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 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.
The RN5 runs alongside the Indian Ocean. It passes beaches like wild heavens, places where crystal rivers cut golden sand, flowing into bays where humpbacks sprout.”
Arrival in Tana
Arrive in Ivato International Airport: "in the good old days Ivato was like the cottage of the wicked witch seducing innocent visitors through its beguiling doors, once inside only the good and the brave emerged unscathed - now (sigh) it is much the same as other airports in the developing world" met by your guide and driven through the cobbled streets to your city-centre hotel.
Lemurs and rainforests
After breakfast gead down the RN2 to Andasibe-Mantandia - a regular tarmac highway and probaly the busiest stretch of road that you'll encounter in the country. Your destination is Vakona Lodge - a pretty, well-run and for Madagascar fairly conventional lodgings. The main aim here is exploring the forest for lemurs - inclunding the bearish indri, the largest and loudest of all the lemurs whose haunting whale-like cry carries accross the forest.
Do a night walk if you can which will reveal a host of nocturnal creatures - lemurs, moths, chameleons and frogs and vist Vakona's island sanctuary for rescued lemurs for a truly hand's-on experience.
Day 3 - 7
Out on the open road...
After breakfast head ontowards the coast through the bustling port city of Tomasina where the RN2 ends and the infamous RN5 begins.
Our mantra on this journey is that you'll stay in the best accommodation available - be warned however that this is not always particularly good and the Escales Hotel in the port town of Soanierana Ivongo is a case and point - however it is necessary to overnight here in order to make the 04:00am ferry and ensure that you are not trapped behind more slow-moving traffic for the remainder of the day.
Day 3 - 7
The notorious RN5...
Having made the ferry crossing you'll have seen the last of any tarmac and the 'road' starts to deteriorate rapidly. Initially there is some other traffic but it's not long before it is Toyota-only country and even they are few and far between.
It's customary on any safari that we organise to send you a detailed pre-departure itinerary outlining what you'll do each day and where you'll sleep. Given the vagaries of the RN5 and the fact that your progress will often depend on the height of the tide when you reach yuor next river crossing - too high or low meaning that you'll have to wait several hours for it to either rise or fall - we are pretty reticent to do this, rather suggesting places that we HOPE that you'll reach all being well, but always stressing that it's very likely changes will have to be made.
Day 3 - 7
In amongst the basic 'hotels' and restaurants are some proper gems. There are also incredible coastal views to savour and the chance of seeing a range of wildlife, from spectacular dail-slapping Humpback Whales to the near-mythical Aye-Aye.
As the RN5 reaches its nadir you may find it both more comfortable and quicker to walk as the landcruiser lumbers up the improbable slopes and accross the most threadbare of wooden bridges.
Day 8 - 12
Arrive in magical Masoala...
The carrot at the end of the trip is the Masoala Peninsula - the Madagascar of our imagination, where coastal rainforest meets the ocean and with minimal damage inflicted by the hand of man.
To get there involves an ocean crossing of Antongil Bay which is provided on a bi-weekly basis by the lodge to tie in with the scheduled charters from Tana - by now you'll fully understand why most people fly in.
On the way to Masoala you'll stop in at Nosy Mangabe - an island special reserve of sandy coves and magnificent trees, bursting with wildlife. It's an Aye-Aye sanctuary and a great place to photograph the bizarre Leaf-tailed Geckos (whose eyes are even weirder than their tales) and see a couple of local lemurs, the most habituated of which will probably join your picnic lunch.
Day 8 - 12
Relax and unwind...
Four days of luxury at Masoala Forest Lodge where you can choose to do as much or as little as you like. You can trek in the forest and have a good chance of seeing several species of mammals and birds not found elsewhere on Madagascar. There is a spa with an excellent local masseuse and in whale season you can try to get up close to these breaching behemoths. Take the scheduled charter back to Ivato Aiport, Antananarivo.
A NOTE FROM ALEX
WHY THE RN5
It's fair to say that Madagascar has stolen our hearts recently. On a trip exploring the north of the island - crossing overland from Diego Suarez to the islands around Nosy Be, and talking to different drivers along the way - I began to hear talk of an attrocious, almost legendary road that runs up the east coast of the island. Phrases like "world's worst" kept coming up and pretty soon I had decided that this is somewhere that needed to be seen.
Travelling with a writer friend, I returned to Madagascar the following September and we spent a glorious week discovering what we had hoped to find; that the RN5 leads you to some stunning areas of Madagascar and its inaccessibility is responsible for much of the charm and interest of the area.
However, this area isnt without its troubles - facing east it's in the teeth of the storm come the rains and suffers from devastating tropical storms. Furthermore its one of the main vanilla growing areas. Because of storm damage the value of vanilla went through the roof and the area became something of a wild-west for vanilla theives.
What was clear is that this isnt the sort of trip we'd recommend to most of our clients. And most people we'd actively disuade from doing it. But if you like the idea of an off-piste adventure and are prepared to take things as they come (Rod spent a day with his car, minus one wheel, stuck in a river) then talk to us about the RN5. We love it.
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It takes genuine local knowledge to craft trips that go beyond the ordinary.
All of us at Natural High have over 20 years’ experience in the countries we offer. We’ve lived there, worked there and arranged countless one-off journeys for clients. We live to travel – and love to share our tips on what’s really worth doing. For expert advice (and a traveller’s tale or two), speak to one of our team. They’ll be happy to let you in on their travel secrets, and help you plan a tailor-made trip that’s truly unforgettable.
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