I continue to make relatively rapid progress at capturing our Madagascar trip in print. When I last left you, we had just tumbled, shell-shocked and covered in dust, off our 4x4 trip from the lower reaches of Hades into a hotel in Ambilobe where we did battle with the forces of evil embodied in our driver.
Ambling around Ankarana
|Hook-billed vanga on his nest|
We started out trudging along a road that led eventually to the original entrance post to the park, now derelict, and a new entrance building that is under construction. The forest was dry but pretty dense and full of birds. It was a flat, easy walk, and along the way we spotted plenty of crested couas and paradise flycatchers. We went first to the Perte des Rivieres, a sinkhole that in the rainy season swallows three separate rivers into the thirsty karst topography of the park. In the dry season there is no water, and the sinkhole looks like a menacing portal into the underworld. As we stood watching, we spotted a pair of hook-billed vangas taking turns to sit on a nest high in a tree while its mate went foraging for insects.
Eventually our path abandoned the cool shade of the forest and ventured out onto the bare rock of the tsingy. This is a landscape typical of western Madagascar, consisting of bare limestone that has been eroded by rain into a series of sharp ridges that are almost impossible to walk across, shredding shoes and feet and bodies. The Malagasy name comes from an expression meaning “to walk on tiptoes”, which pretty accurately describes how you would want to try to traverse them. The heat up on top of the tsingy was tremendous, with the light grey of the limestone reflecting the fierce sunlight up into our faces. There were a few hardy bushes which had pushed roots into the rock, some with violently red blossoms that contrasted sharply with the monochrome stone surroundings. The tsingy were a strange and alien world that extended far away to the horizon. Much of the national park consists of tsingy, and the park was established to preserve this distinctive environment, although there is a big area in the centre of the park that has been invaded by thousands of sapphire miners and is now off-limits to tourists for security reasons. Madagascar’s national parks are under threat all over the country, but this seems as stark an example of this as you could ask for.
Overall Ankarana was a very worthwhile (if overpriced) park, with a landscape that was completely new to us, along with new lemur species. It’s an enjoyable place for walking, and the village is very quiet; we could have spent another day or two there quite easily.
A Tropical Idyll in Nosy Be
The next morning, Friday November 25th, was a day of getting places. We were keen to head south down the coast to the little island of Nosy Be, and we were keen to make it as painless as possible. Our tuk tuk driver of two days previously came to pick us up for another 50,000 MGA and we asked how much it would cost to bring us past Ambilobe all the way to the ferry dock at Ankify. Given that it was about 3 or 4 times as far as the run to Ambilobe, we thought he might offer to do it for 150,000 or 200,000 MGA, a price that Terri was willing to pay to avoid another taxi-brousse ride. Instead, after prolonged consultation with the guys from Chez Aurelian, he asked for 1.5 million ariary, ten times what would have been reasonable. We decided to take the lift to Ambilobe for 50,000 MGA and hop a taxi-brousse from there. It wasn’t too painful, as we got the front seats to Ambanja and then seats in a car that wasn’t even full for the short hop from Ambanja to Ankify. Once there we hopped onto a speedboat for a pricey 30,000 MGA per person and almost immediately regretted it, as we were near the bow and got absolutely hammered by the boat crashing from wave to wave in the afternoon chop. Terri in particular suffered from getting her spine pummelled. We hopped onto a tuk tuk in Hellville harbour and had him drive us to Madirokely Beach, about 8 km west of town, where we had the name of a good, cheap place to stay from Bruno, our 2CV friend. His place, Chez Senga, was full, but they directed us next door to the Beluga Apartments where 87,000 MGA a night got us a big, bright, quiet apartment right on the beach. We took it, not knowing how good a choice it would prove to be.
|Late afternoon light over Madirokely Beach|
After a couple of fairly lazy days at first, Monday November 28th found us undertaking one of the best things you can do on Nosy Be in November and December: swimming with whale sharks. There is one outfit, Rand’eau Baleine, based at Chez Senga, that runs trips every day to snorkel with these gentle and endangered giants of the ocean, the largest fish in the world. A Belgian marine biologist, Stella, is combining studies of the whale shark population at Nosy Be with working as a tour guide, and she was our guide. Between her and the keen eyes of our boat captain, Captain Black, we had constant encounters with the whale sharks. We must have swum a dozen or maybe 15 times, and each time we went into the water it was an adrenaline-filled adventure. I swam with whale sharks back in 2007 in Donsol, in the Philippines, and had enjoyed it, but this was better. Donsol had very murky water and it was hard to see the whale sharks clearly enough to follow them. Off Nosy Be the water was very clear and we could see every detail of the sharks’ markings, and we could follow them for minutes on end, finning furiously to keep up. We had a few swims where we went in after one shark only to find a second one swimming past at a different angle. A couple of times I had to take evasive maneuvers to avoid being run into as the big fish cruised past. Terri and I got the hang of following the sharks, and often we were the last ones to give up the chase far from where the boat had dropped us. Just before we gave up for the morning, Terri had one particularly memorable swim in which she got into the whale’s slipstream and was pulled along almost without effort on her part, while the whale shark turned its eye to look up at her. She was absolutely elated when she climbed back into the boat.
|On our way to Lokobe|
|Female black lemur|
Sated to the point of exploding, we were paddled back to our scooter through much deeper water (the tide had come in), paid off our guides (it cost about 60,000 MGA, about US$ 18, for the two of us, including transport, guiding and entrance to the reserve, although I sincerely doubt that the reserve will ever receive a single ariary from our trio) and set off on our return scooter ride. We rode home the long way, around the north of the island, a much less populated and less visited area than the south. There were big plantations of ylang ylang, an essential oil, and tiny villages, along with a few nice views.
We spent Wednesday, November 30th in complete sloth, punctuated by some running and swimming along the beach, a long siesta and some reading. Madirokely Beach was an easy place to while away a hot tropical day, with caipirinhas and fish kebabs at the end of the day.
Thursday, December 1st we went out scuba diving for the morning with Silvia, the irrepressible Swiss woman who runs Forever Dive. We were joined by three French divers, one of them an accountant living on Reunion, the other two dive instructors from France. We went out to Nosy Tanikely, a marine reserve island about 30 minutes off our beach. On the way across we again spotted Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins frolicking in the waves. We did two very relaxed 1-hour dives that were pretty and pleasant without being spectacular. We had quite a few hawksbill turtles (always a good sign of the health of the marine environment), healthy coral, lots of blue-spotted rays, a large lobster, a pipefish and several decent-sized tuna. It was good to visit the underwater world again after a few months away. We returned to a lazy afternoon of reading and strolling along the beach.
|Shadows of lacework, a Nosy Be specialty|
|One very sizeable spider!|
Nosy Iranja is a picture-perfect tropical island, or rather two islands connected by a very long sand spit that is submerged at high tide. The blinding white of the sand and the aquamarine water of its shallow are very pretty indeed. Terri and I spent a couple of happy hours snorkelling in the shallows; it was such a low tide that we were reduced to pulling ourselves along on our fingertips rather than kicking our feet. There were lots of small fish, including shrimp gobies guarding their shrimp’s burrows in the sand. At one point I heard a panicked shout from Terri and raced over to see what was wrong. A big animal had surfaced near her and then gone down again and Terri thought it was a shark. We could see it nearby in the shallow water and it did look big and menacing, but eventually we realized it was a big turtle who had surfaced for air. Panic over, we slowly drifted back towards the beach and then headed over to the immense lunch that was included in our 90,000 (US$ 29) MGA price per person. It was a feast of ridiculous proportions, with shrimp, mangrove crab and two entire huge fish to go with rice, vegetables and pineapple. We could once again hardly walk away from the lunch table, and after a short second spell of swimming, we climbed reluctantly onto the speedboat to head back to Madirokely. It was a great way to end our eight days on Nosy Be, and well worth the price of the day trip. We had a final sunset on the beach, a final feed of fish kebabs and then packed our bags, ready for an early departure.
|Male black lemur, Lokobe|
Overall we both enjoyed Ankarana and Nosy Be, although the cost of visiting Ankarana seemed a bit excessive. The one big downer to Nosy Be is that, like Thailand, the Philippines and parts of Cambodia, it is a major sex tourism destination for French and Italian middle-aged (and elderly) men. The other end of Madirokely Beach from where we stayed has a series of bars and nightclubs that run on this trade, and the late-afternoon passegiata on the beach features dozens of sixty-something European men holding hands with eighteen-year-old Malagasy girls. That said, it’s certainly on a much smaller scale than in places like Pattaya and Angeles City, and our end of the beach was much less sleazier in this respect.
Nosy Be was a welcome vacation-within-a-vacation, a place to unwind from the rigours and annoyances of life on the Malagasy road. It was nice to be able to drive ourselves around on a scooter (at 25,000 MGA, or about US$ 8, per day, it’s a relative bargain) and staying right on the beach was good for our soul. Swimming and running along the beach were good ways to get a bit of exercise, and having breakfast and sundowners on the sand made great bookends to our days. The excursions available were all worthwhile, and the whale-shark watching is absolutely world-class and worth a special trip to Nosy Be. I’m not sure I would live full-time on Nosy Be, or for a few months every year, as quite a few French expats do (there are certainly much more appealing tropical islands to choose from), but if you’re on Madagascar, Nosy Be is certainly a great place to spend a week or so.
Madirokely is a good place to base yourself on the island, and both Chez Senga (if you can get in) and Beluga are good bargain choices; you can get slightly cheaper rooms inland from the beach or in the sex-tourist village at the other end of the beach, but I think location and pleasantness are worth paying a bit extra for. Rand’Eau Baleine is a very professional outfit for seeing whale sharks, while Forever Dive is a very well-run dive shop with good equipment and a very knowledgeable and professional owner, Silvia. There are a dozen or more boats offering snorkelling trips to various islands; Nosy Tanikely has great coral, while Nosy Iranja doesn’t have as good marine life but is incredibly pretty. Hiring your own scooter to go to Lokobe is the way to go, rather than paying for a tour, as it’s a lot cheaper and gives you a lot more control over the situation. The way to eat on Madirokely is not in the more expensive beachfront restaurants but rather in the little locally-run gargottes. We had one good meal down the beach at a nameless beachfront gargotte, but mostly we bought take-out from the gargotte right behind Chez Senga; we would have the food delivered to Senga, which doesn’t have a restaurant, and we would eat our food washed down with a cold beer from Senga’s bar. Senga is a gathering spot for long-term French expats, and they mostly do exactly the same thing. When in Rome…..
|Another beautiful sunset over Madirokely beach|