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Taking a taxi-brousse across Madagascar

Madagascar, in the Indian Ocean, may not be an undiscovered jewel but it is an ignored one. Beautiful but difficult to access, tourists are few: mainly elderly French men and flora and fauna enthusiasts.

The island, as big as France, is different in many ways from other African countries. While neighbouring Kenya on the African continent is regarded as ‘the cradle of mankind’, Madagascar didn’t see the footprint of humans until relatively recently. It had a lonely existence. It broke away from Africa 160 million years ago and then, as if wishing to be alone, unshackled itself from its eastern flank – which is called India today – drifted a little further eastward and settled down on its own for about 70 million years. This has meant a unique flora and fauna system.

It’s called the “Great Red Island” due to the dominant colour of its soil. It is said that the inhabitants are so attached to their island that, when they travel, they pack some of the soil in their bags – this means they are, in a sense, always in contact with their homeland.

The inhabitants are different from other Africans: they are originally from Asia arriving sometime around 500 A.D in outrigger boats. Their origins have been localised through linguistic detective work in the Malay-Borneo archipelago. This gives the place a distinctly Asian feel.

When travelling, it’s nice to feel surrounded by amiable people. It is energising to have about you folks who are generally courteous and helpful; it being also very possible to find yourself among those who are dour, unhelpful and humourless. Malagasies are amongst the most agreeable peoples I have met.

Domestic flights are expensive in Madagascar so almost everybody takes the “taxi-brousse” (bush taxi). These are 15 or 18-place minibuses. Road transport can be extremely dangerous (terrible crashes are frequent), unpredictable and uncomfortable but seldom boring: impossible to predict what new friend you may make or what adventure experienced by the end of a trip. We leave early afternoon.

We have an evening meal in a small road-side village: tongue of zebu in sauce and the usual huge plate of rice: a poor country but a varied cuisine-Malagasy, French, Indian, Chinese. A fellow-passenger, a country doctor, speaks of how hard it is to make ends meet. He talks of his patients’ lungs: much dust at the winnowing of the rice. He coughs hard, maybe to make a point. I sympathise, paying for his meal. Before we leave we hear of trouble waiting down the road.

At nightfall we learn that part of the road has been washed away. We are not the first minibus to confront the hole; we pull in behind those who seem to be settling in for the night. However, we are, it is soon apparent, going to be different. The driver and co-driver have a voluble discussion – or is it an argument – foreign voice pitches are difficult to decipher; the co-driver gets out, flashlight in hand, and investigates the field. We can see his silhouette and the torchlight picked out his plastic sandals stamping at the sodden soil.

After further examination of the terrain and discussion the decision is made. We are going to skirt the problem. For the bright-red Mazda, advancing into the field is the simple part though there are uneasy murmurings from the passengers. The flashlight is showing the way and we progress 20 or 30 metres before we bog down. A rope, pulled by the flashlight man and a volunteer passenger, moves us a little further. It simply causes our front wheels to sink further down.

People try to sleep. It is still raining with the dawn and the water has reached half way up our wheels. On the road some huge trucks and many mini-buses are backed up on both sides of the hole. We are the only minibus in a field so we incite some curiosity, even mockery.

We remove shoes and trousers and get out to survey the morning. Even with much pushing and pulling we remain stuck. A stream has opened up in front of us during the night making our advance even more problematic. Groups, from other mini-buses, come and survey the situation and discuss solutions.

The co-driver has his shirt off and with the help of 6 or 7 young men pull and push but we don’t budge. The scene is desolate; fields are a soggy mess on both sides. The large hole stretches across three-quarters of the road, minibuses back up in both directions, an oil tanker is up to its axles in water where it has half-skidded off the road.

A solution is at hand but for a fee. The driver of a large truck, owner of a long steel rope bargains with our driver. With the rope attached, the truck backs down the road and pulls us, slithering, on to the road. We still on the wrong side of the hole but some enterprising souls have managed to place planks across the offending hole and, with people steadying them on each side, minibuses are crossing gingerly. More money is needed for this and our driver asks us to contribute. Some do and some don’t. We leave.

The unpaved sections of the road are quagmire; laterite has turned to mush. Our driver tussles violently with the steering wheel as he fights to keep us from bogging down. At certain places young and not so young children, are gathered to profit from nature’s gift. They wait at the trickiest and muddiest spots; they are the rescue teams-maybe you could call them “mud busters”. They laugh and puff and laugh and puff and push as they help us over the most treacherous parts. As we get away, I see them in the rear-view mirror, digging in the red mud with their hands trying to retrieve the coins the driver has tossed. We then slide and skid on to the next “toll” section.

In mid-afternoon we pull in at the tail of a long line of minibuses, trucks, cars and some zebu-pulled carts. A river has overflowed cutting off our passage and the wait for it to go down is estimated at 4 hours upwards. We wait; roadside food vendors do good business. I watch the water level; there is no noticeable difference 4 hours later. Men wading across the flooded stretch hold their belongings over their head; the water is chest high. Others are paying to be ferried over in dugout canoes. Herds of zebus are being driven into the water to be washed.

At dusk I ask for my bag and looked for a canoe. It was now dark. I pay and get safely across the first part. Now there is a fast-flowing stream to ford, strong enough to sweep me off my feet. A “guide” clasps me by the wrist and hand and takes my bag on his shoulder. However, I feel real fear as, in the gloom, the water rushes thigh-high. I struggle to keep my feet for the 10 minute crossing. I pay the guide. There is a taxi-brousse waiting the other side and so I pay again. When it fills, at about 3 am, we leave, tired and sodden.

As we pull into the Diego Suarez bus-station almost three days after our departure I felt a sense of relief and triumph. There are some trips you remember more vividly than others.

Extracted from Donal Conlon’s very excellent ibook My Africa, available from Amazon.

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