Horned zebu cattle and potholes: motorbike Madagascar

It is 6am. The majestic mango free in front of my door is struggling to wring shape from charcoal grey light. In the shower the water is refreshingly cold. The small wooden bungalow: bed, mosquito net, one-channel ancient TV set has been comfortable enough. With dinner and a big beer it has cost me all of €10: expensive to get to Madagascar but cheap being here. I pack my small bag and am ready to go.

The caretaker is wiping down my motorbike; he’s hoping for a small tip which he gets. I strap my bag to the carrier; the bike is reluctant to start the day. I don’t mind, I need a little more light before I face the road: 300 km today. The gate of the compound is opened; the streets of the small town are already busy with school-going children and people making for the market.

It’s cool and fresh; the nicest part of the day to ride. A traffic policeman on the outskirts of town has his hand up: so early. I speak only ‘un peu’ French, I say; he is forced into his little English. He’s courteous, though, and seems to like it when I say I’m a teacher. He smiles and shakes my hand and wishes me goodbye.

In my 1100 km trip to the north of the island I pass through 20 checkpoints. There are police, traffic police, gendarmerie, military: different uniforms. Some lay spikes across the road, some booms. I don’t get stopped at all of them: just enough to make me slightly paranoiac of uniforms.

A little outside the small town I stop for breakfast; it’s a small wooden shack with a raffia roof and a small bench for customers. The lady gives a surprised smile to see a white client. I have two strong black coffees and small cakes the lady had gotten up at 4am to bake. I say goodbye in Malagasy which brings a delighted chuckle. Breakfast has cost all of 35 cents; I feel slightly guilty that she works so hard for so little.

The landscape is stunning; I’ve been through plains and high plateaus. I keep lifting my eyes to the vast dome of sky which is now turning little by little from pale to deep blue. The mountains are shrouded in hazy distance and I feel a great liberty as I ride towards them: free at last. The delicate green of rice fields is everywhere: on the plains, in clefts in the hills, on terraces stepping up the mountains.

There are dangers on the trip that often force you to ignore this beauty. There are huge potholes and one-time sealed roads that have taken on strange and grotesque shapes as if minor volcanoes were alive under them, many bridges with missing pieces, skittish or uncontrollable zebus with huge pointed horns, the swish of an occasional huge lorry on a narrow road, a sporadic snake.

I stop on the high plateau and switch off the motor: no traffic. The silence is emphasised by an infrequent gust of wind. I watch a kestrel hovering before a strike; I can see the highest point of the highest mountain in Madagascar.

I am riding through the heart of the Sakalava Kingdom: North-West Madagascar; once independent they no longer have their Kings or Queens but have their pride. Dark-skinned and curly-haired they are one of the many ethnic groups on the island with different cultures and taboos. Taboos differ wildly among ethnic groups; a pregnant Sakalava woman should not sit in a doorway or eat fish: some of the taboos stretch the imagination further.

I take a break; I sit in a local market and have a cold drink. I am happy to watch these people from my corner: a man with oxen is delivering charcoal to the little shanty restaurants, a woman is carrying some coals to light her neighbour’s charcoal, an old man plies bottles of honey. A girl of 6 or 7 comes to where I sit, gazes at me intently and says, “I’m going to dance vahaza” (a friendly term for foreigner), “watch me.” And she does.

There is no existential questioning of the meaning of life. There is the daily struggle for survival but there is some grace and dignity in that struggle: add much good humour and stoicism, laughter, banter: an envious mix. It is one of the reasons I travel to these places: a gentle going back to a less complicated time.

When I reach the tip of The Big Red Island, as the inhabitants call it, I feel a sense of achievement. I was nervous starting out: the first 3-day trip on a motor bike I’d done. I pat my machine affectionately, then, optimistically, I take out my map of the island and began to look at another line on it: a more challenging line perhaps!

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