Eleven months of traveling in 2008/2009, roughly around the Indian Ocean, taking in South Africa, Madagascar, Reunion, Australia, New Zealand, New Caledonia, and India. I cycled about 7000km on this trip, and aditionally hitch-hiked, sailed, and traveled by car, train and container freighter.
Lance and Kerry, my couchsurfing hosts for the next few days, picked me up from the airport in the morning. They live in the south of Johannesburg.
Lance was about to leave for Amsterdam with two friends, Claudine and Billy, the same day. They were doing a trip they dubbed AmsterCow – cycling from Amsterdam to Moscow. So the day was spent packing Lance’s stuff. Later we drove to Billy’s house up in the north of Joburg, and then on to the airport. One of Claudine’s bags was snatched by a thief while we were having a fare-well drink at an airport restaurant, but luckily she dropped it and got caught. Claudine’s passport and tickets were in that bag…
Got up and continued building my little charging device. Kinda finished it – or rather a rough prototype. In the afternoon, Harry and I set out for a little trip – cycling. We rode out of the city – about 5km or maybe 10. There we met up with Michelle who cycled with us for a few more kilometers and then left the main route (and main road) to go by her own way. After reaching a T-junction and returning on a parallel road, we climbed quite a steep hill and enjoyed the view and the road down. Riding on the big roads that lead out of Joburg isn’t that great, obviously, but all in all the trip was very nice. We cycled approx. 50km in total. Like Joburg itself, the surrounding countryside has some hills. Everything is savannah-like brownish in colour. Kerry and Chantale didn’t join us as Chantale had twisted her ankle last night at the club.
After our return I started packing the bike.
Lance called from Amsterdam. Billy’s bike had been stolen despite being locked to the other two bikes, but they managed to buy a replacement in time for their first day of cycling.
We watched ‘Hitman’ in the evening, played some card games, and drank a lot of wine.
Finished packing the bike and my stuff in the morning.
At around 11am Kerry drove me to the airport before she went to work. In the queue of the check-in desk I met Nils from Berlin. He was returning from a surf trip to Jeffereys Bay/South Africa. He stays for 2 semesters on Réunion, studying biology. Talked about this and that, and also met Katie, a girl from the UK, participating in some kind of teacher exchange program on Réunion, returning from her trip through several South-African countries.
After landing in St. Denis, Réunion, we were waiting for our lifts. I had contacted a couchsurfing couple and they’d offered to pick me up at the airport. Nils and Katie were waiting for a friend of Katie’s. Neither showed up for quite some time. I went back inside to ask the lady at the airport information desk about an internet cafe nearby. As a reply she laughed me right in the face and asked me how I could have expected her to understand and speak English. I should have asked about that first, she said. All in perfect English, by the way. Eventually she pointed me at a café upstairs where I was able to check my email. There was nothing from my CS hosts, though.
Finally Katie’s and Nils’ lift arrived and Nils offered me to stay at his place for the night. So we packed my two bike boxes, four backpacks, and four people into one of these tiny French cars. Nils’ surf board was strapped to the roof.
It was quite a fun ride and Nils’ place turned out to be a good start for the ride to Le Port (where the ship to Madagascar leaves) the next morning, as cyclists are not allowed on the motorway between St. Denis and Le Port.
At Nils’ house I met Nico, Fanny, Fathme, Christiane, … and many more gals and guys who all trickled in from some festival they had been at and stayed at the smallish house. Some of them had even returned from a Madagascar trip recently. Had some beer and left-over rice.
Got up around 8.45am. Some of the folks in the house had already left at ~7am to go to the beach, surfing.
Put my bike together, said goodbye to Nils and left around 10am for Le Port. The road was quite hilly and the traffic there is pretty heavy. I soon realized I had forgotten a couple of things: my spare spokes and my bike lock, applying sun screen, having breakfast, taking some drinking water. Decided not to turn around but to try and call Nils from Le Port. Big mistake.
I mostly concentrated on road and traffic and didn’t see much of Réunion’s countryside or the villages I passed through. Eventually reached Le Port and easily found the SCOAM office where I had to fetch my ticket to Toamasina (aka Tamatave), Madagascar before 12pm.
Check-in was scheduled for 3.30pm. Tried to call Nils from my mobile. Friends of Nils’, Nico and Christiane, wanted to go to St Denis around 11am, and with some luck they’d not left yet and could drop by in Le Port. However, the ‘International Travel SIM card’ (SIM4Travel) I’d bought on the plane to South Africa didn’t work on Réunion. Bought a phone card at a post office but the public phones outside didn’t like my dialing. By that time I’d spent a couple of hours in Le Port and going back to Trois Bassins wasn’t an option anymore.
So I cycled to the eastern harbour where my ship was due to depart and stopped at the customs/check-in building. A couple of people were already waiting there. Among them a guy with wild beard and wild curly hair. He had a massive amount of luggage and came over to ask whether bike and backpack were my only baggage. I agreed to take one of his bags through check-in (but not through customs). More people asked if I could help them get stuff through check-in.
A French-Canadian couple arrived and we chatted a bit. They were going to Madagascar for the first time, too, and wanted to do some hiking and climbing over there.
Managed to get a phone from one of the other waiting passengers and tried to call Nils again. It worked but he didn’t answer. So I gave up on lock and spokes.
Check-in and clearing customs was easy. Got a cabin that I had to share with a Malagassy guy. He didn’t speak English and generally didn’t seem to be interested in conversation. Spent time on deck and in the lounge, had dinner, etc. Chatted with some of the other passengers, but all in all it was quite a boring afternoon and night.
At some point in the evening Madagascar came in sight at the horizon. We arrived in Toamasina but had to wait until long after dinner before we could touch Malagasy soil. Learned that I would only get my bike back tomorrow morning from 8am. Clearing customs was a hassle-free if a tad lengthy process.
Stepping out of the customs building at the city side, I was approached by a guy who asked me in French whether I had seen a German couple on the boat. Told him that I was German but hadn’t seen any others. Turned out he was a German expat himself, too, lived in Toamasina, and was waiting for German friends to arrive from Mauritius. When he was convinced that they weren’t on the boat he offered me a bed in his house for 30.000FMg (= 6.000Ariary ~ 2,40€) per night. I agreed and so we walked to his house in the outskirts/slum-like dwellings of Toamasina through dark, dusty, but interesting-looking streets. Sometimes the road was well-paved, sometimes it was badly damaged, and then again there were only sand or cobble stones.
Heinz has a simple brick house with 2 rooms and a kitchen; toilet and shower are outside in a separate building. I got a straw mattress and went to bed soonish. I hid entirely in my sleeping bag despite the temperatures for protection from the mosquitoes. The high-pitched ‘bssssssss’ was ubiquitous. I even wore my mosquito-net-cap-thingy! ‘bsssssssss!’ The night was kinda horrible.
During the past days I stayed with Heinz. He showed me around Toamasina, and gave me plenty of tips about traveling in Madagascar. He himself has been out and about all over the island on foot and with the bicycle, as well as (seemingly) all over the world.
Today, 5 days after my arrival, I set out for a first day-long ‘test ride’ on Malagassy soil. From Toamasina I cycled south on Route Nationale 2. The road was paved and in good condition. The (small) portion I cycled has moderate climbs. The countryside left and right is dominated by bushland and young forest. The central mountains can be seen on the west, The Canal des Pangalanes and the Indian Ocean on the east. The Canal des Pangalanes is a series of French-made canals linking natural lakes and rivers along the east coast of Madagascar, stretching south from Toamasina for more than 600km.
Every couple hundred meters there were people riding their bikes or walking on the road. Many greeted with a bonjour or salam(a) or salut and a smile. Many other answered when I said bonjour. One guy shouted bon voyage!.
I finally found a place with no people around and used the stove to actually cook something for the first time.
Right after the village of Ampasimadinika I stopped and returned to Toamasina on the same route.
I left Toamasina to the north in the afternoon. The idea was to travel along Madagascar’s northeastern coastline as far up as Antsiranana. I was aware that the Masoala peninsula would pose a problem as there are no roads through or around it, but for some reason I was sure I’d find some paths or tracks to travel on.
Anyway, that’s a couple hundred kilometers ahead. Today’s ride was pretty easy. The road was mostly flat and in good condition.
Shortly after leaving the city a guy caught up with me and we started chatting. He was a pupil in Toamasina and lived in a village 20km up north. He taught me that ‘yes’ means ‘eny’ and ‘no’ means ‘tsy’ in Malagassy. ‘To know’ is ‘mahalala’.
One of the rivers had no bridge. Only a few modules of a washed-away pontoon bridge were hanging off the banks. Instead, for pedestrians, a swimming ‘bridge’ had been built from branches, boards, and other floating material. Cars were, apparently, transported across the stream on makeshift rafts. The banks of the river were shoal and muddy, and getting the cars onto and off of the rafts was an endeavor only few dared to try. Everyone else just unloaded their fright, be it passengers or cargo. Goods were carried across the river over the foot bridge by the many porters and loaded onto another vehicle on the other side.
The very second I arrived I was surrounded by people offering to help me cross, the bike was taken out of my hands, and before I really knew what was happening a guy was pushing it over the wobbly and narrow bridge. On the other side, happy to have crossed so quickly and still a bit overwhelmed, I paid him what he demanded without even trying to haggle. Of course it was a major rip-off.
I cycled on. It took me a while to find a place to sleep. Only after nightfall did I hang my hammock in a big tree a few kilometers from the village of Mahambo.
All night I was afraid I had used some kind of holy place for camping as this was the only taller tree still standing. Why had it not been chopped down if it wasn’t somehow important?
In the morning I noticed that there were some more trees around and at least one combo would have been suitable for hammocking. They were standing at the bottom of an embankment and further away from the road, which is why I didn’t see them last night. My current place was just 3 or 4 meters away and hammock and bike were clearly visible (in daylight).
I woke up before dawn, packed my stuff, had a couple of biscuits for breakfast, and left at 6am without having been seen by anyone.
After some time of riding I noticed that I’d have to take a break. The little breakfast I’d had was not enough. At 10am I found a beautiful spot directly at the beach. Hung the hammock between some rocks and an old tree and cooked some pasta. Puked. A couple of times. I had just cycled for 2.5 hours today but I was not capable of going any further. Spent all day and the night there.
I woke up somewhat refreshed. The tide had risen up to my bike and under the hammock during the night, but everything was in order.
I left very late, almost at noon, and continued to the north, on paved road. I reached Soanierana Ivongo after a short while. The town is located at the mouth of the river Marimbona. There is no bridge across the estuary, dug-out canoes and motorboats ferry people and goods from one bank to the other. Porters were bustling about the mooring area. As far as I could see, motor vehicles could not be transported to the other side.
Originally my plan was to go to the island of Sainte Marie, which lies approx. 30km off the coast and can be reached by boat from here. The quoted price for the passage seemed quite steep, though, and I changed my mind and decided to stay on the mainland instead.
I got ferried across the river and continued my ride – from now on the road was unpaved.
My dietary situation hadn’t improved from the day before and I didn’t exactly feel strong. The track’s quality was quite good at first, but deteriorated severely only a few kilometers further. Much later I discovered that I was on a narrow island, formed by arms of the rivers Marimbona and Simianona, and the Indian Ocean. Each storm and flood had attacked the island and soon I had to push the bike across open sand. The island was less than 100m wide there. At the far end, less than 10km from Soanierana Ivongo, the river Simianona blocked my way and I had to be ferried across in a dug-out canoe again.
I pushed the bike along a narrow footpath to an outpost of the village of Andrangazaha, near the vehicle ferry wharf (which was just an earthen ramp, really). I asked the two guys who were in the canoe with me for directions to Manompana. They pointed at the wharf. It started to rain heavily and I sought shelter under a roof that covered tables and benches – the hut it was attached to seemed to be some kind of kitchen that probably catered to travelers that had to wait for the ferry. A bunch of people were waiting there with two 4WD pick-ups. The sun was already setting. A ferry arrived, it was completely dark by now. The rain was so heavy that I could not persuade myself to leave the sheltering roof and the ferry left without me.
The rain stopped and I asked at the kitchen if there was some place where I could sleep. The lady showed me to a number of huts that apparently were for rent. They each contained nothing more than a bed covered by a mosquito net. I also received a fine dinner — rice with fish in some kind of tomato sauce. Very tasty!
I woke up early.
Paid for last night’s dinner and had a short (difficult) chat with an older guy. I asked him for directions to Manompana again and he pointed in the opposite direction, away from the wharf. Luckily I hadn’t taken the ferry last night, it would have brought me straight back to where I had come from!
The track was ok’ish to cycle. Massive flooded potholes that covered the entire width of the track made the ride very interesting. Some drizzle every now and then, most of the time for a few minutes only.
The countryside was extremly beautiful. Streams and rivers flow into the ocean without any human intervention, probably changing bed and mouth with every flood and storm.
Sometimes the track was sandy and I had to resort to pushing the bike again. Later the road climbed up some hills and the ground became stonier.
Came through Manompana, and some kilometers later I saw a sign saying something about a national park and some waterfall. I had seen the ANGAP (National Association for the Management of Protected Areas – national park service) office in Manompana, but hadn’t seen any people there (a rare thing) and didn’t know how all this stuff (i.e. visiting national parks) works here.
(Apparently I had some cold rice, cold chicken lunch in some village restaurant. Or so my notes say. Interestingly, I do not recall having lunch at all let alone stopping at a restaurant.)
Later I felt the need to find a place to sleep.
At that time, the road went parallel to the sea, with only a small strip of palm trees and thickish forest in between. The beach was beautiful! There were lots and lots of shells, sea urchin remains, and corals lying around. A couple hundred meters out was a coral reef were the waves broke. Finally I found a place that promised to be peaceful. I hung the hammock under a massive tree directly at the beach again.
During the night a storm raged over the coast. I had to close the rain fly completely around the hammock to stay dry.
Needless to say that I didn’t sleep too well and was awake early.
Fishermen were already out in the waves in their dug-out canoe.
I had a quick swim in the sea and continued my ride, but the bad dietary situation and the condition the track was in didn’t really help my swift advance.
At some point the road climbed steeply up a hill. The red clayish soil was wet and sticky. That, and deep lane groves made cycling almost impossible. Additionally, my metabolism was close to giving up and I felt lousy. I had run out of potable water earlier today, so I stopped to boil some water from a river. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the stove to burn properly under the watchful eyes of some passers-by.
I gave up with the stove and pushed the bike again. Left and right of the track there was either ocean, thick forest, steep cliffs, or a combination of the latter two. There were no options for a quiet retreat.
Eventually I was ‘adopted’ by a guy carrying a piece of wood. He threw it away and helped me move one. We reached the next village and he showed me to a shop where they also rented out rooms for the night. I received a tasty dinner (rice and fish) and went to bed.
I felt better than yesterday and managed to cycle on. The ‘road’ was still very bad. I arrived in Mananara around midday, I think. For some reason that is difficult to reconstruct in hindsight (I’m writing this quite a bit later), I felt that I didn’t have enough cash to keep on travelling across the Masoala peninsula ahead. There were, supposedly, no banks in the towns ahead (Maroantsetra being the only one of significant size). I think my physical condition played a big part in the decision to return to Toamasina. A taxi-brousse (bush taxi, basically a 4WD) was the only option. I spent pretty much all of my last cash on a seat in the one leaving this afternoon.
My seat turned out to be on top of bags of cloves in the cargo area of the 4WD, which I shared with 9 or so other passengers. The passenger seat in the front was occupied by an elder gentleman. My bike was strapped to the roof. The trip back turned out to be much longer than expected. Of course, the car couldn’t race over that ‘road’ either; the same one I had come up on. By nightfall we stopped in a village and everyone stepped into what turned out to be a hotely, a little restaurant. The last bits of cash bought me some dinner. At that point I didn’t know whether we’d continue the drive, or what was going to happen. When the driver started drinking some spirit I hoped we’d stay.
Soon after dinner mattresses were brought in. Bast or raffia ones for most of the guests, and a foam one for me and the elder gentleman from the passenger seat, which we shared.
At that time I didn’t know the village’s name, and still don’t know it at the time of writing this.
We left the hotely early and continued the drive towards Toamasina.
Eventually we arrived that the end of the road, that is, at the estuary of the river Marimbona opposite Soanierana Ivongo. That was as far as the 4WD would go because there were no car ferries here. Everything was unloaded from the car and we boarded long and narrow steel boats (which, by the way, were pretty much overloaded). I figured that I would have to find a new ride in Soanierana Ivongo. That, of course was unfortunate for me. I tried to explain my situation to the driver: I had, with my last money and to the best of my knowledge, purchased a through-ticket all the way to Toamasina. To my surprise he gave me 3000 Ariary (or was it 5000? Memory fails me there) which, according to him, would cover my fare from Soanierana to Toamasina in another taxi-brousse.
I even found one that charged less, so that I was worth 1000 Ariary all of a sudden!
Though my luck wasn’t to last long. After a while we stopped at the end of a long queue of taxi-brousse. Everyone started unloading their stuff again and walked to the front of the queue, and so did I. There, at the bank of a river, the last bits of a new pontoon bridge were put in place. It was the same river which I had crossed six days before over the makeshift swimming bridge. When the last gap between the new pontoons that the bank was traversable I crossed the river with everyone else and waited for my taxi-brousse to cross as well… and waited. And waited. The sun was setting.
I spotted the driver on this side of the bank, to my surprise without his car. He solved the mystery: his trip ended here, I was supposed to find another ride. That, again, proved difficult, because my 1000 Ariary didn’t buy me a ticket. The guy was helpful, though, and helped my to persuade another driver to take me for the last money I had. This time to Toamasina for real.
The only nuisance on this last bit of the journey was a tipsy guy sitting next to me, who started harassing me for my lack of French and I don’t know what else, when I didn’t want to pay him the fare. He didn’t get violent but it felt like he was close. Maybe it was luck that I didn’t understand him.
I arrived at Heinz’s place exhausted but in one piece.