Exploring The Devil’s Obstacle Course in Madagascar’s Tsingy de Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve

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Photographs by George Kourounis

“This place is almost completely inaccessible, an actual no-man’s-land!” Simon Donato was explaining over the telephone. He was going on an expedition to this remote spot halfway around the world, a chunk of rocky forest near Madagascar’s west central coast called the Tsingy de Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve, and I was hoping to join him. “Right now, we probably know more about what isn’t in there than what is. No trails. No infrastructure. It isn’t really visible even on Google Maps, because of its tree cover.”

The opportunity to plant one’s boots on terra incognita doesn’t come along every day. I happened to be particularly susceptible to the allure of Simon’s great escape, after several months of seven-day weeks spent staring at a computer screen under fluorescent lights, finishing a long-overdue book. Of course, getting away from it all isn’t as simple as it once was, now that the chief qualification to climb Everest is a large checking account balance, and luxury cruisegoers to Antarctica can snap penguin-packed selfies without having to miss their predinner cocktails. Africa is probably the continent most mysterious to North Americans. Madagascar, the massive island nation sometimes called the Eighth Continent because of the uniqueness and diversity of its flora and fauna, is Africa’s Africa — an even less-known place. Which makes the Tsingy, as Winston Churchill once said of another strange land, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

Simon’s proposal certainly sounded intriguing. Kensington Tours, a high-end travel company, sponsors a team of serious adventurers it calls Explorers in Residence. For Madagascar, Kensington had assembled a power trio of its most popular EIRs and was sending them to one of the planet’s last unmapped regions. Simon is a world-class ultra-endurance athlete, holds a Ph.D. in geology, and stars in the run-till-you-drop television show Boundless. EIR George Kourounis is a self-described stormchaser who travels the world trying to get closer to the sorts of natural disasters that sane people flee: tornadoes, hurricanes, avalanches. He’d recently given his job description as, “If it wants to kill you, I’m there.” And since Madagascar is perhaps best known for its lemurs, the third EIR would be Travis Steffens, a.k.a. “the Lemur Guy,” a primatologist, ecologist, and all-around expert on Madagascar’s wildlife and culture. An additional team of specialists chosen by Simon would be assisting in drawing the first detailed maps of the area’s namesake tsingy.

I couldn’t help noticing, however, that people weren’t exactly begging to get into the tsingy, either — perhaps because it is a gigantic labyrinth of razor-sharp limestone, tens of thousands of acres in size, off-limits to tourists and pretty much everyone else. And even though the overwhelming consensus at my home was that Daddy needed to go away, alone, for a little while, it was equally clear that due to the usual day-to-day commitments of an adult American male, any trip I took to Madagascar or anywhere else would be my last for some time. I needed to make the most of it. The narrator in Dante’s Divine Comedy frequently came to mind, a man slogging “midway along life’s journey,” who knows he can purge midlife malaise only by voyaging really far outside of his comfort zone. If I was making a similar all-in travel bet on my mental health, were the lemurs and limestone labyrinth of Madagascar my best option?

After checking the local news in Madagascar — it seemed a good sign that the skies of the capital city, Antananarivo, were temporarily darkened by a biblical swarm of locusts — I spoke with George, the stormchaser, who knew a thing or two about extreme escapism. His Twitter feed read like a social-media adaptation of Dante’s Inferno. He’d been to Chernobyl, had paddled a rubber raft across a lake of sulfuric acid, and was currently starring in a viral video in which he dons a fireproof suit and lowers himself into a very active volcano. He also possessed the one skill essential in a writer’s traveling companion since Dante paired his narrator with the Roman poet Virgil — he spoke in perfect sound bites. I asked George if he thought this adventure was the real deal.

“There are 7 billion people on this earth,” George said, “but pretty much every step we take will be someplace no human has stood before.”

(Loading up the Toyota for a mission to rescue three team members who got lost in the field. Photograph by George Kourounis)

Done. I was going to Madagascar.

Madagascar has been a far-out place, in every sense, since breaking off from what is now the Indian peninsula 88 million years ago. Because of its isolation, about 90 percent of Madagascar’s plants and animals (including nearly all known species of lemurs) are endemic, found no place else on Earth. Madagascar was one of the globe’s last places settled by humans, probably around the lifetime of Jesus Christ, give or take a few centuries. The first Malagasy ancestors seem to have arrived not from nearby East Africa, just 250 miles away, but from the Indonesian archipelago, thousands of miles in the opposite direction, a migratory achievement that renowned biogeographer Jared Diamond has called “the single most astonishing fact of human geography for the entire world.” Equally astonishing is the menagerie of creatures those earliest arrivals would have encountered: 10-foot-tall flightless birds, gorilla-size lemurs, and a breed of dwarf hippos that cryptozoologists insist perseveres somewhere on the island. Madagascar’s megafauna have long since vanished, extinguished by humans, but new species are being discovered all the time. Since 2006, four previously unknown species of lemur have been identified.Madagascar was a French colony from the late 1800s until 1960 — including a brief period, following the fall of Paris to the Nazis, when the Third Reich seriously explored shipping millions of European Jews to the island. The lingering French influence means not only that the local croissants are flaky and any taxi you hail in Antananarivo will probably be an ancient put-put Citroën, but also that the U.S. is not — as it is in so many other places these days — the hegemonic international power that everyone quietly resents. An American who lands in Antananarivo is more likely to hear civic boasting about the impressive new U.S. Embassy building than grumbling over suspected CIA activity. The culture shock of arriving in Madagascar can be a little overwhelming, and its inhabitants are politely chatty, so should you decide to visit — and not to spoil anything, but I strongly recommend that you do — be prepared to discuss four subjects:

1. Lemurs. Madagascar is justifiably famous (especially with the French, who account for 60 percent of visitors) for its beaches and rain forests. Its uncontested number one attraction, however, is its lemurs, which are scattered up and down the island in small numbers. These cute, friendly, photogenic creatures are essential to any future Madagascar has as a travel destination. They are also the world’s most endangered mammals.

2. Fady. This complicated system of cultural taboos is woven into daily Malagasy life. Among the things I was told in Antananarivo was that it is fady to point at someone with your finger or to pass an egg directly to another person. Related to fady is the ongoing relationship with the razana, or dead ancestors, who are consulted when making big decisions. (I should note that as someone who, on most Sundays of his youth, pantomimed eating the flesh of a man who could walk on water, I am sensitive to the dangers of oversimplifying others’ spiritual matters.) Because they expect to enjoy a busy social afterlife, many Malagasy spend more on building their burial tombs than their houses.

3. Rice. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that the Malagasy like rice the way koala bears like eucalyptus leaves. They eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, almost a pound per day per person; any leftovers are boiled to make pudding. Madagascar may be the least paleo nation on earth.

4. Zebus. This breed of cattle is revered not only as a work animal and source of meat and milk but as a symbol of wealth and status, a shadow currency, a sacrifice to the razana. Zebus (and their poo) are everywhere in Madagascar. A Malagasy either owns zebus or aspires to do so. Unfortunately, zebus eat a lot of grass, which leads to a lot of forest destruction, a big reason why lemurs are so endangered.

Madagascar is shaped roughly like the right footprint of an unfortunate soul who has lost his three biggest toes. To reach the tsingy, we needed to travel from dead center to the top of the instep. While we were technically headed off the map, I wasn’t expecting things to get too hairy. Kensington specializes in made-to-order trips for one percenters; I imagined its clients’ idea of excitement might be pouring red wine with the fish course.

(One of the few bridges that traverse the tsingy. Photograph by George Kourounis)

The Madagascar trip was Simon’s idea, as the head of Adventure Science, an organization he founded to bring together scientists and superfit outdoorsy types to conduct exploratory research in extreme conditions. A few team members had departed earlier to set up base camp.

During our drive across the mostly roadless plains, our two-truck convoy was enough of a novelty that each time we passed a small cluster of homes, smiling children ran out to watch us drive by and shouted, “Salaama, vazaha!” (“Hello, white people!”) Because gangs of zebu rustlers were known to roam the area, we had two armed gendarmes with us, indistinguishable from our hired guides in their non-uniforms of shorts, sandals, and T-shirts. Our passenger-seat navigator, Claude, stood out for his personal style — he wore a pink Jacques Cousteau watch cap with a T-shirt announcing the love doctor is in — as well as for his ability to spot the invisible path through the rocky terrain. The beach-bum dress code camouflaged the fact that these were skilled professionals — zebu owners, many of them trilingual. Their leader, Mamy Razafitsalama, might have been mistaken for an American high schooler in his NBA gear, but he had degrees in anthropology, evolutionary biology, and primatology.

When we arrived at base camp, we were immediately reminded of just how removed from civilization we were. EIRs Simon and Travis, along with Jim Mandelli, an elite adventure racer, had ventured a bit too far on a recon mission into the rocky tsingy, where they were now stuck without food or water. In another 24 hours, their situation would be life-threatening. After a brief consultation with Keith, the base camp manager, three Adventure Science guys who’d just arrived with me began pulling medical gear and climbing equipment out of backpacks, to mount a search-and-rescue mission. Long after sundown, they solemnly continued to check ropes and harnesses and plotted possible routes into the mysterious tsingy. A trip that had begun as a lark was drifting toward Into Thin Air territory. One team member told me, unsmilingly, “This must be great material for a writer.”

Thanks to the modern miracle of wireless communication — yes, even the tsingy has cellular service — the rescue operation was called off the next morning when the Malagasy military airlifted the strandees out by helicopter. The crisis having passed, it quickly became clear that any chilly vibrations I’d been picking up from Simon’s Adventure Science teammates had actually been a combination of pre-mission focus and jet lag. Tyler LeBlanc was a sweet kid who worked as a paramedic in Medicine Hat, Alberta. In addition to performing the usual emergency lifesaving services, he had recently treated 17 unfortunate teenagers who had been doused in a drive-by bear spraying. Ian MacNairn was a mountaineering specialist whose bushy auburn hair and beard, one teammate noted, recalled public-television speed painter Bob Ross. He was working on a Ph.D. dissertation examining the psychology of ultramarathoning (another of his hobbies) and walked around camp scribbling observations and doodles into a stack of Moleskines.

Tim Puetz was a former U.S. Army Ranger, a biomedical researcher at the National Institutes of ?Health who woke up at 3:30 each morning to train for extreme endurance races. In the evening he unwound by studying for an MBA. Tim was a walking reminder of how routine my life had become. I sulked because I didn’t get to see the rescue helicopter land; Tim had once been trapped on a mountain in Afghanistan, where no chopper could reach him, and sipped saline solution to survive. I congratulated myself for remembering to bring Clif bars; Tim had been trained to trap and cook snakes, rabbits, and squirrels. I’d brought a copy of Heart of Darkness to read on the plane; Tim had watched one commanding officer slowly succumb to PTSD until, like Colonel Kurtz, his methods became unsound.

Base camp was divided into two mini tent villages. The vazaha side was steps from a stream that Mamy, who was laid-back and agreeable even by the sky-high Malagasy standards of mellowness and amiability, assured me was crocodile-free. (“Crocodiles in Madagascar are not so dangerous,” he added. “The only problem animal is the scorpion in the shoe.”) The Malagasy side of camp housed the food-prep area where Nina, our chubby cook, prepared rice and stews on a table that also held a boom box playing Malagasy pop songs and two frequently replenished bottles of local rum. Mamy had rejected several skinny candidates for Nina’s job, noting that they lacked corporeal evidence of their kitchen skills.


Between our twin cities stood two large expedition tents, soaked in so much mosquito-proofing that the bottle cap–size beetles that landed on the mesh were stunned immobile before dropping dead to the ground. It was here that Simon, fed and rehydrated after his helicopter extraction, laid out the plan for the next several days. In the daytime, we would explore the mysteries of the tsingy. A large topo map of the Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve was taped behind him. A few tiny tic-tac-toe chicken scratches at its center represented the only sections of the limestone labyrinth known to have been surveyed.

“Actually, all of this is tsingy,” Simon said, wiping his hand across the map.

Our scientific objectives, Simon explained, were to map the region, explore any new cave systems encountered, and conduct twice-daily lemur surveys with Travis. While the animals of Madagascar were by and large suitable for a petting zoo (lemurs, chameleons, Mamy’s nonconfrontational crocodiles), everything else in the tsingy wanted your blood. “There’s a reason no one’s ever been in there,” Simon said. “The rock is sharp, and the plants are sharp.” The Malagasy word tsingy means “where one cannot walk barefoot.”

Tyler, the medic, ran through a quick tutorial on tourniquets, reminded us to take our malaria pills, and gave pointers on avoiding trench foot.

“Didn’t trench foot die out with the Ottoman Empire?” I asked.

“I’ve had trench foot, Mark,” Tim said quietly. “You don’t want trench foot.” He’d had malaria, too.

In the morning, we set out for terra incognita. The mangroves that grew thick near our stream on piles of roots like stilts soon gave way to dry deciduous forest, including some baobab trees, their tangled, leafless branches making them look as if they’d been planted upside-down. Perhaps not surprisingly, unexplored territory had a lot of vines. Even following the paths our guides hacked with machetes was like trying to walk through a 30-foot-tall bird’s nest. We crossed a limestone field whose surface was a bas-relief of 200-million-year-old marine fossils. What I first took to be intact ancient nautilus shells turned out to be the baseball-size homes of giant snails. “Wear boots when you leave your tent at night,” Travis warned. “They squish if you step on them. Kind of messy.”

When we reached the outskirts of the tsingy, all the descriptions and warnings of its isolation suddenly made sense. The entire area that lay before us had once been a solid limestone landscape, which dissolved over eons into a bewildering structure of karst spires and caves. The rock was unlike any I’d ever seen — porous as sea sponges in some places, solid in others. Pointed fingers jutted out in all directions, like petrified flames. Frequently, we found ourselves walking atop knife-edged ridges of stone, the tips of which cracked beneath our boots with a champagne-toast clink. Most of the team, Ian especially, hopped from spike to spike like mountain goats; I used my thick (and quickly scarred) leather gloves to grab every handhold I could find. We would’ve been safer climbing walls topped with broken bottles.

“Watch out for false bridges,” Simon shouted over his shoulder, describing the matted leaves that looked like solid ground but gave way like tissue paper when stepped on, exposing daggers of rock below. It was as if nature, unconvinced that its serrated stone forest made the keep out message clear, had booby-trapped the sanctuary’s entryways with punji sticks, too. Keeping in mind an earlier warning that a stumble in such territory would likely result in a compound leg fracture as well as a wicked flesh wound — and that we had likely used up any favors from friends with helicopters — I tried to imitate Simon’s precise steps as if learning a new dance.

I was standing with my notebook open, searching for words to describe what I was looking at, when George passed, carrying 30 pounds of photo and video equipment on his back. “This is like the devil’s obstacle course,” he said, glancing around, and moved on.

We snaked our way single file through slot canyons and crawled on our bellies through openings so narrow that we had to remove our daypacks and pass them ahead. Every few minutes what little path there was forked, and we had to choose the most promising route deeper into the labyrinth. As often as not, it terminated in a dead end. Every alleyway was its own unique ecosystem, some desert-like and sunny, others green and shaded. “The amazing thing is that 50 feet in either direction is something entirely different,” Simon said, pausing to take GPS coordinates. He asked Honoré, the guide most familiar with the area, if ??he’d ever ventured this far in. Honoré shook his head, decisively, no.

After more than an hour, we came upon a wide junction, open to the sky and hemmed in by hulking monoliths of stone overgrown with trees and vines. It felt as if we had breached the walls of a lost city. If you squinted, you might’ve been at Angkor Wat.Each morning we poured hot water over our freeze-dried breakfasts, received and checked our radios (“Base camp, this is Mark, over”), and marched Wallenda-style across the fallen-log bridge that marked the unofficial entrance to the tsingy. Two things became apparent pretty quickly. First, we were definitely not the first humans to wander through the area. While inspecting one narrow corridor, Tyler popped his head into a nook and encountered a large ceramic bowl. Simon guessed that it dated from the 1600s when the earliest settlers passed through the area and presumably grasped its limitations.

The second realization was that while the sharp crevices of the tsingy were fascinating, there were even more interesting things happening in what appeared to be a very large cave system beneath it. This was a mixed blessing. For someone on the run from ennui, the prospect of not only visiting someplace where almost no one had set foot but then sneaking into that place’s abandoned basement was irresistible. I do not, however, love confined spaces. Also, during an awkward tsingy dismount, I had sprained my right ankle, which swelled to the size and shape of an Ugg. I spent a day on the disabled list, much of which I passed sitting pleasantly beneath a large shade tree in the Malagasy camp, watching Nina hand-sort that evening’s rice as if panning for gold.

After a dinner of zebu kebabs, Tim sat down next to me. “I’m pulling for you to get out there and see those caves tomorrow, Mark,” he said. “There’s a saying in the Army — with sprains, motion is lotion. If you can work through a little pain, I promise you’ll see some amazing things.”

(Seasoned stormchaser George Kourounis explores an unmapped cave. Photograph by George Kourounis)

Seeing as I had already, after a couple of whiskeys on an empty stomach, confessed to Tim that he made me proud to be an American, I was in no position to argue. My last night as a speleological virgin was a restless one, as the approaching full moon coaxed all sorts of nocturnal animals out of the forest and into our camp for a wee-hours hootenanny. One species of lemur grunted like pigs, loud enough to render earplugs useless. More than once, I dozed off only to wake suddenly, the surround-sound blooping and bleeping having conjured visions of passing out on the floor of a video arcade.

I was expecting something a bit more dramatic, perhaps akin to the abandon all hope, ye who enter here inscription that greets Dante’s narrator above the portal to Hell. But the opening into what the Malagasy guides later named Anjohibetsara, or “big, beautiful cave,” would have been easy to miss. We climbed up a short ledge and walked through a narrow crack into a room about a quarter-acre in size. A few tiny bats hung motionless from the ceiling, but otherwise not much seemed to be happening in the netherworld beneath the tsingy.

The antechamber opened onto tunnels that segued to other rooms. Some passages led nowhere, others branched off deep into the darkness beyond the reach of our strongest flashlights. Several spaces were littered with giant slabs of rock, like broken sidewalks, some piled so high that we had to military crawl through their tightest gaps. One room’s floor seemed, in the beams of our headlamps, to be littered with stone dinosaur skulls. Where water had dripped down over the millennia, psychedelic stalactites hung down in the shapes of chandeliers and giant squid. Occasionally, we arrived at a junction where the ceiling had collapsed entirely, leaving behind an oasis of light, with the spikes of the aboveground tsingy visible through the hole.

We were supposed to be back in camp by 4, and as time grew short we split into small groups to explore as many arteries as possible. Simon brought Tim and me along to check out an intriguing passage he’d spotted earlier. We scooted through a long space like an office ventilation duct, navigated a slippery gully, and scrambled up a steep pile of rocks to reach a room filled with dripping-wax stalactites. Tim had the unofficial job of naming discoveries and had just dubbed one sharp dangler Damocles’ Sword when we encountered what appeared to be a five-foot-long male reproductive organ, fully engorged, hanging from the ceiling. Simon pointed his camera at the formation and narrated, “We call this the Elephant’s Trunk!”

Simon checked his watch and walked ahead down a narrow passageway, shouting back that we might have time to squeeze in “one more turn.” A minute later, we heard a loud exclamation: “Oh, ho, ho!”

Tim and I came over a slight rise to see Simon standing in the middle of an enormous room. Stone archways large enough to drive trains through branched off into tunnels in several directions.

“You’re from New York,” Simon said to me. “Does this remind you of anything?”

I’d come halfway around the world and slipped through the tsingy’s defenses, only to find myself standing in a stone replica of Grand Central station.In the evenings, between sundown and dinner, Travis led lemur walks into the forest. Little was known about the lemur population in this part of the tsingy, but he’d already seen evidence of an aye-aye, a species so endangered that even he had never spotted one. We trooped out carrying flashlights and binoculars, a string of fireflies, with Mamy in front and Travis in back. Since I usually found myself lagging behind, Travis and I spent a fair amount of time together.

Travis had an agreeably geeky disposition — he stopped often to point out spiderwebs and said things like “Wow, this is a really interesting fungus” — and an admirably eclectic résumé. He was a former skateboarder and mountain biker with a chunk of bone floating around in one knee as a memento of an epic wipeout. While still completing his Ph.D. at the University of  Toronto, he guided trips throughout Canada, Central America, and Africa (Kensington’s 15-day “Madagascar Eco and Culture Adventure with Primatologist Travis Steffens” runs almost 10 grand per person); he traveled back and forth to Madagascar frequently, both for research and as head of Planet Madagascar, a conservation and development project he cofounded. He’d once returned home after an extended Madagascar tour and collapsed in bed only to be awakened by his brother, a nightclub manager, who had brought home porn star Ron Jeremy to meet him. Jeremy was eager to discuss the sex lives of bonobos.


Whenever we weren’t being quiet so as not to scare off the animals, Travis explained a little bit about the lemur’s place in Madagascar’s future. Slash-and-burn deforestation, tavy in Malagasy, has long encroached on lemur habitat, more than ever in recent years. While 2009 was bad for the world economy, it was near-apocalyptic for Madagascar: The president was overthrown (in part because he’d leased half the island’s arable land to a Korean conglomerate); incoming foreign aid was suspended; tourism slowed to a trickle; poverty soared; and tavy accelerated, especially in protected areas like nature reserves. “Ecologically and biologically, this forest is still here because of the tsingy,” Travis said. To make matters worse, when people’s children are hungry, lemurs are viewed less as furry tourism ambassadors than as ready sources of protein. During the crisis, Travis estimated, the lemur density in some areas fell by 95 percent.

Which is where Travis’ superhuman optimism, and the disposable income of adventurous leisure pursuers, enters the picture. His hope is that Madagascar’s tourism industry can appeal to North Americans by following South Africa’s successful model — take its existing national parks “and buttress them with private concessions and land, giving an opportunity to view wildlife in a private setting.” Roughing it in comfort requires a lot of support staff, which creates a lot of jobs, which preserves the forests, which is good for lemurs, which is good for tourism. “The classic example in South Africa is hiring the lion poacher to become a lion tracker, because he’s the best,” Travis said. “He now makes 10 times as much and likes his job better because it’s safer.” Money goes a long way on the Eighth Continent: Travis’ conservation project, Planet Madagascar, provides full and part-time jobs to 28 people on a $15,000 annual budget.

Travis hoped an isolated spot like the tsingy might draw leading-edge adventure travelers interested in caving, climbing, and lemur-spotting. The big question is how long the area’s sharp rock will be sufficient to keep the forest intact. During one of our evening lemur walks, Travis and Mamy were teasing each other about who had spotted the most animals — we’d seen several individuals clutching trees, their mirrored eyes glowing in our flashlight beams — when a pleasant autumnal fireplace smell crept up on us. In the distance off to our left, a mile or two away, we saw the source. A controlled blaze, perhaps a hundred yards wide, was slowly burning like a wave through the forest and grasslands, its pretty orange glow scything everything in its path to create pasture. Zebus 1, lemurs 0.By my last day exploring in the tsingy, my state of mind had definitely improved, though I wasn’t quite ready to unfurl a mission accomplished banner. Personal hygiene was a different matter. After a week of climbing and crawling, pretty much everyone was tired and filthy. The labyrinth’s stone incisors had taken their toll. George’s pants were split down the seat; Travis’ and Ian’s shoes, new a week earlier, looked as if they’d been fought over by angry dogs. I dribbled coffee down my shredded microfiber shirtfront and didn’t bother to wipe it off. The one exception was Tim, who looked as if ?he might have just finished some light gardening.

“Just out of curiosity, how do you manage to stay so clean?” I asked.

“Because I know how to move through the forest,” he said, as if explaining something to a kindergartner.

We departed camp around 6:15 am with a specific mission. The previous night, Simon had calculated that the cave we’d been exploring might be large enough to qualify as one of the 50 longest in Madagascar. (The country is famous for its big caves.) Grateful though I was to be witnessing possible caving history, I couldn’t shake a sense of trepidation. Midway along life’s journey I’d traveled halfway around the world, far outside of my comfort zone, yet I worried that the tsingy hadn’t delivered a sufficient jolt of adventure shock therapy. I wasn’t even certain we’d boldly gone where no man had gone before. How would I know when I’d gone far enough?

George offered a possible solution to my conundrum. The previous day, he had discovered the entrance to a sort of underground river. “More people have set foot on the moon than have walked through that tunnel,” he assured me.

Which is how I found myself stripping down to shorts and a helmet, slipping into chest-high black water with a flashlight tucked into my waistband, holding a piece of measuring cord in my hand and slowly crouching forward through the tunnel like an elderly caretaker working his way through a Roman catacomb. I was the next-to-last link in a chain of surveyors. Mud squished up to my ankles with each step as I turned around one bend, scratching my back against the low ceiling. The tunnel twisted right and then left. After several minutes, the cord went taut, measurements were taken, and orders to release the rope shouted down the line. I watched my only lifeline to the world above zip away into the blackness ahead.


After stooping over uncomfortably for several minutes, counting the tiny translucent shrimp who were my only company, I found a spot along the wall where I could lean while awaiting further orders. This might take a while, I thought, and I turned off my headlamp to let the dark and silence envelop me. Deprived of sensory input, my mind began to wander for the first time in weeks. I slipped into a deep meditation. For someone semi-sitting in the lukewarm, muddy, probably guano-saturated water of what turned out to be Madagascar’s 35th longest cave on record, I felt strangely at peace. Was the calm I felt a gentle nudge from the cosmos, a reminder to live in the moment and not fixate on where my path had gone, or was going?

“It’s a circle,” the universe whispered.

Nicely put, universe! Hadn’t Dante’s narrator descended through nine rings of Hell until reaching an underground river, from whence he began his journey to salvation? Didn’t Buddhism teach that life itself was a circle, of birth and death and — if you traveled far enough along its circumference — enlightenment? Perhaps I’d found the secret to life in a cave beneath Madagascar.

“Can you believe it’s a circle?” the universe asked, louder than before. The universe, I couldn’t help noticing, was a bit more gregarious than one might expect. I opened my eyes and was blinded by a burst of light — not, alas, a flash of metaphysical insight but the beam of George’s headlamp.

“Bet you’re surprised to see me,” he said. “The cave loops around and ends right next to where we came in. Amazing, huh? I’m going to have another look.”

He waded around the bend and vanished, leaving me in the dark, in a cave, beneath the still-not-quite-mapped limestone labyrinth on an island off the coast of Africa. In other words, I was in the middle of nowhere. Exactly where I needed to be.

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