What you need to know about Car rental and road travel in Madagascar
Other than a fear of not being able to communicate in Madagascar with our terrible French and zero knowledge of Malagasy, there was only one other thing about planning our Madagascar trip that gave me sleepless nights: Car rental.
I’d spent days on google searching for good car rental companies in Madagascar; a car rental that would suit our budget and that was not a ‘dodgy fly-by-night’ business or a taxi-brousse! I learned that in Madagascar, for the most part, your car comes with a driver. I thought this was a bit luxurious and that we Africans are ‘hardcore’ when it comes to driving on bad roads! Who needs a driver? No, not us! Dodging pot holes in Mozambique for 8 years qualified us for Dakar, never mind Madagascar!
We had also been advised by someone who has travelled Madagascar extensively, to book the vehicle on arrival as we will get a better rate. On top of that, the car rental companies (which didn’t always seem very professional on the internet) wanted a 50% deposit up front before we’d even got to Madagascar. We weren’t convinced although this seems to be common practice. The truth is that we had absolutely no idea what to expect on this trip and we approached it with caution!
Types of road travel in Madagascar
It wasn’t quite the ‘peak’ season (late June) so we decided to take the advice and to book on arrival. We’d also been told that most hotels could put us in touch with a reputable car rental company. We stayed at Residence Lapasoa in Antanarivo and within a couple of hours of our arrival, we’d met with GAM Travel and had booked a vehicle, planned the route and the minor details of our road trip to Morondava on the West coast.
Some ‘road travel’ information:
- They drive on the right side of the road
- Fuel (2017) is roughly 1 euro a litre
- Most hotels and towns offer ‘drivers’ accommodation
- You will hardly ever go faster than 80 km/per hour on your trip due to windy roads and very old vehicles in front of you! (Take anti-nausea tablets if you are prone to car/motion sickness)
- A 1987 model is not old in Madagascar!
- The streets in Antananarivo are very narrow, cobbled and steep in places. A car is better suited for the big cities.
- Expect plenty of car fumes, especially in Tana.(Antananarivo)
- No driving at night – avoid the night-time road bandits! (Excluding cities!)
- If driving remotely and there are no public toilets in sight – it is taboo to pee on the same side of the road as a tomb.
Only 10 minutes into our trip; of winding up and down busy narrow streets, dodging Zebu carts in the middle of Tana and attempting to read the Malagasy and French sign boards – I breathed a big sigh of relief and thought, “Thank god we’ve got a driver!”
Within a few minutes of checking into Residence Lapasoa and telling them that we’d like to hire a vehicle and driver, they organized a meeting for us with ‘Albert,’ the manager of GAM Travel. We discussed our budget, our requirements and our route as well as what the contract included. He spoke great English (always a plus for the over-cautious, bordering on suspicious South African family on a South African rands budget!) and he completely put our minds at rest. He listened to what we wanted out of the trip, took heed of our budget and suggested relative routes. We had a few vehicle options with a driver who could speak English. Since the route we planned was all on tar, (we’d reach our remote and final destination, Belo-sur-mer, by boat) we decided to go for the cheaper option and rent a 1987 gold Peugeot station wagon for 50 Euros a day. The contract included a driver, insurance and accommodation and meals for the driver. GAM Travel is also up to date with their Tour Operator licence – something the police check for on the roads. We would be responsible for paying for the fuel. The vehicle arrived with an empty tank and we returned it with an empty tank. Since our trip was a one-way trip (we flew back to Tana) we agreed that it would take 2 days for the driver to return from Morondava to Tana. We filled up the tank in Morondava and this was enough for our driver to get home. In total, we hired the vehicle and driver for 6 days.
Things to clarify when signing a car rental contract:
- Does the contract include driver accommodation and meals?
- Who will pay for the fuel?
- Does the contract include insurance?
- Does the driver speak English?
- Is the car rental company a licensed tour operator?
- If you are a photographer (and need to stop often) or have a particular mission on this trip, tell them in advance.
*It is customary to tip a minimum of 5 euros per day to the driver
There are 2 things about a driver that you cannot guarantee: personality and road safety.
It’s only once you are on the road that you will know how good/safe the driver really is and whether their personality is compatible with yours on your long-awaited holiday. We were very lucky. Our driver, Mr Kaeda Ramaroson, was wonderful. Importantly, he was a very safe driver and had a good knowledge of the accommodation options in the towns and cities we visited as we had not pre-booked. He knew what our budget was and suggested relative accommodation. What we really enjoyed about Kaeda was his quiet but genuine personality, that he never ‘dominated’ our experience though he was always helpful and willing. Simply put, he’s a really nice guy! And this makes all the difference to your holiday since you will be spending a lot of time together.
Kaeda was also very patient! As a photographer, I can’t tell you how many times I asked Kaeda to stop the car so that I could take a picture. And as time went, Kaeda began to understand the type of photography that I was interested in and in fact stopped the car before I had even asked him to do so…what a pleasure!
When I was attempting to get permission to take someone’s photo, he would converse with them in Malagasy, explaining to them why I wanted their photo or photos of the area. He’d also advise me when not to take a photo, particularly useful in a country where taboos are still very much a part of life and respected.
Having a driver who could speak English and with a good knowledge of the routes, the sights to see and the accommodation, made it possible for us to sit back, take in the scenery and relax! Without a driver in Madagascar, I think my nerves would be shattered!
If you are looking for a reliable driver and a good car rental agency, I’d highly recommend Kaeda and GAM Travel.