Madagascar: from pandemonium to paradise

First, a bed base. Second, its mattress. Third, a table, followed by its four accompanying chairs. Carried out by the bus driver, helped by a helpful passenger. All loaded onto the roof of the taxi-brousse. The minibus creaked a little louder as each item was loaded onto the roof. Finally, the furniture was precariously placed, with bags filling any and all gaps.

The furniture and luggage being placed on the taxi's rood. PHOTO: AMY BARTLET

The furniture and luggage being placed on the taxi’s rood. PHOTO: AMY BARTLET

Earlier that morning, at around 05:30, Madagascan time, a bus of 19, mostly sleepless travellers drove into the port-town, Tamatave. The roads were lined with puddles as tuk-tuks and cyclo-pousses (a cart built for passengers that is pulled by a bicycle) splashed each other in the waking streets.

My girlfriend, Amy, who works in Madagascar, and I left Antananarivo at 20:30 the night before and had travelled through the night in the first step of our journey.

We pulled into the station in Tamatave knowing only one word, the name of our destination: “Mahambo”, from where we would head to the beach. Our bag was passed to us from the roof as we looked around, wide-eyed, searching for any means of transport further up the coast to Mahambo.

We spotted a taxi-brousse. A faded, grey-silver, rusted minibus. We recited our one word to the driver. He nodded and repeated “Mahambo” as he pointed to the taxi. The two of us sat in the front seats, happy to be beginning the second leg of our travels. Little did we know that we wouldn’t be going anywhere for another two hours at least.

“Are you sure we’re on the right bus?” I asked Amy, who had been volunteering in Madagascar for two months prior to my arrival. But even she wasn’t sure.

The early morning street sidings of Tamatave. PHOTO: AMY BARTLET

The early morning street sidings of Tamatave with cyclo-pousses ready to go


Our driver drove around, hooting seemingly for the pleasure of it. He shouted “Foulpointe” to every passer-by. We began to think that this was where our bus was going. Nervously, we decided to trust our driver as he stopped in the middle of the street to load passengers. Again, we thought we were on our way. Again, we were wrong.

A woman had a long conversation with the driver before sliding into the seat behind us. The bus roared forward with power, but little speed. It snaked through sand roads in the back streets. Then from the house we had stopped at, came that mattress.

Then it really was time to go. We re-joined the main road. We stopped. Our driver got out. A passenger climbed into the driver’s seat, and the bus rocked forward. Our confusion hit new heights. Starving, exhausted, nervous, but at least we were on our way.

I had arrived in Antananarivo a few days prior. I was met at the airport by Amy who told the taxi driver our destination: Ambohijanahary. I loaded my bag in the boot which could only be opened with the know-how of the driver.  As we left the airport grounds, the scene changed.

Thin, busy streets were the norm. The driver’s hand hovered over the hooter, ready to warn any pedestrians of his nearing presence. The chaos of the roads meant that it took me longer than it should have to realise that, in Madagascar, they drive on the right-hand side of the road.

Enjoying a local beer at a tin table in Ambohijanahary. PHOTO: SAM CAMPBELL

We arrived at the house at the unpronounceable destination. I was greeted by Sam and Claire, Amy’s co-workers and house mates.

That evening the four of us went to taste the local beer. We sat on stools around a tin table in a dimly lit corner. I had a Skol. An almost quart sized beer for which we paid roughly the equivalent of R4. It was delicious.

My legs pushed up against the seat in front of me. PHOTO: SAM CAMPBELL

My legs pushed up against the seat in front of me. PHOTO: SAM CAMPBELL


Buses are the usual means of transport. And the next day I was given my first taste (literally) of many things Malagasy. We caught multiple buses. Planks were placed across the aisle for extra seating. My legs didn’t fit into the space in front of me. I had to push my legs against the seat in front of me, with my knees almost as high as my head. Thankfully, the bus rides were not too long, and we met Mino, a young Malagasy woman who had befriended the three South Africans.

Mino had spoken of a swimming pool which she knew of, which was appealing on a hot Sunday. However, we arrived to interrupt her extended family having a picnic for lunch. There was a clear language barrier as very few family members could speak any English, and we weren’t proficient in Malagasy or French. This didn’t stop the incredible hospitality and generosity we received. We tasted local dishes and drinks, my favourite being an avocado juice.

Spending our Sunday afternoon at this blue swimming pool, with the view in the background. PHOTO: TOM STAPYLTON-SMITH

Spending our Sunday afternoon at this blue swimming pool, with the view in the background. PHOTO: TOM STAPYLTON-SMITH

The next day was the only day that Amy could not get off work. So, for me it was a half day of packing and organising our luggage for our trip to the coast.

Walking the long, two kilometre sandy road to our accommodation. PHOTO: AMY BARTLET

Potholes again meant that identifying which side of the road was the norm was difficult. We swerved around, fell in, and rose out of puddles and potholes throughout our journey to Mahambo, narrowly missing vehicles doing the same in the other direction. We hoped we were going to Mahambo, and we hoped that we would be told when we were there, as we had no idea what to look for.

Walking through the avenue of Palm trees into La Pirouge. PHOTO: TOM STAPYLTON-SMITH

Walking through the avenue of Palm trees into La Pirouge. PHOTO: TOM STAPYLTON-SMITH

Mahambo turned out to be not much more than a few stalls lining the road, with no coast in sight. We wandered up and down the road until we spotted a sign directing us down a dirt track. Our spirits lifted as we could almost smell the sea. With each step, we tired. The dirt track widened into a sand road. The road busied and straightened. It appeared to have no end in sight. Yet, we plodded on.

Fourteen hours after leaving the capital, Antananarivo, we walked into the idyllic La Pirouge, our Mahambo accommodation and final destination. A white beach, palm trees, freshly cut lawns with shrubs springing from the ground. Permanent thatched umbrellas shaded inviting loungers. Across the beach was the bluest and flattest sea I have seen. Paradise. – Tom Stapylton-Smith