Final stop, Antananarivo then off for some beach time.

Before we departed back to Tana, we bid farewell to Remi, the owner operator of Residence Madalief just outside of Antsirabe. Her and her husband run a really nice lodge just outside of town. The staff are excellent and attentive and the diners they served were absolutely delicious. It’s essentially a pit stop place but I’m sure if you had an extra day in Antsirabe the Madalief would definitely be the place to stay.

She asked if the truck was repaired and we said we hope so then she threw in a comment that left us a little uneasy for the rest of our drive. She mentioned that at one point the mechanic came and asked her for some scotch tape. She had some and also had duct tape. He wanted the duct tape! For those Canadians out there they might remember the comedy show “The Red Green Show”. He repaired everything with duct tape. I’m not sure what the tape was for but I inspected the alternator and didn’t see any so we kept our fingers crossed and off we went.

The roads were winding and hilly but weren’t too bad but the traffic was very slow. Smoke billowing trucks barely doing 5 km/hr up hill, smoke billowing Taxi bousse, Zebu carts, bicycles, you name it, the highways are littered with hazards but the real delay hit when we entered the outskirts of Tana. I had once said that the only country I wouldn’t drive in was India. After our highway experiences and driving in Tana I now think India would be a snap. The congestion in Tana is incredible and essentially indescribable. Every mode of transportation you can imaging inhabits the roads, many/most pot holed and very narrow. Apocalyptic, chaotic, smog and dust filled madness mixed with extreme poverty and desperation. Absolutely mind boggling but we made it to our B&B unscathed. I didn’t hit any zebu carts, bicycles, pousse pousse, cars, trucks, skinny chicken, goats or babies! We survived our 5 week driving journey.

We clocked in 2,489 kms but seemed it like 10X as much because we probably averaged only 50 km/hr and much less much of the time. It was a huge but rewarding challenge for myself, the driver, and Joyce, the navigator. Would we recommend self driving in Madagascar? Yes and hopefully our tales provided you with information so you’re prepared. You couldn’t self drive In madagascar only a couple of years ago, it is very challenging but also very rewarding and we wouldn’t have wanted to do it any other way.

Thank you Roadtrip Madagascar for all of your support. When we needed it most you were a phone call away and ready to assist.

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Miandrivazo to Antsirabe

As mentioned in the previous “bad luck gods” post, we departed Miandrivazo at about 9:00 am with our final pit stop in Antsirabe before ending our driving adventure in Tana. The road for the most part was pot holed and crappy but the scenery was beautiful.

Just when you think there can’t be more, the bad luck gods throw more at you!

I’m not sure if I mentioned it earlier but before we reached Manja, two warning lights on the dashboard came on indicating what we later found out was an alternator issue and a diesel fuel filter issue. I had a “mechanic” have a look and he had no idea about the diesel indicator but agreed, the alternator could be giving out. The battery was being charged to a higher level than it should have been. He suggested driving with the lights on, running the air con and using everything electrical to reduce the overcharging. Okay, sounds iffy and temporary to me. Anyway, things went smoothly, relatively speaking and once we arrived in Morondava to have our suspension repaired I asked the guys about the warning indicators. They agreed, alternator and fuel filter but not to worry, you should have no problems getting back to Tana. “Not to worry”. I hate those words, especially coming from an “expert”. Our next stop out of Morondava was Miandrivazo, a 298 km drive and we made it without a hitch. We departed the next  morning, October 9th and headed to Antsirabe, our last pit stop before heading back to Tana where we would drop off the truck and head north for some beach time. The truck started and off we went. We have two LED battery level indicators in the truck, one was low so I turned off the fridge thinking it was draining the fridge battery, the other looked okay. Anyway, I was never really sure which indicator was for the fridge and which was for the battery and as it turns out, the battery indicator was low,  indicating around 10.9 volts and the fridge was 12.0 volts. We drove along through barren hills and semi-mountainous landscapes and at one point decided to stop on the side of the road for a stretch. I intentionally parked on a downward slope, something in the back of my mind told me things may not be right. We hopped back in after a stretch and the truck wouldn’t start so I did the old glide down the road and pop the clutch thing and fortunately the truck started. I then noticed the battery level getting lower. We proceeded then noticed the air conditioning was no longer working and then noticed the speedometer was stuck at 60 and the RPM was stuck at 2,000 and the odometer wasn’t working. This was not looking good. In the back of my mind I tried to remember if a car will still run normally even if the battery was dead and somehow I didn’t think so. Then we seemed to be losing power on the hills, then, chug, chug, cough, cough, the truck died. We had just passed a very small village, the road was flat (thank the heavens) and there was a small patch of gravel on the side of the road to roll to a stop on. Well, well, well, now what? I forgot to mention we called our truck rental company just after the truck not starting incident, and we were advised to continue to Antsirabe where a mechanic will fix the problem. I called again to tell them we were dead in the water. They would send a rescue team and I would try to find some tools. Preferably a heavy wrench to smack the head of whoever would tell me “it won’t be a problem” again! I tried to ask some young men about tools but they spoke only french then after an hour of resigning ourselves to waiting for the rescue I showed the boys the battery and used sign language to describe to them that I needed a wrench. No wrenches in the nearby village they signed back and at his point every women and child in the area had congregated around us and our chairs we placed in the shade waiting for our rescue. Then another very jovial women showed up, shook our hands smiling and everything was wonderful except she didn’t have any wrenches but, she indicated the little household just right over there did. She then told the boys and the women and waved goodbye. Aha! they must have thought, they need some tools and within minutes we had a several wrenches and a giant adjustable wrench. I/We went to work. I removed the battery from under the hood, the boys removed the refrigerator battery from the tight confines of the back of the truck and we put the fridge battery in place. It was larger than the original and the positive post was just an inch or so too far out of place to secure the terminal. Jesus, what kind of luck is this? The boys had some copper wire so we figured we could connect the positive terminal with the wire. Nope, it melted as soon as I tried starting the truck, I kind of figured this would happen considering the amount of current that is drawn when starting an engine. We tilted the battery, we wiggled the wires we tried everything and then, we got the terminal connector within a hair’s width of the terminal. A little smack with the large adjustable wrench and we got it on. With much anticipation I went to the truck and voila!. It started. The battery level showed 12.0 volts, how long that would last we didn’t know but it would at least get us closer to the next stop and hopefully to our lodge sooner. We made it to the lodge about two hours later than planned. We gave three of the boys 10,000 Ariary each and the women who had the tools 20,000. Their smiles were as wide as the world and we felt good. This is a lot of money to them, less than $20.00 CSAD to us and worth every penny and more.

Not long after we arrived at our lodge, Residence Madalief, a local mechanic showed up and proceeded to repair our vehicle. Again, great service from Roadtrip Africa although our contact, Peter tends to be of the “don’t worry, be happy” type and to date he has been correct but sometimes just a little too nonchalant.

Morondava to Miandrivazo

We departed Morondava on the 8th of October for another relatively short distance drive but as always seems to be the case, about 5 hours to cover. We easily found our accommodation, Princess Tsiribhina which was located right off the side of the RN34. The drive was uneventful, the roads were good and the scenery as usual was spectacular.

We arrived at around 1:00 pm and it was stifling hot outside. We unloaded our bags and wandered over to the restaurant for a bite. There were no fans and the air was like a blow dryer and the beads of sweat started to form. We had a nice chicken sandwich slightly salted from the sweat that was dripping off of our brows and we hoped and prayed that the evening would cool off. It didn’t and we probably had the worst sleep so far since arriving in Madagascar. We had a small fan in the room that operated intermittently between the generator being turned off and the solar battery turned on. It was terrible.

Surprisingly I still had some fluid in my body and got up at some point to take a pee. As I lifted the seat (what a gentleman) I noticed something fairly large disappear up and under where the water would come out when you flush. As I wasn’t sitting down it wasn’t an issue but I did have to warn Joyce. She had sweated out all of her fluids that night so in the morning I took a bowl cleaner brush that was beside the toilet and ran it under the rim. Lo and behold, a small frog jumped out but that wasn’t the end of it. After some coffee I returned to the toilet quite comfortable in sitting down. I flushed and out of the  toilet edge popped out a much larger frog! He collected him/herself and proceeded back to his/her hiding place. We didn’t get a photo because, well he disappeared quickly and toilet bowls are not the best things to photograph. Nuff said.

We departed around 9:00 am the next morning looking forward to another scenic drive. As I started the truck I noticed the battery LED indicated a low battery. Hmm…

Morondava and L’allee Des Baobabs

Having to do something with our down time in Morondava we took a tuk tuk (I always love saying that) to L’allee des Baobab, the area that hosts baobab trees lining the dirt road that heads north to the Tsingy and is famous for the photos that probably everyone has seen when looking at or reading information about Madagascar. Us and about 100 other people had the same idea so you know you will not get the National Geographic photos that you expect. Something like the famous photo of an elephant on the road in Kruger National Park with a traffic jam of photo seekers. We expected this however the site was a bit anticlimactic. It was beautiful of course but the photos everyone sees are taken without people and just the right lighting but I must say, if you Google L’allee Des Baobabs I think Joyce’s photos are just as spectacular as the Google pics. So there!

We got our shots and decided to leave before the crowds. It was a dusty road and we didn’t feel like eating dust for dinner.

Belo-sur-mer to Morondava. Finally, some tarmac roads plus a broken suspension system.

The final leg of our 4×4 journey took about 4 hours to cover approximately 90 kms. There were a few good stretches of sand tracks and very few rocky stretches which was nice but we encountered some of the worst washboard stretches we have ever driven. Our truck has heavy duty suspension so washboard is the worst possible condition to drive. We encountered several deep mud crossings and a couple of fairly deep water crossings so the thought of getting stuck again was always in the back of our minds. Finally about 20 kms away from pavement and feeling a little more relaxed we encountered more mud, and it looked really deep. We decided on a path and went for it. As I accelerated through the quagmire we hit what sounded like a large rock submerged in the mud. Yikes! The truck kept a rollin and we escaped unscathed and continued on but wait, what’s that scraping sounding noise that emanates from the right front wheel-well whenever we hit a large bump? Must be mud stuck on the mud flap. Nope, must be worse because when I got out of the truck to investigate it was quite obvious. The right front wheel had zero clearance in the wheel well. We must have blown a shock absorber. Fortunately this happened when it did and not earlier in the day. We had mountains to climb and rivers to cross so a blown shock would have been a very serious situation indeed. We proceeded on and finally, just up ahead, tarmac! Civilization! We had accomplished what no man has accomplished before, we, oh never mind, you get the picture, we made it.

We limped into the town of Morondava, picked up some phone data from Orange, withdrew 1.2 million Ariary (really, it’s worth about $420.00 CAD) from Bank of Africa and then pulled in to a local automotive mechanics shop.

IMG_1343They identified the problem immediately, it wasn’t the shock absorber but I think a steel suspension link or something and they didn’t have the part on-hand but they could get one delivered quickly. About 1 1/2 hours later still no part so we caught a lift to our hotel and prayed the truck would be fixed the next day. To our surprise and relief the truck was delivered around 8:30 in the morning. Our Pisteur, Antonio showed up to tell us. What a guy! Excellent service! We don’t know the cost of the repair as it was picked up by our rental company, Roadtrip Africa/Madagascar. Their service and response to any issues we have faced along the way has been great. More on that later in my final Madagascar review.

We spent the first two nights at Chez Maggie, a nice lodge with bungalows near the ocean side.

We had booked two nights but needed two more due to what I will explain below but unfortunately they were booked up but the lodge next door, Laguna Beach had a room and it had air conditioning. This was going to be a treat. The room was large and cool with a big shower and lots of space.

The food in the restaurant  was very good, quite pricey relative to everywhere else we have been but good but this is lunch that I’m talking about. The breakfast was way overpriced and the serving staff didn’t seem to have a clue what they were doing. The first breakfast we did get our juice after asking and our coffee a little hotter after our first cup, and a napkin after asking but the second breakfast was a disaster and we walked out refusing to pay. We were first served lukewarm coffee after asking specifically for hot coffee and after having to wait 15 minutes. Then came the the first plate of food, 1/3 of a rotten banana, dried out banana bread and a whole unpeeled mango. What are we supposed to do with a whole unpeeled mango? We don’t have a sharp knife and we don’t have a napkin. Then, my so called omelette shows up.  Where is Joyce’s omelette? Where’s our bread, you brought the jam for crying out loud, where’s the bread? And the juice, where’s the juice??? We had enough, got up and left rather ticked off. We really are not that hard to get along with. Joyce and I are the nicest people in the world but at some point you have to draw a line. It sounds like we’re whining here but they really had no concept of service and not a clue of what their breakfast was supposed to consist of. It’s written on the menu, in french, english and malagasy so get with it management or you won’t understand why no one stays at your place.  Enough said. Now on to why our plans were altered.

I planned and booked our whole time in Madagascar. One evening about a week ago I was reviewing our itinerary and noticed a, shall I say, slight error. Our plan was to spend two nights in Morondava and then head north to the Tsingy de Bemaraha, a protected UNESCO world heritage site of  immense beauty but it was not to be. The drive would be approximately 8-10 hours, part of which would consist of military escort with a convoy of 4×4’s heading north to the Tsingy. We had three nights planned to allow for some time to explore the area. What I didn’t factor in was the drive back to Morondava thinking we could drive straight to Miandrivazo. That would have been a 14+ hour drive. Damn! We decided it just wasn’t worth the 16+ hour return drive to have one full day of exploration. We missed a beautiful site so we’ll save the Tsingy for next time.

Morondava is probably one of the nicest towns we have been to. The main street is wide and clean with sidewalks. One area is devoted to the food market. Fish, fresh veggies etc. Further along is a section devoted to cheap chinese footwear and other crap that will fall apart within days but hey, the price is right. It is a stop off or starting point for tourists wanting to head north to the Tsingy and those (us) who made their way from the south with intentions to continue north. It has an airport so it is a very convenient place to start your adventure whether it be north or south.

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Next, a short trip to L’allee des Baobabs.

 

Belo sur Mer

We spent two nights at this gorgeous location at Hotel Entremer. The hotel is owned by a very nice French (Canadian) women, Laurence. She was an excellent host and a french trained chef. The food on order was primarily fresh seafood and it was delicious and cooked to perfection. Aside from breakfast we had seafood for every meal. The beach was untouched by civilization other than the local fishing village community. The water was an aqua marine colour and the tide was an amazing 4.5 metres. We strolled the beach in the morning to visit the local fishermen and then stayed in the shade for most of the day. It was incredibly hot outside.

The below two pics are a solar water heating box. The water is used for a hot water bucket shower and works very well. The temperature of the water reaches close to 80 degrees celsius.

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Next stop, Morondava.

Andavodok to Manja then onward to Belo sur Mer

Okay, so when will this ever end or maybe, how will this end?

The road to Manja takes anywhere from 7 to 10 hours depending on, well, the road and a small ferry crossing across the Mangoky river. We were expecting much worse but the Chinese have come in and “fixed” some of the bad parts (we were told there are precious stones in the area, hmmm and surprise surprise!) so there was a few times where you could actually travel at about 40-50 km/hr. There were many treacherous parts where the rocks were huge and scattered for kms, there were deep water filled creeks to cross and some heavy sand in areas but overall, not bad. There is one river crossing and it is a crossing we will soon not forget. As you approach the river the white sand gets deep, very deep towards the river’s edge so you keep the wheel hubs locked, stay in 4 low 4×4 and give her shit so you don’t get stuck and end up paying 25 people $250 to get you out. Joyce got out of the vehicle before I attempted the ferry loading. First, she was afraid she would go down with the truck, and second, we needed to have this on video to show how adept I am navigating the most challenging situations presented to me or, totally blowing it! LOL! It was a blast and I probably gave the truck a little too much oomph as I became slightly airborne after hitting the ramps a little too fast.

I was quite proud of myself. I can’t say I’ve met many people who have done this and I didn’t go flying off of the other side of the barge so, success.

The barge is moved completely by manpower. There were several men in the river, ropes in hand who pulled the barge to the other side where we made a smooth exit onto dry land.

We continued on for another 80 kms negotiating the ever changing road conditions through bush, mud, shallow creeks and rocks until we finally arrived in Manja, our pit top for the evening before continuing on to Belo-sur-Mer in the morning.

Manja is a small dusty town with one hotel and a new hotel annex where we stayed for the night. It was very basic accommodation. We had skinny barbecue chicken with pomme frites and a few cold beers before calling it an evening.

After a fitful nights sleep we proceeded onward for the 5 hour, 90 km journey to Belo-sur-Mer.

The timing of our arrival was important because the lodge is surrounded by tidal flats so the only times you can access the lodge is during low tide. The sand was quite deep as we neared the lodge so our anxiety level rose but we made it without incident.

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Tsinadamba to Andavodok. The nightmare that almost came true.

It couldn’t get any worse could it?

Antonio, the pisteur of few words except “okay” implied no, just some rocks and sand, not too bad. The last leg was really quite bad and we started to lack confidence in his words. Maybe this is part of the psychology they use to ensure you don’t just throw up your arms, say “screw it” and call in the rescue team.

We departed Tsiandamba on the 28th where we had a one night pit stop at Five Senses Lodge, another french run lodge where no one spoke english. It was like pulling teeth to get any information on what the english translation was for the menu offerings, what came with what and I could go on and on but I’m sure you are sensing the frustration that has been building so far with our experiences that, although I haven’t really touched upon yet has become a very  big sore point for us to date. In most counties we have travelled, the hosts go out of their way to accomodate you, the french don’t seem to share that sense of hospitality. If you don’t speak french you are ignored most of the time and you wait forever for service. We’re from Canada, an english/french speaking country. We don’t speak french but everywhere else in the world, english is usually on the menu. Not Madagascar. They are influenced by the french and I’m sorry, but it really pisses us off.  Anyway, we continued on to Andavodok where we could hopefully unwind with a two night stay at Laguna Blu, what a lovely sounding name and it was a lovely setting but again, french run, for french speaking people with a scatter brained french owner. She did however speak italian, we don’t so c’est la vie! What a mess!

The drive was treacherous to say the least. I don’t have words to describe the condition of the pathways that lead through no-mans land, through small, dirt poor villages, the people probably having lived this way since day one, sustenance farming, raising Zebu (our equivalent of cattle) and getting by. The children and adults were always smiling and we would wave as they would as we passed slowly through the sandy pathways winding through wooden and thatched huts in a dusty sand landscape surrounded by brush or sea side with the sounds of “bon bon” (candy) shouted by the children as we passed.

We estimated our travel time to be about 5 hours and were thrown off track by taking a wrong turn through a very sandy track to eventually be met by a fallen tree blocking our way. I was able to do the turn around dance once more and we headed back to the village where we took the wrong turn and then proceeded in the correct direction.

The road wasn’t too bad and we estimated about 45 minutes until we would make our destination. The land was barren and the surface of much of the area looked white and hard. The gravel road seemed to come to and end. Antonio looked forward towards a far sand dune and said the “lodge is right over there, probably about a 15 minute drive”. I asked if I should go straight, it looked like a decent hard surfaced dried salt pan and he agreed so off we went, for about 3 minutes, maybe 500 metres and then bam, deep mud hidden under the innocent white surface and we were stuck. Really, really stuck. OMG!! So close and yet so far, the last thing you want to happen and the one thing that is always in the back of your mind just before you reach your final stopping point. The time now was about 1:00 pm and in the distance we could see two people. Antonio proceeded towards them and they came to assist. Let’s push us out. Bad idea. We sunk even deeper. Now what? On the horizon, somehow through telepathy a few more men from the nearby village heard the distress call and came to assist. Then several more, then a few women, then some children with their chickens.

For the next 5 hours they walked several hundred metres back and forth to collect rocks, carrying them on their shoulders, the women carrying them on their heads and we dug, and dug, and placed the rocks and tried to get out but there was no way in hell we could get out of the quagmire. The original 7 men and 3 women were eventually joined by what seemed to be the whole village. They argued amongst themselves on the best way to handle this. The hours passed and I kept telling Antonio to call the lodge and have them send a 4×4 to maybe assist. I finally called the truck rental company and they seemed rather nonchalant. Finally, 25 people and chickens and a zebu cart  joined in. I pulled out the heavy duty jack and I jacked up each corner of the vehicle about 4 times (12 times total I think but it seemed like 112), each time placing flat rocks under the wheels until the truck was finally level with the original track. The sun was beating down, we didn’t have anything to eat since breakfast, Joyce was feeling faint, I was feeling a little pissed off because after 12 times of jacking up the truck I was sweating and shall we say a little tired and the men and boys were laughing at me because of my sweat and red white face I imagine and my white hair was not so neatly in it’s oh so white man ponytail. I wasn’t too pleased with the situation but we were ready to give it another try. It was now 6:05 pm and the sun was just below the horizon. One of the men who joined the party late and suggested the jacking up solution was a driver/guide who works in the tourist industry. He asked me if I wanted to back the truck up or should he? I said go for it, I didn’t need any more of this. He did and the final solution worked! We were out, but not quite out of the woods. We of course realized that this would cost us, not a problem but with the original 7 turning into probably 27 people this was really going to add up. It added up to probably $250.00 and it was impossible to please everyone with the payment we gave them, 40,000 Ariary each, about $14.00 CAD or the equivalent of about 7 days of income for the average Malagasy. If we had to wait until the next day who knows what the outcome would be. We figured the truck would have been swallowed up by the mud/quicksand and we would be facing a very large bill and a big change of plans but, it worked out. Hallelujah!

We finally arrived at our lodge, 5 1/2 hours later than planned. It was, take a guess, french run with another scattered brained owner (seems to be the norm here because WTF would want to run a lodge in the middle of nowhere). We had a small dinner and went to bed early looking forward to a relaxing next day. Our morning breakfast was typical, bread, jam, bread, sweet bread, fruit, juice, coffee, bread and an egg fried and rolled so it could be called an omelette. Very typical and we are getting really sick and tired of bread and jam for breakfast! Speaking of sick, after breakfast we went for a walk along the beach. Very remote and pristine and my stomach was becoming very bloated and not so pristine. I was sick for the rest of the day and Joyce also had to visit the upchuck hotel as something she ate hit her also. We had a small pasta dish the night before for dinner and bread and jam and bread and coffee (and some very thin yogurt) for breakfast so I don’t know what hit me but my gut ached to the point that moaning made it feel a little better. Just like a little kid. Fortunately the next morning I felt better because there was no way in hell that we would attempt the 9 hour drive that would follow. Joyce did feel better in the evening and took a few good pics of the area and sunset while I lied in bed moaning and groaning.

Well that was quite the experience and not one we will soon forget. Next stop, Manja.

 

Tulear to Tsiandamba

After spending the 26th and 27th at the Residence Eden Lodge in Tulear we met our Pisteur. A Pisteur is a guide who intimately knows the “roads” and changing conditions of the terrain that would we would drive for the next 6 days. His name was Antonio and he spoke english, sort of, thank the heavens, and without his help navigating the myriad of trails, paths, villages (do we turn right, left or go straight?) that we encountered on our first day would have been practically impossible. The route we followed took us through deep sandy tracks, rock infested paths and beautiful seaside vistas. There were a couple of dicey situations but our Nissan 4×4 with locked hubs pulled us through to our final destination.

We drove the “notorious RN5” a little while back and if you recall my first sentence to describe it, it was “Holy Crap! Well, let me tell you here and now the RN5 was a walk in the park, a piece of cake, a sunday afternoon drive compared to what was in store for us over the next few days. Now to be honest we only drove the RN5 to Mohambo and our understanding is it get seriously worse north of there but oh my god, this, the beginning of our off-road adventure was definitely an eye opener and we really can’t imagine how the RN5 could be worse. Maybe you need winches and stuff to get you through, I don’t know but this was a challenge.

We stayed at Five Senses Lodge, another beautiful wild beach location and arrived at about 1:00 pm. We had time to relax, had a very nice cheese sandwich and a delicious meal in the evening. Good preparation for the next day of travel.