Ash Dykes recently became the first person to traverse the 1,600-mile spine of Madagascar on foot. Will Renwick met up with him soon after he returned home to hear about the journey… and the malaria that almost killed him
You must be relieved it’s all over?
Definitely, it could have ended badly in so many ways. It’s good that it was a success in the end, especially as I fell ill, with the worst strain of malaria, about a month into the five-month trip. I’m just glad I’m back in one piece – healthy and with all my limbs!
So it was harder than expected then?
I certainly underestimated it. I think after pulling 120kg through desert and mountains on the Mongolia expedition, I thought I’d be prepared for Madagascar. But it was crazy, there’d be days when we (he was accompanied by local guides and a photographer for certain stretches) would just be hacking through seemingly impenetrable jungle while climbing up mountains, with leaches dropping out of the trees and spiders biting my arms.
What were conditions like?
The malaria set me back a good few weeks which meant I hit the mountains during the cyclone season, so it was just constantly pouring down. Being wet all the time made things hard; I’d wake up in the morning freezing cold, and have to take o my dry sleeping clothes and change into soaking wet kit. So it was all a lot more demanding but we managed to stay focused. Down south there’s a bigger population, more tracks and even nice bridges over the river. Further up north things got tricky. There was one mountain that we were trying to get up and over. We tried going around, to follow the ridge up, but came to a dead-end and had to retrace our steps. Then we tried following a river up but came to a waterfall in a v-shaped valley. Eventually we had to spend a couple of days going back along the small track that we had created, all the way back to the village that we had initially begun the ascent from, so we could come up with a whole new plan for taking on the mountain.
Was it a beautiful landscape though?
It’s stunning, constantly changing from desert, beach and sand dunes to scrubland, dry forest, spiny forest, jungle, mountains.
What was the worst situation you encountered?
Either the malaria, because that was a really close call, or when we crossed this huge river at night. It would’ve been di cult enough to cross in the day. We were following a local guide and we linked arms following in his footsteps, but it was still up to our chests. A photographer who was part of the group slipped – she was hanging helplessly, just barely clinging to my hand. Fortunately we got her back to her feet, but that was a scary moment where I felt the sense of responsibility. She was on my expedition. I’d prefer to be the one hanging in the balance, not her. I even felt responsible for my guides, as I’d dragged them out for the thing. I still don’t know how we got over that river safely.
Can you put into words how malaria felt?
It was truly horrible. At first I thought it was heat exhaustion. I’d felt the same signs and symptoms in the Gobi Desert. I was resting in a small village, and it was getting worse and worse. I was told to just keep drinking water but it wasn’t helping. On day I’ve of feeling ill I woke up and was completely delirious. I was hallucinating. There was a point where I launched into a long mental debate with myself to decide whether to sit up and drink. That’s when I realised it was more than heat exhaustion. I said to my guide, “I need to get out of here”. Within half an hour I was evacuated by car, on my way to the nearest city. The doctor checked me in a hotel room and my temperature was at 40°C. Reach 42° and it can be fatal. As soon as she identified that I had the worst strain of malaria she acted so fast to get me to hospital and treated properly. I managed to recover within five days. Before I knew it I was trekking up the second highest mountain in the country.
But did you wrestle with the decision to carry on or stop?
I knew that if I was able to recover in Madagascar and not get evacuated back to the UK then I would definitely continue. Mentally I was still completely determined to continue no matter what.
When we first spoke you had been wondering whether to use a tarp or a tent – what did you decide? I went with the tent and that was definitely a good idea because of the mosquitoes, and it kept out the scorpions and centipedes as well. If a centipede bites you, apparently it feels like your leg is on fire. It was good to have that layer of protection, but the downside was that it was always di cult to
find a pitch when in the jungle. I had some awkward sleeps. And it gets dark early in Madagascar, throughout the year there’s only about an hour di erence between summer and winter and each evening it would be dark by about six o’clock.
What did the local people you came across think about your journey?
A lot of people just didn’t understand it at all. I’d say I’d walked from Cap Sainte- Marie, which is the southern end of the country, and most didn’t know where that was. You’d have to name cities for them and hope that they’d know them. Walking that distance most people didn’t believe it. In some villages I came across in the mountains, the people would even run away from me. They’d never seen a white person before, and only heard bad rumours. In a flash it could be a vanished village; dogs and chickens still there, smoke coming from the huts but no one visible. All of them watching from somewhere. In hindsight, what would you have done differently? I was on and off my malaria pills for the first two weeks as I just wasn’t being bitten and I don’t like taking pills as it messes with your insides. I wish I’d made sure I’d taken those pills every day. I could’ve completely avoided the illness that way. I learnt the hard way.
What was it like reaching that northern coast of Madagascar knowing you had walked the length of the country?
It was amazing. But we reached the end of the land at Cap d’Ambre and hadn’t arranged for a support team or a lift, so we just had to turn around and walk two days back on ourselves on brutal and boggy terrain with blisters and in the rain. Another two days of walking through mud. It was when we reached the city that we finally felt huge relief. We had a hotel there, and to go from extreme conditions to luxury that fast was just heaven. I was about 70kg when I started and 60kg when I finished. The day we finished I just ate. I had a starter, a main and a dessert for breakfast and the same for lunch and dinner.
Most of your adventures have been solo. Did you enjoy having other people with you for a change?
It’s strange, I’m more motivated alone because no one’s mood rubs off on me, and I’m normally quite a cheery, happy guy. I’ll wake up in the morning, have my breakfast and off I go. With other people that isn’t the case and if someone’s moody that makes you moody. But then it’s also great having people around you sometimes, helping each other on and then being able to reminisce about shared experiences together. There are positives and negatives for both.
So after all that, what’s next?
I’m going to embark on a theatre tour, and I got a lot of footage as I went so I’m hoping to get that broadcast in some way. Beyond this, I’ve got three big ideas, each one a potential world first. All bigger and better.
Photography: Suzanna Tierie