The doomed ducks of the Tsiribinha River

This article originally appeared in Zine Magazine, translated into Norwegian.

Who would be a duck on a river safari in Madagascar?

Animal lovers, look away now.  The story I am about to tell you is a sad tale. As many of you will already know, once you get outside of Europe, North America and Australasia the world’s culinary tastes change quickly. Food becomes spicier and ingredients get more exotic. Unusual beasties get coated in batter and deep fried. Eating sometimes becomes less about fine dining and more about winning the battle of mind over stomach.

Not that any of this is usually a problem in Madagascar. Here you find the best possible colonial legacy: a fusion of French recipes combined with rich tropical flavours and a dash of Asian invention. The Malagasy people, after all, trace their roots to South-east Asia rather than Africa. Nowhere else on earth are fresh baguettes baked in straw-roofed huts in the shade of Baobab trees.

This wasn’t the only reason my wife and I had decided to come here on honeymoon. We’d long dreamed of visiting and with flights proving expensive and the world’s fourth largest island needing several weeks to see properly this seemed the perfect opportunity. While researching the trip we ended up, somewhat unusually for a honeymoon, throwing out any ideas of luxury resorts and opting to tackle one tough adventurous journey after another. My wife has yet to fully forgive me. A week in a five-star resort, however, would not have come close to being as memorable as what we ended up doing.

After a visit to the idyllic Ile aux Nattes, where during summer months you can stand on a golden beach and watch whales breaching from the shore, we flew back to the capital of Madagascar, Antananarivo. We took a bus on to the country town of Antsirabe, and then another on to Miandrivazo, a quiet riverside town. From here three-day rafting trips down the Tsiribinha River begin, passing through seriously remote areas, rural villages and troops of lemurs drinking at the waterside. Which all sounds very idyllic. It was, unless you were a duck.

Our party numbered six, twelve if you count our guide, cook, two paddlers and two random ladies who’d been invited along for the ride. In this way, Madagascar was very much like Africa. Our rafts groaned with our backpacks, people and supplies, and the low water meant that we kept getting grounded. It didn’t matter much, cruising on the river was serene, camping on the beach at night under an incredibly starry sky was a wonder and there were lots of lemurs and the odd crocodile to look at.

Unfortunately it soon became apparent that our guide had never organised a river trip before and had underestimated how long it was going to take and how much food we’d need. This information had not been received well. On the third morning, when it had just been announced that it was not to be our last morning and there was nothing for breakfast, I noticed something moving in our boat. I poked the object with my paddle. A duck poked his head above the pile of bags it appeared to have been snoozing under since we left Miandrivazo. This nice duck was not long for the world. In a bid to soothe the anger of a group of tired tourists who had not washed for the best part of a week and had just been told that not only were they late, but that they would not see several of the promised sunset at Baobab Alley at the end of the expedition, he was unceremoniously cooked up that night and served in a Canard du Tsiribinha stew. And jolly nice he was too. Sorry, Donald.

Desole, Donald

A day and a half later we limped into Morondava, way behind schedule, and sat down to what was probably the best meal of my life: chicken in a coconut sauce served with very French pomme frites. The next day my wife was taken ill with food poisoning, as were several other people on the trip. The duck, or possibly the river water used to cook him, had his revenge. The trip then went from bad to worse: our guide had offered by way of compensation to pay for us all to stay at a fine hotel in Morondava, which we had accepted. He had then, it seemed, skipped town without paying the bill. On a search for medicine for my wife in the back-streets of the town I bumped into him, and marched him back to the hotel to settle up, which he did under protest.

Baobab Alley near Morondava

We spent a few more days in town and moved on to elsewhere in Madagascar. We ate some more fine meals, saw many more lemurs including the Indri, the biggest of the lot, and even stayed in a top-end hotel or two. Madagascar remains one of my favourite places, but I tend to pass on the duck cooked in river-water stew.

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