Seeking "Luxury" Travel, in Madgascar (An update ...)
Before our Madagascan adventure, we commented on the lack of luxury accommodation options, particularly on the mainland. As a result we reassured ourselves we were travelling to the Red Island “for the wildlife, not the thread count”, and re-adjusted our expectations accordingly.
But while it eventuated that our accommodation in Madagascar was quite a bit more luxurious than ever envisioned (see our reviews for Le Soleil des Tsingy, and Tsarabanjina), we learned the most luxurious way to spend your money here is probably not on your accommodation, but instead on your means of travel – and by this we mean your own charter flights.
Madagascar is a big island – twice the size of the UK, 50% larger than California and about the same size as France. But while road trips are a feasible (and fabulous) option in the UK, California and France, the road infrastructure in Madagascar is woeful.
On the country’s iconic main road, the 980km RN7 from Antananarivo to Tulear, the road condition is reasonable, and speeds of 40-50 km/hr are expected – yes, only 40-50 km/hr on the main highway, with winding roads, potholes, zebu and police stops meaning journeys of just 200km usually take 4-6 hours. This was an eye-opener to road tripping Australians like us, who regularly zip 300+ km after work for a weekender). And worse, when wanting to venture beyond the RN7, the road conditions deteriorate dramatically – the 235km journey from Morondava to Tsingy de Bemaraha is a lurching 7-9 hour expedition of bone-jarring gravel and disintegrating tracks.
While we agree that journeys such as this are an adventure in themselves, it does mean that a significant amount of time is spent travelling, and definitely limits the amount of Madagascar that can be visited in a realistic period of time. When we first started researching our Madagascan itinerary, our must-see destinations included Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, Palmerium, Isalo, Tsingy de Bemaraha, Morondava, Kirindy, and Berenty Reserve. But with just a little research, the reality became apparent – unless we had weeks and even months, and infinite patience (ie. we had zero from two), such scope was practically unfeasible. And although some travel company itineraries seemed to accomplish a lot, detailed review of their programs included statements such as “today we arise early for our 8 hour drive to such-and-such,” often repeated every second day, if not several days in a row. Definitely, no thanks.
Having recently become (far too) accustomed to the luxury of charter flights around mainland Africa (yes, Namibia and Zambia, we’re looking at you), the obvious solution was flying, to cover the ground in far shorter a time. And so we delved into the dizzyingly shambolic world of Air Madagascar, the unbeloved national airline, known to locals as Mad Air (or Air Maybe). Here we found schedules that changed before our eyes, routes that existed then disappeared, and a slew of scathing reviews from international tourists and Malagasy alike. And almost invariably, flights on certain days of the week but never the day we wanted to fly, and schedules that always necessitated a night in Tana between every leg. This was not solving the problem…
The possibility of charter flights first arose as we were considering travel to Tsingy de Bemahara. This isolated but spectacular corner of the world is incredibly hard to get to. Even if flying to Morondava, the road journey from there to the Tsingy is 7-9 hours of really rough travel, meaning a two day stay at the Tsingy needs four allocated days and 14-18 hours in a vehicle. The alternative is to fly directly by charter flight from Tana to the Tsingy, and while expensive, this was, in our view, money incredibly well spent. We travelled from Andasibe to Tana in the early morning, bypassed the chaotic main Departures of Tana airport for the "private" entrance, and arrived at the Tsingy in time for a late lunch and an evening wildlife excursion, with the subsequent two full days spent exploring the Tsingy.
From there, the charter flight options grew ever more attractive, and once an almost expected changed to the first of two Mad Air flights we were considering, and then another to the second, we soon found ourselves locking in our charter plane and its two pilots for the entire trip!
Obviously that made our visit to Madagascar far more expensive than originally planned, but in the end we wouldn't have done it any other way. Knowing our plane would be ready and waiting for us when needed, and even that our Pilots were staying in the locations (if not the hotels) with us just meant that the hassle factor was virtually eliminated. And we could simply focus on enjoying all the county had to offer.
Things to know ...
§ Ok, so lets make one thing clear, we are not talking luxury private jets here, no G6s for us! Firstly few of the locations you will fly into have landing strips that could cater for such aircraft. But secondly, money doesn't quite grow on trees as we might wish for, so we are talking a single engine Cessna 172 that seated comfortably enough, though certainly not luxuriously, our two Pilots and the two of us and that was it. Cargo capacity is rather restricted both in terms of space but also (more relevantly) aircraft maximum take off weight, so this meant soft bags (no hard cases or wheelies) and a limit to the amount of camera gear we could lug around.
§ For the most part our Pilots stayed in the same locations as us, though in more modest accommodation. The main reason for this is simply their was no demand for them to fly in and out of our locations in between our planned flying days and of course the cost of flying them and the plane home and then back again was prohibitive for the charter company. So we didn't actually demand they stay with us, it is just the way it worked out.
§ Given they were there anyway, and given one in particular hadn't seen some of the parts of the country we were visiting, the Pilots at certain times joined us on our sightseeing. This made for a bit of extra fun, and of course allowed us to get to know them a little better, which also helps calm the nerves a little when flying with them.
§ While it was looking like they would stay with us for the entire trip. In the end other Client's bookings made it economical for our Pilots to depart us a couple days prior to our departure, which meant another Pilot and his plane actually collected us for the final charter flight back to Tana. This time it was Partenavia P68 which had two engines, and a bit more space, though we are sure it was quite a bit older than our already ageing Cessna.
§ Be warned, you will be weighed prior to your first trip! As will literally everything you have with you. This is because as indicated little planes like this have very limited weight capacities and they must be carefully monitored to ensure firstly that it remains safe to fly but also so that fuel calculations able to be performed accurately enough to get you to where you need to be. So, if you are worried about your weight, eat light in the lead up to your trip. Don't just lie, because you will get found out, and you don't want your trip ruined by finding out its you or your luggage, but not both!