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Madagascar Motorcycle Tour

Sifaka, Isalo National Park There are 50 varieties of lemurs in Madagascar. Sifakas are known as the “dancing lemurs” for their upright bounding along the ground. Exceptionally agile, they can leap gaps of 10 yards and move very rapidly through the trees.

There is the most amazing number of ecological zones in Madagascar. This was yet another change between the high plateau farming area and the tropical rain forests. The forests drop to the coast only 50 miles away. The humidity rose sharply as I started the descent. I could taste the jungle in the air, which was alive with the scents and sounds of the rushing river.

Photo Credit: Jeremy Bullard

Jeremy Bullard
March 23, 2011
Filed under Motorcycle Rides, Roads and Self-Guided Travel, Touring and Rallies

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story and photography by Jeremy Bullard

I never set out to ride around the world. I changed my mind in Peru because I was having too much fun and didn’t want to stop. Travel is addictive and a lot more fun than working.

I decided to go to Madagascar after I read Hilary Bradt’s guidebook. She has been there more than 25 times and once wrote about the country, “A motorbike is perhaps the very best way of getting around.” I had to see for myself. The cost to crate and fly my 2003 KTM 640 Adventure over from Johannesburg, South Africa, was too high, so once I got to Madagascar I rented a fairly knackered 1986 Honda XL650 that I christened “Le Heap.” The brakes were crap, the gear lever was welded on, the kickstarter was zip-tied to the frame and it wouldn’t start. Apart from that it was perfect.

The Wrong Road “The main road goes straight to Diego.” Bollocks. The small sign to turn left was hidden by a truck. But the road was so much fun I never checked my GPS. I realized my mistake when the road ended in Bealanana an hour and a half later. A quick glance at my GPS showed I was way off course. It should have been obvious. The road was much too good.

The Wrong Road
“The main road goes straight to Diego.” Bollocks. The small sign to turn left was hidden by a truck. But the road was so much fun I never checked my GPS. I realized my mistake when the road ended in Bealanana an hour and a half later. A quick glance at my GPS showed I was way off course. It should have been obvious. The road was much too good.

Madagascar is about the size of Texas, a very poor country where the average wage is $1 a day. Only four tarred roads leave Antananarivo (Tana), the capital, and none of them links up. You either ride back the same way, fly the bike back to Tana or hit the dirt roads. The quality of the dirt varies from superbly graded surfaces to tracks with trees growing out of them that are only passable on foot. It’s a good idea to get local advice before setting off.

Most tourists come to see the animals. Madagascar has more indigenous species than any other island in the world. Lemurs, fosas and tenrecs are found nowhere else.

Everything is relative in Madagascar. “Quite a few vehicles” on the road to Toliara means at least one every five minutes, and sometimes even more often. The scenery changes frequently. One minute it is very tight, slow curves on a narrow road through the hills. But over the crest it widens into a lush, green valley blanketed in rice paddies. Everyone I met was incredibly warm, helpful and friendly. They waved and smiled back more than in any other country I have visited.

The roads are amazing. The 50 miles from Mampikony to Port Berge took me more than three hours to ride, but I loved it. There were hundreds of diversions to avoid collapsed bridges, cavernous potholes and gorges slicing across the road. On one detour I was immediately enveloped in clouds of a weird red dust. It was light yet flowed and splashed like water, creating a bow wave as I rode through.

Nosy Be Island is the most “developed” part of Madagascar. There are no malls, only a few smart shops and a decent pharmacy. On a beach in the north of the island I had a superb three-course buffet lunch for $10.

Fun in the Sun in a Boat Surfing the seas at 30 mph. The bike was tied down in the middle of the boat. Unfortunately, every time we came down hard my voice went up three octaves, so I started to move back. “Non!” I was told to return to my position as ballast.“We have 115 horsepower. Very fast, very fun.” He was right.

Fun in the Sun in a Boat
Surfing the seas at 30 mph. The bike was tied down in the middle of the boat. Unfortunately, every time we came down hard my voice went up three octaves, so I started to move back. “Non!” I was told to return to my position as ballast.“We have 115 horsepower. Very fast, very fun.” He was right.

I returned from Nosy Be to the mainland by speedboat. We were soon surfing the seas at 30 mph with the bike roped down in the middle of the boat. Exhilarating.

I love Madagascar and the Malagasy. It is completely different from anywhere else I have ever been. The warmth of the people, the amazing variety of landscapes, the fun roads, the extraordinary flora and fauna and fantastic food make it totally unique.

Hilary Bradt is right—a bike is best. I’ll be back.

Jeremy Bullard graduated from Exeter University in the United Kingdom in 1982. He started riding a 3-horsepower Puch moped to add excitement to his life as a CPA. After many bikes he settled on big singles and created his own IT consulting business. However, the constant call of freedom faraway could not be ignored….

[From the June 2006 issue of Rider]

Hellville, Nosy Be Island A typical street in Hellville, the main town on the island. I love the faded splendor and colorful decay. But shopping is the same the world over. Spend to save.

Hellville, Nosy Be Island
A typical street in Hellville, the main town on the island. I love the faded splendor and colorful decay. But shopping is the same the world over. Spend to save.

Sifaka, Isalo National Park There are 50 varieties of lemurs in Madagascar. Sifakas are known as the “dancing lemurs” for their upright bounding along the ground. Exceptionally agile, they can leap gaps of 10 yards and move very rapidly through the trees.

Sifaka, Isalo National Park
There are 50 varieties of lemurs in Madagascar. Sifakas are known as the “dancing lemurs” for their upright bounding along the ground. Exceptionally agile, they can leap gaps of 10 yards and move very rapidly through the trees.

RN6 to Mampikony The original tarred road. This is marked as a tarred road on the map, but it is amazing what effect zero maintenance can have. Sometimes it was smoother to “join the dots” and string the old tarred bits together. Not here, though.

RN6 to Mampikony
The original tarred road. This is marked as a
tarred road on the map, but it is amazing what
effect zero maintenance can have. Sometimes it
was smoother to “join the dots” and string the
old tarred bits together. Not here, though.

Detour Off the RN6 to Mampikony The dust was amazing. I had to overtake the truck just to see where I was going. It was like riding through a swimming pool without getting wet. It smelled like a cross between mud and flour. Yet it flowed and splashed like water, creating a bow wave as I rode through.

Detour Off the RN6 to Mampikony
The dust was amazing. I had to overtake the truck just to see where I was going. It was like riding through a swimming pool without getting wet. It smelled like a cross between mud and flour. Yet it flowed and splashed like water, creating a bow wave as I rode through.

Crest of the Hills RN6 just south of Ambanja. One of my favorite rides was the last 25 miles to Ambanja along the spine of hills parallel to the shore. The mangroves stretched out toward the setting sun, while the road slid and slithered its way through the pastel hills.

Crest of the Hills
RN6 just south of Ambanja. One of my favorite rides was the last 25 miles to Ambanja along the spine of hills parallel to the shore. The mangroves stretched out toward the setting sun, while the road slid and slithered its way through the pastel hills.

Nosy Be Ferry The ferry was so full they couldn’t pull the ramp up properly, stopped by my bike. It was wedged against the back of a Toyota. I piloted the boat for an hour giving the captain a rest.

Nosy Be Ferry
The ferry was so full they couldn’t pull the ramp up properly, stopped by my bike. It was wedged against the back of a Toyota. I piloted the boat for an hour giving the captain a rest.

Nosy Be Island, Madagascar I can hear the chatter and laughter as the women carry their loads home. I will always remember their smiles, amazing friendliness, warmth and generosity.

Nosy Be Island, Madagascar
I can hear the chatter and laughter as the women carry their loads home. I will always remember their smiles, amazing friendliness, warmth and generosity.

Pousse, Local Rickshaw We set off at a gentle jog. The speed created a lovely cooling breeze. It was now completely dark as there are no street lights. All I could hear was the gentle padding of the “driver’s” feet on the ground as the sweet scent of flowers drifted past me in the still night air. I probably overpaid but still felt a pang of guilt having bargained him down to 10 cents for one mile.

Pousse, Local Rickshaw
We set off at a gentle jog. The speed created a lovely cooling breeze. It was now completely dark as there are no street lights. All I could hear was the gentle padding of the “driver’s” feet on the ground as the sweet scent of flowers drifted past me in the still night air. I probably overpaid but still felt a pang of guilt having bargained him down to 10 cents for one mile.

Valley Curves, RN7 South As I crested a rise and descended into the next valley, I saw the lovely curves and the woman dwarfed by the huge boulders and mountain behind her. Her clothes were dirty. When I passed her a few moments later she gave me a huge smile. I felt a surge of joy and wondered why those with so little give so much more.

Valley Curves, RN7 South
As I crested a rise and descended into the next valley, I saw the lovely curves and the woman dwarfed by the huge boulders and mountain behind her. Her clothes were dirty. When I passed her a few moments later she gave me a huge smile. I felt a surge of joy and wondered why those with so little give so much more.

RN7 Valley View and Bike Reflection Manfred at www.madagascar-on-bike.com had advised me, “There is more variety and more interesting roads are on this route.” He was right. The scenery changed all the time. The previous valley had been tiny in comparison to this one, with no views at all. I had a big “Wow!” moment as I saw the valley view. None of the houses had electricity; there wasn’t any in the entire valley.

RN7 Valley View and Bike Reflection
Manfred at www.madagascar-on-bike.com had advised me, “There is more variety and more interesting roads are on this route.” He was right. The scenery changed all the time. The previous valley had been tiny in comparison to this one, with no views at all. I had a big “Wow!” moment as I saw the valley view. None of the houses had electricity; there wasn’t any in the entire valley.

Wooden Bridge The road to Andringitra National Park was a lot of fun. Four hours in a 4x4 but not a lot on a bike. This area used to be forested. Andringitra protects a small remnant of what once were vast forests. The cumulative effects of logging, slash and burn, construction and cooking can be clearly seen.

Wooden Bridge
The road to Andringitra National Park was a lot of fun. Four hours in a 4×4 but not a lot on a bike. This area used to be forested. Andringitra protects a small remnant of what once were vast forests. The cumulative effects of logging, slash and burn, construction and cooking can be clearly seen.

Andilana Beach, Nosy Be Island Another day at the office. It’s not easy riding around the world, you know. It can be really tough. Chez Lou Lou has a Sunday special. You can dine on a three-course buffet lunch while gazing out over the beach. I gorged on succulent seafood. Help yourself to 25 superb courses for $10.

Andilana Beach, Nosy Be Island
Another day at the office. It’s not easy riding around the world, you know. It can be really tough. Chez Lou Lou has a Sunday special. You can dine on a three-course buffet lunch while gazing out over the beach. I gorged on succulent seafood. Help yourself to 25 superb courses for $10.

Brown Lemur, Ankarafantsika National Park There are six sub-species and, since the sexes are different colors, identification is a nightmare.

Brown Lemur, Ankarafantsika National Park
There are six sub-species and, since the sexes are different colors, identification is a nightmare.

Giant Gray Carrot, Toliara Aboretum A giant gray carrot often confused with a specie of baobab tree. Of the eight species of baobabs in the world, six are endemic to Madagascar. It is now thought they evolved in Madagascar. They range from 10 to 100 feet tall and prefer dry zones.

Giant Gray Carrot, Toliara Aboretum
A giant gray carrot often confused with
a specie of baobab tree. Of the eight species of baobabs in the world, six are endemic to Madagascar. It is now thought they evolved in Madagascar. They range from 10 to 100 feet tall and prefer dry zones.

Elephant’s Foot Plant, Isalo National Park With some 12,000 species, Madagascar has more flora per square mile than any other country in the world. This is due partly to its amazing variety of ecological zones. In areas of low rainfall the succulents rule. This elephant’s foot plant looks strange but has beautiful yellow flowers.

Elephant’s Foot Plant, Isalo National Park
With some 12,000 species, Madagascar has more flora per square mile than any other country in the world. This is due partly to its amazing variety of ecological zones. In areas of low rainfall the succulents rule. This elephant’s foot plant looks strange but has beautiful yellow flowers.

A Bridge Too Far I tried my luck and ignored another detour. “OK, I’ll take the detour.” This also shows why it’s not a good idea to ride at night.

A Bridge Too Far
I tried my luck and ignored another detour. “OK, I’ll take the detour.” This also shows why it’s not a good idea to ride at night.

Comments

2 Responses to “Madagascar Motorcycle Tour”

  1. Embroidery Johannesburg on September 12th, 2012 3:39 pm

    Very good article. I will be facing a few of these issues as
    well..

    [Reply]

  2. Serge on April 19th, 2013 10:41 pm

    Great Story. May I ask who did you rent from and how much did you spen per day? And what route did you take?

    What was your accommodations…where did you sleep…do you think bringing a tent would be unwise or unsafe?

    Serge

    [Reply]

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