Eastern Madagascar in detail

Flights & getting there

Tsaradia (www.tsaradia.com) serves Tamatave (Toamasina), Maroantsetra, and Île Sainte Marie from Antananarivo. There are also flights between Tamatave and Île Sainte Marie. From Réunion, Air Madagascar flies to Île Sainte Marie and Air Austral flies to Tamatave.

Almost all land access to Eastern Madagascar is via a single road, the RN2 from Antananarivo. It is possible to drive up the coast from Fort Dauphin (Taolagnaro), but this is 4WD adventure travel, not transport. The RN5 between Tamatave and Soanierana-Ivongo isn't great, and spectacularly bad between Soanierana-Ivongo and Maroantsetra. There is no road connection between Maroantsetra and the northeast (Antalaha, Sambava etc).

The Infamous RN5

The 240km of RN5 from Soanierana-Ivongo to Maroantsetra is probably the worst 'road' in Madagascar. The very idea of calling it a ‘National Road’ is so hysterical that only the sight of your ride floating on a couple of dugout canoes will stop you laughing.

The road has distinct stretches, each with its own set of difficulties.

  • Soanierana-Ivongo to Manompana is essentially a swamp; the main stretch of the road is so bad that locals have done a special deviation for motorbikes. It is still phenomenally muddy but just about manageable.
  • Manompana to Sahasao has a number of deep sandy stretches (sometimes you're on the beach, racing the waves): they're treacherous when dry but manageable when wet.
  • Sahasao to Mananara is probably one of the hardest, with sections of sheer rock mixed with slippery red clay and steep gradients.
  • Mananara to Maroantsetra is all about the river crossings: there are more than a dozen and only a handful of bridges. The rest need to be crossed by raft or diesel-powered ferries.

There have been plans to seal the road for years and the new president (elected in December 2018) has again promised to do so, but until then, it is likely to remain a very challenging trip. A construction company was rebuilding at least half a dozen bridges between Maroantsetra and Mananara at the time of research. Works are scheduled to be completed some time in 2020, which may see the return of regular taxi-brousse service between the two towns.

Although there are taxi-brousse between Mananara and Tamatave (which stop at Soanierana-Ivongo), they are agonisingly slow: passengers frequently have to walk and help push the vehicle.

For now, the best, and quickest option, is to take a moto-taxi (motorcycle taxi). Motorbikes can pick up speed easily where the terrain allows, they're much more agile on narrow stretches of road and they can use small man-powered rafts on river crossings, which fill up much quicker than the lumbering, diesel-swilling ferries.