Madagascar travel is expensive, time consuming, frustrating and exciting. To see a variety of ecosystems in a reasonable time frame, we took four interior flights. Air Madagascar is the national (and only) airline and has a good safety record. The name was recently changed from Madagascar Air, perhaps because it was commonly referred to as Mad-Air. The name change did not make the service sane. Our trip was entirely rearranged after one of the irregular but frequent schedule changes. With even shorter notice, we were informed that all 16 of us could not fly together to Majunga the day we arrived from Paris because the plane went on to the Comoros Islands, and they could not afford that number of empty seats. The seven who waited for a later flight, after our 36 hour outbound trip, had an impromptu visit to a local attraction, and then waited in the airport while our plane was being serviced. We tried to be cheery, but really we just wanted to sleep. The repeated message was, “Another 30 minutes and then we will see.” Finally, the plane took off and we relaxed in the cramped cabin of the 20 passenger aircraft.

On the ground again, one of my friends, who was sitting behind the bulkhead, told us there was an eye-level plate that said the plane was Estonian built in 1934. No wonder it needed maintenance.

At the end of our second flight, to the south, I can see the sea and know we are close to Fort Dauphin, our destination. I watch out my window as we swing over the turquoise water and turn landward. We descend, and glide over the beach. Just as the runway zips under us, the motors rev up and we regain altitude. We skirt the blocky low hills, turn back to the clear, turquoise sea and repeat the approach. I notice a rusty old ship carcass balanced on the reef. I notice it on the third pass as well. The Malagasies on the flight chuckle indulgently when the wheels finally smack down on the runway and bounce.

Outside the terminal, the uniformed crew is gathered around a man much younger than the rest, also in uniform and wearing a sheepish smile. The older men take turns slapping the younger one on the back and shaking his hand. I wonder how many more of our planes will be piloted by trainees.

Bridge Approach

Later in the trip we drove north on one of the few paved roads: two lanes at best with light traffic. We passed trucks carrying bags of charcoal, grain sacks, boxes, fuel and people, as well as pick ups and smaller vehicles crammed with cargoes and passengers who hung off the sides. Our bus was possibly the lightest vehicle on the road and passed the others easily when we overtook them, curve or not. I was afraid to check the speedometer but did fasten my seat belt, hoping it would actually work if required.

On the approaches to the capitol city, most of the bridges are temporary spans. The original ones were destroyed during the 2002 election campaign between the previous president, who was very corrupt, and the current president who exposed his rival’s dishonesty. The former president had the bridges surrounding Tana blown up to isolate the capitol and protect his government from irate citizens.

Madagascar has received international money to upgrade the roads. In the highlands, men and women squatted beside cobblestone piles and hammered them into inch-sized gravel for new roadbeds. It is a wonderful employment opportunity in a poor country, but it looked tedious and boring, rather like the task of Sisyphus, but cheaper than  importing and maintaining heavy equipment.

Madagascar travel is not for wimps because the tourism infrastructure is still under development. Scientists have been visiting Madagascar for years, but they are far less demanding than tourists. In the past ten years, the locations of the remaining wildlife concentrations have been identified, and protective measures are being implemented but tourism is of secondary importance to protection at this time. We stayed at a resort in Majunga while we visited the northwest coast because Ampijiroa Reserve, a 2-hour drive to the south, did not have accommodations. To arrive at dawn for the height of bird activity at Ampijiroa, we had to get up at 3:30 a.m. This is not something that would be noted in any brochure. Fortunately, local accommodations are improving.

Our lodgings were all quite adequate though not luxurious. They were clean and relatively bug free since it was the dry season. The flush toilets usually had seats, though some were not connected to the bowl. All had hot showers, but the synthetic towels seemed to just spread the moisture.

The Facilities

While on the road, the restaurants where we ate had toilets, and we carried our own toilet paper. We assumed we would use bushes as needed when we were out birding, but when traveling in settled areas, we sometimes used Asian-style outhouses, holes in the floor of a tiny, often quite airy, structure. I like this type of conformation better than the less-sanitary seats, and my yoga practice was helpful for coping with the careful squatting required. In one outhouse, the wooden floor was quite spongy, and I weighed my need against the possibility of plunging into the dark below. Travel has its risks.

Madagascar has some fine destination resorts in the north built for scuba divers and vacationers who like sun and fun where these inconveniences are never a problem. Those places are not near most terrestrial wildlife habitats. Always, there is the dilemma of increasing access to the reserves. The needs of the growing population in Madagascar could destroy the natural areas before enough tourists become aware of them and bring trade and money to help support the Malagasies. However, other developing countries have learned that too many tourists bring new problems to their local cultures and economies. Again, the solutions are complex.