Travelers wanting to take on Madagascar’s classic tourist route, RN7 from Antananrivo (Tana) to Tulear (Toliara) have three options – taxi brousse (scary, overcrowded, time-sucking shared taxi), private car or signing up for a group trip. We chose the private car (with local driver) and we’re very glad we did.
Finding a Driver
We’re used to renting cars and self-driving but we’d heard that the roads are pretty treacherous and the rental vehicles in pretty bad shape (a breakdown of some sort is pretty much guaranteed). In our (limited) research we found that the price difference between driving ourselves and hiring a local was not much – about $10/day.
It’s easy to find a driver and car because most taxi drivers in Tana will happily take the multi-day commission. Be choosy and make sure they have the correct papers to take their car out of the city. We found an even easier way to do it – through the people at Madagascar Underground. Christine and Ryan (the owners) were able to recommend a driver named Sammy and he turned out to be a real gem. More on Sammy later.
Creating an Itinerary
When you have a private driver you control the schedule and you have the ability to change it if you see something interesting or you wake up to discover that your body has decided it’s not such a good day to travel (certainly don’t expect ‘rest areas’ along the way). We loved this flexibility because it totally suited our spontaneous nature. Our driver stopped when we saw something interesting on the side of the road, took side roads just to see what was down there and took us on random tours of various towns. We changed up our itinerary a few times – staying a day longer here, moving on a day earlier there (choices made with the help of the Zufall dice) without any kind of push back.
We also discovered that our driver was well informed on places to stop for a snack or lunch, and hotels to stay at. If we didn’t like his recommendation, he would happily move on but for the most part, his suggestions were bang on and we were happy to roll with it.
However, if you’re a planning type, the driver can help you understand the distances and times between destinations. Don’t bother looking on the map and saying, ‘oh, it’s only 150 km to the next town we can easily do that in a morning’ – this route defies everything you know about travel time calculation! One section of the road may be smooth sailing at 70 km/hr while another might be so pot-hole ridden that you’d be lucky to do 20km/hr. Let’s just say that Madagascar is a good place to test your Zufallness of letting go of expectations and focusing on the journey.
What to Expect
Aside from the obvious road challenges (really bad roads, Zebu in the way, frequent police stops, and a lot of slow going) taking a private driver comes with very few hassles.
Our driver did not want to drive at night, which was fine by us because we want to see everything along the way. Our driver also recommended restaurants and hotels along the way (we didn’t make any reservations) and for the most part his recommendations were good (in the one instance where it didn’t suit us, we just moved on). Most restaurants and hotels make accommodations for the drivers – offering a basic meal and a room to sleep in. If you aren’t returning to your point of origin with the driver, you’ll be expected to pay for the days and gas for him to get back – even if you arrange for a return fair (that’s just a bonus for the driver). Gas was expensive and can really add up (especially if you are in a 4×4). We paid about $300 for the return trip. Without a 4×4, you may need to hire one to get you beyond the RN7 – is was the case for Andringitra). It is customary to tip the driver – how much is entirely up to you. We loved our driver and we tipped him 10% to thank him for being so much more than a driver (he was also a tour guide, a fixer, a translator, and a down-right awesome driver).
We spent 5 weeks in Madagascar, 10 days of which were spent on the RN7. It was the beginning of our trip and we stopped at all the major cities and national parks along the way – really taking our time. After that we traveled to Anakao and then up North; we can now say that the RN7 was a total highlight of the trip. In particular, visiting various artisans along the side of the road, our hike up Pic Boby (above), our day in the rain at Ranomafana and the awesomeness of Isalo. If you have limited time in Madagascar – we say don’t miss traveling the RN7 (via private driver).
Where We Stayed:
Antanarivo – Madagascar Underground
Ambositra – Artisan Hotel (bungalow)
Ranomafana – Manja Hotel (Room)
Ambalavao – Le Tropik
National Park Andringitra – Camping using the gear available through the park
Tsaranora Valley – Camp Catta (pitched tent provided by hotel)
Ranohiro (Isalo National Park) – Chez Alice (bungalow)
Toliara / Tulear – Le Manatane (room upstairs)