From Fianarantsoa we returned quickly to Antananarivo by taxi-brousse to meet up with other participants of the Academy of Free Travel base for a New Year’s excursion. At 0645 on a Monday we arrived at Fianarantsoa’s taxi-brousse station, where a tout immediately appeared in the crowd to show us the way to the ticket office. A single ticket to Antananarivo cost 18,000 ariary. We were then pointed to one taxi-brousse out of many in the parking lot, and baggage handlers lifted our bikes and panniers up to the roof, where they were expertly strapped down. Because there were many other vehicles parked in front of ours, and we were still the only passengers for this particular taxi-brousse, we thought we were in for a long wait. Traffic in front of us moved quickly, however, and a large family appeared to complete the obligatory number of passengers, so we were on the road within an hour.
The taxi-brousse journey was considerably less uncomfortable than I had been led to expect. Passengers were seated three across, leaving enough room to not feel cramped. One could read or even sleep. Due to the twists and turns in the RN7 road, and the consequent slow speeds, it took us all day to cover the 300-some kilometres to Antananarivo. We finally arrived at 1730, though we spent the last half hour stuck in the kind of traffic jam typical of the capital. Arriving at Tana’s taxi-brousse station was extremely unpleasant, with a large crowd of impoverished men trying to get work as porters, who would grab our panniers and try to carry them off for us in spite of our refusals. Luckily, we had just enough time to cycle up to the Academy of Free Travel’s base in the north of the city before it got dark – being outside at night in Antananarivo is not advised.
There was a brief reunion with those acquaintances of ours who were in Antananarivo at the time. The next morning, we set off for the point decided on for the New Year’s gathering, near the village of Andasibe. We left the house at the unusually late hour of 0700, leisurely walked across town to the eastbound taxi-brousse station, and paid 5,000 ariary each for the three-hour journey to Moramanga. There, we switched to a local bus (paying another 2,000 ariary) and after another hour of travel were dropped off in front of Andasibe’s train station.
Some of the gang had already been here and knew of a nearby place along the railway where we could all pitch our tents and make a campfire. The railway divided us from the Andasibe National Park. While some of the Academy of Free Travel members had been hitchhiking around the island, others had learned that trains were an interesting way to get around, including for free: the freight trains here typically attract some locals, who are tolerated by the rail company as long as they are discreet, so no reason some of us couldn’t try it as well. Indeed, we were waiting for another group to join us that evening off a westbound train.
We had a dinner of pineapple, lychees and bananas with buckwheat porridge cooked on a campfire. Having become accustomed to being early to bed and early to rise in the Tropics, most of us fell asleep before midnight. At dawn the next morning we were awoken by a local police officer, who asked us to pack up and leave, repeating that we were on propriété privée (in fact, it was a worthless piece of scrubland between a river and the railroad track, but travelers report that such phrasing is typically used to drive camping foreigners to hotels). As the Academy of Free Travel has well over a decade of politely ignoring annoying police officers in a variety of Third World countries, we held our ground and the gendarme eventually got bored with us and left. We got up and took the tents down, but remained for an hour or two to drink tea and listen to the whooping of lemurs from the national park.
We all returned to Antananarivo by taxi-brousse on January 1, a day when the capital seemed abandoned and almost all businesses (even petrol station shops and hotel restaurants) were closed. The Russians are now choosing their next destinations around Madagascar, but I feel like I have seen enough and would rather stay in Antananarivo for a few days to concentrate on my reading, though we will cycle to a place or two in the vicinity before our flight out.