On the road (1) – Antananarivo to Antsirabe

Monday 10 June 2024 – We have to get to Ranomafana in order to see our next batch of wildlife, a journey of about 420km that can’t be done in a single day. The distance equates to about 260 miles, or London to Durham, a journey which can be driven in under six hours.  So, why not Tana to Ranomafana?

RN7 is the answer. Read on for details.

The practical upshot is that today was the first of two days spent on the road – 170 km to get to Antsirabe, then 250km tomorrow to complete the journey.

Getting out of Tana through the Monday morning rush was the first hurdle. It was motorbike central for quite some time through the city and into the suburbs.

It took us about three quarters of an hour to get into the countryside

where the views of the passing landscape were quite good. However, there was also plenty of evidence of quarrying, past and present.

The demand for granite blocks and chippings is sufficient to maintain plenty of small scale quarrying, often run as one of the various side hustles that farming families undertake. Another such side hustle is excavating clay from the rice paddies to make bricks, and we saw plenty of evidence of this, too.

One thing Madagascar does not have a shortage of is bricks, which (outside rain forest areas) are a principal house building material.

In many cases, the bricks are covered in a plaster based on the local soil (enriched with zebu droppings which apparently set hard!), so the houses look as if they’re mud houses, but they aren’t.  They are, however, often the same colour as the landscape and can blend in rather harmoniously.

Interestingly, later on in the journey, we passed through an area where the houses are built with bricks but without using any mortar – the brickmakers and masons are skillful enough that this works as a construction technique.

It also helps that the cyclones which bedevil the edges of the island rarely reach this far inland.

Brickmaking sites dotted our journey

and in some places were part of larger scale operations which dominated the landscape.

The roadside retail opportunities demonstrated once again the entrepreneurial spirit which is ubiquitous in our experience of the island so far.  The types of stall varied by region, it seemed.  We stopped briefly at a craft market

and other roadside stalls in the area all, like these ones, specialised in raffia work.

Later on, several stalls specialised in ceramic sculpture,

then came a series which sold musical instruments

and then toy vehicles carved in wood

(with some overlap!).

It seemed that when someone had a good idea for a roadside stall, others in the area picked up on it.  This actually doesn’t seem such a good idea to me; after a while, choice is so wide that custom must inevitably drop off, one would think.

Roadside stalls were plentiful throughout the journey, often selling fruit and/or vegetables;

others we saw sold plants;

inevitably, charcoal;

and even live animals, either as pets or as lunch, apparently.

Everywhere, we saw rice paddies, often terraced:

the country’s appetite for rice is phenomenal.

Despite our driver Haja’s best efforts, progress was slow.  We left Tana at 8am and were on the road for six and a half hours to cover the 170 km.  The reason for this was that we were on Route National 7, the principal route from Tana to the south west of the island. The reason for slow progress was partly congestion (these vehicles are all local or longer distance minibus buses)

but mainly a crappy road surface.

We thought that we’d suffered bad road surfaces in Costa Rica, but that was nothing compared to the slaloming necessary to avoid the craters in this road. That’s why the journey to Ranomafana takes two days.

So, what else did we see on this first segment?

As well as brown brick buildings, there were some more gaily appointed;

there were plenty of churches along the way, both protestant and catholic;

it being sweetcorn harvesting time, several houses were using their balconies to dry the cobs;

ox carts (the first I remember seeing on the island) were frequent as we approached Antsirabe;

and the landscapes were impressive, with significant irrigation channels to support what is a very large, but not the largest, agricultural area on the island, growing a variety of crops in addition to the ubiquitous rice.

(I just chucked in the photo of the man with the straw because it was interesting.)

And then we were in the outskirts of Antsirabe, where we stopped for lunch. We actually managed to get proper Malagasy food, which was very tasty but a bit tricky to deal with – Jane’s chicken had a gallon of broth with it and it was a bit tricky to get the good meat off my zebu with vegetables.  The restaurant we were at had some other tourists in it, and by the time we had finished lunch, the word had got out that There Were Tourists In.

The entrepreneurial drive of the Malagasy showed itself in their willingness to tempt us to buy any number of different sorts of tat.

Antsirabe means the “big town of salts”. It is, also, the town of cycle rickshaws, which are used by local people to get around, and which, we are told, are often contracted by parents to take their children to and from school.

The “salts” bit comes from the local geothermal springs, around which an impressive hotel was built.

It’s still in operation, but if you look closely it couldn’t half do with a lick of paint.  Just nearby is an almost equally impressive railway station building

outside which I saw the first horses I’d noticed on the island.

Nearby were some miniature cars for kids

and a small fairground setup

which Kenny explained was all in place in the lead up to the Independence Day celebrations slated for June 26th.  After checking into our hotel (see later), Kenny then took us on a “city tour”, which meant a bit of exposure to some retail opportunities before a stroll through the town’s market.

We were led to three different outfits, one of which was absolutely fascinating, one quite interesting and the last a little uncomfortable.  The first was really lovely; it specialises in making realistic miniature models of various modes of transport, using entirely recycled materials, which are then offered for sale to tourists.  We got a demonstration about how to make this tiny little bicycle

almost entirely from recycled bits of other things: the tyres are surgical piping, the wheels are cut from aerosol cans, the spokes are fishing line and the saddle is wood.  I have a video of the construction process and will publish it in good time; but it was lovely to see something like this made from materials which would otherwise have been thrown away – nothing gets wasted in Madagascar, it seems.

Part of the same enterprise produces embroidery, which is beautiful but Not Our Thing, and leads to a precious stone emporium which, again, has some beautiful things, but one began to feel a bit of pressure to buy, which makes me very uncomfortable.  Next door is a place which deals in things made out of zebu horn.  Once again, we got a demo of how things can be made, which was interesting; and their showroom

has some imaginative uses of horn,

but once again we weren’t tempted to buy anything. Kenny then walked us through the (busy, colourful and noisy) market that surrounded these emporia.

It was pretty standard fare (i.e. you could find almost anything, actually), but a couple of things caught my eye: a stall with a bewildering variety of rice;

a bicycle repair man;

and rickshaw repair man.

The horsey chaps rode through the market, though I don’t know why

and then we repaired to our hotel, the Couleur Cafe.

It has “bungalows” around rather nice courtyards,

and ours on the face of it seemed very good – lots of space, unusual decor and even its own real fireplace (in which, yes, we had our own real fire to sit around). But it felt actually a bit odd – somewhat faded in its elegance, somehow. We had a perfectly decent evening meal there and retired for the night in preparation for the second leg of the drive down to Ranomafana, with which I’ll regale you in the next post.


2 thoughts on “On the road (1) – Antananarivo to Antsirabe

    1. Steve Walker Post author

      Our guide, Kenny, is doing a great job of explaining things about the different areas we’re going through. Makes an all day drive much more interesting


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