We departed Johannesburg on September 5th for a short 3 hour flight to the capital city of Antananarivo. We have a Nissan double cab 4×4 rented for 5 weeks, equipped with camping gear. Although we’ll be staying at lodges through our driving journey we have the camping gear for any “just in case” situations. Below is our driving route with the blue colored portion indicating our flight to the north. After 5 weeks we’ll hop a plane from “Tana” and head to the Northwest for some much anticipated beach time.
The day after we arrived, September 6th, Joyce and I were able to get some Ariary (Madagascar cash) from a nearby ATM. At Ivato airport there are two ATM’s and both were out of ordedr upon our arrival and the exchange rate offered at the currency exchange desks were pitiful so we crossed our fingers we could find a bank the next day. In the afternoon we had our truck delivered and were enjoying a beverage on the terrace when we heard a very loud commotion not far from our B&B. We walked out our gate and to a small (main?) road just metres away we witnessed an extraordinary event that typically only happens once every 7 years “Famadihana”. Below is from Wikipedia.
“Famadihana is a funerary tradition of the Malagasy people in Madagascar. During this ceremony, known as the turning of the bones, people bring forth the bodies of their ancestors from the family crypts, rewrap the corpses in fresh cloth and rewrite their names on the cloth so they will always be remembered. Then they dance to live music while carrying the corpses over their heads and go around the tomb before returning the corpses to the family tomb.”
We departed Ivato, a suburb of Antananarivo on September 7th, heading off for the next 5 weeks in a 4×4 Nissan with tires that look like they have been used for the full 93,000 kms that are on the truck odometer. Our fingers are crossed as the spare doesn’t look much better and in about 5 or 6 days we will be travelling on the RN5, one of the worst roads on the planet according to a BBC series titled “The World’s Most Dangerous Roads” and the “Land Rover Camel Trophy”! We shall see.
As our luck would and wouldn’t have it, the Pope, yes, the one, the only Pope Francis, was scheduled to arrive on the afternoon of the 6th. Fortunately we arrived the afternoon of the 5th. We have no idea what kind of mayhem we would have encountered had we arrived the same day as the Pope. The airport is very small so it would have been chaos. As it was though, before leaving on the 7th we talked to the front desk manager at Susie’s Place, a very nice home converted into a B&B in Ivato where we spent two nights, and asked him if the route shown on Google Maps and Maps.me would take us around Antananarivo rather than through it. We have very little respect lately for our little electronic navigation helpers. He wasn’t too sure but it looked like the routes would take us through rather than around the city. As he tried to explain an alternate route and our eyes glazed over due to the fact we didn’t have a clue what he was talking about one of the office assistants handed him a piece of paper. “Pope visit road closures”! Hmmmm…not looking too good. Where there is a will there’s a way and with that we paid one of his staff to guide us out of the city on his motorcycle. It took close to one hour until we finally reached near the outskirts of Tana but it was worth it as we saw amazing sites and scenery on our way. Below are some iPhone pics from our drive through Tana.
Our first stop out of Antananarivo was Andasibe about 180 km, a 3 1/2 hour drive which turned into a 5 hour drive with a 1/2 hour lunch stop. The main road, the RN2 is the main road to Toamasina, a port city on the east coast. We expected the road to be good which it was for a short while and then bam! POTHOLES! And these potholes were deep! For crying out loud, I thought we left these behind in Zambia. The potholes combined with large trucks travelling through mountains on very winding roads made for a fun filled drive until we finally hit some good road and were able to travel up to 70 km/hr, albeit for only short distances.
Andasibe and nearby Mantadia National Park is a prime location to search for the Indri Indri which is the largest of the lemurs in Madagascar. It has a surprised expression that looks more like a gone-wrong panda than a lemur and are known for making an eerie wailing sound that can travel for kilometres. There nearly 60 “taxa” of lemurs (species, sub-species, and populations from 33 species across five families and 14 genera). I took this info from “Wildmadagascar.com” but the bottom line is there are plenty of different species of lemurs to see in Madagascar, 113 in all.
On evening of the 7th it was raining and cold. Regardless of what the weather would be the next day we decided to do a hike the next morning to search for the Indri Indri and other Lemurs that inhabit the area. There are several options. For some reason or another I’ve had a bum knee now for about three weeks. To top that off Joyce and I have been pretty well sitting on our butts for the past 7 weeks so we opted for the flattest hike in the area so we could slowly break in our atrophied muscles. We visited V.O.I.M.M.A Community Reserve for a 2 hour hike through secondary rainforest. The reserve is community run and all proceeds flow back to the local community. There are two family groups in the area comprising about five or six members each as well as others such as the wooly lemur and bamboo lemur. The weather was cold and wet with a misty rain falling during our 2 hour hike but it was great to get out and stretch our legs. We did see two Indri although high in the trees. We saw a Giraffe Weevil and Parsons Chameleon, the second largest chameleon in the world. Like any wildlife spotting trek, the luck is in the draw.
Below is a Giraffe Weevil pic I stole from the internet.
Joyce’s Weevil pic, Parsons Chameleon and the Sacred Vine, named from the red sap that flows when cut.
Below is a frame-grab from my video of the Indri Indri. Not the best but proof we saw them!
We set out on the 9th for a 135 km drive to Manambato, a small fishing village on the shores of Lake Rasoabe where we were met by our boat driver to take us into the heart of the Canal de Pangalanes to our accommodation, the Bush House Lodge. The canal consists of a series of natural rivers, waterways and man-made lakes and unspoiled natural beaches that extends for over 645 Sq.kms and runs down the east coast of Madagascar. It is used primarily for transportation and fishing. Major expansion of the area was completed during the French colonial period between 1896 and 1904 and additional expansion during 1949-1957.
The final 7 km drive from the main RN2 “highway” tar road to access Manambato requires a 4×4 and takes close to one hour to drive. It absolutely did require a 4×4 and the “road” was a 4×4 enthusiasts delight as there had been some rain the previous day that added to the excitement.
We finally arrived at Bush House Lodge after a 40 minute delay due to waiting for a non-apologetic Portuguese mother, daughter and guide. Our bungalow was nice and the location was beautiful but that is about all we can say about the place. The return boat transfer was 164 Euro, about $246 CAD, the meal choice, well, there wasn’t a choice for dinner and half-board was a compulsory expense at 72 Euro and the quality left much to be desired. The room cost was 100 Euro and the additional cost for 2 lunches and beer and wine was about $70 CAD. Total cost for 2 nights/days worked out to more than $600 CAD. Over-priced in our opinion.
Unfortunately the staff on site had very little training (not their fault), could not speak a word of English (again, not their fault but ours also) so it made for some very frustrating situations.
The on site manager, I believe his name was Stephan could speak English but was usually too busy dealing with his cell phone than to pay attention to the guests. We did have a couple of other issues but suffice it to say, although the location was beautiful we wouldn’t recommend this place.
A short boat ride away is Palmarium Lodge which hosts a small Lemur reserve so we did a 2 hour hike through the reserve on our second day. There were 6 varieties of Lemurs mixed with a few hybrid species and all are very habituated and will climb on you looking for food and the males leaving musk scents on your cloths so not really our kind of thing but you do get up close and personal with them, smell and all and can get some great photos.
Indri Indri Lemur
Black/Crowned Lemur hybrid
A very large caterpiller
Our boat back to Manambato departed on time at 8:00 am the morning of the 11th and from there we set out to our next destination, Mahambo, another small village on the shores of the Indian Ocean and accessible only by the notorious RN5, loosely defined as a “road”.
Sorry, but that is the only way to describe the road to Mahambo. All of the guides and literature and everything you read tell you it is still a tar road but potholed. Well, that is definitely an understatement.
I can’t really describe this road other than to say it literally looks like it was bombed out during some war. The holes are, and I kid you not, 3 feet deep and water-filled in many places, sharp crags of broken pavement lining the edges, sudden drop-offs with huge broken chunks of asphalt lining the bottom with large trucks in front of you manoeuvring around the craggy edges, large trucks heading towards you on your side of the “road” manoeuvring the best path forward and all of this in a slow motion 1-3 km/h ballet of finding the path of least resistance.
You usually cannot travel more than 1-3 km/hour. Seriously.
From the tar road at the entrance to Manambato, which at that point I thought I had seen everything road related, it took us 7 hours to travel a total of 131 kms! The only reason it didn’t take 10 hours was because there was the odd reprieve for about 200 metres where you could step on the gas and hit 60 km/hr for a grand total of about 45 seconds!
It was really nuts and to top it off there were literally dozens of minibuses loaded to beyond capacity traversing this route to and from wherever they were going. It was a common site to see these vans stopped on the side of the road, tires flat and the passengers lazing around the grassy areas on the side of the road where they were either (a) waiting for the flat tire to be repaired or (b) waiting for another overcrowded van to stop by and pick them up to probably get them into the same situation they were just in except maybe a few kms down the road.
We didn’t see any tents on the side of the road so we guess most breakdowns get their passengers to their destinations before sun down and we were fortunate enough to travel during the daylight hours thank god almighty and we’re not even religious. We think our Marilyn was watching over us.
We have driven some very challenging roads and this road definitely offered some on/off road challenges and as mentioned in an earlier post, BBC has a series titled “The World’s Most Dangerous Roads” and the RN5 is one of the roads they highlight. Woohoo!
The RN5 gets even worse beyond Mahambo and is more the focus of the BBC series however we are quite proud to say that we tackled 131 kms of this road without a hitch.
The few photos we took don’t really do it justice and I wish I had a picture of the bare tires that we were travelling on which did not offer comfort on these roads.
Exhausted and a little frayed around the edges we arrived into the quaint little village of Mahambo and found, without any GPS problems, our lodge for the next 2 nights. La Piroque, a very beautiful setting on the beach with an eclectic array of basic to luxury bungalows nestled amongst the palms and lining front and back along an unspoiled beach.
We were upgraded to the luxury bungalow and at 35 Euro/night a very nice surprise although we had a couple of other surprises in store.
Not realizing how difficult the travel would be on our return from Ile Sainte Marie and eventually back to Antananarivo via Mahambo we had booked Grace Lodge in Andisabe as our pit stop. A one night pit stop that now, in hindsight wouldn’t be possible.
If the ferry from ISM was on time it would get us back to Mahambo at 8:00 am. We would then have a gruelling 3 1/2 hour plus re-drive through the RN5 pits of hell before we even reached Tamatave.
Tamatave, also called Toamasina is the main city on the east coast which is at least another 3 1/2 hour drive to Andasibe.
In our calculations we were looking at a 7+hour drive on top of a 3 hour ferry back to the mainland just to get to Grace Lodge with several hours of driving in the dark.
This was not going to work so without much fuss we decided we would fly back to Antananarivo and save the hassle involved in our impossible return itinerary.
Roadtrip Africa is the company that we have rented our truck from and they offer a service whereby they will pick up the vehicle in Mahambo and drive it back for you for a minimal charge. I remembered this when we booked our truck so thought this is the way to go. Maybe we can spend another night on ISM, fly back to Tana and pick our truck up again at Susie’s Place where we first picked the truck up. Perfect plan. Well, not quite. We had 4 nights booked on Ile Saint Marie departing the 17th back to Mahambo where we would drive to Grace Lodge. NOT! The only flight out of ISM we could get departed on the 16th. Okay so we’ll cut our stay to 3 nights instead of 4, book an extra 2 nights at Susie’s Place, not stay at Grace Lodge on the 17th as planned and everything will be fine. Luck was not on our side. We booked our flight and then proceeded to the ferry dock near where we were staying and asked for two one way tickets to ISM for the next day, the 13th. “Sorry, we’re full”! OMG! Now what? One more day in Mahambo, 2 nights in ISM then fly back to Antananarivo? This is getting a little out of hand. We begged, we pleaded and voila, we have a seat for the 13th. Now all we need to do is confirm with Susie’s Place in Tana that they can accommodate us for 2 extra nights, the 16th and 17th as we already have the 18th booked. Nope, nothing on the 17th but the 16th is open. Okay, book the 16th and we’ll see what can find for the 17th. Jeez this is getting difficult but we had lunch at a nice place near Susie’s so we send them an email and ask if they have a room for the 17th. NO THEY DON’T but they will keep us informed if something becomes available. At the end of the day we were able to get a hotel near the airport in Tana for 2 nights then back to Susie’s for 1 night where we will pick up our truck with new tires and ready for the next 4 weeks of driving into the south, west and central parts of the country where we WILL have some more hairy driving experiences. Phew, now off to Ile Sainte Marie.
We departed Mahambo by ferry on the 13th to Ille Sainte Marie. The ferry was supposed to leave between 10:00 and noon and departed at just after 12:00. The boarding process started at 10:00. There is no dock or pier for the ferry so a small boat makes trips back and forth to the ferry carrying cargo and passengers. We boarded the ferry at about 10:30 and sat in the inside lower section of the boat where the engine fumes started to become everwhelming after a short period of time. They left the engines running the whole two hours that the boarding process took. Fortunately there was Malagasy music videos playing on the front TV screens but even this became a little overwhelming after a while. The crossing was supposed to take three hours, it took four hours and at times it seemed like the boat was hardly moving. With a capacity of about 220 people, I guess they take their time so as not to induce too many vomiting episodes as the sea was quite rolling. Fortunately there was a dock at our destination so the disembarkation process was a lot quicker and smoother. We were met by a tuc tuc and driven about 2 kms away to Libertalia, a nice French run and owned resort situated on the palm lined shores of the Canal de Sainte Marie/Indian Ocean. The island was a popular base for pirates in the 17th and 18th centuries and a pirate cemetary relpete with skull and crossbones grave markers still exists near the main town of Analanjirofo. The island is tropical and driving the main road was very similar to driving some of the small coastal roads in Jamaica. We ended up doing very little exploration due to the fact that on the evening of our arrival I had 1 beer, a snack and then at dinner time turned white and made a mad dash back to our room where I threw up what seemed like the past 3 days of any and all liquid I had consumed so I wasn’t really in the exploration mood. I wasn’t sick per se after this episode but just felt “off”. If we had one more day we would have rented an ATV and gone off checked out the island. What can you do? These things happen sometime.
Our bungalow was set just back from the seaside and beside a nice infinity pool and long pier which extended to a small rock island. Unfortunately you couldn’t swim off of the beach as there were sea urchins and coral and was grassy when the tide was out and very shallow when the tide was in. You could however swim off of the end of the pier and there were some nice coral formations but not many fish.
Local young girls collecting musles during low tide
After a short 3 night stay on Ile Sainte Marie we hopped a short flight back to Antananarivo. The flight took just over 45 minutes. When we added up the time it took to ultimately drive to Mahambo where we caught the ferry to Ile Sainte Marie plus only the ferry crossing time it was well over 20 hours of travel time. Maybe next time we just fly there and back!
We spent 2 nights at a very nice little hotel, K’meleon, about a 5 minute drive from the airport. The staff were excellent with one of the owners speaking very good English and the prices were very reasonable. The hotel and our room were immaculate and the toilet flushed! Our room cost per night was just under $25 CAD, a large 650 ml Three Horses Beer was $1.80 CAD and the restaurant served excellent quality meals for excellent prices. Our total bill was $123 CAD for 2 nights and included 2 very nice dinners, 2 breakfasts and shall we say “several beers” and some good South African White wine. To put this in perspective, our room tonight (which we had booked and put a down payment on many moons ago), Susie’s Place, cost just under $90 CAD per night, a 650 ml THB is twice as much at $3.60 CAD and the breakfast, although included is barely enough to feed a starving pidgeon. A very big difference and on a value-for-money basis K’meleon wins hands down. And yes, the toilet flushed at Susie’s as well.
On the evening of our arrival we met a very nice French Canadian Botany Professor from Montreal and spent the evening on the outside terrace discussing the Trans Canada Pipeline, federal transfer payments to Quebec and then settled down to some good old conversation about life, the universe and everything. Luc was a very nice man and it was a pleasure to meet him. Joyce and I both enjoyed his company.
That evening we arranged a 1/2 day tour of the city and at 9:00 am the next morning we headed off into the chaos of Antananarivo.
Nice bums. Now where do we try these on?
Antananarivo, or the original Tananrive means ” The city of thousand” is congested and the air very polluted. It sits at 4,186 feet above sea level and most modes of transportation use diesel so the air is thick with particulate and hazy with the blue smoke from single and double cylinder engines. I find it intersting when you ask someone the population of their city. As was the case with Soweto, the census versus the local belief was way out of whack and so is the case in Tana. We asked our driver the population of the city and he said 7 million. The latest census in 2012 estimated the population at 3 million. I guess it’s possible that another 4 million moved here in the past 7 years but it seems unlikely but Tana is not just Tana so the whole metropolitan area must be included. Either way, it sure seems like there are 7 million people squashed into an area that boundries 9 km north to south and and 6 km east to west.
Regardless of the traffic, smog and congestion it is always interesting to get out and see the real life day to day existance of any cities populace. There are several sites to see in Tana but with about 4 hours to spend and hoping to miss the rush hour traffic (it all seemed like rush hour!), we decided to just visit one site, Le Palais de la Reine.
Ler Palais de la Reine. or Queens Palace is located on the highest hill in Tana but due to a devasting fire in 1995 it is mostly empty but we had a guide who was able to explain to us some of the historical insights of this palace built for Queen Ranavalona in the 17th century. Photos were not allowed in the partly refurbished palace so, not much to post and to get into the history, the French colonization etc. etc. would require far more bandwidth than we have right now so I will leave it to you, our dear readers to do a little Googling on the subject matter.
We set out on the 19th for an overnight pit stop in Antsirabe, about 180 kms and a 4 1/2 hour drive from Tana .
Having to partly drive through Tana with the congestion and pedestrians and oxcarts and vendors and chaos, we departed our B&B slightly anxious and we had no choice but to trust our Google Maps advisor. The coffee served in Madagascar is very strong so this didn’t help with the butterflies we were feeling when we set out on what we knew would be a challenging venture to just get out of the city but we made it out without a hitch. It took about 45 minutes to reach the RN7, the main road we’ll be driving until we hit Tolaria on the west coast in about a weeks time.
When we finally got close to our lodge, very close in fact, there was a fork in the gravel road. The road to the right looked like nice gravel and the road to left looked like a 4×4 only road. You can probably guess which road Google Maps told us to follow so we did, we took the left turn. I didn’t really think a nice lodge would have such a dodgy road but up on the hills in the distance looked like, possibly, a lodge. We slowly proceeded, got held up by an oxcart with only inches of clearance on a steep embankment and continued on at about 2 km/ hr. This couldn’t be the right road and fortunately ahead we saw a women walking and asked if she knew Residence Madalief Lodge. Yes she did and she pointed up in the hills behind us. I knew it! Now the trick was how to turn around. There was steep hillside on the right and a steep embankment on the left. Hmmm. A little further ahead after a very narrow approach there was room to do a little truck dance. Turn, move a little forward, back up and turn, move a little forward and turn and repeat. We discussed in hindsight that we need to take more pictures of these kinds of situations. A story is one thing, a picture tells, well, you know.
Some road pics to Antsirabe
Residence Madalief is a nice lodge perched on the hillside away from the hustle and bustle of Antsirabe. The air was fresh and cool and full of a beautiful fragrance from the many flowers that were blooming throughout the grounds. To top it off we had one of the best dinners so far in Madagascar.
Most tourists travel through the country with a driver/guide and a nice 4×4 vehicle and at Madalief, we met a guide named Frank who turned out to be a small saviour.
When we arrived we parked our truck and then noticed that our rear driver side tire was looking a little low on air. We just had new tires put on so figured we must have a small puncture wound. Damn! I hummed and hawed and figured I’d probably have to change the tire in the morning, went to our room and then basically realized that changing the tire the next morning would be a very big pain in the ass so decided to ask the lodge manager if one of his staff could possibly join me and go into town to find a garage and be my interpreter. No problem. Two new guests arrived when I went back to the truck and that’s where we met Frank. I told him about our tire problem, that one of the lodge staff would go to town with me etc. etc. and without hesitation he offered to look after it for us. He is from Madagascar he proclaimed and besides, he needed to go into town for something to eat so he would be happy to take the truck, have it repaired, eat and then return. And that he did and that lifted a potentially huge burden off of our shoulders. I wish now we had asked him for the name of the company he works for because we would definitely give him/them a big thumbs up and we know by talking to the couple from Belgium that he was driving that he is a great driver and a great guy!
Our tire repaired, a great meal, a couple of beers and off to bed to get set for our next 6 hour drive to Ranomafana National Park the next morning.
Another long drive (6 hours) to cover a relatively short distance (238 kms). The roads aren’t too bad but they are winding, very winding, through hilly and semi- mountainous terrain. The going isn’t bad until you come up behind a truck or one of the many overcrowded, smoke spewing passenger vans (taxi-brousses) that ply the entire country. Then you have to wait and wait until there is a short straight section in the road and then you go for it. Really go for it because (a) there probably will be another vehicle approaching the curve ahead of you and (b) there is hopefully a patch of road that doesn’t have a tire destroying pot hole right in the passing lane. The scenery is as mentioned hilly and mountainous with small villages scattered throughout. The mode of transportaion in many of the village is by pousse-pousse, essentialy a rickshaw with young men running barefoot up and down the pot holed streets barely breaking a sweat.
It is estimated that between 1 and 2 % of the remaining forests are destroyed each year and a staggering 80-90% of the land burns each year. They have all been removed, the land is bare and terraced made to support the growing of rice and other foodstuffs. We have read that upwards to 90% of the original forests that covered Madagascar not that long ago have been destroyed and the only forest remaining are in the national parks. To add to this dilemma, one Asian country in particular are here raping, through illegal logging by the locals, the remaining Rosewood trees, They’ve removed them all from SE Asia and now they are here doing the same. I won’t go into this but suffice it say, as in all of the other African, South Asian and Asian countries we have visited, let’s just say they are a country that is not well liked, at all.
We stayed at Setam Lodge which is about 1 km inside of the park boundary. It is nestled on a hillside and there is a very steep stair climb from where we parked our truck. This was a good prep for our next day when we headed out on a so called “easy” trek into the rainforest in search of the Common and Golden Lemurs, both highly threatened and only found in this rainforest.
The view from our bungalow
Ranomafana National Park is 41,600 hectares of tropical rainforest and was established in 1991 after the discovery of the very rare Bamboo Lemur. It is a World Heritage Site and is part of the Rainforests of Ansinanana and is an excellent example of the cloud forests with very high diversity that once flourished in the area.
After a breakfast of bread, yogurt and bread with jam, oh and a small glass of juice and some lukewarm coffee (a very typical Malagasy breakfast), we met our guide and walked uphill along the road for 1 km to reach the entrance to the start of several hiking routes through the forest. Exhausted after the inclined walk, just kidding but I did feel a little winded because hey, we’ve been driving and essentially sitting on our butts for the past two months, we proceeded into the entrance of the rainforest, straight up! The sky was cloudy, heavy cloudy and after only a short heart attack inducing climb of about 10,000 feet it started to rain. It felt like 10,000 feet but was probably only about 300 feet. Our knees were feeling good, the mud and clay and tree roots were getting wet and slippery and we were on our way deep into the heart of one of the last remaining rainforests in Madagascar. We took the “easy” 4 hour trek. As I write this from my hospital recovery bed I can tell you here and now that it wasn’t that easy. Maybe for a 20 year old but…
Satanic leaf-tailed gecko
Satanic leaf-tailed geko
It wasn’t really that bad and I do tend to exaggerate but it was a challenge and it was well worth the sore knees, the drenched cloths and muddy hiking boots. We did “see” the highly endangered Golden Bamboo Lemur but unfortunately high in the forest canopy. We also caught site of the Greater Bamboo Lemur, the Paradise flycatcher and then were treated to about six or seven Common Brown Lemurs just outside our lodge after the hike. A nice finish to a good day.
After a hot shower dinner time. Zebu and beans with watercress. Yummy!