This post is a tribute to a place that has been a highlight of my life as a traveler. The idea comes after checking the world visitor’s map on this blog, in which, amazingly -for me, nobody from this country has paid a visit to it. I guess a typical story of love … and indifference.
I was working in Johannesburg a year before Spain won the World Cup. My contract in this country was coming to an end so we were already making plans to escape the vuvuzelas and the South African winter. I had been to Madagascar in the past, but this time I wished to tour the island, or part thereof, from another perspective, so we booked our bunks in a dhow to take us to Nosy Be -the largest island of an archipelago off the northwestern tip of Madagascar. In this occasion I was traveling with my two daughters, and I must confess I had my doubts as this part of the World was not for everyone. On other hand, my two girls, aged twenty-eight and twelve, are extremely active -read rowdy- and putting them onto a traditional dhow with strangers sounded like the makings for a perfect storm. My daughters have spent many years in Africa following his father’s wandering through this vast continent -even my little daughter, Julia, was born in Africa, in the midst of Liberia’s civil war- and have done more than their fair share of sailing in our boat on the Mediterranean sea, but how would they cope with bucket showers and pillows that we heard were like lumps of coral rag? Then there were the politics. Madagascar has had 16 coups in 40 years and the new leader -a 34-year-old ex-DJ from Antananarivo- had not been playing happy democratic tunes. And in addition to tummy bugs, sand fleas and malaria, I knew first hand of pickpockets and crime.
My fears were washed away, as they so often are, by the first experience on the island. We were bewitched by the beautiful blue waters, the primal forests, the scents of ilang-ilang, the sight of large-humped zebu oxen and the strange sounds of foreign tongues. We were strangers in a strange land, and we were delighted. At Helle-ville, the harbor town of Nosy Be, our taxi -a 40-year-old Renault 4- deposited us on a grimy wharf where we were met by the South African co-owner of the dhow, his Malagasy partner, and the three Malagasy men and one woman who would be our guides and crew for the next six days. Our dhow, the Va-Waka -literarily «the canoe people»-, was a beautiful craft with a wooden hull and deck, a lateen-rigged sail and a comfy chilling-out area on the fore deck that was covered with shade cloth. Mohammed, the Malagasy partner, built it, we were told, using wood from the local forest and primitive techniques with just a saw, adze and hand drill. The dhow was equipped with a fridge of cold Three Horses beers and Cokes, a flagon or two of island rum, big bags of unpolished rice and other basic provisions. Two sturdy rods with Rapala lures stuck out from the bow, and these we were told would provide a good supply of fresh fish. My daughter Barbara, a fishing fanatic from her most tender childhood, had her eyes out on stalks. As we set off across the unreal pale blue ocean, with Va-Waka’s diesel engine thumping in the bowels and massaging away any worries that might have remained, I knew there was nowhere else on earth that I’d rather be. Over fresh coffee, bread and marmalade, we were soon getting along with the rest of the group.
The first day on the boat was about a four-hour sail, but on average we would only spend about two or three hours a day out at sea. The kids watched flying fish and dolphins, chatted to our guide -the only one who spoke much English-, made friends with the other kids and soon forgot about their Facebook and blogs back at home. They took turns pulling in the mackerel that frequently took the lures, and were lulled into tropical stupor by the views and the incredibly clear Indian Ocean. Whenever there was a whisper of boredom, we simply leaped overboard into the iridescent blue water. The temperature in mid-June was a pleasant 25 degrees C, both in the water and out. We were on a six-night itinerary, spending two nights each in three different camps: Russian Bay -with simple wooden A-frame bungalows on a hill overlooking a bay of mangroves-, Mahalina -where versions were on the edge of a quintessential fringe of white sand, complete with gently rolling surf and rows of coconut palms-, and Kalobe -where we spent our last two nights in stilted tents on a secluded beach-. Each was built by Mohammed, to what he envisaged were what vazas -white people- expected. They were all very basic, with bucket showers -except at the last camp where there was a hose shower with cold running mountain water-, rudimentary toilets -some had seats, some were just holes-, comfy beds, mosquito nets and an A-framed dining room, which had a rough plank as a seat. We all felt very much like Robinson Crusoe.
Snorkeling was the highlight of the trip for all of us, and we visited one or two great sites each and every day. The coral and smaller fishes were prolific, but you can’t help feeling fishermen have depleted most of the original underwater splendor. It was intact at the Nosy Tanikely Marine Reserve -a spectacular garden of colorful soft and hard corals, where we stopped on our penultimate day, joining hawksbill turtles, fusiliers, batfish, moray eels, surgeon fish and dozens of others all floating in a seemingly painted, pale blue ocean. You can’t help bumping into weird creatures on this fascinating island. We were visited by giant chameleons, watched by frigate birds overhead and looked up to by weird snakes and giant tortoises. We also ticked off endemic fish eagles, egrets, beeeaters, kingfishers and myriad other species that exist nowhere else on earth. We heard the sounds of lemurs in the forest and saw their tiny prints on the beaches, but to see them up close we needed to go to a lemur sanctuary on Nosy Komba. Our guide attracted these very unmonkey-like primates out of the forest with bits of banana and simple calls of “monkey, monkey.” The unique Madagascan animals seemed so happy with the deal that they used our delighted kids’ heads as their eating platforms. As we sailed back into Helle-ville at the end of our trip, I looked round the dhow. We were brown, strong, unwashed, unshaven, crusted with salt, and our hair was bleached from the sun. How a week on the dhow had changed us all. We had become a tribe. The shift out of our comfort zones had been an essential part of the adventure. In retrospect, the only real problem in Madagascar was eventually having to leave it all behind. This island holiday was also a highlight of my life as a dad.
Life changing family vacations to exotic destinations don’t need to cost a fortune. Turn your back on luxurious travel and board a traditional dhow for a week of coastal exploration in Madagascar. You won’t regret it.
In the “Diula” language in Mali, the term « dugutigui » (chief of the village), literally translated, means: «owner of the village»; «dugu» means village and «tigui», owner. Probably the term is the result of the contraction of «dugu kuntigui» (literally: chief of the village).
Sounds like a wonderful place!!
It really is … I highly recommend that you seek time for a similar trip to this part of the world. If you wish, I can provide multiple contacts that will make your trip an unforgettable experience. But I realized my neglect in the post. The people. Madagascar is a truly unique country -it is close to Africa, but certainly not African, and this uniqueness goes some way to explain why while they are very sweet, smiling and charming people, underneath there is a volcano. I mean, they are very peaceful people, but not averse to voicing their opinions. Lovely people.
Thanks for commenting!
I never spent so pleasant a week before, or bade any place goodbye so regretfully. I have not once thought of business, or care or human toil or trouble or sorrow or weariness, and the memory of it will remain with me always. The love of wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth, the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only paradise we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need, if only we had the eyes to see.
This is an amazing description of a beautiful place that I’m sure anyone would want to visit after reading this detailed post!
Thank you. Real dreams are made of viewpoints, of images, of memories and puns and hopes. Dare to live the life you have dreamed. Go forward and make your dreams come true. You won’t regret.
10Q for your nice comment!
Nice,seems you had fun. Another place you could be Obudu Cattle Ranch in Nigeria. You would really like it there,its beautiful.
I’ve been looking on the Internet for that place and it really looks amazing. I’ve been several times in Nigeria in the past, and, curiously, had never heard of it … thanks indeed for the advice!
Right now my battered suitcase is resting on the sidewalk again; I still have longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life … and Africa … I have loved no part of the world like this and I have loved no women as I love her. Africa … you’re my Africa … the only place where silence can speak as a soundless echo.
Thank you Audrina!
What nice compliments. :). Try to get some rest. You have been to Nigeria? That’s good to know. What state/states did you visit. Obudu is in Cross Rivers state. I assure you you would love it there.
Thanks for the advice 🙂
I’ve been in Nigeria always for work. In Lagos, Abuja, Kano and doing some short assignment in the Niger Delta region and the South South Zone. So very close to the Cross River you mention. For sure, next time going there -who knows when- I will visit this place. Thanks again!
What a pleasant and enjoyable vacation you had!
We need the tonic of wildness… we can never have enough of nature.
Thank you very much for your comment!
The second image is an absolute wonder! Awesome~
Coming from you, that’s a compliment. But really I think you mean the cabin itself, more than the photography …
I take this opportunity to let you know that as a person who has lived in Africa about 18 years, I think your photographic work is just spectacular, and this coming from someone who also visits countless photo-blogs everyday… the vast majority of them do not even reach the height of your shoe. A truly admirable job with the exquisite sensitivity that only a true-African can extract from the everyday’s African life. They are so real and beautiful that make me whish I were back there in our Mother Continent.
This is such a vivid excellent travel account. . . And I agree, travel does not need to be 5-star in order to be an amazing adventure 🙂
Frances thank you very much for your critic, your kindness has no boundaries.
fantastic opportunity … to travel through the most beautiful places in the world
It is my expression of loyalty to the earth, the only paradise we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need, if only we had the eyes to see. Thanks for your comment!
Exciting travels for the adventurous heart. As young boy dreamt of travel in Africa. Those days are long gone now; will just have to read your posts!
Loved this article w/your great photos.
Reading could be the plane, and the train, and the road. The destination, and the journey. Also home 🙂