A Travellerspoint blog

Breaking point

Catagory 2 fun

rain 20 °C

Dreaming of chocolate

As with all expeditions, the status of food has risen from something simply delicious and nutritious to that of something almost mythical, something fantastical. Hours are passed exchanging ideas on what we will feast on when back home. The absence of chocolate has resulted in Mel having nightly dreams about endulging in the stuff. It got to the point where I even dreamt that I went to Marks and Spencer's and got her some!
As we move south through the country we also move through different climates meaning that in some areas there is an abundance of food and in other areas it is all but absent, with the exception of rice, chicken and lots of deep fried dough. That said,when the food is good the food is great: whilst crossing papaya country we would simply cut one in half and spoon the soft ripe meat from within as a road side snack to die for. On other occasions locals have cut open fresh coconuts so that we can drink the milk, and then when we are done they chop the coconut in half and slice off a wedge of the shell for us to use as a spoon to scoop out the flesh. All that said we are still struggling to get enough calories on board as there is only so much you can eat whilst cycling all day without feeling sick. The day where we ran out of food and had to cycle on one Wortherner’s original and half a snickers each probably didn't help either.

Endulging in papaya along the road

Quenching our thirst with fresh coconut milk

We also got the opportunity to try jack fruit. Weighing in at as much as 25kg it is the biggest fruit in the world. We stopped at an elderly lady’s road side stall to taste some and asked her if she could cut us a slice of this toddler sized mass. She kindly complied, placing the jack fruit on the ground, clasping a machete with both hands, and hacking into the beast. All the while she is coughing and sneezing on the very fruit we are about to eat, wiping away the drips with her hands before handling the fruit again. To make matters worse, after handing us these giant slices of sneeze topped jack fruit she, perhaps curious to see what we thought of her produce, came and sat next to us to watch us eat it. Funnily enough neither of us found it particularly appetising and after a couple of mouthfulls we asked her for a bag so we could 'save it for later’.

Sneezing all over the Jack fruit

Hitting the waves

On the east coast of Madagascar from Antalaha to Maroansetra there is no road and no official ferry either. Instead there are small cargo boats transporting rice, beer and other essentials to villages along this isolated stretch of coast. Unbeknown to us at the time, the crossing has a bad reputation, with a combination of consistently rough seas and questionable boats making it an occasionally perilous journey. When people find out we did the crossing they give us a sort of slightly surprised but slightly impressed smile, presumably because they mistake our naivete (check its a word) for bravery. The crossing, we were told, would take 24 hours…it was 55 before we finally reached our destination. Double and then add some is a game we are increasingly familiar with when the Malagasy give us time estimates.
We walked to the pier during the early hours of the morning to catch the promised boat and out of the darkness of the ocean came a home made oil drum raft wobbling its way towards us. It looked not dissimilar to something I once built at a scout camp and I began to think we had made some bad life choices. Fortunately this dodgy contraption was just to get us out to our thankfully more robust boat. As we got on board, together with some locals who were also using this unofficial taxi service, the boat hands got out of there beds and set to work and the free beds were shared amongst the passengers. Mel and I getting a bed to share and Shania Twain (my primary 3 crush) was playing on the radio…life was looking up. The boat consisted of one cabin which had 5 beds in it, a cooking station at the back and the captains wheel at the front (fitted with a box for the short Malagasy to stand on as they captain the boat). As we set of, our premature optimism was crushed. Shania Twain was replaced by 5 local pop songs which were played non stop on repeat for the next 55 hours. The diesel fumes came straight into the cabin making you sick just breathing it, and the Indian ocean waves soon enough rocked our stomachs as well. Feeling like my breakfast was wanting to catch some air I went and sat on an oil drum on deck only to find about 6 Malagasy that had already beaten me to it all creating a choir of belching and gagging sounds which weren't exactly helping settle my stomach. Curiously, none of them were throwing up over the side, instead just barfing wherever their head was at the time of crisis, making every footstep on deck a gamble. Perhaps feeling patriotic so far from home, all I could think to do to distract myself from my surroundings was to sing the flower of Scotland loud enough to drown out forced barfing noises of my suffering shipmates. And that was life for the next 12 hours until we pulled into the first village to drop supplies off.

Sitting on the deck of the cargo boat

Once within the protection of the village bay, the seas become silenced and life is merry once more. As the cargo is unloaded into dug out canoes and taken to shore, we sit and watch as the other local people cast their fishing nets and set their crab traps and the boat hands that are not needed nip ashore for a quick session on the rum. As I watch the slow paced village life it reminds me of the dozens of other remote villages that we have passed through on our trip. The people are poor but by no means destitute and life is really in many ways very easy. Except on the odd occasion that you see people pounding rice, you seldom see anyone working hard here, if anything they seem stuck for things to do. But to say that their life is easy would be an injustice as what it sorely lacks is choice and opportunity, two of the things I value most in my own.

'to be fair, there is only so bad a road can get’

Well established as the worst road in the country, national road 5 was a 240km stretch of disbelief that nearly broke us (and did break our bikes) over the 6 arduous days it took us to travel it. The road is sufficiently bad that the Malagasy even make TV programmes about it for local networks. We had warning after warning from locals, our guidebook and anyone else we mentioned our plan to cycle this section that it was,at best, ill advised. But the road not only takes you to one of the only spots in the world where you can reliably see the Aye-aye (the big eyed lemur with the long bony finger) but also the chance to see hump back whales - and that was enough to make us think it was a good idea.

As we began cycling, the classic naivety and underestimation of difficulty that is beginning to define our expedition popped up again as I turned to Mel and said 'to be fair, there is only so bad a road can get’. We were about to find out.
They say the Inuits have over a hundred words for snow. Well the Malagasy should have a thousand words for mud. With the pannier bags our bikes are too heavy to carry so in the sometimes kilometre long patches of ankle deep mud it was a case of pushing the bike forward with your arms, holding down the breaks so the bike doesn't slide any more and then moving yourself forward, one step at a time. On the sections good enough to cycle the puddles added some entertainment to our lives as you would never know if it was going to be one you could cycle through or one that you would get stuck in and have to wade your way out of.

Sliding through the mud

As we began to set up camp on the first night, carefully placing our tent between palm trees so that no falling coconuts would knock us on the head during the night, a wave of food poisoning hit me that would last the next 3 days, meaning lots of toilet stops and that eating was the last thing I wanted to do. The weather wasn't on our side either. Although it is the dry season everywhere else in Madagascar, it is the wet season here. One day it rained constantly the entire day without stopping for so much as a second. By this stage our breaks had all but gone, with the sand and dirt wearing down the our replacement break pads within as little as 2 or 3 hours. We tried jamming our heals between the back wheel and the frame as a means of breaking but that only damaged the tyre so we had to stop that. Soaked through, exhausted from the road and muddy to our waists, we were both digging deep to keep going. Mel was getting severe stomach cramps and so she spent most of the day dragging her bike whilst crying as the waves of pain came and went. But nothing was stopping her and she kept going! Eventually we found a small village called Ivontaka which sits along the edge of a beach in an idyllic little horse shoe shaped bay. For a small fee they would give us a room, although with the pouring rain and mud I would have paid a large fee for somewhere dry. Before we could go inside however they took us round the back and threw buckets of water over us to get the worst of the mud off. Our hygiene standards have definitely dropped as when Mel saw me putting fresh underwear on after several days on the road she turned to me and said 'ooh look at you being all fancy’.

Ankle deep in mud

River crossings also add a little something something to the whole experience. Sometimes there is a home made bridge that looks like it could collapse any second and sometimes a man with canoe to taxi you across. On a couple of occasions the bridge started and finished in the middle of the river so you had to wade your way through the water to the bridge, use the bridge for the few metres it existed and then wade your way the rest of the way to the river bank. On one section where the road was just the beach, you had to time the river crossing carefully as the waves from the sea came crashing in at the only point shallow enough to cross. Neither Mel nor I managed to get the timing right but Mel was quite happy as the waves caught her bike causing it to float and pushing her to the other side of the river.

Eventually however, the bikes said no more. With no breaks on either bike and Mel having a bent chain and a rear derailor which was pointing at the sky instead of at the ground there was only so much we could do with the spare parts we were carrying and we had to hop in the back of a passing Toyota hilux (the only way locals get along the road) for the last 60 km. This in itself was an adventure, with part of the rear axle breaking and the rear suspension getting tied together with a stick and some rope. These 4x4 taxis work in teams of two, with one driver and one spotter who hangs off the side and guides the car through the more dodgey patches, carrying upwards of 15 people. At one point we had to go through a flooded area and so the spotter opened up the bonnet and, for reasons I cannot explain, sat in with the engine as the driver slowly (and now without the power of sight as the bonnet is covering the window) went deeper and deeper into the water. As the water level rose outside the car it began to rise inside the car as well and the atmosphere began to get tense. Luckily we made it through, passing less fortunate cars either already abandoned in the water or currently being abandoned as people wade their way to shore with their luggage held high above their head in the hopes of keeping it dry.
The road did eventually end, and what a fitting end it was. Literally metres before we got within the city limits of Soanierana-Ivongo (our final destination) the engine cut out and we, no word of a lie, rolled our way into the city.

Trucks sinking into the water

But don't feel too sorry for us…

We successfully managed to see the Aye-aye which was really exciting! On top of that there have been many more lemur and chameleon sightings as well as a the chance to go into a bat cave and experience the screaming bats up close and personal. Although with a sign outside denying entrance to women who were currently menstruating our timing was lucky!
We are currently on Ile St Marie, an island which was the pirate headquarters in the 1600’s, gorging on pizza and steak at night and snorkeling and whale watching by day. Life is good.

Posted by Moffons 09:55 Archived in Madagascar Comments (1)

2 idiots abroad

The expedition to begin the expedition

sunny 30 °C

Our plan was deceptively simple: cycle from Cap D’Ambre, Madagascar’s most northern point, to Cap St Marie, the island's most southern point. With 10 weeks until our return flight from Antananarivo (the country's capital) there was seemingly nothing standing between us and success except for the fact that we didn't actually have any bikes. However, a couple of days searching and we soon had our beloved Kawasaki Engage's...the only bike we could afford in the only bike shop we could find. After a bit of bartering we soon agreed on 720000 Aryari (that's about £160 to you or I).


23 hour deep tissue massage

Tana, as the capital is referred to by locals, is bang in the centre of Madagascar and so we had to get both us and our bikes north and that meant taking a taxi-brouse, or bush taxi. We arrived at the bus station for 7, ready to catch the promised morning bus, only to be told it wasn't leaving until 2. At 2 we asked when the bus was leaving and we were told 3...and at 3 we were told 4. At 6pm, after 11 long hours of waiting, the bus at long last departed. Throughout this exercise of patience there were locals waiting with us and not once did they show so much as a hint of frustration. The taxi-brouses left when full regardless of how long that took. One man told me 'in Europe you have watches, but in Madagascar we have time'. However romantic that initially sounded to me, 11 hours of waiting left me confident it should be changed to 'in Europe they have watches but in Madagascar they should buy some bloody watches'. In order to break up the 30 hour journey north we decided to make a 3 day pit stop on Nosy Be, a small tropical island off the coast of mainland Madagascar. The 18 hour journey there slowly turned into a 23 hour deep tissue massage of our asses. The Malagasy are a very small people (largely due to chronic malnutrition) and the rock hard seats are designed accordingly. Bouncing along the road you pass the time by contemplating relevant topics such as when does a pot hole stop being a pot hole and simply become an absence of road. At about 3:30am the driver turned down the blaring music, which consists of a mix of Malagasy pop songs with West Life and Cliff Richard classics added for variety, and pulls over to the side of the road. The only English speaking person on the bus informs us that there 'is little problem with the breaks'. This 'little problem’ turned out to be that the break pads for both rear wheels had gone. Fortunately our no doubt underpaid driver also turned out to be a mechanic. Unfortunately we only had one spare set of break pads. I could at least offer the driver a torch so he didn't have to fit the one set of break pads that we did have in the dark.
For the second leg of our journey north we were packed into a VW campervan size vehicle along with 18 other adults and two kids. This 230 km stretch (the equivalent distance of Aberdeen to Glasgow) took us 9 hours. One lady on the bus became rather taken by the scent of our sun cream and asked if she could borrow some, proceeding to apply it like perfume.

Middle of the night bus repairs

Nosy Be

Swimming with turtles by day and watching the sun set from deserted beaches by night, the tropical island of Nosy Be was picture perfect, palm trees and all. We also happened to be there on independence day, Madagascar's annual fuck you to the French. As a post colonial country Madagascar's recent history reads the same as all the rest. The Brits, Portuguese and the French all came, with the French eventually calling check mate. Madagascar then came under the deliberately deceptive title of french protectorate as the French began systematically exploiting the people and raping the land. Following world war II as colonial ideals began to change there were a few uprising resulting in the slaughter of about 90,000 Malagasy before the French eventually packed up and left in the 1960’s. Right on cue the power vacuum left resulted in power struggles and uprisings which are not fully resolved to this day (with a politically motivated bomb being exploded at a large stadium about a week ago). So there is a certain irony when, on the 26th of June, they celebrate the end of French rule by indulging in crepes and baguettes. In reality it felt like that past had been forgotten and that this was above all else an excuse to party. The streets filled with people as a marching band danced their way down the street to a cheering crowd, crepes and all.

Streets filled with crowds on independence day

4 days, 140 km, 8 punctures, 3 broken panniers, and a whole lot of sweat

Public transport would only take us as far as Diego Suarez, a sleepy town 69km south of our start point, where everything (including the hospital as far as we could tell) closes between 12 and 3. We asked around town to see if someone would take us north but everyone gave us the same response….either ‘no the roads are too bad’ or simply 'not possible’. Not a promising response in a country where most of the ‘good’ roads would require a 4x4 by British standards. In the end the only option was for us to cycle to the start point and then retrace the path back down as we began our journey south. We figured 10km an hour was a modest enough pace leaving us confident it would be no more than a two day round trip. It wasn't. We left in the morning, naively confident that we would be at Cap D’Ambre by night fall.

As we began to leave the town it wasn't long before cars were replaced by cattle drawn carts and the pace of life adapted accordingly. We smugly joked that the roads weren't so bad but as the patches of tarmac became less and less frequent and the road turned into rubble we were soon eating our words. As my first experience cycling with panniers (or even cycling more than 20 miles) it was certainly a 'steep’ learning curve (pun intended). Dragging the bike up the hills in 30 degree heat, begging the earth for a breeze to evaporate the dripping sweat, we had to fight for every kilometre.
In the end it was a four day epic, only managing 25 km on our worst day despite setting off at 6.30 am. As we cycled along, disturbing the occasional basking snake (up to 1.5m long) we began to realise we had entered a forgotten world, passing small villages where life goes on as it has done since people first arrived in Madagascar a surprisingly short 2000 years ago. Zebu (like cows but with a big lump on their back) graze the land. The people live in small wooden huts with palm leaf roofs and chicken and children can be found running around the sandy ground. As the men are out checking on the zebu the women sit in the shade dehusking the rice. As we head further north the cattle drawn carts disappear and the role of transporting hay falls to the people, with a long stick across one shoulder and a hay bail tied to either end. Although rather selfishly they all wear jeans and a shirt which some what ruins the romantic picture us tourists have in our heads of tribal people in traditional dress.

Mass puncture repair on the roadside

When we eventually did find Cap D’Ambre, feeling more like we had just completed an expedition than were away to start one, we pulled a u-ee and went right back down the way we just came, finally starting our north to south crossing of Madagascar.


Posted by Moffons 09:56 Archived in Madagascar Comments (2)

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