While motorcycling between Cape Town and London, Jeremy Bullard was lured seriously off piste by the words of Hilary Bradt – he found himself in Madagascar.
This article was published in Issue 59 (Summer 2012)
I never meant to go to Madagascar at all. After all it was not on the Cape Town to London overland route that I was following. However, my inability to resist bookshops en route led to my spotting Hilary Bradt’s guidebook on the nation that noted: “A motorbike is perhaps the very best way of getting around Madagascar.” It was surely a sign, as was the fact that Hilary had visited the country over 25 times.
The first obstacle to my change of plans was the prohibitive cost of flying my KTM 640 Adventure there. Thankfully this issue was quickly rectified by hiring a Honda XL650 from Manfred at Madagascar-on-bike.com instead. My discussions with Manfred were actually a blessing in disguise as he gave me advice on formulating my route.
I learned that it is impossible to do a loop on a tarred road in Madagascar, as only four of them leave the capital Antananarivo and they never meet again. I heard that the French built the original roads in the 1920s and little maintenance has occurred since.
“The Farafangana-Ihosy road doesn’t exist any more,” he stated. “You cannot drive it even on a motorbike as there are trees growing out of it… Take the RN7 to Toliara – it will be a much more interesting route for you.”
The path of my journey would take me south from the capital before heading east to Mananjary on the coast. From there I’d travel due south to Farafangana, then west to Ihosy and Toliara.
It wasn’t long before I discovered that the scenery in Madagascar changes constantly. As I headed south through to Ambositra, the heavily cultivated valleys felt bare, denuded and dry. Gradually the rolling hills became lush and much more mountainous, with bright green terraced rice paddies clinging to the slopes. The road eventually emerged onto a high plain before suddenly dropping down through a narrow gorge and into a tropical rainforest.
The humidity rose sharply as I zigzagged along the banks of the Namorona River on the approach to Ranomafana National Park. I embraced the scents of the jungle that flowed past my face until I couldn’t stomach swallowing any more insects – at that point I lowered my visor. Once in the park, I couldn’t help but notice that all the wildlife looked like something from out of this world. Understandable given the island’s isolation for millions of years. There are more indigenous species in Madagascar than on any other island on the planet.
The next morning the road seemed to ripple as it descended down a bare hillside towards a bridge spanning a river. As there were no other vehicles in sight I straight-lined it all the way down, but just before turning left onto the bridge a sudden uneasy feeling made me brake hard. It was at that point I noticed there was a gaping hole on my side of the bridge where a local had removed three steel beams for his building project (or so I was told).
The Malagasy have an extraordinarily rich culture, the legacy of African, Arab, Asian, Indonesian and European forebears. Ancestor worship is a major part of the twenty or so ethnic groups on the island. They believe death is more important than life because it lasts longer. To them it therefore makes sense to spend more money on their tombs than on their houses. I learned that the different groups all have different funeral practices. The Merina and Betsilo clans practise the happy event of famadihana. Four to seven years after the first burial the body is removed from the tomb and rewrapped in a new shroud by relatives, who then walk the remains around the tomb several times before replacing them inside.
After receiving some grief from the police in Toliara for not stopping for the Minister of Tourism’s car, I flew back to Tana on the same plane as my motorbike, eager to ride to Diego Suarez, the northernmost town.
“It is not a good road,” Manfred had advised earlier. “Take your time and go slowly.”
Though all the maps show it as tarred, there were endless diversions into the bush to avoid collapsed bridges, cavernous potholes and gorges slicing across the carriageway. It took three hours to cover the 75km from Mampikony to Port Bergé. On one bush-bashing detour I couldn’t see any potholes, just the usual ridges of mud down the centre line. Suddenly my bike plunged downwards and clouds of red dust enveloped me as I fell into the metre-deep pothole. The dust smelt like muddy flour, but flowed and splashed like water, creating a bow wave as I rode through.
Madagascar is a naturalist’s dream. It has the largest population of chameleons on the planet, and almost half of the world’s chameleon species. Of the mammals, tenrecs, fossas, and lemurs exist nowhere else on earth. While I was in Ankarafantsika National Park, a fat-tailed dwarf lemur poked its head out of a hole in a tree like a round-eared Yoda from Star Wars. Amazing, but my favourite lemur was the sifaka, a fluffy white lemur with long legs and tail, which leaps from tree to tree at high speed.
On the island of Nosy Be I stayed in Ambatoloaka, which has several tourist shops and a modern pharmacy, but no building more than two stories high. I stayed on the seashore at the La Résidence Ambatoloaka. Alex, the owner, knew the Minister of Tourism and couldn’t wait to tell him that a tourist had been held up by police for making him late for his lunch.
A few days later I meandered past sugarcane fields to Andilana beach, which sat at the end of the tarred road. There I found Chez Lou Lou, a restaurant sheltered under the palm trees, which had a £9 Sunday special buffet meal overflowing with delicious fish, shrimp and lobster. After feasting I washed it all down with a chilled sauvignon blanc while gazing out over the white sand and turquoise water glinting in the horseshoe bay.
After going 50km in the wrong direction, I really enjoyed the 90km ride from Antsohihy to Ambanja. Both my maps said Ambanja was on the ‘main’ road, with Bealanana being a right turn off it. I only realised my mistake when the tarred road ended in the middle of a small town. The locals looked at me quizzically, smiling and laughing, but none spoke any French. Luckily, an English teacher by the name of Manzagasy told me where I’d gone wrong.
“This is Bealanana. There is one small sign to Ambanja, and if there is a truck in the way…”
Once back on track I followed the dirt road to Ambanja, which cut through the spine of some hills near the coast. As the route slithered its way along, I caught glimpses out towards the sea and of the rich carpet of mangroves – I had to stop to catch my breath. I then doubled back to take a photo, but as I was still transfixed on the view I failed to notice that the roadside camber was very steep. As I put my foot down there was simply no ground there to meet it. I somersaulted through the dust as my bike crashed to the ground. Embarrassed, I leapt up to see who was watching. I didn’t have to look long as howls of laughter and clapping filled the air. An entire Malagasy family sat on the bank behind me, rolling about with mirth. I waved my right arm above my head and took a theatrical bow.
I loved Madagascar. It is completely different
to anywhere else I have ever been. What made it truly outstanding was the warmth of the Malagasy people, the variety of landscapes and the extraordinary flora and fauna.
And Hilary Bradt was right… A motorbike is best.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
Kenya Airways (www.kenya-airways.com) and South African Airways (www.flysaa.com) both link London to Antananarivo with regular flights via their respective hubs of Nairobi and Johannesburg.
When to Visit:
The only time to avoid motorcycling in Madagascar is January through March, as heavy rainfall makes the roads all but impassable in many areas.
All visitors to Madagascar need to have a visa to enter. These can be obtained in advance at any Malagasy embassy or consulate for the equivalent of about £25/30 for single/multiple entry options. It is also currently possible to acquire one-month, single-entry visas upon arrival at Ivato airport in Antananarivo for around £25, but check before departing.
Bradt’s Madagascar (10th ed, 2011) by Hilary Bradt is as comprehensive and inspiring as ever. Lonely Planet’s new Madagascar guide (7th ed, 2012) by Emilie Filou is due out this summer.
Find out more:
Madagascar on Bike (www.madagascar-on-bike.com)
GPS navigation systems can certainly help you avoid getting lost due to the poor local maps. And be sure to avoid distractions while getting off your bike– it will save you some laundry and plenty of embarrassment.