I will intentionally leave out planes, pirogues and zebu carts to concentrate on two specific modes of transport. Have a good trip!
In Madagascar, public transport mainly consists of bush taxis and taxi-bes. The railroad is unfortunately not very well developed and serves mainly for the transport of goods. It is possible to get on some trains (including an old French micheline!) but departures are random. Find out about availability before organising your trips...
Before going to Madagascar for the first time, the image that came to mind when I thought about public transport was that of an overflowing bush taxi, joyfully ploughing through the bush (hence its name) with the roof loaded sky high with various objects. Well - I wasn't very far off!
So, what's a bush taxi? In general, a bush taxi is a van or utility vehicle which acts as a bus between two large towns, with people getting on or off at different places, just like a conventional bus.
Except that a bush taxi is much more than a simple bus...
First of all, the load: I learnt that a bush taxi is not properly loaded until the size of the load reaches at least the size of the vehicle below (this stage can take a very, very long time!). The load can also be inert (bags, cabinets, motorbikes, etc.) or living! I've often travelled with goats on the roof or chickens between my legs!
Then, there's the time: a journey by bush taxi should not be counted in kilometres but in hours. Personally, I generally count about 24 hours to reach Toliara (Tuléar) or Antsiranana (Diego-Suarez) from Antananarivo... a trip by bush taxi can prove to be very long. Such a journey will only tempt the most adventurous among you. Others will prefer a shorter, more comfortable trip (for example, Tana - Andasibe only takes 3 or 4 hours).
If you are tempted by the adventure, go to the various stations of Tana to reserve your place the day before or go there directly on the day of your departure - you will very probably find a bush taxi with a vacant seat. To get to the north and north-west of the country, go to Ambodivona-Andravoahangy station. Bush taxis for the south, west and south-east of the country leave from Fasan'ny karana. If you want to head east, go to Apasampito station.
Some companies nevertheless offer more "comfortable" options - it's your choice!
An urban variation of the bush taxi, taxi-bes are mainly found in thecapital. Less loaded with baggage than its bush counterpart, a taxi-be nevertheless has a bigger load of travellers! You'll soon spot them, they're the big metal bangers with colours that change according to the route. For a paltry sum - 200 to 300 Ariary, less than 10 p. - they will take you from one point of the city to another. It's not a bad alternative to discover the capital!
To get one, go to a "stop", i.e. a place where you see a crowd of people waiting for the next passage (quite fast depending on the hour and journey). To know what taxi-be to take, it's best to ask someone beforehand. What I do, which seems to be very effective, is to ask the ticket seller by shouting out (loud enough to cover the general din) the name of the neighbourhood I want to go to. In general, he will tell you the number of the taxi-be to get.
In fact, there are a lot of different routes and the differences are not always very big: the same line may take completely different routes depending on whether the number is circled by one colour or another. To make all list of all the lines here is virtually impossible...