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Route Nationale 7

The beginning of the journey--Madagascar's capital, Antananarivo

The beginning of the journey--Madagascar's capital, Antananarivo

It’s officially 923 km (577 miles) from Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital in the central highlands, to Toliara, the main port on the southwest coast, on Route Nationale (RN) 7. All the guidebooks (and every Malagasy I’ve met) say that RN7 is the best road in the country.  It’s all relative, I guess.  I’d classify RN7, a two-lane highway with many one-lane bridges, as a superior county road in Ohio or West Virginia, or maybe a lesser state route in need of maintenance. Yet, for better or worse (mostly for worse), this is the main route to the south.  

And it doesn’t even go all the way. The southernmost port and city, Fort Dauphin, the administrative center of the region of Anosy, is another two days’ travel from Toliara on dirt roads (which also have at least the official status of Route Nationales), bone rattling in the dry season and impassable in the rainy season. To make the trip to Fort Dauphin, and other destinations in southern Madagascar, you need a vehicle that rides high off the ground so that it does not get stuck in the holes and ruts, and provides some cushioning for passengers. Traveling south out of Antananarivo—or Tana as everyone calls it—our UNICEF vehicle passed a boxy, high-riding bus, lumbering up a hill.  “Fort Dauphin,” remarked our driver. The bus was packed with passengers squeezed onto bench seats, luggage piled high on the roof. I asked how long the trip would take. “Four days,” said the driver. That’s actually four days and four nights. The bus makes rest and meal stops but goes through the night, the two drivers taking shifts.  

We stopped for the night at Antsirabe, the third largest city in Madagascar (over 200,000) about 160 km south of Tana. We left at 7:00 a.m. the next morning and in late afternoon, 400 km on, passed the Fort Dauphin bus again as it struggled up another hill.  Its passengers faced another 50-60 hours of travel, most of it on dirt roads.  At least they had seats.  The cheapest mode of transport to Fort Dauphin is what’s called the “camion-brousse” (literally bush truck/lorry) where you ride on top of the cargo.  As we entered Toliara, we saw several being loaded for the bumpy trip southeast.

Driving on RN7, it sometimes seemed that half the country was on the move. By “taxi-brousse” (bush taxi), the minivans with luggage, bicycles and the ubiquitous yellow bidons (jerry cans used for carrying water) piled so high that they look as if they will tip over on a curve (they sometimes do).  By auto and bicycle rickshaw.  By bicycle.  On carts pulled by zebu, the humped cattle used for every agricultural task and (with fish) the main source of protein for the population.  Every hour or so we stopped to let a herd of zebu cross the road, the boy herders shouting and waving their sticks.  Outside the towns and villages, there were always people walking along the road.  Rice farmers going to and from their fields. Men with axes and long sticks with curved blades, cutting eucalyptus trees for firewood and charcoal.  Children returning from the river with bidons, lashed onto wooden push-carts, the day’s supply of water for cooking and washing.  Families walking home from church.

Of course, most people in central and southern Madagascar were not on the move. It’s just that those who were traveling were squeezed onto the narrow ribbon of RN7. Outside the towns, I saw only two east-west roads leading off RN7 with a tarmac surface, and who knows how far it went?  The poor infrastructure—primarily the roads, but also rural electricity supply—is the major barrier to economic development in a country where most people are still subsistence farmers, and which lags behind most countries (even many African countries) on human development indicators for health, nutrition, water, sanitation and education. Every rainy season, landslips block the road, and sections wash away, or develop huge potholes. South of Antsirabe, we came across three places where work crews were building ditches and culverts to divert the water.  But many more stretches have not been repaired. Our driver engaged low gear and crisscrossed the road, expertly avoiding the largest holes.  It was uncomfortable enough in the high-riding Nissan Patrol; it must feel much worse in a taxi-brousse.

Each administration in this notoriously politically unstable country promises to fix the roads and extend the network but, faced with poverty, hunger and pressing social problems, the promises are soon forgotten. “You can’t eat roads,” remarked our driver dryly. The bridges, mostly one-lane, are also in serious need of maintenance.  That’s except for one new structure crossing a river north of Fianarantsoa.  he old bridge, my UNICEF colleague explained, didn’t fall into the river through lack of repair; it was blown up in 2002 by opposition forces that had seized the government buildings in Fianarantsoa to stop troops sent south from Tana to quell the revolt.  The rebels were defeated, and a new bridge was built with French aid.  Apparently people in other towns up and down RN7 wondered if it was worth seizing the mayor’s office and blowing up the bridge on the north side to get a new one.

From Tana (which definitely does have traffic jams) RN7 winds through a landscape of hills with impressive granite outcrops, terraced rice paddies, hilltop cemeteries and small towns.  The hills were once covered with forests of pine and eucalyptus, but most of it has been cut for building materials, firewood and charcoal, the main fuel used for cooking.  Eucalyptus grows fast, so new branches were already sprouting from the blackened tree stumps.  There are still stands of old growth in the national parks, though illegal logging is common.  Until the woefully inadequate power grid is updated—and the government certainly doesn’t have the money to do it—the trees will continue to be cut for charcoal, some of which travels up RN7 to Tana where many settlements outside the center lack access to electricity.  Firewood is also used to fire the small brick kilns that line the road.  Mud bricks are cut from the red clay soil, piled into stacks and slowly baked.  Most houses in the highlands are built from these rough bricks, with roofs of clay tiles or thatch; a metal roof denotes an upper-class home.  Most have no windows, but wooden shutters.  At night, the only faint light comes from cooking fires. 
If you’ve got something to sell—fruits, vegetables, motor oil, bicycle tires—your best point of purchase is somewhere along RN7, preferably on one of the few straight stretches.  However, there are small retail clusters where stalls sell similar items.  If you’re in the market for a brightly painted Jesus or Madonna statue—or one of the animals from the Ark (breaking news--Noah did not forget to get the zebu on board)—your destination is a stretch south of Antsirabe; further south, a line of stalls sell wooden cooking utensils; south of Fianarantsoa, the second largest city, musical instruments including drums and the Malagasy ukulele; then brightly painted tin models of trucks and cars.  

South of Fianarantsoa, the road turns southwest, dipping down out of the highlands to the treeless savannah grasslands.  This is Madagascar’s High Plains country, where herders drive their zebus and sleep out under the stars.  If it wasn’t for the distinctive red and white kilometer posts on the roadside and the absence of pick-up trucks, it could be Wyoming or the Dakotas, the long grass blowing in the wind, the mountain ranges on the horizon.  The grasslands gradually give way to a desert landscape dotted with scrubby trees and cactus, reminiscent of the American Southwest.  We stopped for the second night in Ranohiro, the gateway to the L’Isalo national park; it’s a small market and tourist town with hotels and restaurant.  Chez Alice, with its cactus fence and corral boasting Malagasy rodeo (presumably bareback zebu riding) was full, so we ended up at a hotel in the town center, eating dinner alongside long tables of European tourists on their Madagascar Adventure tour.  We were on the road again at 6:00 the next morning, as the sun rose over the bluffs and canyons, bathing them in the warm morning light.  

The wealth in this beautiful but desolate landscape is definitely in them, thar hills—in this case it’s not gold, but sapphires.  Migrants from all over the country have come to this region to seek their fortunes, digging into the hillsides with shovels and pickaxes.  They live in rough, single-story shacks in a series of small towns that straggle RN7.  The real wealth is controlled by foreign traders—mostly from Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Thailand—who buy the rough sapphires and sell them, mostly for export.   The names on the gem stores tell the story—Fayez, Najeem, Iqbal, Farook.  These are reportedly wild towns, with high rates of crime and prostitution, where the lucky miner who has just sold his sapphires blows it all on sugar-cane moonshine and the slots at Les Jokers Hotel and Karaoke Bar. 

The final 100 km to Toliara is desolate, and the people poor. In contrast to the rough but functional two-story houses of the highlands, the villages consist of single-room mud huts with thatched roofs and fences of branches and cactus, their occupants literally scratching out a living from the dry, sandy soil.  And then, finally, we glimpsed the sea in the distance and crossed the low sandy hills into Toliara.  We made it to the Chamber of Commerce just in time for the mid-morning coffee break.  And just in time—my first presentation was on the schedule for right after the break.