Finishing the boat trip, we had one night in a nearby hostel before setting off on the second part of our travels in the west - to the famous 'Tsingy' rock formations, sharp spikes of limestone which feature on many images of Madagascar. Upon arrival, we were a little dismayed to find a serious bug infestation in our room (solved relatively quickly with the help of our good friend Deet), and very little running water, although as it was the only open accommodation in town, we sucked it up and splashed ourselves clean before heading down to dinner.
As we settled down to eat, a whole troop of 4x4s pulled up outside the restaurant, passengers jumping out desperately seeking rooms for the night. As one man queued at the fridge for a cold drink, sweaty and exhausted, he turned to us, remarking that we'd got back in good time. Confused, I explained that we had been on the boat trip, and were new in town. We were only staying overnight before travelling on to the Tsingy.
'Ahhhhh', he said, sighing. 'So you haven't heard then?'
For the next few minutes, I sat, heart sinking, as he described his day. Heading along the non-road to the Tsingy, a trip that should take no more than four to six hours, they'd come across the results of an extremely heavy rain of a few nights past. The huge holes and dips in the 'road' had filled with water, forming incredibly muddy lakes. With no way around, the 4x4s had attempted to cross each one, but after hours of getting stuck, digging themselves out and getting stuck again a few metres on, they'd all admitted defeat and turned around. In fact, the road had been so bad that the passengers in the convey (part of the same tour group) had decided to skip visiting the Tsingy altogether.
Half an hour later we recounted the tale to our guide. His reply? 'The drivers must have been inexperienced. It's all fine. We'll get there, no problem'.
The following morning we were packed and in the car by 6am. Pushing the lack of interior furnishings and a non-working dashboard out of our mind, we set off, and for the first couple of hours everything seemed fine. Bumpy and uncomfortable, but fine. Once we'd left the main villages however, the lakes began to appear. Ranging from large puddles, which we crashed through easily, to deep muddy holes, which we didn't, the second half of the journey took over ten hours. It seemed like every few minutes we were jumping out of the car and pushing, mud spraying everywhere.
On occasion, we got seriously stuck, and were extremely lucky that another 4x4 was making the journey at the same time and we could tow each other, attaching chains to already damaged bumpers. Local villagers helped build 'bridges' with reeds hacked from nearby bushes and we waited in water which reached the tops of our thighs. At one point it took over an hour to dig our car out, our guides taking photos with their camera phones. The sun blazed above us, temperatures hitting almost 40 degrees around the car, and we were spending most of the day without any shade to seek shelter in. The mozzies swarmed around the stagnant water in clouds, F started exhibiting signs of sunstroke, and some minor itching on my hands and feet began to get worse the more time I spent in the filthy water. Small bumps appeared, and after a few moments of panic, they became more recognisable. It was clearly an allergic reaction - and there's only one thing in the whole world that I am allergic to - Nickel. A quick chat with our guide, and it was confirmed - Nickel is one of many metals mined in Madagascar, and has seeped into the already polluted soil and water. There was nothing I could do about it, although it was a relief to identify the cause.
Hours ticked past, and although the descending dark made it more difficult to dig out the car when we hit mud, it did give relief from the sun. Finally, we arrived at our destination, muddy and shattered, just hoping for a bed and a working shower. However, after the day we'd had, the gods clearly felt we'd earned a break, and our hotel turned out to be one of the nicest I've every stayed in. Huge private bungalows, gorgeous views and a swimming pool - and we were their first guests of the season!