On two wheels through magical Madagascar
A 1,100km motorbike trip across the Indian Ocean island was the perfect way to savour its stunning landscape, writes Donal Conlon
There are dangers on the trip that often force you to ignore this beauty. 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, many bridges with missing pieces, skittish or uncontrollable zebus with huge pointed horns, the swish of an occasional huge lorry on a narrow road, a sporadic snake.
I stop on the high plateau and switch off the noise. The silence is broken by an infrequent gust of wind. I watch a kestrel hovering before a strike. I can see, far away, the highest point of the highest mountain in Madagascar.
I am riding through the heart of the Sakalava Kingdom in north-west Madagascar – once independent, they no longer have their kings or queens but 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 ethnic groups – a pregnant Sakalava woman should not sit in a doorway or eat fish. Some of the taboos stretch the imagination further.
I take a break. I sit in a local market and have a cold drink. I am happy to watch these people from my corner. A man with oxen is delivering charcoal to the little shanty restaurants, a woman is carrying some coals to light her neighbour’s charcoal, an old man plies bottles of honey. A girl of six or seven comes to where I sit, gazes 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. There is the daily struggle for survival but there is some grace and dignity in that struggle. Add much good humour and stoicism, laughter and banter – an envious mix. It is one of the reasons I travel to these places, a gentle going back to a less complicated time
When I reach the tip of The Big Red Island, as the inhabitants call it, I feel a sense of achievement as I admire the three-pronged beautiful Diego bay.
I was nervous starting out, the first three-day trip on a motor bike I’d done. I pat my machine affectionately, then, optimistically, I take out my map of the island and began to look at another line on it, a more challenging line perhaps.