Thursday, Nov. 27
Ambilobe, Madagascar

My main objective this week, as I traveled to Madagascar’s most northern town, was to avoid spending a night in a bush taxi. I failed.

The first three days after I left the capital were full of sight-seeing and no delays, since I traveled in a private vehicle (yes, it cost a pretty penny) with a Malagasy woman, Ony, and a young English girl, Charlie. I had met Ony nearly a month earlier when I visited the children’s home where she works, and the timing worked out perfectly for me to join her and Charlie, a volunteer at the center, for part of their trip to Mahajanga, a city on Madagascar’s northeast coast.

We visited a park (my third one) where, during a night walk, we saw loads of cameleons, a large boa snake (!!) and many nocturnal lemurs. Between that stroll and our hike the next day, we spotted a total of six lemur species, and I was surprised at how different each looked, from the variety of sizes — we saw a mouse lemur — to the appearance of their faces. My favorite was the Sifaka, which has a face like a teddy bear:

Mommy lemur with baby on its back. Tell me they arent cute!

Mommy lemur with baby on its back. Tell me they aren't cute!

We also drove to an amazing rock formation, I believe it was sandstone, where I took this photo. Check out the clouds in several tones:

Cirque rouge near Mahajanga

Cirque rouge near Mahajanga

After three days with the group, it was time to move on. As much as I enjoy finding travel companions, it usually feels good to get out by myself again, when I tend to be more pensive, live cheaper and fall into more adventure.

Latest travel crew.

Latest travel crew.

But the road north was a long one. (Click here to see my route.) The next relatively large city was Diego, as much as two-and-a-half days away by bush taxi.

Many locals make the trip in one shot, but I had no interest in spending one or two nights in a moving Malagasy bus. I knew I wouldn’t sleep, packed in one of those vans like a sardine, and I tend to get migraines when I’m exhausted. Not to mention the safety factor: Ony had warned me about bandits that attack vehicles, and while she said the problems are usually down south, I wasn’t about to take any chances. African roads, without any street lights, can be very dark.

My guidebook didn’t include much information about the smaller towns on the way, but I decided anyhow to approach the voyage in pieces, spending all day in the car then stopping in a hotel to sleep before continuing the next day.

My first vehicle left two hours late, and we stopped six times before leaving the city. Three of those stops fall into the category of what has become, over the last five months, my biggest pet peeve: things that should have been done before we left. We got gas, then stopped for bottled water for the driver, then again to fix a hubcap, all errands that no doubt could have been completed during the two hours the passengers stood next to the bus, waiting for it to leave.

Sitting on one of the mile markers that dot Madagascars main roads.

Sitting on one of the mile markers that dot Madagascar's main roads.

The other three stops were checkpoints: police, military and gendarmes. Why each one needed to check the driver’s papers is beyond me.

Needless to say, we arrived in the town where I intended to sleep far later than expected, after midnight. A taxi driver and his assistant (no, I don’t know why he needed an assistant) drove me through the town’s deserted streets looking for a hotel with an available room.

One after another, guards at each hotel came out in the rain to tell us their accomodation was full. Eight hotels later, we conceeded defeat, and I asked the men, at 1:30 a.m., to take me back to the bus station, where I’d wait for a morning bus. It took a bit of time to get this request across, since the men spoke little French.

I love African cities at night when they’re alive with people eating, dancing and socializing. I hate them when they’re eerily empty, like the one we were driving through, since I knew only the drunkards and troublemakers were out after midnight there. I didn’t feel unsafe, but I was keenly aware that I was at the mercy of my two cabbies. You can bet they got a large tip when they took me back to the bus station rather than to a deserted alley.

Unfortunately, the “station,” which consisted of a muddy parking lot, a dozen idle bush taxis and about the same number of men waiting for night-time arrivals, didn’t exactly put me at ease, either.

But the human race proved itself. The men, who found it quite amusing that a “vazaha,” and a woman at that, would be spending her night at the bus station, stuffed my bag into a bush taxi where three men already were sleeping and motioned for me to make myself comfortable in the vehicle’s soggy front passenger seat.

I slept there (well, closed my eyes) for three hours, and was pleased to learn what time the sun comes up in Madagascar, since sunlight often wakes me early: 4:45 a.m.

Thought I would have preferred to sleep in a real bed, I felt fortunate to witness the night operation of the bus station. Even in this smaller city, where no cars arrived between the hours of 1 a.m. and 4:30 a.m., men hung around all night and women began setting up breakfast shops as soon as the sun came up.

I left the place before 5:30 a.m., headed north in the same vehicle I had sprawled out in, facing another full day on the road to reach the national park I had chosen as my next stop. And I realized, as the van pulled onto the main road, that in my effort to avoid spending the night in a moving bush taxi, I had spent it in a stationary one.