Words and images by John Callahan.
Off the west coast of Madagascar in the Mozambique Channel is a group of flat coral islands called The Barren Isles. Until the year 2000, they were uninhabited, as water is hard to find and there are few resources to sustain human settlement.
The 40km archipelago, made up of nine islands and sandbanks, is now inhabited year round by a contingent of the Vezo, a semi-nomadic tribal people of coastal Madagascar who sailed their distinctive, finely crafted boats over to the isles from the mainland city of Toliara. They have dug wells on land to find water to drink and grow vegetables and took up fishing, making it easier to live on the islands.
We arrived in Antananarivo, Madagascar's capital city, and started to make our arrangements to get to the coast, which is not easy. The west coast of Madagascar is remote, with bad roads (in a country famous for bad roads) and many bandit gangs engaged in rustling cattle in this dry ranching country.
After a great deal of haggling over the price in French, we hired a series of taxi brousse (bush taxis) to reach the coast at the town of Maintirano, where we met the representatives of Blue Ventures, an NGO with a fisheries management programme in the Barren Islands.
Blue Ventures has been working with the Vezo people to teach sustainable fishing practices for people on those remote islands. Just so happens, we would be travelling from Maintirano in one of their boats. They had brokered an arrangement for us with the Vezo to camp on one of the islands.
After several days of preparations in Maintirano, we left at sunrise with a fully-loaded boat, with all the fuel, food and water we would need to camp and surf for a week. Fortunately, the crossing was calm and we arrived in the late morning without getting anything too wet. We set up the tents in a grove of casuarina trees, for shade and wind protection.
We set up the tents in a grove of casuarina trees, for shade and wind protection
We had done a lot of research on possible surfing locations along the Islands and set out to put these theories to the test the next morning. The critical factor in this area, as with Madagascar as a whole, is the wind. Specifically, the relentless southeast tradewind that impacts every wave in the area of these completely low and flat islands, so the earlier we can start on the calm mornings, the better.
Over the next few days, we found and surfed over a couple of reefs, as a southwest groundswell faded to almost nothing, getting some good video footage and still images in the can. We had downloaded all the forecast data we could get while we had a signal on the mainland, but there was no phone or internet signal anywhere in the Barren Isles. We had to wait and see what might happen for more waves while we still had the food and fuel supplies to continue camping.
We reviewed again the 15-day forecast charts that had downloaded while on the mainland and there was another swell from the southwest forecast to arrive in two days, but the longer-range forecasts for the Indian Ocean were still too far out to feel like a reality.
While waiting to see what might happen for waves, we focussed on tasks like gathering and stockpiling firewood to have our campsite running smoothly and exploring the island on foot. We ditched the boat to save limited outboard motor fuel, so we would have plenty of petrol if the forecast came good, and we needed to get somewhere fast.
We also learned more about the Vezo people and why they had relocated to the harsh environment of the Barren Isles from the comparatively lush mainland of Madagascar. It seemed to have a lot to do with traditional “fady”, a set of ancestral rules governing spiritual and secular activities, kind of like taboos, which meant no one can live in those areas, despite population pressures and clan rivalries. So they decided to try to live full-time in the Barren Isles where there were no “fady” restrictions or constraints applying to the islands.
On the day the waves were supposed to be the biggest on our possibly outdated long-term charts, we could see small waves breaking at our “indicator” spot, which had been flat for several days. If there were small waves breaking here, it meant there would be bigger waves on the more exposed parts of the reefs that surround the Barren Isles.
We set out in the boat for a right reef break we had surfed when the swell was small. We pulled up to see two metres of fresh southwest swell in a light southeast wind. The video crew were stoked to get some footage in bigger waves and we surfed all morning in perfect conditions, at a spot that most likely had never been surfed before our arrival.
We had our eye on a wave on the Madagascar mainland too, a left point that was inaccessible by road. It was impossible to drive there even with an off-road 4x4, as there were simply no roads in the area.
While it would make sense to try and access this wave from the mainland, it was actually more efficient to do so from the Barren Isles, as it was a shorter boat trip than from any starting point on the west coast of the mainland.
Thanks to our frugal use of gasoline, there was still quite a bit of fuel in the 200 litre barrel we had brought over from the mainland. We calculated carefully and determined we had enough petrol available to make a trip to this left point on the mainland and back to the campsite in the isles in one day.
With no electricity at night other than from our generator, everyone was usually in their tent and asleep by 9pm, which made waking up early in the predawn darkness easy. We had some coffee with hot water from the night before, then packed the boat with boards, cameras and extra water and some food, in case something went wrong.
It was an uneventful two-hour trip to the mainland, with a beautiful sunrise behind the mountains. We navigated to the southeast by compass and GPS, landing on shore to the north of the main point, where the waves had dissipated most of their energy.
We hiked up the beach to a clearing in front of the point, where we made a day camp under some shade trees with food and water for later. Despite the remote location, it was clear the area was accessed regularly as there were several recent campfires and the mandatory empty plastic water bottles and other plastic litter scattered around the area.
People do come here, yes, but there was no evidence of anyone surfing, but that would certainly be possible. We surfed all morning in great conditions, long head-high lefts down the point towards the distant lagoon, so long that it was more efficient to get out of the water at the end of the wave and walk back up the beach than paddle.
The videographers ranged the point, getting good angles from various locations along the shoreline. We had to be conservative with batteries, as there was no recharging anywhere around here, no electricity available until we got back to our generator in the Barren Isles.
We packed up and left the point in the late afternoon, with plenty of time to get across the Indian Ocean to our campsite in the Barrens before nightfall.
After a few more days in the islands, it was time to go back to the mainland as per our calculations; we were running short of food, bottled water and petrol for the outboard engines.
We had enough to make the four-hour trip back to the mainland at Maintirano, that was about it and we did not want to run out of fuel while still out in the Indian Ocean in a heavily-laden open boat!
We said our goodbyes to the Vezo people, having come to admire their fierce resilience and adaptability in living in such an inhospitable place and knowing there are people out there in this world who do things on their own terms, living wild and living free. We gave them most of our remaining supplies of water and food.