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Red is the colour the bricks are red the soil is red the hills are red. Leaving on a Sunday from Tana the traffic is subdued. As we pass through the edges of the city the areas are tough the people even tougher. After a fuel stop we move into the countryside or brousse where the roads become gentle curves and the land planted with fruits, pineapple, banana, papaya. The houses are literally built from the ground up, mud for walls grass for roofs. They are beautifully placed in the landscape and the constant electric blue of the sky gives a startling contrast to the red clay of the villages. Ampefey has water in abundance. A huge waterfall a short walk from a dusty track the only bit of off-road for the day. Swarms of hawkers to sell sculpted volcanic rock some of which turns to dust on the track back. The day ends at the hotel which has a stunning sunset for a backdrop of the bar. Day one under the belt and under control. Welcome to Madagascar!
Back round the outskirts of Tana as the direct road to Antsirabe is not passable. The countryside or brousse opens out before us, areas that sell strawberries or pineapples or avocados. Great roads, it feels like we are in Madagascar proper now as the brousse changes before us. Spectacular riding, a long day and breath taking scenery – loving it.
It’s Independence Day today gained from the French in the 1960’s. The landscape is hilly and dry, the people colourful and tribal. A variety of hats change as the tribes change. The red landscape with the mud red houses set against the bright blue sky make an incredible contrast. There are people, mostly kids all around. Every village is a hive of activity. Colours abound zebu are everywhere with meat stands and a huge amount of chickens running across the road in front of us. The land is dry but there are rivers to sustain the valley which is full of farming. It seems a better place to live for the poor as things grow in abundance. Ambositra is beautiful and colourful and while we wait for lunch we wander around the streets. We finally get into the lakeside hotel late just before dark greeted by a fireplace some cold beers and red wine.
We wake to the lake mist, not much to see until it lifts. A promise of blue sky beneath. We head off into clouds and drizzle which persists for the first half of the day, as we ride through the rainforest the people change and the headwear changes with them. The rainforest is beautiful with gorges and plunging waterfalls the roads are filled with colour and children with an absence of any adults, We stop in a small village to see a large chameleon who lives there. We stay in a resort that seemed like it was forgotten by time and tourism but has a charm of its own. The food here is fantastic as we are by the sea. And bordered by a canal that once carried boats that traded up and down the east coast.
A boat trip on the Panagales canal. The weather is overcast, the covering on the boat maybe a little worn out. Christian is our guide seemingly here due to the lack of work in the tourist industry at the time of the economic slump 10 or so years back. His English is good some of the best we have encountered along the way. We are paddled by some lads who break into the most beautiful sounding song during the ride, a real feel of Africa. Visiting fisherman and fishing villages filled with children playing with homemade footballs a brilliant way of up cycling plastic, we make our way up the waterway to an essential oil factory. A single still in a village producing oils using the leaves of various plants growing in the area. Across the canal are the beaches of the Indian Ocean, pirogues, the local canoes tackle the surf to bring in their catch and a barbecue of seafood under the trees overlooking the ocean now bathed in sunshine.
The afternoon we ride inland before heading to the coast a bit further North in Manajary. Sweeping corners on great roads under glorious sun the complete opposite of the day before providing a new vista as we retrace our steps some 90km. From the crossroads of the local restaurant we dined in the day before we take a new road.
More great riding through some beautifully primitive villages full of colour and teeming with children. In the last 20km we pass over a bridge of cast iron and rivets spanning an enormous river snaking it’s way to the ocean, arriving at the Jardin de la Mer our hotel perched on the end of a spit with the full moon just rising as the sun sets. What a fantastic day.
Waking to the sound of the Indian Ocean a little bleary from one vanilla rum too many. Outside our hut is a hive of activity in the lagoon people washing clothes, bathing and fishing. Today we are retracing our steps over to the centre of the island to head south, the ride is under a strong sun very different from the day we came through the rainforest. A picnic by the side of the road, a couple of flat tyres to fix but all in all a short day arriving in Ranomafana where we are due to rest the bikes and explore the forest. That evening we walk in the forest with our guide Diamond who shows us tree frogs, mossy leaf geckos, mouse lemurs and many varieties of chameleon, these are all from a very prehistoric time and like nothing we have seen before.
Up early for a walk in the park looking for lemurs the forest is stunning and green, with rivers and networks of paths thankfully it is not raining so it isn’t too slippery. Souhaine gets the ultimate lemur shot to the dismay of the next group as we were laughing so hard they thought we had scared them off even the guide was surprised but it was from Google. Back to the hotel to relax and watch France play in the World Cup Nicolas is the most animated he has been since we met, and we support France which doesn’t happen very often!!
Eager to get back on the bikes, we sense some are chomping at the bit for a ride!! It is not a huge day but we leave the tropical wet climes of Ranomafana for the start South where the heat will climb and the terrain change. A stop in Fiarantsoa for fuel and some moneychanging and onwards back to the red clay houses and the stark contrast of the colours of this area, it gives a change from the green. We pass a lot of the Zebu drivers with their herds who have been walking for almost a month to deliver them to Manankara. This is a cheaper option than sending them by truck but a long walk, we stop to give them pineapples and cigarettes, they rarely ask for money. Great roads today sweeping down from the pass into Ambalvao nestled in the valley ahead.
A long day ahead to Isalo national park starting with a visit to a silk factory. Just a quick look in but fascinating. I don’t think this process has changed for many hundreds of years. The further south we get there are extreme rock formations that dominate the area. The heat is growing and we see women who wear a natural paste on the faces as protection against the sun. Riding towards the rock!! The road opens out before us becoming a straight dash across savannah. A little bike issue for Rupert, soon solved by some bush mechanics and off again. Eventually Isalo sandstone rock formations appear in the distance a 180km long rocky outcrop with canyons and rivers. This is where we finish in a fine hotel with great food Isalo Ranch.
Isalo is worth a visit, the rocks have tombs in them some incredibly inaccessible, the sandstone faces are covered with a green lichen or red from the iron. We are walking through the landscape to swim in pools cold but refreshing. Our guides are knowledgeable and well-spoken from the local village Ranohira. We walk through canyons and eventually Thcou picks us up at another entrance after a tiring day. In the afternoon a few go for a little off road while the others sink a few well-earned cold beers.
Into the South headed for Tulear and the Mozambique Channel. Today is a good distance and passes through the areas for mining Sapphires. Illaka is the centre of this trade and as we pass people are panning the dirt in the river. Shops line the street everyone is hoping to find their fortune. As we go deeper into mining territory the villages are getting poorer. As we go further the mining for gems stops and people are selling stones and quite shocking for us is the fact that they may have to walk up to 16km per day for water. This is certainly the most striking poverty we have encountered, and we give out water where we can from the van. You can’t help but feel privileged when faced with this. Finally we end up in Tulear on the beach at the Bamboo Club, Richard judging by the photo seems like he has been there for years it is a fitting end to the tour.
We fly back on Madagascar Air to Tana from all the reviews it would appear that it was lucky to leave. Chris, Meg and Mel are all travelling straight on to get back for work while some of us still have a couple of days in Tana. We finish the tour in a great restaurant that we found Saka Manga a beautiful building with courtyards and amazing food. Bon voyage!