Thursday, August 31, 2017

Madagascar – Part 1: The nightmare

Madagascar – Part 1, the nightmare

Three weeks ago, ten of us descended on Antananarivo (usually called Tana for obvious reasons).  The main reason was to celebrate Michael’s 70th birthday.  Other reasons were to explore the country’s amazing flora and fauna, as well as to taste the Malagasy culture.

And taste it we did, but a lot of the taste was very sour.  Unripe lemons when expecting a mango.

The problems started when eight of the group arrived at Oliver Tambo airport in Johannesburg for their flight to Tana.  Despite their tickets declaring the baggage limit was 23kg and having checked on this online and in person, the eager travellers found the check-in clerk insist it was 20kg.  A frenzy of moving clothes and shoes around helped, but didn’t solve the problem, merely reduced it.  Eventually after paying usurious fees, the journey began.

A wee dram or two on board helped the travellers relax and stoke their anticipation.  What was not to look forward to?  A new country, lemurs, chameleons, baobabs, and a host of potential lifers for the birding-inclined.  And good company.

Except . . .

The tour company we had used to put together our two-week itinerary was not at the airport to meet the flight.  Having worked their way through the typically third-world airport at Tana, which meant going to a counter to have some form filled out, taking it to the next counter to pay a fee.  Then to another counter for the visa to be inserted into the passport, and finally to have someone else check that you and your passport were in sync, before you could go and retrieve your bags.  Or in Michael’s case, a suitcase and several large boxes of carefully protected vintage champagne and other fine wines.

Ivato International at Tana
When the frazzled group emerged from customs and immigration and found no one holding up a sign MADAGASCAR NATURAL TOURS – SEARS, frantic phone calls ensued.  Eventually, someone arrived and the group headed for their hotel.

Except . . .

It wasn’t the hotel that had been booked.  Eventually the harsh truth bubbled up.  The entire trip had been booked using an early itinerary, not the final one.  Consequently everything was a day off.  Hence no hotel.  We were expected the next day. 

So Michael’s carefully planned welcome dinner, with its highlight of vintage Bollinger champagne, went by the board.  Wrong day, wrong place, and no ice to chill the bubbly.

Meanwhile, Mette and I had headed for Tana after spending a few days in Paris – on a circuitous route via Amsterdam and Nairobi.  The flight to Amsterdam was late, causing us to miss our Nairobi connection.  Catching the next day’s flight would have put us a full day behind the rest of the group.  With a little gentle persuasion, we were rerouted, now out of Paris the following morning, direct to Tana.  A much better flight, despite a 0400 wake-up call to catch the first flight back to the City of Lights.  Eventually, we too arrived in Tana, late at night, but at least on the same day as the others.  And we were met and taken to the new hotel.

Next morning, we awoke early, ate a quick breakfast, and prepared to leave for the East coast.

Except . . .

The bus we had been promised did not materialise.  Instead we were squeezed into two SUVs.  Not ten of us, but eleven, because our guide had to come too.  All the bags had to fit too, so you can imagine the stack on top of the vehicles.  And the squash inside.

Our best vehicle, driven by the ever cheerful Mr. Henri

Tying them back on. The bags didn't always stay on the roof.

The roads in Madagascar are the worst I have ever experienced.  Narrow, with potholes that doubled as swimming pools, they often went through villages where market stalls came right to the edge of the road, and people, dogs, zebu, pedal- and people-powered tuk-tuks, and wagons covered the street and competed for space with cars, motorcycles, scooters, vans, petroleum tankers, and 16-wheelers.

Potholes everywhere


Zebu - a common sight

Zebu wagon
Zebu wagons carried anything and everything.

Typical narrow road - Route Nationale 2

Typical narrow road - Route Nationale 2

Kids filled in potholes, hoping for tips

Click here to see what driving on Route Nationale 2 looks like.

Except . . .

The driving in Madagascar is the best I have ever seen anywhere.  Not only are drivers skilled in handling their vehicles, but they are patient, courteous, and always signalling their intentions.  The hooter (horn) is used to alert anything ahead that you are behind.  A few taps clears out the thronged streets mentioned above.  People slide to the side, let the car pass, then return to claim their spot in the middle of the road.  Cars pull off the road to let you pass, as do large vehicles.  Quite remarkable actually. 

I guess if people weren’t this courteous, they’d all be dead.

To end up this description of the grim arrangements, here are a few other highlights.
One of our vehicles was not 4x4, so when we arrived at an impassable section of the road to the ferry to our hotel, our guide had to hire a 4x4 from a local and transfer passengers and luggage.

Same on the way back.
A particularly difficult section.  4x4 necessary

On our way back from the east coast to the west, the tour operator eventually found a bus for us, and it was ready for a typical 0700 departure.

Except . . .

It wasn't licensed for the province we were going to.  So we left at 1100.  Unfortunately, the bus had been designed for Lilliputians – and the heating couldn’t be turned off.  So we abandoned it at our next stop.

A hotel at our furthest point held us hostage until we paid the bill.  Our tour operator had failed to do so.  How could a hotel do that? you may ask.  Easily, in this case.  It owned the ferries crossing the nearby river.  They wouldn’t take us until we paid.

The next hotel let us go without paying.

The flights back to Tana from the west-coast town of Morondava had either never been booked or the flights cancelled.  Our money wasn’t refunded, of course. 

Again we were up at 0700, and eventually an improved bus showed up to take us back to Tana.

Except . . .

Our tour operator had only paid the 50% deposit, and the driver refused to budge without full payment.  Smart man.

So WE had to hire vehicles to drive us back the whole way to Tana, so we could catch our flights.  At our cost. This meant we lost a whole day in which we should have been enjoying what we came to see.  We left at noon and had to stop halfway at yet another hotel that hadn't been paid for.
The next day we left on time and headed for our final hotel in Tana.

Except . . .

The hotel we should have stayed at wasn’t booked.  An alternate hotel turned out to be seedy in the extreme, so it took time to find an alternative.  Too late to go to the restaurant at which Michael and Pat had arranged a farewell dinner.  Which is too bad, since I was looking forward to seeing Michael’s face when the dancing girls appeared.

We are all back at home or nearly so.  The bad memories of woeful disorganization, of lack of any attempt to rectify the situation, of blatant failure to provide what we had paid for, and of interminable hours on the road will hopefully fade, and all we’ll remember are the amazing things we saw, which will be chronicled next week.

Sadly, Michael's birthday trip was not what we had hoped for, but we managed to celebrate whenever possible.
All was not lost, Michael enjoyed the Bollinger later in the trip.

As a teaser for next week, what is it I photographed in picture A below?

Picture A: Mystery subject

And in this one?

Picture B: Another mystery subject


Upcoming events

Saturday, September 2, 1315: Stanley live interview by Monocle Radio, London (



  1. Stan, I have to agree that, compared to your expectations, things did not turn out. But REALLY? A nightmare? Look where you were! And You had friends around you!! And you had vintage champagne!!! You get no sympathy from me for the troubled you "suffered." NONE!

  2. Two weeks birdies and a lizardy thing pointing downwards ! But I am looking at the pics on my phone.
    And yes, what Annamaria said.

  3. I'll just add that for me having that special group of friends travel halfway across the world for the event will be the most memorable feature. Otherwise I'll quote Annamaria's comment of last week -
    No adventure worth having is enjoyable at the time!

  4. In the words of the coiner of the phrase: No adventure worthy of the name is fun while you're going through it."

  5. I think it's safe to say that Michael sure knows how to throw a memorable party. I also now see how Mad a gas car got its name. Have you considered sending a link to this post to the booking agent's mailing list?

  6. Vintage champagne?! I dont care how bad the trip was I want in on the next one!!! I was in France and didn;t even get vintage champagne!! oh yes, double-headed nightjar and yes, downward pointing lizard thingy

  7. Love the feathers! You are lucky you weren't routed through Rwanda - they had a last minute public holiday, that stopped all planes in that direction - not sure, maybe turtle?

  8. Clearly an except-ional vacation. Happy Birthday, Michael. Jeff S

  9. Clearly, the lesson to be learned here is: when travelling, it's best not to plan (or arrange) ahead, just travel light and by the seat of your pants (kind of the way most of the writers hereabouts seem to write...) At least there were no broken legs.

  10. Holy cow. It sounds like quite the interesting adventure (and I mean that more in the sense of the old Asian curse than the jovial adventurer's holiday) - but I'm guessing some good friendship stories will come out of this too. Also - those photos are fantastic. Can't wait for next week!