Most tourists in Madagascar stick to route seven, the country’s best road, which passes several major national parks on the way from the capital Antananarivo to the south-west coast. But we were heading well off the beaten track — to a corner of western Madagascar with no paved roads, no electricity and no phone reception.
Our guide, Robinson Crusoe (truly), had latched onto us at the bus station in Antsirabe, three hours south of Antananarivo. After some heavy negotiation he dropped his price to a level appropriate to our backpackers’ budget, and we agreed to join him and two French girls on the expedition. All we needed was a sleeping bag and a sense of adventure.
The jumping off point for the canoe trip was Miandrivazo, a dusty little town sitting in a baking valley where the humidity was beyond belief.
We had reached the town after a five-hour drive through rolling, patchwork hills. Despite its shabbiness, Miandrivazo had surprisingly good nightlife. When our group found the only bar in town was closed, we just asked them to reopen. Within minutes they had cranked up the generator and the place was heaving with locals dancing to Malagasy songs — an infectious, heavily rhythmic mix of music.
The next morning we were introduced to the pirogue in which we were to spend eight hours a day — a recipe for a painful backside.
Two piroguiers piloted us through the sandbanks and sang traditional songs in harmony for hours on end. For us, there was nothing to do except sit and watch the scenery go by.
We spotted lemurs in trees, cooled off under waterfalls and stopped on the riverbank to cook our meals, all the while getting outrageously sunburnt despite trying to shield our skin with rather daggy umbrellas. The scenery ranged from pleasant to gobsmackingly stunning as we travelled through a changing landscape of gorges and forests, farmland and subsistence villages.
“Bonjour vazaha [foreigner]!” would ring out from the riverbank as groups of children spotted our approach.
Despite their enthusiasm, many of them had no clothes and enormous bellies — a sign of severe malnourishment. They were often chewing on sugar cane, which staves off hunger pangs but ruins teeth.
Our first lunch stop made us realise how difficult life is in rural Madagascar. Having filled up on loads of fish (which our guide had caught from the river), we discarded the bones in the bushes. Immediately, four children dashed to retrieve the bones, fighting among themselves for the scant amount of sustenance that remained on them. We felt horrible, and at subsequent stops would always offer some food to any kids who came by.
After three days on the river, camping on the bank at night (fortunately, the rain held off), we left our canoes and transferred into a very Malagasy form of transport — a zebu cart.
Zebu, a type of domesticated ox, is used for everything — transport, dowries, rituals of manhood (a young man must steal zebu to prove his worth to a potential bride), and as a staple meat in the Malagasy diet.
To get us through a long, muddy trail, two zebu were yoked together and we sat in a large wooden fruit box perched on top of them, while a teenage boy whipped the beasts and made clicking noises to direct them.
We passed through tiny villages where we were literally mobbed by children, and eventually crashed the night at a wooden shack in one of these outposts.
The final day of the trip was the best: we ventured by four-wheel drive along possibly the world’s worst “road” to reach the Allée des Baobabs.
These baobab trees are different from those on mainland Africa. They’re particularly majestic and endemic to western Madagascar, where they tower over the surrounding plains and adorn many tourist brochures.
By chance a Malagasy musician was recording a film clip under the baobabs with a group of dancers, and invited us to boogie with them. So for 10 minutes we jumped around trying to sing words we couldn’t pronounce, creating a unique memory of our visit.
Eventually we reached Morondava, a sandy and dishevelled town that is slowly being eroded by the sea. Our accommodation was a clean, simple beachfront bungalow, part of a hotel that was half reduced to rubble in a cyclone.
On the vast, otherwise pristine beach directly in front of us was a huge pile of debris with a smashed-up toilet on top.
No one seemed in any particular hurry to fix the hotel and no one seemed to think it was out of the ordinary. But these things happen in Madagascar, a truly unique, fascinating and, at times, testing country. We took off our shoes, skirted round the toilet, and went for a long walk on the sand.
What to expect
Madagascar is a big island with a surprisingly varied landscape, climate, wildlife, people and places. Allow two weeks if you want to tick off a bare minimum of the sights. You’ll find deserts, canyons, tropical rainforests, mountains, rice paddies, jaw-dropping beaches, great hiking routes, French food, friendly locals and one of the developing world’s oddest capital cities.
Madagascar is a highly unusual country. It separated from Africa 160 million years ago and its wildlife evolved independently. This has led to some bizarre flora and fauna (think a koala crossed with a panda, leaping through the trees). The country boasts species of lemurs,the nocturnal aye-aye, a bright yellow moth the size of a computer screen, a giant jumping rat, and chameleons. Viewing the wildlife is one of the top tourism drawcards. Visit Analamazaotra Reserve (also known as Perinet), three hours from Antananarivo, or the rainforest-clad Ranomofana National Park further south.
Madagascar also has incredible beaches — perfect for kicking back after those jungle expeditions. You’ll have many of them to yourself.For the best stretches of sand, head to Ile Sainte-Marie on the north-east coast, the island of Nosy Be in the far north, and Anakao and Ifaty near Toliara in the south west.
Excellent options are the canyons of Isalo National Park in the south-west and the hard-to-reach, otherworldly Tsingy de Bemaraha Reserve, a World Heritage Site of mind-blowing limestone formations. Canoe trips down the Tsiribihina River can be combined with trips to Tsingy depending on the season.
Allow three days to explore Antananarivo, an intriguing place that will get under your skin. ‘Tana’, as it is known, has excellent French restaurants and good air connections to far-flung parts of the country.
Madagascar is a third-world country and getting around can take time. Watch out for malaria-carrying mosquitoes too.