Flags of All Nations (that I've visited this year)

The Thirty-Nine Hundred Steps

It was our last day in Ranomafana National Park and one of our last in Madagascar. We were stiff and sore from the previous day's walking in search of lemurs, but were determined to make the most of what time we had left. So when our English-speaking guide Stephan asked us which walk we wanted to do today, we plunked for the long one.

Hours later, with our last lemurs far behind us, I began to wonder if this was such a great idea. We were supposed to be headed for a waterfall, but there was still no sign of a river, no sound of water, and no hint of a slope—all the usual preconditions for a decent cascade. There was only jungle, a muddy track leading through it, and the sound of our footsteps.

My legs hurt. Normally they were perfectly adequate at fulfilling the functions I required of them: stretching out from the edge of the couch, lifting me up to reach a book from the top shelf, and preventing my torso from rolling off chairs. They've also, on occasions, been useful in getting from A to B, especially once I could no longer convince others to carry me.

But while I've done my share of two, three or even four hour walks, I rarely volunteer to do more than one in a row. The last couple of days of walk after walk were pushing my legs to their modest limits.

Stephan, of course, didn't mind the walk. He regularly jogged the length of this track as part of his soccer training, he told us. Jane was doing pretty well too, fired up by our glimpses of Red-Bellied Lemurs and Milne-Edwards's Sifakas. So it was just me. Me and my moaning legs, legs that were more used to being crossed under a desk than uncrossed and marching.

The trees around us began to thin out. Dim scattered light gave way to full sun. It was a hot day out there. The path took a left turn and led out into a patch of scrub and bamboo. We were past the edge of the national park now, in an area farmed by the local Tanala tribe, and could suddenly see the valley spread out around us. The path was on a short ridge jutting into it at right angles, with lightly-wooded slopes falling away on both sides.

In a clearing next to the path stood a framework of newly-cut sticks and logs—the beginnings of a one-room hut. Its owner would enjoy spectacular views, no question, but his home-to-be sure was a long way from anywhere. The nearest village was way down at the bottom of the valley. We could see it off in the distance.

Which was an unpleasant reminder that we were now a long way from anywhere. That village was our final destination.

Running past the end of the ridge, but far below it, was the Namorona River. From our vantage point we could see the small hydro-electric power station built on it; and past the dam, the top of a waterfall. The one we were planning to see.

Our half-time break must have been over, because Stephan asked if we'd seen enough. Then he started back along the path, which veered to the right and plunged down into the bush. We dutifully plodded along behind him, first Jane and then me.

After years of bushwalking, tramping and hiking, I've decided that if I can't be horizontal myself I at least want my walks to be. It didn't help that I grew up in Tasmania, the hilliest state in Australia. The essential item of equipment on a Tasmanian bushwalk isn't a day-pack, it's a winch. This inspires local politicians to suggest installing cable cars in popular beauty spots, which kind of misses the point that 'natural splendour' and 'grinding creaking hunk of metal and glass hanging from miles of taut steel' are not usually two concepts that go together. If people wanted to ride on cable cars, they'd visit San Francisco.

So, being a sucker for natural splendour, I am doomed to spend my life marching up and down hills. The 'up' part is bad enough, but as any veteran walker will tell you, it's the down part that's the killer. At least when you're heading uphill you can lean into your stride and use your weight to add momentum. Downhill, that's the last thing you want to do.

The path at Ranomafana was quickly turning into my downhill-walking nightmare. It was winding, it was slippery, and it was seemingly endless. We couldn't even see much any more; the jungle had closed in again, its strange Malagasy trees crowding around us, their branches waiting to wallop any passing tourist who was too busy watching his feet to watch his head.

On this sort of path it takes good muscles to keep yourself upright and stop yourself from stumbling. But if my legs actually had any muscles, good or otherwise, they were currently taking a nap. I was picking up speed on every turn, my feet slipping on every muddy corner. I seriously began to fear falling and rolling down into Jane and Stephan; or worse, falling and breaking something. We were at least a day from the nearest hospital, and I didn't fancy eight hours in a crowded taxi-brousse with a bone sticking out of my thigh. We came to see lemurs, not femurs.

I tried using the trees to my advantage by grabbing branches to slow me down, but then worried that I would reach out and inadvertently grab the Dreaded Malagasy Spiky Thorn Tree, or a Highly Poisonous Yellow Tree-Frog that the locals rub onto their arrow-heads, or something. So I grasped and released the branches instantaneously, swinging on them at speed like a gibbon in a bushfire.

My legs, which were hurting before, were now screaming to stop and go for a walk someplace decidedly flatter, like Holland. I've always considered the phrase 'legs of jelly' an amusing-enough cliché, but it was only now that I realised the truth of it. My calves were wobbling: quivering uncontrollably like chunks of meat in aspic. Colour them green, and you'd have a tasty dessert; spread on peanut butter and you'd feed an American for a week. I now understood why gelatin came from cow's hooves. Swiss cows, presumably.

My knees were creasing and uncreasing like the whitening hinge on a plastic lunchbox, waiting to snap. The muscles above my knees, of whose existence I had previously been unaware, were roaring like a mummy awakened from a thousand-year slumber. This wasn't the thirty-nine steps, this was the thirty-nine hundred steps. This was the path that would lie behind the gates of Hell.

My mind thought back to the hut at the top of the hill. There was only one path between that and the village, and it was this one. Its owner would have to walk up and down this track every day. Staggering. And his wasn't the only hut perched at the top of a hill with no access road: we'd seen a couple more on nearby slopes, and in fact the highlands of Madagascar were dotted with lonely outposts that seemed to have been dropped into place from above. Their inhabitants would face a back-breaking walk every time they needed anything: building materials; food; water. A world away from the Western waste and comfort of being able to drive down to the shops for a litre of milk.

I stopped to rest several times. Jane and Stephan had disappeared from view and from earshot. It was just me, a forty-five-degree incline, and two giant slinkies from the hips down.

And then—oh miraculous day—the forty-five degrees turned to thirty-five, then twenty-five. The slippery mud was interspersed with less-slippery rocks and leaf-litter. The path levelled out, and the trees lost their thorns and poisonous toads. A babbling brook gurgled across the path like a poem. The track led out into a field beside a pool in the river, and at one end of the pool was an almighty waterfall, rushing and hissing over glistening black boulders, its water brilliant white in the midday sun.

Jane and Stephan were sitting in the field already. I staggered over and collapsed beside them, vowing not to move for an hour. My legs sprawled on the grass and quivered with a thousand tiny aftershocks.

Stephan gave me a bemused look which in my current mood I interpreted as a footballer's contempt. Bugger that, I thought. Even for a soccer player, Stephan had a local's advantage. I'd challenge Pélé to walk down that hill.

And to think that I've long wanted to visit Macchu Picchu. After this, I'm only going by helicopter.

10 March 2001