A white heron taking off

Descending the Tsiribihina River is one of the top tourist activities in Madagascar, but it is no recent invention. Tours on the river have taken place since colonial times; well-heeled French colonists were taken to visit the tobacco plantations near the riverbanks with pirogues, as there was no way to travel other than by river.

Madagascar Tsiribihina River pirogue

Transporting cargo on the river

Fast-forward about 100 years, and the situation hasn’t changed much, The river is still the lifeline of the territory. In the absence of roads, daily life happens on the river. The Tsiribihina is – at the same time – highway, marketplace and playground. However, between one hamlet and another, the river is tranquil and impossibly beautiful.

Madagascar Tsiribihina River 2 Ladies in the Water

Women bathing and fetching water

Madagascar Tsiribihina River Twins

Three generations on the riverbank

Floating down the river

We left Miandrivazo early one pink-dusted morning. The town was already awake, as we loaded our luggage and belongings on the pirogue. Our rucksacks became our seats and backrests. Loaded with food and provisions for three days, we floated away.

Tsiribihina River Boat Cooking

Cooking on the pirogue

The river was shallow and slow-flowing, tea-coloured, under an enormous sky. Lying on my back under a wide-brimmed hat, I began to contemplate. Hills of red earth and rice paddies. Small trees and reeds grew on the riverbanks. Pirogues loaded up with people and produce floated along, and occasionally we heard the roar of a chaland, the river’s taxi-brousse, to remind us that ‘civilisation’ was just around the corner.

Madagascar Tsiribihina River Reflections

River reflections

Mostly, though, it was us and nature. I saw a bright green flash moving across. A Madagascar bee-eater, said our guide Jimmy. We spotted prancing herons and egrets, as elegant as damsels going to a ball. Jimmy was an excellent birdwatcher, his eyes trained after years leading tourists on the river. He told us of king birds and birds of paradise, of coucals and whistling ducks, taking their name from their song, reminiscent of a whistle. He told us all the birds’ Latin names, that inevitably finished with Madagascarensis.

two green birds Madagascar Bee Eaters

Two Madagascar bee eaters

We watched two crows fly together, stop on the same branch, then take off again, following each other’s flight. ‘They are the souls of two lovers’ said Jimmy. Together in life, together in death. I spied the crows, by then two faint dots on the horizon, flying as one.

Tsiribihina River Masked Owl

A masked owl hiding on a cliff

Wildlife and tales on the Tsiribihina

By the second day, the landscape had changed. Reeds and sandbanks had given way to cliffs and forest. The river was deeper and faster-flowing, wildlife more abundant. Following Jimmy’s expert eye, we spotted our first lemur, a Coquerel’s sifaka, perched on top of a tree, elegant in his maroon-white suit. Then, we heard a sharp noise, like that of a whip. It was a Nile crocodile diving, snapping his tail on the water surface.They are abundant in these waters. Tsiribihina means ‘do not dive’ in Malagasy. A sharp reminder that a dip may be fatal.

coquerel's sifaka tsiribihina river

A Coquerel’s sifaka

Time on the pirogue was spent contemplating, enjoying the sounds of nature, and listening to Jimmy’s stories. He told us of the spirit world, where people go when they die. The separation between living and dead is not as we imagine it to be; in Madagascar, death is not a one way road.

Tsiribihina Cliffs and River

Cliffs on the second day

Sometimes the dead return to Earth in the shape of animals, appear in their relatives’ dreams, communicate through the tromba, the village shaman. There is even a celebration every few years; it is famadihana, during which the dead are taken out of their tombs and dance with their families. I asked Jimmy if he believed in ghosts. In the west, people usually laugh when I ask this question. Jimmy replied with no hesitation. Of course.

Tsiribihina River Boys on the Bank

People, nature, and spirits all around

Sometimes we met people. Children seemed to have a sixth sense; whenever we stopped for lunch, a small group of children and teens arrived, climbed on a tree and watched. Usually, the gang leaders came up to us after a little while, asking for bonbons and pictures, and giggled like crazy when they saw themselves on the camera screen. I wanted to send them some, so I asked Jimmy for their address. But they have no address, he said.

Madagascar Tsiribihina River kids

Our visitors at lunch

The river at night

We pitched out tent on sandbanks, and laid on a mat while the night fell around us. Our boatmen, Mario and Rivo, cooked dinner from a small wood fire burner on the back of the pirogue. They were both Miandrivazo locals, and the river was their living. The Tsiribihina was a gigantic vein, feeding not only the land, but also the people. Rhythms of life are dictated by the river; everything slows down in the rainy season, when the Tsiribihina floods and the land is battered by winds.

fisher eagle flying

A fisher eagle taking off

Pirogues have no engine; the trip downstream takes three days, upstream it can take up to seven. Downstream, the piroguiers use wooden paddles to steer the pirogue and help it along. The way back is long and punishing; the current is powerful and they must use long wooden poles to push the boat, like punts in Cambridge. Mario and Rivo are only able to do the trip twice-monthly, and the tourist season only lasts for a few months each year.

Madagascar Tsiribihina River sunset

The Tsiribihina at sunset

At night, we saw some piroguiers travelling upstream. Only the whoosh of the water revealed their presence; inevitably, they travelled in the dark, using starlight to illuminate their way. They know every tree, every bend, every islet, said Jimmy.

pots on fire near river

Our dinner cooking

We descended the Tsiribihina on the three nights before Eid-al-Fitr. It was just before the sickle appeared; we had three moonless nights, when the stars shone like beacons from above, and the Milky Way crossed the sky like a path of light. I had never seen anything similar. We’ve seen amazing stars in Wadi Rum, in Western Mongolia and in the Thar Desert, but nothing compared to the Milky Way of the Tsiribihina River.

Madagascar Tsiribihina River Milky Way

Our camp at night

So we laid on the mat, contemplating the marvel above, counting shooting stars and listening to the silence. The campfire crackled. The river flowed. Noises came from the forest just behind; hums and patters, cracks and whirrs. Silence.

Madagascar Tsiribihina River Afternoon Haze

A lonely morning

We would like to thank Lanto of Madagascar Tropic Voyage, who generously offered a media discount in exchange for consideration for an article. We loved the experience and, as always, all opinions are our own. 

17 Responses

    • Margherita

      Hey Sarah, this time F-stop was 2.8 and exposure 93 seconds (with a tripod, of course). Thanks for the kind words. It was a wonderful night!

  1. Tim

    That was really a great post and I felt like I was along for the journey. Some of the photos are incredible and I really appreciate the angels and effort you put into making them special. Well done and I look forward to hearing more on Madagascar.
    Tim recently posted…Felucca on the NileMy Profile

    • Margherita

      Thanks Tim! It was an amazing experience, highly recommended before it’s overrun by mass tourism!

  2. Ivana

    I do love this story! It made me feel the life of the river so vividly that I’d pack and go there right now. Beautiful pics, guys 🙂

  3. Franca

    Oh guys, this post and photos really makes me want to explore this part of the world that for some reasons is never been high on my list. You had just an incredible trip, very authentic and so close and to direct contact to the nature. That photo of your camp during the night is outstanding by the way 🙂
    Franca recently posted…Five Tips and Pics for AntwerpMy Profile

  4. Ann

    This feels like one of those experiences that I’d want to pinch myself to believe if it was true. There’s something romantic about the water anyway, but then to be somewhere that is so different from other places I’m used to makes it that much more interesting. The food cooking on sticks, the cargo transport, all the animals. But, that night sky and the stars. Wow.
    Ann recently posted…Meet an NRWer: Claudia from Stella & DotMy Profile


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