Les quatre-quatres de merde

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October 3rd 2009
Published: December 26th 2009
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Today is supposed to be a long slog through to Morondava, a trip that no-one is looking forward to. We do half of the leg back to Belo with no problems and stop for a break.

Unfortunately the driver then stalls the engine, and will it start again? Not a hope in hell. We try jump-starts, push-starts, the driver fiddles under the bonnet interminably. Nothing works.

We grab our mattresses and lie under a nearby tree in the shade. Vehicles pass but none of them seems to have the technical know-how to fix the problem. The verdict is that the alternator is en panne, a French phrase meaning "broken" and rhyming with "Our chances of getting to Morondava in one day have just gone down the pan".

The decision is made that the guide will get a lift the 1.75 hours to Belo then arrange for another 4WD to come pick us up. This will obviously take at least 3.5 hours, which is even less appealing given we have little food and water.

Several hours pass. I chat with one of the guys about the previous president Marc Ravalomanana. One of his vote-winning measures was to heavily subsidise the price he paid to farmers for their dairy produce - essentially they could sell it to him at one price and then see it in the market the next day for much less. It's surprising that such a populist move didn't see him retain power for longer.

At some point, it appears that the others decide we should start making our own tracks to Belo so, when the next Belo-bound vehicle comes by, the girls flag it down. It's a French guy working for an oil company and he has four spare seats in his 4WD. It's decided that the girls and I will go with him to Belo. The other three guys will have to stay.

Progress is faster than before due to him having a nice Land Cruiser, and we check all oncoming vehicles to see if the guide is in them, but we reach Belo having seen no sign of him. Fortunately the staff at our old hotel know his number and call him. The news isn't good. He's been unable to locate a vehicle in Belo and one is now coming from Morondava (four hours further south) instead. It would appear that the three guys are going to be waiting a long time.

With nothing to be done with regard to helping the situation, we each pass the time in our own way. The guide provides occasional updates, none good, e.g. there's apparently a ton of tourists waiting for the ferry to Belo so the replacement car won't be able to get on the next departure.

Just as we're sitting down to dinner at 9PM, with bottles of beer and plates of food spread out in front of us, the guys arrive, having also hitched. It's a pointed statement of how the last few hours have been good to us but not to them. They're in remarkably good spirits, though, which is a bonus. The replacement 4WD arrives shortly after. I'm sure I'm not the only one thinking that the guide hasn't handled this very well.

It's too late to carry on to Morondava so we have to bed down for an unexpected night in Belo. The guide agrees to pay for the accommodation, but this means four guys in one room and the three girls in another - an annoyingly cheapskate approach, given that (as I later find out) a large profit (by Madagascan standards) is being made from this whole trip.

The following morning we leave late when the new driver takes over an hour to apparently put some air in the tires. The replacement 4WD has the boon that all its windows can open, but the rear row of seats is raised so there's no head room for anyone but pygmies. It looks like it will be another uncomfortable ride.

We pass various Malagasy tombs as we head south from Belo - with the afterlife so important, tomb construction is often grander than for the houses of mortals. The road is sandy but not too bumpy and I begin to feel cautiously optimistic about reaching Morondava without much trauma. Which just goes to show how flawed my intuition is. As we negotiate an uneven stretch, the steering wheel suddenly goes loose in the driver's hands and the 4WD stops obeying his commands. He brakes to a halt and looks underneath the car. A piece of Scotch tape emerges, which was apparently what was holding the steering together. I don't see how this is fixed, as I move to a shady spot to hide from the sun, but in all likelihood further Scotch tape is the solution.

Shortly after, a disconcerting banging starts to come from the rear right of the vehicle. The driver stops to investigate, can't see anything wrong, and moves off again. Twenty seconds later the rear axle shears in two. Even Scotch tape won't fix that.

The driver and guide are both distraught and I almost begin to feel some sympathy for them, but it's really just another example of the short-term thinking that plagues the continent - let's not maintain anything properly because it costs money and perhaps it'll be fine in the long run. In this case, the safety of the group was in jeopardy because of this attitude.

We're apparently close to a village from where the guide can call for assistance, so the decision is made to don our rucksacks and trudge about 3km. Fortunately it's midday so there's no shade anywhere and we can bake ourselves into a sweaty mess. I look with hate at the occasional baobabs, whose trunks can hold tens of thousands of litres of water.

The guide tries to find a phone signal but we ignore him when

Belo sur Tsiribihina
the sound of a large lorry can be heard from the north. It's an 18-wheeler and there's space to be had in the back on sacks of sugar. We climb in.

Progress is slow and there's no air movement in the covered part of the trailer so soon everyone has migrated to the open part where there's yet more sun but at least a bit of a breeze. We should've hit this stretch of road at sunset yesterday in order to see the Avenue of the Baobabs lit up in orange. Instead, we get to see them from a jolting trailer that makes photography pot luck.

Soon after, we stop in a village where we have to disembark due to a police check up ahead. The guide has already arranged a minibus to take him back to Antsirabe from here, which I (and the pair of French guys) are eager to make use of too. The price seems too high but I'm extremely keen for this trip to come to an end. The other four are staying a half day in Morondava to see the beach. It feels like a sudden and unsatisfactory parting of the ways when they drive off for the remaining 14km to Morondava, a town I'm destined to only have an asymptotic approach to.

Not that we go anywhere fast. The minibus driver says we should have lunch while he goes into Morondava to refuel, a process which takes him over two hours. We are joined at lunch by a policeman who, from what I can gather, has wangled a place on the minibus for free (i.e. partly at my expense). He is going to Tana in order to fly to France to interview for a job in Paris. He asks me what I think of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, a question which reveals that my French vocabulary contains precisely zero words for political conversations.

Once we finally get going, I experience an enormous sense of relief. I have a row of three seats to myself and a full battery in my MP3 player. I'm heading back to cooler climes. I've had a bit of an adventure. But I'm also back to being on my own and don't have to struggle by in either bad French or simplified English. Once again, I'm struck by how critical good communication is - in
Beer (?) signBeer (?) signBeer (?) sign

Belo sur Tsiribihina
any language and in any situation.

The afternoon sun illuminates a lush, green landscape of rice paddies and baobabs, and I wave at numerous kids who return with interest. Madagascar certainly does have an excess of smiling people who love to wave. Once night falls, an enormous moon lights the way. I recall Greyhound trips in Australia, the sky filled with stars, favourite music in my ears, and my thoughts with an ambit as wide as the universe.

The road is fairly good for the journey back and the driver sufficiently skilled to make the dodgy bits a breeze. There are no breakdowns though we stop at the scene of an accident from just hours earlier - two lorries had collided, seemingly due to the brakes failing on one, sending them both off the road. The dead are still at the scene, the tragic face of skimping on maintenance.

We hit Miandrivazo in 5.5 hours, but our rapid progress is then slowed by a torrential rainstorm. The temperature plummets and it's a testament to how dehydrated I'd been earlier in the day that I still don't need to have a slash, even in the cold and after drinking litres of Fanta since lunchtime. We also get caught in a game of "Tour de France taxi-brousse" with other road users, with constant overtaking/undertaking like in the peloton. I won't complain if it keeps the driver awake.

We finally reach Antsirabe at 2:30AM. The guide had supposedly booked us separate rooms at Chez Billy earlier in the day but this turns out to be the final disappointment of the trip, as we have to share one room. I'm so knackered I don't care - other than the usual embarrassment about my humming hiking boots - and, after a quick shower to remove some of the accumulated detritus from my body, I enter a troubled sleep in which all my future transport is en panne and a giant mouse turd lands on my head while I'm taking a shower.

Dull but possibly useful info
i. I paid Ar124K to get back to Antsirabe from near Morondava - 5.5 hours to Miandrivazo and 4.25 to Antsirabe.

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