Driving in Madagascar

I arrived in Madagascar, expecting the roads to be as chaotic as in Peru – huge highways filled to the brim day and night, usually 6 or 7 cars trying to fit on 4 lanes, and every single one of them using their horn to express their every emotion. I was very happy when I landed in Antananarivo, to see that this wasn’t the case at all.

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The roads here came with their own quirks. There aren’t many roads in Madagascar, and of the few there are, only a small portion are paved, and the ones that are paved are in a poor condition. Put it this way, you haven’t seen potholes until you’ve seen Malagasy potholes. There are very few stretches of road that aren’t damaged at all, which means the Malagasy have developed their own way of managing it. When there are few cars around, the driver will zig zag across the road as much as he needs to find the clearest route. And if the roads are busy, well they will still zig zag across, as much as they need. All the cars just watch out for each other and let each other pass on the wrong side of the road. As no one seems to get annoyed, and you can only go so fast  when you’re weaving in and out of other cars and potholes, the roads didn’t feel particularly dangerous. They were absolutely not confortable however.

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I did try and close my eyes for the longer parts of the journey, but unfortunately it seemed that our driver was the only one to have missed the memo that using the horn is not acceptable behaviour in Madagascar. I couldn’t even work out what he was using it for, it seemed more like he was trying to say hello to everyone. He’d beep any car he was overtaking, any car that was overtaking him, any pedestrians near the road, I even saw him beep cattle that was peacefully grazing at the side of the road.

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The state of the cars was more of a concern to me than the state of the roads. Most wouldn’t have passed MOTs even 10 years ago, some had wires hanging from the steering wheel, none had seatbelts, and the black smoke coming out of most cars was alarming. When discussing how long it would take to get to our destination, the driver would usually give us an estimate with a two hour window, “depends how many tires we blow”. On our three day drive from Tana to Toliara we “only” blew one, and I’ve never seen a tire changed so fast. You can tell it’s just part of the job.

The drive may be slow and bumpy in Madagascar, but it’s never boring. The views are incredible. On the way down from Tana in the highlands, to Toliara in the arid south west, the views changed from bustling markets with some colonial architecture, through rice paddies, to villages of straw huts by the sea. Beautiful all the way.

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