I’m writing this as I enjoy (and oh, how I’m enjoying this particular one) that first sip of cold beer after a hard, hot day of riding in the tropics. It’s been one of those days when on more than one occasion, I thought to myself, what am I doing here? Am I really riding here out of choice? Why did I come? Yes – it was that challenging; the bike wheels, despite pointing forwards were going in every other direction and at times that direction was towards a precipice. It was muddy and it was mountainous, add into the equation that the Wet Season had started and it was bound to be demanding, taxing and downright tough. The mud proved to be clay-like; I’m developing a fine appreciation of all things mud. And clay is the scariest.
I’m on the Vanilla Coast of north-eastern Madagascar, completing a world first – as the first woman to ride a motorbike around this island nation and I’ve done it solo. But it wasn’t for the records that I’ve done this trip, it was to visit a place that I’ve dreamt of seeing ever since I camped on a beach in Mozambique some years ago and gazed out across the Indian Ocean knowing that the nearest land mass was this immense and mysterious island. Well, I finally made it here, though not with Thelma, my trusty BMW R80GS which generally goes everywhere with me. It was just too expensive to ship her over. Instead I’d flown in and bought a bike, despite having minimal knowledge about chain-driven bikes. I had brought soft luggage bags with me – Giant Loop which may be expensive, but they have proved themselves.
I’ve named the journey Mapless in Madagascar, although I will be carrying maps, I am planning on going to places that don’t appear on any of the maps I’ve got. I don’t have a GPS, it’s down to the maps, compass and a pretty fair sense of direction.
Within two days of arriving I had my bike and was ready to explore, at first doing a short trip into the Highlands to ensure everything was fine and to get used to the roads and conditions, driving on the right and avoiding potholes are the main considerations on that short initial trip.
And then my travels really started, Madagascar is incredible, its diverse landscapes from tropical Indian Ocean beaches to rainforest to desert with mountains in between. It’s a country about two and a half times the size of Britain and has around 50,000kms of roads though less than 20% are paved. Even when there is tarmac, the potholes often render it unrecognisable as a road; I encountered one pothole that was five feet deep!
I’ve had three months of amazing experiences and fantastic riding, seeing breath-taking scenery and meeting the remarkable people who live here. It’s not an easy country to live in –one of the poorest in the world with 90% of the population living on less than $2 a day. It’s a very humbling experience to meet people to whom 70 pence is a lot of money. I’ve just about completed a circuit all the way around the island with an East West loop through the middle as well.
It’s possible to get around without having to rough it on the dirt trails. However, I was here to get off the beaten track and I soon found myself crossing rivers with the water reaching up to the fuel tank, and just hoping that the air intake was high enough. I have to confess, I didn’t know the water would be that high before I entered the water but I had no choice if I wanted to continue along that road.
It was a river that crossed the track and I needed to get through it somehow. I’ve camped out in the desert with the stars covering the night sky, and washed out of a bucket of well water, watched closely (he was no more than three feet away) by a curious local- modesty is a different concept over here and I saw more naked men in the first six weeks alone than I’ve seen in my life. A lack of
bathrooms mean that many, if not most people wash in the rivers and whatever waterholes are available. I’d like to add that whilst using the bucket, I kept my bra and shorts on- there’s only so far I’ll go with “When in Rome…”
I’m carrying minimal stuff on the bike, though for me at this point, minimal does still include my camping gear. I’ve never been here before and so I’m never too sure if I’ll make the next town or major village before it’s dark, so for me it’s peace of mind to carry my tent and to know that wherever I am, I can just stop and I’ve got shelter for the night. Plus I love being outdoors and in the fresh air and enjoy camping. I haven’t used it much but it’s reassuring to know it’s there.
I’m wearing a Macna summer bike jacket and it has been perfect, high temperatures, close to the equator combined with the hot sun and at times excessive humidity have meant I need a jacket that will let the air reach my body, it’s got vents and a mesh front but on the other hand as soon as it begins to rain the temperature plummets and I start to shiver, needing a warm jacket, I zip in the liners - both water-proof and warm layers. So, one jacket that takes me through all the weather changes, and my trousers…well, it’s my usual. Rather battered but oh so comfortable leather trousers, yes they’re a bit warm in the hot weather, but then just about any pair of trousers will be warm in these conditions and I don’t take risks with wearing non-bike gear when I’m riding. I’ve got off-road gloves but also my BMW waterproof ones for the cold rain in the hills. On my feet are leather walking boots, sturdy enough to stand up to the demands of biking but comfortable enough for walking and trekking, in my bag I have a pair of lightweight sandals to put on when I have finished riding for the day.
On a typical day, I’ll be heading east, having stayed in a small hotel for the night, I’ll maybe have “soup” by the road for breakfast, this is usually spaghetti with some sort of stock poured over it and a variety of toppings from chopped spring onion to minced beef, I get them to skip the beef part, eaten with a mofo (freshly fried dough) or a slice of deep-fried manioc, and washed down with a cup of tea. Here in Madagascar, there is a wide interpretation of tea and I’ve been served burnt rice water, lemon grass and even hot water with a spoonful of condensed milk in it. It seems that any hot drink that isn’t coffee is classed as tea.
Ideally I’m riding a daily maximum of 250kms (everything is metric over here including my speedo!) and often the distances are less than that. There is so much to see from watching the women planting out the rice in the flooded paddy fields, the zebu carts with their solid wood wheels creaking along and general village life. Lunch will be whatever I grab, fresh baguettes are widely available – evidence of the country’s former life as a French colony – or I’ll eat in a gargotte, roadside eatery, where the vegetarian fare might well be rice with beans cooked in coconut milk or with vegetables. As a vegetarian it can be a bit of a challenge to find food that I can eat, but there’s plenty of choice for omnivores including a multitude of seafood dishes in the coastal areas. Having started early to beat the heat, I finish my riding early for the day as well, giving me the opportunity to explore on foot and to absorb village life. Dinner may be “composée” cold spaghetti with a range of toppings such as shredded vegetables and a mashed potato garnish, this costs about 60-80 pence. My accommodation is generally in a “bungalow” ranging from a palm thatched hut to a small brick house. My shower a bucket of water with a scoop to pour it over me.
In the more remote areas children run away screaming “vazaha” – foreigner; babies would look at me and cry – foreign tourists are obviously not seen in many of these villages. In these out of the way places, bush trucks that act as buses are the main form of transport apart from carts pulled by zebu. Zebu are African cattle with large horns and a hump on their back. Sometimes free-roaming and almost always withut the benefit of fences to keep them enclosed, they can be a hazard on the road or a photogenic moment as they pull a wooden cart along using wooden harnesses, archaic in appearance. Traditional clothing usually means a sarong or two wrapped around the body, sometimes tethering a small child to its mother’s back. On their heads, the women will balance anything from a bag of rice to a handbag or even a hoe.
The bike has been great with no problems and even carried two of us for three weeks when my sister joined me for a taste of adventure. Part of that when the road ended was a three day trip down a river in a large pirogue (yes, us and the bike), a pirogue is a dug out canoe.
I’ll be honest and admit that I’ve enjoyed the tropical beaches the most, beautifully clear azure seas, coral reefs teeming with fish and a laid-back lifestyle, perfect after spending days sweating in the heat and sand to reach it. I even had the opportunity to swim with a whale shark, which was a thrill. I’ve not got space to mention all the wildlife I’ve seen for which Madagascar is famous including numerous lemurs, strange insects and even a giant jumping rat, however my favourites are the chameleons.
Meanwhile, it’s time to send this to editor and order another beer- motorcycle travel as its very best.