Bikes, Lemurs, and Tsingy... Oh MY

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Africa » Madagascar
August 4th 2010
Published: August 10th 2010
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The plan was to go to Madagascar and go for a bike tour. Sounds simple enough, but before we get to the fun that was had, let’s look at things that might maybe considered red flags for this trip.

Yup, I think that sums up the red flags. Despite all of those flags, I still went, and had fun.
So about the trip. Well read on, or click here to see more pictures. Pictures are in chronological order
Well it was probably the hardest trip I have ever done
And when I say the trip was heinous, it was. However, don't for a moment think I didn't enjoy it. Don't think that I am not glad I went. But I would be a liar if I said everything was amazing and grand. There were actually several days when I was barely holding onto my sanity. Or something. I felt that I had taken all the Madagascar had for me and I was losing. But as a Robert Earl Keen has said, “The road goes on forever and the party never ends.” So I had to keep going. When all was said and done I had a great sense of accomplishment (well after I rested and recovered). And I saw LEMURS and Chameleons and other cool things.

For what it is worth my initial plan was to bike from Antanarivo (Tana), the capital, to Maroantsetra. Maroantsetra is situated in NE Madagascar and is the access point for the Masoala Peninsula.
Not all of this is supposed to be particularly difficult. There is just a 230km section from Soanierana-Ivongo to Maroantsetra that is bad. I of course picked this because it is supposed to be nice virgin rain forest, not very touristy, and difficult.

OK, more facts before I get into some stories.
All told, I spent about 20 days on my bike.
I biked about 900km or 550miles.
My longest distance in 1 day was 125kms and the shortest was 12kms.
The longest day on the bike was 9.5hrs and the shortest was about 1.5hrs.
I took a Trek 820 Mtn. Bike as my horse of choice on this trip. It weighted about 40lbs.
Loaded with gear and water I was pushing around about 100lbs. It was heavy.

OK, now onto the stories. If you don't want to read all of this long blog, at least read this first story, it is the funniest of the things to happen to me.

I fell off a bridge

Really, I fell off a bridge. It was about 4:30PM, it was getting late, and I was getting tired. None of that really matters, except that I was really pushing to get to the next village that had rooms to stay at. The bridge was a wooden bridge composed of cross ties, think railroad bridge. It then had boards laid down to form two tracks so that cars could drive on this bridge. I'm tooling along, flying pretty good actually. Suddenly my front tire turns right and drops me off the track. I am now headed straight to the side of the bridge, about 2' away. All I can think is, “I am about to ride my bike off of this bridge.” The 'guard rail' is a piece of wood about the size of a 4x4, lying along the cross ties. I will definitely go over that. For weeks I have trusted that the Ferry Man won't drop my bike in the river, and now I'm going to ride right off the bridge. Well luckily my front wheel got caught between two cross ties and the bike just laid over. Of course it ejected me right out of the pedals and I super-manned off the bridge. As I landed in the water I remember seeing something black on the surface next to me. I just missed whatever it was by maybe a foot. Luckily the water wasn't that deep, maybe waist or chest deep. I stood there and tapped my helmet, don't really think anybody around knew what that meant, but I did it anyway. I was safe, unhurt, and smiling. Up on the bridge I saw my bike with all of its panniers lying comfortably on the bridge. Whew, that was good. I laughed and smiled some more. The bridge was probably another 5 feet or so above me. It wasn't something I could climb back up, so I started hiking over towards the shore. One the shore was a little girl and boy who had been doing dishes. The girl’s eyes are huge, she is just staring in disbelief. I of course am smiling and laughing and happy to be ok, and not dragging my bike out of the river. Then I wonder if her eyes are big because, well they do have crocodiles in this country. I don't think there would be any in this river and nobody really talks about crocs much. But I decide not to dally and find out, so I start swimming. The girl just keeps staring in disbelief.

When I get back to my bike, a crowd has gathered. It is the group of people that was walking across the bridge from the other side. There is an old lady there that is just ranting. She keeps pointing in the water where I landed. Turns out the thing I saw 'floating' was actually an old wooden bridge pylon, probably still anchored to the bottom. So lucky I missed that, it would have hurt. Well this lady keeps ranting and pointing. I try and say, yes, I got lucky. I am alright. Don't think she cared that I was alright. Really just wanted to point out how stupid the vazaha (foreigner) is.

After they all walked off, I slowly picked up my bike, and finished walking it across the bridge. I know I should have taken a picture of the bridge, but I was too busy slinking away with my tail between my legs. I was more cautious on all bridges during the rest of the trip. I tended to unclip from my pedals and shift down into my small gear in the front. Not sure what any of this would do, but it made me feel better.

Bike Shorts

I had several days of biking before I got to the really tough road that was the crux of the trip. During these several days I learned lots of things about biking in Madagascar, or about Madagascar in general

* This first one, isn’t about biking. On the ride into town from the airport I looked up out of the car window and saw Scorpio and The Southern Cross, it was like two old friends had come out to greet me. It really was a good feeling that night. Maybe I was just happy to be out of the plane after 30 hours.

* You will bike in the rain and it isn't fun. The rain wasn't generally heavy enough to make me stop, but it lasted long enough to get me soaked, and to be really annoying. I was very happy that at the last second of packing, I had decided to take my Smith sunglasses and the spare yellow lenses. I'm sure the locals thought yellow sunglasses were strange. They made it possible to bike in the rain and not have to ride the downhills with my eyes closed because the rain stung.

* Madagascar does not believe in grading roads. If the hill you must climb is steep, then steep it is. There were many multiple km hikes I got to have with my bike while I tried to climb to the top of the hill. That wasn't really so bad, I usually wasn't the only one hiking a bike up the hill. There were often many locals hiking bikes up as well. I did find it especially demoralizing though, when I was trudging along in my low gears and got passed by a truck or bus. That part wasn't so bad, what was bad was looking up 5 or 10 minutes later to see the truck above me on the road and hear it shifting down gears to keep going up. OK, maybe it wasn't really 5 or 10 minutes later.

* Late on the 3rd day of biking I ran into a dilemma of having gone about 30kms too far. Earlier in the day I had decided to make a push for the next big town. I was feeling good and really making good time on the bike. Well Madagascar decided that wasn't for me. It went into rolling hill mode. Except this wasn't nice rolling hill. This was tough climb to top of steep, small hill. From top I could see top of next hill, that I would climb in 30 seconds after I finished the downhill that I was about to start. The downhill was very steep and fast. It would have been fun, if I wasn't pedaling as hard as I could to have as much momentum to climb the next hill. Actually, this was the nice version. The not nice version was that after the downhill there would be just enough flat to bleed off all of your momentum. This seemed to go on for about 25km that day, until I stopped.

It actually seemed to continue into the next day. The next day I finally gave up. I had biked 50km of up/down in the rain and still had 60km to go to Tamatave. I decided that I wasn't having fun and flagged down the next taxi brousse to take me into town. Luckily I didn't wait long, the taxi brousse showed up before I could even get my panniers off the bike. The driver originally didn't want to wait for me to take them off, he just wanted to load the bike. Once he tried to pick up the 100lbs of gear, well then he got a little more patient.

* Because the bike was heavy, I really thought about where I would set it down. Setting it down on the ground was always the worst option. It was hardest to get back up, and usually one of the front panniers would no longer be properly attached. Unfortunately, I got to pick the bike up many times.

* A bright spot of a really heavy bike. It would take some real work for anyone to steal it.

* As the trip wore on, I thought of my bike more and more as my horse. I never came up with a good name. All I really ever thought of was Trigger. But arriving into town for the night, the first priority was to take care of my horse. It needed to be cleaned, the cables lubed, the wheels trued, the brakes adjusted, and anything else that had broken that day, needed to be fixed. After that I could shower and get out of my stinky clothes and look for food.

* Biking up the east coast was very lonely. I was often the only vazaha and sometimes person staying in the hotel. So after biking all day alone, I got to spend the night alone as well. I usually went to be very early. It was dark by 6, and so by 9... if I could last that long I was in bed. Of course I also was up by 5 or 6 every morning so it sort of worked out.

* All of Madagascar was more devoid of tourists than just about anyplace I have been, except for maybe Zimbabwe. The tourists you do meet were predominately French, Dutch, or actually there volunteering for something, or a combination of the above.

* The bike from Tamatave to Soanierana-Ivongo was really nice and pleasant. It was mostly flat and along the coast, so very pretty. The biking from Antanarivo to Tamatave, was not as nice. The trip to Tamatave was very long, it took me 4 days on the bike and 2 of those days were 100+km days. It is also the hilly section. It is still very pretty, being in the highlands was nice. But much of the way for both of these sections is deforested hillsides and rice fields.

* I never biked more than 3 days in a row and then took a rest day.

* Until 2005 Madagascar used the Franc as its currency. In 2005 it switched to the Ariary. 1 Ariary = 5 Francs. This is all well and good except that in the rural and sometimes in the city people still think in Francs. They will quote you a price of 10,000.... Franc, or 2000A or $1. I don't think they did this to deceive anyone. The menu boards at the little hotelly restaurants would have prices written in Franc, not Ariary. They funny party is they could easily divide by 5. Because when then said 10,000 and I handed them a note that was emblazoned with 2000 nobody batted an eye, well except for me, since I wasn't sure I did it right.

* The food is really good. The have really good hot sauce made from local peppers. The local beef, Zebu, is very good. Brochettes are readily available on the street or in restaurants. It also isn't hard to find European food in just about any town. I had some of my best pizza in Maroantsetra. I tried duck at a French restaurant in Antananarivo. In the locals have rice as their main stable. Most of where I was you could get decent fruit and veg.

* The beer is not good unless you like lagers. Rum isn't bad, especially the Rhum Arrange. Which is Rum infused with various flavors and sugar.

* The main export of Madagascar is vanilla. Did take a tour of a vanilla processing factory. It is amazing the amount of work that goes into getting vanilla ready for export. Plants are all hand pollinated, 9 months later you have vanilla pods to pick. These must be dried, then boiled and dried again. They must be careful during the drying process so as not to let them get burnt by the sun. Vanilla is rated based on its length, longer is better. The next quality is color, it is either listed as black or red. Red is really more of a lighter brown than the black Black is higher quality. The last rating is whether the pods are split or not. Non-split pods will have more seeds in them. You can get all of the these qualities of vanilla from the same plant. Also the growers tattoo every pod with their initials. You can still see these initials in the dried pods.

* On the bike ride from Diego Suarez to Ramena the wind was so strong, I couldn't bike. There were times where I felt like it was blowing me across or off the road. I actually had the bike crabbed into the wind at one point. I made it, the wind subsided after awhile.

* Bike made it back to the home mostly in good shape. Nothing really ever broke on it. I had to replace brakes several times. I had one flat tire that I didn't need to fix. I found it on the last day going to the bus. That is a testament to my good tires from Schwalbe (yeah, shameless plug, but worth it). I was told to expect a flat a day. I got lucky

The Hard Road

The paved road ended for me at Soanierana-Ivongo. At this point I had traveled (mostly by bike) about 550km and had about 230km to go before Maroantsetra. The morning I was planning to leave S-Ivongo was one of those rainy days. I debated not going, but I didn't really like the town so I crossed the river. I know, sounds dramatic to cross the river. It sort of was, once across I felt there wasn't any turning back (of course I could if I really wanted to). There is not a bridge across the river, you get across by boat. There is a ferry here that would take me across the river for free. However, it only moves when it has a paying customer, i.e. a car. There were constantly people loading up into pirogue, dugout canoes, and going across the river.

I waited for awhile but it wasn't long before I realized that I was likely to be going in a pirogue. I just waited around until one of the boatmen gave me a good price, 2000A. I'm sure it was still too high. But then he didn't know my bike weigh 45kgs. I have to say I was a little nervous about my bike in the canoe. It was leaned against one side and really was not very well loaded in the boat. I never had any issues with any of my river crossings and the bike, well except for the one already mentioned.

Once across the river, the road turned to sand. It started out in pretty good shape, but then the sand got really, really soft. It took me a long time to learn to ride in the sand. I had to be in one of my lowest gears so I could just spin the pedals. Soft sand should be treated like it is ice. If you get in it, be prepared not to turn. I wiped out probably 5-10 times in the soft sand. At least it was usually a soft landing, still not fun. There was a stretch of probably 15km where it felt like I was walking more than riding.

The other hazard for this day and this would be a hazard that I would have the rest of the trip was water/mud puddles. Sometimes I could go around them, sometimes I had to go through them, and sometimes I would sort of walk around them. I say 'sort of' because I tried to keep my feet dry but that usually meant the bike tires were in the water or mud. I chose walking before going through, most of the time. There were times where I thought it was shallow enough to pedal through on the edge and I was wrong. I had water up to the cranks,bottoms of the panniers, and my feet were wet. Too bad the front panniers weren't water proof. I was actually happy that I never fell into one of these puddles. That was really my biggest concern.

During my 2nd river crossing the skies opened up and just drenched me. Once back on dry land I started to suck it up but decided instead to take advantage of the small hotelly and get lunch and wait it out. There was a gentleman here who was in the pirogue with me. He kept asking me for money or cigarettes. This was one case where not knowing the language helped, I just kept saying “No fumar.” Yes, I know it is Spanish, best I could do. Anyway, I must have waited here like an hour for the rain to stop. When it finally did, I started to set out down the road. The man who wanted cigarettes started yelling at me and telling me that wasn't the way. He pointed to another path on the left side of the road. I figured this must be the better, drier walking/biking path, so I started to head towards it. He decided he needed to show me the way. I was actually glad he did because the path didn't exactly follow the road and sort of went through the village. The funniest part of this is watching this man run in front of me riding my bike. He had to run to stay ahead. He would run and then turn around to egg me on. There were a few puddle crossings that I had to bike through, he probed them first to make sure it wasn't too deep. In the end I paid him 200 or 500 A, I don't remember.

Getting from S-Ivongo to Mananara was pretty well planned out. I knew where most of the villages were that I could stay in and planned to stay. My 2nd day off of pavement was only 4 hrs, and my 3rd day was only 2 hrs. By not doing this, I stood a good chance of being stranded out in the middle of Madagascar nowhere for the night. I had my tent and could easily camp. I was warned not to just camp out in the middle of nowhere though. I don’t know why or if it was just paranoia but I decided that was a good idea.

Even though day 3 was only 2 hours and 12km long, at the time it was the hardest road I had biked. I was now away from the sand. What I got was rocks and mud and hills. This type of road would continue for the next day, the final 35km to Mananara. Unfortunately, it would get worse as well. My take on the road is that it would be fun single track mountain biking, if you like it technical. Yes, I was on a road suitable for 4x4. But often there was only a track about 1-2’ wide that was truly bikeable. Next to it was a deep muddy rut, or a boulder garden. Oh yeah, and there were hills. At one point I had to push my bike about 3km up a ROCKY hillside. It wasn’t so much how steep the hill was but just the fact that it was boulder strewn and there was not a good path for biking up it. There were actually several multi-km hikes for me during these two days.

Today I fell many times. Many times the good part of the trail was on the edge of the road. This road had been rutted out so often and was so bad that along the edge it was actually small, sometimes 1-5’ mud wall. As I went over bumps the gear in the front panniers would settle to the bottom and stick out more than I thought. I would then catch the pannier on this wall or on a large boulder. This wouldn’t stop the bike, it only seemed to turn the front wheel away from the obstacle. I would compensate by turning it back and steering right into the wall. I then fall down go boom. These falls were not as easy and nice as the falling in the sand.

I also lost my raincoat in day 3. Not really sure how it happened. Well that isn’t true. It was strapped under the bungees on my back rack. I put it there for easy access when it would start to rain. Well it must have fallen out somewhere. I was sort of bummed by that. The replacement I bought in Mananara really didn’t do the job.

During day 2 my brakes went out completely. I actually ended up replacing 2 brake pads after day 2, 2 more after day 3 and all four pads when I reached Maroantsetra. I would have replaced all 4 the first day, but the bike shop in the small village only had 2 pads. Oh yeah, I didn't have any spare pads with me, I had to hunt for them in the local bike shops. Almost every town has a bicycle repairman, since that is the major mode of transportation for many Malagasy. All eight pads cost me a total of $4. Actually it cost me more than that in body aches. On day 2, my bakes pretty much went out completely. This was a real bummer because it meant that I had to walk up and down the hills. I tried riding downhill with my feet out kicking the rocks, but as I picked up speed, I started to think that this was a good way to break an ankle. Luckily there almost always was a hillside on one side of the road and I would just ride into that if I could, and then fall over. Then pick the bike up and start all over.

I have never gone through brake pads this fast before in my life. My hypothesis is that the wet sand and mud acted like a scouring pad. It would get on the rim of the bike tire and when I would just barely apply the brake or even not apply it, it served to scour the softer brake pad. I also think/barely recall that not having brakes might have been a factor in my bridge jumping exhibit on biking day 5.

I was pretty excited to reach Mananara. This was about halfway, but all reports said the worst of the biking was over. I would only need 2 days to do the final 120kms. This was good and bad. It was good because there weren’t many villages with places to stay between Mananara and Maroantsetra. Though it turned out to be somewhat bullocks, in my opinion. It must have been easier because I did make it the 73km to Rantabe, in one day. It took me 9.5 hrs and I arrived in the failing light of dusk. I was told that Rantabe was 60km from Mananara and the map said it was 67km, but it was really 73km. Six extra kms shouldn’t seem bad. Except if you look at the fact that was my average hourly rate the previous 2 days. I was sort of in a panic for the last 10-15km as I was watching the sun dip and knowing that the only place to stay was still 10-15kms away. I was preparing myself for the task of trying to communicate/beg the locals for a place to stay or pitch my tent. Wasn’t sure how it would go.

The road to Rantabe was the muddiest I had been on to date. Any time the road even thought about getting away from the coast, I could almost be assured of some serious mud and walking. I also had 6 river crossings this day. On one of them, they only took my bike, I had to walk across on the bridge. At the time I didn’t understand why I couldn’t take the bike on the bridge. I could see that I would have to walk through a little bit of the river to get to the bridge. But I had already be wading ankle deep with the bike. It turns out my wade was waist deep, which is why they put the bike in the pirogue.

The next day, I decided I was going to expect it to be bad and let myself be surprised if it was good. I had 50km to go until Maroantsetra. There was still a lot of mud, but the last 30km was actually pretty good. I was so happy when I made it to Maroantsetra that I did some dancing on the bridge into town. I’m sure the locals thought I was crazy. Maybe I was. I had managed to bike from Antananarivo, I had biked the 230km from S-Ivongo, and I made it. I was ecstatic.

Some random comments about the road

* There is car traffic on this road. I would see one or two 4x4 trucks a day go by.
* At almost every river crossing there was a good ferry, and a bad ferry (it was suck).
* I crossed several toll bridges. They were toll bridges because the real bridge was in such bad shape that the local had built a little floating bridge around and charged you a toll to use it. The ferry at this location was a bamboo raft. I heard the cars do cross on the bamboo, and it is dicey. At least it feels that way.
* I should mention that the views from this stretch of road are pretty. It would be nice to not be so beat up that I could really enjoy them. The sunsets were generally very relaxing though and the Indian Ocean was special.
* Not all ferry crossings were in a single pirogue. Some places they had lashed two pirogues together and put planks on top. I liked these ferries better
* There were lots of river crossings in pirogues, maybe a dozen in the 230km stretch.
* After arriving in Maroantsetra, I was over and done with biking. I still did some more biking, but it was much easier. I decided to take the overnight bus from Vohemar across the island to Ambilobe. It was 150km of bad road. I decided I was done with bad road. (For those that want to bike this section. Not many villages, and the road is pretty rutted out. It would be fine to bike when dry. There is some soft sand. When wet, I think it could be as bad as the road to Maroantsetra. There didn’t seem to be as much climbing as I would have suspected. One or two big climbs and lots of rolling hills.)
* I did bike the 140km from Ambilobe to Diego Suarez, but I did that over 4 days. It was nice and sunny and paved and fun. I enjoyed this more. I think it was the shorter days.
* I stayed in Maroantsetra almost a week and then flew to Sambava, on the east coast. The only way out of Maroantsetra is the road I took in, flying, or boat. The road was never an option.
* I talked to some people that came up the road in a 4x4 truck and they said it took them 3 days from Tamatave to Maroantsetra.

There is no Aye-Aye

My quest to see an aye-aye lemur was not successful. The aye-aye is a very strange looking lemur. It almost looks like an old fashioned gargoyle. It is also nocturnal and very rare. Thus it is something you can see everyday. Lucky for me, my journey was going to take me to three places where aye-aye's are known to live.

The first place was a zoo outside of Tamatave. They have one aye-aye and if you camp at the park you can watch them feed it at night. I went to the zoo, but decided not to stay. I was planning to go to Aye-Aye Island, where I could see them in the semi-wild. Aye-Aye island is a private park outside of Mananara. Of course, when I went to go to the park, the guides motorcycle wouldn't start. I was told to come back the next day, and we could go. Well the next day was sunny and I had already lost my raincoat. I decided that biking in the sunshine was a better idea than waiting in around to see the aye-aye.

My third option for the aye-aye was on Nosy Mangabe. This is a little island off the coast near Maroantsetra. This island and the national park on Masoala Peninsula were two big reasons for wanting to bike to Maroantsetra. In Maroantsetra I got rained out.

It started with an attempt to go and spend a night at Masoala National Park. You have to take a boat to get there and it is a 2+ hour boat ride. Luckily I found a group of Spaniards that were going out there for one night to stay at a resort. I glommed onto their boat trip. I didn't really want to pay the boat fee by myself. It would be about 400,000A ($200). The day we left the weather was not so good and the seas were too rough, so we turned around. We would try tomorrow. Well the next day, same thing, except that we didn't even leave port. This was actually a good thing because I had spent the whole night up with food poisoning. I somehow managed to lug all my gear, sans bike, down to the dock and back in a delirious state. I slept the day away. However, this essentially killed any hope of getting out to Masoala National Park. The Spaniards were leaving and there weren't any other tourists around.

I decided that the next day I would just go out to Nosy Mangabe for the day. This meant no aye-aye's. But I was really over being in the rain and had absolutely no motivation to camp in the rain. I didn't really want to go and hike around the island in the rain, but since I came all this way for this island and the other park, I had to do something. I didn't really think we would see much and we didn't. Well we did see the smallest chameleon on the world. It is like 1' long, pretty cool to see in the palm of your hand.

I had one last chance to see an aye-aye. The zoo in Antananarivo. I had not originally planned on going there. But I wanted to see an aye-aye. Well the aye-aye exhibit at the zoo was closed for remodeling. No aye-aye's. The zoo was fun though. I spent a few hours there just people watching. Lots of locals go. The ostrich and camel exhibits are by far the most popular. Which makes sense. Locals actually think it is very strange that vazaha are so enamored with chameleons and lemurs, animals the locals grow up seeing.


I left the rainy east coast for the sun and better weather of the west coast. I also came west to get a look at Tsingy. Tsingy are limestone karsts. They are formed when the rock and soil around the limestone erodes away. Leaving these pillars and limestone formations along with lots of caves. I spent three days camping in Ankarana. The tsingy were definitely the most interesting landscape I saw in Madagascar.

In Ankarana I also had some of my best (and worst) animal experiences. My guide suggested that we go to the Bat Cave towards dusk so that when we came out, it would be getting dark and we could wait and watch the bats leave the cave. The actual opening of the bat cave is not huge but you get to it from this amazing grotto. From the floor to the top of the grotto opening is probably 3-5 stories. It was very cool and eerie to be standing there, watching, and listening as hundreds of bats woke up and flew around above my head. Great idea.

That night we saw several mouse lemurs, and another type of lemur I don't remember. We also saw several chameleons. The next day my guide was able to find a leaf-tailed gecko. This gecko has some of the best camouflage of any animal. On day 3 my guide actually challenged me to find a leaf-tailed gecko. He said he had never seen a vazaha find one. He still hasn't but he didn't find one that day either. In camp there was a resident mongoose. I had never seen one of those before.

There is also a resident family of ring-tailed lemurs around the camp. By this time, I was not as ecstatic about seeing just any lemurs. I had already seen many. Lemurs as a whole are like monkeys. They are primates and live in trees. But different and mostly cooler. Except for these guys in camp. The last day I had gotten my food for lunch out and set it in my pot. I then went to pack up my tent and gear. When I went back to the picnic table to make lunch, the lemurs had gotten the lid off the pot and were eating my bread. I was not happy and chased them off. I spent about 5 minutes telling them that they weren't cute and were bad monkeys. I don't think they cared.

Spider Eyes

My guide had warned me that in Ankarana they have scorpions so I shouldn't leave my shoes or any clothes out of the tent at night. If I get up in the middle of the night to be sure to look down as to where I am stepping. Well the first night after dinner I am walking along the path to my tent, looking down of course. I see lots of little reflections of light from the head lamp. These reflections are maybe a little bigger than the size of a pin head, some bigger than that. Not large enough to be eyes or anything. However, there are lots of them. Finally I get up close to one to try and figure out what it is. I am thinking it might be a scorpion or something. Turns out I am seeing the light reflect in the eyes, of spiders. These were some big spiders, larger than quarters most of them, and lots of them. It was kinda freaky, but not really scary. I don't think these spiders had any interest in me.

The French Lady and Red Tsingy

I had heard that somewhere between Ankarana and Diego Suarez is a small area with red tsingy. The red tsingy aren't true tsingy because they are sandstone and not limestone. I didn't care the pictures I did see were impressive. I wanted to try and see these formations.

I did some research and found out that the red tsingy are 17km off the main road down a very bad dirt road. The turnoff was in Andranomena about 45km from Diego Suarez and 30km from Anivorano. These towns are important because they are the closest towns that have well known accommodations. It didn't seem real likely that I would be able to bike from either town, to the tsingy and back in a single day. I little pressure and continued questions brought me to Chez Violet. Apparently, there is a French Lady in Andranomena that may have rooms. It won't be hard to find Chez Violet, simply look for the big house with lots of flowers that doesn't look like the other houses in the village. It really wasn't hard to find. I had to ask but that was mostly because I didn't know I had reached town yet.

Anyway, I bike up to the house and dismount. This house is really nice and obviously set up to entertain lots of people. It is only 9AM but there is nobody around. Great another day/night alone. I find the Madame, who interestingly enough speaks less English than her Malagasy grounds keeper. I manage to ask if she has any rooms available. I am told, with the help of some drivers or tour guides who were eating breakfast there, that the place is full. I am devastated. There is no way for me to see the tsingy unless I find a place for the night. I quickly remember my tent and ask if I can camp, miming that I have a tent. She agrees and calls the grounds keeper to show me were to camp. She then asks me something. As I am trying to figure out what she asks, and am coming to the conclusion that she asked how I got there. One of the locals answers her by saying 'velo.' Velo means bike in French. She is in shock that I arrived by bike and continues to repeat 'velo' in disbelief. After I set up my tent I go to ask her how much to camp and she says it will be nothing.

Unloaded, I ride out to find the red tsingy. The road lives up to its reputation. It takes me about 4.5hrs to do the 17km, see the tsingy, and return. It isn't an easy road. Lots of soft sand and steep hills. I really have no idea how the sand got up this high in elevation. I am no where near the coast, though I can see the Indian Ocean from the top of the hills. I was really just happy my bike didn't have the loaded panniers on it. Out at the tsingy was a group of about 20 or 30 Italian tourists.

The tsingy themselves really reminded me of Bryce Canyon on a much smaller scale. It was definitely worth all the effort to get out out to see them. The whole area looked a lot like southern Utah.

When I returned to Chez Violet, the Italians were all there having lunch. Apparently Violet runs an upscale restaurant serving about 20-30 guests a day on tours to the red tsingy. This worked out well for me as she now served me lunch. I had papaya salad, rice, pork sausage in sauce, and zebu brochettes. I had enough food here for two meals, and I ate most of it. Even the fried bananas for desert. Now it was time for a nap as I was 'tres fatigue.' I was told soup would be served at 7. OMG, what were they planning for dinner. At 6, I was still stuffed so I got up and told them I just wanted soup for dinner.

The next day at breakfast, they sent me off with a small bunch of bananas. When I tried to pay my bill I was told I only owed for my two drinks. The food and lodging was all free. I like to think, that was all thanks to my bike. Oh yeah, I was the only guest as night, as far as I could tell. Still one of the best accommodation experiences of the trip.


The first National Park I visited was Andasibe. This is about 130km east of Tana. This park is known for having the Indri lemurs. These are the largest lemurs. They also have a very unique call. It sort of reminds me of a not as eerie gibbon call. Really loud and wailing though. This was the only place I saw frogs.

Gearing for home

My last days were spent between Diego Suarez, Ramena, and Antananarivo. I was done traveling. I met more tourists and spoke more English in the last 10 days of the trip then in the entire trip. It was interesting that in Diego Suarez, there were 6 of us who had toured up the east coast. We all commented that it was eerily empty of tourists. I went to the Ramena, the beach, for a few days. We, me and my new east coast friends, hung out and took a boat out to see the Emerald Sea. In Diego we just ate good food. There was then a 24 bus ride back to Tana. In Tana there was sightseeing (zoo), and shopping. The biggest quest was to find an English book to read on the plane home. I actually found several, not good ones, in the book market. The funniest thing is that the stall that specialized in English books also had 3 copies of a Cessna 172 owners manual. Not sure that was a big seller.

Where I stayed

This is just a list of towns that I stayed it. Might make a nice reference for anyone that wants to do some biking or to know where they might find accommodations

* Antananarivo
* Mandraka Park - about 62km east of Tana
* Andasibe
* Brickaville
* Tamatave
* Foulpointe
* Manompana - really the nicest and best value place I stayed on the coast
* Antanambe
* Sahasoa - this is the one not in the guide book, but nice place to stay, breaks up the ride to Mananara
* Mananara
* Rantabe - only place between Mananara and Maroantsetra with accommodations. Rooms are not great, but it is a bed and a roof
* Maroantsetra
* Sambava
* Vohemar
* Ankarana
* Anivorano - also not in guide book. Ask at pharmacy. Rooms are run by the owner and are behind the pharmacy
* Andranomena - Chez Violet, see red tsingy story above
* Diego Suarez
* Ramena

Link to more pictures.


11th August 2010

Great trip, Mike! Glad you are back safely! 3 Cessna manuals - wonder what happened to the cessna's!
11th August 2010

this looks crazy and cool and simultaneously both less fun and more awesome then you would expect...
11th August 2010

As Always...
very cool stuff.
24th August 2010

Namuwongo Market
Hi Mike, Thanks for sharing with the world. I would, however, like to disagree with you on the Namuwongo Market picture. That picture was taken in Soweto on a market day which spreads up to Namuwongo and not Namuwongo. I was actually expecting to see a picture of the fresh foods market. The garbage seen there is from Namuwongo.
15th September 2010

Nice Ride
Thanks for sharing! This looks like it was a trip of a life time....Where to next? :)

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