Revolutionary riding in Madagascar.
We had landed slap bang into the middle of a revolution! The people of Madagascar were trying to overthrow their president (the world’s sixteenth richest person) by the means of a “manifestation”. There was a massive strike, all the banks were closed and we didn’t have any local currency. Two of our companions had been left stranded at Heathrow, flights postponed due to the unrest. What a start to the trip of a lifetime!
It all eventually came together, we met with our companions, managed to change some currency at a hotel, left Antananarivo behind and headed towards the east coast. The main route meandered through the suburban streets of the capital. The landscape started to change, the houses changed from brick to bamboo huts, green paddy fields clung to the side of the rolling hills. We progressed slowly through the changing scene, adjusting to the weight in our Karrimor panniers.
We hauled ourselves up to the crest of a col between two large valleys, crossing with ease down the other side. Stones sprang in all directions from our tyres as we gained speed on the descent. We freewheeled into a village and stopped for a drink and a bite to eat. The local children rushed from their smoke filled huts gleefully shouting “sally Vassa”. The food in the roadside huts consisted of all types of fruit, boiled eggs, small doughnuts, sambos (samosa), biscuits, and various types of fly infested dried fish, shrimps and meat.
Our stomachs full we mounted our machines, only to find Sean had the first and only puncture of the trip. Upside down went his bike, the front wheel came off and he began to strip the tyre. It was pure theatre to the locals. The villagers congregated around, fascinated by what was going on. Soon a circle of people looked on in amazement. A small piece of cable wire was found to be the culprit. Patches in place we said good bye to our audience and made tracks.
Descending the Cresta-run.
The road gained height again topping out over another col, then to our delight we saw the road meandering below us in a great ark. Clinking gears, we eagerly descended the Cresta-run over taking trucks and taxi-brousse on the way. All good things have to end as we rolled on to the approaching plateau. Over to quickly.
The sun was slowly sinking into a tinge of red as we turned off the main road and headed down the dirt track towards Lac Mantasoa. Sweaty and dirty we entered the grand Hotel d’Ermitage, the playground of the rich. Due to the manifestation the hotel was totally empty of tourists and we managed to bargain the price down considerably. A hot bath, magnificent food and good beer rounded off a wonderful day.
We were on the road at dawn, following the dirt track around the scenic man-made lake. A right turn found us on the main route again. We stopped at the truckers cafe in the next village and sampled more of the local delights. Breakfast over we rolled on towards the coast.
Entering the rainforest.
The scenery started to change again, the trees thickened to form a rainforest, the huts were now made of mud. We were still at quite an altitude and the way became steeper, the hum of the fat tyres fastened on the road. Gears clicked up as the road dropped below us.
The freewheeling over we kept up a good pace in the undulating countryside. The rainforest lived up to it’s name and we donned our Calange Windlite tops for some protection. After a couple of hours cycling in constant mizzle we decided to throw in the towel at the next village, Moramanga. The tourist hotels were all shut due to the manifestation, but the local fleapit’s were doing business as usual. Our accommodation for the night was extremely cheap. We ate in a Chinese restaurant and talked to the owner about the revolution.
Racing the revolution.
Our route was taking us towards the affluent port of Tamatave. During our previous nights table talk, we had found out that a massive demonstration was to be held there in three days time, the day we were due to arrive. With this in mind we loaded our bikes and equipment on to a truck for some extra speed. Packed in the truck with us were sacks of rice, bunches of bananas, local villagers, and a couple of chickens.
The truck ride came to a head in the town of Brickville. It was hot and desert like as we transferred our baggage to a small mini-bus. It was an incredible sight, as 36 people, tonnes of baggage and a chicken got into the back of the bus designed for 16.
Our cramped and bruised bodies felt the relief as we unloaded at Tamatave. The following day was spent recovering over numerous bottles of “Three Horse Beer”. Time to move on, but we had been advised to take the taxi-brousse out of the city as it would be safer. It was 6am we cycled towards the taxi-brousse stop, through the central avenue crowds were starting to congregate. The taxi-brousse didn’t hang around and we were soon on our way towards Soanierana Ivonco. We were lucky to get out of Tamatave when we did, as later we heard that two people were shot that day during the demonstration.
Heading towards Paradise.
Soanierana Ivonco was the road head for the taxi-brousse run. Only trucks and Landrovers could venture further north. After a meal of king prawns and rice we crossed the river and cycled onward down a sandy track. The wind whipped up and the sand got deeper, we ended up pushing the bikes for five kilometres. As the sun slipped away our route was bared by another river crossing.
Andy whistled at a small dug-out canoe in the distance. The nomadic tribesman paddled over to our bank. He didn’t speak any French only Malagash, sign language bartered out a price for the trip. I clambered aboard, all the panniers in the middle and two mountain bikes perched precariously on top. I left my companions behind as we paddled across the river very carefully. The current became strong in the middle and we beached down stream from the landing platform.
I sat on the sand in darkness as the pirogue disappeared from my view. A weird felling of total solitude in a strange land came over me as I listened to the crickets chirping all around. My dream world was broken as my companions appeared. We continued to cycle down the track and soon came to the small village of Andarngazaha. To our amusement they had a hotel. We quenched our appetites on locally caught fish and rice before we withdrew to our bamboo hut.
The overnight rain had dampened the sand this made the going a little easier. We cycled passed numerous small villages but they all started to look the same. After 30km, that took us most of the day we arrived at Manompana. Our plan was to catch the boat in the morning across to Ile Sainte Marie. We were told the boat would leave at 7am.
At 6am we packed and made for the beach. Precariously I helped the locals ferry the equipment out to the 30ft wooden boat. We claimed our places for the passage. All the day was spent messing about loading up the boat and when it was all done we were told that they couldn’t set sail as the sea was far to rough. We took all our bags off again and returned to the hotel. To console ourselves we drank the village dry of Three Horse beer.
We rose at 6am again, packed and loaded the boat. All the locals started to board and it looked as if we would finally be on our way. The packed vessel upped anchor and we moved off into a torrential downpour. Slowly the engines chugged, heading out of the bay and towards the open sea. The waves got bigger and bigger, water started to engulf the deck from both sides at once. “This wasn’t a good idea!” I thought to myself.
Suddenly the boat turned side on to the waves, we had to hang on for our lives. The boat rocked so much everyone thought it would capsize. The captain finally managed to turn around and we were relieved to be in safe waters again.
5am, third time lucky? We moved quickly so as to catch the calm early morning waters. We were off again, this time was it! The waves did get larger as the day drew on but never as dangerous as the previous day. Hotel touts surrounded us as we disembarked at Ambodifototra. We chose the cheapest and made our way to La Baleine (the Wale).
During the following week we toured around the idealic island on our bikes. We camped on the magnificent sandy beaches overhung by coconut palms, visited the skull and cross bones in the old pirates graveyard. Swam in the shark free waters, ate crab and lobster, and had the time of our lives on the Robinson Crusoe island.
A state of emergency had been declared in Madagascar.
Sadly as always, all good things have to end. Our final night on Ile Sainte Marie was spent back in La Baleine. We ate ourselves stupid on freshly caught seafood and listened to the BBC world service. In the radio broadcast about Madagascar, they said that “a state of emergency had been declared”. We decided a tactical withdrawal was in order.
Back in the Antanarivo eleven people had been killed while trying to take over the presidential palace, a cerfew was in place and the British Embassy were advising it’s citizens “not to enter Madagascar”. We sadly said farewell to the very beautiful but much troubled island.
Copyright Doug Blane
All rights reserved
First published: Mountain Biking UK (Magazine) may 1991