No hot water, no electricity and no way out – my nightmare trip to Madagascar in 1986

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In 1986, after only three previous trips to Madagascar, I happily took on a new itinerary knowing there would be no local guide to escort us and sort out any difficulties. I was so new to tour leading that I hadn’t quite grasped the extent of my inadequacies or the challenges of this delightful but idiosyncratic country. I also wonder why I decided to leave the trip funds in the hotel safe in Tana, the capital, except that transporting a wad of local currency on our excursion to the East Coast felt risky. And the hotel, described cautiously as “the best available” in the brochure, had been paid for. 

If Madagascar throws up apparently insurmountable problems, there is always a creative individual committed to sorting them out. This time it was “Monsieur Pas de Problème” in the Air Madagascar office in Maroantsetra who blithely explained that there was no point in booking our onward flights to the north of the island because the radio control tower was down. He beamed comfortingly when I tried to explain in halting French that I needed to get seven people to Diego Suarez the next day. No plane, but no problem, a 16- seater Twin Otter could apparently land without radio and he was expecting one in three days. But it was fully booked with 14 people on the waiting list.

I returned to the hotel to review the situation. It was not good. No roads connected the town with the rest of the country; flying out was the only option. Even if a convenient plague decimated the booked passengers, we had to spend at least an extra two days in Maroantsetra. I needed to organise extra excursions and book two more nights in our hotel, which I loved because it had striped tenrecs, a little spiny creature and one of Madagascar’s most endearing animals, running about the grounds after dark. The passengers were less keen – indeed vociferously unhappy, because there was no hot water, and often no water at all. Or electricity. 

And I had no money.

I called a meeting. “First the good news: you don’t have to get up early tomorrow.” Loud cheers, our planned 6am start had not been greeted with enthusiasm. “Now the bad news: you don’t have to get up at all tomorrow.” 

We pooled all available cash but it still wasn’t enough to pay for the hotel or extra excursions the sympathetic hotel manager said he could arrange. Fidel asked if any of the group might be willing to sell their camera, such luxury items being hard to obtain in Maroantsetra. Lucy offered hers, Fidel arranged the sale and the money side was sorted. I had kept quiet about the waiting list and enthused about the pleasures in store to fill those extra two days.

A boat trip on the nearby river was arranged while I stayed behind to make another visit to the Air Mad office. Pas de Problème assured me. Ten people on the waiting list had dropped out. Really? And the Twin Otter would indeed arrive on Thursday, as scheduled, en route to Diego Suarez with stops at two small coastal towns. Next day I sent the group to explore the market while I paid another visit to the office. All was well. But we should come to the airport early the next morning, keeping our luggage as light as possible. Clothes and footwear were discarded and distributed to the hotel staff.

Pas de Problème greeted me with a conspiratorial wink at the airport and gave me seven boarding passes. After a few hours a little Twin Otter landed and passengers got off, some to stretch their legs before the next section of the flight to Sambava. “Run!” instructed Pas de Problème  and we did. There were no allocated seats, we had children on our laps, prayers on our lips and luggage in the aisles. The propellers whirred, and we took off. As we gained height I looked down at a handful of open-mouthed passengers standing on the runway gazing up as their plane – and presumably their luggage – drew away. 

That evening, in Diego Suarez, I was presented with a T-shirt by John who had spotted it in the market. “No Problem” was written on the front.

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