Getting around Madagascar
National airline Air Madagascar (www.airmadagascar.mg) operates flights from the capital city to Diego Suarez, Majunga, Nosy Be, Ile Sainte Marie, Tamatave, Tulear and Fort Dauphin most days. Less regular Air Madagascar services connect a further half dozen towns across the country.
No other airlines provide scheduled domestic flights, but five or six charter companies have light aircraft and helicopters for passenger transfers to more than 80 airstrips nationwide.
Nosy Be and Ile Sainte Marie are islands and are most readily accessed by air. On the mainland, some towns are not easily accessible overland. As such, most people prefer to fly to Fort Dauphin, Maroantsetra, Sambava and Antalaha.
Advance booking is necessary on popular routes during peak season (typically July to September and around Christmas and New Year).
It takes a little under 1.5 hours to fly from Antananarivo to the far north or south of Madagascar.
Air Madagascar offers up to 50% off domestic flights for those who also use them as their international carrier.
For regular visitors to the country, Air Madagascar’s Namako loyalty programme allows you to earn points which can be exchanged for free flights.
Madagascar has less than 6,000km (3728 miles) of paved roads. To appreciate just how limited this road network is, consider that it is just over just over 1% of the size of the UK’s, despite Madagascar being a considerably larger country!
Malagasy road surfacing is done cheaply with poor materials, and many of the roads are subjected to severe weather conditions each rainy season. Consequently potholes develop rapidly, and a “fast” road can become a slow one in a matter of a couple of years.
Presently, the roads connecting the capital city with Tuléar (RN7), Tamatave (RN2), Majunga (RN4), Diego Suarez (RN6), Morondava (RN34/35) and Manakara (RN25) are largely in good condition.
Most roads are little more than dirt tracks, many of which become impassable during the rainy season (November/December to March/April).
Owing to security issues, travelling by road during hours of darkness is inadvisable (including by bus). Daytime driving is safe in almost all areas.
The main routes are called “Route Nationale” (RN), but this designation is not necessarily an indication of quality. The RN5, RN10 and RN13, for example, have not been well maintained for decades so are only passable in a good 4x4 – and even then only at walking speed in many sections.
Car hire agencies are easily found in all the main towns. Hire cars are typically 4x4s, as you will need a good vehicle to cope with the rough access roads to national parks and other rural sites.
Note that car hire in Madagascar almost always includes a driver. Very few companies hire out self-drive vehicles and in any case there is no real difference in cost between hiring with or without a driver.
The legal minimum driving age is 18.
Taxis can be found in most cities and large towns and are an affordable way of getting around. Drivers are generally reliable and friendly. In the capital city taxis are plentiful. They are normally coloured cream and marked with a rooftop taxi sign.
Taxis do not have meters. In some towns there are pre-determined rates (usually a flat fare for any trip within the town) but elsewhere – including in Antananarivo – you should agree a price before setting off.
Many adventurous tourists consider motorbike or mountain bike to be the best means of transport if you want to get off the beaten track and keep en element of independence. Both forms of transport can be hired (or bought) from several companies, especially in the capital.
Between towns, public transport is in the form of taxi-brousses. These are typically minibuses with around 15 seats.
For relatively short journeys (up to an hour or so) as many as 30 passengers may be crammed in, but on longer journeys (sometimes in excess of 24 hours for the most far-flung destinations on bad roads) each paying passenger gets a seat to himself.
Luggage is usually strapped to the roof (and covered with a tarpaulin if rain is likely).
These taxi-brousses are run by numerous cooperatives. Each town has at least one taxi-brousse station, where each cooperative has a ticket kiosk listing the destinations they serve.
You must carry all relevant documents when driving, including your passport. There are regular police checkpoints where these may be requested.
Drivers and passengers must wear seat belts and there are strict rules about driving under the influence of drink or drugs.
The highway code explicitly states that you must give way not only to ambulance, police and fire vehicles but also to security trucks transporting money and to the presidential convoy.
There are no breakdown services – another reason why hiring a vehicle with a driver is a good idea. Your driver will have the necessary equipment and knowledge to repair the vehicle or, if necessary, be able to communicate with locals to enlist their help if you break down.
A national driving licence is sufficient but an international driving licence is advised for minimal hassle at police checkpoints.
You must also carry your passport, insurance documents, vehicle hire agreement and any other vehicle paperwork at all times when driving.
Rickshaws called pousse-pousses are popular in some of the flatter towns, most notably Antsirabe. In recent years they are increasingly being replaced by the quicker cyclo-pousses (cycle rickshaws). Prices are not fixed and are agreed before getting in, depending on the distance to be travelled; a higher amount may be demanded in rain or after dark.
Madagascar’s rail network is limited to just two relatively short lines. The first connects Fianarantsoa in the highlands with Manakara on the east coast, and takes about eight hours each way. A single train operates the route, going down one day and back up the next.
The second rail line connects Moramanga with Tamatave (ten hours), and has a recently reopened side branch to Ambatondrazaka. This railway also has just one passenger train in operation.
Rail lines also run from the capital city east to Moramanga and south Antsirabe, but neither route runs a regular passenger service. There is a Micheline (1930s rubber-wheeled train) that occasionally does weekend tourist outings to Andasibe and Antsirabe along these two lines.
Tickets for the Fianarantsoa-Manakara line can be purchased from the terminus stations. The other lines are administered by Madarail (www.madarail.mg), which has an office in Soarano station in Antananarivo. There are no special passes.
Cancellations, delays and breakdowns are common. If you want to build a train journey into your trip itinerary, you would be well advised to make sure you have a backup plan.
Madagascar has a strong maritime tradition and there are many coastal transport services. Rapids render many of the rivers unnavigable.
Tour operators can organise small-boat descents of some of the western rivers, including Tsiribihina, Manambolo, Mangoky, Mahavavy, Betsiboka and Onilahy, with overnight camping stops.
The Pangalanes Canal runs for more than 650km (400 miles) along the east coast, south of Tamatave. Some sections are too clogged with vegetation to be navigable nowadays, but the northernmost third is popular with tourists.
Many operators offer multi-day live-aboard yacht charters (including some specialising in fishing or diving) from Nosy Be, either going northeast to the Mitsio archipelago or southwest to the Radama archipelago.
Never undertake a boat trip or crossing if a cyclone is approaching. This may seem like obvious advice but the majority of lives claimed by Malagasy cyclones are lost at sea.
Many of the rivers and lakes are home to crocodiles, so seek local advice before taking a dip during a river cruise.