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).