Travel Through Madagascar on a Harley-Davidson

By Peter & Kay Forwood

Madagascar on a Harley (2/5/06 - 31/5/06)
Distance 1937 km (456383 km to 458320 km)

This is part of the twelfth section of our around the world trip.
Complete Trip Overview & Map

Coming from Reunion Island

3/5/06 The ship came alongside early and whilst we felt we were returning to Africa, with its overstaffed labourers waiting on the wharf, an old bus, with torn seats and large sound system to take passengers to immigration and the slow processing and checking by customs through everyone's luggage, things went smoothly. There were helpers everywhere, mostly baggage handlers, and we were treated as special with the motorcycle coming out of the container with everyone else's luggage. Customs decided not to use the carnet but filled in a temporary import form and we rode into Tamatave at 9am. A bustling town with bright coloured rickshaws ferrying people and luggage. Small enough to walk about. We changed money then coffee'd whilst looking out onto the street. A tourist town, there were children begging, along with mothers with babies, a few older people also begging. Merchandise sellers wandered past and we were offered everything from shirts to gem stones, sunglasses and cigarette lighters, perfume or jewellery.Our comfortable cabin on the ship Trochetia It had rained overnight and showers were still rolling through. We pondered camping or a hotel and eventually opted for camping at the Ivoloina Zoo just north of town when the rain cleared whilst we were having lunch. Our camp spot was near a lake, in bush, and a few nocturnal lemur could be heard in the trees after sunset, just behind the tent. Fireflies darted and lit up as the other insects started their cacophony, but not a mechanical noise to be heard.

4/5/06 With almostThe busy streets of Tamatave, with the Pousse Pousse rickshaws 12 hours of darkness it was a long night, the only people camped here. In the shade of our table and thatched roof shelter over breakfast four lemur could be heard chuckling, coming towards us through the trees. Seemingly more interested in us than looking for food we watched each other for a while before they moved off. Ivoloina Zoo is also a rehabilitation place for returning animals to the wild, a centre to teach sustainable agriculture. There are about 100 lemur, half in cages and half free to roam. The ones outside are fed twice daily as some came from other areas of Madagascar and the native plants don't grow here. Some are tame enough to come extremely close, others more reserved tending to stay back in the trees. It is a great introduction to seeing many different species, some endangered and others from areas of the country we will not be visiting.

5/5/06  We camped again last night, sitting with mosquito coils burning this morning and a light drizzle. Madagascar is a malaria country, particularly the wetter east coast, and as we have opted not to take prophylactic medicines, due to the length of time we are travelling,  we are being particularly careful. We rode just the 18 km's back to Tamatave to clean up. TheWhite Fronted Brown Lemur that visited us at our camp in Ivoloina money in Madagascar is confusing. With inflation running at about 20% annually, a few years ago the government introduced a new currency, the Ariary, at a fifth the value of the old Madagascan Franc. Whilst we have only seen the new currency, prices are quoted in both, or just the old Franc. This is particularly confusing when paying and receiving change in a new Ariary. Add to that the exchange rate has doubled since our guide book was printed just three years ago meaning that food and accommodation prices have no relativity. Petrol prices at just over $US 1.10 a litre mean the local pousse-pousse (man powered rickshaw) is likely to be in service for a long time to come. News items from America with petrol prices at 3 dollars a gallon or less than $US 0.80c a litre, where the general public is screaming of oil company price gouging, receive no sympathy here where most locals can't even afford a bus fare, let alone a private car, let alone a gas guzzling SUV. Whilst incredibly enterprising peoples, selling high quality local fruit and vegetables and locally made handicrafts there is still not enough of a market for the produce and poverty is widespread.

6/5/06 MadagascarChameleon at Park Zoologique Ivoloina separated from mainland Africa 165 million years ago and it wasn't till less than 2000 years ago that the first real primates, man, arrived here. Strangely he arrived from Indonesia, bringing with him the Asian rice growing techniques. The environmental change since then has been stark, 85% of original forest is gone along with 20% of the lemur species. The ride from Tamatave to Parc National Andasibe in the mountains showed the decimation of the landscape. With logging and slash and burn agriculture the hillsides have been left to grow bracken fern and the traveller palm and little else other than fruit trees around small villages along the road. The 220 km stretch is a series of twisty curves through hillocky mountains.

7/5/06 Andasibe National Park is just 800 hectares of regrowth forest that was logged in the 1970's and portions were replanted with non native species like eucalypts and pines. Luckily it was realised early enough that the Indri lemur, the largest living and only tail less species, numbers were shrinking with the forests and because of their unusual diet and behaviour they could not be kept in captivity. Today the park contains just over one hundred animals. Living in small family groups of parents and offspring they have a territory of about 20 hectares and oneRuffed Lemur returned to the wild at Ivoloina group in particular has been habituated to tourist viewings. A guide led us to the four early this morning, high in the trees feeding on fruits. As most of their diet is leaves they spend a lot of time resting and digesting, only being active for a couple of hours morning and evening. After spending half an hour in the top of the trees they started leaping through the canopy, following the female, gradually getting lower as we followed. Our last sighting was the four of them crossing a path just a few metres away, one by one, leaping on their back legs across the ground, apparently rare that they come to the ground at all. We continued our walk with the guide seeing many birds but no other lemur.

8/5/06 Just 150 km to Antananarivo, locally known as Tana. Almost all towns here begin with the letter A and are extremely long. Australian eucalypts have taken over this part of the mountain plateau. Growing wild and in plantations the timber is used for milling, firewood and rough hewn house frames. Again, like a lot of countries we have visited, its ability to regrow from the cut base means a perennial crop, but with no nativeBuying local fruits from a roadside family pests here it is spreading in the wild. Entering Tana is quite amazing. Situated in the mountains with steep roads and steps rising from the main shopping area its houses are quite unique in design. Cram packed and only with narrow lanes dividing them. First impressions are of entering a medieval town of conjoined two story houses with wooden windows and balcony's all differently constructed and painted. The stature of its people is short, some with long straight hair Asian style walking next to African frizzy and tightly braided. The clothing hints a bit of South American Incas, with similar hats and embroidered shirts. If I had been blindly placed here that would have been my guess of location, not a city in Madagascar. A city that is immediately appealing in its diversity. We had the usual city jobs to accomplish, money change, visa enquires, onward air ticket refunds, and spent the afternoon walking to various locations getting jobs done. Often a great impetus to see areas of a city we would have no other reason to venture into. 

9/5/06 The lemur, finding themselves alone and without competition when Madagascar separated from Africa managed to diversify and fill every survival niche, adapting to that environment. The people, althoughAntananarivo, or Tana to the locals. Quaint hillside houses only arriving recently seem to have done the same, more so in Tana where the children of street dwellers rapidly learn to be cute to passing tourists and deformed beggars occupy strategic locations. Older, able bodies sell whatever they can canvassing the streets. Older still or infirm have stationary stalls near stairways selling fruits and vegetables. Each feeds on each other. Those with money buy from those without, who now have money and buy food to survive. Rarely does the money stay in one hand for long, but is passed down the line giving everyone an ever diminishing share. The latest craze clawing at surplus funds is the mobile phone. Within 100 metres there might be five sellers or credit rechargers for mobiles. Not that everyone uses them, they just want one. We dodged the enterprising and often forceful sellers on our way to visit the Comoros Embassy where, even without an onward ticket, a credit card was accepted as sufficient funds as an alternative, we were given a visa on the spot for $US 30.00. Tana is not a place to come for museums, there is no need, they are in the streets and buildings which we wandered.

10/5/06 The picture perfectSmall Citroen and Renault taxi's in fuel expensive Tana cardboard tasteless fruit and vegetables that will sit in the refrigerators for weeks after picking unripe are probably the greatest slight on progress I have seen. I used to think my taste buds were going the way of my eyes and hearing as I got older. But to find in "backward" countries the delicious fruits and vegetables I used to enjoy is one of travelling's delights. Juicy tomatoes picked from the vine that morning. Varieties of avocados, guava, red grapefruit, persimmon, custard apples, and sour sop, most not available to us because they won't travel or haven't been modified to be rock hard yet are all available here and now. But it is the end of summer, in a month there will only be cabbage and brussel sprouts, but won't that make me the more excited for next summers fruits. It rained most of the day, light winter rain, while people huddled in doorways, still trying to sell a few items to hurrying passers by with the city taking on a rather depressing grey feel.

11/5/06 Tana is already in the mountains and cool. The road to the south heads higher and cooler, twisting through sparsely populated areas. The beautiful mud brick and thatched roofed houses dot the hillsides. It seems odd that with Two storied farm houses could be in Europe except there is no electricity or plumbing such beautiful houses there is almost no electricity in the region, just in the much larger towns. After about 50 km's the road levels off onto the plateau all the way to Antsirabe. Madagascar is rapidly moving towards one of our favourite countries. The people are generally relaxed, friendly, easy going and industrious. Things work in this country, food is excellent and with the cool mountain air after the heavy humidity of the tropical islands we have energy to enjoy the place.

12/5/06 Headed west for 50 km's just for a day's outing. Brick and tile making villages. Rice fields terraced up the mountains. The soil in some areas volcanic and more fertile. Two crater lakes, gem sellers and a beer with a German tour group. There seem to be few backpackers to these areas of Madagascar, perhaps they are to the northern beaches. In fact there seem to be fewer backpackers generally compared to a few years ago. Perhaps the unemployment situation in Europe keeps them at home, either no money or not wanting to risk getting a job on their return from travelling. What we have been meeting are loosely packaged tours, where some people arrive a few days before the main tour, or stay longer,Neat ricefields below a family village or mix a couple of short tours. This is more the older crowd.

13/5/06 After the political crisis of 2001 and almost civil war, the former, long serving president, was replaced by a self made business man who promised to rebuild the country's infrastructure. During the difficult period tourist numbers dropped to a quarter and have only recently returned to previous levels. It seems the new president's promises are happening. People are out repairing roads which are now in good condition, at least along the major routes. We don't see people sitting around aimlessly as in other countries and the quality of workmanship is excellent compared to its western neighbours. We travelled the 250 km's of twisting mountain roads to Parc National De Ranomafana, and stayed in the small village of the same name, which has seen a mini boom due to it's location near the park.

14/5/06 Fees for Madagascar's national parks have risen sharply recently and risk a backlash from budget travellers, or at least a shortened visit which impacts on the local benefits which is where backpackers spend most of their money, rather than at resorts. The economical three day A family gathered as we stopped to photograph their house pass has been replaced by a more expensive one day pass. The three day pass encouraged backpackers to stay locally, longer, whilst not impacting on the price tour groups pay as they rarely stay more than a few hours. Guides are compulsory with fixed prices out of line with the local economy. Having said that, visitors are unlikely to see a lemur without the assistance of a guide. We started our three hour tour early, seeing Woolly Lemur sleeping after their nocturnal feeding. Two scouts, seemingly sent out to locate lemur ahead of the tourists had spotted two Golden Bamboo Lemur, a species only discovered in 1986. The tourist paparazzi, started to arrive as guides yelled through the forest of the findings. Two tiny lemur, resting from their morning feed were inundated with noisy humans, even disturbed by guides rustling branches and trees to make them alert for photos. The same calling between guides re-occurred when the Grey Bamboo Lemur were sighted feeding and the Coati looking Red Fronted Brown Lemur moved through the trees. Had it not been a national park it would almost have seemed comical to see twenty, older than us tourists, scrambling through the bush over steep slippery ground breaking a new trail to get glimpses of lemur. We enjoyed our visit realising the dilemmaRainforest in Ranomafana National Park the park is in. If people don't see lemur they won't keep coming. Tourist fees support the park and local economy. The locals protect the park because of that fee generation. The lemur are protected, well at least those far enough into the forest. We sympathise with the touristed lemur as our behaviour has been changed by the constant attention we, and the motorcycle receive. We seek more and more solitude, venturing out to interact with the locals on our terms. Eye contact is reduced for fear of attracting a question, one we have likely been asked hundreds of times, or someone begging or trying to sell us something. We try to move through these countries as observers, the fly on the wall, but realise we are observed much more. Other long term travellers have become recluses on their return to sedentariness.

15/5/06 A week ago we had left our guide book on the table in a restaurant not realising it for 120 km's, it was too late to return. Travellers don't call it the Bible for nothing. At least we had the All of Africa Lonely Planet book to use but it didn't cover the north west of Madagascar nor the Comoros. Whilst we don't rely on it heavily now whilst travelling, we do find it of great useThe new kitchen after we lost the old one off the back of the bike. to find decent accommodation at a reasonable price and the city maps are great to enter and leave cities by, although not perfect. The background information on a country and its history are also good reading and in planning the getting there and away and visa information is a good starting point. So it has been missed. Today on the 30 km's of dirt road under repair, our kitchen, strapped onto the rear luggage rack, must have fallen off. Again it was not realised for over 100 km's and would have been futile to go back and look for, now probably in the hands of a local villager who can't believe his luck, nor work out how some of the things that the bag contained work. Some things like the pots and cutlery will be used but the petrol stove and the rechargeable torch will be of little use in this country and I wonder to what use they might be put. There is often a positive side to someone's grief. We rarely lose things. The worst case was when I left all the tools on the pavement after repairing a friend's motorcycle in India over eight years ago. The kitchen had everything a kitchen at home would have, except the kitchen sink. Plates, cutlery, pots, stove, tea making facilities, food, torch, cups etc. Not a great expense but some items were sentimental like my enamel mug. Used theThe grounds of our hotel in Antsirabe, why we stayed there twice entire trip along with chips and rust it will be missed. Other items like the petrol stove are unavailable in this part of the world. Finished out 250 km journey back to Antsirabe and shopped for the items we could replace.

16/5/06 The rear tyre had a nail puncture in Ethiopia and we used a plug, it's tubeless. The plug had leaked so it was double plugged later. It still leaked, so a new plug was inserted about a week ago. Then when riding on the twisty roads the plug popped out, and the tyre went flat, quickly, but not dangerously. Another double plug, and within 100 km's of mountain road, it also had popped out. By now we were down to our last good plug plus a couple of older ones we had not been that happy with. In the whole time of travel we have only had a few punctures and never before had this problem. The glue was different, a contact adhesive rather than a proper tyre patch glue which we hadn't been able to buy here. But it was more than that. We finally realised that with the hole on the tread edge, and with the massive amount of cornering in this country, the plug was literally being scrubbed out by road friction. This time after plugging we cut the end off to be as flush with the tyre as possible, then after a few km's, once thePoinsettia in full colour in the mountains plug was properly seated in we cut it flush again and have now done 300 km's without leak or the plug protruding any further. We are still learning. Stayed in Antsirabe, a lovely town, perfect mix of locals and tourists, and finished replacing our kitchen, at least with what was available.

17/5/06 170 km's to Tana along the same road we had come out along. Madagascar has few loops unless you go onto poor dirt roads. Through the city to collect our new passports, sent from Mauritius, and stayed near the airport to the north of town. It is here that we hoped to meet up with other travellers to copy or replace our lost guide book to finish Madagascar and the Comoros. A place where people stay on arrival or wait for their departure by air. We immediately met a couple of English speaking travellers, a Norwegian couple who were leaving, who offered us their guide book.

18/5/06 Winding down before heading to the west coast to look for a boat to the Comoros we enjoyed our last day in the cool of the highlands, staying at the same accommodation. There doesn't always need to be a reason to stay another day but it helps mentally. Long ago we decided if there was no need toVillage street scene with ox cart and drying rice on the road edge move on and we felt like staying, then stay, so we did.

19/5/06 Left early, 450 km's north towards Mahajanga. The countryside rapidly becoming dryer, soils poorer and less inhabited than to the south. The new good road twisted and turned almost all the way. The tussock that grows on the cleared land here is almost useless leaving the countryside a wasteland. A large portion of Madagascar is now covered in this grass after clearing the native timbers. Once on the coastal flatlands the people become more African. Taller and curly haired. The farming techniques turn towards the root vegetable cassava rather than rice and the brick houses become small timber and mud grass roofed huts. D'Ankarafantsika National Park is a dry land deciduous forest and has eight species of lemur, six nocturnal and two day time varieties. We were welcomed at the park entrance by a troupe of seven Coquerel's Sifaka Lemur, white, maroon and grey, moving through the trees, their territory being in this area. Another group, this time Brown Lemur passed by the restaurant on sunset. The park seems the best set up for visits we have seen here, camping and cabins, reasonable entry prices and guides.Coquerel's Sifaka at d'Ankarafantsika National Park After dinner we went on a night walk and saw sleeping chameleon, the Woolly Lemur and the two smallest species of lemur  the Golden Mouse and the Grey Mouse Lemur. They are about the size more of a rat and run and jump quickly in the trees. The big ears, big eyes, of the face make it appealing.

20/5/06 Another guided walk through the forest this morning. The elusive Sportive Lemur that we were unable to spot last night was asleep in crevices of dead branches or trees with just its head showing. Our excellent guide tracks a number of these as they move within their territory, noting where they sleep, a couple of nights in each of a few places in rotation. Many birds were also sighted, some endemic to this region, most endemic to Madagascar. This park also carries out a breeding program for some endangered tortoise. The most famous is the Ploughshare Tortoise which needs to fight to get excited enough to mate. As numbers were dwindling, there was no-one to fight, so matings and their numbers declined further. Eventually they will be returned to the wild once numbers are sufficient. Two groups of Coquerel's Sifaka Lemur moved throughCautious, but happy enough to come into the camp area our camping area during the day giving us great acrobatic sightings as they leapt through the trees or jumped across the ground in open spaces. A large group of local tourists also visited the park. Some local tourists are camped here. It is great to see the locals taking an interest in their own country's wildlife because they will be the future preservers of it.

21/5/06 Just 120 km's and we were in Mahajanga by 9am on a Sunday. The centre of town was dead. Luckily the port gates were open and a boat was leaving for Mayotte that afternoon. Unfortunately he was not allowed to take passengers, just cargo, his boat not in survey to take passengers to this part of France. But a slightly larger, rusting steel boat was scheduled to leave for Moroni on the island of Grande Comore, Comoros largest of its three main islands, Wednesday, three days ahead. It has plastic seats on the upper deck for the 30 hour crossing and a cargo deck below. Looking somewhat like an oversized tug boat with the bridge forward and deck aft. No further information could be obtained till the cargo office opened tomorrow, but at least it seems a boat was running.

22/5/06 We were at the Mohoro freightFishing felucas head in and out of Mahajanga harbour each day office this morning but the Wednesday scheduled departure had already been delayed till Friday. So we started looking for other boats. The shipping trade out of Mahajanga seems to be dying, replaced by the port of Tamatave on the east coast as trade with Asia increases and trade with Africa decreases. The consensus was, a boat scheduled to leave Friday won't depart till Monday as it would arrive in the Comoros on a weekend and draw overtime charges. After visiting a few agencies we ended up at the wharf again. Small enough for us to be allowed to wander about freely there were four steel hulled coastal freighters alongside. Too small to handle modern containers they are loaded by hand or by small jibs. One, half loaded with timber, scheduled to leave Wednesday, could take us to Moroni, the capital of Grand Comoros. All the boats seem to charge the same for passengers, about $US 85.00, sleep on deck, eat with the crew. The motorcycle about the same. A visit to customs had clearance for the bike in an hour, friendly service. There is still no definite time or day the boat will leave. When loaded, at high tide, during daylight hours and paperwork completed. At least this boat has cargo being loaded as we watched.

23/5/06 We had been told to come backLoading our boat, Capricorne, by hand, with timber on big tides to the boat this morning to see how loading was progressing. A crane and team of workers were still loading wood into the hull into what already appeared an overloaded boat. The agent wrote us tickets and paperwork for the motorcycle, come back tomorrow at 3 pm for a 5 pm sailing, it seemed that simple. With little else to do in town we went back to the hotel and read books. 

24/5/06 To the boat this morning to be told by the captain it would be Friday before departure. The agent's version in his office that it would be leaving tomorrow, a customs problem, but the captain had said they were waiting on a special engine. Telling you what you want to hear rather than the truth is the norm in this region of the world and seems to add to their problems. No-one ever wants to deliver bad news, except your nosey neighbour. Assuming it would be at least Friday I decided to give my down jacket and down sleeping bag a long overdue wash and hopefully the hot dry air here would dry them quickly.

25/5/06 Early this morning, Thursday, the agent left a message at our hotel that the boat won't be leaving till Saturday. After yesterday's delay we checked the other agent's boats again and the earliestThe 700 yr old Baobab in Mahajanga one would be leaving would be Saturday so it is just time to wait. The idea of our book was formulating. Likely a coffee table style. The travelogue of, we went here did this, variety seemed unappealing and many have been written before. Stories interspersed with photos loosely linked by a travelogue is the current thought. The collation of the diary web page and our memories into lightly defined topics occupied the day, and many waiting days to come by all accounts.

26/5/06 Took another look at the boat, Friday. Still being loaded by hand, now with bags of onions on top of the timber and bags of coconuts. The pile gets higher as the boat sinks lower. The plimsoll line long gone beneath the water and now just a metre of freeboard to the deck. We were told to bring the motorcycle at 10 am tomorrow for loading, goodness knows where it will fit.

27/5/06 Saturday. You know you have been in a place too long when you need to buy more tea bags because the ones you bought on arrival have all gone. We packed up, checked out of the hotel, went to the wharf, and yes the boatNot much of a boat, not much choice again is delayed, now leaving Monday. The other boat next to ours at the wharf, also delayed, is now leaving next Wednesday, with the two others in port not even starting loading, so we went back to the hotel and checked in again to wait. Short of money as we had run down our supply to leave and had spent our last Francs, and being Saturday the banks are closed. As long standing customers the hotel lent us some on deposit of foreign currency till Monday. This town is fairly dead most days but on weekends the city area is a ghost town. Another opportunity to work on the book but I would rather be moving and are now finding the delay difficult. 

28/5/06 Kay thinks we have slipped into Groundhog Day. This is the fifth shipping of the motorcycle so far on this section of the trip since December, with an expected total of fifteen shippings to finish this section in fifteen months. One a month. If we lose a week, or more at each shipping it will be a long drawn out trip. There aren't many restaurants in town, and we have tried most, the better ones a few times. Luckily we had checked into a comfortable hotel on arrival and are happy to stay in our aircon room inReady to load the motorcycle, finally the heat of the day, but the walls are closing in. No boat has arrived nor left in the week we have been here. Two are being loaded, two lay idle. Ours is in the worst condition, one of the three larger boats and still the earliest scheduled departure.

29/5/06 We try to travel on a reasonably flexible time frame trying to keep about two weeks spare for the unseen eventualities. Our only real shorter term time frame is the wet season in Congo Brazzaville which starts in late August. Our two week time buffer is disappearing rapidly and with the unknown of another boat from The Comoros to Tanzania and up to two weeks needed to get an Angolan visa as they have to be referred to Luanda for approval, time is getting tighter. Again packed up from the hotel to be at the wharf by 2 pm. They were still loading pieces of timber. The lady consigning onions was on the wharf, it all looked good till about 5 pm, the paperwork wasn't completed, come tomorrow at 7 am. The onion lady was furious. Her onions have been sitting in the sun now for four days. 

30/5/06 Arrived at 7 am toDragging the motorcycle over the guard rails in loading be told to come back at 10 am. Such is the total disorganisation and lack of responsibility of any one in charge. The third time we have checked out of this hotel, the reception thinks it is a great joke, we don't. We were told to wait, and waited till 4 pm. A large container ship had arrived. Too big to come alongside it offloaded containers onto barges which were taking up all the wharf space. Our boat couldn't get direct wharf access till almost 5 pm when the motorcycle was finally loaded, pushed up a 30 degree incline of wooden planks and over the handrail and manhandled into position. The front mudguard being damaged and the underneath simply dragged across the guard rail, but at least it was on board. Passengers were arriving, about 25 in all, and were packed on top of the timber on the back deck. Finally leaving at 6.30, fond farewells by most passengers to friends on the wharf. Comorians returning home. Somehow people found spaces to lie down, between luggage, sleeping on the top of two freezers or four people to a double mattress. We cleared a spot on a pile of wooden planks, rolled out our inflatable mattresses on the uneven surface and rolled with the boat all night feeling as if we would be lurched overboard or into theSleeping on the timber at guard rail height  engine compartment. We were told there would be no dinner tonight, despite food being provided by the boat, as there were too many passengers!

31/5/06 It was a long day. Neither Kay nor I really get seasick but we both get nauseous enough to feel uncomfortable and are not prepared to read to occupy the mind. There was no shade on the back deck so there was a constant huddle from one small patch of shade to the next as the sun moved overhead. The engines stopped about midday and we bobbed about without land or other vessels in sight. Some engine problem was the word but we were underway again in about an hour. Meagre, basic food was dished out, rice and meat, some ate, some were seasick.

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