Madagascar an island of paradise and pandemonium
Paradise out of sync…and shiver me timbers, are those pirates?
What is your idea of paradise?
Here’s mine, or at least one of them, Madagascan style. A day spent swimming, diving or snorkeling in balmy waters. After that you set sail for the next island. While on the open water, a fishing line is dipped in the ocean in the hopes of catching dinner. Just before the end of the day you drop anchor in a secluded bay. A stroll on powdery white beaches as gentle waves swish over the sand. The backdrop, emerald green palm trees swaying, as a gentle breeze brushes your skin. As the sun disappears into the sea you sip your Three Horses Beer or Fresh. It sure sounds like bliss, I would say.
But what about sunburn, heatstroke, and raw skin from salty wounds? Creepy crawlies, ugh! Sweat pouring off you because it’s well over 30 degrees and humidity has skyrocketed? Paradise can sometimes be a bit off kilter. Not to mention the possibility of meeting up with pirates.
Let me tell you a fable about Madagascar. To be honest, it is entirely fact. In places Madagascar certainly is paradise. Yet it also oozes adventure or at the very least excitement. The helter skelter of events can cause things to go horribly wrong. Here are a few incidents that could have made this trip a disaster if they weren’t sorted and attended to.
I don’t think there is a person that hasn’t heard of this island in the Indian Ocean, not far off the coast of Africa. It is the fourth largest island in the world often called big red island. Many people have ventured there and yet it is not a popular tourist destination.
It has a unique ecosystem with exotic wildlife. The island nation has beautiful rainforests. It is a tropical paradise in places, but not everywhere. Apparently as much as 90% of the original vegetation has over the years been destroyed by deforestation. A technique of slash-and-burn was used to provide land for farming. As a result there was and still is soil erosion and desertification. The destruction of the forest caused a loss of habitat for Madagascar’s flora and fauna which in turn threatens their existence.
So then you may ask, why we didn’t see those parts of Madagascar while we could? As much as I’d like to have seen more of mainland Madagascar and its unique sights, it is not that easy to get around, even more so in 2001. Most people use a taxi-brousse to get from one point to another, an arduous and uncomfortable journey that can take a long time over just a few hundred kilometres. The infrastructure was not that great and as for tourist infrastructure, almost non-existent.
We were a family of four and relatively inexperienced travellers. Dragging teenage sons around for two weeks in an unknown area in sweltering heat, with little to no information and limited resources, as adventurous as it sounds, was just not for us. Yes, I agree, we chose the easy way to see some of Madagascar. We loved it but it certainly was not paradise all the time. Malaria is rife, a couple of other known or unknown diseases also pop their heads up from time to time, even to this day. I would have loved to have travelled deeper into Madagascar, but I’ll take the little bit that I saw.
Bossi exchanged for Tigress
Having done two trips on Bossi (suckers, aren’t we), one in Madagascar and one in Comoros, we decided to return to Madagascar for a second visit in 2001. This time it would be in December which is the middle of summer. Even though we only saw a small speck of this island, it made a huge impact on us. What’s more, we invited friends of ours, Wikus and Juanita, who also have an adventurous spirit. They joined us for the first week of our two-week holiday.
We had one day in Antananarivo to sightsee before flying to Nosy Bé. We did a whirlwind tour through ‘Tana’ and then explored the newly opened Lemur Park just outside the capital. This was a condensed version of some of the wildlife of Madagascar.
The park allowed the lemurs to run free and we were thrilled to watch them bounce around. There were so many different species of lemurs and we even saw Dwarf Lemurs. There was also a huge array of other Madagascan creatures such as many species of beautiful chameleons of all sizes.
The next day we left for Nose Bé where we met up with Willem and Elize again.
First week of paradise - Nose Bé and going south
Arriving at Nose Bé the heat of December hit us full on. The sea temperature we found out later was on average 32 degrees Celsius.
Because it was high season, Bossi was fully booked. Another catamaran, Tigress, would be our home for the next two weeks. Willem skippered Bossi and Jako was our skipper for the first week. He had a faithful companion, a dog called Tracy. She went everywhere with him, even on Tigress. There was nothing wrong with her sea legs and she loved being on board, relishing in taking turns demanding attention from everyone.
Our route was much the same as our previous visit, via Russian Bay to Nosy Iranja. On the smaller island of Iranja a resort had been built. The previous time we were there, you could only camp, with no facilities. We went ashore and had a drink at the bar. The village on the larger island had spread out and enlarged and was beautifully laid out. Even the rusty lighthouse looked like it had a small revamp. It still looked rather rickety but didn’t collapse under our weight.
The pupils at the school greeted us once again with a joyful musical ‘Bonjour Madame, Bonjour Monsieur!’
We spent the week sailing from island to island, bay to bay, fishing, diving, snorkeling and swimming. We explored the islands when we went ashore, but quickly returned to the sea to cool off.
At Nosy Tanikely there was a beautiful dive spot and after the dive, Paul was trying to help me climb into the inflatable dinghy that would take us back to Tigress. As he pushed me from behind, but not quite managing to get me high enough over the hull for me to hoist myself up, he let go, dropped down and left me hanging half out of water. I had no idea why he’d left me stranded in mid-air. I ungraciously slipped back in the water. Apparently when his head ducked under water, he saw a large manta ray swim past. Obviously this was far more important and exciting than helping his wife back on the dinghy. Of course I was rather miffed that I missed this opportunity because I was recovering from the mouthful of water I had inhaled unintentionally!
Did I mention it was hot? Oh yes, I did. I’ll mention again: It was as hot as hell is expected to be. Or rather, the humidity made it feel that hot. We spent as much time as possible in the water trying to cool off in between diving and fishing. Not that it helped because the sea temperature was hovering around 32 degrees Celsius and the air temperature rose to 39 degrees. If you want to spend time sightseeing, December is not the time to go.
Before going back to Nosy Bé we moored in a bay at Nosy Komba and walked around the island. During our previous visit we spent a night on Nosy Komba but this time we slept on the yacht. The village on the island had also expanded. Tourism was picking up and there were more yachts sailing around as well. We spent some time browsing through the curios and beautifully embroidered table cloths. The catch phrase of the holiday: Another day, another island.
Back to Nosy Bé
At Nosy Bé we said goodbye to Juanita and Wikus. They could only join us for the first week and unfortunately had to head back home. It was great having them on board and we hope they weren’t too bored enjoying the tropical oasis of Madagascar.
At the market we stocked up on supplies for the following week. We also had dinner with Willem and Elize in Ambataloak at a delightful rustic restaurant called Chez Mama. An insignificant looking restaurant, a stone’s throw from the edge of the sea that only had about two tables with wooden benches on either side.
The tiny kitchen was no bigger than 1m x 2m where we were shown what was on the menu - literally. Four saucepans were bubbling gently on a stove. Mama couldn’t speak a word of English but she lifted the lids for us to peek inside, so we could decide what to eat. She used half of an empty coconut shell, scooped out rice and tipped it onto the plate to create a beautiful mound. She then ladled half a coconut shell of our choice of dish next to it. The portions were far too generous for us to eat everything, although it was utterly delicious.
We had a choice of Beef stew (zebu), coconut prawn curry, Malagasy chicken stew and coconut crab curry. All deliciously tasty and inexpensive.
After that wonderful food we walked down the beachfront to digest our dinner before returning to Tigress. We noticed there were more tourists, bars and restaurants and a few ladies of the night. One of them greeted our eldest teenage son with a ‘Dah..link, hello, dahlink!’, hoping for potential customers. Fortunately our sons were horrified and hid behind us for protection.
2nd week of paradise – going north
Tigress left the following morning with us, Willem as our skipper and his sister. Elize stayed on land looking after their two children, Lome & Liam.
We sailed north to an archipelago with a multitude of tiny islands with such as Nosy Mandnora, Nosy Tango, Nosy Valiha and Nosy Mangazona. There are so many deserted islands and beaches with pristine dive sites and beautiful areas to snorkel. Eventually we even had to stop fishing, as the freezer on board was full of freshly caught fish and there was no way we could eat it all. We even gave some away to the inhabitants of some of the islands. Talking of islands, we saw so many and eventually they blended into one – an island is an island.
Dodgy moments and nasty bugs
Life was bliss until a spate of events caused some disruption in paradise.
On one of the islands while walking on the beach, we were stung by horrible little gnats that breed in the seaweed drying on the sand. The itch drives you crazy and leaves ghastly little blisters that can turn into horrible sores if you scratch them. We’ve heard that tiny little eggs are laid under your skin when they sting you. Unpleasant, but we could survive with some antihistamine ointment.
Our youngest son suddenly developed a fever and could keep nothing down, not even water. Far enough away from land, hospitals and doctors I was worried. Eventually we suspected heatstroke and dehydration, although it was difficult to diagnose. The average day temperature was between 34-39 degrees Celsius.
There were no medical expertise or facilities close by. I’d packed a fairly comprehensive first aid kit but none of the usual medication for fever was helping as he couldn’t keep it down. Desperate times called for desperate measures, as I was beginning to panic. I had a Voltaren suppository in my first aid kit. With much persuasion, or possibly our son was too weak to argue, I inserted it and hoped for the best. I also took two towels, dipped them in the ocean to wet them. I covered him with one and stood over him and fanned him with the other to cool him down.
I skipped my dive while the rest of our group went exploring underwater and continued fanning him while my arms held out. It was the best decision I made, because Philip’s fever broke, more than likely mainly because of the Voltaren. You will not believe what a relief it was for me. He managed to keep down fluids and before long he was back to normal.
Strong winds and large swells
Torn shade awning
A day or so later the shade awning over the back of the boat tore from strong winds. Because it was so hot, the tiny bit of shade we had was vital. I was the only one with a sewing kit, a tiny travel one like those given to you at hotels. The kit was far more suitable for stitching small buttons or minor tears on light fabric. I dug out the largest needle I had, which wasn’t that big and used dental floss to stitch the awning together. It lasted long enough for us to have shade again for the rest of our trip!
Drenched dive compressor
But wait, there’s more! Along with the strong winds there were large swells coming over the bow of the boat that drenched the dive compressor stored on deck. Willem struggled to start it and snapped the starter rope. Usually prepared for these kinds of mishaps, Willem looked for the tool box on Tigress. There was hardly anything worth using and the rest of his tools were on Bossi. We had no alternative to loan tools from the sea cucumber (dingha-dingha) divers who had moored close to us in the bay. After a struggle to open the compressor and attach a new rope around the starter pulley, Willem fixed it and we could refill our cylinders. Hooray, we could dive again!
Fan belt issues
What? More? Soon after that the fan belt for the water pump that cooled the main engine of the catamaran broke. We weren’t too worried about that as there was a spare on board. Willem changed it… and the new fan belt lasted less than 10 minutes. The spare belt had perished. It snapped while trying to start the main engine. To fill you in, spare parts although available sometimes in Madagascar, were generally rather old. They were stored with a scorching sun on them in the shops, hence their short lifespan.
Willem is an engineer and Paul is technical. The two of them put their heads together and rerouted the fan belt around the water pump. The alternator didn’t work, so we couldn’t charge the boat’s batteries which were needed for power on the boat. By now those batteries were rather flat. They stripped the motor and had to ‘push start’ the motor. How do you push start a boat like you do a car?
Now don’t slate me for all the incorrect information I might be spewing you, because I’m not technical, but I hope you understand what I’m trying to get at.
There was only one chance to get the motor going. One cylinder took, but the other cylinders had to be brought in, in sequence to continue running so there was enough power to propel the boat. It worked! However, this meant the engine had to continue running. Although we had an auxiliary engine, it was much smaller, and the controller and starter were faulty. It had one advantage: the alternator worked. Willem bypassed and rewired it so the batteries could be charged.
We had limited power and we could limp home.
Pirates or good Samaritans?
After the engine ordeal we needed to return the tools to the dingha-dingha divers the following morning as arranged. Willem told us that pirates had been quite active in the Mozambique channel and Indian Ocean lately. Willem’s sister was rather nervous about what her brother told her (he was quite a tease, adding fuel to the fire) but the day had been rather stressful and we all relaxed on deck, enjoying the relative peace and quiet in the bay.
Just before heading to bed, we heard an approaching engine in the dark. It was unusual for that time of night. Nothing could convince Willem’s sister it was the divers coming to fetch their tools. They had decided to leave earlier than intended. Up till then she was adamant they were pirates. Even a couple of stiff whiskeys didn’t help to calm her nerves. I’m sure she barely slept that night.
Still quite far north, once we had radio reception again, Elize called us (there were no mobile phones in Madagascar yet) to say that our main flight from Antananarivo to Johannesburg was brought forward by a day. We had to sail through the night to get back in time to catch a flight from Nosy Bé to the mainland. We kept watch for dhows, pirogues and other floating debris such as logs. We didn’t need another disaster. Our navigational equipment was of course not working. What made up for it was the beautiful bright stars in the dark sky and the magnificent phosphorescence on the water.
We were given complimentary accommodation in Antananarivo in Sunny Hotel by Air Madagascar.
Was it a trip from hell?
It certainly was an eventful trip with some disastrous moments. We were fortunate though that it didn’t end badly. We had complete trust that Willem would be able to handle the situation although I’m sure if we were on Bossi, most of this would not have happened.
However, one incident could have spoilt our holiday completely and I shudder to think what could have happened. When someone dear to you falls ill in a far-flung area, it rattles your cage quite a bit. Once again, I’m relieved that all ended well.
Apart from all that, if we’d run adrift on our own remote island, (with enough to live off) it would have been an entirely different story…