Check out exclusive online photos of monster rapids and gargantuan granite cliffs in this emerging adventure-travel hot spot. PLUS: Behind-the-scene shots of Brad Ludden & Co's pioneering kayaking expedition.
A CLUSTER OF VILLAGERS has gathered at the brink of a stair-stepping, 20-foot cataract on Madagascar's Ikopa River. Sensing the intentions of extreme kayakers Brad Ludden, 23, and his teammates—Rush Sturges, 19, and Tyler Bradt, 18—an old man wearing a blue loincloth shuffles out of the crowd. "Merci, merci," he says in halting French. He bears no markings of rank or religion, but when he speaks, the others are silent. Chanting in his native Malagasy tongue, he reaches to the sky, gathers something invisible, and transfers it to Brad and Tyler by gesturing in an age-old ritual that looks suspiciously like jazz hands.
This is the Madagascar we were after: the one confirming rumors that the France-size avatar of biodiversity is also hiding powerful magic and some of the best whitewater the world has never seen. Thanks to our guide, Gilles Gautier, finding the Ikopa—a string of potent yet forgiving Class V rapids similar to those on the popular Zambezi River, in southern Africa—was like unearthing the Hope Diamond on the first dig. "It's better than the Zambezi, better than New Zealand, even," raves Ludden. The three other rivers we ran—the Lilly, the Mandraka, and the Sahatandra, with its three days' worth of granite gorges and welcoming villages—were also rare finds.
Long a destination appealing to Darwin wannabes—as the world's only natural habitat for lemurs and tenrecs (a kind of shrew)—this Indian Ocean island of 18 million inhabitants showed off its forbidding terrain to the world during the 1993 Raid Gauloises adventure race. Recently it's become a magnet for other thrill seekers. The draw? Springing from the country's mountainous north-south backbone are thousand-foot granite monoliths and waterways ranging from Sierra-style steep creeks to massive, 100-yard-wide rivers. The dense eastern jungles teem with horny chameleons, exotic birds like the blue coua, and half-dollar-size orb-web spiders, which spin robust webs across narrow rivers (prompting my arachnophobic paddling companions to execute do-or-die rolls). In the west, the dry hills and red rivers are home to 16-foot Nile crocodiles. Madagascar is notorious for red mud, but the southern winter (June through August) is dry and temperate.
With a new focus on tourism, the island's infrastructure is slowly improving. After four decades free from French colonialism—mostly spent in sub-Haitian poverty induced by kleptocratic dictator Didier Ratsiraka—the newly elected, pro-business president, Marc Ravalomanana, is working hard to triple Madagascar's protected lands and has signed agreements that will bring U.S. air carriers to the capital city of Antananarivo ("Tana" for short). Ecotourism is on the rise, adventure camps are springing up across the country, and a new industry of Maldives-style private-island hideaways is blossoming in the Mozambique Channel.
Despite being sucked deep below the final 20-foot drop, Ludden, Sturges, and Bradt all survived the rapid on the Ikopa they'd later christen "Heaven and Hell." With or without a shaman's blessing, pitching off into unknown Malagasy rivers isn't for everyone, but there's plenty more adventure to be had in the new Madagascar. Such as: