As you already know from many tropical countries, many of Madagascar streets are rather sandy pathways or muddy tracks than drivable roads. More than 90% of the streets are not paved, which makes traveling time consuming, especially since distances between national parks or other things worth seeing are mostly very far. Generally, a small network of larger streets leads across the country – those are called “Route nationales”, abbreviated RN. The RNs are mostly two-lane (one lane per direction) and paved. Speeds up to maximally 80 km/h are the rule, in case of pot holes and similar do not expect to exceed 50 km/h. Madagascar has no highway like you know from Europe or America. For many streets, you definitely need a 4×4 and an experienced driver – and even a knowledgeable driver can only drive at walking pace in many small side roads.
In Madagascar they drive on the right. They also have the worldwide used road signs and rules, but people love to ignore them. Inside big cities, the traffic often becomes so tight that you have to slow down to walking pace or stop every other minute completely. For example, the capital Antananarivo provides an impressing variety of traffic jams and narrow traffic junctions, and an even bigger amount of cars, Taxibrousse, Taxi Be and scooters. Welcome to survival of the fittest! However some piping policemen try to get the situation under control from time to time. Mostly unsuccessfully.
In general, you have to expect large potholes, impassable bridges at short notice and other obstacles everywhere in Madagascar. If obstacles have been there for a while, they are usually marked by warning triangles or – more usual – cut off branches thrown on the lane. Due to the varying conditions of the streets, people are used to drive only during daytime. After sunset, driving can become quite dangerous even on better RNs.
Outside Route Nationales and big cities, the road conditions are very various. From dry paths to tracks filled by mud and sludge, laterite courses smooth as a mirror and hardly drivable sand dunes – in Madagascar, you can find every kind of street. The conditions of many sideways depend decisively on the weather. You simply cannot reach some villages after some days of heavy rain. And be careful: Some streets that are drawn on official maps as normal roads, can turn out to be not drivable anymore when arriving there. In consequence of the hard climate, Madagascar’s streets can change in less than one year from “well drivable” to “hardly recognizable as a street”.
Repair and expanison of Madagascar’s streets go on slowly and dragging. In many places, people help themselves by filling pot holes with gravel and sand. Broken bridges are also mostly repaired by hand, or people look for adventurous crossroads paths to bypass. Even larger bridges can be completely broken after natural disasters like cyclones. For example in 2018, RN6 in the North was closed for weeks after one bridge collapsed and could not be repaired quickly. There were no alternative routes besides this RN.
The following is a survey over the most driven RN of Madagascar and their up to date condition as seen by MadaMagazine staff:
This RN is located between the capital Antananarivo and Toamasina (Tamatave) at the east coast. Some years ago, it was in quite good condition, but aggravates visibly now: On and on, pot holes and cracks become more and more. But still the RN2 is completely paved and quite well to drive.
If you want to visit Madagascar’s North, you have to drive RN4 from Antananarivo to the direction of Mahajanga. This streets leads 570 km to the west of the island. Nearby Ankarafantsika, RN6 begins. Until Ambondromamy, RN4 is paved and well to drive. The beginning inside the central highlands is curvy and leads through very hummocky, bleak regions.
RN5 leads from the east coast city Toamasina to Maroantsetra in the northeast, almost 400 km along Madagascar’s eastcoast. It is with good reason infamous as Madagascar’s most dangerous street. Until Soanierana Ivongo, the RN5 is easy to drive and paved. But right after the first ferry, only a sandy slope is waiting for you with endless, sometimes enormously deep, water-filled holes. The more you come into the north, the worse becomes the street, until it is hardly a bad forest path. During rainy season, RN5 transmutes into an impassable mudslinging, in which trucks sink in until the roof and even Unimogs cannot pass. Between the track sections, there are many ferries only fit for scrap, for which you have to bring your own car batteries and gasoline. In the northern parts behind Manompana, you have to cross several self-built instable wooden bridges, sand sections on beaches and laterite hills smooth as a mirror. Only very experienced off road drivers can deal with RN5, and you have to bring your own car mechanic as well as any kind of spare parts for your 4×4. How much time you need on RN5 from one village to the next cannot be proposed due to the many unexpected but probable problems on the street.
If you came from RN4 and want to continue your trip to the North, you have to change your direction onto RN6, which comes from Ambondromamy near Ankarafantsika national park and leads to Antsiranana (Diego Suarez), the northernmost part of Madagascar. The last years, RN6 has been suffering a lot, but has been only hardly repaired. Many parts of the street are not paved anymore or have so much pot holes that you can only drive very slow.
RN7 leads about 956 km from the capital Tana via Antsirabe, Fianarantsoa and Ambalavao as well as Ranohira (Isalo) to the deep south and Toliara (Tuléar). Especially concerning economy, it is one of the country’s most important roads. The part in the southern highlands is very curvy and up to date, the part right before the junction to Ranomafana is not paved anymore, but you can still drive it well without 4×4. From Ambalavao, the curves become less, and then RN7 leads straight ahead for many kilometres. From Ambalavao until Toliara, RN7 ist still one of the best streets in Madagascar.
This RN has never been paved, but is a sandy slope between Morondava in the west and Bekopaka (nearby Tsingy de Bemaraha national park). Here you are really lost without a 4×4. During rainy season, RN8 is often impassable. But in recent times, there are also remarkably wet stretches of the road during dry season: Residents flood the street intentionally sometimes to earn some Ariary by helping to pull cars out of the mud they got stucked in. The famous baobab alley is part of RN8.
RN13 is one of the roads rarely driven by tourists. It leads 493 km from Ihosy in south Madagascar to Tolagnaro (Fort Dauphin). Official statements say the RN13 is still paved, but practically it mainly consists of dusty slopes and pot holes. If you drive this road, better have a lot of spare tyres with you.