The starting point of anything Malagasy is Antananarivo, the capital city, generally shortened to Tana. It's bang in the centre of Madagascar, and it's where all the planes go to and come from. So, logically, this was the starting point of my adventure. It's also the only place in Madagascar where you can rent a motorbike (or any other vehicle, for that matter).
I started off down the RN7, which is the best-known and best-maintained road in Madagascar. It's tarred pretty much all the way down, which is far from being the case elsewhere as most roads are dirt tracks with zebu carts all over them. If there is one road in Madagascar which you can actually drive down from start to finish, it's the RN7. I had originally planned to take 10 days to go down the 952km, but that got shortened to 7 with the luggage fuss on arrival. No particular hurry, it just meant one stop less. I could manage that.
Almost immediately outside the capital, the countryside changed to rice paddies and terrace cultivation. I didn't know where to look. I'd never seen anything like that before. Luckily, there would be rice paddies and wattle-and-daub houses on one side, nothing much on the other, so that solved that problem for me. That worked out until I rode through a valley with watery rice paddies and houses on either side. I went into overload.
170 kilometres of rice paddies later, I arrived at my first stop, Antsirabe. This was where I was to deliver my friend's package to his nephew. I stopped the motorbike at the signpost, called the nephew and was told in Malagasy that the line was unavailable. Oh. By the time I had found someone to translate for me, it was early afternoon and I didn't really know what to do. One of the village guides noticed me - a white girl on a noisy motorbike is pretty hard to miss - and asked if I would like to see the Dead-Turning ceremony. It's a ritual which is practised in the highlands of central Madagascar, and it means changing the sheet enveloping the dead ancestors in order to let the old spirits out and the new spirits in. It's also a good occasion to get blind drunk. You are allowed entry if and only if you arrive bearing a bottle of rum. Why not, worth a look, let's go. What I hadn't realized was that it was quite far out in the countryside, and that meant driving on an extremely uneven and unstable dirt track. After half an hour of track, which was very hard work for me as I'd never done that before, my guide realized he had gone the wrong way and turned down an even worse track. There were people coming at me from all directions and I couldn't get enough speed up to go forward properly, never mind turn across the bumps to avoid hitting someone, so I fell over at a low speed. I got off with a few bruises, but broke a few chunks off the motorbike. This happened to be the second small accident of the day, as I had fallen over earlier. (I had parked the bike by the side of the road to photograph a waterfall, but the roadside was very uneven and I took a wrong angle when trying to get back on the road. Got back up, went into the middle of the road, waved my arms about and three bikers helped me sort the bike out with a large screwdriver, then supervised me for the next few kilometres in case I did any other stupid things.) Promptly burst into tears and persuaded my guide to turn around, go back to the village and find someone to repair the bike for me, never mind the ceremony, the bike doesn't belong to me and I don't want it broken. Bearing in mind that this was Sunday afternoon on the day of a ritual ceremony, he did very well in actually finding someone, but the mechanic said the spare parts had to come from Tana, there weren't any in this village. Oh no. I don't want to go all the way back to the capital. Burst into tears again - I'm getting quite good at the damsel in distress act - and he got out his daughter's motorbike, which just happened to be a very similar model to mine. He then proceeded to take the parts he needed off his daughter's bike and put them onto mine.
Antsirabe is rickshaw land. These are called "pousse-pousse" and are rented out for 7,000 Ariary a day for the bike rickshaws, 2,000 a day for the ones you pull on foot. An average trip costs 2,000 Ariary, and the cyclist pulling the thing can earn about 15,000 a day, from which he will deduct the rental cost and still have enough to live modestly with his family. This is how poor a country Madagascar is. We're talking about earning £2 a day.
Onwards from Antsirabe, my next stop was the national park of Ranomafana, meaning "hot water" because there are hot springs in the area. Unfortunately, the springs were being cleaned on the day I went. I wanted to visit the park, which is supposed to be one of the best in Madagascar. It was absolutely chucking it down, which made driving the motorbike rather slippery and extremely cold - I'd never had purple fingers before - and also meant that the four-hour walk in the park turned into a one-hour shuffle, doing my best not to get my shoes too wet and muddy as they were the only ones I had. The guide didn't explain anything, because it was raining, and we saw two poor lemurs huddled up at the top of a tree for warmth. Upon returning to the park entrance, I was informed that it was my fault that the guide hadn't explained anything: I hadn't asked enough questions. The questions I had asked at the beginning of our walk had been met with grunts or silences, so I had quickly given up that unproductive way of getting information.
I visited Fianarantsoa, which is where my musician friend's wife was born, and saw a couple of their friends in the town. Then on to Ambalavao, where I visited a silk workshop, an embroidery workshop and a flowery paper workshop. It was good to be a pedestrian for a bit, as by then I was extremely fed up of driving on grotty roads in the cold and the rain. Smiling at people, visiting places and taking photos turned out to be good therapy for a grumpy biker. Fianarantsoa and Ambalavao were two short driving days for me, just 60 kilometres per day, but it took forever as I actually had to stop before each collection of potholes and think how on earth I was going to get across that lot.
In Ambalavao, I happened across the taxi-brousse station, where they were preparing to set off the next morning and were filling up with people who had booked a seat. This meant tying everyone's luggage on the roof. I still haven't worked out how they manage to secure everything.
After Ambalavao, my two short stops had finished and it was on to Ranohira, where there was the second most-visited national park in Madagascar. This particular park had an area of 547 hectares, it measured 125km one way and 21km the other. Three times the size of Mayotte. I saw a few lemurs, but mainly pretty mountain and valley scenery with a couple of natural swimming pools (full of people) and a very cold waterfall. My guide was more informative than the previous one, but spent all the remaining time (when he wasn't explaining something) complaining about white people who say they have a limited budget when everybody knows they have heaps of money, especially the English. I had started this diatribe by saying that I had a limited budget and would only be doing the small four-hour circuit rather than the six-day camping with porters, tents and food for everybody. The road was generally much better by this point, except from the odd potholey bit.
Also after Ambalavao, the scenery changed completely. No more red cliffs and rice paddies: now, it was flat scrubby grasslands, often burnt or burning to get rid of the grass and plant something useful. The view was completely flat, which was wonderful for me as it meant I could actually see where I was going and anticipate the bends in the road. Before that, I would go very slowly round corners, not knowing whether I would find holes, a taxi-brousse on the wrong side of the road or a broken-down lorry after the turn. Now, I could accelerate and dip the bike in the bends. Great fun. I really enjoyed the road from that point, and my average speed bumped up from 50km/h to 80. I tried to see how fast the bike could go at one point, but the downside of flat countryside was that I got buffeted around by all the wind instead of it being blocked by trees and cliffs, so I gave that up fairly quickly and just concentrated on having fun.
My very first Grandidieri baobab trees. I didn't see many, a total of about ten over 250 kilometres. The south isn't really the place for them, they grow better in the north-west. But like the ring-tailed lemurs, they're a symbol of Madagascar, so spotting one makes you feel as though you've seen a bit more of the country.
The road from Ranohira to my final destination, Toliara, was beautifully straight and clean, hardly any potholes and very few other vehicles. It also got progressively hotter. Instead of driving south, I was now driving west, so I had the sun directly behind me... it seemed very strange to see my shadow all of a sudden. I was also coming closer to the sea. I stopped at a sapphire mine in Ilakaka, having been warned against bandits and various thieves, and visited the mine, then made a new friend on the way out, a girl who has been living in Madagascar for the last four years and whose friends in France don't believe her when she talks about the things she can do there. She loved the story of my Malagasy adventure so far, and I'm expecting her in Mayotte whenever she likes.
Twenty kilometres from Toliara, I stopped, took off the rain coat and trousers which had been keeping me warm and stopping the wind until then, and flopped over the front of the motorbike, absolutely exhausted. I think the accumulated tiredness had suddenly got to me. This stretch of road was the easiest and the warmest I had driven on since the beginning of my trip six days ago, and the sudden break from biting cold, slippery rain, grotty tracks and having to think about what was around the next bend had made me realize how tired I actually was. I had a rest, then started up again for the last few minutes into Toliara.
I was so pleased to have arrived at my final destination, I couldn't believe it. I didn't know if I would be able to do the trip on my own the way I wanted to, didn't want to believe the stories about bandits and cutthroats, had point-blank refused to think about having an accident and/or hurting myself in some way. Friends had painted horror pictures of lying by the side of the road with an open fracture or a broken leg, nobody for miles around and no way to call for help as my phone would have broken upon impact, plus a couple of bandits around to pick up anything valuable while I would have been immobilized and in a lot of pain in the middle of nowhere. I didn't want to know. If I think about that sort of thing, I'll never go anywhere. This is why I buy plane tickets first and think about it afterwards.
Eight days of driving between 60 and 250 kilometres per day.
1533 kilometres in total.
Now, when I visit a new country, the first question is going to be: where can I rent a bike?