The Journey's End, Slightly Too Soon
Airborne to Antalaha and Onward North
- or -
One Final Section to Complete
In the morning, I began the day filled with optimism, thanks to my success in reaching Maroantsetra, but also a little apprehensive about the logistics of the last part of the tour. The first task of the day was to board an Air Mad plane for the short flight to Antalaha. My tickets were confirmed and my bags were packed, but I was still not sure that the bike would be allowed onto the small plane. I was told that it would not be a problem, but on that trip I knew that there were no certainties. If the flight went off without any problems, I would still need to make the ride to Diego Suarez, at the northern tip of the island, in time to catch my next flight back to Tana. I had six days available to ride the 560 kilometers from Antalaha to Diego, but I wanted to spend one full day visiting Ankarana National Park along the way. Over 100 kilometers per day would not normally be any big deal for me, however, on that segment there were two sections of paved road, and two sections of dirt. If the dirt portions were as tough as some of the earlier ones had been, I could have very well found myself stuck on Madagascar for an indeterminate length of time. I can’t say that I would have been very upset about that, though.
With plenty of time to spare, I jumped in a taxi for the bumpy ride out to the airstrip. I was the first passenger to arrive at the airport, which consisted of a single tiny building along a single runway. I was relived a while later, when the agent accepted my bike as baggage, with my payment of the expected over-weight-limit fee. I should have known not to worry about any of that, since this was still Madagascar, and as the other passengers arrived, they also checked the usual odd assortment of baggage. In fact, on that occasion one of the others actually did check a live chicken in a basket! The plane arrived right on time a short while before or scheduled departure and the ground crew efficiently serviced it and loaded all the baggage. All of the bags were stacked up in the cabin where the first two rows of seats would normally have been. I sat in the next seat back, which gave me a nice piece of mind, since I could reach out and touch the bike, which was on top of the pile. Moments later, we were airborne.
Air Mad uses Twin Otter aircraft for its shorter routes.
The flight was extremely beautiful, passing right over the forested Masoala peninsula at an altitude of only a couple thousand meters. I could see swift-flowing rivers cascading down from the steep hillsides, and onwards through the verdant forests to the sea. The boundary of the national park was also apparent as at its edge the forests had largely been cleared in years gone by. I was a little sad that I did not have time to make a trip out to the park, but I could see that doing so would have been a significant excursion. The flight only lasted a brief 30 minutes, and before I knew it I was on the ground in Antalaha
It was about 10:30 A.M. when the plane landed. I tried to be as efficient as possible when I reassembled the bike so I could make it into town before the stores closed for siesta. By the time I did that and changed my clothes, however, it was well after eleven o’clock. Fortunately, the 15 kilometers to town were over a flat, smooth, paved road, and I rolled along at a brisk pace making it to town just in time.
Atalaha was a nice-looking town, with a good number of services available, and if I was not short of time, I would have enjoyed spending a little more time there. The town is at the center of the vanilla-producing region of the island, which extends from Maroantsetra, though Antalaha, and about another 200 kilometers further north. Madagascar produces something like 80% of the world’s vanilla, which is the country’s primary export crop. Consequently, that region is one of the wealthier parts of the country. The effects of that could be seen by the presence of several large "modern" houses in the surrounding area, many of which were encircled by an uncharacteristic, in Malagasy terms, stone fence. While in the area, I had hoped to get a good look at a vanilla plantation, and also dine on some local cuisine that featured that crop. However, once again, it didn’t seem to be the right time of year for that, and I only managed to get a distant look at some of the green, bushy vanilla plants.
I didn’t want to spend too much time in town, since the first, 90-kilometer long section of dirt road started just to the north. Due to the way the towns were spaced out along the rest of the route, I would need to cover most of that distance before dark. The rest of the day would go a long way to determining whether I would be able to make by upcoming flights. Back in Maroantsetra, Patrick had told me that the road, there known as R.N. 5a, was in "good shape" relative to the road from Mananara at least, as it had recently been regraded. I was also feeling fairly strong after a two-day break from riding, so I was optimistic that I would get off to a good start. So, after getting some drinks and supplies at a Tiko store, and a quick lunch at a nearby restaurant, I set out to the north.
The road turned to dirt right at the edge of town and the first few kilometers were rather rocky and bumpy. Not a very auspicious start. Fortunately, before too much longer, the surface did indeed improve, and the road became a fully wide, level lane. The surface was fairly hard, though there were occasional sandy spots. The terrain was essentially flat as well, and all taken together, those qualities allowed me to advance reasonably quickly. There were no major towns along the way, so when I spotted a roadside store in a tiny village, I stopped for a short break. I was hoping that I would see some fresh vanilla pods for sale there, but I was disappointed to find only several large sacks of cloves waiting to be picked up out on the porch.
The dirt road from Antalaha to Sambava was relatively good riding.
Midway along the dirt section, the road passed through a fairly woody area, and there the road became increasingly sandy and the terrain a little bit rolling. That slowed me down considerably, and I started to get a little worried. Happily, those conditions did not last too long and I eventually broke out into the open, and was able to maintain a moderate pace once again. Out in the open, there were some very nice views of the surrounding countryside. That, in addition to the warm, sunny weather, made for some rather enjoyable hours on the bike.
There are many beautiful scenes in the northeast.
I had covered enough distance throughout the afternoon that when I rolled into the small town of Farahalana at about 3:30 P.M., I had enough time to take a relaxing drink break. A little later, as nightfall approached I moved on in order to cover a few more kilometers before stopping for the day. The first sight I saw at the edge of town was a long, arching steel bridge across the Lokoho River. What an indulgent pleasure it was to be able to cross a real bridge, as opposed to one that was likely to fall apart as you inched across! It was my understanding that, in addition to the region’s wealth from the vanilla industry, the roadway infrastructure along the northeast coast was better than on the rest of the island because the former President/Dictator, Didier Ratsiraka, received much of his support from that area. Apparently, he kept his influence strong the region with a little preferential treatment.
The bridges in this area were a welcome surprise.
Just across the bridge, there was what appeared to be a rock quarry, and there were a number of people milling about as the place was closing down for the evening. That also resulted in a number of large trucks being loaded for the trip north to Sambava, the next major town to the north. I knew that, because of all of the commotion, I would need to travel a little further north to escape all the noise and crowds. Eventually, just as darkness fell over the countryside, I located a satisfactory spot to sleep after dragging the bike through a thick patch of woodland. I could still hear the noisy trucks pass by for a while, but they eventually stopped as the night moved on, and I drifted off for a pleasant sleep before too long.
Antalaha to north of Farahalana
Distance: 81 km
Weather: Sunny, pleasant, Maximum Temp: 32 C
Roads Traveled: Routes National 53 and 5a (short paved section, then good/fair dirt)
A Truly Spectacular Ride
- or -
I Knew That I Could Still Do It
I was really looking forward to another enjoyable and productive day as I packed my things up first thing in the new morning. I had been on the lookout during the entire trip for a road that I could add to my personal list of all-time favorite touring roads, and I finally found what I was seeking on that day. There were a little less than twenty kilometers to go to get to Sambava, where the smooth pavement would start again. During the day I would try to travel as far as possible to take advantage of the good conditions and give myself a little buffer in case there were more rough sections further ahead. Despite that plan, I chose to delay breakfast until I reached town, so I could have my meal in a more relaxed manner. So, I set out early to finish the last section of dirt road as soon as possible.
A few tiny villages lined the road on the way to town, and their residents were already out taking care of their daily affairs. The people of the east coast were as friendly and dignified as those from other parts of the island. However, there were a few differences that were apparent in this area. One was the clothing worn by the village women. Instead of the wraps made from bright printed fabrics worn in other parts of the island, they often wore western-style dresses and a big, floppy hat. This gave them a slightly formal countenance, which they maintained even when they walked along some of the muddy and rocky roads of the east. The men of the area normally wore more casual clothes, so in that respect I blended in, at least a little.
Traditional homes on the east coast are built on stilts.
It was still fairly early when I arrived in Sambava, but the town was already bustling. Sambava is the second largest town on the northern east coast, after Tamatave, and is the center of the vanilla industry. Consequently, there were several modern shops, transport connections, and other services in town. Once again, because of the time of day that I arrived, I didn’t plan on spending much time there, though it would have been a pleasant place for a longer break. Instead, I stopped in one of the small grocery shops, bought some food, and stayed around just long enough to finish it. The town sprawled along to the north, and for a while I needed to navigate through the first instance of semi-urban streets that I had seen for quite some time. Slowly I threaded my way along though the characteristic sea of people and vehicles that filled such places. Before too long, I pushed out of town into the beautiful countryside, which was when the real fun began.
As soon as the influence of the town ended, the countryside opened up into one of the most beautiful areas that I have ever ridden though. R.N. 5a turned inland north of town and would remain a considerable distance from the coast for the rest of the day. The road surface was perfectly smooth and there was almost no traffic, as usual, as it gently rose, fell, and wound its way through the now rolling terrain. Surrounding the highway was some of the most attractive greenery that I had seen on the entire trip. Beautiful flowers were in bloom all along the side of the road, and across the open fields that periodically lined the route. The direction that the road was heading also provided some exceptional views of the rugged mountains that stood along the eastern edge of the central plateau. It was such a pleasure to be able to ride along and simply observe all of these impressive sights without having to worry about illness, mechanical problems, or terrible roads, and I took full advantage of that, riding along as happy as I had ever been.
The road from Sambava to Vohemar is one of the finest rides I have ever done.
Consequently, I traveled along at such a brisk pace that I arrived in the small town of Antsirabe at midday, already 80 kilometers into the route. This was my planned rest stop, and it was nice to have some extra time to enjoy myself. There were not very many services in town but I had a nice, if ordinary, meal of vary at one of the hotelys. Apparently, I had traveled outside of the soup chinois zone once again, to my dismay. The town had one especially nice feature, however, namely easy access to the Mahanara River, which ran right through the town. The river was cool and swift, and there were a lot of smooth rocks where I was able to sit and cool my feet in the water. That was the first time in a long while that I had really been able to relax during my midday break.
I didn’t stay as long as I could have, however, as I was anxious to get back on the bike to continue the day’s wonderful ride. I was not disappointed as the conditions, if anything, improved during the afternoon. Scenically, the area was superb with continuos lush, green countryside in all directions. Topographically, the surroundings were even better, with many sharp hills widely separated by beautiful little valleys. The road wound around the hills without any serious climbs, instead rolling just enough through the valleys to keep things interesting. I may have even enjoyed some nice climbs at that point, since I was feeling stronger on the bike than I had for weeks. Finally, I felt like I had conquered all of the effects of my earlier health problems, though some of the root causes were still lingering on.
Beautiful foliage lines the route.
Due to my continued speedy advancement, I was able to take another relaxing break at the scruffy little town of Tsarabaria. The afternoon heat was warming things up, and I appreciated the opportunity to enjoy a refreshing drink and a snack. I was content to sit out on the sunny porch in front of the small store, but the shopkeeper insisted on setting up a little table for me in the shade, which was even nicer. Riding on again into the evening, there was an increased number of folks walking along the roadway, which only enhanced the fun of the day as I was able to exchange pleasantries with all of them as I sped by.
All of these factors combined to put this section of road firmly near the top of my list of all-time favorite touring roads. There were other roads on the island that had smooth pavement, no traffic, incredible scenery, great weather, and where I was feeling strong and fit. However, this was the one piece of road where all of those factors occurred simultaneously, in an exceptional way. What really made that day stand out was that I was on Madagascar, and that by itself was enough to turn any otherwise commonplace day into an extraordinary one. At that point I wished that I could have added an additional month to my visit, which was the length that I thought would really be needed before I began.
Route National 5a gently winds through many amazing valleys.
After another 30 kilometers, or so, the road, which had turned due north and moved closer to the coast, brought me out of the lush green countryside that I had ridden through all day, and into a drier, scrubby landscape. The openness around me gave a nice feeling to the approaching evening sky. Along the gently sloping hillsides, I could see men driving their zebu through the grassy scrubland. Where I could not see them, they made their presence known by their frequent vocalizations, in a way that only our bovine friends can do. I could tell that I would have no trouble finding a place to sleep in the open countryside that night as long as I could locate a spot that was reasonably zebu-free. So, since I was having such a good time, I let myself continue on until the last rays of daylight were casting long shadows across the road.
A pretty Sunset tops off an extraordinary day.
As the sun was going down, I walked out into an adjacent field, far enough to escape the sounds and headlights of any trucks that were to pass in the night, and set up for the night behind a little clump of trees. The grass grew in tight bunches there and it was a little difficult to beat it down enough to make a comfortable place to lay down, but with a little effort I managed to make a tolerable site. As I waited to fall asleep I congratulated myself on my daily distance of 160 kilometers. That was normally what I would expect to cover on a typical day on one of my previous tours, but it was the first time I had managed it on that trip. Of course, the perfect conditions helped a lot. Nevertheless, I was quite happy to demonstrate to myself that I still had it in me in spite of all the hardships I had caused on the trip so far. And I had managed to pull of a long day like that one just in the nick of time, too.
Farahalana to south of Ampondra
Distance: 159 km
Weather: Sunny, warm, Maximum Temp: 33 C
Terrain: Flat to lightly rolling
Roads Traveled: Route National 5a (excellent pavement)
A Final Misfortune, and Vohemar
- or -
So Close, and Yet So Far
My mood was once again optimistic in the morning as I packed up and set out just after dawn. I had already covered 140 of the 560 kilometers from Antalaha to Diego Suarez, and I felt that the remaining 320 would certainly be achievable. There was, however, another 170-kilometer stretch of dirt just ahead,. Though, since I had managed at least 80 kilometers per day on all but the very worst dirt roads to that point, I felt confident that I could traverse that stretch in two days or less. That would give me plenty of time to visit one of my top remaining destinations, Ankarana National Park, and still make it to Diego Suarez in time for my flight back to Tana. Ankarana is an interesting park, as it contains a good example of a karstic limestone landscape, with rows of tall, thin stone pinnacles, known as Tsingy in Malagasy. The park also supports a diverse community of wildlife, and the viewing opportunities there were supposed to be excellent. So, with that in mind, I was anxious to proceed and finish my tour, covering a cycling route over essentially the whole length of the island.
In the earliest hour of the morning I made my way back to R.N. 5a, which for the time being still consisted of a well-paved surface, and rolled along though the scrubby countryside. The sun was bright, and the openness of the area made me feel, correctly, that I was in the vicinity of the sea. There were only about fifteen kilometers to go before the next large town, Vohemar, which also has an official Malagasy name of Iharana that is almost never used. The riding was easy, and in short order I arrived in town, the last few kilometers being aided by a significant slope down to the shore. Since I knew that I had been close to town that night, I once again declined to have breakfast in the tent in favor of a more relaxed meal in town. There didn’t seem to be too much going on in town, but it was not very hard to find a fairly well-stocked store, where I was able to obtain my morning fare, and supplies for the rest of the day. Since I knew that there was still a long way to go that day, I didn’t dally much longer than was needed to finish my meal before setting off once again.
The countryside is more open near Vohemar.
Route National 5a split off from the main highway just outside town and turned to the northwest, which was where the pavement ended and the dirt began. At the start, the conditions seemed pretty good, with a fairly hard surface and only a moderate amount of sand. However, the road did begin to climb back up from the coastal plains into the higher ground inland, which made the going a little slow at first. In fact, as the day was already heating up, I needed to pull off the road and rest for a while to take in some more fluids and let the energy from my breakfast kick in. After a while, I had completely woken up, and continued to ride on maintaining a moderate pace. Along the way, I was frequently passed by little taxicabs, though, since there did not appear to be anything in the area except a few scattered homes, I could not figure out why they were out there, or where they were going.
Before long, the road stopped climbing, turned more to the west, and entered an area of lightly rolling hills. The countryside was even drier than it had been south of Vohemar, and the landscape opened up to something that was reminiscent of Wyoming. It seemed strangely out of place to me, but not entirely unwelcome, as I realized that meant that I shouldn’t have to worry about encountering any significant amount of mud. Even the sand was tolerable and, though there were a few soft spots here and there, I didn’t have much trouble maintaining a brisk pace. I also met a few large trucks traveling in the opposite direction. That told me that the conditions for the rest of the way would not be too bad, since the road was obviously open all the way. My confidence soared as I felt sure that I was going to complete the ride from bottom to top of the island just according to my, admittedly often-revised, plan.
Continuing to the north, the landscape is drier.
My optimism was soon dashed, however, when, after an hour or two riding along on the dirt road, disaster struck once again. Off and on throughout the tour, the bike had been making one of those ominous creaking sounds, of the type that were almost impossible to localize. Since the sound occasionally went away for long periods, I had convinced myself that it was just one of those minor creaks that I would be able to track down once I returned home. Of course, it wasn’t, and as I was pedaling hard to get across a patch of soft sand, the cartridge bearings in my bottom bracket disintegrated with a loud Pop!, followed by the sound of a chain twisting around my dangling cranks. With a sinking feeling in my stomach, I leaned the bike against the dirty bank at the side of the road, and sat down, to take a long drink of water before examining the damage.
When I finally took a look, the scene was not pretty. The bottom bracket was completely ruined and when I tried to spin the cranks, they flopped from right-to-left, up to five centimeters with each rotation. For those that are not bike mechanics, that meant that the bike was once again unrideable. It only took me a few seconds after seeing that, to realize in my heart that, as far as bicycling was concerned, the tour was finished. There were only three and a half days left before I had to be on a plane back to Tana. I suspect that if I had looked around I probably could have located a replacement bottom bracket at one of the bike parts stands in the area. However, pulling my cranks, and removing the old bottom bracket would have posed a considerable problems, and I doubted that I could get all of that done in less than one or two days even in the best of cases. So, even if I could get the bike fixed again, I would not have had enough time to ride to Diego, or anywhere for that matter, before my flight.
It was a little disconcerting to look around at that point and see nothing but distant mountains and a long, dusty, and deserted road. Whatever I did next, I knew that the first thing I had to do was make my way back to Vohemar. As I started walking back, I considered all of the possible options to get back to Tana. There was no road access from my current location to any point in the middle of the island, so travelling that way was out of the question. There was an Air Mad flight from Vohemar to Diego, but only on Fridays, and by the next Friday, I was already supposed to be back in Tana preparing for my flight home. So that was no good either. Another option would have been to take a taxi-brousse from Vohemar back to Sambava, where I could catch another flight to Tana on Wednesday. Since it was only Sunday, there probably would have been plenty of time to work that out, but it would have been a lot of trouble to cancel my current flight and get a new ticket. The best option it seemed, if I was lucky, would be to obtain passage on a cargo ship from Vohemar to Diego. I would have over three days to make the trip to Diego, which seemed like it should be adequate time get there. But I had no idea whether there were any departures scheduled that would get me there in time. That was still my first choice, however, but before I would know whether it would work, I needed to get myself back to the Vohemar port.
It didn’t seem like I had traveled very far that morning when I was riding, but while walking back, I realized that it actually had been a considerable distance. The bike was impossible to pedal, but I was able to get on and coast down the hills, which helped a little. Of course, though it seemed like I had been climbing during most of the morning when I was riding, now that I was going in the other direction of foot, the expected downhill grades seemed to be absent. I assumed that it would not be too long before another truck would come along heading to Vohemar that would hopefully give me a lift. However, the only ones I encountered for a while were traveling in the wrong direction. Eventually, I saw the Sun’s reflection off of a metallic object slowly making its way along the road from behind. It was inching its way along as it obviously had to detour around the dried out waterholes that I had earlier been able to ride swiftly around. Finally, it was close enough that I was able to make out what it was. It was the taxi-brousse. In that particular incarnation, the taxi-brousse was an old Datsun pickup truck from the 01970’s with a covered rear bed. As it drew closer, I could see that there were already two or three bikes tied onto the roof, with a couple of passengers up there as well. Arms and legs were dangling out of the rear bed in all directions belonging to the passengers stuffed inside, and two men stood on the rear bumper. I declined to invite myself aboard on that occasion as the overstuffed vehicle slowly rolled by.
I had been mostly walking for a while when I made my way back to the area where the road started to roll through the hills toward the coast. Just then, I remembered all of those taxicabs that I had observed mysteriously driving over that dusty road earlier in the morning. It was not very long before one appeared to in front of me, and when I waved him down the driver swung around to pick me up and I was shortly on my way back to town in a more rapid manner. Though I never did really figure out where all the taxis had been going.
Several minutes later, after the driver picked up a few other passengers along the way, I was back in the center of Vohemar. My first order of business was to quickly make my way to the port and inquire about the schedule of ships heading north. I had ridden by the port in the morning when I was circling the town looking for a store, and I knew that there had been a couple of large boats docked there. Hopefully they were still in port and one of them would be sailing north soon. When I walked up to the entrance, there were not many people around, but the boats were still there. The only person I saw was a soldier at the guard gate. He was a friendly fellow, and spoke a little broken English. So, it was not too difficult to learn from him that, indeed there was a boat heading to Diego on Tuesday that was accepting passengers. It was the big blue cargo ship that was, at that time, tied up at the dock. I would have preferred leaving on Monday, but since I was told that the trip usually took nine hours, the ship would apparently make it to town with enough time left to see a little bit of the area and still catch my flight.
I then took the opportunity to ask the guard if he knew of a nice hotel in town. He replied in the affirmative, and I was glad to hear that the best place in town was only about fifty meters down the sandy road from where I was standing, right on the waterfront. Moments later I walked up to the Sol y Mar hotel and checked in for two nights. The Sol y Mar was a nice, quiet collection of pink bungalows, some with private baths and warm water, which were lined up along the small beach. The rate for one of the nicer rooms was about $25.00. There was also a nice restaurant on the premises. Once I had checked in, I wasted no time in taking a refreshing shower before stretching out for a while to reflect on the experiences of my trip.
Since I had easily been able to come up with a plan to get myself to Diego and Tana in time to depart for home, I was feeling relaxed and satisfied with my accomplishments. To be sure, I was a little disappointed to not be able to finish the ride to Diego. One of my favorite experiences on any tour is the triumphal final ride into the destination town. Because of my last bit of hard luck, the tour felt a little like it had finished with a whimper instead of a bang. But, thinking back about all of the exceptional sights I had seen, all the interesting people I had met, and all the times I had to be creative to work out the logistics of cycling around the country, I couldn’t help but feel a little proud of the whole journey. Of course, I still had a few days left on the island, and there were a few more things left to see.
The Hotel Sol y Mar in Vohemar.
On Monday, I had nothing particular to do as I waited for the boat to take me to Diego. Vohemar seemed to me to be sort of a sleepy place compared to Antalaha, or even Maroantsetra, with few attractions in town. There were some excursions available to some local sights, but I was not particularly up for any long trips from town at that time. Instead, I simply walked around, checking out the market, where I bought a few meters of a brightly printed fabric to take home as a souvenir. There were also some nice places for food, which was always a welcome choice. I took full advantage of that, and later had another nice dinner at the Sol y Mar restaurant. Finally, before turning in for the night, I carefully disassembled and bundled up the bike for the long trip back to Tana. After doing that several times during the tour, I was getting quite good at it. The boat was not scheduled to leave until the following afternoon, so I settled in for a good night’s sleep with the attractive possibility of sleeping late the next day.
A pretty Sunset in Vohemar to celebrate the end of the ride.
Ampondra to northwest of Vohemar
Distance: 36 km
Weather: Sunny, warm, Maximum Temp: 33 C
Terrain: lightly rolling
Roads Traveled: Route National 5a (short paved section, then tolerable dirt)
On the Mighty Sea Once More,
Diego Suarez, and Return to Tana
- or -
If the Boat is Late, Can I Stay on the Island?...
Tuesday morning found me slowly rising and in not much of a hurry to do anything. The boat to Diego was not supposed to leave until 3:00 P.M. so I had a lot of time to kill. After a while, I took another walk into the center of town and eventually sat down in a small restaurant for a tasty lunch. On my way back to the Sol y Mar, I walked along the road past the port. There, the solider I had met earlier called me over and informed me that another boat, the M.V. Salama, had arrived during the night, and it would also be heading for Diego. Since it was leaving sooner, at 1:00 P.M. I chose to go on that ship instead, as I was always interested in saving a little time. It was already noon, and I had just about enough time to run back to the Hotel, check out, and carry my things back to the dock.
When I returned to the gate, a longshoreman grabbed the bike to help me carry it to the ship. After walking up the gangplank, I tried to find an out of the way spot to set my baggage down on the deck while I went off to register with the Captain. His office was just below the bridge, and once I found it he had me sit down and sign in on his passengers resister. The fare for the trip to Diego was $16.00, which I though was quite reasonable. At that point there was still twenty minutes to go before the scheduled departure, and I realized that it would probably be a good idea to get some food to eat along the way. So, I dashed back into town, and bought a few small loaves of bread, some star fruit, a few carrots, a pack of cookies, some candy, a bottle of water and a big bottle of cola. Not the most spectacular of meals, but at least I’d have something to chew on along the way. Of course, I didn’t really need to rush, because there was not much likelihood that the boat would leave at exactly one o’clock. A slight delay was ensured by the arrival of many more passengers over the next several minutes. I assumed that there would only be room for a half dozen people on the ship, but there must have been twenty by the time everyone was on board. Once again, I was not the only one who had brought unusual baggage on, and there were many overstuffed baskets placed along the deck.
The M.V. Salama waits to depart the Vohemar port.
It was not much longer before the engines were fired up and the Salama eased itself away from its berth. The other boat going to Diego, the blue one, remained tied up at the dock waiting for its later departure. I must say, that I was actually rather looking forward to the sea trip to Diego. I had never traveled the sea on a cargo vessel before, and it was something that I had always wanted to do. The Salama was probably thirty meters in length, though it could not accurately be described as a comfortable ship. There were no cabins for the passengers, or even any deck chairs. My shipmates and I simply sat on the hard, 1.5-meter wide steel deck that surrounded the bridge. I felt rather sorry for the folks on the starboard side, because the baking afternoon sun was causing the exposed metal surfaces to resemble frying pans. However, when one of the mates told a few of the passengers that they could climb up to the upper deck behind the bridge, which was shaded by a canopy, I didn’t feel too guilty to make sure that I could go up too.
That was a much more pleasant place from which to watch the sea flow by, and before long we had slipped out of the harbor, past the requisite shipwreck and out into the Indian Ocean. Every seaport that I saw in Madagascar seemed to have at least one, and often more, rusting old ships in the vicinity that had obviously met with some unfortunate mishap on their last voyage. That didn’t do much to inspire confidence, but the Salama seemed to be a sturdy vessel, and I put my fate in the hands of her Captain and crew. Those fellows possessed all of the qualities that one would imagine sailors normally did, strong bodies, a tolerance for discomfort, and faces that looked like they had spent years out in the hot sun.
The Salama heads out to sea.
The sun was particularly bright that day and the sea was not rough, which made for a quite beautiful trip during the afternoon. I spent most of the time watching the coastline pass by on out port side, trying to identify the landforms of the shore with the aid of my map. That was not easy to do, and eventually, I just sat back and relaxed to the sounds of the sea and the rumble of the engine. It was not long before the Sun sank down below the horizon, and I lost the ability to see anything at all. At that point I tried to get comfortable, as there was still quite a way to go. If the trip were to take nine hours, as I had been told, the boat would have arrived at Diego at 10:30 P.M. So, for several more hours, there would not be much to do, and the other passengers and I each found ourselves a spot on the deck on which to stretch out.
The Sun drops below the horizon as the Salama steams northward.
As the evening progressed, the temperature dropped considerably, and I was glad that I had my sleeping bag available. I closed my eyes for a while, but was still able to sleep. Eventually, after what had seemed like a long while, I could tell that we had made a course change. The wind that had been from our bow was now blowing from the starboard side, and the swells started rocking the boat from side to side. I assumed that we were nearing Diego, though it was still a little while longer before I actually saw the lights of the city.
Diego Suarez, or as it is officially known, Antsiranana, is a fairly large city that has occupied a place of importance for hundreds of years due to its strategic location at the northern tip of the island and, especially, its excellent harbor. As the Salama slipped into the harbor shortly before midnight, I was looking forward to being able to lay myself down on a comfortable bed before much longer. However, I was not really sure that I would be able to find any lodging so late at night. As it turned out that would not be a problem after all.
For not long after the ship positioned itself close to the docks, it turned around and maintained a position out in the center of the bay. I gathered from the other passengers that we would be waiting there until morning. While that would not be the mist comfortable night, I decided that it would probably be better than simply wandering around the streets until morning. So, while the other folks crammed themselves into a small shelter under the radar boom, I zipped up my bag and stayed out on deck. That time, I was finally able to drift off for a little bit of sleep.
Of course, I was not really able to sleep very soundly, as the ship periodically repositioned itself in the bay throughout the night. When the eastern horizon began to glow with the approaching dawn, I gave up and rose to watch the sunrise. It was only after that event that I was able to really appreciate the quality of Diego’s harbor. It was essentially a perfect port, with a large protected bay connected to the ocean through a narrow inlet. The Sun, which had risen right up through the passage to the sea now illuminated the low, scrubby hills that encircled the bay. I had expected the northern part of the island to be more lush and green, but that was not really the case. The city itself, which occupied an elevated point that protruded a few kilometers out into the bay, looked relatively modern and I was anxious to go ashore.
Morning at the Diego Suarez Harbor.
As usual, things don’t always move as fast as one would like on the island. Two or three other ships, including the blue ship from Vohemar, had arrived during the night and all of the boats were trading places out in the harbor, waiting for permission to dock. Every time the Salama approached the dock, I assumed that we would be berthed there momentarily. That usually didn’t happen, however, and it seemed to be taking forever for things to be worked out. I had a day and a half before my flight to Tana, and I was still hoping to hire a guide and visit a national park. So, I was very anxious to go onshore to get started on that.
Eventually, we were allowed to proceed to the dock, though for some reason that I never really understood, the blue ship, which left after we did, was allowed to dock first. Apparently the concept of first-come-first-served didn’t apply there, and I realized that I could have spent a few more hours in Vohemar and still have arrived in Diego at the same time. It took a little while to secure the ship to its berth alongside another boat, and for all the passengers to make their way across the two decks and onto dry land. By the time I carried all of my gear across to the shore, it was after 9:30 A.M. I was glad to be in town, finally, and happily followed the man from the port who escorted all of the passengers to where a few taxicabs were waiting.
Wrecked ships form an artificial barrier in the Diego Suarez harbor.
I picked a name from my list of the town’s hotels and asked the driver to take me to the Hotel Orchidee. That sounded like a nice place, but it was fairly run down and a little shabby, given its location on top of a Chinese restaurant. Actually, the room was more than adequate for my needs, with a perfectly serviceable private bath and a soft bed. The price was right, too, at $8.00 for the night. There didn’t seem to be very many nice hotels in Diego at the time, but that will change soon, as a large modern hotel was being constructed right in the center of town. In any case, I collapsed on the bed right away and relaxed for a few minutes.
Of course, I couldn’t afford to rest for too long if I still wanted to arrange a park visit. First, I took a little while to reconsider my choices. There were two parks in the area, Ankarana National Park, and Montagne d’Ambre National Park. Ankarana was my first choice, but it was quite a bit farther away. If I was going to visit there, I would have to leave right away, and that didn’t look too likely. So, I chose to go to Montagne d’Ambre instead. That was slightly disappointing, since I was really looking forward to seeing the Tsingy formations, but I assumed that the other park would be very nice as well. Since it was only about thirty kilometers from town, and I was exceedingly tired at that time, I decided to put off my visit until the following morning. Therefore, I had the rest of the day to relax, explore the town and take care of a few things.
The first of those items was to locate a guide to take me to the park the next day. Fortunately, there was a tour office right next door, and the nice man there set me up with an English-speaking guide and even arranged for him to drop me off at the airport on the way back from the park. The cost for the guide and transport to the park was about $60.00. With that easily taken care of, my next task was to get some food in myself. That was also fairly easy, as there were several places along the main street of the town, Rue Colbert, including some that served ice cream, which I had a particular craving for at that point.
Diego is a fairly diverse town, by Malagasy standards, and there are sizable Arab, Indian, Chinese and other components to the town’s population. During my stay that was especially evident as the city was hosting a visit by a very high-ranking official from the Islamic faith. I heard conflicting information about who he was and where he was from, though it was either Saudi Arabia or India. Many of his followers had traveled to the town to hear him speak. Later, my park guide would, in a amusing slip of translation, continually refer to the visitor as "The Pope". That always made me chuckle, though I suspect the real pontiff might not have been amused. Before long, the town essentially closed up tight for siesta, so I returned to my room for a quick nap.
Diego Suarez has a diverse mix of communities.
The rest of the afternoon was essentially wasted. I wanted to check my e-mail, but there was apparently only one PC available in the town for that, at the local telephone company office. Unfortunately, a very annoying Dutch couple had seated themselves in front of the monitor and appeared to be reading something (which could obviously have been done off-line) for hours, despite the fact that many people were anxious to use the computer. I finally got my chance about ten minutes before the office closed which was very frustrating. To ease my state of mind I left the office and went out to find and enjoy my traditional end-of-tour meal, pizza. There was a nice place couple blocks to the west that served tasty pies cooked in a brick oven and that meal really hit the spot. Of course, I was hungry enough that later on I needed to hit the streets again for a second diner of some filling street food.
After a very restful sleep, I awoke early and met my guide for the day, Christian, and our driver in front of the hotel, right on time at six o’clock. We loaded the bike and my other gear into the van and, after stopping at the market to pick up some food for our lunch, we were on our way to Montagne d’Ambre. Christian spoke excellent English and I learned that the name of the park was a misnomer resulting from the marketing efforts an overzealous Frenchman who wanted to promote Diego. The mountain was neither amber in color, nor contained fossilized amber, as had been claimed. The road to the park was very pretty, passing by many fields of flowers that resembled sunflowers, and I was a little sad that I was not able to bike along it as I had planned
Before long, we arrived at the entrance, and I registered and used one of my pre-bought tickets that I had been carrying since my first day on the island. Moments later, we were off, walking through the thick forest that covered the mountain. If the weather had been wet, it would have been less likely that we would have been able to reach all of the sights on the trail. Fortunately, though it was a little cloudy, as it often was around the tall mountain, the skies cooperated and the morning stayed dry. The trail through the park was excellent and it was an easy walk, which allowed me to focus more of my attention on the canopy above.
A forest trail in Montagne d'Ambre National Park.
As we walked along, we first visited two waterfalls, The Great Waterfall, which was tall and beautiful, and The Sacred Waterfall, which was smaller, but also beautiful, especially since one could walk right up to it’s base. The local Malagasy still leave offerings at the latter cascade. From there, the trail gently climbed a little and eventually reached a more open area mid-way up the side of the mountain. In that part of the park the wildlife viewing was a little bit better. There were several excellent examples of chameleons along the trail and some interesting birds as well. The most impressive to me was a group of Vassa’s Lesser Parrots that flew around for a while. Seeing parrots in the wild is one of my favorite things, and I was glad to observe that species, which are unusual in that they are all black.
Not long after that we encountered yet another species of lemur, the Sanford’s Brown Lemur. Fortunately Christian noticed the pair in a tree along the trail, for I would have walked right by them. This time they did not seem to be too concerned with my presence and did not run away. That was probably because they were juveniles and were busy feeding on the fruit of their tree. I was, therefore, able to watch them for a few minutes, and seeing my fifth lemur species in the wild made the visit to the mountain that much more worthwhile. After a while we continued forward and I was surprised to find that our driver had come around to the other side of the park to pick us up. After a quick lunch at the park’s nice campsite, we set out back to town. I was glad that I had allowed myself to visit the park, even though it was logistically challenging, as it topped off the tour rather nicely.
The Great Waterfall in Montagne d'Ambre National Park.
Shortly thereafter, we were on our way to the airport. By my estimate, there was just enough time to get there in time to check in befor the flight. Fortunately it was not really necessary to arrive very early, as there were usually no security inspections to worry about. However, when we arrived at the terminal I was very surprised to see that the building was packed to the walls with people. Apparently, "The Pope" was scheduled to depart shortly before my flight, and the airport was filled with his followers, many of which would be leaving on later flights. Because of the crowd, it took a lot longer to check in, though Christian kindly waited to see that I was cleared before he left for town. A short while later "The Pope" took off in an official plane of The Republic of Madagascar, and after that the crowd thinned out a little.
Becasue of all the commotion the boarding process was a little more involved than I imagined it usually was, but eventually, I made it on board, and at that point I realized that all of the logistical details of the past few days had worked out for the best and I would definitely make my flight for home. Moments later the plane was in the air for the short flight to the capital. On the ground in Tana, I was greeted by the expected mob of taxi drivers and porters. There, in the crowd, was the same fellow who I had dealt with on my first two trips to the airport and he recognized me as I waited for the bike and my bags. He had offered on both previous occasions to show me around the city, but, since I had other things to take care of, I had always declined. This time, however, I took him up on his offer. I had a couple of things that I wanted to do by myself on Friday, but on Saturday I arranged for him to take me to the Royal Hill at Ambohimanga, just to the north of town.
At that time, however, all I wanted was to make it back to the hotel and relax. After the drive into town, I arranged to meet my new friend on Saturday morning, and then checked back into the Hotel Colbert. The room on that occasion was even nicer than the first one, in the older section of the hotel, had been, and in a few minutes I was pleased to see that my empty bike case was brought up to the room. After such an eventful tour, the only things I had on my mind were taking a hot shower, having a nice meal in the first class restaurant downstairs, and getting a good night’s sleep. I accomplished all three of those items in short order.
One Final Stay in Tana
- or -
I still had essentially two full days left in the country, since my flight to Paris did not leave until Saturday night at 9:40 P.M, and there were still a few things I wanted to do while I was in Tana. On Friday, in addition to visiting a couple of museums, my list included buying some souvenirs from the arts and crafts market, some cd's of traditional Malagasy music, and, hopefully, one of the t-shirts that President Ravalomanana used during his campaign. I thought that the latter item would make an excellent memento since I had seen people wearing them wherever I went on the island. Unfortunately, the shirts were only produced once and there were none for sale in the city. However, the taxi driver that brought me back from the airport said that he could probably get me one and, if so, he would bring it along when he took me back out for my departing flight. Great. One item off he list.
He also directed me to a small music shop at the end of Avenue de l'Independence that sold a lot of Malagasy music. Their shelves were mostly filled with cassette tapes, many of which were from the latest western pop icons. That, of course, was not of interest to me, but the shop also had a modest selection of cd's and I found a couple of discs by traditional groups that looked appealing. They cost a surprising amount, relative to everything else in the city, but I purchased them anyway. Two items down, and there was still a lot of the day left.
Fresh flowers for sale at a Tana market.
Visiting the arts and crafts market would be more of an undertaking. There once was a large, famous crafts market right in the heart of the city called the Zoma. However, it had been closed down recently because its chaotic overcrowding caused security concerns. These days, the largest replacement is a giant collection of vendors out on the edge of town by the rice paddies called the Marche Artisanal de Route Digle. I needed to take a taxi to get out there since going by bike was obviously out of the question. There were maybe a hundred stands and shops there, selling a variety if items such as wood carvings, gems and minerals, baskets, hats and clothing, a wide assortment of toursity trinkets, and the most characteristic Malagasy product, Antaimoro Paper. The latter item is a thick off-white sheet stock made from the long, sinuous fibers of native plants, though these days sisal is often used as well. Into the paper, dried flowers are pressed for decoration. That was the item that I was most interested in and it was easy to find some nice examples.
However, the market is rather treacherous for visiting tourists, since there is a lot of good stuff there and the craft people are all anxious to make a sale. That can be tough for an individual merchant, though. In a typical Malagasy fashion, there are more shops there than are probably necessary, and most of the merchants have not found a good way to make themselves stand out from the rest. The items available are almost all of good quality, but essentially the same things are for sale in every shop. It was also hard to walk along to check out the various offerings since the merchants almost always beckoned a potential vhazaha customer to come inside with exactly the same line: "Mister! I give you good price!". A level of creative salesmanship to match their artistic creativity could have helped many of them out, I suspect. Nevertheless, I bought a few more items than I had planned, some of which were rather heavy, which I hoped would not overload my bags too much.
I had finished all of those chores my lunchtime, so the afternoon was available for a little more sightseeing. There were a few museums that I wanted to see, including the Musee d’Art et Archeologie, not far from the Colbert, and the natural history museum out at the zoo. The first was in a small building that looked a little like a private home. Some of the display areas were off limits for renovations, but there were still some nice items to be seen. Many of those were household items from hundreds of years ago that did not look all that different from some of the ones that I had seen being used today. Since that visit did not take very long, I then decided to ramble out to the zoo on foot.
The Tana zoo, known as Tsimbazza, was perhaps five kilometers out from the center of town, but was not too difficult to find. The interesting museum there had a section devoted to cultural history as well as natural history, but it was the latter that I was most interested in. The display showing a huge number of Madagascar's thousands of insect species was very impressive, taking up most of a rather long wall. There were also exhibits on, birds, reptiles, and, of course, mammals, focusing on the lemurs. However, I was most curious to see the examples of some of the island's creature that were already extinct. The skeletons of giant lemurs, pygmy hippos, and especially the giant elephant-bird were fascinating. I wondered how different my trip across the spiny desert would have been if elephant-birds still roamed the countryside. I also wondered just how many more species from the island would join their long-lost relatives in years to come. Hopefully, none at all.
Zoos are not as exciting to me as they were when I was a child, but since I was already there, I decided to take a look at the animals out in the park. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the grounds were well cared for and many of the animals had relatively livable habitats. Some of the lemurs had especially nice homes because, as they don't like to swim, they were allowed to roam free on a small islands in the middle of a pond. Others unfortunately had to endure life and an old-style cage. Hopefully, they will get better quarters in the future as well. There were also some examples of endemic animals that I did not get a chance to see in the wild, such as the island's main carnivore, the fosa, which looks a bit like a very large weasel. Still, I much preferred seeing the unique animals in their wild, natural habitats and I'm glad I had the chance to do so.
Elephant-Bird skeletons in the Musee Academie Malagache, Tana.
Saturday morning, the start of my last day on the island, had finally arrived and I was feeling a little blue about leaving for home. I wished that I could have stayed for a third month, so I could have visited some of the areas that I was forced to miss. That was not to be, however, and so I decided that if I ever found myself on that side of the globe again, I would have to return to Madagascar to finish the job. Still, I also felt it would be slightly nice to return home to my familiar surroundings and blend back in to my rather anonymous life. There I was never the center of attention, as I had frequently been during my trip around the island. However, before I left there was one last place to see, the Royal Hill at Ambohimanga. My city guide and his driver met me at the Colbert at 8:00 A.M. and we set out for the twenty-kilometer trip to the site. According to my original plan, I would have stopped at Ambohimanga on my final day of cycling as I approached Tana from the north. Obviously, that didn't materialize, but I sill wanted to see the complex, which once housed the first monarchs of the original unified Malagasy kingdom. The route to the site was quite pleasant once we escaped the edge of the city, and I thought that it would have been quite nice to have ridden there. It was not long before we arrived at the complex, which sits at the top of a significant hill, giving it a commanding view of the surrounding area. Obviously, that was the reason that the Royal court chose that location in the first place.
Once on the grounds, a nice young lady who spoke excellent English took me around and explained some of the history of the palaces. The original palace was constructed of wood in the traditional Malagasy style and housed the first kings, Andrianampoinimerina and later Radama. I thought that it was quite significant that the king's home was not that different than that of his county's citizens, though it was undoubtedly a bit larger than most. I was told a wonderful story about how the king would climb up into the rafters to hide whenever a guest arrived. His wife would speak to the guest while he eavesdropped on their conversation from above. That way he could determine whether the visitor had any important information that might not have been revealed to the king face to face. If the king was satisfied that the guest was worth speaking to, he would drop a small pebble down to the floor, and his wife would send the guest away momentarily. When he returned the king would be present and they could meet in person.
Later, a series of queens, including the infamous, Queen Ranavalona built much more elaborate homes at the site. Since they ruled in the early period of contact with the West, there was a more contemporary feel to those dwellings, and they contained numerous gifts from the monarch’s European counterparts, such as Queen Victoria. The newer buildings were trimmed in the national colors of the island, white, red, and green, which were used even in those early days of the kingdom. Ambohimanga is on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites, due to its importance as a reminder of a pre-colonial national government. More importantly, the site still remains extremely culturally important to the modern Malagasy. Many people still come to visit the king's house to pray, showing a continued respect for their ancestors going back hundreds or thousands of years.
The home of the first King of Madagascar in Ambohimanga.
As the evening approached, I had only one thing left to do, make my way back to the airport and settle in for the long, long, long flight back home. When my taxi-driving pal arrived to pick me up, he brought with him the Ravalomanana t-shirt, as promised. I was quite pleased to receive this token, but I suppose I didn’t quite make the point that I was hoping to actually wear it. The shirt was a size x-small, which would not quite fit on my x-large body. Oh well, it was nice to have nonetheless.
As usual, there was still one bit of uncertainty. I expected to be charged a fairly steep fee for exceeding the baggage weight limit, and an Air Mad agent told me earlier that I could only pay that fee with Francs. That posed a bit of a problem, since I wouldn't know exactly how much it would be until I had the bags weighed at the ticket counter, which was on the other side of the security inspectors. Happily, the gate agent did not bother to charge me the fee when he saw that my large bag contained a bike. Merci beaucoup, Monsieur! Visitors were not supposed to take any Francs out of the country, and I had no idea what I was supposed to do with the fistful of bills that I had brought with me to cover the fee. Earlier, I had mentioned my concern to one of the black market currency exchange guys that roamed the terminal. He had suggested that I could sneak out past his policeman friend after I checked in and then he would exchange my cash. It turned out to be his lucky day, and after my suspicious activity was complete, I had recovered at least some of my money. From then on, my flights back home went of mostly without incident, though I certainly hope to never have to spend that much time on a plane again!
The Angely Mainty Monument in Lac Anosy, Tana.
Total Distance by Bicycle: 2,386 km
Total Days in Country : 61
Equivalent Bicycling Days: 26.5
Distance/Riding Day: 90 km
Worthwile Experinces: Countless
Epilog: An Amazing Experince
My trip to Madagascar was wonderful and even more fascinating than I had anticipated it would be. However, it was also not without its consequences. Physically, this was the toughest tour that I have ever done, by far. The skin infections that covered my lower legs stayed with me until shortly after I returned home, as did the occasional need to rush into a restroom. Fortunately, neither of those conditions were very severe and did not result in any long term problems. It also took me a while to put back the body weight that I lost along the way. The long days up on the saddle (or sometimes walking along beside it,) and my occasional gaps of adequate nutrition, caused me to drop almost 16% of my body weight in two months. That was not something that I was anxious to do, for when I left home I was in fairly good shape. Coincidentally, the amount of weight that I lost was just about equal to the weight of all my gear, except the bike. So, between the start and end of the tour, I essentially transformed my total load from riding a loaded bike to the equivalent of riding an empty one. Unfortunately, most of that weight was lost at the sacrifice of lean body weight, especially in my legs. Therefore, when I returned home, my lighter weight didn’t allow me the pleasure of zooming up the hills due to the decrease in power.
The bike did not fare much better. In addition to the failed rear hub and bottom bracket, both of which were overhauled upon my return, I needed to replace several other parts. These included most of the drivetrain, the front derailer, cables and housings, brake pads, computer bracket, pump, and a pair of relatively new riding shoes. Additionally, I had to have the frame repainted, as constantly tossing it onto boats and planes led to many scratches that were full of rust thank to all of the damp conditions.
None of that mattered in the least way. The trip was worth far more than any inconvenience it may have caused. I would gladly have stayed for twice as long if I had been able to afford it. Perhaps then I would have made it to Ankarana National Park and the southern highlands. I learned much more than I expected I would. Most importantly I learned to see the world I live in back at home from a fresh perspective, and frankly, that perspective is not very flattering. It took a visit to a place where the people live a life more connected to each other, and to their surroundings, for me to realize just how dehumanizing our culture can be at times. In the months since I returned from Madagascar, the island has rarely been far from my thoughts. On days when I look around and see our world spinning out of control, I often think about the people of Andika and how they are still there, just as they have always been, making each other laugh and watching the Sun set on their beautiful beach.
Me, the thin, tired, but exceptionally satisfied Vhazaha.