Marvelous Madagascar on a Motorbike


Motorbiking in Madagascar: Dangers and Delights

Snakes and a dancing girl: zebu horns and stunning landscapes

By Donal Conlon

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 cool.

The small wooden bungalow, with its bed, mosquito net, and one-channel ancient TV set – has been comfortable enough. With dinner and a large beer, it has cost me all of $12: expensive to get to Madagascar but cheap to be there. I pack my small bag and am ready to go.

A caretaker is wiping down my motorbike; he’s hoping for a tip which he gets. I strap on my bag but the bike is reluctant to start the day. I don’t mind, I nee

Breakfast smoke on the road in Madagascar.
Breakfast smoke on the road in Madagascar.

d a little more light before I face the road. The gate of the compound is opened; the streets of the small town are already busy with uniformed school-going children and people heading for the market.

Nicest Day to Ride

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. I say I speak only “un peu” French and so he is forced to use 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 a good trip.

In my 1000 km trip to the north of the island I pass through more than 20 checkpoints. There are police, traffic police, gendarmerie, military: all 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.

Swimming and bathing in Madagascar.A little outside the small town I stop for breakfast.

It’s a small wooden shack with a raffia roof and a little bench for customers. The lady gives a surprised smile to see a white client.

I have two strong black coffees and small deep-fried cakes the lady had gotten up at 4am to cook.I say goodbye in Malagasy which brings a delighted chuckle. Breakfast has cost 35 cents; I feel just 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 blue distance and I feel a great liberty as I ride towards them.

The delicate green of rice fields is everywhere, on the plains, in clefts in hills, on terraces stepping up the mountains.

There are dangers on the journey that often force you to ignore this beauty. Buy bike insurance to be safe.

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, metal bridges with missing pieces, skittish zebus with huge pointed horns, the swish of an occasional huge lorry on a narrow road, an sporadic snake.

Going to market.
Going to market in Madagascar.

Silence is Broken

I stop on the crest of a hill where the silence is broken only by an infrequent gust of wind. I watch a kestrel swooping and hovering for a kill but then see a young kestrel emerging from the shadow of its mother’s wing.

I have been watching an early-morning lesson. Far away, I can see the highest point of the highest mountain in Madagascar.

I am riding through the heart of the Sakalava Kingdom; they no longer have their Kings and Queens but they still 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 groups; a pregnant Sakalava woman should not sit in a doorway or eat fish. Some of the taboos stretch the imagination further.

Carrying Coals

I take a break; I sit in a local market and have a cold drink. I am content to watch these people from my corner: a man with an oxen cart is delivering charcoal to the little shanty restaurants, a woman is carrying some burning coals to light her neighbor’s fire, a woman with a pail of water on her head sways by, an old man plies bottles of honey.

A young girl of 5 or 6 comes to where I sit, looks 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 here. There is the struggle for survival but there is some grace and dignity in that struggle. Add much good humor and stoicism, laughter and banter-an envious mix. It is one of the reasons I travel to these places, a temporary return to a less complicated time.

madagascar map

donal conlon

Donal Conlon, born in Ireland, lived for ten years in Mozambique, and now lives in Paris, France.

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