A ferry crossing is a unique, amazing experience, especially for the uninitiated. For Voetspore’s ferry veteran Johan Badenhorst, however, the magic is starting to wane…
Sometimes I have gone out of my way to take a ferry across a river. It is, for example, possible to cross the mighty Zambezi at Katima Mulilo with an impressive bridge. I prefer to go to Kasane and make use of the very busy ferry crossing, even though it takes hours. It is just so much more exciting.
On last year’s expedition in Madagascar, we had our fair share of ferry crossings to the extent that it came close to satisfying my craving. It started in the first week, on the road from Tamatave to Mananara Nord on the east coast. No less than seven ferry crossings were awaiting us.
Madagascar’s ferry crossings are supposed to be simple. All of them are done with big grey vessels, sponsored by the Chinese and operated free of charge, compliments of the Malgasy government. The ferries serve the same purpose as a bridge on a national road. But not all of these ferries are operational and when broken, private entrepreneurs seize the opportunity to make a few ariary (the local currency). Even ferries that are still in good nick may not always operate because of a lack of diesel, once more giving a local businessman the chance to earn a few bob.
We were advised beforehand to take a jerry can filled with diesel along to get the ferryman to start his vessel. This was part of the ritual for the three months we travelled on the island. Strangely, this also applied to the petrol-run private ferries for which you had to pay. In my Cruiser I had two jerry cans for ferry crossings – one petrol and one diesel. Upon arrival with our three vehicles the question immediately was “Gasoil or gazolina?” Diesel or petrol? We also had to make sure that we poured the fuel, because if you hand them the jerry can, chances that it will return empty is very good. In Madagascar it is called opportunism.
The ferries in Madagascar are mostly for the crossing of rivers that are just too wide for a bridge to be built, especially not in a Third World country. A number of ferries, like the one at Soanierana Ivongo on the east coast, and crossing the Tsiribihina River in the west, en route to the Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park, took between 30 and 45 minutes. These are massive rivers, running from the highlands. Building a bridge on any one of them will not happen soon, not even by the Chinese.
But there are smaller ferries too. Many of them are pulled from the one bank to the other by hand. After we turned in the far south of the island at Fort Dauphin and travelled north to Manakara, we crossed 10 rivers by ferry. Five of them were motorised, the others were pulled across by ropes.
Of the 32 ferry crossings we experienced; only twice did we feel uncomfortable. Going up north on the RN5 we arrived at a government ferry with a defective engine. Not even the offer of diesel helped. But the officials were there to do their job. They commandeered about 30 young men to pull the ferry across the river. Problem was that it was a river mouth. At one point we were well on our way downstream, into the Indian Ocean. It was only the sheer will and power of those young men that prevented a disaster.
A few days later we returned via the same route. The ferryman had learnt his lesson. Now he refused to offer any service. That is when the private operator stepped in.
The private ferry was made up of two boats and a few planks across them. I was asked to drive onto the ‘deck’. Once on top, the ‘ferry’ started heeling to the one side with the effect that the hull started filling up with water, submerging the little two-stroke engine that powers the ferry. Gideon had to drive his Cruiser onto the back of the ‘ferry’ quickly to prevent us from sinking. Once he was on board, the ferry was level again and the two-stroke was cleaned and started. We made it safely to the other side.
Travelling south from Morondava to Tuléar we stuck mostly to a sand track. Then we hit a river. The ferry, one of the grey government ones, was on the other side of the river. We called them, but there was no reaction. Eventually one of us went across with a dugout canoe, just to return with the news that the battery of the ferry’s engine was dead. We took one of the batteries from a Cruiser, paddled across to the stranded ferry, started it and returned to have all three vehicles taken safely to the other side.
Our biggest crossing was in the south-west, crossing from St Augustine to Anakao. This was a big ship. Something like a RoRo – roll on roll off. It was most probably the safest ferry crossing on the entire island, but by far the least exciting.
Ferry crossings in Madagascar are great fun. The ferrymen tell me that they have never lost a vehicle. I’m not sure I can believe them, as many of the crossings are done with very primitive equipment. But we did all 32 crossings safely, even though at times we were just a little worried. If you are, like me, a sucker for ferry crossings, Madagascar is the place to go.