Even after almost three weeks in Madagascar, the land remains an enigma. I am torn between loving it and being incredibly frustrated by it. The landscapes range from dusty desert-like open expanses with little but scrub and short dried grasses to thickly wooded rain and cloud forests, to the spiney forest of the south, perhaps the most bizarre environment I have ever witnessed (imagine 8-10 foot tall desiccated branching cacti bushes covered in three inch spines and red dust). Everywhere there are people farming, mostly rice, and 100% by hand. The poverty is obvious, Madagascar is one of the least developed nations on the planet but the smiles and welcomes are warm and genuine. Culture varies substantially by region, but family is strong throughout. The infrastructure is crumbling yet provides a needed lifeline for many communities. Drought has made life in the south tenuous, but elsewhere the taps flow freely.
When we were planning our time here, it was difficult to grasp all that Madagascar has to offer. Despite days of Colburn’s research and hours spent correlating guide books with the maps, the combination of difficult but similar sounding place names (Kirindy Park is a day’s drive from Kirindy Matia Park, Antsirabe is not Andasibe, etc.) and wanting to see and do everything left us paralyzed, unable to make a decision. Madagascar is a large country – nearly 1,000 miles north to south – and difficult to reach. It took us three days to get from Scotland to Madagascar and included an overnight stop in Paris and a full day on Reunion Island in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
Within the country, the roads are arranged in a spoke and hub fashion radiating out of Antananarivo (Tana), the capital city smack-dab in the middle. This means that to get from the north coast to the east coast, you will need to return to Tana then take the road that goes the other direction. Even when the national road system links the major areas, the condition of the road (pot holes so big they would swallow a small car) and the near constant presence of people, zebu, bicycles, and children on the road mean that travel is not fast. It took us three full days to do just shy of 400km.
With the help of a tour agency which arranges a car and driver (pictured above), we finally decided on 20 days focused on the western part of Madagascar with a short jaunt east to see the Indri in the rain forest. This would allow us to do an extended four wheel drive trail down the west coast, see lots of lemurs, and walk through the tsingy – all classic Madagascar experiences. The plan was great until we had to shorten our time in order to meet our truck in Durban, arriving three days earlier than expected. We made a rookie mistake by cutting out our rest days, not changing our overall route. This meant that we would be moving every day, sometimes all day, which drags on you after a while. Driving on many of the roads might be best described as bashing, careening or hurtling, making our Madagascar road trip an endurance event of epic proportions.
Each day presented us with new experiences: the haunting call of the Indri on a misty morning, the unique greetings and enthusiastic shouts of “Salama!” from village children, dashing through the rainforest both day and night to find lemurs, intense dusty roads through a burned-out dystopian landscape, overloaded car ferries with chugging diesel engines spewing black smoke, the refreshing taste of drinking the water from a 17 cent fresh young coconut, people in their Sunday best lining the road for miles on end going to church on Sunday, seeing a body wrapped in white cloth being carried through a village, taking a dug out canoe to a small offshore island to learn about what the local Veza fishermen hunt, meeting a cheeky young ringtail lemur who fell asleep on Mac’s lap one afternoon then woke me from my nap by jumping on my chest and licking my face while I lay in bed. Each day was different, engaging, and brought with it a whole new set of questions.
Madagascar is a developing nation complete with bureaucracy and inefficiency that can boggle one’s mind: at least nine different individuals examined our passports before we could enter the country, road-side police checks happen several times each day – sometimes for a cursory look at papers but others are more in-depth searching for missing authorizations or soliciting ‘tips’ from the driver-guides, road rules are rarely observed, guard rails on bridges are non-existent (I think they may be considered like training wheels – if you need guard rails to stay on the bridge you probably shouldn’t be driving!), and there is garbage and deforestation everywhere. Young children who should be in school instead ask for sweets, pens, and hair ties every time you stop in a town. Men working in the field ask for clean drinking water even as we speed by at 60km per hour. It brings up moral and ethical questions – how does one best help without encouraging dependence of youngsters on tourists beneficence? How does one reconcile the extreme disparity between the comfort of our life and the realities of much a more challenging life, especially the lack of clean water and adequate food? Madagascar remains an enigma. But beyond all of the other memories, perhaps the one which will stay with me the longest is the Malagasy smiles. Everywhere we went we were warmly welcomed and invited to share in a beautiful and rugged country.