My daring trip to Madagascar happened in 2015 when I was about to go on vacation from what was about my 6th contract working for a Cruise Liner. I remember speaking to my colleague before going on leave and saying that I felt like traveling somewhere this vacation. He made the suggestion to visit Madagascar seeing as it is close to South Africa. And so, the travel bug got its grip once again and led me on a journey to an unknown land, just three hours flight from home.
Planning the Madagascar Trip
The moment my feet struck African soil the planning started. I would go to Cape Town to revisit the city where, up to that moment, I felt most at home. From there I would fly back to Johannesburg and onward to Madagascar – an island off the East coast of Africa, right next to Mozambique.
After quite a bit of research on this beautiful island, I had made up my mind about what I’d like to see. For some reason, I couldn’t book any flights within Madagascar from South Africa, so I decided to purchase a ticket in and a ticket out, my first night in a hotel, and then just make it up as I go.
The original plan was that once I arrived in Madagascar, I would get a local flight to Morondova to see the Baobab lane that the island is renowned for. After that, I would make my way to Bemaraha National park to hike the great Tsingy and then head home to the capital Antananarivo and head home. A simple trip with specific goals: See something amazing. Hike and clear your mind. Go home. I call these kinds of trips “there and back” missions. Nothing big. Just an experience where you can say “I did it”.
The Night Before Flying out…
I felt incredibly nervous. In the few weeks I’ve been home I’d done so much research, yet had no itinerary confirmed. Regardless, I got on the flight and made my way to Madagascar.
If you’ve ever flown to a new country, you will understand the excitement of foreign landscapes forming underneath you as you move towards your destination.
The plane landed and I made my way through immigration. After having traveled to and from the US, Madagascan immigration felt like a breeze. I stood in front of a cubicle, was asked the purpose of my visit and received a full-page red visa stamp in my passport. I went up to the counter to book a local flight to Morondova for the next day, but there were no local flights. Madagascar airlines have been on strike for the past five months. That meant that there was no way of getting to any of the places I hoped to visit within the five days. I had no accommodation or itinerary confirmed after today.
Getting to The Hotel
I weaved my way through the simplistic airport and found the bus that was meant to take me to the hotel. How I arranged this transportation, I can’t quite remember. I got into the bus and stared through the window as the rural, foreign landscape unfolded on the way to the hotel. It must have been about a twenty-minute ride, but it felt like much longer. There was so much to soak in and it was so different from what I have come to know. The two-lane road turned into three lanes with five lanes of traffic flowing effortlessly through it. Suddenly, there were cars, tuk-tuk’s, and enormous amounts of people occupying the road into the main city.
Still captivated by how many vehicles and people could possibly fit into three lanes, the bus came to a sudden halt. The driver announced: “You are here”.
I remember feeling the blood drain from my face as I unloaded my bags in the middle of Antanarivo’s market place. Looking up at the hotel, I realized that advertising is everything. What you see online is not always what you get. There I was, the only tall, white female in a city that buzzes all day long and nobody speaks English. The main spoken languages in Madagascar are French and Malagasy – none of which I know.
The receptionist was kind and with broken English directed me up to my room on the third floor. I dropped my bag, explored the space and then sat on the bed thinking “What have I done?”
Early Evening in Antananarivo
As the marketplace came to a rest, I ventured out for a walk. Wanting to explore a bit now that the city was quieting down, I made my way to a local store to buy snacks and was greeted with “Bonjour Madam” by every second man on the streets. On my way back to the hotel, I was met by a young girl carrying a baby on her side. She was clearly begging but from my research, I knew that this was common with tourists and that you should ignore it as much as you can. Despite all efforts to be polite and replying “Tsy Misy” (“I have nothing”), she followed me for what felt like an eternity – begging and pleading for some spare change.
Back at The Hotel
When I finally got back to the hotel, I made my way down to the restaurant. Except for the waiter, myself and one other person, the restaurant was empty. Not knowing what I ordered, I received a plate of rice with a cow’s hoof. Turning to the other guest in the restaurant, I asked if he speaks English. He was from France and this was his last night in Madagascar. I explained my situation and asked if he had any advice on what to do next. He gave me some tips and I went upstairs to book accommodation for the next few nights.
Day 2 – The Road to Antsirabe
The next morning, I woke up at 5:30 am to follow the advice I got from the French man the night before. Walking in the streets of Tana that early in the morning was a much nicer experience than during the hype of the day. The city is just starting to wake up with people preparing their market stalls. They swept the streets before the day starts and burns most of the garbage right there on the side of the road. It fills the air with foggy smoke, giving the city a real mysterious and waking-up ambiance. I finally found the bank and withdrew some cash, tucking it away for safety.
Back at the hotel, I paid and asked reception to arrange for a taxi. The taxi took me through the streets of Antananarivo, past the misty Lake Anosy and dropped me at a taxi rank. Before I knew what was happening, they loaded my luggage on the roof and I was seated in a tight space which got even tighter when three more people got in. From there I would take a taxi brousse on the 170km journey to Antsirabe. A taxi brousse is a minibus in which they cram up to eighteen people. The top of the bus is loaded with luggage, chickens, and baskets full of goods. The taxi brousse was poorly kept but these guys knew how to maneuver around potholes. The landscape was very rural for the most part.
About three-quarters through the four-hour trip, we stopped on the side of the road to stretch our legs. There were local women selling cookies, grilled chicken, boiled eggs, and coffee.
Arriving in Antsirabe
The brousse stopped and before the doors opened, I was bombarded by people wanting my business. I agreed to have Federick (who spoke a bit of English) take me to the hotel by bicycle-driven pousse-pousse. He grabbed my bag and stuffed it on my lap. Weaving through the streets of Antsirabe, I was sure that there must have been a shorter route, but enjoyed the ride anyhow and gladly paid him 50,000 Ariary. At this point, I was just grateful to have made it there. In 2015, ten thousand Ariary was equal to 2.94 USD.
After checking in, I arranged for a coffee and sat on the balcony writing. In the hotel restaurant, I was greeted by Jasmin – a friendly local who worked as both the server and the chef. There was only one other guest in the hotel at the time. The staff was friendly and could communicate enough in English to get around.
The rest of the day was spent at the hotel. Overwhelmed by the experience, I got a few beers and stayed in. At sunset, I could hear cars passing by, dogs barking, random music and the occasional passer-by on the street next to the hotel.
Day 3 – Building Up Some Courage
The next morning, I made the conscious decision to get out and explore a bit. What is the point of visiting a new country if you don’t get to experience any of it? Keeping it simple, I hit the streets on foot.
It was clear that Madagascar was one of the poorest countries I’ve ever seen. The architecture was old, and in some areas, in desperate need of repair. The locals were not used to seeing many tourists and grabbed at every opportunity to sell their goods to me.
I walked down Ave Independence and saw a memorial monument. The street was scattered with pousse-pousses and men on horses. At the end of the avenue was the “Madarail” and on the other end, Antsirabe’s first hotel, Hotel Les Thermes.
As I made my way up one of the main roads, there were rice fields and houses on my left. To my right, there were numerous stalls selling fresh fruits, vegetables, dried fish, freshly slaughtered chickens, and whole carcasses of meat. There was a pousse-pousse overloaded with green bananas being maneuvered down the street by two guys.
Walking through the street markets, a child’s voice started chiming through the streets “Vazaha! Vazaha!” This is one Malagasy word I knew. It means foreigner. Needless to say, all heads turned to the vazaha passing by.
I passed beautiful churches, sat in the park taking in the experience of being completely alone and staring at the locals.
I realized there must be more to see and experience close-by. Why should I have to travel to the coast to enjoy Madagascar?
Back at the hotel, I asked the receptionist if he knew anyone who speaks English. His face lit up. He happened to have a friend named Yves who speaks English and does freelance guide work. He could take me out to explore the next day.
Day 4 – Exploring Betafo
The next morning, I got up around 7:30 am, had breakfast and waited for Yves to pick me up from the hotel reception. First, we picked up a few pastries, then took a pousse-pousse to the taxi brousse station. The taxi took us to the start of the next village, Betafo, and headed for the open fields.
The experience was way more than I expected. Yves was brilliant company – very casual, funny, and informative. He told me a bit more about the culture, lifestyle, politics, and himself.
We were hiking through mud, rice fields, and brickfields and was constantly greeted by locals shouting “Vazaha” and children following us down the road. We stopped on a hilltop and spoke to some locals. It was a peaceful, quiet, and beautiful experience and they were all too eager to have their photo taken by me.
We were walking through one village when suddenly, we were followed by two kids and an older man. He showed us the way down to the foot of a waterfall. The boy was especially impressed when I jumped through the hill, rather than slide down it. At the bottom, we had to take off our shoes and cross the river to get to a rocky island at the bottom of the waterfall. There, we sat down and enjoyed our pastries. After lunch, we continued onwards towards the town of Betafo.
Yves showed me a memorial site of a farmer king and explained how infertile women would walk seven rounds around the memorial to get the spirit’s blessing. Yves explained that the monument also listed numerous other ancestors.
We ran down a series of stairs to the bottom of the lake and found rows of people walking from the crowded marketplace. In the middle of the market, we stopped at a hostelry where I drank coffee out of a small tin cup in the marketplace street. We then made our way to the taxi brousse station.
On the one side was the last remnants of the marketplace. On the other a church, and in between, hundreds of people waiting for their ride. Seeing as it was market day, it was really difficult to get a brousse to take us. A taxi brousse would stop and the crowds would swarm the bus – pushing to get a seat. After about an hour waiting for a chance to get a ride back to Antsirabe, we noticed two French girls in the crowd. Yves managed to convince one driver to take the four of us for 15,000 Ariary.
Although Yves only asked for 20,000 Ariary, I paid him 50,000. I was just so grateful to have a good companion and a great day out. What are $15 dollars for a once in a lifetime experience?
Day 5 – Back to Antananarivo
On the morning of day five, I took a 6 am taxi back to the capital. When we arrived in the city, the taxi dropped us in a different place than from where I left a few days before. This time, it was a muddy taxi station with hundreds of people all over. Again, there were a lot of people wanting me to take a ride with them. I negotiated the price from inside the taxi and eventually agreed on one guy who took me through the busy streets of Tana to a little oasis called “Les 3 Metis”.
The hotel was situated in a neighborhood on one of the hills overlooking the city. The room cost around $26 but wasn’t ready when I arrived. The reception took care of my luggage while I sat down for and enjoyed an omelet, freshly baked bread and loads of coffee. There was a lady selling handmade souvenirs so I decided to grab a few before heading home the next day.
Initially, I wanted to go exploring again but didn’t feel like being harassed in the streets. Instead, I took a nap, showered and spoiled myself to a Zebu steak and bottle of wine. That night, I remember thinking that I’ve never felt more alone in my life.
My trip to Madagascar may have been one of my most daring and unplanned expeditions, but it’s a story that I never get tired of telling. I look back on the experience as challenging, rewarding and something I will never again do alone. I know that there are many more amazing places to see in Madagascar. Perhaps, one day, I will give it another go.
If you’re willing to rough it, then I would totally recommend visiting Madagascar. Learn some French so that you can communicate with the locals and rent a car so that you can get around on your own.
If you’d like to get hold of the tour guide, Yves, you can contact him on email at firstname.lastname@example.org or WhatsApp him on +261342943892.
Alternatively, you can book a guided tour here:
Have you ever visited Madagascar? What was your favorite place or experience? Please comment and remember to follow me on Instagram @onkeytravel.