Madagascar – The Tsingy Extension (AKA The WORST Car Ride of Our Lives)

Ross and I had planned quite the six-month backpacking/birding extravaganza, spending four months in Indonesia and following that up with a tour around the Indian Ocean Islands. The last stop on our trip was Madagascar, a place we had definitely been looking forward to. Our goal was to spend 35 days in the country and clean up ALL of the endemics. (With the exception of Dusky Tetraka, Xanthomixis tenebrosa, which is extremely rare with no known sites.)

Madagascar is a world of its own and is often referred to as the “World’s Eighth Continent” due to the high number of endemic species and amount of biodiversity. For a continent roughly the size of Texas, it is home to an estimated 14,000 plant species (!!!!), over 90% of which occur nowhere else in the world (according to our Madagascar book anyway.) Madagascar is home to lemurs, some of the most endearing and unique mammals to grace planet Earth, and certainly my favorite animals to ever encounter! Madagascar is a land of ancient reptile lineages, some that are so crazy you’d hardly believe they were real (Satanic Leaf-tailed Gecko anyone?), a number of distinctive amphibians along with plants and insects just as unique, and of course a long list of extraordinary bird species. While these fabulous birds were the main focus of our trip, Madagascar had so much to offer that we were just as excited to encounter lemurs and geckos as we were birds.

Madagascar can only adequately be described as a treasure trove. It is simply a fascinating place and a must-visit for all serious birders and wildlife enthusiasts. We couldn’t wait to land. Coming in by plane you could really see how much of the terrain has been altered by farming and human development. Sadly, almost no green remains. Madagascar, while unique and beautiful, has been almost entirely deforested, primarily for firewood and charcoal production. The charcoal business is expected to increase deforestation and worsen the effects of climate change on a continent poorly equipped to adapt to it. We encountered dozens of people in every town we visited selling charcoal on the sides of the roads, which only meant there were more people behind the scenes chopping the trees down only to turn them into a sad pile of black soot. Madagascar, while rich in biodiversity, also happens to be one of the least educated, poorest countries in the world. When you are simply trying to survive, I don’t think you care too much about preserving anything else. If chopping down the forest means your family can eat, then you chop down the forest. For generations the natural resources have been exploited. But what happens when no forest remains? I think that’s what they are learning now.

Our Madagascar Group from left to right: Geoff, Josh, Melissa, Ross

Regardless of the state of the environment, we were excited thanks to several national parks with protected land and bountiful wildlife. Because we are “budget birders” we invited two other individuals to go on this trip with us to split the hefty costs of renting a vehicle and driver. There’s no way around renting a vehicle in Madagascar, so if we were going to do this, we needed to make our costs a bit cheaper. Voila. Now that you understand a bit more about our trip to Madagascar, let me get back to the worst car ride of our lives bit, the beginning of our trip where we tried for one of the most remote birds and definitely got a bit more than we bargained for.

We opted to add a little extra to our trip to Madagascar so we could tick Tsingy Wood Rail, a skulky brown bird found in an out-of-the-way, hard to access area of central western Madagascar that pretty much no one tries for because it is so remote. And when I say remote, I mean REMOTE. I know I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again, we headed to the middle of nowhere via a really crappy road and wondered all the while why people would live so far removed from society. Perhaps they just move to wherever there is still forest to cut down?  Just because we are calling this “The Tsingy Extension” I want you to know that it wasn’t your typical “tack it on the end” type of extension—we added “The Tsingy Extension” squarely to the front end of our trip. Doing it first and foremost benefited us twofold, we were still fresh enough to tolerate long back-to-back drives and we would still be going during the dry season—any rain and the “road” becomes impassable. So, about the road. Naturally it was bumpy and made of dirt. Some sections were steep and indeed required 4WD to get up. Some sections were rocky. Hardly any of it was smooth. And none of it was pleasant. It took us 17 hours of driving just to get to our birding destination. It was only 190 miles (or 300 km) to get to the destination but the road was very slow going and those 20-ish hours it took to get there included a bit more than we bargained for, particularly for Geoff.

Prior to our visit, we had coordinated our vehicle through Lily with the Peregrine Fund. Lily was extremely helpful and we are very grateful for the help that he gave us for the trip, but the 4wd that we were provided for the Tsingy trip, was a bit small and with all of our gear, greatly reduced our clearance and eventually caused us a ton of issues. While we immediately recognized that our Nisson Patrol was rather small, we trusted that it would do the job as we didn’t know exactly what the road would be like. Unfortunately our vehicle wasn’t quite prepared for the road conditions and was definitely a tight squeeze considering we needed to bring two armed guards along for the journey (we originally were told we’d only need to bring one guard). The area is allegedly unsafe and having armed guards was a necessary addition. Why we needed two of them we still don’t know. But we picked them up and started on our journey not knowing that ticking Tsingy Wood Rail would be one of the most miserable experiences of our lives.

Our already weighted down vehicle had some trouble going up steep sections and occasionally required us to get out and walk. We had originally thought that it would take less time, but when we checked our map six-hours into the ride, halfway through what we thought would be the time it would take to get there and found that we still had the majority to go, we quickly realized that our trip was going to take much longer. In fact, we couldn’t even make it to Tsingy National Park in one day like we thought. Our guards and driver planned to take us completely out of the way to a different town to sleep. It wasn’t until we said no way would we be driving 2 hours in the wrong direction that we eventually just stopped at an army guard checkpoint to spend the night. Convincing our driver to wake up at 2AM to continue on our way was surprisingly easier than convincing our two armed guards who clearly wanted to snooze. Persuading them was no easy task but it was done and everyone agreed to start early so we could at least make it to the park by a decent hour.

I haven’t mentioned it yet, but I need to point out that our driver, while laid back and easy going, wasn’t necessarily the most skilled of drivers. His less than stellar navigation of the poor road conditions certainly contributed to our extended travel time. While we were en-route we hit a rather steep section that our driver couldn’t get up without us all piling out to lighten the load, a process we were becoming increasingly used to. Instead of making sure that everyone had safely departed the vehicle before attempting to maneuver up the hill, he took off while Geoff hadn’t fully gotten out. This resulted in our vehicle attempting to go up over the burm but then rolling backwards over Geoff’s ankle/foot, either stretching ligaments, or worse, tearing them or possibly breaking several bones in his foot. We didn’t know what happened to Geoff but he could hardly stand on his leg and was in extreme pain as a result of the accident. We don’t really know if the driver understood the damage he had done, although he did apologize. We also didn’t know what this would mean for Geoff and continuing the trip, but the fact that he couldn’t walk was definitely concerning.

Several hours of bumpy roads and poor driving, we eventually made it to our destination and luckily it wasn’t too late in the morning, still only 8AM. It was so nice to make it to the limestone karsts and see decent forest, a sight that had been lacking thus far in our drive through rice paddies and immense amounts of deforestation. We stopped the car in what looked like decent habitat and hoped that the Tsingy Wood Rail wouldn’t be difficult to find. It was funny then that it took us all of 17 hours to get to the destination and all of 3 minutes to get the target bird. A cooperative Tsingy Wood Rail was heard calling and soon came up to the road. At about the same time a Schlegel’s Asity was calling from right about where we were standing and a Crested Coua showed nicely in a nearby tree. We were 5 minutes in to our birding adventure and the birds seemed to be everywhere! It just goes to show that where there is forest left in Madagascar, there is a high concentration of birds. It really makes you wonder what this country would have been like a couple hundred years ago. A few other targets were accounted for in the form of Giant Coua and Sickle-billed Vanga, but ­­­­the obscura subspecies of Madagascar Bush Warbler (a potential split) was nowhere to be found! After ticking all of our targets, we spent nearly three hours walking up and down the section of forest using play back and searching for the brush warbler, but eventually concluded it probably wasn’t in the area. Brush warblers are typically pretty vocal and without even the slightest of calls heard, we figured it likely isn’t found in this area. (Although if you end up in this area, it’s still definitely worth searching for!) After three amazing hours of enjoyable birding, we had to get back on the road and start on the long journey back. We hated having to turn around only three hours into our day of birding, but knew that if we didn’t get going soon we couldn’t possibly stay on schedule for the rest of the trip.

SOOOOO remember when I told your our driver wasn’t necessarily the most skilled? Well shortly after we started the return trip, he cracked our oil pan and oil slowly starting leaking out. When we made it to the vilalge that we had slept in the night before, we stopped and our driver proceeded to repair it. Except that he didn’t repair the oil pan, he simply stripped the bolts while attempting to get them off. We wondered if he knew what he was doing. Our “lunch stop” turned into a three-hour ordeal while the driver consulted the assistance of someone who actually knew what they were doing. Just as everything was finishing up our two armed guards were nowhere to be found! We weren’t very concerned traveling without them because half the time they were asleep in the car and their weapons were pointed in our direction while the guards casually held them between their legs. Ross, forever a Marine and someone trained in how to handle weapons, was constantly wondering if these mandatory guards knew how to use these weapons properly and hoped that at least the rifle was in condition three (clip inserted, no round in chamber). You should never point an AK-47 at someone’s face, especially during an extremely bumpy 17-hour drive! We explained to our driver that we wanted to leave without them. They took up two full seats in an already over-crowded vehicle. Just as we had taken their bags off the roof and turned to leave, they arrived back with two 40ml bottles of beer in each of their hands. That was when we put up a hard no. If our guards were expecting to pass the next 12 hours of driving by getting drunk with AK47s in their laps, we weren’t dealing with it. When Josh and I immediately grabbed our phones and attempted to get photos of them “red handed” to show to their boss, they ran away! It was then that we definitely knew we were leaving without them. And that’s when this story really gets good, or should I say, takes a turn for the worst.

We had barely left town without our armed guards when we had to pass through a somewhat deep channel of water. Instead of taking the water fording slowing, he sped up just before hitting the water. It should come as no surprise that the vehicle was going too fast and pushed water up over the hood of the vehicle and stalled out right in the middle of the water. We were effectively stuck in a 4-ft deep swamp. The driver, in a moment of sheer brilliance opens his door almost immediately and water comes flooding in!! Now we were stuck and the whole car became flooded with the swamp water. We were scrambling to get important gear off the floor and out of the water-logged car. We managed to salvage all but a few food items and Josh’s shoes were completely soaked. Luckily there was no other damage to our gear but we had no idea how we were going to be getting back to town, with over 12-hours of driving yet to go. It was quite the ordeal. At least our problem became everyone’s problem because we were stuck in such a way that no one could get back to town without assisting us in getting out of the way first, aka out of the swamp. A group of guys, including both Ross and Josh, jumped back into the water and began to push the car. Geoff, still unable to stand on his injured foot was sidelined. But the group of guys, along with another vehicle and rope pulling, managed to get the car out of the water. The question now was, would it start? I think we all knew the answer to that. It didn’t. Miraculously the wizard mechanic from earlier in the day who fixed our damaged oil pan, was among the men in the truck helping us and they somehow drained the engine. Water was coming out of the exhaust but the car started back up. Totally didn’t see that coming. We hopped in and drove for a few hours. Earlier I had been joking around that the upcoming drive back was going to be awful and there’s no way it could get any worse. Oops. Now we had wet seats to ride all the way back in. Just remember, things can always get worse.

We made it to a rest stop, set up tents and spent the night. Early the next morning (5AM) we got on the road and made it all of 2km before the car stopped working again. Clearly the engine was not fixed. No surprise there. Now the question was how on earth were we going to get back to town?! If we wanted to stay on schedule we needed to get to get back to civilization tonight, but even more importantly, we were in the middle of nowhere, where literally 2-3 cars come along each day. Luckily we were the first out of the camp that morning, so the two vehicles that had helped us the night before, shortly came up upon us. Unfortunately, they already had exceeded capacity, how could they help us?! Well if there’s one thing I’ve learned in travelling in third-world countries, no car is too full to fit more people in. So we loaded our bags on top and climbed into a dangerously full Nisson Patrol. Only problem is that they wanted Ross to ride in the 4th row. Aka the trunk with the least amount of leg room. So the guy who is at least a foot and a half taller than all of the men was going to be sitting in the trunk? That was not an option. No way. Ross opted to join another guy on the roof of the vehicle and proceeded on the 12-hour journey back while clinging to the roof rack! I wish I had a way with words to adequately describe the contents of this vehicle. Bear with me. So there were 14 people on the inside and 2 people riding on the roof, a total of 16 people for the journey. Yes, you read that right, 16 people in one vehicle (that in America would hold 8 max). The front row was made up of our driver, a man sitting next to him and an armed guard in the passenger seat, gun carelessly thrown on his lap. The second row was comprised of an off-duty policeman, Geoff with his injured foot, a lady holding with an infant on her lap, and an older woman who was at least 100 years old (no joke). Behind that was a row comprised of myself and Josh, along with another guy and finally a girl with motion sickness struggling between bouts of vomiting making up the third row. The small fourth “row” had two boys in the back. It was a riot. And hands down the absolute most miserable car ride of my life. Picture having exactly six inches of leg room and practically sitting on a combination of your neighbor and the window armrest and riding that way for TWELVE HOURS on a bumpy dirt road. In the blazing heat. With no AC. I can’t do the terrible conditions of this ride justice. All the photos I took in an attempt to say a thousand words so I wouldn’t have to explain it, don’t show how crammed we all were. It was simply one of those experiences that you just had to grin and bear it.

Eleven hours later I was getting to the point where I could simply no longer take it. It was early evening and a full day later when we finally arrived in Tsiroanomandidy. I don’t think any of us had ever been so happy to get out of a car. I’m not sure I can safely say the Tsingy Wood Rail was worth it, but it was an adventure unlike any other. And while I’m over here complaining, let it be known that the locals who live out in the middle of nowhere, do this ride multiple times. How many miserable rides did the 100 year old lady take to get to and from?! More than I could handle, that’s for sure. At least we got the bird and it wasn’t all for not. (We might have lost our minds if we dipped the Tsingy Wood Rail.)

Sorry this post doesn’t have much to do with birds, but I had to tell the story as it happened. Also, because in the 3 days we spent on this Tsingy Extension, only three hours of them were actually spent birding! Oh the joys of travel life! These are the things (a cracked oil pan, a flooded car, a run-over foot, a cramped ride) that you can’t plan for. We sincerely hoped that Geoff’s foot would get better and that the rest of the trip would be a bit more enjoyable! But as soon as we arrived back in town the trip continued on. No time for rest on a cleanup trip! Next we were off to Andasibe. Stay tuned for more!

Pictured: me with a group of folks from one of the villages we stopped at along the way

10 thoughts on “Madagascar – The Tsingy Extension (AKA The WORST Car Ride of Our Lives)

  1. That is a terrific (truly amazingly awful) story! But you saw some of the coolest birds ! I strongly suggest you submit this to a magazine. It is one of the best (or the worst) birding stories I have ever read.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Frank, it really was one of the most unique experiences. Definitely not something you want to have happen! I’d happily submit this story to a magazine, but not sure of any magazines willing to take a story like this! If you know of any, pass them our way!

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  2. Audubon might be possible. They partially sponsored Noah Strycker’s global big year. His story of mishaps seeing the Golden Backed Tanager in Peru was similar to your story except your story is misery on steroids. If you want to write to me at my email address then I would be happy to offer a few editing suggestions. Frank

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  3. What a story! Looking forward eagerly to your next installment. By the by, every guide and/or article I have read about Madagascar strongly recommends AGAINST driving. Now we know why. At least you got some cool birds. Good luck and safari njema! Regards – Paula Maloney

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