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Out of Africa

01 February 2004

by Jane Shearer

I started in Antananarivo, the capital, located bang in the centre of the country. From 'Tana' I headed south and west on the RN7 until I eventually hit Toliara on the coast. The initial going was pretty cruisy, clocking up an easy 100km each day. Rice paddies littered the roadside and granite-topped hills provided a striking backdrop. A village would pop up every half an hour or so for refuelling. Fried dough with banana, cassava, pineapples, mangos and papayas were all regularly available. At 10-50 cents an item from the street stalls there's no excuse for going hungry. Further south supplies were less abundant. The villages became more widely spaced - I was lucky to pass more than four a day and only two of those would have any food of note beyond Coke, Fanta, butter biscuits and dried noodles.

I was keen to check out the lemurs amidst the rain forest, so after four days I left the safety and seal of the main drag fora side trip down to Parc Ranomafana. The clay surface became increasingly rutted but was still dry and therefore rideable. Clay roads are actually the norm around Madagascar - making travel in the rainy season unthinkable. After a pleasant sojourn hanging with the monkeys, I continued to Manakara on the east coast - logging an impressive 180 hilly kilometres in a single day. Manakara was worth the effort with its palm trees and golden sand. Although I avoided a dip in the treacheroussea.

Rather than 'back-pedalling' to the RN7, I hitched a ride on the train from Manakara to Fianarantsoa on the hauts plateaux - just down the road from where I turned off for Ranomafana. The sign said first class, the seats said otherwise. As we started rolling the train's entire populaceappeared to filter forward into first class until the seats were full of bodies and the floor packed with baggage. It was a claustrophobic ten hours. My bicycle emerged from the goods wagon only a little worse for wear. It had been innovatively hung from a metal edge by the seat and bar end - easily fixed with duct tape. Anyhow, roughed up a little it blended in better with the local's bikes.

A typical day consisted of getting up just before 5am when it's still quite dark. Then just after five someone switches the light on, that's the tropics for you. The mornings are cool and the light phenomenal for taking photos. My best moments were cruising downhill at five thirty with not a person in sight. Breakfast comprised a baguette with jam and coffee on non-cycling days when I could hang around till the shops opened, otherwise it was yoghurt and butter biscuits. I aimed to cycle for 6 to 8 hours, so by lunchtime- the hottest part of the day - I could focus on the less strenuous activity of finding lodgings for the night. All accommodation in Madagascar is defined as a 'hotel'. The quality varies widely, but for $NZ15-30 you should score a nice room to yourself with an ensuite. A short siesta and then I'd venture out to snap more photos before dinner. The majority of Madagascar's tourists are French. Combine that with its French colonial past and you have a recipe for great culinary experiences. $NZ10 - 15 obtains three delicious courses. Seafood options abound with all manner of fish, squid, lobster and shrimp. Exotic fruit and plenty of vegetables all make for healthy eating.

The remaining six days cycling to Toliara was through the most spectacular scenery imaginable. Parc Andringitra has huge granite cliffs, some up to 800m high - of which I saw a mad French man base jump. Further west, the landscape eased into wide plains with red roads and hills dotting the horizon in the same bold red. As I pedalled into Parc Isalo it reminded me of western USA. Canyons are etched into red sandstone and bright green foliage hems the clear water. The sifaka (large lemurs) and chameleons quickly jolted me out of that daydream.

Travelling on from Isalo you could still easily be misled into believing you're on the set of a spaghetti western. The locals call this area the 'Wild West'. Its wildness derived from the discovery of sapphires and the consequent influx of miners and opportunists. Houses were rapidly built from board and corrugated iron, so different from the mud-brick dwellings of the hauts plateaux or the wood and thatch construction method used on the coast. Towns are infested with gem stores, complete with steel grilles and thuggish looking males lounging outside. Casinos are also popular so the newly rich can become rapidly poor. I arrived at Toliara after a hot, final 130km ride, happy to see the coast and a town witha supermarket (only the second since leaving Tana). For my final few days in Madagascar I indulged in the dubious luxury of a taxi-brousse ride 20km up the coast to Ifaty, with a coral reef and associated snorkelling opportunities. I concluded that the rudimentary nature of Madagascan cars and their propensity to regularly breakdown, leaves cycling as the premium means of travel in the country. Cycle touring around Madagascar? You'd be mad not to.

Nitty Gritty

  • Madagascar is the big island that floats off the coast of East Africa, near Mozambique. It's 1500km long, 300km wide- about twice the area of New Zealand with a population of 12 million. 
  • Flying there from New Zealand costs around NZ$3000 via Mauritius or Johannesburg. 
  • Dec-Mar is the wet season and to be avoided. Winter (July-Oct ) is best. 
  • The Madagascar Embassy and the Lonely Planet were useful for the initial planning. I used the Lonely Planet Madagascar guidebook and it reliably found me good places to stay and eat, etc.