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Air Madagascar trip report (long)

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Old October 4th, 2003, 02:14 AM
Vitaly Shmatikov
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Default Air Madagascar trip report (long)

Paris - Antananarivo
Tulear - Fort Dauphin - Antananarivo
Antananarivo to nowhere
Antananarivo - Antalaha - Maroantsetra
Maroantsetra - Sambava - Tamatave - Antananarivo - Paris


Paris - Antananarivo
I suppose we could've flown Air France or Corsair, but Air Mad has got
to be the best-named airline in the world, so here we are, disembarking
at CDG after a 3.5-hour TGV ride, most of it with an odoriferous French
couple sitting next to us. Terminal 2A is virtually empty at this
time of the evening. In addition to our flight, there are a couple of
Cameroon Airlines flights to Douala (one nonstop, the other via Algiers
and Yaounde), an Air Austral flight to Reunion and a long-delayed AA
flight to JFK. Quick check-in, long wait among Hermes ties and duty-free
booze, then boarding around 8pm.

The plane is a 767-300ER, registration 5R-MFF (formerly flown by Air
Canada, Britannia, EVA and Gawd knows who else). 2-class configuration:
business with a framed painting on the bulkhead and nicely spaced (at
least 60'') seats, and economy with tightly packed, plain blue-cloth
seats. Economy is about half full, the crowd is 3/4 Malagasy, 1/4
European. Announcements in Malagasy, French, and English (expected
flying time is 10 hours 30 mins), pushback a few minutes early, followed
almost immediately by the announcement that we will be taxiing to parking
for the ``last technical check.'' Uh-oh.

The next five hours are devoted to my favorite game. First, we are
told that there will be an announcement in 10 minutes. In due time, we
learn that we will disembark and go back to the terminal. People surge
forward and stand in the aisles (some woman tries to use her cell phone,
but is immediately yelled at by other passengers and forced to switch
it off) before being told that the bus will arrive later. Meanwhile,
we should all return to our seats since dinner will be served now.
Indifferent chicken-or-beef airline food, a nice gentleman in uniform
walks by each row, informing every passenger personally that the flight is
delayed until tomorrow due to a technical problem and we will be staying
in Paris tonight. Nothing happens for a while (people are unusually
good-natured given the situation, kids are playing loudly all over
the cabin), then announcement that some part is being replaced, and we
will depart in 1.5 hours. A tourist video of Madagascar is piped to the
overhead screens for our enjoyment. We finally taxi at 1 in the morning,
more than 4.5 hours late, and take off into the night.

When I wake up, we are somewhere over green and brown Africa, with the
huge black cone of Kilimanjaro to the right, followed by a long overwater
stretch. With slightly more than one hour of flying time remaining,
the movie is started (``Shanghai Knights'') and breakfast is served,
followed by the solemn announcement that we have crossed the coast of
Madagascar. Landing into Ivato over the red hill country. I guess I'll
never learn how the movie ends. Men in assorted uniforms stand around
as we walk down the moving stairs and to the small terminal building
with a steeply gabled zigzag roof. It's sunny and pleasantly cool.
Immigration formalities are quick and surprisingly routine: some pieces
of paper are passed from one glassed-in booth to another, the customs
guy asks us to open the nicest-looking suitcase but does not bother to
look inside, and we are in Madagascar.


Tulear - Fort Dauphin - Antananarivo
After a hair-raising taxi ride in an ancient breadbox-sized Renault 4
with the speedometer stuck hard on 0, we enjoy the dubious honor of
being the first passengers to set foot into the Tulear airport today.
Apart from a couple of porters lounging outside and a man sleeping in
the baggage claim area, the terminal looks abandoned. The wooden board
displays yesterday's or maybe last year's flights, an empty glass-walled
office of the (long-bankrupt) TAM airline is sporting a printout of
the 1999-2000 schedule, and a large green lizard is running up and
down the cracked wall, intent on committing a treasonous act against
the official portrait of the president who is quite resplendent in a
red-white-and-green sash and a generous helping of medals. Massive
baggage scales and an antediluvian manual typewriter give the joint the
air of a modest ethnographic museum, spoiled only slightly by the bright
orange, yellow and blue plastic chairs in the waiting area.

By and by, the terminal comes to life. The sleeping gentleman wakes
up and starts sweeping, a few vazahas disembark from 4WDs outside, the
dusty-looking bar opens for business, men appear from nowhere, change into
blue overalls, arrange baggage into something resembling a line next to
the check-in counter, put up today's sole flight on the departure board
(after some internal negotiation as to the appropriate flight number),
bring out a bundle of preprinted luggage tags, and invite us to check in.

No computers, no X-rays, no passport checks, no nothin'. The man behind
the counter consults a long marked-up list, finds our names, tears off
the tickets and hands us two boarding passes with 01 and 02 handwritten
on them (no useless information like names or flights, and, as we are
to discover, even the numbers are purely abstract). There is nothing
to do but decamp to the bar, where we polish off a large bottle of most
excellent local beer in the company of a cute little emerald-green gecko.

Having had my fill of beer, Cyklon-B fumes emitted by the few dozen
locals smoking Bostons, and travel surveys distributed by an eager
University of Toliara student, I venture back to the check-in area,
which is now crammed full. A few forlorn souls are staring at the ``Vol
Cloture'' sign on the counter, and then again at their tickets. Rule #1
of turd-world air travel: confirm, reconfirm, and then reconfirm again.
One enterprising would-be passenger in a wine-red jacket is crumpling
25,000-franc notes, having figured that there must be a better way to
get onboard than waving a useless ticket.

Not much action on the airfield: a lonely windsock, men carry heavy
sacks of something or other, baggage is lined up in two rows - Tana on
the left, Fort Dauphin on the right. Several gendarmes in berets and
olive-green uniforms are kicking back in the shade. I try to chat them
up on the subject of their Kalashnikovs, but they seem to be of a morose
disposition and barely acknowledge my inquiries. Shortly after 2pm, there
is some excitement in the crowd. The gendarmes get up and surround a blue
Peugeot van as a Boeing 737 lands out of sight and taxis to the terminal.

Actually, according to the lettering on its side, this is a BOING rather
than Boeing, and quite a venerable piece of hardware it is: 737-200
original (registration 5R-MFA), with skinny engines and old-style
antennas strung between the tail and the fuselage. Passengers form a
mob by the doors leading to the field, but nobody gets nowhere while
big wooden crates stamped ``Banky Foiben'y Madagasikara'' (Central Bank
of Madagascar) are being unloaded and transferred to the Peugeot van,
which explains the gendarmes' presence. Then, pushing and shoving,
folks file out, performing an important task along the way: everyone
has to pick out his baggage from the lineup and state its destination.

The 737 is rather basic inside, economy class only, open seating,
the overhead bins have no doors, so everything brought onboard must be
squeezed under the seats. The plane arrived with quite a few passengers
already and is now 100% full. The wine-red-jacketed chap has apparently
succeeded in joining us and is now buckling up in one of the flight
attendants' jumpseats, but then changes his mind and moves over to
the cockpit. Doors are closed at 2:40pm (10 minutes behind schedule).
Like all Malagasy airports, TLE has no taxiways, so we taxi on the runway,
turn around at the end, and take off.

Immediate left bank, shallow circle over the sand dunes and mangrove
marshes exposed at low tide, then head southeast, over the bleak landscape
of sage-green hills with brown patches of bare earth, thin threads of
roads and wide, almost dry riverbeds, until we punch through the thin
cloud layer. A few lucky passengers score newspapers, the rest have
to do with candy distributed from a plastic bin. The flight is short,
35 minutes from takeoff to landing. On descent, scud running under the
thick gray clouds, flying very low (no more than 2,000 feet), very shallow
straight-in approach over the coastal mountains strewn with granite rocks,
picturesque chessboard fields, intricately shaped lagoons, salt marshes,
and beaches pounded by heavy surf.

The terminal at Fort Dauphin is tiny, even smaller than at Tulear, but
there are also a few hangars on the field with single-engine bugsmashers
inside. Behind the airport rise pretty green mountains wrapped in fog.
A large crowd is watching us from behind the wire fence. Most passengers
get off the plane here. It's drizzling outside, so I decide not to
go to the terminal and hang around the cabin instead, peeking into the
cockpit, etc.

Only a few people get onboard at Fort Dauphin. At 4pm, doors are closed,
we taxi to the end of the runway, turn around and take off with 10 degrees
of flaps into the fog. I leaf through the _Madagascar Tribune_ which
looks for all the world like a church newsletter, badly printed on cheap
gray paper and filled mostly with obituaries. Drink service is limited
to a meager selection of Tiko-brand soft drinks poured from 2-liter
plastic bottles (incidentally, Tiko is owned by the country's president).
I opt for ``Classiko Kola.'' It tastes like Pepsi from which most of
the fizz has gone out. White-cotton clouds in bright sunlight outside.

Descent through multiple cloud layers, then circling in gray soup due to
air traffic delays at Ivato. Finally, pop under the clouds over rolling
red hills, patchwork of tiny rice paddies in every little gulch and
valley, thin red roads. Steep turns to base and final, rather un-737-like
360 on final, and touchdown at 5:27pm. Air France Asie cargo 747-200,
Air Mad 767 and a bunch of Twin Otters are parked next to the terminal.
I chat briefly with a dignified white-bearded Malagasy gentleman in
the next row and discover that he teaches Russian in a lycee in Tana.
Purple, blood-filled sunset. After a week in the backcountry, Ivato
feels like a big-city airport.


Antananarivo - Maroantsetra (1st attempt)
Every car arriving to the airport parking lot at Ivato is immediately
mobbed by porters (thanks, but no thanks) in orange vests that say
``Hollywood Center.'' Some Hollywood this is. Domestic check-in is
computerized, though, names and flight numbers are printed on boarding
passes, even the baggage scales are electronic (fortunately, our crap
weighs in just under the 20kg/person limit), but baggage tags say ``Air
France'' for some reason and the agent still consults a marked-up printout
before checking us in. We are scheduled to fly to Sambava, and then,
after a 2-hour layover, to Maroantsetra on a connecting flight.

Quick trip to the international part of the terminal to change some cash
at a money-changer's booth, then back to domestic departures for coffee
and croissants. Our flight to Sambava is scheduled for 10am. At 9:15am,
it is announced that check-in for our flight is now closed, and we move
to the departure area, where there is bugger-all to do but stare at the
Twin Otters and yet another Air Mad 737-200 (5R-MFB this time). Just as
I get impatient, an announcement in garbled French seems to mention what
might very well be my name. Rushing back to the check-in, we are told
that our flight to Maroantsetra is ``annulee'' (as we learn later, it
had not actually been canceled, but the Sambava flight was delayed long
enough to guarantee that we'd miss our connection). We get our luggage
back, and, together with two other unlucky Maroantsetra passengers,
head to the ``bureau.''

The bureau consists in a wooden counter, behind which two matronly
ladies are supervised by a nervous middle-aged man. There is a 3rd
woman in the ensemble, but she keeps to her own desk at a properly
managerial distance from the negotiations, getting involved only when
one of the passengers starts screaming and sputtering. When we arrive,
the ladies are busy copying down numbers from a large stack of ticket
coupons into a handwritten notebook, but they now proceed to consult a
printed Air Mad schedule (which fits in its entirety on a single sheet
of A4 paper), pass little notes to each other, argue in a mixture of
French and Malagasy, and even refer to the sole computer every now
and then. An hour and a half later, when all is said and done, we find
ourselves in possession of new tickets to Maroantsetra for tomorrow
(written out by hand, of course) and a ``bon d'hebergement'' which
entitles us to accommodation and three meals, including 1 small bottle
of beer per person, at the hovel that passes for the airport hotel.
A driver materializes from nowhere to offer us a ride in the hotel van.
With the blessing of the managerial lady, I even procure some sort of
official-looking paper with an Air Madagascar stamp certifying that I
did not embark on flight such-and-such due to blah-blah.


Antananarivo - Antalaha - Maroantsetra
Next morning, everything goes swimmingly, especially since there is
no connection involved. Even though the flight numbers are different
(Air Mad flights have a tendency to change numbers at each stopover),
the same plane that takes us to Antalaha will continue on to Maroantsetra
and further down the coast. Bored out of my skull in the waiting area,
I am amused to notice a little tailwheeler flying the pattern around the
field, landing and taking off, landing and taking off, etc. Looks like
a Citabria, but hard to tell from this distance. Strange place to be
learning how to fly. The tailwheeler goes away for several minutes to
let the 767 land (back from Paris again), then returns to the pattern
for a few more landings.

On-time departure, the plane is an ATR 42 (registration 5R-MJD), packed
full. Open seating again, the rows aren't even marked with numbers.
Taxi past a bunch of old planes, including an ATR with the Tiko logo on
the tail (president's yogurt and soft-drink empire), takeoff, uneventful
1 hour 10 minutes over the clouds. Newspapers are distributed and then
collected again for future passengers. Descent over the bay of Antongil,
pretty forested islands floating in the ocean, clouds again, unpleasant
engine vibration, then crumpled green mountains covered with wild-looking
jungle and straight-in, downwind landing that uses up pretty much the
entire runway.

I grab a plastic transit tag and venture out to the Antalaha airport,
which comprises one crowded, very basic room with white-painted walls.
Today's flights (both of them) are handwritten on a chalkboard. Sidling
up to the bar, I order a coffee. The attendant nods, goes to the back,
and brings out a plastic bag with a cardboard box. The box turns out to
contain a coffeemaker, which he swipes with a cloth, plugs in, fills with
bottled water and, in due time, produces two cups of coffee, which arrive
just as boarding is announced and the mob storms the door to the airfield.

The plane is re-filled to capacity again. A guy in hot-pink pants is
watching the takeoff from the bushes. We depart upwind this time, nice
view of sandy beaches and waving palms, then into the clouds for a quick
15-minute flight back south to Maroantsetra. On descent, spectacular
views of the bay, woolly green islands, surf-beaten beaches and the
grid-like city, another downwind landing and taxi to the terminal right
on schedule.

The airport is the same bare-bones room as in Antalaha, except that this
one is livened up a bit by dark-wood furniture with bright red-and-yellow
pillows, a large central bank poster advertising new currency, and a
small gift stand selling woven hats and baskets. The plane continues
down to Mananara, but that's the end of the trip for us. Baggage claim
operates along the lines of a Japanese tuna auction: burly porters grab a
random bag from the cart, a man shouts out the claim number, and the owner
pushes his or her way through the crowd to be reunited with his luggage.
Outside it's unpleasantly muggy and hot (80, if not higher).


Maroantsetra - Sambava - Tamatave - Antananarivo - Paris
Past a herd of zebu grazing on the dirt track that serves as the
terminal access road in Maroantsetra, we arrive to the airport 1.5
hours prior to our flight. The check-in counter is already mobbed.
The check-in procedure is as follows: passengers lay down their tickets,
in order of arrival, next to a wooden sign that says something like
``--- OK Billets Attentes ---'' Naturally, all tickets are on the
OK side. The gray-haired man behind the counter starts working his way
through the tickets, tossing some of them over to the ``Attentes'' side.
The holders of the ``OK'' ones get called and must fight their way
through the crowd to plop down their sacks and baskets on the scales,
where they are weighed and dumped in the back.

Fairly anxious wait (our tickets are dead last in the line), but
everything is Ok, we get red ``Premiere Class'' (yeah, right) boarding
cards with nothing written on them, and can kick back with a nice
bottle of THB. They ought to import this stuff to the US. Low clouds
and drizzle, but not a problem for the Air Mad aces. The ATR 42 from
Mananara arrives on time. Guess who? It's our old acquaintance, 5R-MJD.
A few people get out, we get on, and it's off to Sambava, 30 minutes
flying time. The cockpit door is open during takeoff, so I get to watch
the instruments at least. Circle over the gray bay, city, slow wide
river wending its way through the green forest, and into the clouds.
This time, I try _L'Express_ instead of _Tribune_. Next to the latest
quotes on vanilla, it contains today's and tomorrow's airline schedule
for the entire country. Bumpy ride, long descent over the surf and
enormous vanilla plantations.

Another tiny airport in Sambava, although this one features a tower
and a public telephone booth. After a 20-minute stopover, the plane,
now full, continues to Tamatave. An hour-long flight down the coast,
spectacular multi-layered clouds in slanting sunlight, irregular cumulus
towers, gray stippled ocean like matte glass, fuzzy green hills cut
through by rivers. Landing in Tamatave at 4:25pm. The terminal is
fairly substantial by Malagasy standards, boasts several wooden kiosks
(most of them empty, the others selling souvenirs, cell phones and
satellite TV service) and a separate section for international flights
(Air Austral to Reunion).

After a while, we are herded back into the plane, hold short to let
another ATR land (arriving from Tana), then take off to the south and
immediately turn inland for the 45-minute flight to Tana over creased,
deforested hills. More beautiful clouds, red earth, rice paddies
in every nook and cranny. Touchdown at 5:30pm, in time to catch yet
another stunning sunset. Some big birds on the field: Air Mad 767 and
Air Mauritius A340.

After being sternly told by an official-looking dude not to take
photographs of the airfield, I relocate to the international part of
the terminal. The news kiosk is offering 1.5-month-old issues of the
_International Herald Tribune_. I wonder how many of these they sell.
I spend the last few thousand of local scrip on mints, then join a long
line that leads to the check-in area entrance. Men in uniform checking
papers, X-ray, more men in uniform, check-in, still more men in uniform
(perfunctory rooting through the baggage, locals are having their wallets
checked), then passport control. The man spends a long time looking for
my name in a handwritten notebook. Yet another X-ray and metal detector,
I ring, but they wave me through.

In the waiting area, the unlucky few who did not spend their francs
discover to their dismay that they now have nice, colorful toilet
tissue to use at home. The souvenir and duty-free shops accept
only hard currency. There is also nothing to eat. The sign on the
snack bar promises ``jambon et fromage,'' but no jambon can be found.
The souvenirs, in addition to being none too cheap, come nicely wrapped
in a plastic bag from an American 99-cent store (``Call 1-888-LUCKY-99
for location nearest you''). Something tells me that this location will
be nowhere close to Antananarivo.

The Mauritius flight boards first, then ours is called, boarding through
both stairs. Doors are closed 40 minutes late (immigration police delay,
according to the announcement). Taxi out, Air France 340 lands with
a boom, flight attendants spray the cabin from little cans, filling
it with deodorant-smelling mist. Flying time is 10 hours 25 minutes.
I fall asleep in the middle of the dinner service and more or less
snooze until arrival. Beautiful pink-blue morning in Paris, immigration
officer does not even open my passport before handing it back, long
wait for baggage, but it comes out alright, although one of the bags
arrives with a big ``Valise Vide'' sign lying on top. What the ...?!?!
Turns out the sign is a straggler, left over from the previous Montreal
flight, but it did give us a bit of a scare.

The end.

Old October 4th, 2003, 11:33 AM
Gregory Morrow
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Default Air Madagascar trip report (long)

Vitaly Shmatikov wrote:

Paris - Antananarivo
Tulear - Fort Dauphin - Antananarivo
Antananarivo to nowhere
Antananarivo - Antalaha - Maroantsetra
Maroantsetra - Sambava - Tamatave - Antananarivo - Paris


Excellent trip report, Vitaly - thanks!


Old October 4th, 2003, 01:11 PM
Gregory Morrow
external usenet poster
Posts: n/a
Default Air Madagascar trip report (long)

Vitaly Shmatikov wrote:

Paris - Antananarivo
Tulear - Fort Dauphin - Antananarivo
Antananarivo to nowhere
Antananarivo - Antalaha - Maroantsetra
Maroantsetra - Sambava - Tamatave - Antananarivo - Paris


BTW, this is a little "subliminal" reference to Ellen here? :

Greg "sorry, couldn't resist" 8-0)

Old October 4th, 2003, 06:05 PM
Vitaly Shmatikov
external usenet poster
Posts: n/a
Default Air Madagascar trip report (long)

In article . net,
Gregory Morrow wrote:

BTW, this is a little "subliminal" reference to Ellen here? :

Heh. If this were a reference to Ellen, they'd be sticking out of a
different place.

Old October 6th, 2003, 01:25 PM
external usenet poster
Posts: n/a
Default Air Madagascar trip report (long)

Lovely trip report (totally put me off attempting internal travel in
Madagascar)...could you give me a few more details about what you did
off the plane?


(Vitaly Shmatikov) wrote in message ...
Paris - Antananarivo
Tulear - Fort Dauphin - Antananarivo
Antananarivo to nowhere
Antananarivo - Antalaha - Maroantsetra
Maroantsetra - Sambava - Tamatave - Antananarivo - Paris

Old October 6th, 2003, 08:08 PM
Vitaly Shmatikov
external usenet poster
Posts: n/a
Default Air Madagascar trip report (long)

In article ,
Karen wrote:

Lovely trip report (totally put me off attempting internal travel in

This is probably the wrong conclusion. For a third-world airline,
Air Madagascar works remarkably well. In any case, if you have time to
spare, you don't have to fly. There are some roads, especially in the
middle of the country, some even in decent condition. Traveling by road
ain't gonna be fast, but it'll get you from A to B most of the time.
You *will* have to fly if you want to travel up and down either coast,
unless you are planning to be there for months. The roads along the
coast are dubious at best (I heard different reports as to whether
they exist at all), and certainly unpassable during the rainy season.
But you can hire a boat, etc. etc. And Air Mad is always your friend

could you give me a few more details about what you did
off the plane?

The trip report was mostly for rec.travel.air...

We did the usual tourist circuit: Tana - Perinet - Antsirabe -
Ranomafana - Andringitra - Isalo - Tulear, puttered about Tulear for a
bit (Ifaty, St. Augustine, etc.), then flew back to Tana for a couple
of days, and then to Maroantsetra for two more days.

Old October 7th, 2003, 04:50 PM
external usenet poster
Posts: n/a
Default Air Madagascar trip report (long)

Lovely trip report (totally put me off attempting internal travel in

This is probably the wrong conclusion. For a third-world airline,
Air Madagascar works remarkably well. In any case, if you have time to
spare, you don't have to fly.

'Fraid we don't have much time - we'll only be in Madagascar for about
1 week (see post '1 week in Madagascar?'). This was one of the
reasons I was planning to avoid internal flights...I don't want to
spend all my time there waiting to get somewhere else...

could you give me a few more details about what you did
off the plane?

We did the usual tourist circuit: Tana - Perinet - Antsirabe -
Ranomafana - Andringitra - Isalo - Tulear,

Can you recomend anywhere to stay/things to do in Tana &/or Perinet?

Old October 7th, 2003, 08:05 PM
Vitaly Shmatikov
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Default Air Madagascar trip report (long)

In article ,
Karen wrote:

Can you recomend anywhere to stay/things to do in Tana &/or Perinet?

There doesn't seem to be a whole lot to do in Tana, it's a big, poor
third-world city. Perinet is small: there are a couple of standard
trails that everybody follows. They have two troops of indri-indri, so
trail #1 circles the habitat of the first troop, trail #2 circles both.
If you go in the morning, you will almost certainly see the indris
close by.

Perinet gets a lot of tourists (as many as several hundred each day,
but maybe less in the off-season), so you won't be alone, and it'll
feel a little bit like a zoo unless you are lucky and manage to get
off the beaten track (we did). Nocturnal excursions can be fun,
especially if your guide is good. If you are a foreigner, you won't
be able to enter the preserve without a guide

It's hard for me to imagine what one could do in Perinet for more than
a day. I heard good things about Mantadia national park, which is
just north of Perinet and significantly bigger. If we had more time
in the area, that's where we'd go.

We stayed in Feon'ny ala bungalows, which are very conveniently located
at the turnoff from RN 2 to the park. Fairly basic, not very cheap
(around 70K FMg for a bungalow with a shared bathroom, 105K for
ensuite), food is Western and expensive. Does have hot water, at
least in the evening.


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