Written by: Tyler Bradt November, 1st, 2015
The red island of Madagascar materializes out of a clear blue horizon, steadily growing into existence. It’s silhouette framed against a night sky as a full moon rises over the island. The ocean, now sheltered by the jutting mass of land, has gone from an onslaught of white capping waves to a glasslike plane. The Wizard’s Eye breaks free running with the current pushing 8 knots and hurtling us towards another great adventure. I have crossed thousands of miles of ocean and half the planet to finally arrive at a place I have been before, a place with rivers raging from the mountains, a place still rich with exploration, rawness, realness, a place of thick African nights, wood smoke, and dense forests. Madagascar. My dream is being realized as a team of friends: Benjamin Hjort, Isaac Levinson, Taylor Smallwood and myself sail into Africa.
The Wizard’s Eye Expedition was a kind of test for me. The proving grounds of my theory that for any dream to come into existence there simply requires one ingredient: doing it. Throughout my life I have come against challenges, created challenges, staged expeditions, and generally have strived to open my mind to dreams of all kinds. I have worked hard to bring everything I’ve dreamed of to reality, accomplishing this to a large extent. Not by fortune but by force of will. Finally, after paddling the tallest waterfall attempted I had climbed my personal mountain, I accomplished my child hood dream, not of world record descents, but of making kayaking my life and allowing myself the opportunity to pursue my dream of living life one river to the next. I had succeeded.
My dream had become reality and was a dream no longer. I began asking myself questions: What now? What next? What is it that I truly desire? This of course led to the question: What is the ultimate adventure? What is an expedition so wild that it will bring me to the very edge of my ability? The answer I found was to sail the planet, seeking out and exploring every land I encounter by means of adventure sport, diversifying my experiences and pushing myself far away from my comfort zone. My journey would stage expeditions big and small and create a medium for continuous documentation and storytelling. With a boat I knew I would have the ability to put at my disposal an array of tools by which to explore, document, and attempt the largest scale adventure sport expedition I could imagine. However dreaming is just the beginning. Then stems a journey to find the path, which coalesces imagination into existence.
Wizard’s Eye Info Bar:
24,450 Miles sailed
320+ total days at sea
50+ knots strongest wind
23 total crew members who have joined the expedition
28 days longest time at sea
13 Countries visited
12.6 fastest speed
4 days detained by Indonesian Navy
3 total months stuck or stranded due to mechanical issues.
2 Oceans crossed
.65 of the way around the world
0 Number of bathrooms onboard the Wizard’s Eye
Almost three years and half the planet later, with a strong team of friends and accomplished paddlers, we were finally arriving to one of the world’s best and least explored paddling destinations. 11 years previously, together with Brad Ludden, Rush Sturges and Grayson Schaffer, we pulled off the first whitewater kayaking expedition on the island. What we found was awe-inspiring: a world of untapped whitewater.
For me there are many joys of being a paddler, none of which compare to exploring a virgin river, unlocking it’s secrets, turning corners through a labyrinth of green into the unknown. Madagascar is a place of dreams.
After finding a safe bay to leave the Wizard’s Eye and finagling boat and buss tickets out of an excited group of Malagasies, we began our journey into Madagascar. Along the long winding road to the river we picked up a fifth team member: Will Pruett completing a very good, if not slightly random, team of paddlers. I knew if there is one way to get a trip kick started and for a team to find its rhythm, it’s the Ikopa River. This seldom-paddled big water classic of the world boasts clean class five rapids feeding into large pools, one after the other. It’s a river that keeps your eyes peeled back, heart pounding, adrenaline pumping, and ends in a small town where numerous local bars bump music and sell river temperature beers as the sun sets. Needless to say the Ikopa succeeded in setting the bar high for our expectations of the whitewater in Madagascar. Driving away from the Ikopa we were immediately confronted by the usual problems any exploratory kayaking expedition runs into: logistics, uncertainty, limited knowledge, weather, and long travel sagas down pitted winding roads.
Gilles Gautier, who runs Madamax, an adventure tourism company based in Madagascar helped us orchestrate that first epic 11 years ago once again helped greatly in our pursuit of finding unexplored whitewater. First however, still looking to hone our skills as a team, he recommended the Favory river, a three day classic in the South of the island, to get our boats wet and the team united before attempting a big first descent in the North of the country. Like clockwork we headed off down the river, pacing ourselves through the long flat-water sections, taking turns scouting, giving lines, and running safety. Three days of good whitewater rattled off seamlessly, beautiful days of whitewater blended into long nights spent riverside, enjoying each others company and sounds of the forest intertwined with the endlessly flowing river. The team was now ready for something bigger...
Time is a funny thing on expeditions, especially in a place like Madagascar. The days feel long and drawn out. Early mornings and late nights, a mountain of logistics to deal with, roads that seem to go on forever, wrong turns, bad decisions, and language barriers which extend what would normally take a hours into what can feel like days. On the other hand being consumed with so much day-to-day, the time melts away. Months turn into weeks, weeks into days, and we were now feeling the crunch of the end of the trip drawing near. The boys had planes to catch and the realities of obligations back home began conflicting with the mission at hand. Our goal was definitive: to paddle 160 km of the Sandratsio in the North of Madagascar. The river had never been attempted and from the luxury of Google Earth it was easy to see this was going to be an epic, by no means an easy expedition. Miles upon miles of flat water, huge gradient drops, and dense forest guarded deep gorges of Class Five whitewater and long sections of what looked like beautiful whitewater studded canyons. There was a put in, a take out, and nearly a hundred miles of a virgin whitewater river. The choice was clear and we knew this was our opportunity to explore yet another potential classic of Madagascar. As plans came together the clock kept ticking however and Isaac, one of the strongest paddlers on the team, opted out of the run knowing that if anything we’re to go wrong and our estimates of time were off by even a day his plane would be leaving without him. After a quick goodbye in Antananarivo the remaining three of us, Benjamin Hjort, Will Pruett and myself loaded up a 4X4 with gear and provisions for a week and drove into the darkness, North by Northwest.
Born in a sea of rice paddies, the Sandratsio begins trickling out of the mountains nearly 3,000 feet above sea level. This small unassuming creek then takes a wild journey. Quickly becoming a high volume river it rages over cascades hundreds of feet tall, pushes through deep gorges carved through solid bed rock, snakes through huge expanses of flat water, and sees wild forests and settlement alike. It’s journey then ends with the Indian Ocean 160 km down stream. This same journey was now to become our own as we watched our 4X4 drive away in the quickly approaching night, clouds building large and ominous as if foreshadowing what awaited us in the days ahead.
One hundred yards into the expedition it was already time to camp. Rain hung precariously in the clouds as the light moved to the West signifying the long night ahead. Mosquitos covered our bodies as we hastily prepared camp, simultaneously cooking a simple meal. Rain began to sprinkle we turned to bed, Will’s under a small ground cloth now pretending to be a tarp, Benji and I sleeping head to foot in a two man tent seemingly defined by people half our size. The rain came down, starting its nightly tradition which would last the rest of the trip.
We knew the only thing we could look forward to about the first two days on the river were a couple of gradient drops which looked like very fun whitewater. The first we knew would be a small set of rapids and the second a potentially runnable slide over clean granite into a nice big pool. After hours of paddling flat-water we came to our first big horizon line. The small set of rapids from Google Earth was a waterfall nearly a hundred of feet tall. The water pounding straight onto rocks below. Our assumptions of the character of the river were beginning to unravel. Our kayaks laden with a week of provision got their first of many walks through the jungle. Another night of rain and a day of flat water followed. On our second day another horizon appeared at the end of seemingly endless flat water. The gravity sport we loved had been missing its key ingredient for a long time and we were exited to finally let the river do some of the work for us. I knew an epic slide was waiting just over the horizon. Pulling onto a rock at the top of the drop it felt like the world dropped away at our feet. Mountaintops seemed to level with the eye and far below a very small placid river meandered away from the base of the falls. What transpired between the two points was breathtaking. The river boiled over large ledges, brown and churning before projecting itself over a cascade hundreds of feet tall. The scale we had envisioned was turned on it’s head. The creek was a river, the river was bank full, and the potentially runnable granite slide was a portage. We would again have to find a way around. At this point we knew we had underestimated the river and the action was yet to come.
The soil in this part of the world is claylike, add water and tilt to a 45 degree angle and one of natures best slip and slides is created. Add three foreigners with heavy awkward pieces of plastic and a jungle comedy ensues, a comedy for everyone except the three paddlers. Many hours later covered in mud, bused and bloody we arrived at the base of the falls much to the amusement of the friendly folks from a small village near the water’s edge. We we’re now deep into our own personal shock and awe campaign of flat water and portages...
These were just the keys to the gate however and locked behind that gate was a river with a different story to tell. We spent the rest of the day paddling flat water, inching closer and closer the whitewater we came for as the rain fell and the river continued to rise. That night we put together a fire from soggy firewood, burning precious fuel from our stove to set it alight. Rice, lentils, and another cramped and restless 10 hour sleep followed bring us to a new day on the Sandratsio. This would be a defining day for us, we new all too well. Around the corner was the next major gradient drop and we were about to see just how full-on the river was. It’s character downstream would decided how many more days and portages we would endure before the confluence. The dice had already been rolled, now we’re about to see how they landed.
Dropping into the top of the gradient drop we took turns with read and run drops making our way down to the main event. Finally, our nerves ran out and we took out on river right, Hjort and Pruett continuing downstream to take a look from the safety of the bank while I struck up a line high on river right, looking for a portage route over a low ridge and down into a tributary paralleling the river. Of our two missions only one was successful. Hjort and Pruett found an un-runnable drop boarded by thick jungle on both sides. Our luck holding out I found a small foot path on top of the ridge, a branch of it leading to what looked to be a runnable tributary below. It seemed the human settlement alongside the river was our saving grace, bare feet and bush knifes shaping our escape route out of the canyon. The decision was made to go for the tributary and we once again we shouldered our boats and turned in the direction of the canyon below
Putting in on the tributary we enjoyed a few hundred meters of low volume creaking into the Sandratsio. This was our moment of truth. What we saw was exactly what we had been praying for for days. Class six turned to class five, flat water became limited to the pools between beautiful drops, and the valley became a canyon. A series of great class five drops lined up below us. We portaged some big holes at river level and found our stride once again. A couple kilometers of this scout and run big water boulder canyon went by smoothly and from the luxury of our satellite scouting partner we new a big drop marked the end of the most committed section of whitewater for the day. With a little rope work and jungle bashing we easily portaged the waterfall and into a dreamlike class four runout. I couldn’t help but pinch myself putting into perspective our momentary realities. Rapid after rapid of previously un-run whitewater rolled underneath us, malagasy mountains rising on each side, our once random team was now a tight group friends and efficient team. We had sailed to this island across oceans, we had earned this experience the honest way, our labor making sweeter its fruit. I realized this was the dream as we pushed on ahead of schedule, the smiles of enjoyment and relief visible on my teams faces.
We pushed a long day down to the next major gradient drop dubbed ‘The Second Full-on gorge’. Camp was on a beautiful tear drop shaped beach, sunshine, firewood, and even a shower rewarding us for our effort to make it this far into the river. Things were about to change however, from our blissful beach we couldn’t see that the Sandratsio had no intention of letting us off easy.
The next day started early. We made it down to ‘Big Drop’ one and two. Running where we could on the first and portaging the second high and to the left literally crawling on our bellies through the jungle dragging our kayaks behind us. Day light was beginning to dwindle as we came to the top of the ‘second full on gorge’. Running a couple drops we caught a last minute eddy on before the main gradient and stashing our kayaks on the rocks we scrambled down the island to the surprise awaiting us below. The gorge was a portage, a big one. The canyon below us walled in by jungle, unrunnable whitewater in it’s depths. A we branched out to find a portage trail one thing was clear to all of us, there would be no beach or sunshine at camp this time.“Let’s hope for no rain tonight,” said Benji as turned away from the series of drops to make camp and a new plan. The next morning came early, all of us reluctantly rolling out of bed with the full understanding of what was awaiting our expedition down stream.
Looking to clear my head and think about the day at hand I took a walk downstream towards the gorge. High on the ridge to the river right I saw some movement and apparently mine had been spotted two. Three men stood out against the green and a quick exchange of friendly waves showed our mutual good intentions. After jumping around for some minutes explaining in detail how we ended up here at the top of the gorge and how there was no way to navigate the canyon I asked them kindly if they could come down and help us to the bottom of the gorge. They in turn said that they would be happy to for a small fee although they were on their way to deliver a young Zibu to the village upstream. In reality I probably looked like some crazy white guy doing a rain dance on top of a rock near the river but never the less it inspired them to come down for a closer look. Once back at camp I explained to the team my detailed discussion with the gentlemen on the ridge and it was decided to break camp quickly and move to the other side of the river in hopes of linking up with our new friends.
Very few understood words were spoken between us but they seemed to have a great idea of what was going on as they grabbed our bow loops pulling us onto shore and motioning to the jungle in front of us. Two very muddy hours later with the help of our companions we arrived at the river below the gorge, making it through our finial big obstacle. The river continued to provide epic whitewater with a concentration of it at a drop we had named the’ big island’ due to the river splitting into two channels with a section of it spilling through the center of the island. Seeing both channels were untunable we opted for the center of the island. Clean drops and one longer slide finally rewarded us a run instead of a portage the sun splitting the clouds for just a moment.
With countless beautiful rapids, days of flat water and big portages behind us the river met the confluence with the Manigory, almost tripling it’s flow before a finial push to the ocean. We were now running big water rapids that couldn’t have been imagined from the trickle of a stream where we started. As we made camp that night in a grassy flat, the sound of a rapid rumbling in the distance, and I couldn’t help but think back on the days behind us. Almost surely no one would be attempting this river again anytime soon, the work to enjoyment ratio was too far off. I watched the stars spin over head realizing the magnitude of the moment. The entirety of the Wizard’s Eye Expedition had been like this. Endless difficult work. But look where we were: this was one of the most remote rivers, on a remote island in the middle a ocean half a world away from home. The years spent getting here, the days spent driving, the hundredth police stop, thousandth pot hole, days of flat water, whitewater, and tough portages had landed us here beside the river with friends, back where it all began. The Indian Ocean a stone’s throw to the East as stars continued to circle overhead. In a week’s time the Wizard’s Eye would sail West, again one adventure leading straight into the next.