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An Off-Road Adventure in Western Madagascar

Earlier this year, Tailor Made Sales Consultant Phoebe returned from the wilds of Western Madagascar on a 12 day off-road adventure. A relatively untouched land that is ripe for discovery, Madagascar promises an unrivalled experience for any intrepid traveller. If you want to know what a trip here is really like, read all about her journey in detail below, or see a longer (and more comfortable) version of the itinerary in full here.

165 Million years ago, a hunk of land began to break away from the African continent and drift off into the sea, leaving any unwanted carnivores on mainland Africa and initiating the birth of an astonishing biodiversity unparalleled by almost anywhere on Earth. Over the course of the next 15 million years, the island of Madagascar as we know it was formed.

Although Madagascar has a reputation for its underdeveloped infrastructure, tourism on the island is growing on a modest scale. Anyone intent on travelling through Madagascar should know that travel here is not always easy, but as with any challenging destination, there are plenty of rewards to reap so long as you are patient and come with an open mind.

 

1. Leaving Antananarivo…

For this journey, I ventured to the remote Western lands of Madagascar, an area that is generally acknowledged as the real Wild West. It is home to barren landscapes, outlaws and next to no roads. Swapping the slick interior of my airport transfer’s sedan car for a robust looking 4x4, I join my travelling companion, our driver and our guide, and hit the road after a night in the capital of Antananarivo.

Travelling in May, the whole country is warming up for peak season. These are the precious few months of the year when business is booming, hotels are full and numerous Malagasy folk from the capital travel cross-country to earn their keep as hiking guides or hotel staff to support them for the rest of the year. As such, we do not encounter large numbers of tourists for the duration of the trip. Every day we make like the rural Malagasy and rise with the sun at 6am. As all travellers should be, we are careful to ensure that we reach our hotel before darkness falls promptly at 5:30pm. Accompanied by our knowledgeable guide Olivier and our driver Damas, we are in safe hands and set off as the sun rises over the rice fields of Antanarivo.

 

2. Antsirabe

Along the rare and smooth tarmac of the National 7, one of the country’s few major roads, we first journey southwards to the highland capital of Antsirabe. To reach the coolest city in Madagascar we pass swathes of paddy fields and verdant pastures ripe with crops. We soon learn that the average Malagasy will consume 1kg of rice over the course of a single day. Colourful stalls selling temperate fruit and vegetables are dotted along the roadside, displaying fresh apples and oranges artfully arranged in teetering pyramids. This is the only area on the entire island that can support their growth.

Antsirabe is a crumbling and antiquated city, originally founded as a spa town in the 1800s by the Norwegians who once flocked here to indulge in the therapeutic thermal waters. On arrival, we do as the locals do and hop in the back of a pousse-pousse, a kind of rickshaw decorated in bold colours. Our driver’s bare feet pound along the hot tarmac of wide, tree-lined avenues before depositing us outside the imposing Hotel Des Thermes. Still in use today, although the buildings’ flaking façade may lead you to believe otherwise, this formidable institution dates back to the town’s heyday as a European health resort. The hotel also found fame as the chosen accommodation for the exile of The King of Morocco, Mohammed V in the 1950s.

We are led on towards the local markets and craft workshops in an area of the city where the remnants of colonialism are far less tangible. The rough, unpaved street is lined with metal workers, wood carvers, and craftsmen who specialise in working with Zebu horn. We admire the efforts of one such artisan who has refashioned an old pair of jeans attached to a washing machine engine as a buffer to smooth down his horn products. After just 10 minutes of carving and buffing, he proudly presents us with a beautifully polished Zebu horn spoon before it is time to move on from Antsirabe.

 

3. Miandrivazo

From the clement heights of the highlands, we make tracks west and journey from the coolest to the hottest place in Madagascar over the course of an afternoon. Cruising along the National 4, we are surrounded by open grasslands that carpet a sea of deserted valleys. The small town of Miandrivazo stands alone in the red earth against this silent and vast landscape. Situated in the river basin where the Mahajilo meets the Tsiribihina, the town is the gateway for boat trips along murky river waters that boast a healthy population of Nile Crocodiles. It comes as no surprise that the name ‘Tsiribihina’ translates into local Malagasy as, “where one must not dive.” In this expanse of savannah, we are surrounded by quiet and covered by a night sky littered with stars.

The following morning, Miandrivazo carries the buzz of local commotion as we pass a cheery procession of schoolchildren on their way to class before the heat amplifies with the midday sun and carry on past the shaded local market. Apart from this, there is not much here; the town has developed rather as a stopover for those venturing west, a much needed pit-stop to break up the journey overnight.

 

4. Kirindy

We reach the Kirindy Reserve after hours of travel along red dirt roads, shielding our mouths and eyes from the dust. Entering the driest region in Madagascar, we now encounter the typical landscape of the West. It is an arid mixture of thorny bush and spiny forests, interspersed occasionally with the voluptuous figure of a baobab tree. Our lodge is situated on the edge of the Kirindy reserve, which is renowned as a popular spot for sightings of the fossa. This is the only known predator for the island’s healthy population of lemurs. Typically very elusive, sightings of the fossa are now less rare and the lodge staff warn us to look out for one particular character who has become a familiar in the grounds of the hotel. As darkness descends, we head into the reserve accompanied by one of the park guides who is armed to the hilt with flashlights and head torches. Before we have even stepped out of the 4x4, we spot a pair of fossa cavorting in the car park, basking in the cool sand just metres away. Having already crossed off the ‘big ticket’ before even stepping foot in the forest, our night walk mainly offers sightings of wide-eyed lemurs the size of your fist, their eyes huge and alert as they reflect the glare from the torch. We return in the early morning and sight Verraux’s Sifakas and Paradise Flycatchers whilst playful brown lemurs come so close they could jump on to our shoulders.

 

5. Bekopaka

Leaving Kirindy behind us, we continue along earthen tracks and pass by the colourful tombs of the Sakalava tribe that line the roadside. These unique structures are painted with bright depictions of the deceased and boldly celebrate scenes of every day life, like the purchase of a new motorbike or going out on a date. In keeping with the undisputed local laws of the fady, you must not point at these tombs, since to direct your finger towards them would be to disrespect the dead. Such is the karma that comes with violating the taboo, anyone found pointing would eventually lose the offending digit by way of natural retribution.

After reaching the riverbank of Tsimafana, we are fortunate enough to be the first 4x4 in the queue for our river crossing. As luck would have it, the ferry, which comes in the form of three motorised pirogues with a platform of wooden planks nailed on top, is moored on our side of the river. We leave the car as several other heavily loaded vehicles pile on to the raft and sit dangling our feet above the brown water with a high African sun burning overhead. Slowly, we set off upstream to cross the breadth of the Tsiribihina. Safely deposited on the other side, we cringe as heavyweight vehicles manoeuvre the ferry’s narrow gangplanks to shore and are soon ambushed by the children of Belo-sur-Tsiribihina, who love nothing more than interacting with the tourists as they stand waiting. Cheekily asking for sweets, a bracelet or a photo, they call us all ‘Vazza’, or ‘White people’. It is a greeting that we are met with by the locals of the West everywhere we go.  Driving out of Belo, our windows become smeared by the fingerprints of the children who have rushed up to the car asking for empty plastic bottles. We greet them excitedly while Olivier mutters under his breath that they should all be in school.

Gateway to some of the greatest scenery of the West, from Belo you are met with several hours of single track dirt road. It is without a doubt the roughest and bumpiest drive of the trip. Driving through the heart of the African bush, the scenes outside the window keep us constantly entertained, particularly when passing through remote tribal villages. Hordes of waving children run for the car, and it is impossible not to offer a smiling wave in return. When we finally spill out of the car after reaching Bekopaka, our upper arms fully toned from the endless waving, we are grateful for solid ground and rest after hours of what felt like travelling inside a washing machine.  This is instantly remedied by a dip in our hotel’s infinity pool as we watch a burning sunset sink over the savannah.

 

6. Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park

Over the course of the following day, we lace up our walking boots and set out from Bekopaka to conquer the main attraction of the Wild West – the Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park. Surrounded by needles of limestone, some several hundred metres high, walking through the rock forests of the Tsingy de Bemaraha is to enter a landscape that is almost alien. The Tsingy are a geological phenomenon that dates back hundreds of millions of years. Their formation was triggered by a violent tectonic shift, similar to the one that originally splintered Madagascar from the continent and sent it floating off into the Indian Ocean.

We begin by hiking the ‘Little Tsingy’, the warm up act to the main event of the far more challenging ‘Big Tsingy’. In the cool of the early morning and shaded by forest, we manoeuvre a labyrinth of rock that presents an obstacle course of sharp edges threatening cuts and grazes. We squeeze and crawl through gaps, tunnels and doorways of rock. You have to be of a certain constitution to be able to hike here, since the tsingy do not favour the corpulent. As our hiking guide Julian chimes, “big belly, big problems.”

Moving on, we cross a savannah of grassland and approach the Big Tsingy in sweltering heat. Over the next four hours, we gradually climb up to the tips of jagged fingers of rock and admire their serrated edges silhouetted against a brilliant blue sky. The Malagasy word, ‘tsingy’ translates loosely as ‘walking on tiptoes’. To imagine anyone crossing this ground barefoot seems unthinkable, but the ancient people of the Vazimba used to do so. As the day progresses, the rock eats away at my walking shoes and leaves them in tatters. Meanwhile, Julian’s trainers seem held together solely by the shoelaces.

Hands sticky with sweat and sun cream, our grip slips on the cool metal fixings of the Via Ferrata that carves a route through the rocks. We clamber up household ladders secured with rope at jaunty angles. Harnesses are essential and we make our ascent to the soundtrack of carabiners constantly clicking on and off the cool steel cables. It is 35°C and bone dry, a stark contrast to the six months of the year when the Tsingy are completely inaccessible. High on the walls of rock, you can make out the faint lines that remain after the rising water levels of the rainy season.  On the summit, a wooden platform has been erected from which you can survey the parkland in its remarkable entirety.

Eventually we wind down through the forest back towards the car park. As we do so, we spot a family of white sifakas lounging high in the tree tops. Lazily picking fruit from the branches, their eyes do not leave us as we pass through and make our return, trudging exhaustedly after a rewarding day hiking the Tsingy.

 

7. Morondava

We retrace our route from two days previously on the long journey back to Morondava, our 4 x 4 ploughing through deep trenches of earth and stopping occasionally to help other tourist vehicles that have fallen prey to the sand’s grip.  We time our journey to coincide with watching the sun sink behind the Allée des Baobabs, a sight which offers the postcard-perfect snapshot of Western Madagascar. Before lining up alongside coach loads of other tourists, fussing over their cameras and swiftly erecting tripods in anticipation of the sunset spectacle, we visit the conservation centre and pay to plant a baobab tree on this iconic stretch of land. This is part of a new conservation effort to protect and preserve the species. Although it will take hundreds of years for the small root to bear any resemblance to the giant grandidieri that tower over the avenue, it is something for the great-great-grandchildren to return to.

 

8. Belo sur Mer

After a night in Morondava, today’s journey leads us from the dry interior of the island towards a coastal paradise. Over the course of the morning, we cross salt flats sparkling in the sun and traverse rivers that bleed into the sea. There are no more bridges or ferries, and at times the saltwater comes up to our windows. Travelling along mud and sand tracks, we are forced to vacate the vehicle on several occasions and continue on foot to lessen the load of the car. Although travelling through sparse areas that appear completely deserted, you can guarantee that at the first sign of any tyre trouble, a group of locals will appear on the horizon, eagerly running towards you with shovels in hand ready to help dig you out in exchange for a few ariary. At these times, strolling through the sand and water barefoot comes as a brief and welcome reprieve.

Early that afternoon, we pull into the remote and ramshackle village of Belo sur Mer. Driving through the town itself, I feel as if we are pulling into a shooting location from Pirates of the Caribbean. The elements have eaten away at brightly painted wooden shacks lining the ‘high street’ and a bright white church stands tall in the sand alongside the sea. Time in Belo has stood still and long may it stay that way. The beach is lined with the boatyards and workshops of traditional dhow builders. Their colourful vessels bob happily in the shallow water mere metres away, while vast works in progress stand propped by wooden struts in the sand, their skeletal form an assembly of rough naked planks pieced together by large nails. To own a dhow is a sign of great wealth here. Their construction offers labour to the skilful nomadic Vezo fishermen who reside primarily along this stretch of coastline.

Belo is quiet with nothing but the beauty of the Mozambique Channel spread out before you. We stay in wooden beachside chalets with steps down into the cool water. For dinner, we feast on freshly caught Barracuda dished up with ratatouille in a delicious combination of Malagasy and European influence. A meal I won’t quickly forget, it is arguably the best thing I have encountered on this trip to come from Madagascar’s long and complex relationship with France. The dish is entirely borne from the sea, since the vegetables were shipped in from Europe just that morning, probably not long after my barracuda fell prey to the nets of the Vezo.  Most of Belo relies on boats to deliver food and other necessities, since the town is rendered entirely unreachable by road as soon as the rains arrive.

 

9. Morombe

Bidding goodbye to our coastal haven, we venture on to the Kirindy Mitea National Park and take a short walk through the spiny forests. Here we admire exotic birds foraging amidst the dry leaves of the forest floor, and a dense population of baobabs that constitutes the highest concentration of the species in Madagascar.

Our next stop is the colourful market town of Manja which is in the grips of the midday rush. We stroll through crowded market lanes flogging everything from joints of meat buzzing with flies to cheap neon fabric emblazoned with the face of Celine Dion. We admire handmade baskets teeming with giant river crabs lathered in mud and watch as one local woman delivers a fatal stamp to the crab’s head with her flip flop after it makes a quick dash for freedom. Everywhere we walk we are joined by schoolchildren on their lunchtime break, mouths openly gawping at the only Vazza around. Young boys play fight in a bid to get our attention and two smiling girls walk hot on our heels, every now and then daring to place their hand in mine before withdrawing it in a fit of giggles. Leaving Manja, we eventually arrive in Morombe that evening, where we spend the night to break up our long journey along the coast.

 

10. Andravona

Skirting the coastline we drive for several hours traversing white sand dunes and acres of arid scrubland before finally reaching the small coastal hamlet of Andavadoaka. Here, we stop to admire the efforts of Blue Ventures, a marine conservation initiative dedicated to rebuilding tropical fisheries and working with local communities to protect the coral reefs of the Mozambique Channel.

We continue to nearby Andravona, home to our remote beachside lodge for the next two nights. Aside from our beachfront tented bungalows, we are met with an expanse of beach with sand that could rival icing sugar and an ocean of sparkling turquoise. Despite being unable to swim, as is the way with many Malagasy, Olivier and Damas cannot resist the call of the water and there is no hiding their delight as they cool off in the shallows. Waking early the following morning, it takes me approximately 10 strides through the sand to get from my canvas doorway to the water’s edge.

Later that day, we hop in the back of a classic khaki 1970’s Land Rover to set off along the sand to a nearby forest. We have come in the hope of an encounter with the elusive Mikea tribe, a group of hunter-gatherers who chose to eschew life amongst civilisation after the arrival of the French and their controversial introduction of tax for every man. Although the days of colonial occupation are over, the Mikea have chosen to remain concealed in the thicket ever since. We are led on foot by a local boy who has had many dealings with the tribe and can communicate in their unique dialect. Although our expedition delivers no promise of an interaction, we are in luck as just minutes into our trek we spot smoke rising from the bush. Our guide approaches a family huddled round the fire and ask whether they would be happy to speak with us. Wearing only loin cloths and carrying just a flint and tobacco pipe by way of personal possessions, the family are quiet and wary but our meeting with them is a fascinating encounter that delivers an insight into a harsh way of life few of us would contemplate. 

We spend two blissful days sunning ourselves on the untouched beaches of Andravona without another tourist in sight. We eat the catch of the day and listen to tales of the Portuguese shipwrecks that litter the coast and are now some of the country’s most popular dive sites. An excellent spot for whale watching compared to the more popular destination of Nosy Be in the North, our host informs us that the humpbacks arrived early this year. Sightings in May are a first and doubtless the result of global warming confusing the whales’ habits. 

 

11. Ifaty

Leaving Andravona late one morning, we continue on to the busier beach destination of Ifaty. We have had our taste of paradise so this popular resort town pales in comparison. We spend one night as a necessity to get us close to Tulear airport. Surprisingly, the Madagascan Airways internal flight to take us back to Tana is neither delayed nor cancelled without explanation. Happily on schedule, we bid farewell to Olivier and Damas and take to the skies, entirely un-envious of the twelve hour journey by road back to the capital that awaits our guide and driver.

We leave Madagascar physically exhausted but our minds are alight. This captivating country makes a bold first impression and it is one that will fail to leave me. Such is the beauty of the world’s fourth largest island, we leave excited in the knowledge that we have only just scratched the surface.

 
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