Ambatondrazaka to check into the hotel, go to Zahamena Reserve, and then back to the hotel. The drive to Ambatondrazaka was expected to take a few hours (3-4 at the worst) in the third-hand ex-german 4x4 which our trusty native driver drove us around in, because while that road isn't all that big, it's a commercially important road for the Malagasy people, and so it's relatively well travelled. That gave us a full afternoon to spend at the reserve and enough time to leisurely drive back and do some sightseeing along the way, maybe seeing something else locally before coming back the following day. It all seemed pretty simple to us, so we didn't really complain. After all, surely the in-country people who set this whole thing up must have thought everything through, right? This was the fatal mistake. We thought anyone could have understood Madagascar. The drive to Moramanga was okay. Todd slept through much of it, but there wasn't any traffic, and we hadn't been on the Eastern side of Tana (the local name for Antananarivo) before, so it was a very interesting drive through green hills and valleys for me. On the Eastern coast, a direct drive from Tana, is Toamasina (also known by the French name Tamatave), which is the only major deep-water port for the whole country. Therefore, it's a very major route in Madagascar, and the status of the road was pretty good, so it was a quick drive. This lulled us into a false sense of security about the rest of the trip. This was the first road, coincidentally, to be blockaded during the political crisis a couple of years ago, and just that one road essentially crippled the whole highlands area. At Moramanga we stopped for a late second breakfast because it was going to be two hours (or so we thought) to go the last 150km to Lac Alaotra (the largest lake in the country, and the reason Ambatondrazaka exists). We had some coffee (made with the Malagasy traditional condensed milk, for when ordinary sugar and milk won't cause you to go into diabetic shock) and pastries (again that lovely lack of air conditioning led to a textural explosion in my mouth), got a couple of bottles of water, and figured we'd just press on so that we had more time with the reserve. Then we started north on The Road to Ambatondrazaka, RN44. About 20km after Moramanga, the pavement stopped and the dirt road started. This is not an uncommon occurance in Madagascar, because there are actually some Routes Nationals which are "seasonal", meaning that they're not even maintained: when it rains (about a third of the year), you can't get through. This one, however, was so commercially important (as Lac Alaotra is the heartlands of the rice growing region) that it was maintained, and for the first 20km or so we thought "hey, this isn't so bad, we're still doing about 70kph, it's a little bumpy but not so bad". Then we encountered the people maintaining the road. If you've never seen people maintaining a dirt road, it's quite a sight: dump trucks with dirt and sand, back-hoes to fill in potholes, steamrollers to flatten things out. It almost makes you think that they're building a real road. However, on this you'd be mistaken, because as soon as you manage to swerve your way around the massive vehicles, you realize why it takes so much effort to maintain the road: it's the worst road ever. The next 130km until the paved road started again was the worst road I've ever been on. Our average pace was about 20kph, the road was so bumpy that you couldn't even read on it, we had to swerve all around the road to escape the bumps that could easily have snapped an axle on the 4x4. Along the way you pass quite a few small towns without electricity, water, sewage, or anything but wooden shacks that are in the process of falling down, along with a whole host of people whose day seemed to be quite enlivened by the sight of what must have been the first white people they'd seen in a month. With such surroundings, you don't take any chances with the vehicle, because you realize that if you break down, there's nothing that you can do: there's no electricity or normal phones here, much less any type of cellular phone access. If you snap an axle, you're not going anywhere. At this point, it's the height of the heat of the day, so the sun is shining directly on the 4x4, it's about 90 degrees with 90 percent humidity, the air is completely still, and of course the 4x4 doesn't have air conditioning. Todd and I proceed to get more and more angry in the heat, humidity, bumpiness that precludes any activity other than getting stared at by natives, and the realization that this reserve to which we're going doesn't actually exist. It's not on any map that we or our driver has, it's not in any guide book that we've brought (or our driver has brought), and he assumed that we knew where we were going, which of course we didn't. Given that we'd already realized that the profit margins on our trip for the tour operator must have been about 100%, we thought, apparently niavely, that he might at least have given some information to our poor driver about where we're actually going or how long it would take, or might have at least thought of those things. This appears to be a silly concept for Madagascar. 8 hours after we set off, we get to about a 15km bit of paved road leading from one mud-hut-ville to Ambatondrazaka, prompting everybody in the car to think aloud, "why did they bother paving this bit? It doesn't lead anywhere!" This thinking is made even more acute when we realize that Ambatondrazaka, the biggest city in the area, doesn't even have paved roads in the town. Or maybe they were paved once, but except for the main street through town, they're not anymore. This is when I have the brilliant thought that we should maybe try to fly back. After all, Ambatondrazaka appeared to have an airport on the other side of town according to the guide book, we can go there and buy a ticket home the following day and never do the 8 hour drive again. What a splendid plan! So we set to it, off to the airport. 100m north of the city limits, you're once again at the worst road ever. Average speed: 10kph, swerving around potholes, people balancing water buckets on their heads, people herding Zebu, and beggars asking for money (who can usually keep up with the 4x4). We get to the airport. By this time we've experienced some pretty bad airports in Madagascar, but this takes the cake. It's one room. One very small room. There's nobody there. At all. At 3pm on a Saturday afternoon. But after our laughing in the "parking area", an old guy and his grandchild come out of the shack and ask our driver something in Malagasy that must have amounted to "what the heck are you doing bringing crazy white people to my airport?" After some exchanges, we find out that:
- This IS the airport for Ambatondrazaka;
- He lives there when there aren't flights (two per week: one there and one away) to take care of it and keep Zebu off the runway;
- By some sheer luck, the flight back to Tana is the next day AND it's non-stop;
- No, of course you can't buy a ticket at the airport. You have to go back into town to the ticket office.