Cycling Bike and Hike Wilds Madagascar
By Herb Kavet
The country is an island off the east coast of Africa and a former French colony. It’s an impoverished country. People live on under $2 a day, many go barefoot and backbreaking human power moves most of the goods. People push carts or bicycles up hills with enormous loads of rice and other agricultural products. Going downhill some cyclists tie branches to their loaded bikes to drag and slow their descent. The government is corrupt and the former French administration left them woefully unprepared for independence.Education is poor, averaging only 5 or 6 years and improvement in the lives in the countryside is further limited by tribal traditions. One of the 18 tribes, for example, living in the hot wastelands of the southwest, refuses to move to the fertile and available lands in other parts of the country. Their tradition is to die in the place where they were born.
Potentially Madagascar is a rich place. There are extensive agricultural resources. Rice is a staple of their diet but wheat, corn, potatoes, cassava, coffee, tea and every kind of fruit and vegetable is grown. Much like a cow, the Asian Zebo is grazing everywhere and used for pulling carts as much as food. Chickens are in every yard along with pigs. They have oil, gas, iron, coal and are the world’s main supplier of sapphires.
Most roads are unpaved. This made for excellent off road biking but the lack of infrastructure contributed mightily to the poverty. Children in the countryside cannot start school until the ages of 9 or 10 when they are old enough to walk the miles to the nearest school. Teachers and doctors are uninterested in working in the countryside where there is seldom electricity or piped water, further limiting education and medical care. In the villages indigenous plants are used for medicine as well as building material.
Despite the poverty the country is a magnificent place to visit. We spent many days cycling on car free dirt and poorly paved roads at 3,000 to 4,500 feet of altitude. This was their winter and the climate delightful. The lakes, mountains, forests and rivers were beautiful. The people were amongst the friendliest I have ever encountered. Not a single person neglected to wave and greet us even when we were speeding by in a van.
In a country where labor is inexpensive we had 3 guides and 2 drivers for our group of 7. We were very well taken care of and were taught endlessly about the island’s ecology. The isolation from other continents resulted in an abundance of plant and animal life found nowhere else. Most interesting to tourists is the enchanting lemur with long tail and magnificent leaps from tree to tree. Madagascar has over 300 species of birds with 60% endemic to the island. The place is an intriguing ecological center encompassed in a beautiful natural setting with poor but magnificent people.
As it turned out my first communal honeymoon trip exceeded all my expectations. The bike riding was delightful, traveling with friends was a joy and a far away country, barely on a Westerner’s radar, was an intriguing and educational experience.