If you don’t have the means to take flights around Madagascar, be prepared to spend a lot of time on the road. After taking a 15-hour taxi-brousse ride from Morondava to Antananarivo, we slept for a few hours and were on the road again by 6 a.m. the next morning. While taxi-brousses are budget friendly, the down side is that they don’t allow you to stop and see some of the incredible landscape, parks, and cities on the way. For most of our trips we took a taxi-brousse one-way and a private car the other, allowing us to visit more of Madagascar.
We were in the back of Mr. Fred's car winding through tropical jungles and heading east. We stopped for a day in Andasibe where we hiked through the jungle (in a reserve) and were lucky enough to see Indri-Indri lemurs, the largest of the lemur species, brown lemurs, black-and-white ruffed lemurs, and more. Although the Indri-Indri weren’t the cutest of the lemurs, their calls through the forests were incredible. They sounded like ghosts screeching in the distance and sent shivers up my spine. (Click here to listen to the Indri-Indri.)
We also saw chameleons, birds & more while hiking through the jungle. One of my favorite parts about the reserve that we visited is that the community created it in efforts to put deforestation to a halt. Former lumberjacks were taught to be nature guides and given courses in French and English; so now instead of cutting the forests down, they’re educating others, rebuilding the forests and making a living as tour guides.
After seeing lemurs in the wild, we visited a lemur reserve where the furry creatures were anything but shy. They were used to visitors and LOVED bananas. I wasn’t even holding one when a lemur came flying at me, landing on my head. It was incredible to have such close contact with them– and I never imagined how soft they might be! (For all those ‘90s kids out there who watched Zoboomafoo on PBS, you can only imagine how exciting it was to actually pet the lemurs!)
The main attraction of Andasibe really was hiking in the jungle and having the opportunity to see the animals. I enjoyed seeing the town too. It reminded me of abandoned towns in the wild west.
Nightfall came before we knew it and after a long day of hiking and observing Madagascar’s wildlife, it was time for bed. But just as we were making our way back to our bungalow we saw two little eyes in a traveller’s tree (a palm tree species from Madagascar), so we stopped and saw that there was a microcebus -- also known as the grey mouse lemur -- one of the smallest of the species!
The next morning we woke up to the calls of the Indri-Indri (at 4 a.m.) and soon enough we were on the road again. We kept heading east and passed through Tamatave (or Toamasina in Malagasy) on our way to Mahambo where we planned on taking a boat to Sainte-Marie. We missed the boat by 5 minutes. We ran into the same problem as we did out west with banks and lack of cash (since you can only withdraw a certain amount/banks are often completely out of cash). We had enough cash for our boat tickets and knew there were banks on Sainte-Marie, but we couldn’t stay the night and wait for the boat the next morning. So we kept going with Fred, he brought us to a town with a bank in it and then we decided to go further and head to a different port where we could spend the night and take a boat earlier the next morning. We made it to Soanierana-Ivongo (it’s a bit of a mouthful to say) and were greeted by a few men who began pounding on the windows. First I was startled, then I was excited. Fred said they told him there was a boat that was going to leave in 10 minutes, so if we could buy our tickets and register at the police station in that time we could make it. The boat that was supposed to have left two hours earlier but because the bus that had 15 passengers going to Sainte-Marie had gotten a flat tire the boat had to wait. So in the end, we made it to Sainte-Marie that day after all.
Our main purpose in going to Sainte-Marie was to head to Ile Aux Nattes, a small island just south of Sainte-Marie, where Vincent’s parents have a cabin. After taking the boat from the main land, we arrived in Sainte-Marie where Mikael the tuk-tuk driver was waiting for us. He drove us to the passageway to get to Ile Aux Nattes. The only way to get to the cabin is by taking a pirogue. So we loaded our backpacks into the wood canoe and were dropped off at the beach in front of their cabin. We had spent time in the rivers and seen the ocean in Morondava, but nothing could compare to the crystal clear waters of Ile Aux Nattes.
Up until this point, I had thought everything on the main land was mora mora (slow, slow), but island life took that to a new extreme. While everything was slow, indeed, it was also relaxing. In the morning, we’d wake up and have breakfast. Shortly thereafter, people began coming by the house – instead of going to a market everyone purchased groceries at their houses. Women walked around selling fruits, fish, or shrimp in the baskets they balanced gracefully on their heads and men biked with vegetables and live chickens. It was fun to see every day life on Ile Aux Nattes.
We took walks around the island, spent afternoons snorkeling, and read in hammocks.
Other days we rented scooters and explored Sainte-Marie. We spent one day exploring the Northwestern part of Sainte-Marie, which brought us through markets, mangroves, past waterfalls and beautiful beaches, all the way to la piscine naturelle (natural pools) in the north.
La piscine naturelle is one of the most beautiful places we were in Madagascar. I felt like I was at the end of the world. Waves came crashing over rocks, making the pools feel like a jacuzzi. As beautiful as it was, we didn’t realize how strong the current was until it had pulled us into an area filled with sharp rocks and coral. We left with quite a few cuts, but I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.
Another day was spent exploring the eastern and undeveloped side of Sainte Marie that overlooks the Indian Ocean. The colors were magnificent, but it remains relatively undeveloped due to cyclones. The east is known for tremendous mangroves, but my favorite part about the eastern side of the island was getting there. The road was something else. It would be “paved” for about 20 feet, then there would be sand, then dirt, then mud, then deep holes. It was definitely unpredictable. Life was simple. We passed through on a Saturday afternoon. Ladies were braiding hair, clothes were drying on the roofs of homes, and people were cooking outside or napping underneath their elevated bamboo houses.
As easy as it would have been to stay on Ile Aux Nattes and Sainte Marie for the rest of our time in Madagascar, we were ready to see more. It was time to head back to the mainland. The next day we had lunch with Vincent’s parents, grabbed our backpacks and walked barefoot on the beach to the passageway where we’d take a pirogue. Mikael the tuk-tuk driver who had picked us up on the first day just so happened to be waiting at the passageway, so he took us into town. I tried to convince him to come to the mainland with us and drive us all the way to Northern Madagascar in a tuk-tuk. He laughed and said I was crazy. I probably was, but someday, I’ll get a tuk-tuk and I’ll drive it across a country (that trip is in the works). They’re by far my favorite form of transportation. We stayed at a hotel next to the port that night, were up by 4:30 and headed back to Antananarivo via Tamatave.
We made it to Tamatave by early afternoon; all taxi-brousses to Tana left about a half hour earlier so we decided to spend the night. We met a pousse-pousse driver (a bike with two seats behind it), named Jean-Joseph, who took us to a very cheap hotel (5 euros/night), and since we only had an afternoon to really see Tamatave we decided we’d have him take us on a tour of the city.
After leaving the islands, seeing Tamatave was a reality check. Life for most who live in the city is difficult. Spaces were cramped and odors were overpowering. We went to “the other side of the train tracks” where the poorest of the poor lived. Open sewers ran in between tarps that were strung together to make homes; garbage was dumped in front of their houses on the beach. When a gust of wind came through, it relieved me from the sweltering heat for a moment, but the smells were almost worse with that gust of wind. The same gust of wind blew one of the tarps up into the air allowing me to see a man. He was eating rice off the dirt floor. I don’t know his life story, but I could only imagine how hungry someone must be to be eating rice, piece by piece, off a dirt floor. I didn’t get to talk to the man and I didn’t take a picture, but I can still see his eyes. It was another moment in Madagascar that I realized how much we have in the United States and in Europe. This wasn’t the first time I traveled to poor countries, but somehow the poverty has struck me in a different way in Madagascar. It’s not hidden; it’s everywhere. We continued our “tour” on the pousse-pousse and made our way through the port, parks, and back to the city center. All the while I couldn’t stop thinking about what I’d seen on the other side of the train tracks.
We changed plans and decided to leave that night instead of early the next morning to save ourselves a day. We took an overnight taxi-brousse from Tamatave to Tana*. Fred picked us up at the taxi-brousse station at 4:30 that morning and we started heading north.
Note: *Taxi-brousses at night can be considered dangerous. We took a well-known company “Cotisse” that is a “first class taxi-brousse.” They leave in groups of 5-6 buses at night to avoid problems. Their taxi-brousses are also a bit more spacious than other companies.