Suicidal sausages; a madman’s gauntlet; Jurassic scenery; self-prescribed psychoanalysis. This is a two-part tale about what adventure riding the length of Madagascar can do to your brain.
It’s 8pm in Antanarivo. The sun has set and the streets are a hot mess. On once-tarred roads, now raised like keloid scars on a skin of dusty battered earth, the whole city is trying to get home. There are no traffic lights. There are no streetlights. There are no lanes. It’s Bedlam, but motorised and we’ve ridden our motorcycles right into the middle of it.
“At every encounter we have to veer out of the way twice”
Three major protagonists quickly surface from the circus of congestion. And they’ve all decided that peak-hour traffic is the best place to play mind games.
Tuk-tuks. Transit’s greatest deceit. Behind a set of handlebars, their drivers squeeze through traffic like they’re on motorcycles. What they’ve forgotten is that they’re dragging a backside the width of a sofa behind them. At every encounter we have to veer out of the way twice – once for the front bit, and then again for the back bit.
Minibus taxis. The taxis of Antanarivo are one of life’s greatest moving marvels. They never stop. Like a mobile sausage machine they swallow commuters through a set of flaps near the front. Several minutes later, presumably near their desired stop, they get spat out of the back. Except instead of landing with a splat, the sausages hit the ground running and dart for the pavement before they get mowed over by traffic. “They cannot actually be serious,” I say into my helmet. Then I swerve right as another sausage hits the ground and bounces to the left.
Scooters. Between Tana’s multi-directional traffic minefield is the ‘bike lane.’ Calling it a lane is being generous to lanes. It is a space that expands and contracts like a beach along the tides of hell. In both directions, scooter headlights peer into the gauntlet. When it widens, they charge – head-on towards each other. They make up a few places, and then duck back behind the nearest sausage machine when the gauntlet evaporates. We have to do the same. If we don’t take the gaps when they do, someone else will. And we’ll be stuck dodging sausages ‘til midnight.
I slot my KTM 690 in behind a maniac and fight my way into the belly of the city.
It’s funny which parts of a motorcycle journey stick with you. That was the halfway point. We’d started our journey in Diego Suarez, the northernmost point of Madagascar. Our final destination was Toliara, a coastal town on the island’s southern shores, more than 2000 kilometres away. We were riding the island end to end – an adventure of a lifetime through a landscape that changed daily.
“My eyes are open, my mind is empty, the road is endless.”
One day we’d be navigating gnarled highlands into an icy wind, the next cruising beneath canopies of ancient megaflora where lemurs hid in the shadows. There were primordial forests, windswept canyons the colour of terracotta, monstrous baobabs and wild frontier towns that looked like they were plucked from a spagehtti Western.
As the landscapes morphed into one another, we grabbed moments from each: conversations with strangers, conversations with friends, strange cuisine and natural wonders. They were all different but unlike travelling in a car, somehow our motorcycles were always an innate part of each one.
When you travel by bike it becomes a living, breathing companion, part of the adventure more than any other mode of transport could. It’s with you in moments like the one above; when you look down at its clocks – glowing dials in a universe of darkness, swallow hard and say ‘Screw it, mate – here goes nothing,’ twisting the throttle, surging forward into a city of mayhem with your eyes bulging and a maniacal shiver running down your spine. Then there are other moments. Moments of intense calm. Moments that start in your mind and end with you unable to tell where you end and your motorcycle begins.
On day six we slip down Madagascar’s western escarpment and ride into the rainforests of Ranomafana. The road snakes between the trees as we descend. The tar is dark and peppered with quartz that glints in the light piercing the green canopy above. We sway left and right, collecting the shafts of light as if they were gold coins in a computer game. Thick vines hang from even thicker branches, small waterfalls trickle down exposed rock faces. The air is cool and each turn invites me in a little more.
The kilometres tick by effortlessly, I don’t feel myself changing direction, I don’t feel my foot against the shift lever. Everything is … just … happening. Psychologists call this ‘flow’, a state where you’re so immersed in what you’re doing your ego falls away. Every action, every movement, is automatic. Your senses are working at their maximum, your reactions, your skills – but you’re so absorbed in what you’re doing you don’t notice them working at all. I stand up on the pegs, and lean into the curves like a sail. My eyes are open, my mind is empty, the road is endless. In two more days we’ll reach Madagascar’s southern shores. But today we’ll ride for eternity.
With thanks to…
I tailored an itinerary, booked a guide and hired a motorcycle through Boogie Events and Moto Tours Madagascar. boogieevents-madagascar.com, moto-tour-madagascar.mg