Madagascar 02003

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Part Four:
The Infamous Road to Fort-Dauphin

April 18

Another Challenging Stretch Begins

- or -

For Once, A Pleasant Surprise

The next morning I awoke as early as possible and prepared to depart. As I got ready, I realized that I had wasted considerable efforts the previous day worrying about which way to go from here. I new in my heart all along that I would be heading for Fort-Dauphin. The southeast was one of the first places that I decided to visit when I started planning the trip months ago. Additionally, I didn't like the idea of backing down from a challenge. Though after my experience trying to get from Morondava to Belo, I realized that I might have to modify the plan if things got too rough. There were about 620 kilometers to travel between Toliara and Fort-Dauphin, and I hoped that a seven days with of relatively modest daily distance of 80 kilometers over the long dirt section would be achievable. This would get me to my next break, about a week behind my original, overly-ambitious plan, but with enough time left to visit most of the sights I was hoping to see on the rest of the tour.

So, with renewed enthusiasm, the best of intentions, and a little uncertainty, I went to check out of Chez Alain at 7:00 A.M. Of course, there was a delay. I was hoping to pay my bill with a credit card, which a posted sign said was accepted there, since I wasn't able to exchange as much cash as I had expected. However, this seemed to cause some confusion and, after a seemingly very long wait, I learned that there was some problem with the card machine. Apparently, only "The Boss" new how to operate it properly, and he would not arrive for another hour, or so. Instead of waiting, I paid with cash, and was out the door and on my way at the unusually late hour of 8:30. I had learned from experience that it was vital to make good use of every possible hour of daylight available when the days were so short. Fortunately, I was able to make up for this delay on the morning's section of the ride. The first 70 kilometers followed the route to the north, R.N. 7, to the junction with the road east to Fort-Dauphin. After passing the edge of town, the pavement became blissfully smooth and the riding was easy.

Making Bricks

Hand-made bricks are drying in the Sun just outside Toliara.

The good conditions continued for the entire 70 kilometers to Andranovory and I rediscovered just how pleasurable it can be to ride when you don't have to focus entirely on avoiding some sort of obstacle. It was simply a blast to ride along and once again spend more time just enjoying being outside and looking around at the scenery. After about 17 kilometers the road, which had been heading southeast, roughly parallel to the coast, turned to the northeast and began a slow, gentle climb to the edge of the central plateau, gaining about 400 meters over a little more than 50 kilometers. For the most part, this climb was easy and I almost didn't notice the grade. In fact, I spent the entire morning riding on my big chainring, the first time I had been able to use it for any significant distance in several days.

Nice Road in the Southwest

The section of R.N. 7 heading northeast from Toliara is beautiful riding.

There were no significant towns along this part of the route, but several tiny settlements where the inhabitants were busy doing things like making charcoal. This was an important fuel in the countryside and a contributing factor to the island's deforestation problem. Coals were made by slow-burning wood in large smoldering piles, and, when the embers had cooled sufficiently, they were packed in tall sacks. These were left along the roadside to await a pickup by passing trucks. The dry climate of the area made it difficult for the locals to do much else, such as grow reasonable amounts of food. I was entering the area of the island that was experiencing a food crisis due to a long drought, and I was a little worried that over the next few days, I would be taking food away from someone that needed it more than I did.

Making Charcoal

Charcoal is made by many rural people, and left by the roadisde in large sacks for pickup.

It was still fairly early when I arrived at Andranovory, and therefore, I would be able to take a nice three-hour break. That is, if the flies would allow me to stay that long. There was one item that I needed to take care of as well. As I neared the town, I began to notice the ratchet in my rear hub slipping a little bit. This was not too surprising, considering all the water and dirt it had been exposed to recently, and it was something that I could service on the roadside. I only wish I had decided to do so when I went over the bike back in Toliara where I could have been more thorough. As it turned out, this would be a bit of ominous foreshadowing of future events. First, though I would take some time to get a filling meal. There were a few typical hotelys in this busy crossroads town, as well as many young kids with plates of fried dough and other items that they would hold up to the windows of the passing taxi-brousses hoping to make a sale. So, it was not too tough to eat my fill here, and I also took the opportunity to stock up on water and drinks at one of the Tiko stores.

After resting for a while, I went off to do my bit of maintenance. I knew that if I broke out the tools in the center of town, I would attract a huge crowd. So, I rode along to the edge of town where I spotted a half-standing abandoned building off in the bushes. There didn't seem to be anyone around, so I sat down and started working. Of course, after only a few minutes I had attracted a group of four youngsters, like a magnet attracts a needle. They sat around me and simply stared silently, so I really didn't mind. Though I was worried that I'd get a little distracted and leave one of my tools behind. After a while longer, I was satisfied that everything was working ok, and packed up my things again. I could have stayed in this town longer, but there wasn't much peace and quiet in Andranovory, due to both the curious kids and the flies. So I decided to try and get a jump on my route and ride as far as I could before dark.

This proved to be a wonderful surprise, for the first section of R.N. 10, which had a reputation as one of the worst roads on the island, was actually quite satisfactory. The road was dirt, as it would be for the next 440 kilometers, but the surface was hard and relatively smooth. There were places where there had been large puddles of the type that were so common north of Toliara, but these had all dried out by now. It was a bit like a roller coaster ride, swooping in and out of the 1-meter deep holes, but I actually found that to be quite a bit of fun. The terrain was flat to lightly rolling for most of the way as I was now up on the lower end of the central plateau. One exception was a small climb that began about 37 kilometers from Andranovory. It was not very long, but rather steep, and the roadway, which had appeared to have been paved at some point in the past was strewn with rocks..

A Decent Dirt Road

The first section of R.N. 10 was actually a nice dirt surface.

After that climb, however, the riding conditions remained excellent, relatively speaking, for the rest of the evening. As dusk settled in, I was close to the small town of Tongobory, much farther than I had hoped I would be. It was easy to find a nice spot in the bush to sleep in this area and as the Sun went down, I stretched out for a nice rest. I was feeling very optimistic at this point. Not only had I covered 127 kilometers, and given myself a little buffer in case I needed to cut short a future day’s ride, but for the first time in many days, I did not feel completely blasted by the days ride and was not really tired at all. I relaxed for a while before falling asleep, watching the stars and listening to the quiet sounds of the surrounding bush. I wondered just how much longer my good fortune would last.

Toliara to near Tongobory
Distance: 127 km
Weather: Sunny, Maximum Temp: 29 C
Terrain: Slow ascent, then lightly rolling
Roads Traveled: Route National 7 (excellent pavement), R.N. 10 (good dirt)

April 19

Approaching the Spiny Desert

- or -

A Meeting With a Pair of Native Stars

This day was fairly ordinary, as far as days on this tour were concerned. The conditions were still acceptable, though somewhat worse than the day before. There were no outrageously difficult surfaces to cross, but the wet spots were a little wetter, the rocks were a little larger, and the sandy parts were softer and longer than those I encountered on the previous evening. Additionally, since there would be no pavement at all on this day I was expecting to cover a somewhat shorter distance. The weather was pleasant, with a lot of puffy clouds in the sky and temperatures that never rose above a comfortable 29 C. In fact, there was little that stood out as noteworthy with the exception of one particularly interesting event later in the day.

Southwestern Landscape

The wide-open southwestern countryside has many remarkable vistas.

I had hoped that I would be able to find a nice breakfast in Tongobory, which was only a few kilometers away from my campsite. When I arrived there, not long after dawn, I was a little disappointed by the lack of available food. Tongobory was not a large town, and its broad, dirt plaza was practically empty at this early hour. There were a few vendors off to one side, and I bought and ate a few fried rice cakes from them. I also needed some water or other drinks, but there was nothing of that nature available yet either. Fortunately, the only large town on the day's route, Betioky, was only another 23 kilometers away. I felt that I would have no problem traveling that far without additional food or drink. The terrain in the area was varied, as was the plant life that made up the surrounding bush. There was a mix of wide-open areas and places where the often-thorny plants crowded the roadway. It was, indeed, not too difficult to travel this section, and before long I reached Betioky.

I must admit, that as I write this, I have very little memory of the town of Betioky. I'm sure that I was able to eat there, with the usual mix of hotely fare, and snacks and drinks from a Tiko store. Any information beyond that, however, has been lost in the fog of my mind, a victim, I suppose, of the complete similarity of most Malagasy towns of that size. It was a little early for me to take a long break, so I moved on before long, which was probably a good idea, as the afternoon section of the ride would be a little slower than recent parts.

The road was heading south to southeast at this point, and was still in generally good shape for the next 50 kilometers, or so. I did need to stop a few times for another reason, however. Since I left Toliara, I was increasingly experiencing that bane of tropical travelers, namely, the inability to properly digest my daily fare. At this point, the colony of bugs that was now setting up shop in my intestines was beginning to have an effect on my riding schedule. Consequently, I needed to find a private place in the bushes a few times that day. This was not as bad as it sounds, however. One of the challenges to travel in Madagascar, for me at least, is the virtual absence of any useable toilet facilities outside of the major hotels. So, a visit to the local bush would be needed a few times a day in any case, and the particular affliction that I am describing actually made that process a little easier. However, this did also mean that I needed to pay greater attention to remaining hydrated, and would need to do so for the rest of the trip as this condition remained, more or less, with me until after I had returned home.

Sisal Plants

Sisal is used by the Malagasy of the area for many purposes.

Continuing on, I was also slowed a good deal by the appearance of another section of difficult sand to cross. This would be the first of many over the next few days, a condition that would turn out to be my main nemesis on this tour. The sand in the southern part of the island was soft, hot, and deep. The latter property was mainly due to another case where the roadway had been carved down into the land surface from years of use, sometimes almost a meter deep. This formed a perfect place for wind-blown sand to collect, which it did without fail. The terrain for the next several days was mostly flat with some gently rolling sections. I noticed here, as well as later on, that the worst areas of sand were usually on the west/north side of the inclines. These were almost always the uphill sections given the direction that I was traveling. This required me to walk frequently, for various lengths up to a few hundred meters. However, I probably would have been required to do so if I were traveling in the opposite direction as well, as this sand was simply impossible to ride through in any case. In fact, the Malagasy cyclists of the area had to get of and push their bikes as well, which surprised me a little, as they were usually quite competent in rough conditions.

Children at Market

These boys, at a country market, are zebu herders and drive their herds along R.N. 10.

After a while, I reached a place where the grade flattened out, and the sand became more tolerable. Things were not perfect here either, as I discovered a rather odd combination of poor road conditions. The soil in the area appeared to be mostly hard-packed, dry clay. The base of the road surface was the same type of soil, which would normally have been fine. However, in this case years of use had created a severe washboard surface, which would have been bad enough. On top of that were several centimeters of sand. I had never seen this particular association of surfaces before, and it made for some rather uncomfortable cycling. I was not even able to imagine exactly how this mix of washboard and sand could have been created. In Madagascar, though, all road hazards are present at some place on the island, so I suppose I shouldn't have been too surprised. It was midway across one of these rough sections that I encountered the one notable event of the day, one that made the whole trip through this area worthwhile. As I was riding along, I was surprised to see a lemur dash across the road, only meters in front of me!.

This particular creature was a ring-tailed lemur, also known by its scientific name, Lemur Catta, or its Malagasy name, Maki. The ring-tailed, is one of the few lemur species that spends any time at all on the ground, as evidenced by its sprint across the open area in front of me, and its disappearance in the trees moments later. Ring-tailed lemurs, as their name suggests, possess a long, bushy tail that is decorated with circular black stripes on a gray background, similar to a raccoon. In fact they resemble a raccoon in many ways, though they are generally significantly thinner, and have very long arms and legs that are capped by their trademark human-like hands (and monkey-like feet.) The one that ran across the road was quite speedy, so I had just enough time to see it, and recognize what it was, before it vanished. However, at the same instant I noticed a second, larger animal, about 50 meters ahead that jumped out into the road and then turned around and ran back into the trees. I hoped that I would be able to get a better look at that one, so I slowly walked forward to the spot that I thought it had appeared. Just then, it did, in fact, jump out of the bushes and into the road one more time. Once again, it did not go across, but looked me straight in the eyes before turning around and bounding back into the cover of the bush. I saw it again, seconds later, as it walked out onto a shady limb of a large tree to observe me from a safe position. I was obviously not welcome in its territory, as it ran off deep into the forest after a few seconds. The ring-tailed is one of the most common types of lemurs on the island, and especially in the southern part. However, it is quite unusual to see one outside of a protected park or reserve. So, I considered myself to be extremely fortunate to have been able to observe this pair.

That encounter made the entire day seem worthwhile, and I rode on again with a nice feeling of accomplishment. There was not much farther to go that day, however, as the Sun was sinking towards the western horizon. I got as far as the vicinity of the small town of Beahitse where I decided to stop for the evening. A distance of 90 kilometers was admirable, I thought. Though it was considerably less than the previous day, I didn't have the luxury of 70 kilometers of paved road this time. Overall, though, I was feeling pretty good about my progress over this section so far. Now it was just a simple, if prickly, matter to locate a nice place to sleep in a large field that was filled with giant sisal plants. The silhouettes of these tall desert plants against the orange sunset made for a beautiful backdrop to my little campsite, and I crawled into the tent to enjoy a very restful sleep.

Tongobory to Beahitse
Distance: 90 km
Weather: Sunny, Maximum Temp: 29 C
Terrain: Lightly rolling
Roads Traveled: Route National 10 (dirt with some sand)

April 20

A Hint of the Hard Times Yet to Come

- or -

Now I'm Starting to Understand

In the morning, I set out again, as usual, just after dawn. The condition of the road in this area was not too bad, and I made it to the small town of Ejeda, 25 kilometers away, while it was still fairly early in the morning. There was already considerable activity there at that time of day. I stopped to take a short rest, and to pick up some water and drinks from the town's store, and a few oranges from a street vendor. With the dry, warm weather, the strong possibility of bad road conditions, and the long distances between towns that were large enough to be sure of finding supplies, I had begun to carry more water along with me. This was sometimes as much at three or four 1.5-liter bottles, which added quite a lot of weight to my load. This made it more difficult to drag the bike through the mud and sand, but was, of course, too important to neglect. So, the opportunity to top off my supply here was quite welcome.

Southwestern Sunrise

The morning Sun relects off a giant puddle in the road.

The rest of the morning I traveled steadily over the next 50 kilometers to the town of Ampanihy. There were no sizeable settlements between Ejeda and Ampanihy, which was one of the main towns of this region. So, I made an effort to push across this area rather quickly, helped along by the tolerable condition of the road in this area. It was around 1:00 P.M. when I arrived in Ampanihy and I sat down right away at the first hotely that I came across. After another meal of vary, I went down to the town plaza where the Tiko store and market were located. I was able to fill up my liquids supply at the store, but the market was not particularly well stocked. There were dozens of people selling, but the main item of the day appeared to be prickly pear cactus fruit, which was being cleaned by many ladies and thrown into big piles for sale. I had eaten some of this fruit a few days earlier, and while it was tasty, it was not particularly easy to eat and also not very filling. Sadly, times were a little tough in this region, and there was not much more for many people to eat. After walking around the market for a while, I found one lady who had some bananas for sale and picked up some of those for later.

Since it was still a little early I took the opportunity to try and find a place to stretch out and rest for a while. I spotted a cool-looking cement porch in front of an unused building where I could lie in the shade and hopefully relax. It was a pleasant time for a few moments, but, as usual, the omnipresent flies swooped down on me before long. With their typical buzzing about and walking across my uncovered skin, they refused to let me rest in peace. After a few minutes, a local girl who had seen me swatting away at them, brought out a straw mat, a thin blanket and a pillow, and offered them to me. I certainly appreciated these items, and after covering up, I was able to settle down for a while. It was not a perfect rest, however, as I was periodically rousted by passersby who constantly tried to start up a conversation with me, to no avail, of course. I didn't stay here as long as I night have, since I really wasn't getting much rest. Instead, I returned my borrowed bedding, thanked the kind girl, and rode off for the afternoon ride.

Lone Baobab

The varied desert flora of this area includes several types of baobab.

Desert Plants

Other types of plants are found as well, both native varieties and imported prickly pear.

Once again, it turned out to be a fortuitous idea to move out a little earlier than I had planned. For while the morning ride was over a decent road, the portion I would encounter in the evening was most definitely not. There were two or three hours of useable daylight left, and as I set out I thought that I might be able to cover another forty to fifty kilometers. However, for the next 50 kilometers, R.N. 10 would skirt along the southern rim of the highland plateau. This in itself should not have posed any problems, and were it not for the numerous river channels that cut across the road's path the going would have been relatively easy. These channels would have better been described as small canyons, and the road typically dove straight down to the riverbank, which was often dry, and then straight back up the other side. The drop never seemed to be much more than 50-100 meters, and so these small, steep hills should not have posed much of a problem. Unfortunately, the effects of the erosion that had formed the canyons had exposed the bedrock that lied beneath the normally smooth soil. Of course, this was exposed on the roadway as well, turning a simple little series of hills into extremely technical granite staircases. Usually, it was possible, with care, to traverse the bumpy ride down, and then slowly, while looking of a decent path, ride up the other side. Tough there were some real bone-shaking experiences in so doing. Sometimes, though, the rocks were too large, or too loose, and I was forced to walk up the far side. On the bright side, it was here that I decided that my off-road skills were a lot better than I had expected, and that the bike was truly worthy of cruising over the roughest terrain. I was especially impressed with my out of the ordinary, "BigDog" brakes , which allowed me to maintain excellent control while inching my way down many perilous tracks. One other thing that I noticed here were a few construction crews that were apparently following up on President Ravalamanana's pledge to repair the countries roads, as advertised in the sign pictured below. There was still a tremendous amount of work for them to do, however, and at that time they were only smoothing over the crossings across the actual riverbanks, and not repairing the hilly approaches at all. I'm sure any improvements will be appreciated by those travelling here regularly, but in my case there was no noticeable difference.

President's Sign

This sign reflects President Ravalomanana's pledge to repair the island's roads.

It seemed like I was hardly covering any distance at all as I rode up and down through one canyon after another. Then, much to my surprise, I rolled into the little town of Amborompotsy, about 24 kilometers from Ampanihy. This was a reasonable amount of terrain to have covered in one day, I decided. Moreover, I was rapidly losing my willingness to continue beating myself to death by riding over the endless rocks of this area. Therefore, I rode just far enough past the town to escape its noise, and to where I could easily find a nice spot for the evening. So far, after three days on the supposedly nightmarish road to Fort-Dauphin, I was very pleased with how I had managed and how far I had traveled. That would all change over the next few days, however

Beahitse to Amborompotsy
Distance: 110 km
Weather: Sunny, Maximum Temp: 30 C
Terrain: Moderately rolling
Roads Traveled: Route National 10 (dirt with some rocky sections)

April 21

The Desert Takes Charge

- or -

One Boneheaded Move After Another

As this day began, I was still feeling confident that I would be able to make steady progress and arrive in Fort-Dauphin approximately when I had expected. By the end of the day, I would begin to see that I might have been a little premature in that assessment. This was also a day where I had a series of blunders and missteps, based almost entirely on a series of my poor decisions. Lately there seems to be one day on every tour of mine like that, and I probably would have preferred that it occurred at a time when I was traveling along a nice road instead of when I was in the middle of the bush. Nevertheless, it is the way one deals with challenges like these that make a trip memorable, at least in my opinion. So, I set out at my customary early hour, hoping to cover a distance similar to the preceding few days. The slow conditions of the previous evening meant that I would have a rather long stretch, 72 kilometers, to cover to make it to the only large town on the day’s route, Beloha. Soon I would get to find out exactly what the waiter in Toliara had been trying to tell me about this area. I was optimistic that I would be able to get there by midday, and then continue on farther in the evening.

The rocky, hilly conditions in encountered the prior evening continued, resulting in very slow going, for the first 17 kilometers of the day. There was not much improvement until I crossed the Enarandara River, immediately before reaching the little town of Tranoroa. Here, I decided to stop for a quick break, and rode around the bumpy streets of the town looking for a Tiko store to get a drink. In so doing, I had the first bit of bad luck for the day. The zipper of my handlebar bag had decided to stop fastening several days earlier, no doubt in protest to all the rough treatment that it had been receiving. I managed to partially hold it together with some zip-ties, but there was still room for things to bounce out. That is exactly what happened to my nifty little LED flashlight, an item that I had come to depend on tremendously. Fortunately, a young boy from the town had seen me drop it, and chased me all the way across town, where the store was located, to return it. I thanked him very respectfully for his help, but later I felt a little ashamed for not offering to buy him some food, or something, from the store.

From here, the road turned to the south, and the conditions improved somewhat. There were no more rocky canyons to cross, just the usual patches of sand and mud. The route lacked any significant towns until Beloha, but I had plenty of water with me and did not anticipate any problems. However, it was in this area that the second piece of misfortune struck. Often there was a narrow path along the roadside that walkers and cyclists would use to avoid the worst sections of mud on the main road. At one point I used one of these, which veered off into the bush for a considerable distance, to do just that. Shortly I had lost sight of the road and the path became hard to follow among the maze of tiny trails used by the local zebu herders. The bush was fairly tall here, but there was a considerable amount of open space as well. Many unique endemic plants grew throughout this area, and most were well adapted for dry conditions, including the tall, thorny, and distinctive Didiereaceae which have a similar appearance to a cactus, but are not from the same botanical family. Nevertheless, I decided to cut back over to the main road, as I did not want to stray too far. Of course, the tangle of horribly thorn-equipped bushes made it virtually impossible to see the way back to the road. I new that I could only be 10-20 meters away, but trying to find a route back that would keep me from getting torn to shreds caused me to wander around in circles for what seemed like a very long time. Eventually, I chose to simply head straight in the direction that I thought would take me back to the road. In so doing, I had to push through a few places that were densely covered with thorny plants. Needless to say, I was scratched and pricked in numerous places when I finally broke out onto the roadway. Fortunately, the bike made it through better than I did. It was at that point that the name of the area, "The Spiny Desert" took on a whole new meaning for me.


Another unique plant of the region is the Didiereaceae.

As I progressed, the terrain consisted of very gentle rolling slopes, which, once again, meant difficult sand to walk through on the uphill side. As before, the sand thinned out considerably at the crest of the hills, and I usually stopped there to rest for a few minutes and observe the many traditional burial tombs of the Mahafaly and Antandroy tribes. These are common sights on hilltops all along the length of R.N.10, and this area had some of the most decorative and well-constructed examples. They are easy to see along the roadside, with many being set back only a few tens of meters. I would imagine that there are many more, perhaps even more elaborate, tomb sites far away from the roadway, and the prying eyes of tourists. The tombs are large, square structures, made from stone or masonry, about 10 meters on a side. There are various styles, which apparently reveal a characteristic design of the particular tribe that lives nearby. Most consist of a smooth stone or masonry wall, about 1.5 meters tall surrounding the inner section, which is often made up of loose rocks. There is always some sort of ornamentation, though this varies quiet a bit in style and the amount of embellishment. In this immediate area, the tombs usually have several carved wooden poles standing in their center sections, which are a little totemic in style and are topped with a carved figure that was relevant to the life of the person buried there. I saw a lot of zebu carvings, as well as a few examples of more modern possessions such as a taxi-brousse. These poles are often painted, though most of the time the paint had long since peeled off. On many of the tombs sit numerous zebu horns and empty bowls that were all a part the funeral feast for the occupant. The number of zebu a person owns represents an important description of status in the community, and so a tomb adorned with many horns implies that the guest of honor was a rich person.

Mahafaly Tomb

A typical Mahafaly tomb, seen throughout the southwest.

I can't pretend to have a very thorough understanding of Malagasy funeral customs after only a brief visit, but these structures represent a cornerstone of traditional Malagasy beliefs, namely a reverence for one's ancestors. It would have been nice to learn more about this aspect of Malagasy culture, which involves building tombs of many different designs, and ceremonial practices for each of the various Malagasy cultures on the island. This, unfortunately, was one of those things that can be difficult to become very familiar with on a bicycle tour, unless one can afford the time to travel extremely slowly. Understanding the local language would help, as well. In any case, it made the often tiring conditions a little more tolerable with the opportunity to observe such unique and time-honored traditions of a very interesting people.

Tomb Offerings

Zebu horns and bowls from the burial feast adorn the tombs.

It was not long after stopping to visit one of these sites, that I experienced yet another bit of bad luck, though this time the fault was clearly my own. I had stopped to answer the call of nature, and as I was walking back toward the road I spotted a giant patch of prickly pear that was loaded with ripe fruit. Prickly pear grew throughout the country, especially in the dry south, after having been imported from Mexico years ago. The local people liked the plant, as it provided a source of food and, more importantly, an emergency supply of water for their herds of zebu, which could somehow manage to eat the spiny flesh of this cactus. Though I saw many patches of the plant that day, this was the first that had so many ripe fruits that I could easily reach. I thought that with still a long way to go to Beloha, it might be a good idea to pick some in case I needed them later on. So, I grabbed six or seven nice looking pieces, and without looking at them too carefully, brushed them off gently with my hands. This was a huge mistake. There are no long spins on the fruit, as there are on the rest of the plant. Instead, the surface is covered with tiny, nearly invisible, filamentous needles. In only a few seconds of contact, my hands were covered with these little pain-makers. The fact that they were hard to see on the fruit meant that they were even harder to find, and remove, from my skin. I could feel them intensely, however, and it would be several days before I could slowly manage to rid myself of this big annoyance. A few weeks later, one of my Malagasy guides told me that the local people remove these needles from their hands by running them through the hair on their heads. My hair is much finer and straighter than most Malagasy people, so I doubt that this would have worked for me, even if I had known to try it.

Tomb Decorations

Carved wooden poles topped with zebu figures decorate many tombs.

In spite of all this, I was nearing Beloha shortly past midday. With about 9 kilometers to go, I soon learned what the warning I had been given about this area back in Toliara meant. Moment later, I was off the bike again, pulling it reluctantly though yet another sand-covered section of road. This was the worst patch so far, softer, deeper, and hotter than anything I had slogged through to that point. Of course I simply assumed that this was just like all the other sandy sections that I had managed to cross, with a couple of hundred meters to struggle through before the road hardened up again. Not this time. The sand went on, and on, and on, and as I slowly made my way along, my energy level went down, down, down. Though there were several people walking along, there were now, for the first time in quite a while, few Malagasy cyclists making the effort. Those that were doing so pushed their bikes as well. I probably could have hitched a ride on a zebu cart, which could, slowly at least, make it through just about any conditions. But, I preferred to travel under my own power, if at all possible, so I grunted and gasped my way along, meter by meter.

It seemed that I would never get to Beloha, as the remaining hours of daylight began to tick away. I knew that I needed to get there, no matter how long it took, in order to find my main food for the day. At one point, when I obviously looked rather helpless, a group of five or six children ran up behind me, laughing and shouting, and started to push my bike along. Though the help was appreciated, we started going so fast that I had a hard time keeping up with the bike, and once again, the sharp end of my left pedal broke into the skin my already cut-up and infected legs. I asked the kids to stop, because it was too fast, and as they ran away, each one patted my arm, so they could tell their friends that they touched a crazy vhazaha.

After what seemed like an eternity, I slowly walked into the center of Beloha. Now I knew what the waiter told me in Toliara, "Beloha is surrounded my many kilometers of impassable sand" As if my poor French was supposed to understand that? To complete the effect, the streets of Beloha were deep sand as well, and I had to walk around town slowly to find some food. My normal procedure in a situation like this would be to eat in town, and then ride on a little further, stopping to camp at sunset. This time, however, I decided to modify that plan. Since it was getting late, and I was absolutely too tired to ride much farther, I would buy some food for a nice meal. Then I would walk out just past the edge of town to a place where I could set up the tent and have a little picnic before turning in for the night. First I had a few drinks and bought some water for the next day at the Tiko store, and then I looked around for something substantial to eat. As luck would have it, my late arrival to town put me there just in time for the start of the evening street food service. In the daytime, street stalls sell items such as rice cakes and fried dough, however, in the evening they often fire up little grills and serve tasty items like little zebu brochettes or grilled chicken. Normally, I would not be in such a large town at this time of day, and would not be able to get such tasty fare. However, this time I found a nice lady who had just fixed up a platter full of delicious looking chicken. What a nice change of pace from all the vary, I thought. So, I bought a big bag full, and set off to find a place to enjoy it and then bed down.

Of course, on this day where nothing went smoothly, this would not be a easy as I had hoped, and my last misfortune was forthcoming. I started walking out of town in the direction that I would be heading the next day, and was met by the sight of more sand stretching out as far as I could see. I would worry about that later, though. At that time I just wanted to find an isolated sport to eat and sleep where I wouldn't be bothering anyone. Unfortunately, both sides of the road were lined with tall hedges of prickly pear, which were impossible to see though, let alone cross. After a while, a footpath veered of to the right, and I thought that I might have better luck down that way. To my disappointment, it was also lined with the villainous cactus. Now, I was ready to stop just about anywhere. Just ahead, I saw a fairly large tree at the edge of the path. Its shade created a cactus-free zone under it branches, and though the cover was not great I decided that this was the best place that I was likely to find. The problem was getting through the cactus hedge to get there. There was a bit of a thin spot in the hedge near the tree, which I tried to enlarge a little with my feet, but it would be a tight, treacherous squeeze. I was more worried about the bike than myself. After all, I was already punctured in so many places, that surely a few more holes wouldn't matter. So, I unloaded the bike, and tossed all the gear over the cactus, trying to get it as close to the tree as possible. With the utmost care, I lifted the bike as high as I could, and slowly slid around the spiky plants. It seemed like I had made it though relatively unscathed, but before I had even set the bike down, I realized that both tires were now flat.

I decided not to worry about that right now, for the only thing on my mind was satisfying my ravenous appetite. As I stretched out on my sleeping pad, it only took me a second or two to dig into my bag of treats. There have been few meals in my life that have tasted as good, or been so appreciated. As it was still dusk, I was a little worried that the short cactus hedge would not shield me well from passing eyes, and sure enough, a few moments later, a group four or five people walked by. The ladies had baskets full of stuff balanced on their heads, and could not be bothered to look my way. One of the men, however, turned and saw me, but he only gave me one of those "Now there's something you don't see every day," looks, and kept on walking. Once I was finished with my meal, I quietly put up the tent and crawled inside, hoping no one else would discover me in this rather embarrassing campsite. No one did, it turned out, and I fell asleep quickly, after such a tiring day, feeling a little surprised that a mere 72 kilometers had put me through so much.

Amborompotsy to Beloha
Distance: 72 km
Weather: Sunny, Maximum Temp: 28 C
Terrain: Lighlty rolling
Roads Traveled: Route National 10 (dirt with some difficult rocky and sandy sections)

April 22

Painstakingly Slow Progress

- or -

Sand, Relentless Sand

When morning came, I made an effort to get up a little earlier than usual to avoid being spotted by someone walking by, and because I still had an annoying chore to complete. I had no interest in repairing my two flat tires the night before, when I was feeling completely wiped out, so I had postponed that job until the morning. Now it was time to make those repairs, and I was not pleased about it. It was not so much that I was lazy, but rather, I had been very happy that until that point, with all the rough terrain I had crossed, that I had only the one flat, back in Antongo. Now I had to fix two, and all because of my idiotic plan to sleep in a giant cactus patch. In fact, it was worse than I had realized. The rear tube was punctured twice, and the front at least four times, perhaps more, as I stopped looking and used a fresh tube after finding the fourth hole. There was no point in crying about it too much, however, and sitting in the sand of the footpath, I had the repairs complete before very long.

Having taken care of that, I was actually feeling pretty good about my situation, There was now only 127 kilometers to go before the paved road began again, and if the conditions were similar to those of a few days earlier, I would have only one more full day of riding before things got easy once more. Of course, that was probably wishful thinking. In reality, the deep sand of the previous evening continued on as I headed out of Beloha. It was a little easier this time, as the Sun had not yet had sufficient time to heat up the sand to its normally toasty temperature. So, I could walk barefoot, for a while at least, which was much more comfortable. The sand continued on for much longer than I had expected, once again, perhaps another eight or nine kilometers. The road had turned to the east, and was now crossing the same general area that it had on the approach to Beloha the previous day. I periodically tried to ask local folks, which I met walking along, just how much farther it would be before the road became solid again. Though I could never seem to get the question across, as most of the people here spoke only Malagasy. Usually, I'd get an answer like "yes", but eventually I gathered that there were still a few kilometers to go.

Sandy Road

The sand here is soft and deep.

Finally, after so much struggle during the previous evening, and that morning, I reached a place where the road was hard enough to allow me to cycle again. It was quite a relief. There were no significant towns over the 55 kilometers between Beloha and Tsiombe, the next place where I could expect to take a break. I did have a decision to make, though. I had desired since I first planned the tour to take a detour off the main road at Tsiombe, to the small town of Faux-Cap, which was located near the southernmost tip of the island. Few tourists visit there, but I was intrigued by the idea of making it all the way to the bottom. Additionally, the area around Faux-Cap was the only place on the island where one could still find fragments of eggshells once laid by the now-extinct "Elephant Bird". This was one of, if not the largest bird species to have ever existed, and its eggs were huge, perhaps 60 centimeters along their long axis. I was quite hopeful that I could see some of these fossils on this trip. Faux-Cap lies about 30 kilometers due south of Tsiombe, and I was willing to add that distance to the remaining route to Fort-Dauphin, if I could manage to arrive there early enough in the day. The other question was which way to go once there. Trying to go east, to eventually meet up again with R.N. 10, looked barley possible, and the only other option would be to backtrack back to Tsiombe, and continue east from there. The latter seemed to be the safe choice, though it would be considerably longer. So, I made an agreement with myself; if I could reach Tsiombe by 11:30 A.M., I would try to go to Faux-Cap, if not, I would continue on to Fort-Dauphin.

With somewhat improved conditions, I began to progress at a moderate pace. There were occasional sandy patches, but they were shorter now, usually about 100 meters long, or so. Once again they were common along the slight inclines leading up to the hilltops, where numerous tombs, now more often from the Antandroy tribe, were easily seen. These were of a more ornate, painted design than the Mahafaly tombs I had seen more frequently on earlier days. Some of these were topped with seemingly misplaced models of items such as airplanes.

A colorful Tomb

This Antandroy-sytle tomb is more colorful and abstract.

After a couple of hours, I rolled through a small village that had a stand selling a few items at the roadside. It seemed like a great time to take a quick break, and hopefully, grab a snack and a drink. The people here were obviously intending to sell food and drink to the taxi-brousse, which would apparently be passing by sometime in the not too distant future (though I later learned that where the taxi-brousse were concerned, schedules were merely suggestions.) In the meantime, they were happy to sell things to me. The problem was that at that time I had run out of small-denomination bills, and they were not easily able to make change. Undaunted, I simply bought more. I purchased the only two 1.5 liter bottles of orange soda that they had on display. I put one in my bags, drank a little form the other, and then told the lady who sold it to me to give the rest to the little kids that were hanging around the area. Next, three young ladies walked up to me each holding a large platter of grilled chicken. It looked delicious and the girls looked as if they desperately wanted to sell some. I was eager to comply, but I didn't want to buy from only one of them so, I used what small change I had left to buy a couple of pieces from each girl. Thinking back, I probably would have been wiser to splurge and use some large bills to buy a whole bag full. The food was really tasty, and having quenched my thirst as well, I set out again after a few minutes of rest.

The conditions continued to be sporadically sandy and I was not progressing particularly quickly. It looked as if it would be very tough to meet my deadline to divert to Faux-Cap, but I kept the possibility open. Then, before much longer, the road conditions took a turn for the worse. Once again, it was my nemesis, soft, deep sand that cause my problems. So, it was back to walking once again. I was not even exactly sure just how far it was to Tsiombe at that point. There were still the familiar stone markers every kilometer along the way, but in this area the numbers had obviously not been repainted in many years, and they were essentially illegible. I knew that I wasn't going fast, however. I thought back to how I would pass one of these markers every few minutes on the nice highway, but here I celebrated whenever I saw one, which seemed to be very infrequently. As I trudged along, I began to run low of available fluids as well. When I left the roadside stand, I had two full water bottles and the bottle of orange soda, which I thought would be plenty to last the 25, or so, kilometers to Tsiombe. But now, I was taking my last sips from that store. I was lucky that the temperature never rose above a pleasant 31 C, otherwise, I may have had to stop there for the day to avoid risking dehydration.

The distance to Tsiombe did not seem to be decreasing very quickly, even though I could occasionally get up on the bike and ride, if only for a few tens of meters at a time before having to walk again. At one point, I passed a Malagasy man and woman who were resting in the shade of one of the few large trees along the road, and I asked them if they knew how far it was to Tsiombe. The man told me eight kilometers, and I was not sure at all if I would be able to make it that far. In knew then, though, that any chance of visiting Faux-Cap was now gone. Of course, for all I knew, the road leading there would be nothing but impassable sand anyway. But there was now nothing to do expect push forward, and try to not over-exert myself.

An Elaborate Tomb

Another type of tomb near Tsiombe.

Somehow, I eventually managed to get myself to Tsiombe, located just east of the Manombovo River. Though the last couple of kilometers were rideable, it was still 2:30 P.M. by the time I arrived. I didn't waste any time in finding a bar, where I sat down in the cool shade and bought some drinks. I purchased two water bottles and two large colas, which I drank on the spot (sodas were sometimes sold in heavy glass bottles that were hard to carry, and also worth something to the locals due to the bottle deposit, which I always left for the person that sold me the drink.) It was quite a while before I had enough energy to get up from the table to go look for food. I went to a nearby hotely where I had yet another serving of vary. The owner asked me if I wanted to get a room, or Chambre, for the night. I told her that I did not, as at that point I still intended to ride a little farther that night. That was merely a pre-programmed response at that point, as, if I had thought about it at all, I would have realized that I needed to stop right there. Fortunately, it was taking me a long time to finish my meal (even the many flies could not arouse much motion from me,) and as I ate I reconsidered. I thought that, since it was already 4:30, it might not be a bad idea to try out one of the chambres here after all. I had seen chambres available in most every small town, and decided that I should stay in one at least once, if only for the experience.

The rate for the night was $3.00, and as I put the last half of my rice in a bag so I could finish it later, the proprietor told me to wait there while she sent someone to sweep out the room. In a few minutes, she had a small boy show me the way to my evening quarters. He led me along a twisting path through the town where all eyes, once again, were fixed on me. Shortly, we arrived at three adjoining rooms that were of simple wood-plank construction. The room itself was just barely large enough to accommodate the small, hard cot and little table that it contained. There was just enough room left over to store my bike and bags inside. Before he left I asked the boy if there was a toilet that I could use. He said that we had to go and get a key from the hotely first. From there, he led me back through town to a basic pit latrine that was, rather unfortunately for many reasons, located just above the riverbank.. Having taken care of that, I went back to the room to try and get some rest.

Significant rest would not be forthcoming that night for several reasons, most of all because of the stuffy conditions and noise in the room. There was no mosquito net for the bed here, so to keep the flies and other intruders away I decided to prop the tent up on top of the cot and sleep inside. This made it feel very warm, and with the window left open to compensate, the sounds of the town were even more disturbing. Additionally, I discovered that on one of the knuckles of my left hand, a little cluster of micro-needles from that vicious cactus fruit encounter of a couple of days earlier, was now also becoming infected. This wasn't too big a deal, though its soreness was keeping me from relaxing completely. I also could have used the convenience of a nearby restroom, which would never have been a problem had I been camping in the bush, as usual. After all the liquids that I took in a few hours earlier, I desperately needed such a facility a few times during the night. Not wanting to wander though town looking for that locked pit toilet, I was forced to sacrifice one of my previously full water bottles as an emergency substitute. All in all, this was one of the most difficult nights of the tour, following one of the most difficult days. The fact that I had traveled only 55 kilometers after almost a full day of riding added a sense of uncertainty to my plans for the immediate future, but I was hopeful, as I lay there, that the worst was now behind me.

Beloha to Tsiombe
Distance: 55 km
Weather: Sunny, Maximum Temp: 31 C
Terrain: Lighlty rolling
Roads Traveled: Route National 10 (dirt with some difficult sandy sections)

April 23

A Desperate Situation

- or -

Madagacscar: 1; Vhazaha Bicycle Tourist: 0

Surprisingly, I felt reasonably well when I was woken by the sounds of the town, early in the morning. Perhaps I was simply feeling confident because I would reach the beginning of the paved part of R.N. 10 in only 67 kilometers, when I arrived in the town of Ambovombe. On the other hand, I may have simply become accustomed to nursing my sore body through the restlessness of a typical night in Madagascar. In either case, I was soon ready to go, so I settled my bill with the folks at the hotely, and then stocked up on enough water, drinks, and snacks to cover, at least, the distance to the nearest town, Ambondro, 37 kilometers away. As usual for this tour, I should have purchased more.

The road heading east out of Tsiombe was fairly rocky for several kilometers, but not as severely as some of the earlier portions of R.N. 10. Because of this, it was a little slow going over the early morning section of the route. The terrain in the area was generally quite flat, with only some very slight rolling sections. A low, scrubby cover of plants dominated the landscape, allowing for more open vistas, and eliminating the need to dance with disagreeable thornbushes when walking around the occasional mud hole. Before much longer, the road became smoother, with only a little bit of sand covering portions of the surface. The occasional patches of soft, deep sand were short enough that I didn't mind dealing with them. As the conditions improved, I began to pick up speed, and my spirits increased similarly. My plan was to get as close as possible to Andohahela National Park by nightfall, spend most of the next day visiting the park, which was on my list of must-see locations, and then cover the remaining distance to Fort-Dauphin on the following day. The entrance to Andohahela was about 64 kilometers beyond the start of the paved road. I felt that I should have no trouble getting close enough to be able to enter the park early in the morning, assuming I could make it to Ambovombe in a reasonable time. The steady progress I was making reinforced that optimism, and I was now passing by the stone kilometer markers along the roadside with a frequency that I had not managed for several days. In fact, I was so confident that I would be successful that I took the photograph shown below as a joke with sort of a "This road was really tough (but I survived)" theme.

Prophecy of Doom

The Prophecy of Doom.

When will I learn not to tempt fate with such pointless attempts at humor? For it was not more that one hour after that picture was taken, as I was struggling through a short, but particularly deep patch of sand, that fate struck back and dealt a fatal blow to my heretofore trusty bike. The particular malfunctions was, no doubt, cased by the continuous flow of mud, sand, and water that been forcing themselves into the mechanism of my rear hub almost continuously since I left Morondava. The effect of all that contamination was quite harmful to the ratcheting pawls inside the hub and they now failed to engage at all. For those readers that are not familiar with the intricacies of bicycle hub designs, this problem results in the rather unfortunate situation that when one spins the bike's pedals, the bike refuses to move forward. This is a rather serious condition in any location, even more so when you are alone at the edge of the Spiny Desert.

I had needed to clean out the hub on a few occasions since leaving Toliara, and I was planning to give it a thorough once-over when I arrived in Fort-Dauphin. This time, however, I could tell that the damage was more severe, and as I sat in the shade of a nearby tree to make an attempt at fixing it up, at least well enough to get me into town, I was not feeling very optimistic. Indeed, after two tries at cleaning and reassembling the hub, there was still no engagement. Apparently, I had sheared off the tips of the pawls, or the ratchet into which they were supposed to seat, or both. So now the bike was officially out of commission, until I could figure out what to do next.

There had been enough trucks, busses, and other vehicles, sharing the road with me over the past few days that I was sure that someone would come along who could get me close to Fort-Dauphin, where I would have the best chance of making repairs. It was often one or two hours between sightings of passing trucks, however, so I started out walking east to pass the time. After all, I had become so accustomed to pushing the bike along over the past few days, a little more wouldn't hurt. It actually wasn't too long, perhaps 45 minutes, before I heard behind me, the characteristic rumbling sound of an approaching truck. When it drew near, I waved for the driver to stop, which he kindly did, and I asked him where he was going. He told me that he was heading as far as Ambovombe, and I then asked is I could ride on the back of his truck and spun my pedals fruitlessly around to indicate my predicament. He indicated that I could hop on the back, which wasn't surprising since there were already three other fellows riding up there. The truck was loaded up with many big sacks of rice, with a few other items lashed on top. After the bike was pulled up with the aid of the other passengers, I climbed up as well and tried to get comfortable for the bumpy ride ahead.

The Bike 
on a Rice Truck

The bike hitches a ride on a rice truck heading to Fort-Dauphin.

So, I was moving again, and though I was upset about my broken bike, I was at least happy that I would make it to Fort-Dauphin before too long. I had made it to within 30 kilometers of completing the long dirt portion of R.N. 10, and, to lift my spirits, I allowed myself to believe that was close enough to consider the crossing to have been a success. It was not long before we pulled into Ambondro, where the driver made a quick stop. There was just enough time for me to dash into the Tiko store and pick up a bottle of water and drink a quick orange soda, which were much needed. As we rolled on again, heading east, I took the opportunity to notice the condition of the road along this section. It was a little sandy, but looked as if I would have not had too much trouble riding across this section. That is, of course, if I had a functional bicycle. In fact, in conditions like those, I usually traveled as fast, or faster, than the motorized vehicles, which often could not use the helpful detours that were available to me.

Eventually, we approached Ambovombe, and were required to stop a short distance outside town at a police checkpoint. These were sometimes found at the approaches to many of the larger towns throughout the island, but usually only commercial vehicles were required to stop to declare their cargo. Occasionally, the officers would tell me to stop and ask to see my passport, but I always felt as though they did this to relieve their boredom, and to get a chance to chat with the vhazaha on the bicycle. This time, the officers seemed to be questioning the driver for a very long time, and I sensed that my presence alone on top of the cargo (the other three passengers had jumped off along the way) might have been complicating matters. I wished that they would hurry things along, as now the steadily climbing sun was heating up the sacks on which I was perched, and making me feel a little queasy, as well. As we waited, for what seemed like over 30 minutes, another vehicle pulled up behind us. It was the taxi-brousse, which in this particular incarnation was a small bus that could carry perhaps thirty people (or more, depending on how tightly they were stuffed inside.) I was a little dismayed when the guards waved the bus around moments later, sending it on its way into Ambovombe. I would need to ride the taxi-brousse for the rest of the trip to Fort-Dauphin, and if I missed this one, I would either have to wait one, or more, days for the next, or try to find a private vehicle for hire.

After what seemed like an eternity, baking in the hot sun, we were given the all-clear to move along and in a few more minutes we arrived in Ambovombe. To my great relief, the taxi-brousse was still parked in the center of town, while its occupants took a rest break. I lowered my belongings down, jumped off, and thanked the driver profusely for helping me out of a tight spot. He probably didn't understand anything that I was saying, but the generous handful of bills that I gave to him for his efforts was probably all he wanted from me. He called an agent for the taxi-brousse over and I booked passage to Fort-Dauphin. The charge was $4.50 for the 110-kilometer trip. I asked approximately what time he thought we would arrive, and, as far as I could understand, he said 3:00. Since it was now just about midday, that seemed about right to me, and I began to feel a little better just knowing that in a few hours I would be in a place with a nice shower and soft bed.

I had hoped to avoid using the taxi-brouse while in Madagascar. Not only were they not much faster than I was (at least though the rough areas,) but their comfort and safety left a little to be desired as well. I had seen, on more than one occasion, examples of the vehicles out of commission on the roadside, while the passengers sat in the grass looking bored and the drivers crawled underneath and pounded on whichever part was not cooperating with a large mallet. On one other day, one nearly tipped over just meters from where I was standing, when it tried to drive through a mud puddle that was obviously too deep, requiring all of the passengers to exit so that they could help push it out. However, on this day it was a lifesaver, and I was happy to be aboard. In fact, this particular version was probably one of the more luxurious types, being an actual bus with real seats, though they were cramped and rickety, as opposed to some others that were no more than old trucks carrying passengers in the back (with no windows.) The driver asked me whether I wanted the bike put on the roof, or brought inside and, for some unknown reason, I chose the roof. Once it was loaded up there, I had just enough time to pick up another soda and a chocolate bar from the store, before we departed.

Now I was feeling a little better knowing that I was at last going to arrive in town, but it would not take long for me to realize that it would not be as simple as I had hoped. As we rolled along the first section of the route, I watched to see just what the road would have been like had been able to ride on it. There were many large rough spots, which tossed the bus about, but there was still enough pavement that I realized I would not have had any significant problems. We passed by some interesting-looking sisal plantations with tall flower stalks reaching skyward in orderly rows, a distinctly different appearance from the bush I had crossed in previous days. On a few occasions, the bus stopped in small towns along the way to pick up and discharge riders. Whenever it did so, the driver turned up the radio to entertain the passengers with ultra-pop Malagasy music. I might have enjoyed that if the radio was not in such poor shape, which caused the music to sound like the screams of a dozen cats. Instead the noise began to give me a splitting headache. With the frequent stops and slow going over the occasional rough spots, it was now nearing dusk and we had not yet reached any of the larger towns that were along our route. Could the driver have possibly meant 3:00 A.M. when he told me when we would arrive, or had I simply misunderstood him? I was beginning to wonder, and also beginning to feel stiff, sore and tired.

At some point, just after the sun went down, we reached the river that was immediately to the west of Ambosary, the largest town on the route. The bus inched its way onto the steel-plate-decked bridge, which was only a few centimeters wider than the bus itself, and then stopped midway across. I was sitting by a window, and when I stuck my head out and looked down, there was nothing but thin air between me and the water many meters below. Up ahead, I could hear people shouting back and forth, in Malagasy, of course, and then the driver's assistant jumped out and disappeared into the darkness. There was some more shouting and then the bus started moving backwards. I could not imagine that there could be many positive outcomes to backing up a beat-up old bus across a narrow bridge in the dark, and my mind was imagining swirling newspaper headlines, just like in the movies, telling the tale of the bus that plunged into a dark gorge. Fortunately, we stopped after a few seconds, and then, after some more shouting, moved forward again. Apparently there was a repair crew doing some work on the bridge, and they needed us to back up a little so they could move some equipment out of the way before we could proceed.

During the next few hours, I began to feel worse and worse. It was dark, the bus was shaking me around, I had to listen to ear-blistering music, and before long a cold rain started to fall. The windows of the bus did not close completely, and I was getting a little wet, and I hadn't even considered the bike up on the roof and its leather saddle. Now, the trip had turned into one of those long, nightmarish journeyes that seemed to have no end in sight. I didn't know what time it was, but it felt as if many hours had passed and I had no sign that we were nearing Fort-Dauphin.

Of course, we eventually did arrive, at about 7:30 P.M., not nearly as late as it had felt to me For I was probably as tired as I had ever been in my life. As the bus unloaded, I stood nearby to grab my bike as it was lowered down off the roof. Of course, I did not have enough energy to push aside the two young boys, who, despite the fact that they were only half my size, insisted on "helping" me and scrambled up the side of the bus to grab the bike before I could reach it. Of course, they wanted a nice tip for their generous offer of assistance, and it turned out to be their lucky day. I shoved a large bill at them, since I did not have any small change, did not feel like dealing with the issue, and, especially, just wanted them to leave me alone. After I rid myself of these two, who had obviously well-rehearsed their tourist-targeting act, I found a taxi cab and had the driver take me to the Sahil Hotel, which would be my home for the foreseeable future. I can only imagine the sight that I must have presented to the Madame de la Maison, as I walked in, covered in six days of dirt, open sores, and with a vacant look in my eyes. However, she happily showed me to a room, and after I signed in, I crawled into bed, without even taking time to wash up, not even a little. I can't remember any other time on tour that I was so tired that I passed up an available shower. But on that night, even that seemed like too much work for me.

Tsiombe to Ambondro
Distance: 37 km
Weather: Sunny, Maximum Temp: 31 C
Terrain: Lighlty rolling
Roads Traveled: Route National 10 (dirt with a few rocky sections)

Next: I Always Knew That One Day...
~Go There~