In certain parts of Madagascar, notably the northeast coast and Canal des Pangalanes, cargo boats (sometimes called boutres) are the primary means of transport. There are also frequent boats between the four Comoros islands, and between the Comoros and Madagascar.
When choosing a cargo boat, keep in mind that there have been several accidents involving capsized vessels (the ferry Samsonette, which used to run scheduled services between Île Sainte Marie and the mainland of Madagascar, sank in 2000, killing over 20 people). Always check for lifejackets and don’t get in if the seas are rough or if the boat is overcrowded.
Boat travel on the east coast is generally not safe because of cyclones, especially during the rainy season between May and September. While some cargo boats in Madagascar and the Comoros have passenger cabins, most have deck space only. Departure delays are common as most boats do not have a motor and departures must correspond with the outgoing tide. Securing a space on a boat from Mahajanga to Morondava will cost around Ar65,000 per person.
Engineless pirogues or lakanas (dugout canoes), whether on rivers or the sea, are the primary means of local transport for shorter journeys in many areas of Madagascar and the Comoros (where they are known as galawas).
Pirogues can easily be hired, along with a boatman, but bear in mind there are no amenities on board and the ride can be quite rough.
You’ll find petrol stations of some kind in all cities and in most major towns. Not all have pumps – particularly in the Comoros, petrol stations usually consist of a youth stationed at the roadside with an array of old Coke bottles full of opaque fuel. For longer trips, and for travel in remote areas, you will need to carry extra fuel with you.
Spare parts and repairs of varying quality are available in most towns. Make sure to check the spare tyre of any car you rent before setting out.
To rent a car in Madagascar or the Comoros, you must generally be at least 23 years old and have held a driving license for at least one year. Rental costs include insurance.
Due to the often difficult driving conditions and road hazards most rental agencies make hiring a driver obligatory with their vehicles. Prices average between Ar100,000 and Ar230,000 per day for a 4WD including fuel. For almost all destinations off the main routes you will need a 4WD.
As an alternative to high car-rental prices, it’s also possible to hire a taxi on the street. Make inquiries first at the taxi-brousse stand or nearby hotels to get an idea of the going rate for your destination. Be sure to clarify such things as petrol and waiting time, and try to check that the vehicle is in decent shape before departing. Also, most taxi drivers do not relish the idea of dodging animals, potholes or drunken drivers at night, so be prepared to find accommodation when the sun sets.
For longer multiday journeys, you’ll need to be more careful. In addition to the standard vehicle papers and a valid driving licence, the driver should have a special charter permit (indicated by a diagonal green stripe). It’s not a bad idea to have a written contract signed by you and the driver stipulating insurance issues, the agreed-upon fee (including whether or not petrol is included) and your itinerary. An excellent choice for transport, transfers and excursions is a very knowledgeable and friendly driver named Roger Felix (32 0773 330, 22 328 09; Antanarivo).
Road conditions in the Comoros vary, but are generally good, and distances are so short that it’s easy to get around on foot or by bicycle.
Driving in Madagascar and the Comoros is on the right-hand side. The police occasionally stop vehicles and carry out random checks, in the hope of detecting any of the 1001 possible (and probable) infractions of the vehicle code. Occasionally foreigners will be asked for their passport, but as long as your visa is in order there should be no problem.
If you aren’t used to local driving conditions, watch out for pedestrians, animals, broken-down cars and slow-moving zebu carts on the road. It is particularly hazardous to drive at night, as there is no lighting, so try to avoid it.
Hitching is never entirely safe in any country in the world, and we don’t recommend it. Travellers who do decide to hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk. People who do choose to hitch will be safer if they travel in pairs and let someone know where they are planning to go.
In the Comoros, hitching may be possible with tourists, but with most other vehicles you’ll probably have to pay for a ride.
In a few parts of Madagascar (such as the route between Antananarivo and Toamasina in the east) routes in and around major cities are served by bus. These usually use the same stations as the taxis-brousses and are generally slightly less expensive. However, taxis-brousses remain the main form of public road transport in Madagascar and the Comoros. MadaBus (32 42 089 69; www.madabus.com) has coach lines between the major cities, is a comfortable way to travel, and is less expensive than flying or hiring a private vehicle. Some samples fares are Antanarivo–Antsirabe (Ar25,000), Antsirabe–Fianarantsoa (Ar36,000) and Fianarantsoa–Toliara (Ar75,000).
In more rural parts of Madagascar and the Comoros, the charette, a wooden cart drawn by a pair of zebu cattle, is a common form of local transport. They’re most useful for carting your luggage when you’re trekking, so that you can forge ahead and leave the charette to bring up the rear. Fares are entirely negotiable, and breakdowns are frequent.
The brightly coloured pousses-pousses (rickshaws) seen in hordes in various Malagasy towns supposedly got their name when drivers yelled ‘pousse, pousse’ (‘push, push’) at passers-by for aid as they were going uphill.
Many travellers have scruples about using them, perceiving an association with slave labour or finding the prospect of being pulled around by another human offensive. This sympathy may wane after a few days of relentless hounding by pousse-pousse drivers, who seem to regard the sight of a tourist on foot as a personal slight. In any case, the pousse-pousse men need work, not sympathy, as they rent their rickshaws and have to pay a daily amount to the owners. If you have heavy luggage, it’s polite to hire two. In most places, locals pay between Ar500 and Ar1500 for a ride. Tourist rates are higher, and always negotiable, so agree to a fare before you climb aboard. When it’s raining, the price sometimes doubles.
Taxis-brousses are slow, uncomfortable, erratic and sometimes unsafe. But they are as much a part of daily life in Madagascar as the sight of a humped cow or a raffia hat, and you’ll find it hard to travel independently around the country without wedging yourself into one at some point. Taxis-brousses are used in the Comoros, too, but distances are mercifully shorter.
Fares for all trips are set by the government and are based on distance, duration and route conditions. Prices are the same for locals and foreigners. However, fares vary among vehicle types, with minibuses (which tend to be somewhat quicker) or taxis-be (which are more comfortable, and hold fewer people) being slightly more expensive than larger trucks.
If you can speak French, ask the locals boarding the bus what the fare is before paying – some opportunistic taxi-brousse drivers try to charge foreigners a much higher fare. You can also ask to see a list of official fares, sometimes posted in the ticket office. If you want to keep your backpack with you in the vehicle you’ll need to pay for an extra seat.
If you want one of the more comfortable seats on a less frequented route, it’s advisable to book a seat the day before you want to travel. This can be done at the transport-company offices located at taxi-brousse stations. Prices are generally fixed and non-negotiable.
All towns have one or more gares routières or stationnements des taxis-brousse (bus or taxi-brousse stations). Despite the general appearance of anarchy, the taxi-brousse system is a relatively well-organised one once you get the hang of it. Upon arrival to a town, you may well be besieged by pushy but harmless touts, tugging at your luggage and yelling in your ear to try and win your custom.
Vehicles display the destination in white paint on the windscreen, and fares are pinned up in the transport-company offices near the edges of the station. The choice will often come down to simply joining the next vehicle to leave, which will be packed to the roof, or holding out for a decent seat in a later taxi-brousse. If you want to speed up departure, it’s sometimes effective to pay for the remaining empty seats, which will also provide more comfort for everyone (although keep in mind that other passengers are often picked up along the way regardless).
No matter what type of vehicle you are in, the two front seats beside the driver are usually the most comfortable and most sought after. To get these seats you’ll need to arrive early at the station, buy a ticket the day before, or do some serious pleading, bribing, hustling or flirting.
Rear seats are designed for the more compact Malagasy physique and can be uncomfortable or simply impossible for long-legged Westerners. In desperate situations, it may be better to pay for an extra seat.
Luggage goes on the roof, so make sure your rucksack is waterproof and not liable to burst open under stress.
If at all possible, avoid travelling on a taxi-brousse after dark. Unlit roads, driver fatigue and less security for your luggage all contribute to make the journey riskier. You’ll also miss the scenery en route, which is often spectacular.
There are no trains in the Comoros.
The Comoros is served by two reasonably efficient internal airlines, Comores Air Service and Comores Aviation.
The Comores Aviation office in Mayotte may take credit cards (but sometimes it simply can’t be bothered). The offices in the Union des Comores generally only accept Comorian francs or, at a pinch, euros, so come prepared with the right currency.
While it’s now officially not necessary to reconfirm your tickets, it’s always best to check with the airline a few days in advance and again on the day of departure, as there are frequent last-minute schedule changes. In fact, it’s best to check the day before that your flight hasn’t been cancelled due to lack of passengers…
If you have checked in baggage, be sure to keep your baggage-claim ticket until you are reunited with your luggage at your destination.
It may often be just as fast to travel by bicycle as by taxi-brousse (bush taxi). A mountain bike is normally essential. Carry spare parts, although inner tubes and other basic parts are sometimes available in larger towns. The terrain varies from very sandy to muddy or rough and rocky.
It’s usually no problem to transport your bicycle on taxis-brousses or on the train if you want to take a break en route.
The Comoros are theoretically good for mountain biking, but mountain bikes aren’t available for hire, so you will have to bring your own.