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.
The past days since being back from Mananara – oh gosh, that’s almost two weeks! – I spent in Toamasina, staying at Heinz’s place. His friend had now arrived and there was no boredom.
Anyway, I wanted to see more of this island than just parts of the east coast. The baobabs and tsingy are what I came here for originally.
So today I set out again to discover more of this intriguing country. I cycled to the south from Toamasina, on RN2, a paved road. Half of today’s distance I had seen almost three weeks ago already when I did that ‘test ride’ to Ampasimadinika and back.
The ride was ok, the countryside is beautiful. Though, despite this being a ‘rainforest region’, there is not much real, primary forest left here. Most has been chopped down over the years, for firewood, slash-and-burn agriculture, (sometimes illegal) logging, you name it. What’s left is shrub, secondary/tertiary forest, or loose trees. Only the nature reserves offer some kind of protection, but even there illegal logging of precious woods is taking place, simply because there is still some significant amount of trees standing there.
Yesterday’s ride went more or less straight south, parallel to the coast but some 8 to 16km inland. The road was undulating but had no long significant climbs.
This was going to change today, as the road turns east here in Ampasimanolotra (aka Brickaville) and climbs up to the highlands that dominate the central parts of the island at an altitude of 1000m (on average, very roughly). Antananarivo, the capital, where I was headed, is at ~1300m.
After a weak breakfast and 50km of cycling into the hills I felt that this was not a good day. I decided to hitch-hike the rest to Tana (the colloquial short form of Antananarivo). And, luckily, the first truck did indeed stop and agreed to take me and my bike for an agreeable price.
After a while the engine stopped working and we stopped dead on the road. The driver knew the problem, however, and immediately started sucking diesel out of the tank and into a jerrycan. He then removed the fuel pipes from the tank and tied their ends directly into the canister. Apparently the fuel is not very clean and the fuel filters had given up. He was happily smoking a cigarette while working on fixing the issue. I stood a few meters to the side and entertained myself directing traffic past the obstacle.
We didn’t make it to Tana. My driver stopped in Moramanga, about half way between Ampasimanolotra/Brickaville and Tana, but still demanded the full negotiated fare. It was dark by then. He did, however, find me a new ride, which didn’t cost me anything (both the ride as well as the finding one).
The new truck driver was a bit more cheerful and his truck had more stamina, and we did make it to Tana at last. He dropped me off I-don’t-know-where, pointing me roughly in the direction of the centre. I had no choice but to set out and hope I was going in the right direction. There were no people anywhere to ask. This is possibly explained by the fact that Germany was playing Spain in the finale of the European Football Championship. Or maybe the streets are always this quiet on a Sunday night in Tana?
I did make it to the centre (were some public viewing was going on), and I managed to find the bar where I was meeting my couchsurfing host by hiring a taxi driver to show me the way (by driving ahead…).
Germany had just lost 0:1. (Though I didn’t care much at the time.)
The day before yesterday I went to a market. At some point I took my phone out of that leg pocket in my cargo pants to check the time. About 20 minutes later I did the same, only that my phone was gone. It took me a while to figure out that someone had sneaked up from behind and made a cut along the back of the pocket, probably using a razor blade, and taken the phone. Well done, I didn’t feel a thing.
I’m ready to move on and will leave Tana tomorrow.
I decided to stay another day in Antsirabe, but had to move to another hotel, or rather a pension de famille (I think that’s how it’s called).
My Lonely Planet mentions two 20m waterfalls, called Chutes d’Antafofo, near the town of Betafo, some 20km west of Antsirabe. Instead of hanging around in the local Internet café I set out to look for those waterfalls. I made it to Betafo where I met an older gentleman who tried to help me find the chutes by drawing a map. He spoke English and was a journalist/photographer. However, I didn’t find them. My (printed) map ends just before where the waterfalls should be, so no help from that either.
On the way back I met a woman from the US who had rented a bike in Antsirabe and hired a guide to cycle to Betafo.
I’ll stay another day here in Antsirabe to look for that missing western map, though not to go look for the waterfalls again, but for future travels.
For some reason I didn’t take any (meaningful) pictures today.
So yesterday I tried to find more Madagascar maps, especially of the area west of Antsirabe, but failed. I made up my mind to continue south, on ‘known’ (mapped) terrain, maybe to Fianarantsoa.
But today I only made it to Ambositra, allegedly the ‘arts-and-crafts capital of Madagascar’. And indeed are there quite some shops that sell carved figurines and tools and other artisans’ products. I bought a few things, too.
I’m staying in a posh and comparatively expensive hotel, for lack of finding something simpler quickly.
I’m still continuing south on RN7. There was another police/military checkpoint just outside Ambositra, but it was just a matter of quickly looking at my passport.
At some point I had a break and noticed a tiny chameleon on the ground. Unfortunately, I don’t know its name.
Later, back on the road and seemingly far away from any settlement, a few little girls stood on the tarmac and tried to sell me some physalis while I rode past. At first I wasn’t interested, but after a few meters I changed my mind and stopped. This made the girls scream and run away. Eventually they came out of their hiding place at the escarpment and I managed to buy a bag of physalis fruits.
I made it to Ambohimahasoa, where I noticed a sign for a kind of hotel, and decided to stay. The hotel was located at the edge of the village and seemed fairly new and unfinished in a way, but also somewhat decrepit. I did receive a great dinner, though.
A very short day of riding. Soon after leaving Ambohimahasoa I left RN7 and cycled along RN25 towards Ranomafana (“Warm Water”), site of hot springs and also a nearby national park of the same name.
Visiting the latter was my goal for today, so right after I arrived I checked into the dorm of a hostel on site, hired a (compulsory) guide, and went exploring the national park — looking for reptiles and lemurs. I was accompanied by two Malagasy students of Biology (if I remember correctly) from Tana, who were there on a kind of internship to learn about Madagascar’s biodiversity in the field.
We were indeed lucky in spotting some interesting animals, including, later at night, Uroplatus phantasticus.
Happy with yesterday’s visit to the national park, I set out today to get back to the eastern coast, namely to the city of Manakara. And what a great ride it was.
The descent from the central plateau towards the sea made for a pleasant ride for approximately the first half of the distance. Then the road turned southish and through undulating green grassy hills of spectacular beauty. Unfortunately, this perceived beauty was the result of quite persevering forest clearing — all of the area here and in fact most all of Madagascar used to be forested.
Large parts second half of the road were gravel tracks in the process of being upgraded. Lots of trucks going back and forth at high speed made breathing difficult at times.
Yesterday was an extremely rainy day and I stayed in the hotel for much of it. I only walked to the train station briefly to find out on which days of the week the train to Fianarantsoa goes. It turned out that I was lucky, the next train would leave tomorrow, i.e. today.
Today I got up a bit later than planned and was at the crowded train station just in time to get a ticket to Fianarantsoa. My bike had to be stored in a fright car, which took up the last minutes before departure.
The train ride itself was awesome. Many of the villages en route have no road connection, the train is the only way to get in and out. People sell delicious food at the stations. In hindsight I wish I’d have gotten off somewhere and stayed there in the middle of nowhere and explored the countryside.
If I remember correctly, the trip took several hours longer than scheduled, around 12 hours in total – or was it even more? I found a cheap and simple hotel in Fiana, and even an Internet café.
Another short day, I only made it to Ambalavao. The idea is to go to the Andringitra massif from here, which is due south, and to climb Madagascar’s second-highest peak, Imarivolanitra (2658m; aka Pic Boby).
A bit of a weird day. I set out this morning towards the Andringitra massif, feeling very enthusiastic. I left the paved roads behind and cycled on bad tracks through an amazingly beautiful though exhaustingly hilly countryside.
Unfortunately, my paper maps didn’t have much detail of this area, and there were few settlements and people. I got lost. Those I asked for directions couldn’t help much, partly because I had no clue of village names and couldn’t really name the place I wanted to go to — I didn’t really know myself.
At some point my spirit broke and I decided to cycle back to Ambalavao. Once there, I decided to hop on a bus and returned all the way to Antsirabe! In hindsight I don’t really know what made me do this. Possibly the fact that the boat is going back to Reunion in 2 weeks time, and according to my ticket I should be on it.
Anyway, in hindsight, again, I’m a bit disappointed.
The previous days since arriving in town from Ambalavao I spent in the city, wandering around, completing my collection of Malagasy maps, washing my cloths, eating a lot, etc.
I’m roughly on my way back to Toamasina now, but decided to take a different route. I backtracked a bit on RN7 but then turned off onto RN43 towards Faratsiho. RN43 is not paved and in somewhat bad condition, but is good enough for some exciting cycling.
Today, then, was one of the greatest and most satisfying days of the trip so far. I continued on RN 43 from Faratsiho. And what a pleasure RN43 is! It is bad, it is bumpy, it is sandy, it is steep, it is eroded to the bones, it is pure chaos; it is an amazing ride for the prepared. And this time I am prepared.