Traveling the world has never been easier. An ordinary person with a passport and some money (a modest sum, by American standards) can reach almost any country on the planet in 24 hours or less. You can place a phone call or send a message or a photo almost anywhere in a matter of seconds. Even in Madagascar, one of the poorest and least developed countries, an isolated island in the Indian Ocean, we saw satellite dishes and solar panels on huts made of mud and sticks. Anywhere you go, chances are good you can find someone who speaks English, and if not, Google will translate for you. The political and technological developments that have made this possible began only a century ago, and some, such as good translation apps, are very new. Together, they’re making the world seem small and accessible.
And yet, and yet …. Start driving around in Africa, and the world starts feeling very big again. When we were planning this trip, we looked at maps and distances. We tried to be realistic about the conditions we’d face. Karel worked with tour operators and carefully studied their recommendations. And still, it was so much longer and further than we ever imagined.
In America, even the bad roads are pretty good. Sure, you can spend all day crawling over boulders, inching up and sliding down 50% gradients, and winching yourself out of mudholes to get from Durango to Telluride, Colorado, for example, but you also have the option of taking the nice, smooth highway. In Madagascar, even the good roads are pretty bad. Automobile traffic is light, but even the main highways are sporadically clogged with herds of zebu, taxi buses struggling through sand or up hills, and throngs of people pushing, pulling, and carrying goods to market. Most of the roads themselves were in terrible condition.
The tour company itineraries tended to be optimistic. “After a scenic journey through the pristine forests blah blah blah, arrive at your lovely accommodations in time for lunch. Enjoy an afternoon of canoeing and exploring the nearby islands, hiking through the nature preserve to such-and-such viewpoint, or bicycling around the lake, followed by a gourmet dinner and a night drive, blah blah blah.” The reality is often nine hot, dusty, smokey, bone-jarring hours, with little to see but the dry, dirt-colored thicket of sticker bushes that line the shoulders. Arrive in time to wash up, have some dinner, and crash. Get up with the sun, repeat.
For me, the ratio of going somewhere vs. staying somewhere was way out of whack. We arrived in Morondava, on the western shore, after a long, rough day, where we said farewell to our guide, Stella, and our driver, Sosoe, and hello to the owner of Remote River Expeditions, our Madagascar tour operator, who had his headquarters at the hotel, Chez Maggie. Gary is a musician, and he and Karel had planned a fun night of jamming, but my throat was sore from dust and smoke and we were too bone-tired to stay up late enough for Gary to wrap up his work day.
By this time waking at first light had become a habit, so we made our way down to the beach. Some young men and women were struggling mightily to drag a fishing net through the breakers, so Karel offered to help.
We had only a short distance to cover, from Morondava to Belo sur Mer. However, if you look closely at a map, or satellite images, you’ll notice there are no roads to Belo sur Mer. No. Roads. Michel took us along on a few trip-related errands in Morondava —checking tire pressure, stocking up on drinking water— and then we set off.
The terrain was low, sandy, flat, and covered with a prickly thicket. The locals have smashed a network of unofficial tracks through the brush that are drivable in the dry season. The tracks run from village to village — mostly these were seasonal camps, where the inhabitants slashed and burned their way across the area, making charwood and grazing zebu and goats. There were more permanent settlements near perennial streams. As we neared each village or encampment, we’d be stopped by toll-collectors — sometimes several men, sometimes a mob of children. Michel would roll down his window and dicker with them over a small fee to be paid for the maintenance of the “road” and permission to drive across the claimed territory.
Although we were near the coast, we couldn’t see anything through the brush. Often the tracks would fork away in various directions, with no landmarks and, of course, no signs. Even the main, government-maintained roads in Madagascar have no signage. Wood won’t last, and let’s just say, metal signs make excellent roofs. The only time you’ll see a sign is if there happens to be a big rock, firmly fixed in the ground, with a paintable face, in a strategic location. GPS won’t help you much, either. The trails change from month to month; whenever a tree falls, or the ruts get too deep, or the sand gets too loose, the few vehicles that travel this way smash off in another direction. Somehow, Michel always seemed to know which way to go.
The scenery changed abruptly in the early afternoon. We broke out of the brush and emerged onto the floodplain of an estuary. We skirted a permanent-looking village and crossed a large salt pan, and the ocean hove into view.
Our hotel was a collection of beach bungalows clustered near a restaurant, run by a French woman. For once, we had arrived in time to get a late lunch, and then we had an entire afternoon to laze on the beach. A woman from the nearby village offered me a massage. When she told me her asking price, I simply couldn’t bear it. She was all smiles when I handed her the equivalent of $3, double her fee.
The lodge had enough solar power to charge our devices and run some lights for a few hours after sunset. Ample water for bathing (collected in rain barrels) was heated in recycled wine bottles in a large box with a Plexiglas lid. In the late afternoon, I emptied a few bottles into a bucket, brought it inside to the shower stall, mixed it with a little cold water from the tap, and ladled it on with a scoop. Heavenly!This entry was posted in Madagascar, Vacation 2016: East/South Africa