Source to Sea on Madagascar’s Mangoky River

On May 1, Oscar Scafidi and Ben Ziehm Stephen will fly to Madagascar. Scafidi, a Bradt travel guide writer, and Stephen, a British Foreign Office employee in Tunis, are planning to kayak the length of the Mangoky River.

The Mangoky is Madagascar’s longest river, running more than 500km from the central highlands to the western lowlands, emerging into the Mozambique Channel around 150km south of Morondava. But six weeks out from their expedition, the route is already posing challenges. As with the Amazon, the Mangoky’s source is a matter of some debate.

 

Where is the source?

The source of the Mangoky is a mess of tributaries, with two vying as the “true” source: the Mananantanana and the Matsiatra. British adventurer Chaz Powell had the same problem when he walked the river in 2019. Taking local advice, he settled on the Matsiatra as the dominant tributary. His team hiked to the source of the Matsiatra, near the small village of Sahalavo. For Scafidi and Stephen, the source is an “ongoing nightmare”.

Ben Stephen with their training kayaks. Photo: Oscar Scafidi

 

“The Mananantanana is further away from the endpoint but most hydrologists say the Matsiatra is the source, as it feeds more water in,” Scafidi explained.

The pair are yet to make a final decision on their start point. Ultimately, it might depend on Guinness. Scafidi and Stephen are aiming for a world record: The fastest time to travel the Mangoky River by kayak/canoe in a team. There is an ongoing discussion with Guinness as to which starting point they will accept.

Packing light

There are other hoops to jump through to ensure they can claim the record too. Scafidi has some experience here. In 2016, he kayaked the length of the Kwanza River in Angola with Alfy Weston. After the trip, it took two years of correspondence with Guinness to claim a world record for the fastest time to paddle the Kwanza.

Oscar Scafidi. Photo: Oscar Scafidi

 

Lessons learned from that trip include getting in touch with Guinness ahead of the expedition and packing light. They have to carry everything they need for the trip with them, but Guinness does allow food resupplies.

“We took way too much gear in Angola, about 110kg, we had to dump a good 20kg,” Scafidi says. This time they will set up two food resupply points along their route and aim to carry no more than 80kg between them, including their 40kg Klepper sea kayak.

Potential risks

The Klepper isn’t designed for whitewater. In his classic guidebook, Sea Kayaking, John Dowd wrote that once the venerable boat is in a current, “only God and solid objects can change its direction.”

So Scafidi and Stephen will have to portage in places. Scafidi hopes that they can keep the portaging to one-third of the total distance or less.

“We are strongly incentivized not to portage, as it is a huge pain,” he said. One difficulty may include bandit activity in the highlands, but Scafidi points out that the main risks of “mosquitoes, disease, exhaustion, and rapids” are more likely to cause them headaches.

They are budgeting 30 days for the expedition, with 10 days of leeway. Their tentative start date is May 6.

Martin Walsh is a freelance writer and wildlife photographer based in Da Lat, Vietnam. A history graduate from the University of Nottingham, Martin's career arc is something of a smörgåsbord. A largely unsuccessful basketball coach in Zimbabwe and the Indian Himalaya, a reluctant business lobbyist in London, and an interior design project manager in Saigon. He has been fortunate enough to see some of the world. Highlights include tracking tigers on foot in Nepal, white-water rafting the Nile, bumbling his way from London to Istanbul on a bicycle, feeding wild hyenas with his face in Ethiopia, and accidentally interviewing Hezbollah in Lebanon. His areas of expertise include adventure travel, hiking, wildlife, and half-forgotten early 2000s indie-rock bands.


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West Hansen
1 month ago

Why in the world are they looking at Guinness to determine the source of a river? What the heck gives Guinness the knowledge or authority to make such a determination? It’s just some business that consistently publishes unfounded and unsupported claims made by people who pay them hundreds of dollars. “Most hydrologists say the Matsiatra is the source”? Based upon what? There isn’t a definition that can applied universally across river, streams and other waterways for such a claim and Guinness has no business commenting on subjects for which they have little or no knowledge. –West

Oscar Scafidi
1 month ago
Reply to  West Hansen

We are not asking Guinness to tell us where the source of the Mangoky River is. As you say, they are unlikely to have the knowledge or authority to make such a determination. But we need to consult with Guinness World Records to ensure that they are willing to accept the source that we establish. We are leaning towards the Matsiatra as the source based on this 1993 hydrological study of Madagascar that you can read here (it’s in French, but it includes reasoning as to what factors they deem most important in determining the source of the Mangoky): http://www.hydrosciences.fr/sierem/Bibliotheque/biblio/monographies/Fleuves%20et%20rivi%C3%A8res%20de%20Madagascar.pdf

West Hansen
1 month ago
Reply to  Oscar Scafidi

1) Why do you need Guinness to accept the source? 2) What authority does Guinness have with regards to accepting or not accepting the source? They’ll pretty much accept whatever you tell them, so long as you pay their fee and no one spends the time, effort and money to show them how they were completely wrong (as was done with Marcin Gienieczko’s claims). Look, explorers should be able to make a claim and provide their own evidence and support for the world and their peers to be assured what they accomplished was accurate, sound and valid. Simply do that.… Read more »

Craig Quigley
Craig Quigley
1 month ago
Reply to  West Hansen

You sound as though you could do with a pint or two of Guinness!

West Hansen
1 month ago
Reply to  Craig Quigley

I do enjoy a sip or two now and again, that’s for sure. The beer company is no longer affiliated with the scam record company, though. Do yourselves a favor: steer away from any efforts to simply get your name on a worthless certificate from Guinness and rest assured, with due diligence the river exploration community will accept your accomplishment without you having to pay hundreds of dollars towards a dubious organization.

Last edited 1 month ago by West Hansen
Oscar Scafidi
1 month ago
Reply to  West Hansen

I’ll second Craig’s comment: have a Guinness West Hansen! I too am not a huge fan of the business model, but a Guinness World Record is very useful for charity fundraising purposes. After the expedition, I intend to write a book about the trip, and donate profits to charities working in Madagascar. The book will sell better to the average member of the public if it is about a Guinness World Record-holding achievement. We have no intention of paying hundreds of dollars for a record. We paid a sum total of GBP5 for our previous record in Angola, and that… Read more »