Issue #84 – Natural Occurrences


The Langerees on the search in Madagascar


INTRO – Jalou and Kevin Langeree join photographer Gilles Calvet on a journey to the very southern tip of Madagascar, where this seemingly lost slice of a strange paradise delivered more than just good waves




WORDS AND PHOTOS > Gilles Calvet


It’s midday and we are having a lunch of salad, freshly grilled fish and rice on the shady terrace of our lodge overlooking the spot. Jalou, Kevin and I had spent the morning surfing the left point in the early offshore breeze. Two nice bowls were ripe for manoeuvres with a barreling inside section. Although the wave was very surf-able, as usual there hadn’t been a single other surfer in sight. The local fishermen sailing offshore to the outer banks on their wooden handmade praos boats were our only witnesses. Jalou and Kevin looked for the return of the fishermen’s canoes crammed with a multi-coloured catch in the afternoon trade winds. It was their signal to go kiting.



On their five minute walk from the bungalow to the point they’d met a swarm of happy children who seemed to be constantly fishing or playing in the shore break. The children warmly congratulated the Dutch sibling duo, jumping and shouting around them, simply happy to have seen the “Vazaha”, the 19th tribe of Madagascar, also playing with the sea. It had been like this each day since we arrived.

On that particular afternoon the wind force and direction had been perfect, the swell had an 18 second period, building the best waves we’d seen so far. That evening, swallowing wild oysters like they were biscuits, Kevin said, “That was my best wave kite session ever.”Jalou and I smiled, pleased to hear so and from then on Gigi the lodge owner was submerged with questions concerning this stretch of paradise.

“Why do they call us ‘Vazaha’ all the time?” asked Kevin. “Vazaha means ‘foreigners’ or ‘visitors’ but it’s only associated with white people. In the past the term was used in reference to European pirates who hunted the coastline.” There are 18 ethnic tribes in Madagascar, totalling approximately 17 million people, and it seemed that today we were considered as the 19th tribe. It is actually impossible to know the exact figures due to the remoteness of some areas and to the constant demographic increase. More than half of the population is less than 20 years-of-age and there is an average of at least six children per family… so the maths is tricky.



“But do those 18 tribes understand each other?” Kevin inquired.

“Yes, they kind of have a common language aside from their own dialect. Most of the old people also speak French due to the French colonization that ended in 1960. Here in Lavanono we are in the Antandroy tribe. Antandroy means ‘the ones from the country of spines’. They are half nomad and devote themselves to guiding their Zebu in search of pasture on a mostly dry and inhospitable land. Due to the lack of water they cultivate maize and manioc instead of rice like the other tribes. To tell you the truth it hardly ever rains here.” Gigi explained.

“The local proverb that you have posted in the bathroom reflects that I guess.” commented Jalou. “Here water is so scarce that it is not even worth shedding a tear.” she recited. “But how come there are so many good sailors and fishermen here in Lavanono if the Antandroy are supposed to be pastors?”

“They probably originate from a different descendant. They live here so they are considered as Antandroy, but they probably belong to the Vezo group which is spread along the coast, all the way from here to the city of Morombe up north in the Mozambique Channel. Vezo means children of the sea, and as you have seen, they deserve their name as they literally live out of the sea.” Gigi continued.

It was amazing to see them disappearing onto the horizon each morning onboard their pirogues. I am passionate about sailing and I have to admit that their praos are great – fast, stable and made entirely of organic local products, such as wood for the hulls and beams, cotton for the sails and sisal for the ropes.

“But those Vezo must be brave, talented and well prepared to go that far out at sea in such rough waters.” I said.

“Oh yeah! And did you see the size of that sting ray they brought back last time? I wonder how they managed to catch that and bring it back to the shore?” asked Kevin, sharing my amazement at their practical abilities.

“Ha! Well sometimes they even come back with big sharks!” Gigi pointed out, smiling broadly.

“Big sharks? What you mean?” asked Jalou.

“Well, big enough to eat you.” answered Gigi. “But don’t worry, so far those ones have never come close to shore and stay out near the outer banks where there are many more fish. The Chinese are fishing out there like mad, so who knows what will happen when there’s not enough food for the sharks to live on? Like in La Reunion island…”.

“That’s sad.” said Jalou. “Are there any Chinese in Lavanono?” Asked Kevin.

“There is one who hides somewhere in a small hut. He basically buys everything that the Vezo catch: fish, lobster and octopus. He doesn’t seem to respect anything. There were always minimum size requirements for the species that the Vezo were catching and the local buyers always adhered to that basic rule. Now that Chinese guy buys baby lobsters, fish and octopus. Soon there will be nothing left.” Gigi explained.

“But where is it all going to? Who is eating it all?” asked Jalou, incredulously.

“Firstly, it goes by road to fort Dauphin where you guys landed and from there by plane to China. It all goes to China: shark fins, fish, lobsters, octopus, sea weed and much more. The sea off the coast of southern Madagascar is considered as one of the most fishy in the world and the Chinese are on it with big fishing vessels offshore and buyers all along the coast.”

“It doesn’t sound too good for the future of the Vezo who are totally dependent on those resources.” I said.

“It is sad and you’re probably right.” replied Gigi. And then pointing at our bananas flambéd with local rum he said, “Now eat up! It’s 8 o’clock and we will soon all go to bed. We live with the sun here and it will rise before 6am tomorrow.”

Even though the swell had slightly decreased by the following morning, the surfing and the windsurfing was still world class. Thanks to all the previous sessions and to that enriched dinner conversation, Jalou and Kevin were feeling more confident, evidence of which was seen in the lines they traced along the waves. Their moves gained verticality, the spray was thicker and the tube ride attempts become more numerous. I enjoyed watching Jalou follow her brother’s tracks before pulling on the brakes, stalling at the entry of the end bowl and trying to cover herself under the turquoise lip. Mesmerised from the beach, a group of children shouted their encouragement loudly when either of them scored a good ride.



The sun shone boldly, the water temperature sat at 23 degrees and the sets delivered three to four beautiful waves, shared only between the two of them: we were in a kite paradise. That feeling had to be shared, which I mentioned to Kevin after his two hour session. “Yes, but we deserve it!” he replied. I wasn’t too sure what he meant.

“Those 50 magical waves cost me three flights, numerous hours of boredom at Antananarivo airport and then nine hours of bone shaking 4X4 journey at 30 km/hour. At some point we were going so slowly that a local guy on a bicycle overtook us. And don’t forget that night in Berenty, the Lemur reserve, where we stopped for a night during our journey. Don’t you remember how many mosquitoes were hunting in the room?”

I had to admit he had a point, even though there was something in his words that annoyed me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it until I made the link back to the day that I had contacted him about the trip. His first words were, “How long does it take to get to the spot?” I am not blaming him. Most pro riders ask exactly the same question before any trip. There it was. There was something deep inside which made me find their thinking quite sad. People have become so convenience dependent in western countries. Don’t get me wrong, I am also concerned! I live in Fuerteventura and each morning I run to drop my children at school and then check Windguru three times a day to find out when I’ll be able to stick my next session.



But beyond that, this classic question of ‘how much time it takes to get to the spot’, somehow kills the soul of a trip itself. It’s something you have to experience to fully understand. And thanks to life I have experienced it. I know now that, above all, my own trips are about adventure and discovery. I have been going on trips (as a photographer) since 1992 and I think my motivation is still alive precisely because I don’t know what I will find along the road and I’ve embraced that. Of course I am also happy to score perfect conditions for just me and my group (like any other wave rider, I don’t suffer crowds very well) but my best memories are generated by more than this.

My mind is filled with images of people who live a totally different life to that of my own, of unfamiliar landscapes, plants and animals. I will never forget the Tahitian hospitality, on both land and water, the faith in nature of the Mapuche Indian in Chile, the atmosphere of the pubs in Ireland, the food gifts of the people in Rodrigues and the fierce look in the eyes of a Tongan tribe in some lost islands of the Haapai group which scared the shit out of me. Neither will I forget the great cascades in the Azores, the bush smell in Corsica and Western Australia, the sunset light in Lahaina, the sun rising above Moorea and the water colour in Los Roques. Nor my encounter with a five metre tiger shark in Molokai, or the majesty of the elephants in Etosha Pan in Namibia, the whistle of a cobra crossing the road in Mozambique, the schools of Barracuda surrounding me in Puerto Rico or the eyes of the lemurs down here in Madagscar.



Therefore, that night in between the brochettes, the zebu and the grilled fish, with a ‘Three Horses’ (local beer) in hand, I threw that controversial subject on the table. At first it seemed to hurt. Who was I to criticise the thoughts of modern pro riders with whom I make my living? Was I happy to get bitten by mosquitoes or when sweating profusely on the road? Obviously not, but the conversation slowly drifted towards evidence: the mosquito net was doing its job and the scenery we experienced on the road was beautiful and exotic.

I didn’t have to argue any further: the beauty of Madagascar was speaking for itself and the riders were the ones appreciating it. The island of Madagascar has a strong personality. Originally part of Gondwana, a compact continent from which Africa, India, Australia and Antarctica emerged, when Madagascar broke free from Africa mammals were in a primary state of evolution. As was the flora. Thanks to the absence of big predators and a late arrival of humans (only around two thousand years ago) the island is a sort of ecological museum. “It looks like this island is where nature decided to escape, a special place where it worked on developing different species to the ones you would find anywhere else on earth. From the air you breathe to the weed or the sand you step on, everything is a mystery.” Kevin pointed out.



“Here everything looks improbable, unique and marvellous. Do you remember those funny looking three faced palm trees on the side of the road and that bush of trees with no branches and leaves growing straight out of the trunk?” Exclaimed Jalou. “And those blue headed birds flying around our bungalow in the morning that were hunting green lizards. They were rad.” I added.

“Even the people are unique. Their rice cultivates on terraces and their praos made me think back to being in Indonesia.” said Kevin. “And then the way they dress, their habitat and the fact that here the amount of zebu reflects a symbol of wealth reminds me of Africa.”

“You’re right. They actually come from both places.” said Gigi.

“And they are so poor. You told me that the average salary is only around 40 euros but on the other hand they are so nice to us all the time and look so happy in the way that they live. It’s amazing to see and experience.” exclaimed Jalou.

“Yes, so far the ones in this village seem to feel privileged. Their children play non-stop on the beach and the sea provides everyone with abundant amounts of fish. I wonder if in fact they are not happier than we are in civilized countries with all the worries generated by our society of consumerism. They live with and from nature. They seem confident in it.” Kevin pondered.

“They don’t seem to know what stress is.” Added Jalou.



During the few remaining days we spent on the spot our focus was all about morning surf and afternoon kiting at the point. But in that dream routine two things had changed: I was now trying hard to include as much foreground in my images as possible in order to position this place as part of our haul of souvenirs and reminders. And Jalou and Kevin spent a lot of their time after each session chatting with the fishermen and playing with the kids. It was just a natural occurrence.



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