God made trees so beautiful the devil wanted to be able to see, so he turned them upside down – Avenue of Baobab Trees

A big smile greeted us at Antananarivo (Tana) airport. We immediately liked Patrick our driver. We had no idea how long he’d been waiting in the sun in the crowd of people outside the exit yet he was still smiling.

Immigration formalities were easy, we’d applied for an online visa on arrival and got an approval letter so it was simply a case of handing that over with the fee and in return we got a slip of paper for the immigration desk. With typical African bureaucracy each desk had 3 people. One created the database record after checking all the pieces of paperwork were there, the next scanned the passport, printed the visa and stuck it in and the 3rd was obviously the senior person who stamped you in.

The airport was like you’d imagine – small, a bit shabby and pretty busy. Neither ATM worked so we changed US$50 and bought a SIM card before leaving.

Patrick speaks a little English and Emma a little French so it didn’t take us long to work out what money we needed to pay him after deciding to ditch touring ATMs and for the ease of changing more USD. After we’d done the deal we grabbed a coffee for the french cafe next door, filled the tank and headed off.

We had to go straight through the city and that took time but also gave us opportunity to get a feel for the place. It was nicely chaotic and traffic moved very slowly. There was a real mix of transport from bicycles and carts pulled by zebu (the Madagascan cattle, a cross between a cow and an ox), minivans, cars of varying road worthiness and 4WDs like us. There was plenty of poverty evident but it didn’t feel any more so than other places we’ve been.

On the outskirts of the city we were surprised to find rice fields mingled in with lots and lots of brick making. The clay red earth was being shaped, dried and then baked in kilns that had been made from bricks and earth. Looking around we realised that all the substantial building i.e. not shacks, are made with brick, some are then rendered with clay and some painted.

The road was sealed with pot holes and missing edges. Our destination for the night was Antsirabe, a 4 hour drive south of Tana. Our late arrival meant that we weren’t long finally clear of the city when dusk started to roll in. We ignored the fact that for safety reasons travel after dark isn’t advisable in Madagascar (some of those concerns are more relevant to being out in the country and we were going from one city to the next). Besides Patrick lives in Antsirabe so knows the road incredibly well.

We found a hotel. It wasn’t expensive, around NZ$38, but it was fancier than we needed, a massive tiled room with table and chairs and a wardrobe. It was also bloody cold, it had no form of heating but we eventually discovered we had an electric blanket so all was forgiven. Can’t say the same for the cockerel the next morning though.

After breakfast we hit the road for our longest day of driving. We were heading to Morondava. It was going to take 8 hours to cover 290 kilometres.

It was an amazing drive. The landscape changed continuously; rolling, rocky, desert, savannah, shrubs into trees. The red earth changed shades constantly. The buildings and the way of life changed alongside the landscape. Brick houses became clay houses became stick huts. We were fascinated by how many variations of carts for moving things there were, basically anything that was a wheel had been turned into a way of transporting things, some carts are even rode on the downhill like go carts, steered by a rope.

It was obviously market day in many places as we passed through many markets. Literally passed through, as they were held on the road and often there was only just enough space to drive. We also passed a group of people hitting the dry river bed with big logs, gold hunting Patrick said. Another man tried to sell us a wriggling baby crocodile. Tempting.

Our main destination was the Avenue of Baobab Trees just outside Morondava. An iconic Madagascar image, we were super excited as baobabs began to dot the landscape and the road turned to a red dusty bouncy track. The most common time to visit the Avenue is for sunset and with the day drawing on we headed straight there.

Known as renala (mother of the forest) baobab trees are native only to Madagascar and Western Australia. They are Madagascar’s national tree.

Legend has it that God made trees so beautiful that the devil wanted to be able to see them, so he ripped them up and turned them upside down leaving the roots exposed to the sky.

The trees on the Avenue are around 800 years old and 30m high. Unfortunately they are also a legacy to the thick tropical forests that once covered the island, the trees would have been part of the forest but like all over Madagascar the rest of the trees have been cleared for agriculture, leaving these standing in majestic isolation.

The light was perfect when we arrived. There were plenty of tourists wandering down the Avenue and vehicles can drive it, but it is just like you see in the photos. We loved it, and with over an hour before we needed to be positioned for sunset we had plenty of time to wander round and soak it in.

As soon as the sun dropped behind the horizon we headed promptly back to Patrick. From the main road it is a rough dirt road to the Avenue and we didn’t want to be stuck in a trail of traffic eating everyone’s dust.

We couldn’t really get our bearings as we drove into town in the dark. Morondava is on the coast and eventually we hit the blackness of the sea and followed it. We had to try a couple of places to find a reasonably priced hotel with a room available. It was a little more than the night before but much more basic and run down, a sure sign we were in a tourist town. It had all the amenities (including a mosquito net) but was simply a large white painted concrete room. Being we were in the beach part of town there were heaps of restaurants geared for tourists to choose from. Dinner was average and expensive. Emma tried the Zebu kebab. It was nothing special but she said she would have it again, just as well given that it is the meat option.

The next morning was our only lie in so we didn’t move quickly. When we did we checked out, left our rucksacks at reception and headed off for a walk to explore. It was hot, Patrick later told us it is the hottest place in Madagascar (not sure if that is true), but there was a lovely sea breeze making it just about bearable.

We walked through the tourist area and found the beach proper where the fishing boats are put to sea and families who work them live on the beach. We really enjoyed being by the sea. We walked until we hit the local toilet. Rather than dodge piles of poo we turned back. After a rest under the shade of a tree helping a young guy to practice his English we explore the market and the town proper. We’d been surprised to see a mosque as we didn’t know Islam was in Madagascar.

Overheating as it approached midday we found a beach hut restaurant overlooking the sea. It was the perfect place to cool off and get some lunch before heading back to meet Patrick and hit the road.

We were splitting the journey back over 2 days so we could explore more. Despite only having a 4 hour drive it was hard slow going in the heat and rough road. Our overnight stop was the town of Miandrivazo, which had been our lunch stop the day before. We had a couple of hours to explore before it went dark, a busy place we soon found the market. It was lovely being in the hustle as the warm glow of the sunset started to descend.

Our room was a chalet on the hill. A bit scruffy and run down it had everything apart from hot water. However we realised after a while the whole thing was on a slight downhill slope. We decided to be smart and turned the bed around so our heads were on the uphill. It didn’t help. It was really hot and our fan was just moving hot air around. We slept badly.

The next morning we drove the 4 hours back to Antsirabe. We had lunch by a lake on the outskirts of town. We needed to top up our money as there are no ATMs where we were headed to for the next couple of days. Despite low rates of bank membership we had to try 3 to find one that worked and the queues for most ATMs were hugely long and very slow. Luckily Patrick being a local knew all the ones to try and we didn’t have to waste much time.

This time we found a cheaper hotel near to the main ‘sights’. The cheapest of the trip by a long way, it was comfortable and again had all the amenities. We spent the afternoon walking and exploring; Independence Avenue, the Cathedral, the colonial architecture (a lot of which has been left to deteriorate or become run down housing). We found the markets selling vibrant clothes, plastic toys, buckets, solar panels and hardware. We hit some slums and with the afternoon drawing on decided that was the right place to turn back. Little of the street food has been remotely appealing but we finally found some tempting local pastry snacks to try and some good coffee.

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