My name is Tracy Dulak, I’m an American living in United States and I recently joined a Secret Compass expedition to Madagascar with my husband. In the hope of inspiring more adventurers I wanted to share my experiences from this challenging yet eye-opening trek along across this iconic African island… so here I am!
Sometimes you need to get out of your comfort zone in order to discover some of the amazing treasures of the world. Your first trip is the most intimidating, but once you actually do it, it changes your life. My husband and I have traveled a bit, mostly in south and north America. Our travel goals have always been to trek in remote areas that are changing and changing quickly, on the cusp of the modern world, catching their authenticity before it’s gone forever.
Our mornings began at dawn, or just before dawn. Every night we went to bed physically exhausted – our days were full of so many experiences and accomplishments that we were ready to sleep. Despite the lack of creature comforts, every night’s sleep was bliss and I woke up excited and energised for the following day.
Our trek was ambitious, to say the least. I usually hike between 8-10 miles in a day but in Madagascar the team and I trekked up to 16 miles daily. Throughout the trip we faced many physical challenges; it was hot, our packs were heavy, and there were a lot of hills. I remember thinking at the 15th mile ‘I won’t make it’ but, as if telepathic, our team leader Dave gave us a snack bar each, replenishing our energy. It’s amazing what a little snack can do for you at a time of utter exhaustion. I was instantly revived and motivated to complete the remainder of the day’s trek.
Our team worked together to support each other – I never felt physically inferior. From my teammates to Dave to our cook and porters, I was in the great company of like-minded and fascinating and people. I never felt like the superstar of the team or the weakest link. We were in it together.
We were all very mindful of keeping ourselves hydrated and eating enough calories. It is still quite remarkable just how a litre of water with a dose of electrolyte can hydrate and energise you. We usually had one or two a day to keep our sugar levels up. We stopped periodically for snacks, not excessively, but when we needed it. Our team was good at reminding others to drink more or keep eating.
The lunch situation was always good. We always found a great spot to pitch a picnic and relax. Sometimes we each perched on a rock in the river to sit on, other times we spread out in an open area, leaned up against our packs and took our shoes off. Lunch was always an excellent time to stop and look around and just be grateful that we were in such an amazing place.
Well, it was not glamorous, but we were neat and tidy. For most of the trek we were off-grid, so we had to slink off into the wild, dig a nice hole and do our business. The local people were doing the same thing, so it was quite natural. Culturally immersive, you could say!
Deciding where to stop and pitch our tents was a different story. We had a general idea of where we wanted to reach by the end of the day and pitch camp. However, as we got close, we had to be respectful of the local people who lived there too. Once we had to negotiate with a local tribe leader to get permission to camp for the night. As we began setting up camp we were usually surrounded by a crowd of locals who wanted to watch us and attempt to interact with us. They rarely, if ever, saw people from anywhere but their village, so this too was just as immersive for them as it was for us.
Anywhere we went we were the main attraction with the locals. On one occasion, three elder women were fascinated by my face, staring into my eyes. Finally, we realised they had never seen blue eyes before. Interacting with the locals was a highlight; whenever possible we would play or attempt to communicate. Similar to a game of charades conversations were disjointed, but this means of expression was still understood, like an undefined global language.
My favourite part was interacting with the kids. I had brought a few hacky sacks with me and when the local tribes children saw us playing they got involved. We kicked it around with the kids until the sun went down. At the end, we left to toys with them. We all remarked at how such a little bag of sand could bring so much happiness to a group of people, the children and trekkers alike – despite our tired legs!
In the evening it was mostly about setting up camp, tending to our feet and making dinner. On a couple of nights we enjoyed the luxury of a camp fire and I asked the local staff if they would share some of their traditional Malagasy tribal songs. Every one of them knew all of their tribal songs and sung in unison, it was quite the spectacle. It was like a window into their lives and culture. You could see how proud they were…and, we in return felt so lucky. I will remember those moments forever.
We slept in one-man tents. At first, I was a little disappointed, because I was travelling with my husband and wanted to hang with him at night. But, after the first exhausting day I was glad to be in my own tent.
Preparing for the expedition is important. Good fitness and health is essential, if you bear in mind you are required to carry 10-15kg and walk up to 25km a day, as well as paddling up to 30km a day. I never work out in a gym, but I did before this expedition. I primarily worked on my upper body strength in order to cope with long days of paddling. You can never be 100% prepared for what you will experience, but you need to be in good shape. We all worked together to accomplish our goals – so a great attitude and a lot of heart is mostly what you need.
My top tip would be to communicate with your team members before you leave. Don’t take items that are redundant. We found that everyone brought an extensive first aid kit and we all carried them. After a few days of a heavy trekking, you start wishing you had left a few items behind.
Newbies – don’t be afraid to interact with people you meet, even if you cannot speak the language. The people make the trip. The more you get to know the people who live where you are visiting, the more you will actually know the place! Many people feel uncomfortable trying to interact with someone who cannot speak your language, but you quickly figure out how to communicate by acting things out, drawing on the ground or just using your body language. I have met so many amazing people on our adventures.
Usually they are super excited to know you and share their homeland and culture with you. That’s the good stuff you don’t want to miss. You can trek quickly across an area and miss everything or, you can stop periodically and meet the people who live there and really indulge in your surroundings.
The best thing about the expedition for me was seeing parts of the world you would never see unless you hiked there. Only a few people will see the sights we saw or meet the people we met. Oh, and we saw lemurs in the wild!
The greatest challenge of the expedition were the extremely long days – but I made it. There is nothing better than pushing yourself to achieving a goal. We accomplished a long way on foot and boat and I am proud of that.
A big surprise for me was not the dehydrated meals, but buying and cooking our own chickens from the markets. We take so much for granted in our usual daily routine, its eye opening to participate in the full process of consuming your dinner, just so you appreciate your meal that little bit more.
The trek across Madagascar was beautiful and interesting on so many levels, however, I did leave the country feeling a little sad. The Malagasy people are just trying to survive but because they have so few opportunities to make a living, they are literally living off the land. They are cutting down every tree and destroying their environment just trying to exist. The wildlife is dwindling because its environment is disappearing too. Madagascar is known for its unique fauna and wildlife… and it’s all disappearing quickly.