When you speak to people and mention that you have visited Madagascar, most have surprisingly never considered it as a destination, well neither did we until we were sent on an assignment to explore the south western side of Madagascar for Tourism options.
We flew from Johannesburg to Antananarivo (known as “Tana” by the locals) and then boarded a smaller plane to the coastal town of Toliara, surrounded by lagoons, mudflats, freshwater marshes and, most importantly, thickets of bizarre, huge Octopus trees sprouting from the sandy soil. For the birders out there, the Long-tailed ground roller is unique and considered to be one of the most exclusive species in the world. Unfortunately, you won’t see any tigers, giraffes or hippo, unlike the movie “Madagascar”! Madagascar is mainly known for their chameleons and dozens of species of lemur, amongst them the weird looking aye-aye lemur with its long middle finger. The local “zebu” is found everywhere and quite rich to the palate when served at restaurants.
Driving through Madagascar makes you feel like you’ve entered a time warp.
We decided to take up the option of shortening the road trip by 3 hours and combining the journey with a boat ride from Ifaty which would give us a good view of the rich and most diverse coral reef systems of the Andavadoaka region and extremely tidal. We would find that out as our “high tide timing” came to an end and we found ourselves stranded at midday with not enough clearance to cruise. Not a good time of the day to be pushing a boat across the reef and walking 10km along the white sandy shores until we could fine a gap to get back into the sea for the rest of our journey. We eventually arrived at Olo Be Lodge looking like roasted beetroots and very dehydrated.
Our destination was only 170km away but the road conditions turns it into a 6 hour off road journey to the lodge where we would be staying for 3 months. Once you leave the poorly maintained narrow tarred road from Toliara, you then encounter the feeling of being put into a blender and purged for the entire trip. Holding on to the roof handles inside the car, there’s a lot of head bashing going on as your body bounces around with the vehicle.
THE ROADS – or should I rather say the lack of roads!
Unless you’re a local or expat living in Madagascar, it is an uncommon site to see tourists driving this area on their own. The majority have rented a guide with a 4×4 vehicle who accompanies them on their entire journey through south west Madagascar. Road conditions are very difficult as is orientating oneself as there are absolutely no road signs. Only once did we see a young couple with a hired SUV driving the area on their own with only MAPSME, advise from the locals and strict instructions to always keep the mangroves on their right side.
Below are photos of the various road conditions you will experience in between stringy forests, sandy coastline routes and in between villages.
The interesting wagons are coming to the end of the tar road in Toliara. An unbelievable site as you drive past bicycles fully loaded with charcoal & straw bales, you wonder how they are able to keep themselves balanced. Malagasies are strong and far from lazy as we observed them, carrying cement & equipment uphill to build a swimming pool on the hill, not a wheelbarrow in site.
The local zebu, the symbolism of Madagascar, symbolising power, strength and prosperity. A famous tradition of the Bara that young men have to prove their courage by stealing a zebu before being allowed to ask for a girls’ hand.
Your 4×4 will definitely be testing itself on these thick sandy, narrow routes squeezing in between the stringy coral-like trees. You will need a high clearance vehicle of good repute to conquer these routes. Vehicles with rooftops can be rented from selected Agents.
Dare I mention the dilemma when traffic comes from the opposite direction! Also bear in mind the blender/purge effect whilst looking at these pictures. You will feel like your insides have been displaced when you arrive at your destination and it normally takes about 24 hours for your body to find itself again.
Trust me, we did this route a total of 8 times.
Whilst on these routes, you will see several TAXIBROUSSE (a Malagasy bush taxi) along the way. For a small price, you can drive many hundreds of kilometres via Taxibrousse, but no guarantee of comfort on this journey is offered as you will be squeezed in with at least another 20 people. Your luggage will be loaded on top of its roof together with a colourful conglomeration of bags, bicycles, furniture, plastic bags, pots, rice, even chicken hop along. Overtaking or encountering them coming from ahead is a mission until the driver decides to veer off the road and let you through or sometimes they too loaded to move out the way and you have to find a spot to overtake.
OTHER MODES OF TRANSPORT
On one excursion to visit a cucumber farm at Suicide Bay, we were picked up by a non-English speaking “Mad Max” who took us on a wild ride in his Polaris with heavy metal music blearing till we reached a surprise cave in the middle of the stringy forests. Be careful when walking with shorts as these branches (known in Afrikaans as haak en steekbos) tend to “grab”you as though they are pulling you back into the forest and once you’ve managed to release yourself you will be left with a few burning scrapes on your leg.
Polaris buggies are the perfect vehicles for these territories.
Another popular mode of adventure transport are motorcross/enduro motorcycles with tour groups from all over the world exploring the south west of Madagascar.
Basic supplies can be sourced from Morembe which is only a 2 hour offroad drive from Andavadoaka. As you pass through little villages you will encounter “rum production” in process. These home-made distilleries are definitely worth a stopover to see and of course taste Madagascar rum in true form – if you dare ! There is a small airport with a tar landing strip which is currently closed. There is talk of opening it up for international flights which would be a much better option for tourists than driving these routes.
BAOBAB FORESTS – The African Tree of Life
It’s a photographer’s dream to capture any of the 7 species of baobab’s in Madagascar. Whether it’s the middle of the day, dusk or dawn, or mist in the air, there are many faces to this interesting tree to capture.
We went on a deep-sea fishing trip one beautiful day. (Be sure to take along your “all terrain Crocs” as you will walk to your boat parked in the deeper water and Crocs seem to help avoid having urchins & coral cuts to your feet!) The boat was fully rigged out to catch that “big one”. Whilst patiently waiting for the bite, the locals passed by in their pirogues (cut out trees with home-made sails), not fearful of the distance away from land. The funniest was they were catching more fish than we did and at the end of a few hours, we decided it was maybe a better option to stop and buy fish from them. There’s a saying “ïts not the gun, it’s the gunner!” which ring true words indeed.
Driving from Toliara we passed the Tropic of Capricorn statue then headed towards the St Augustine known for it’s mineral spring of Anndoharano where salt water river meets at a point into a fresh water river. Our guide helped us board his pirogue and paddled us up the river until we reached a point where the water changed colour indicating the fresh water. We immediately jumped in and had a swim. We then headed back to the mouth where flamingos waded in the shallow waters. We offered the locals our bottled water and to our shock they threw out the fresh water and went to fill the bottle with their river water.
In our 24 month journey we had crossed the Tropic of Capricorn 4 times in Namibia, 6 times in Botswana and twice in Madagascar
WHERE DID WE STAY ?
Atlantis Dive Centre
A dive resort on the outskirts of Toliara offering individual thatched cottages right on the beach. A restaurant available too – fish is definitely worth eating when visiting Madagascar
When you arrive in Salary Bay you will feel like you’ve taken a wrong turn and diverted to Greece with its beautiful white cottages and blue roofs overlooking the stunning blue ocean. Run by a French lady who is equally as interesting as her property. Their restaurant serves a mean pasta too. They have a dive centre as well, run by a Frenchman and fondly known as the Jacque Costeau of Madagascar.
Blue Ventures – Andavadoaka
A marine conservation establishment monitoring the coral reefs of Madagascar, monitoring the over fishing by locals and educating them. Rustic accommodation right on the beach with views of Madagascar’s own Hole in the Wall.
OLO BE LODGE – ANDAVADOAKA
One of the most beautiful lodges in the south west of Madagascar. Situated on a peninsular with 5km of private white beaches on either side. Suites are spacious and the décor most impressive with views of the sea. Huge spa baths are located on your own private balcony. On site restaurant with a very interesting menu available.
There is a clinic funded by freelance Italian volunteer Doctors and nurses on the doorstep of Olo Be Lodge. There is also a landing strip for private planes if you prefer to fly directly from Toliara.
BAKUBA LODGE – TOLIARA
Owned and designed by a Belgian couple, this lodge offers genuine Madagascar hospitality. Upon arrival to your suite, you will be on a self exploratory tour on all the quirky faucets, log designed furniture and art. If time allows, we suggest you actually sleep in every suite to explore. The restaurant offers an interesting menu, of which you simply have to try a bite of everything. Highly suggest you try the fish stock fondue.
Only 10 minutes away from the airport, Bakuba is a good place to stay upon arrival or before you depart again or maybe both arrival and departure!
LE RELAIS DE LA REINE
A surprise awaits you when you arrive Le Relais De La Reine, looking like the rocky mountains in USA. Owned by a Frenchman who has an interesting story to tell of how he acquired this property. He took great pride in showing us his aromatherapy oils he has produced for the French market. Great hiking trails, swimming pools and access to the National Park to view the lemurs and chameleons. An onsite restaurant available too.
ISALO ANKARANA NATIONAL PARK
Upon arrival you will be met with your own private guide who will take you on a hike into the Isalo Ankarana National Park, seeking lemurs, chameleons and educating you on the vegetation of Madagascar. A well earned dip in 2 waterfalls later we were satisfied with our expedition and new information learnt. There are various packages on offer, one including hiking up the mountain and spending a week trekking and staying overnight in tents.
BEEN THERE, GOT THE T-SHIRT !
Madagascar is definitely worth visiting. It will touch a place in your heart you thought you never had. You will also leave with a new acquired taste of rum too – so much so that a yachtie friend discovered when sailing the Indian Ocean. This acquired taste led him to fill his water tanks on his yacht and sell it at his final destination.
The people are welcoming and always smiling. In fact, although one of the poorest countries in the world, it was rated as 14th in the World Happiness Report.
And off we go to our next destination in the furthest north of Madagascar only accessible by plane – Anjajavy Lodge