The cycling - can't say enough about how well structured and supported the trip was through TDA Global Cycling (http://tdaglobalcycling.com/) - not to repeat what's been in previous posts, but the TDA staff were great throughout, and they had a lot to contend with, and the local Malagasy support staff who drove the busses, lugged around our bags, looked after the water and food and set up lunches every day - they were the nicest, most pleasant, hard-working people you could imagine. This was not our first trip with TDA and it won't be our last.
Our travel before and after the cycling was equally well put together through Ortour, a local Madagascar tour operator (http://www.ortour.com/en). Michel (with a typical Malagasy name that has too many syllables for us westerners to pronounce) provided a guide and a vehicle with driver for two weeks before and one week after the cycling as well as accommodation arrangements, park visits, internal flight bookings, and airport transfers. Ortour also arranged the support for TDA, so they looked after our bikes during the before and after time and brought them to the airport for our departure. Michel had no problem making some changes that we asked for while en route and we had timely prompt communication with him. Our guides and drivers were great - more about them later. Don't mind the plug for Michel and Ortour, but we were very happy - if we go back to Madagascar, we'll do the arrangements through him.
In the interest of completeness, the other essential arrangement was the airline travel from Vancouver to Madagascar. We tried on our own - Air France has a Vancouver-Paris non-stop that connects with a Paris-Madagascar flight (which is longer that Vancouver-Paris), but all we could find for the trip back involved multiple airlines and rather obscure stop-over points. So we followed TDA's recommendation and went through Jennifer Patterson at Merit Travel in Toronto (JPatterson@MeritTravel.com). She found a good return - Air France to Paris and Toronto with a good interline connection with WestJet to Vancouver. And she was good in responding to bike issues and getting prepaid vouchers for them for the return flight which made things easier at the airport leaving Antananarivo.
So there's all the plugs for the people and organizations that made it all come together and easy (except for pedalling uphill in the heat). So what was the highlight... of course, the entire country, but out of all the great memories, our guide, Colegue, and driver, Tiana, who met us on our initial arrival and looked after us for the first two weeks - they are the stand-out difference that between ordinary and extraordinary memories. Simply, Colegue and Tiana looked after us really well during the first two weeks - we almost felt like family by the end.
And we learned from Tiana that his son Deric was going to be one of the Malagasy support staff when we were biking. Everybody on the trip got special treatment from the Malagasies, but we were extra-specially looked after by Deric. When the bike trip stopped for rest days in Antananarivo, we went out for dinner with Tiana and Lea (his wife), Deric, his little sister, and his cousin - photo of the group is earlier in the blog.
When we returned to Antananarivo for our last day in Madagascar, we asked that Tiana be our driver if he was available. Indeed he was, and he and Deric met us at the airport and once again lugged our bags around. The surprise at that time was that Colegue was in Antananarivo at the same time and was able to join Tiana and Deric to meet us:
Tiana and Deric on the left, Collegue on the right
The following evening when it was time to head to the airport, Tiana and Deric picked us up at the hotel, then we picked up the bicycles at Ortour, at the same time seeing Michel and thanking him for the arrangements. Then to the airport where, to our surprise, Tiana's entire family was there to bid us farewell....
Then the farewells, through security, and only thirty-six hours later, we'd be in our own home having been picked up by Jamie at the Vancouver airport.
Madagascar... a wonderful two months... gentle, friendly, hard-working people, but a country that now badly needs tourism as a source of hard currency. It's lemurs, chameleons, and other natural wonders are main attractions, but they are all threatened by deforestation and other loss of habitat... a delicate balance... without outside economic sustenance, the forests are the 'affordable' fuel and building material supply for the rural Malagasy population. Without the forests, the lemurs are doomed and so is tourism. And stable, responsible government and ethical business practices are also needed - some of that is an internal Madagascar issue, but poaching and world trade in endangered species come from the outside.