A drive in the dark

Anakao – Madagascar

Our final few days on tour in Madagascar was everything I expect from a holiday in East Africa. Heading out at 3.30am we had to negotiate a typical Malagasy road from Isalo National Park down to Toliara harbour on the west coast where we would catch a boat that would drop us one hour further along the coast at Anakao. The road was typically a fraction better than no road at all and the potholes finally took its toll on our minibus with a front tyre exploding before sunrise. Rocking up at the harbour around mid-morning we piled into what can only be described as a ferry terminal but was no more than a single room building with a boarding area on a deck outside. Here we would catch a zebu cart that would ferry us out into the sea where we would then board a waiting speed boat. A zebu is a type of cow and a cart is, well just a cart. The reason these were employed as a method of getting to the boat is that there was no jetty and no other way of boarding the boat without walking a long way out to sea. There was no booking procedure for the zebu carts as African tradition appears to dictate with people awarded work on a first come first served basis and as would be expected the commotion caused by zebu, carts, and their drivers trying to reverse into a spot at the boarding deck was rather amusing. Interestingly this only intensified as we arrived at the boat as zebu carts tussled for position while trying to align with a big speedboat that bobbed up and down and moved in any direction the sea saw fit. A simple jetty could have fixed all of this but then I wouldn’t have a story to tell and a heap of locals would have been put out of work. Arriving in Anakao, we hadn’t even left the boat before an expat made it clear that high winds were coming and we would be unable to do anything or even leave on the day we were scheduled to thus putting fear into the majority of the group that they may miss international flights home. I was more infuriated by the old expat who was taking great pleasure in making us miserable no doubt because this was his little paradise, and he wanted no other Westerner to experience it. It was this very type of person that convinced me to leave my expat lifestyle. Wading through the shallow waters of the lagoon we were met with an endless white sandy beach and nothing else other than a smattering of small, locally run hotels, most of which appeared empty. It really was paradise and although the wind was indeed picking up, we made the most of a swim in the sea and relaxing on the beach.

Trip out to the boat

The original plan for the following day had been to go whale watching and snorkelling on a nearby island but as that became increasingly less likely we had opted last minute to hire 4×4’s and head off to a national park. It became apparent as we met our drivers that we had been extremely lucky in securing the last two 4×4’s in the area, one an old Land Cruiser and one an old Hilux with two young chaps sat in the back. Lucky may turn out not to be the word depending on your perspective of life but as we set off along the sandy track road we were in high spirits and happy to be heading out for the day. It turned out that the two chaps in the back of the Hilux were there as a makeshift starter motor, there to jump start the car whenever the driver was unable to park on a slope. We soon found out that the car had not a single electron flowing around it and a carefully choreographed routine by the human starter motors and the driver continued throughout the day to keep the 4×4 going as though it was quite normal. After a few hours of driving, we pulled up by the sea, the boys repaired a flat tyre on the Land Cruiser, and we tucked into an incredible fish lunch with some of the finest beach views anyone is ever likely to see. We then headed over to Tsimanampetsotsa National Park where it took a short while to figure out the guiding requirements and where we ended up departing with a French-speaking guide who was full of life and an English-speaking guide who was less inclined to talk which wasn’t so helpful considering only one of us understood French. A quick note on Malagasy place names, they are impossible to say, and I don’t know why I’m bothering including them in the text other than for my own amusement. The park’s main attraction was a salt lake that extends to 20km long, home to flamingos, and enchants visitors with its turquoise colours. Unfortunately for us the expat had been right and we were greeted with a stiff breeze, grey skies and the odd downpour, although flamingos were available and there were glimpses of beauty out on the lake when the sun attempted to break through. We also saw tortoises, blind fish, and a 3,000-year-old baobab that may only be 1,500 years old depending on the safari guide that you encounter. Our guide in the park clearly stated 3,000 years but this was rigorously disputed by another chap we bumped into at a small nature reserve a few days later. The entire park appeared a harsh environment with its salty lake, limestone rocks and escarpment, nasty looking bushes, depressed baobabs, and salty grasslands, but this has been a strong feature of this trip with every national park we have visited offering something beautiful and unique. 

Another tree

With the sun setting it was time to leave and so began one of the most fun car rides I’ve ever had the joy of experiencing. I’ve raved on a lot about the softness of African nights but this night we weren’t so lucky with clouds overhead and very little light available from the night sky which was concerning considering our trusty Hilux had no lights. With the Land Cruiser having changed another flat tyre we followed her with her working headlights which worked well until we slowed for some reason or another and the Cruiser would disappear into the night not realising they had left us behind. Our driver however, unfazed, pressed his head closer to the windscreen and continued into the darkness until we stumbled across the Land Cruiser once more. This continued for 45 minutes until one of the starter motor men were instructed to turn on the torch on his phone and shine it over the cab so that the lead car could see us and therefore not lose track of us. This worked well until the heavens opened and the men in the back of the Hilux, already cold, were unwilling to get wet and so jumped into the boot of the Land Cruiser. With no windscreen wipers, a travel companion sitting in the front with her iPhone lighting up our way, and the driver’s phone that would light up the entire cab like an early 90’s rave whenever it rang, we continued along the sandy track slowly knocking out the miles. The Land Cruiser then suffered its third flat tyre of the journey and I, already at a loss as to how they replaced the second, watched as the third was replaced with a spare from the Hilux. Twenty minutes later we were back at the guesthouse alive with smiles after our two-hour drive in the pitch black. It’s strange because when I hired a car in Iceland for two days, I was terrified of breaking down, yet out in the middle of southern Madagascar I loved every second even though there would be no help whatsoever if anything serious went wrong. On entering the restaurant with our drivers to sort out payment they looked like they had just crossed the Atlantic with the very same cars, they couldn’t have been happier and were probably just as surprised to have nursed the cars through the journey as we were. But this is Madagascar, a place where a car may not have a battery, but it will still work one way or another.

Another bird

It was sad to be back because on arrival we were told the news that we would be stuck in paradise for an extra day, we would have to drive two whole days back across Madagascar to the capital because of missing our scheduled internal flight, and the majority of the group were losing their mind because they would miss their international flights home. Rut and I were lucky because we had a few more days in Madagascar but other members of the group were telling the guide (a Malagasy) they just wanted to get out of Madagascar and complaining about spending large amounts on new tickets that were business class because they were the only ones available. Following on from that they were planning on how to get the travel company to reimburse the cost of changing flights because the company should have known better. Maybe they should, but all these complaints and fuss were being made more or less on the edge of an area that was suffering from famine last year. We had literally heard from one of the guides that day that some people had only eaten a couple of times a week the previous year. To travel in a country like Madagascar is a sobering experience and one we (westerners) should feel privileged to experience. The attitude of some of my fellow travellers on this trip has sickened me and it scares me that their complete lack of empathy is entrenched in European society; all they wanted was the photo of a grubby child, a lemur, or cow and plough, to say they have seen it and for their friends to say how brave they were to visit such a country. I have no pity for the Malagasy. I have thought long and hard about this. I have no pity, but I have endless respect for the people of Madagascar and the wider region, people who have no social safety net, barely enough food, no WIFI and smart phones. They provide services, food and accommodation to tourists that the majority of the locals don’t have, yet do so with no apparent grudge and usually with welcoming smiles. Meanwhile Europeans are taking to social media on their £1,000 smart phones apparently terrified of increased food and energy prices leading to a reduction in Netflix subscriptions. I am no saint, but I understand how lucky I am. If you remember anything, remember $1.90 per capita per day.  

Check out the tour here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s