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Madagascar: The Vanilla Coast

Along the Highway

“It’s the worst road in the country,” said our rogueish young driver Dimitry, with a disturbing grin. One of Madagascar’s multitude of Afro-Chinese, Dimitry’s clan runs the local taxi brousse company. Taxi brousse or ‘bush taxi’, is basically a super-sized pickup, designed to brave man-eating potholes with a cargo of live poultry, bananas and foolhardy passengers.

A typical road

Madagascar is the world’s fourth biggest island, separated from Africa by 100 million years of evolution (80% of its wildlife is found nowhere else), and about 300km of ocean. The journey to Madagascar’s wild northeast is a bumpy one, along one of the island’s few ‘highways’ (RN #5) that links the port of Toamasina (Madagascar’s second city) and Maroantsetra along the “Vanilla Coast” (named for its main export).

The ride to Maroantsetra takes an average of 4 days along an unsealed dirt  track over rivers, beaches and rickety wooden bridges. The distance (300km) isn’t much – only 45 minutes by air – but travelling via taxi brousse is all about seeing the real Madagascar, and putting a little hair on your chest. As the youngest taxi driver along the route, at 20, Dimitry has already made the journey once a week, rain or shine, for the past 4 years.

Negotiating a 'ferry'

Leaving Tamatave, RN 5′s asphalt ends at Fenoarivo, where the truck gets loaded on a ferry (a loose term for the ubiquitous bamboo raft, universally punted by elderly men with sticks) to cross the first of many estuaries along this coast. Once on the other side, the next 200km is nothing but dirt, or for a change of pace, mud, rivers or small canyons.

Locals take it in stride, as they are bounced, hurled and shaken like a cowboy on a rodeo bull – with chicken feathers and baggage bouncing among them. Dimitry zooms by countless villages at Mach II, heedless of the gaping maw of potholes, flattening chickens and giving cows heart attacks along the way.

Dimitry’s assistant (known simply as Redman) is often out of the truck, aligning flimsy wooden planks across deep chasms, while Dimitry slowly edges his 1-tonne truck forward. Other times, he’d direct Dimitry on where to steer around deep mud holes and tricky bits of road. Even the most hardened 4×4 enthusiasts would weep at the challenging course, and this is only during the dry season.

Truck vs. Plank

Travelling via taxi brousse does have its advantages – astoundingly friendly local villagers (who don’t see many visitors) constantly shout ‘salut vaza‘, or ‘hello stranger’, and everywhere you go, you’re greeted with happy children who want nothing more than to get a return wave from you. While it is  Madagascar’s poorest region, it’s also its warmest and most welcoming.

Halfway up the coast, Mananara’s famous Aye Aye Island is home to a surreal, koala-like creature with a long skeletal middle finger. Trying to spot the nocturnal aye-aye is all about tripping past fields of fallen (and falling) coconuts in pitch black, led by excited villagers with flashlights.

Three days (and a bullet-proof bum) later, you arrive in Maroantsetra, home of the renowned Masoala National Park. It’s a treasure trove of wildlife – from lemurs to whales – and has become a base for a few wildlife research groups. Maroantsetra’s other ‘attraction’ is Mr. Kim, the eccentric Korean owner of the town’s only casino.

Here, Dimirty bids you au revior and collects a new batch of man, beast and banana for the return run, leaving you to fly back to the capital from Maroantsetra’s bedroom-sized airport. The airplane, as it turned out, was 2 days late, but that was another story altogether…

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