We came to Madagascar with few expectations, in large part because we knew so little about the country. As we planned for our Africa trip, we did try to learn about Africa. We read books and blogs, watched videos from other travelers, and talked to people that have made similar journeys. Most of that research was about continental Africa though. We didn’t purposefully exclude Madagascar from our research, we just didn’t find much about it. What we knew about Madagascar is that it is an island with wildlife, flora and fauna, that is only found here. Beyond that, we were entering the unknown.
When we were planning our trip to Madagascar, we thought we should try to see a few places here. Trying to plan that ended up pretty expensive though, as Madagascar doesn’t have many good roads or railroads connecting different parts of the island. This is especially true during January and February due to the seasonal rains. We learned that this time of year, parts of Madagascar would get nearly an inch of rain per day! Muddy roads and no railroads meant we would have to take expensive flights around the country, so we decided to focus on one area. We had heard about Nosy Be (that means Big Island in Malagasy) while watching some YouTube videos from S/V Delos. They are a couple of brothers sailing around the world, with friends they make along the way sailing with them. They landed on Nosy Be after crossing the Indian Ocean, and their videos made it look like a pretty nice place to spend a few weeks. On top of that, we could get a direct flight here from Johannesburg. We rented a flat and booked a ticket, we were ready to see Madagascar!
The plane that we took from Johannesburg to Nosy Be is officially the smallest jet I have ever flown. Small enough that as we boarded, the stewardess asked us to all sit in the back half of the plane for take off, per the pilot’s request. After take off, he requested that we remain in the back half of the plane for the duration of the trip, since only about half the seats were filled. The shacks, complete with goats and chickens, right along the runway told us just how “big” this island is. It soon hit us that everyone speaks French, everyone but us. Luckily, we have a travelers phrasebook for the major languages spoken in Africa, including French. As we negotiated customs and passport control, we were asked for our first “gift” at the National Police booth. Since he already had our passports and we did’t want any trouble, we gave the guy whatever South African coins we had, worth about $US0.80. He seemed happy enough. We made it through and looked for the taxi that the people we booked our flat from had lined up for us.
We found our taxi and headed “home.” Along the way, he explained the funny trees we saw as ylang ylang trees, which are grown for their flowers. The flowers are picked and distilled, with the distillate used in perfumes and soaps. The trees do grow naturally on the island, but they also plant them into orchards where they prune them so that the women that pick the flowers can do so from the ground, without a ladder. He stopped and picked a couple of the lovely smelling flowers for us. He also stopped in the bigger town on the island, Hellville, so we could go to the ATM as we had no local money. The conversion is about 3,300 Ar (ariary) to the dollar. Seeing an ATM offer 300,000 as an option was more than a little weird! We then headed to our town, Ambatoloaka, about 20 minutes from Hellville, 45 minutes from the airport. Drivers weave across the road to avoid potholes and puddles, which will take us some time to get used to. He pointed out the market, and then turned off the paved road onto a muddy, rocky track. As he turned off this onto a narrow, muddier alley, I wondered what we had gotten ourselves into. He stopped in front of a house we recognized from the online rental, and we then saw the woman that owns the flat. We were at our home for the next 5 weeks.
Genevieve gave us the tour of the flat and described how to get around the village. Thankfully, she speaks English. After we settled in, we decided to head down to and check out the village. We continued along the narrow, rocky, muddy alley, which is actually the street. Every now and then, someone has paved the area in front of their property, but not everyone bothers with this. Some places are washed out and remind me of 4×4 tracks, yet the locals drive pretty much everything through, Renault’s that remind me of Honda Civic’s as well as Land Rovers, and everything in between. They even ride scooters and mopeds up and down this “street!” Someone did pave the steepest hill in concrete, most likely to prevent erosion from the heavy rains, we later realized. We have about a half to three quarter mile walk to “down town” or restaurant row, as we call it. Nosy Be is a small island, with a population of about 60,000. Ambatoloaka is a tourist village, with many hotels big and small, and restaurants to feed the mostly French and Italian tourists that come between April and November. Small clothing shops, tour guides, scooter and ATV rentals, and little convenience stores, about the size of our kitchen at home, are sprinkled in along this main road, which is the continuation of the paved road we took into town earlier. Most of the businesses along one side of the street are right on the beach. Restaurants and bars have lounge chairs and shade umbrellas set up in the sand. They are also a great place to have a drink as you watch the sun set.
We figured out how to order a drink, in French, and did just that.
Restaurants don’t open until 7:00 PM, so we worked on kicking back and getting into “island time.” By 7:00, we were pretty hungry, so we went looking for dinner. We stopped at a busy little place along the main drag, and got to chatting, as it were, with a handful of French guys. We muddled through a couple of discussions with them as we ate dinner. After dinner, we walked home and wondered what we had gotten ourselves into.
One of the benefits of renting an apartment is that we have a kitchen. We headed to the market to stock our fridge so we could cook some while we were here. Negotiating the stalls and shops that crowd the street on the way to the market always involves looking out for cars, motorcycles, and tuk tuks, as you can’t always stay on the sidewalk. The market, like a congested farmer’s market, has a central building filled with stalls and more stalls set up around the outside. We walked through where people were selling everything from fresh produce to raw beef to dried fish to live chickens. The mixture of smells and odors was nearly overpowering, we quickly chose to investigate the outside stalls. Everyone is trying to get you to buy their pineapple or mango or what-not, instead of their neighbors, all in French. We slowed one of them down enough to figure out how to buy some bananas before we left. Genevieve had mentioned a supermarket, which we went looking for. It may not have the floor space that supermarkets in the US have, but it had everything we thought we needed, and more. We appreciate the great cheese case, the wide variety of juice, and the shelf stable milk. Even here though, the meat was a little suspect, so we stuck to salami and smoked bacon. Outside of tropical fruits, fresh produce is available with little variety. Tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, and onions are readily available, as is garlic. Beyond that, pickings are real slim. Coupled with difficulty finding quality, refrigerated meat meant cooking was not going to be as easy as at home.
The next couple of weeks we spent exploring the village. Rudy, Genevieve’s husband invited us out for a trip to a nearby island, Nosy Tanikely Marine Reserve, for a day of snorkeling and sightseeing. As well as having a couple of flats for rent, they run a business chartering sailing catamarans, one of which was our ride for the day. It was a 44 ft. sailing cat with all the comforts of home. We enjoyed the snorkeling, getting to see lots of fish and giant clams. We walked up to the light house on the island, and got to see lemurs lounging in a mango tree! We had left the camera, and any clothes more than our swimsuits on the sailboat, so we didn’t get pictures and we got sunburned. I had swallowed some seawater while snorkeling and was a bit queasy when we returned to the sailboat for lunch, so I didn’t eat, though Jen enjoyed a delicious three course meal including coconut curry chicken. I was feeling better though by the time we headed back to the marina. Better enough to closely observe how the crew sailed the boat, a 44′ catamaran. We had enough wind on the way back to do so completely under sail, which was fascinating.
We continued to explore Ambatoloaka, and even took a couple of guided trips further afield. We hired a guide to take us to the Lokobe National Park, which is just across the island. He lined up a taxi to take us to a seaside village where we got in a pirogue, a small, wooden, outrigger canoe, to another village just inside the park. It was hot, so we took some time in the second village to cool off in the shade and hydrate. Our guide, Honorie, then took us into the forest to see what we could find. The trails were narrow and muddy, but he pretty quickly found some Black lemurs. They are noisy, we heard them before we saw them, and moved off when we got too close. They can jump up to 12 feet through the trees, grabbing branches just when you thing they’ll fall! The males are black, but the females are brown with white bushy hair on the sides of their heads. We saw them throughout our trip to the park, usually in mango trees. He also found a Boa Constrictor, about 12 feet long, just laying on a log, waiting for something to come close enough to grab. Honorie said that they will eat lemurs, frogs, or even chickens from the village, but would leave us alone. It barely moved while Jen took photos of it. Madagascar is also known for chameleons, and we got to see Panther chameleons. The males are hard to miss, they’re so brightly colored. As we walked through the forest, I asked what the loud chirping calls were. Honorie told us they were frogs, which he then found. These frogs are the littlest tree frogs we had ever seen, about the size of your thumbnail, and bright orange. They’re so loud, we thought they were birds. We saw more lemurs, including one sleeping that is only active at night. Just curled up in a ball, clinging to a branch. We ate lunch back at the fishing village. They made traditionally prepared fish, maybe red snapper, that even I liked! After lunch we visited with a nice Canadian couple until the tide came in enough to get back in the pirogue and head back.
Later in the week, we met Honorie again for a boat trip to Nosy Sakatia. This is another island, just off Nosy Be, not far from where we are staying. This island is little, 1 mile wide by 3 miles long, without cars or roads. The entire population of 300 people walk on the island. It’s claim to fame is snorkeling with sea turtles. We got in the water and after a little bit, found a big sea turtle grazing on seaweed on the bottom. It occasionally surfaced for air, taking notice of me, but it didn’t show any concern at my presence. I followed it along for about 20 minutes, until everyone else was ready to go to shore for lunch. After a lunch of grilled fish, rice, and fruit, we got a tour of the fishing village on the island, saw their medical clinic and school, then lounged about in the shade until it was time to head back home. On the tour with us was a nice couple from Andorra. They had the month of February off and hopped over to Nosy Be from Reunion, where they are for most of their vacation.
All told, we spent five weeks on Nosy Be. We learned to live at a slower, more laid back pace, which will come in handy on the rest of our journey. We’ve transitioned our eating habits away from “American portions” as our Andorran friends called them. We even lost some weight, our pants fit looser, as does my watch! Since we were here so long, some of the locals started to recognize us and say “bonjour!” when they see us. We laughed when we realized that the four people that most often recognized us were the guy front the produce stand, the lady from the cell phone store where we bought internet data, the pharmacist, who helped us with our traveller’s maladies, and the lady that runs the ice cream stand! Given their smiles, I think they found it funny too. Rudy and his sailboat trip got me to thinking about what comes after this African trek. We ate no small amount of seafood while on Nosy Be, really enjoying the grilled prawns we got at one little beachside restaurant. It was a fun, tropical vacation, though we are now ready for the Jeep to arrive and start our big drive across Africa.