Taxi Brousse Extreme
Taxi brousse = bush taxi
We had been warned! The “road” hardly deserved the name, and the journey on the back of the pickup truck would be cramped and painful. But all the warnings we had heard and read failed to prepare us for how tough the ten hour journey for the 114km from Maroantsetra to Mananara would be.
It all started promisingly enough. We arrived at the taxi brousse station at 7am and the off-road pickup looked confidence-inspiring and ready for just about any terrain. Our backpacks were put on the roof with other luggage, covered with tarpaulin, and tied down tightly. But a lot of bags, baskets, and sacks remained and were put on the pickup bed where we thought the passengers were meant to sit. Looking at the pickup and the 20 or so other passengers standing around, Kazz said: “Oh, they must have two pickups going.” Alas, that was not the case.
A few lucky ones who had booked sufficiently ahead got into the back seats of the driver cabin. The rest of us – with the whole floor of the pickup bed covered with luggage – somehow scrambled into the back, with legs folded and more or less on top of each other. Kazz and I were “lucky” enough and got to sit in the very back, with our legs dangling over the tailboard. At least we were able to look out.
Less than an hour late, we finally set off – only for it to start raining. Fortunately, it didn’t last very long and soon we were passing through the first villages – just a few huts strewn along the roadside. Gradually, we started to climb, catching glimpses of the sea and deserted beach coves through the canopy. The road was getting increasingly tricky and what is grandly labeled Route Nationale No. 5 was little more than a dirt track, strewn with boulders and gaping craters – calling them “potholes” would be a crass understatement.
Thrown about, we were all jostling for something just to hold on. Behind us, in the dark, airless interior, the first female passengers were beginning to throw up, while in front of us, a guy standing on the bumper, clinging white knuckled to the railing, was there one minute and gone the next: he had slipped at a big bump, fallen off, and got stuck in the mud. Fortunately, we had been moving at little more than walking speed, and while the pickup just kept going, he simply picked himself up and caught up with us and jumped back on.
To our great relief, we soon got our first of many breaks from desperately hanging on (for those of us looking out the back) or being doubled up in the load area. We had come to a small river crossing, where only a few planks of the bridge remained. We all got off and crossed the bridge on foot, while the pickup forded the river right on the beach. Soon, I was desperately looking forward to the next of these breaks: with my heavy camera bag resting on my legs (there was no space to put it), the tailboard was cutting into my thighs, which were becoming sorer with each agonizingly slow kilometer. But I’m sure I was not the only one in pain. Behind me, there was an older Malagasy man with skinny legs, his knees pressed against chest, while others had children sitting on their laps. How they managed to bear it was beyond my comprehension and Kazz quipped that instead of “taxi brousse” it should be called “taxi bruise.”
In fact, the stoicism and good humor with which the Malagasy passengers bore the hardship was inspiring, and a certain – wordless – camaraderie quickly developed. A hand moving aside to make some space to hold onto a piece of string, a knee moved out of the way so I could shift my weight. Having spent a lot of time in Tokyo, I had thought that if I had to be packed like sardines somewhere, I would like it to be with Japanese, but this – and subsequent experiences in Madagascar – led me to change my mind.
River crossings continued to be the highlights – and not only for the relief from pain they afforded. Some were pretty straightforward: solid cable ferries made of steel; you get off the car, onto the ferry, and stretch your legs. Others were much less so. On one occasion, passengers had to cross a 100m wide river on bamboo poles tied together floating half submerged in the water, while the car crossed on a bamboo raft, pushed and pulled by human muscle only.