It’s afternoon already but our goal is to leave the capital and cover a significant distance. Of course, the owner has emphasized to us that he does not allow driving at night, for safety reasons, which we will often overlook. The outskirts of Antananarivo are unlike any other African city. Wide rice fields, with flat or stepped water areas, compose a landscape unlike anything familiar in Africa or even Asia.
We’ll have the opportunity to explore “Tana” much more on later legs of our trip, since it is a mandatory hub for the north and east routs. We stop to meet a friend of our guide named Fally, who exchanges currency at a good rate and continue on. Antsirabe is the 3rd most populous city in the country and is only 170 km away. But including the stop we needed 5 hours for the route and we finally arrive just before 11 pm, searching for accommodation. The weather conditions are cold and rainy, certainly not reminiscent of a tropical place, and the wooden cap the plane passenger was wearing, now seems a wise choice. In this situation, we manage to find nice accommodation in a stone-built house with a restaurant in duty, where we try the most famous local dish, which is zebu, the typical beef of the country. Early the next morning, after stocking up on some food from the market, we set off on the ambitious plan to cover the long route of almost 500 kilometers to the seaside town of Morondava. The landscape is dominated by agricultural crops that are cleared with the use of fire. We pass the towns of Miandrivazo, Isalo. The road surface throughout is full of countless potholes that make our body suffer. In many places, small children fill them with dirt, asking for a small tip from the drivers, to alleviate their family’s livelihood impasse. Elsewhere, on the banks of a small river, adults and children work crushing and sifting sand in a desperate attempt to find nuggets of gold, possibly escaped from an adjacent gold mine.
Avenue de baobabs
The road is in bad shape and our vehicle – an old Land Cruiser – does not inspire much safety. A crash delays us but mainly reveals the bad condition of the car’s tires which will ultimately betray us many more times. In one of the next villages we repair the wheel and manage to reach the famous “boulevard of baobabs” in the best time. This is perhaps the most famous spot in the country, the description “boulevard” is only a euphemism as it is the beginning of a dusty country dirt road. Amazing rows of giant baobab trees of a variety found nowhere else in Africa, adorn the red dirt road, composing a grandeur more spectacular than any avenue. Dusk is the ideal time to admire the forest of baobabs, which is bathed in crimson reflections, giving the scenery an appearance of alien planet. As darkness falls, the silhouettes of the trees are strangely shaped, like mythical creatures stretching their arms towards the sky, which is painted in a gaudy palette of purple and blue hues. A star lights up like a diamond to subtly decorate the idyllic image.
A short distance from the avenue of baobabs we meet the ocean, which meets the city of Morondava. The morning light reveals the tropical seaside setting. Behind the hostel, among thick palm trees there is a water canal and to my surprise a fishing boat departs, seeming to move through the farm. I run to follow it and take pictures. The canal leads to the sea, scattered with many more ships that at this time are departing to the wide ocean. Where the sandy beach ends, between lying dugouts, people bid farewell to the departing fishing boats, wishing them for a good catch to feed their families. Morondava does not present any glamour as a town, neither has attractive beaches for swimming. But its endless beach is a meeting point for young and seniors, an oasis of coolness. Children play all day in the sea waves like all the children do and senior women with bare breasts splash in the shallows. In the evening we enjoy ocean fish in a local tavern while planning the next legs of the trip.
We are in a dilemma. A tempting plan is to continue an off-road coastal route to the south, through the point on map with an exotic name of Belo sur Mer, end up in the civilized resort of Ifaty and from nearby Toliara take the road back to Tana. The huge distance, the absence of any road and the tides make the venture uncertain, at least in our available time and given that we want to explore other parts of the island as well. There is a serious possibility that the vehicle will get stuck in the sand, there is a river to cross on a platform that we don’t even know if it’s on duty, in general the available information is poor. The responsibility of ruining the car in the waters of Indian Ocean is upon the driver, but we have to take into account his objections and finally decide to abandon this idea. Another abandoned destination is Tsingy de Bemaraha, at least two days’ dirt track north of the Avenue of the Baobabs. The Tsingys are impressive rock formations with dramatic vertical sharp edges that are worth hiking for a day, two or more. Suddenly the 24 days available for our trip seem short. We finally decide instead, to explore the eastern and northern part of the island. As it turns out, the choice was not only wise but perhaps vital. Returning towards Tana, we stop again at the Avenue of Baobabs to admire the forest under morning light, to visit nearby settlements to get to know locals’ way of life, and mainly to distribute clothes and stationery to these vulnerable communities. When I’m in places like this time stops, I live in a dream filled with emotions caused by excited and curious children running around, touching you, pinching your arm and pulling your skin hair to see what it’s made of… that strange white skin. Mothers with babies in hug, smile stoically.
We take the main road back again and Fally notices something strange in the way the vehicle is rolling. We are surprised to find that the front wheel is held on by a single bolt, the other four bolts have been sheared off, probably forced in the previous repair by the buckling. We are lucky that we did not choose the rough route south, where the wheel would surely have gone out and if we were not dead, the car could not be repaired on spot. Of course, even at the point where we are, the repair is considered rather difficult. Fally manages to engage the whole village which I think was named Ankazomiriotra, to lift the car by placing it on logs, remove all the wheels and place them horizontally under the chassis as supports. Of course there is no way to find spare parts and our hopes are slim. Strolling through the village as the sun is about to set, we realize that the only accommodation would be in some squalid local hut. But the images of everyday life that take place, indicative of the beauty but also of the deep poverty of this place, make me forget the uncertainty in which we find ourselves. All this multi-color of faces, clothes and scenery lulls me into an idyllic mood that for a moment I overlook the fact that everyone is toiling hard carrying loads, sacks, carts with self made bearings. The women wear an off-white make-up on their face called Masonjaony, which comes from sandalwood. This mixture is used for sun protection and as a traditional female beauty element.
Stress about the vehicle repair brings me back to reality. The ingenuity of the attendees is unbelievable. They manage to extract some screws from the hubs of the remaining wheels and fit them in place of the broken ones. It’s not entirely safe to move with less bolts on the wheels, but we can’t help but continue to the nearest point of civilization which is… quite a distance. Fally is worried, as night driving is far from safe, in an area of ill repute, with bandits setting up ambushes. The night is lit up by farmlands that are set o fire creating an eerie sight, an act of farmers to cleanse and renew crops. We arrive almost midnight in Miandrivazo and find accommodation by waking up the owners and the guest cockroaches.
Next day doesn’t start well. The travel buddy has serious stomach problems. This happens often to him while traveling but this time things are serious. Of course, this also affects the trip of all of us, but health comes first. All the way to Tana, we constantly stop for him to get rid of any liquid inside him.
At some point we meet a crowd on the road, a litany, a celebration with songs. This is the special custom of Famadihana where the corpses of the deceased are exhumed each 7 years, the shrouds are replaced with new ones and the names of the relatives are written on them. This is followed by the litany of the deceased accompanied by songs, alcohol and tobacco in a mood of joy. We follow the celebration on foot while the relatives happily present us the corpse, which probably looks better than our travel buddy in the car. Since our friend seems to be heading towards a same fate, we hurry up to find the nearest hospital.
Arriving in Tana, he decides to recover in the room for the next two days. The vehicle goes for repairs and I wander around the rural areas of the greater capital city. I witness images that cause me mixed emotions. People toiling in hard agricultural work with primitive tools, men and women making and carrying bricks, among them small children. Child labor is unfortunately common in this country. I meet a family working in the rice fields, trying to water a whole field with buckets, one by one!
Antasibe & west coast
Our fellow traveler “resurrected” and the next day we start heading east. The first destination is the Antasibe National Park where some of the lemur species are endemic. The landscape is once more nothing like what we have in mind about Africa. Mountain routes surrounded by forests of subtropical vegetation and a winter climate prevails in the area. A small settlement with stone holiday buildings fits the scenery and we choose for overnight. A tasteful restaurant with a fireplace and a small wooden bungalow with a loft offer a pleasant stay. Next day the experience includes visiting the shy lemurs in their natural habitat. The cute animals that are endemic only to Madagascar, look like stuffed toy pets, making you want to hug them. But fortunately, this is not a zoo and the animals are not familiar with humans.
The road to the east, the lowlands and finally the coastal areas, is full of images of labor and poverty, but also endless smiles. In Antsampanana and the other villages along the route, we find street markets full of life, where fruits, vegetables and all kinds of handicrafts, from seats to baskets, are sold. In an isolated settlement with 2-3 houses, we give the children some pencils and notebooks. The kids don’t even seem to know their use, they ere looking at them curiously, while one of them is staring at me with eyes red from some unknown illness. My heart breaks with the reality of Madagascar, so different from the idyllic paradise I had in my mind…
The coastal city of Toamasina will be an overnight stop of the long and tiring route. A quiet, pleasant city, dominated by two parallel streets with rows of palm trees. There are so many mosquitoes that even gets in the mouth, malaria is a high risk in these places and regardless I travel often to the tropics, I do not use preventing pills.
The eastern road ends by the mouth of a river at the small port of Sonierana-Ivongo. A crowd of vehicles, people and domestic animals clogs the narrow road leading to the jetty. We are trying to find a ferry ticket to the island… A woman… walks around with her hands forcibly tied between two boards. I’m shocked, wondering what evil fate has inflicted this punishment. The woman sits, crossing the fingers of her captive hands. I’m informed that “she’s crazy” and that people with mental illnesses get this inhumane treatment in Madagascar.
We say goodbye to the car and the driver for the next 3 days and board a passenger ship to Saint Marie Island. Across the channel between Madagascar and Saint Marie, humpback whales engage in spectacular jumps, a bit far away.
Île Sainte-Marie, also known as Nosy Boraha and once home to pirates, welcomes us with its palm trees gently swaying in the Indian Ocean breeze. A few shipwrecks rest half-submerged in the shallow, clear green waters. The accommodation we have highlighted is called Samaria lodge (no relation to the gorge of Crete) and is located quite far from the small port, towards the northern tip of the island which is 60km long. The girl travel buddies get into a truck with the luggage and the two male travellers rent scooters for a distance of at least 40′. Mark, the owner at the lodge, is very friendly and shows compassion about our limited budget. The rooms are beautiful, made of wood as well as the furniture, with big comfortable beds, a rattan roof and white curtains fluttering in the open windows. The outdoor areas are also dreamy, a natural feast of tropical plants and flowers, leading to a small man-made beach. The sea is quite rough and swimming is difficult, but the seabed is full of life, with impressive pelagic fish. A few hours before, a pair of whales were spotted in front of the lodge, but we were not lucky enough to see them. I had the misfortune to encounter a cockroach on my clothes, in the room and had to give them for washing.
Exploring the island holds some of the most beautiful experiences of the trip. Golden beaches with coconut trees, almost deserted except for a few fishing boats and children running on the beach. The beaches don’t have postcard-perfect turquoise waters, but the magic of this remote treasure lies elsewhere. Perhaps in the carelessness of its people, its exotic flora and strange animals, that little chameleon, the rare lemurs or the huge bats that rest hanging upside down. Not to be missed, the whales, the largest mammals on the planet that migrate every year from Antarctica to these warm waters, to mate and give birth to their offsprings. A boat excursion, accompanied by an environmentalist, brings us within touching distance of these majestic creatures.
Another smaller island, is near the already small Sainte Marie, next to the big island of Madagascar. Île aux Nattes (Nosy Nato) is a typical tropical island with a secluded feel, with white beaches, palm trees and a coral reef that keeps the shallow turquoise waters always calm. A water channel separates the southern tip of Île Sainte Marie to this 2km of paradise. If you came to the island of Madagascar looking for a tropical paradise, you’ll have to get even further, to find it here.
Ankarafatsika & the North
The ambitious plan is to cover a huge part of the island in one day, a route of about 500 kilometers that on the country’s poor road network would normally take 2 days. In addition, we are informed that a bridge halfway the distance is under repair and traffic is only allowed for one hour a day. There is no other choice but to try, so we start for the beauties of the north with this road that seems endless. Indeed, about halfway we meet the construction site that where the bridge is rebuilt, but fortunately the crossing was possible, after waiting for about an hour. Of course at night time we were still on the road and the distance left was still much. So we once again broke the safety rules regarding night driving in Africa. Just before midnight, another flat tire finds us in the middle of nowhere, the tire is so much worn that is left with the linen. This incident wouldn’t normally be a problem, but for some unknown reason the bolts on this wheel were hammered tight and impossible to unscrew, possibly by someone stupid at the last repair in tana. The driver is worried, he keeps saying that we are not safe there, and I am furious with the condition of the vehicle. We decide to leave Fally in the car and hitchhike, taking the risk with two female travellers among us. At first, no one stops, probably this makes sense. Fortunately, after some time, a mini van stops and the two persons offer to take us, asking for €60 fixed price for a distance of half an hour to next civilization point. Just in case, I have my army knife handy. Finally we arrive around 1:30 am at the edge of the Ankarafantsika national park and manage to wake up the owner of a shabby room with bunk beds to take some rest.
In the morning we visit the national park which, apart from several species of lemurs and a lake with crocodiles, was generally an enclave of tranquility and impressive natural beauty. Finishing our hike, luckily we meet Fally who managed to repair the wheel.
One of the park rangers was also a local school teacher. Even though it was holiday season and school was closed, we asked him to gather the children of one class to distribute the school items we had, a minimal offer on every of our trips to Africa and other developing countries. The moments that follow are emotional as always and the tears in the eyes are barely controlled. These children are victims of the deep poverty that prevails in this isolated part of the African continent. Some mothers crowded around the classroom window asking for something for their own children as well. It is difficult to describe in words and pictures these moments and emotions.
We continue north after arguing over the phone with the car owner, about its poor condition and risk to our sefety. I asked him to send a replacement vehicle, which of course was a ridiculous request. His counter-argument was that we broke the rules and drove at night. There will be more flat tires, total 5, so it’s critical that we have a driver to undertake the repairs.
At some points along the way we replace Fally at the driving wheel to give some rest, but this results in countless chickens on the road having a fatal end under the wheels. We are approaching the northern shores of the island. Starting from the town of Ambajana we reach the ferry port to the famous island of Nosy Be. One would expect to find safe and comfortable transportation to the most touristic spot in the country. Instead, there are just a few rusted barges, overloaded with people and vehicles, to a degree just before sinking. Generally I am not afraid, but these conditions were unacceptable and of course there was no place for the car. So we decided to leave Fally and the car back, once more for the next few days and take a small speedboat to Nosy Be. Fally demanded money for his accommodation which until now was covered by the places we were staying at. Of course we gave him money, but that wasn’t in the car hire deal.
With the speedboat we reach the main town of the island with the – not so flattering – name: Hell-Ville. From there we take a taxi to the northernmost beach, Andilana. We fight with the taxi driver who asks for more money than agreed, he becomes aggressive and talks bad us. But nothing can spoil the tranquility of this idyllic place. The owner of the excellent, still reasonably priced guesthouse “La Belvedere”, welcomes us to the sounds of classical music. Behind the rustling of palm trees, we enjoy an elevated panoramic view of a white sand beach revealed by that the low tide that ends in a bright blue sea. Nosy Be could be said to be synonymous with paradise. Fortunately, mild tourist development has not altered this beauty yet, like in other parts of the world. The only dissonance is the adjacent all inclusive resort, and the noisy music events at certain hours. We met some of the residents with the wristbands who “dared” to escape from the high-paid “prison”, despite the warnings of the authorities about the “dangers”. On the beach, women sell bunches of vanilla sticks and small craft shops display their wares. Tavernas have fresh fish cooked with rice and coconut milk.
Even paradise fails to keep for long the restless travellers, so after a few days we look for nearby islands. The available time and sea conditions only allow a nearby one, such as Nosy Sakatia. One morning, we move to the west beach and wait for the lodge’s boat to transport us. It is the only lodge on this island and offers a small dose of luxury at a very low price as well. The peculiarity of Nosy Sakatia is that countless sea turtles, both small and very large, swim in front of its main beach. I have met these wonderful creatures in other seas, but nowhere else in such numbers. The older ones don’t even feel fear and even allow you a hug or a short “ride”, until they move away with their enormous strength. Near the accommodation, a small settlement hosts a few families. We manage to order fresh fish for dinner. As night falls, bright galaxies and the Southern Cross dominate the sky above the palm trees. On an old table made of sea wood, under candlelight, I enjoy perhaps the most romantic dinner of my life and at the same time one of the most delicious with huge fresh shrimps and rice.
The breakfast at lodge was delicious as well, decorated with ilang-ilang flowers and… a gray cockroach under my plate! I don’t have an issue with God’s creatures, but I hate cockroaches and I complained to management. The South African owner carefully caught the insect and placed it back on its tree, assuring me that it was clean. I continued my breakfast…
One day is dedicated in exploration of the island’s hilltop on foot, getting to know the flora, such as the trademark of the country, a palm tree called the traveler’s tree (Ravenala madagascariensis), but also the fauna, such as a cute snake. The most wonderful moments take place in the fishing village located on the other side of the island, where adults and children are welcoming us with a smile and pride for their fish catch.
Sun rises through the water painting sea and sky red as we board the return boat. Next comes the 1000 km back to Tana, a familiar and exhausting route. The time of the last days in the capital city gives the opportunity to see its distinctive architecture with the brick mansions built on the surrounding hills, the colorful markets and friendly people.
The nostalgia of departure is mitigated by a stop in the dreamy Seychelles, where we will be able to explore and enjoy the central island of Mahe.