No Sailing Experience Required - a charter boat holiday in Nosy Be
Madagascar (the oldest island on earth) is fast becoming the generic and more adventurous version of Mauritius or Mozambique. Cut off from mainland Africa and India zillions of years ago Madagascar has told the story of evolution in her own unique way.
The island continent took with it the same basic life forms that were existent in Africa at the time; yet created creatures and plants so different from ours that it is hard to believe their distant relationship with Africa or India ever existed.
There are still areas in Madagascar that are exceptionally difficult, if not impossible, to reach and I have heard that there is a new species of plant discovered every day. I have also heard that there is a village in the east where the people are invisible – but hey, this is Madagascar!
It was 7 o’clock on a balmy evening at Fascine Airport, Nosy Be. I had arrived on the direct flight from Johannesburg.
Porters and drivers bustled for position outside the door of the arrivals hall. As any first time visitor to a country I was a little overwhelmed by all things strange. I craned my neck hoping to find the next link in my journey – the driver. And there he was, proudly dressed in navy and white shorts and shirt, holding up a sign displaying the name I’d been looking for: “Gecko”. I waved and he smiled. After claiming my luggage I was disgorged out of officialdom into the scented night air of Nosy Be.
Nosy Be (nossy bay) literally means Big Island; and it is – the biggest island off Madagascar. It enjoys an almost perfect climate with the exception of a few cyclones between January and April, and was the first part of Madagascar to develop tourism. The first is the reason people come here and the second the reason you do not want to be land based.
Crammed into one of the more modern ancient taxis my senses began what was to become a roller coaster ride of new stimuli.
“Trust the driver and relax” I thought. “This is Madagascar.”
There are more endemic species of plant and animal in Madagascar, the fourth largest island, than are found anywhere else on the planet. Geckos that bark, and geckos that look like bark; giant seed pods as large as your leg; red frogs and yellow frogs; 300 different varieties of snakes -but none that are poisonous! And 53 species of chameleon of which 93% are endemic to Madagascar
It is black dark outside, small wooden stalls on the side of the road, candles flickering, cooking fires in drums, scrawny dogs, long legged chickens, zebu carts resting, and smiles.
Trundling through a forested area I smell the ylang ylang – sweet and heavy in the damp air; and the days’ dust just settling. Frogs and crickets call out and geckos bark. (Yes, bark).
Suddenly I was in Hell Ville – flying past the cranking power station whose job it is to splutter electricity wherever it can. Down a hill, avoiding a group of youngsters sitting in the road – they are watching the only TV in town and the football is on.
The taxi slammed to a halt and the driver says – “Crater Bay”.
A shadow emerges from the dark: “Balatsara – welcome. My name is Albert”.
My adventure had begun.
Albert is the skipper of Gecko and Gecko is a 36’ Jaguar Catamaran built in Cape Town in 2007. She arrived in Nosy Be at the beginning of June 2008 and headed into an exceptionally busy season. Nosy Be is at the top left hand corner of Madagascar and the people of Nosy Be are delightful descendants of shipwrecked Indians, Russian Sailors, Arabs and Comorons. All mixed up with the original Sakalava ethnic group the result is a friendly bunch of folk who can teach us westerners a good lesson in humility and contentment.
Our first night (I have not introduced my husband and four teenage daughters) is spent at rest in Crater Bay and we awoke in our bright and fresh double cabins. As we fell out of our beds we caught a glimpse of the world around us. First impressions are always important and this one was a WOW. The day was a beautiful one, there were a few pirogues (dug outs) silently drifting past, other boats lay quietly in the bay and we were, literally, in an extinct crater.
Fresh coffee was waiting on deck…..
Day 1 Tanikely & Russian Bay: Less than an hour’s motoring from Crater Bay is Tanikely (Small Island) – a Marine Reserve which is home to a wonderful array of fish, corals and turtles. We spent the morning playing with clown fish and following the Hawksbill Turtle as he made his way around the nooks and crevices that form part of this well preserved reef.
A walk around the island and up to the old lighthouse on top of the hill was hard work in the heat but worth the effort to find a small troop of black lemurs. We returned to Gecko for lunch and upped anchor to get away from the rowdy rabble that was arriving from the hotels and lodges. This was the last of civilisation for a few days.
The run to Russian Bay took up the rest of the afternoon with fishing along the way. The chef remained busy in the galley (kitchen) whistling up his magic. Shortly after entering the bay the anchor was dropped off a small (very small) village. We took a walk along the beach to look for the old walls that were part of a Russian fort and met Zulu – an English speaking black Labrador type dog adopted by the locals from a South African some years ago.
There are a few tales explaining the reason for the naming of this bay but the most feasible one is this: During the Russo-Japanese War a Russian naval ship was posted to Madagascar to guard the Mozambique Channel. The sailors on the ship “Vlotny” took one look at life in Madagascar – the rum, the women and the climate - and mutinied. They ran the ship aground in Russian Bay and a small settlement grew.
One thing they did not initially note was the mosquitoes and the last sailor died of malaria about 30 years after their first arrival. The legend lives on and the ship’s remains can still be seen at low tide.
Day 2 - James Bond Island & Barahamamay: Early the following morning we left Russian Bay and turned south (left). In the distance was a monolith looming out of the sea. This is Le Frere Cinq (sanc) or fifth brother. His other four brothers lie to the north of Nosy Be but this guy (according to local folklore) was asked to leave the family because the birds kept dumping their droppings on him. So here he is, birds and all, and the fish love him. A catch is almost guaranteed as you pass him by. Ours was a huge King Mackeral. By late morning Gecko dropped anchor off an island fondly known as the James Bond Island because it really is right out of a Bond movie. Covered in indigenous forest there is one perfect beach extending into the sea. Lunch(King Mackeral Carpaccio) was served on the sand in the shade and we rested in hammocks tied under the trees.
We snorkelled back to the boat and enjoyed more fishing, and some sailing, before reaching the Barahamamay River.
Albert took us ashore for a walk through a little boat building village to experience rural life in Madagascar. Houses on stilts, mangrove swamps and palm wine. They also make an exceptionally good rum with local wild honey.
Day 3 – The Radamas: Not much further south from Baramahamay is a group of islands with names like Kalakajoro, Nosy Ofy and Antany Mora. “Mora Mora” means slowly and “Antany” means island….? It describes the whole of Madagascar really!
The snorkelling and fishing around the Radamas are exceptional. It has been said that the range of fish and corals here is more diverse than in the Red Sea. Swim with parrotfish, clownfish, angelfish, triggerfish and squirrelfish. Fan corals more than two meters in diameter, feather ferns freshly sprayed in gold and nudibranchs of all types.
A couple of kilometres off the islands there is a 1000m drop off – a deep sea and reef fishing heaven.
Day 4 – Nosy Iranja; Nosy Sakatia This was a longish trip but interspersed with great catches of Kingfish and Mackerel. Nosy Iranja is actually two Nosys (or is it nosies?). One is owned by an expensive lodge and the other larger one comprises of a village, mangrove swamps, palm fringed beaches, a lighthouse built by Gustav Eiffel (of tower fame) and an unused runway. These two islands are joined at low tide by a 750m sandy spit. Great for exploring or just relax in the hammocks hanging from the bows of the boat above the crystalline turquoise water. Nosy Iranja has, not unfairly, been called the most beautiful of all Indian Ocean islands.
Another amazing lunch and a slow trawl back towards Nosy Be. It was here that we had an ‘out of this world’ dolphin encounter. Hundreds of smiling, cavorting dolphins frolicked under and in front of the boat until they got bored and headed off in search of other amusement. The water was so flat and clear that they seemed to be flying through the air below us.
Nosy Sakatia or Orchid Island is situated to the west (left) of Nosy Be. There are a few good lodges here and Gecko anchored off one of them for the night. Yachties are welcome for sundowners and a guided walk can be arranged around the island. We skipped the guided walk but enjoyed Caiphirinas at Sakatia Lodge. These owners are also from South Africa and have set up a great establishment coupled to an excellent dive centre.
Day 5 – Nosy Komba: Back to reality – but is it? Nosy Komba loomed out of the sea to the south of Nosy Be and was a hive of activity. There are beach bars and night clubs, markets and hotels – but charmingly eccentric ones. It is essential to stop over here for a while. We explored the market and found some extraordinary souvenirs after visiting the Lemur Park. The people of Nosy Komba have protected their lemurs (unlike other areas where they are still eaten or kept as pets) and one or two smaller groups have become quite used to visitors.
We enjoyed the “lemur on the shoulder” moment by enticing them out of the trees with a banana. For the nature enthusiasts there is an optional, but tide dependant, visit to Lokobe Reserve where a guide will take you through the rain forest looking out for wild lemurs, boas and chameleons. The plants are pretty weird too.
That night we lay off Nosy Komba, sleeping on the deck under a black sky dozing off to the foreign sounds of distant music drifting in the air.
Day 6 – Madiro Kely, HellVille and home. Fresh coffee was waiting on deck….
….and we drank it in a reflective mood. It seemed a lifetime that we had been away from the world and yet only yesterday that we had arrived. We had made friends with the crew and promised to return. The bar bill was settled (“hmm, not as bad as I thought”!), the crew tipped and we bade farewell to Gecko. Back in that taxi and, craning our necks, we looked back for one last glimpse of the boat, and her special crew, that had taught us a few things.
That we could survive without cyberspace.
That life goes on without us.
And that taking just one week away from it all did nobody any harm at all.