Jonathan did not look well, as I leaned him gingerly against the tall baobab tree under the sweltering Malagasy sun. His sweating face was pallid, his eyes flickering and he shook his head with a slurred speech. I automatically stepped into professional guide mode, grabbed the first-aid kit and checked his vitals, including the pulse, which was faint and arrhythmic.
“He needs serious medical attention quickly—let’s get him out of here,” I instructed my co-guide Gary, who was dealing with the other worried clients. Easier said than done.
We were on an exploratory river expedition in Madagascar in 2005, years before I became the Chief Exploratory Officer for Natural Habitat Adventures. Our journey had just come to an abrupt halt on the remote banks of the Manambolo River, which runs through wildest central highlands of northern Madagascar. Instead of celebrating the first decent of this remote waterway, we went to work efficiently to help Jonathan. Having stabilized him and re-hydrated him, the first thing a guide like me does in an emergency situation like this is to call the client’s insurance company. It is a standard procedure to clear the client for evacuation and get some possible first aid responder medical advice via the insurance provider’s remote medical emergency support center. And remote it was—not a soul or dwelling in sight—just barren, dusty shrub lands and the large tropical fireball shining mercilessly down upon our heads.
I flicked on the satellite phone, dialed the 800 number in Philadelphia, and waited for a connection with a call center halfway across the world. A nurse with a southern accent picked up with a “Yes, sir, what can I do for you?”
I described the situation we were in. She finally redirected me to an administrative assistant who deadpanned me with a, “Sir—do you have a fax machine nearby so that you can send us the filled-out medical form in order to proceed?” Incredulously, I looked around me and the small grove of baobab trees were the only tall objects around for many square miles, much less a single building with plugged in office equipment such as a Xerox machine!
With a “No, ma’am,” I hung up and decided to take the reins in my hands. We carefully got Jonathan into a local bush jeep that we flagged down on the dirt road close to the river and off we sped to the nearest medical facility about 40 miles away. This “hospital” was a dirty, single-room clinic that you’ll find in most places in remote Africa—with no medical supplies and only sparse equipment. Any medical supplies had to be purchased separately in cash in a shop across the street from the gate. Well, at least the local nurse was kind and caring, and she confirmed that Jonathan had just had a stroke induced by the tropical heat and dehydration.
It was good flying weather and the requested Twin-Otter STOL flight arrived a few hours later on the village airstrip. Jonathan and I flew directly to the main hospital in Madagascar in the capital of Antananarivo. There, he was strapped to a gurney and wheeled into another crowded emergency room. The staff quickly shaved his hairy chest and connected him to an EKG machine that looked like a NASA space robot from the 1960s. The thermosensitive paper that slowly rolled out of the creaking printer showed a weak heart rhythm pattern that required him to return to the U.S. as soon as possible.
Our evacuation procedures worked wonderfully and 24 hours later, his international flight landed in Houston, Texas, where he was stabilized and released a few days later. Jonathan later went on to join me in full vigor on several other journeys—from Greenland to Antarctica.
What Jonathan did miss, however, was the remaining part of our amazing exploratory trip through the wilds of Madagascar. After having done the first descent of the Manambolo River, we explored the Tsingy Spine Forest in the west by foot and then flew up north to kayak the wild Indian Ocean shores of Masoala, where very few people have ever ventured. The whole nature experience was absolutely fantastic and I could have stayed months more to explore this wonderful island further! I was stunned by how unbelievably rich and unique Madagascar is in its biodiversity. It is a destination that any nature lover must visit.
This natural paradise of an island broke off from the original super continent of Gondwanaland 100 million years ago and has existed in biological isolation ever since. This left many endemic animals to evolve by themselves, which is one of the reasons that World Wildlife Fund has chosen Madagascar as a priority conservation place. More than 80 percent of the island’s rare and intriguing plants and animals, including more than 100 different varieties of the famous lemur primates, exist only here.
Today, Natural Habitat Adventures is one of the few tour operators offering trips to this unusual nature destination. We have developed a Madagascar tour itinerary that is as diverse and uncommon as this land itself, though not nearly as remote and rugged as that first exploratory journey I led years ago. With Nat Hab, we explore dense highland rain forest, wander through moss- and lichen-laden cloud forest, and delve into arid canyons. There’s time to relax on the golden shores of the Indian Ocean, search for rare frogs and geckos on night walks, spot several varieties of endangered lemurs in forests, and scan the coastlines for pods of dolphins and migrating whales. With Nat Hab and WWF working together to create this unique itinerary, you won’t find a more comprehensive nature-focused adventure.
Come along for the nature experience of a lifetime on a wild Madagascar safari. And don’t forget to drink plenty of water under the tropical sun!