Veloma Madagascar

It was 5:30pm when we got back to Antsirabe for the final time. The cheap hotel we’d stayed at previously had a room again. Patrick offered to take us to a restaurant since we’d had lunch on the go. He told us he can’t cook and when we asked about his wife he said she was “so-so”. He is very polite though and but has a definite desire to eat before going home. We’re pretty sure he took us to his favourite place. He said it was fashionable and it was certainly busy, it was like a mini food court. The food was cheap, and edible (just).

Our last day started when we hit the road at 6am. It’s seemed unfairly early after our first night of good sleep (the beds have been horrendous).

Marie had been checking email all week on and off to make sure we didnt miss a notification of a cancelled or delayed flight. We were not overly optimistic given the first experience of flying with Air Madagascar.

It was a cold morning and leaving Antsirabe we hit patches of thick cold fog and mist. We both believed this time that the local ‘winter’ wear of woolly hats and jackets was warranted, although many were still walking barefoot and working in the paddies and washing in the rivers.

The 190km to Tana airport can take 6 hours due to traffic. We got lucky and it only took us 4. This meant we had time for ‘brunch’. Quite caffeinated we headed to the airport a bit early said our goodbyes and thanks to the ever smiling Patrick.

The screens were showing our flight as being on time, but as in Jo’burg again every flight apart from Air Madagascar had a check in counter listed. After some asking around a slightly confused consensus seemed to be that it would open at the desk being used for the flight before it once their passengers had been processed. Eventually with no announcement or sign, we got a nod to come forward.

Given how empty the flight out was and with a connection to Cape Town we hoped to make we simply didn’t offer to check our bags in. We just said they were cabin baggage and were given cabin tags for them without question.

A low key affair for immigration, security made an effort; water had to be thrown away, watches had to be taken off and the camera taken out. They found nothing… Marie had knowingly got her knife on the plane this time. The first aid kit scissors hadn’t been picked up either…

Our seats were on row 20 so we wondered if the flight would be busy this time. There was also an Air Madagascar plane on the tarmac outside, which was hopeful, maybe we’d also be departing on or close to time.

The optimism disappeared when 10 minutes after we’d been due to depart and having watched the plane pull back and move off without loading, an announcement was made that our flight would be delayed by 4 hours. There went our hope of getting to Cape Town as we’d miss our connection and the last flight of the day. We weren’t really surprised, we’d even said to our accommodation in Jo’burg that they’d probably see us when we got back.

The airport was hot, basic and without wifi, Marie befriended another passenger who was heading home to Cape Town. She hot-spotted her phone so he could let his family know he wouldn’t be back that night. Given we’d been due to land late we also had a hostel and an airport transfer booked in Cape Town so she let them know we wouldn’t be arriving until the next morning and Whatsapp’d our place in Jo’burg to ask for a room.

Our new friend Benjamin was not happy at the lack of information, support or having to pay for accommodation in Jo’burg or having to pay to rebook his Cape Town flight. Service from Air Madagascar is almost non-existent. We already knew this so we were more accepting and simply implemented our plan B. (We checked our travel insurance and they’ll only pay out if you have 4 hours or more for connections between flights, we had the typical 3).

The 3 of us kept each other regaled by sharing Madagascar stories and generally taking the micky out of the situation.

An hour earlier than we’d been told, and just as it seemed Benjamin might have stirred up reimbursement for some of our costs, we got a boarding call. Again déjà vu from our first experience and again there was hardly anyone on the flight. They counted 11 passengers on board, announced we were waiting for 4 more, 2 got on, they closed the doors and we were off… We landed in Johannesburg at the same time our flight would have been taking off.

Benjamin called our guesthouse to see if they had a room for him, and came with us. He didn’t want to spend a lot of money on a hotel. The owner hugged us and welcomed us like family. Marie booked the cheapest flight we could find the next morning for all of us, another early start it would get us in mid-morning.

Madagascar is a unique place. The diversity of landscape, way of life and wildlife is unlike anywhere we’ve been. Malagasy people are generally warm and friendly although as with anywhere with rampant poverty and the desperation that brings, it means you have to keep your guard up and keep your belongings close, but no more than normal really and the hotels all felt very safe. We’ve been to plenty of less comfortable places, although if we’d been out in some of the villages by ourselves where you have extreme poverty combined with remoteness that can make some places a little lawless, we might have felt differently.

Like usual Marie got a lot of fascinated stares thanks to the blonde hair (she usually keeps her sunglasses on as much as possible as having blue eyes just adds to the bewilderment) but it’s just curiosity so she doesn’t mind and thinks it’s important to respond in ways that show we are all the same.

It’s a tough place to travel, but we knew that before we went. Poor road conditions make travel arduous and slow. As anyone that has done overland travel in developing countries knows, there is a fine line between pleasure (of the seeing the landscape and life) and torture. It is tough, both mentally and physically – we think it is worth it in the sights and experiences you get so that is why we like overland travel. The toughness compounds when it’s hot, you’re tired and for whatever reason you don’t feel too flash.

We consistently had the most horrendous beds we’ve ever encountered (they sounded like they are going to break every time you moved, they sagged in the middle and everything is made of foam so you heat up in the night) so sleep was very lacking, and so much for the French inspired cuisine, we only had a couple of remotely enjoyable meals and they were local Malagasy dishes.

Being short on time we only scratched the surface and with 5,000 km of coastline there is plenty to explore and so many unique National Parks. It is only a 3 hour flight from South Africa so easy to get to. It’s an expensive flight though – costing us the same price as flying from NZ to Johannesburg, which is why we’d chosen the cheapest carrier. In hindsight we should have gone with South African Airways rather than the struggling national carrier as it would have been far cheaper than having to keep changing plans.

It’s well worth the effort though and tourist dollars are really needed, they genuinely make a difference to peoples lives.

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