Getting around Madagascar: Transportation Tips
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Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
Most transport in Madagascar is by road, and the road network is steadily improving, with several of the major routes nationales (RN2, RN7 etc) having a tarmac or blacktop surface (goudron in French) in reasonable condition, give or take the odd pothole.
The overall structure, however, is less of that of a network and more that of a hub (Antananarivo) from which the routes nationales radiate north, east, south and west. Between these axes, the connections are much less sure, with narrow earth or sand roads linking small towns and villages in rural areas. Sometimes these are graded or improved to make driving easier, but they are prone to frequent flooding in the rainy season, and it can take hours to cover a short distance on the map, especially where rudimentary, pontoon-style ferries serve as bridges over the many streams and rivers. Water crossings tend to feature a great deal in Madagascar: think waterproofs and plastic bags.
Getting around under your own steam – on foot or by bike – is covered under “Sports and outdoor activities”.
As long as you’re not counting every penny, renting a car and driver is a good strategy, used by many visitors. Unlike the usual kind of self-drive car rental (which is available but only really recommended for experienced drivers in and around larger towns), renting with a driver gives you the freedom to enjoy the ride while someone else worries about the driving and the vehicle – and of course the cost if sharing with a group comes down dramatically. Most drivers are also guides, so you’re essentially buying a tailor-made trip.
It’s important to have every element of the deal very clear from the outset. Typically you rent the vehicle and driver from a local tour operator (occasionally the driver is the vehicle owner) for an agreed route and duration. The driver will look after fuel and will have his own overnight costs and meal allowance included: if you sometimes choose to invite him to your table (as many travellers do) that comes out of your pocket. You should be careful to allow for diversions: a 20km side trip will not be considered part of the deal if you didn’t request it to begin with.
Most driver-and-vehicle deals will include a 4x4 (a quatre-quatre or kat-kat) in good condition. Bear in mind that fuel costs around €1/litre and while you may get 20–30mpg on the highway (9–15 litres/100km), on rough earth or sand roads that may go down to 10mpg or less (28 litres/100km or more). Also remember that while you may only want to drive in one direction, the vehicle is likely to be going back empty. A typical cost for a journey like this on the classic RN7 route from Antananarivo to Tuléar (or the reverse) over five days and four nights, staying on tarmac, would be between €800 and €1000. Of this, the driver himself will see perhaps €100, with another €50 for his per diem, and fuel accounting for around €200 of the roughly 1900km round trip.
If you’re travelling on a low budget, you’ll be using the slow and cheap shared taxis brousse (bush taxis, or taxi-be in Malagasy). These are privately or cooperatively owned minibuses running regular services, to a vaguely adhered-to timetable. The most upscale services run on the main roads with a high volume of traffic, allowing them to leave on time, take regular comfort stops and meal breaks and allocate each passenger a seat, sometimes in a vehicle that is air-conditioned. You can often reserve seats in these navettes (shuttles).
At the other end of the taxi-be spectrum, the vehicle is held together by willpower alone and the driver leaves only when it’s full to bursting – and then continues to cram passengers in en route. Journeys like this can be maddeningly slow, uncomfortable and utterly unpredictable, especially off the beaten track, or in the rainy season, when a taxi brousse ride can last for days. In such circumstances, the journey can develop a weird, bubble-like character all of its own, with the passengers grabbing a few hours sleep in the bush or in a cheap guesthouse while a ferry is fixed or a puncture repaired, and everyone asking each other how much longer it can possibly take and whether the driver is really up to the job.
Taxi brousse fares vary widely depending on route and passenger volumes (it’s the slowest journeys in the remotest and poorest districts that always cost the most), but reckoning on 10,000ar per 100km is a good guide, with shorter distances costing proportionately more. As a guide, you should expect to pay around 40,000–70,000ar for a journey from Tana to one of the coastal towns. Seats at the front, with seat belts, usually cost 50–100 percent more.
Bush taxis have a taxi park in every town, and sometimes more than one for different directions – known interchangeably as a gare routière, station des transports or stationnement. These can sometimes be a little overwhelming, even intimidating, as over-eager touts desperate for commission jostle for your business. If you arrive at the taxi park by town taxi, try to enlist your driver’s help in booking a seat on a vehicle that is about to leave: don’t allow yourself to become passenger bait by being persuaded to accept a ride in an empty vehicle that won’t be leaving for hours. This means holding onto your luggage rather than having it loaded onto the roof right away. On the subject of luggage, an ordinary bag of 20kg or so should be free. Extra luggage attracts a negotiable supplement.
Urban transport varies from town to town: depending on the location, you’ll find battered Renault 4L (pronounced “quatre-elle”) taxis – the town taxis, sometimes called taxis-ville to distinguish them from taxis brousse and larger taxis-be, alongside Bajaj motorized trishaws (tuk-tuks), cyclo-pousses (cycle rickshaws) and pousses-pousses (handcarts) all competing for your business. Short rides cost 1000–5000ar depending on the vehicle and the town, and are always somewhat more at night. Always establish the price before climbing aboard.
Town taxis are usually amenable to being rented for several hours or for a particular journey out of town: think in terms of 30,000ar for a morning or afternoon around town, or perhaps 80,000ar for a 30km half-day round trip to a nearby location. A full day out of town in a 4L taxi, based on rental only and covering perhaps 100km, should cost no more than 120,000ar. When you’re making such ad hoc arrangements for longer rides with a cab driver, you should be quite clear where you want to go and how far it is, and that he is paying for the fuel.
Despite its ropey reputation for reliability, Air Madagascar’s safety record is actually very good. Which is just as well as, apart from a handful of very small charter operators, there’s really no alternative to using the much-maligned national carrier. As most of your target destinations are likely to be around the coast of the island, and most road journeys to them from Tana take longer than a day, it makes sense to use Air Mad (as it’s known, with resignation rather than affection) for some of your travel. It’s worth knowing, however, that there are few flights between regional towns, making it hard to avoid returning several times to Tana.
As a rough guide, the average cost of a typical one-hour flight from Tana to a regional town is about €150–200 one-way (you can pay in euros at a slightly poor rate of exchange, or in ariary). You should reconfirm your next flight at every opportunity (giving any available contact number), and check in at least two hours before departure. If you check a bag into the hold, remove valuables before doing so, and keep your baggage coupon as it’s sometime requested on arrival before you can leave the hall. Flights may or may not have allocated seats: check which it is when you check in, and if you want a particular seat, wait at the front of the line or near the door of the departure lounge to make a quick getaway. In the event that you can’t fly or they can’t fly you, tickets bought at full fare are fully refundable. And Air Mad treats the frequent casualties of its delayed flights quite well: you’ll be lodged in a hotel and given meal tickets.
We’ve given approximate frequencies for Air Mad connections in the “Arrival and departure” sections for each town. As you plan, it’s worth remembering the major discounts on domestic flights if you use Air Mad for your international booking.
As of April 2015, Air Madagascar’s network was restricted to the following airports. A useful resource for checking what routes are operational is Flightmapper (flightmapper.net).
Antananarivo (Ivato International)
Diego Suarez (Arrachart)
Fort Dauphin (Tôlanaro)
Île Sainte Marie (Sainte Marie)
Nosy Be (Fascène)
Madagascar’s rail travel options are reduced to a pair of cheap, fabulously decrepit and limited services: one run by Madarail between Moramanga and Tamatave (bit.ly/Madarail) and the other the Fianar–Côte Est railway between Fianarantsoa and Manakara. Each line has in theory two services a week in each direction. Reservations are all but impossible: show up at the station the day before and allow a good-sized window in your schedule before making any other plans. The unique old Micheline – effectively a bus with pneumatic tyres, but on rails (named after the tyre-manufacturer; bit.ly/Micheline) – was once a feature of Madagascar tourism, but has ceased regular operations: one or two of the ancient vehicles are just about viable for special charters.
There is very little passenger shipping except for small ferries and motorboats running over quite short distances. Sea travel is most viable in the sheltered waters of the Mozambique Channel on the west coast, where captains of cargo vessels (sailing dhows known as boutres), or smaller inshore dugouts and outrigger canoes, can sometimes be persuaded to take fare-paying passengers along the coast – though you tend to be treated as a piece of last-minute cargo. Take waterproofs, seasickness tablets and plenty of drinking water and snacks.
On the east coast the seas can be very rough and the scheduled small passenger ferries between Soanierana-Ivongo and Île Sainte Marie (sometimes including a service to Maroantsetra) are often cancelled. Also on the east coast, there are a few freight barges and tourist vessels plying the Canal des Pangalanes, but nothing regular. There are no ferries around the southeast of the island.
On the rivers, while there are plenty of short and sometimes alarming ferry crossings to look forward to (if you venture far off the beaten track), nobody is using the long, meandering rivers of the west for normal passenger transport. However, these – principally the Tsiribihina, Manambolo and Mangoky – are the watercourses on which adventure tourism operators run river journeys, using inflatables, kayaks and one or two larger vessels. Whenever you’re travelling on water, be sure to ask for a life jacket: all vessels should carry them.