The unspoilt rainforest of the Masoala Peninsula should be the focus of your trip to Madagascar in our opinion. Lemurs, Humpback whales and virgin forest combine with stunning beaches. Most fly, but if you're up for an adventure, consider travelling the RN5...
A rocky, potholed, single-track road, riven by 13 river crossings, follows the shores of the Indian Ocean to reach Madagascar’s greatest unspoilt rainforest at Masoala. It’s a brutal 5-day adventure and not for the faint-hearted. But along the way it reveals some of the country’s greatest charms.
The RN5 (Route National 5) is the only means - by land - of connecting the port town of Tamatave with Maroansetra on Madagascar’s east coast. Beyond that it leads to the sensational Masoala peninsula on the Bay of Antongil. It has a well-earned reputation for being the worst highway in the world.
Expect potholes that could swallow a Landrover, rafts made of bamboo that threaten to sink with your vehicle aboard, crumbling bridges straight from an Indiana Jones movie and river crossings ready to flood the vehicle of any driver foolish enough to ignore the tides.
But for those who like the idea of an adventure, and who have the time and patience to take this route, the rewards are huge. After the first ferry crossing at Soanera Ivongo, the road quickly narrows to a single sandy track and for most of the journey travels either within view of - or actually on - the sandy beaches of the Indian ocean. At most you’ll find yourself traveling with a small handful of vehicles, but for large stretches you’ll find yourself alone and a world away from modern Madagascar.
Small fishing villages line the route and in spice season the air is scented with vanilla and cloves that are grown throughout the region. Each corner reveals another stupendous view of empty palm-fringed beaches and turquoise waters. What’s more, between July and September the ocean is alive with humpback whales that come here to breed. Virtually any time you stop you’ll see the spouts of the whales and it’s not uncommon to see breaches close to the shore.
The condition of the road means that vehicles rarely get out of first gear and for much of the route progress is at little more than walking speed. In the really bad sections, though this turns the drive into a gentle walk, with your Landcruiser as beast of burden, slowly picking its way over the uneven ground, while you are free to stroll and enjoy the incredible scenery. When the road improves to anything more than a walk, you hop back in. When you reach more bumps, out you get. And so it goes.
Because of the numerous rivers that cut the road along this route, there are frequent stops that lend a natural rhythm to the journey. And any one of these stops has the potential to bring things to a halt while a ferry is mended or the tide goes out. But in all honesty it’s here that the charm of the journey emerges. Each stop reveals not only more breath-taking scenery, but also small clusters of tea shops that service the passing trade. Made of bamboo and resembling miniaturised wild west houses on stilts, you are welcomed without so much as a raised eyebrow to find freshly-brewed hot coffee, crepes and freshly baked baguettes. Time passes, you shoot the breeze with fellow travellers or soak up the scenery until the tide falls / ferry arrives / bridge is mended…and the journey can continue.
The drivers who ply this route in their specially raised Toyota Landcruisers or Hiluxes (few other cars have the cojones for this job) are a breed apart, commanding real respect for their skills. For the most part, the watchword here is caution. Obstacles are navigated slowly and carefully, engines are rarely raced even among the special Taxis-brousses that ply the coastal road (for the most part Toyota Hiluxes designed with 5 seats, but carrying 22 people each.)
Accommodation along the RN5 is basic in most places – at worst, small cabins with basic sanitation. But every now and then you’ll find a surprise, such as the stunning Chez Grandin run by Celine, originally from Reunion, offering stunning views over a palm-lined lagoon and the best pork (cooked in rosemary) I can remember tasting.
So who should take the RN5? If any of the things above put you off, this road simply isn’t for you. If, however, you have the time (you’ll need to build in contingency time in case of delays) and you are happy to rough it, eat simple local food and take things as they come, you may just find – as we did – that this is one of the most magical journeys that you can imagine.
Watch our video and get a flavour of the adventure that led us up the east coast to the beautifully unspoilt rainforest at Masoala.
We can offer hardy travellers the chance to travel the RN5 with a private specially equipped landcruiser with guide, driver and road boy.
How long is the journey likely to take?
You need to allow at least 6 days between Tamatave and Maroansetra as there are numerous things that can cause unexpected delays along the way. Letting go of time, though, is integral to the journey. So if the idea of waiting 6 hours for the tide to go down or half a day while the ferry is mended doesn’t appeal, this journey may not be for you. If on the other hand you’re happy to take advantage of an unexpected chance to explore a remote coastline or to enjoy lunch at a local restaurant, then you’ll love the freedom from the tyranny of time that comes with this journey.
What is the best time of year for the trip?
If you want to coincide with the humpback whales that travel this coastline to breed and give birth in Antongil Bay you’re best to travel between July and mid September.
How many people can take the trip?
All these journeys are privately organised, with a private vehicle, driver and guide– expect to squeeze 4-5 people into each car.
Where do I fly to and start the journey?
You’ll need to fly to Tana and you can then travel the RN5 from South to North driving from Tana, or from North to South by flying to Maroansetra.
Am I able to spend time relaxing at the end of the journey?
Absolutely – the ideal scenario is to take this route to reach the Masoala Peninsula where you can spend several days enjoying pristine wilderness, wildlife and some outstanding accommodation at Masoala Forest Lodge.