As the door of the Airlink plane opened I took a grateful gulp of tropical air. Leaving wintery Cape Town behind I’d just touched down on the island of Nosy Be, Madagascar’s most popular tourist destination.
The journey across the island to Chanty Beach where we took off our shoes and hopped into a boat for the short transfer to MakiCat, the luxury catamaran that was to be our home for the next few days, was a wonderful introduction to Madagascar. We stopped to smell the fragrant flowers of ylang-ylang, dodged motorbikes in the bustling capital of Hell-Ville as we made our way past the vibrant market and learnt something of the country’s history.
Once onboard we headed south to sheltered Russian Bay – where the staff of a Russian naval ship mutinied and sank the boat during the Russo-Japanese war – for our first night. The only yacht in the bay, we enjoyed the silence as we feasted on seafood then lay out under the stars, musing as to how the chef was ever going to match that first repast. But he did. Every meal was fresh, tasty and beautifully presented, often supplemented with recently hooked fish, and we were thoroughly spoilt. Nothing was too much trouble for our skipper and crew.
We were on the deck with freshly brewed coffee for sunrise. After a leisurely swim, we moved to picturesque Nosy Iranja (otherwise known as Turtle Island), where we swam with turtles in the warm shallows, snorkelled, and, at low tide, walked the long sandbank that links the main island to its smaller sister.
The following day we scuba dived on a magnificent wall that dropped to the ocean depths, sighting rays and small sharks as well as a myriad colourful tropical fish, then went ashore on Nosy Antsoa, home to seven species of lemur. Climbing up to its highest point we surveyed other distant islands and the mainland. There were no signs of habitation: the only other boats elegant, white-sailed dhows in the distance.
We felt alone in the watery wilderness.
For the next few days, we journeyed between picturesque bays and remote islands rich in wildlife, stopping to dive colourful coral reefs and steep underwater cliffs covered with massive sea fans. A scuba diver’s paradise, the warm, turquoise waters are home to an amazing variety of marine organisms from pinhead-sized shrimps to big pelagic fish, which our knowledgeable and watchful divemaster identified once we were back on the boat.
We saw countless pods of dolphins, swam with whale sharks and stopped on Nosy Komba to check out its lemur park, Aldabra giant tortoises and scary-looking (but non-venomous) boa constrictors and to buy delicate, embroidered tablecloths and other Malagasy bric a brac. But the highlight of the week was when a humpback whale and her calf surfaced only a hundred metres away from the yacht. We watched transfixed as the youngster rolled on its back and lifted its pectoral fins into the air as if in celebration.
Large groups of humpback whales (Megaptera) make their annual migration from the Antarctic to the sheltered waters around Ile Ste Marie where they calve, nurse their young and engage in their spectacular courtship rituals between the end of June and September. The waters were calm and inviting so while the others studied the whales from the deck I donned a snorkel and mask and slipped in for the underwater show. Suddenly I froze. The whales were swimming my way, clearly curious. Part of me was thrilled: seeing these magnificent mammals was an incredible privilege. But they were vast. I finned frantically back to the MakiCat much to the amusement of the rest of the group.
The week passed too quickly. Our penultimate night was spent at anchor in the Barahamamay River where we hopped into kayaks and paddled up river before going ashore to meet the local fishing community. It was the first time that we’d encountered groups of people: other than when we went briefly ashore to the islands, the only contact had been the odd local fisherman sailing by in an elegant wooden dhow or paddling up in a pirogue to deliver fresh fish. As we sailed back into Nosy Be I regretted not extending my stay to explore the “Big Island”. But I’ve now got a bucket list of things to do when I go back.
Nosy Be bucket list (OR While you’re there)
1. Take in the sites of “the Big Island”
You could spend a week exploring Nosy Be, but if you only have a day or two make sure you wander through the root maze of the Sacred Tree, a vast 200-year-old Banyan fig, shop for beautifully-embroidered tablecloths, spices and hot chilli sauce in the market of the island’s capital, Hell-Ville, then take in the views and watch the sun go down from the top of Mount Passot, at 329m the highest point on the island.
2. Meet the locals
A guided nature tour introduces you to the unique plants and animals and gives an appreciation of the incredible biodiversity of Madagascar. As you walk through the forest, cheeky black (Macaco) lemurs will eye you from the trees, you’ll discover tiny chameleons and bizarre geckos, learn to identify the stunted, gnarled ylang ylang trees from which essential oils are extracted for perfumes and wander through villages meeting the locals and admiring the arts and crafts. And you’ll learn about the intriguing history and culture of the Malagasy, and the curious fady (taboos) that govern their lives.
3. Walk in the Lokobe forest
A wonderful, full-day adventure is paddling a wooden pirogue to the village of Lokobe for a guided nature walk. As you clamber through the forest, eagle-eyed spotters will point out lemurs, geckos and chameleons in their natural habitat.
4. Snorkel or scuba dive
You’ll be blown away by what you can experience on a snorkelling trip to one of the natural aquaria on the shallow reefs. If you’re lucky enough to spy dolphins on route, you can slide into the water to swim with the playful creatures. Even more exciting is encountering a whale shark. The exhilaration of swimming with the biggest fish in the sea is something you won’t forget in a hurry!
The scuba diving off Nosy Be is one of Madagascar’s best-kept secrets. The country is renowned for its incredible baobabs, lemurs and reptiles, but the underwater life is equally extraordinary with magnificent sites to suit divers of all levels of experience. There are vast and pristine coral gardens teeming with colourful reef fish, cute turtles, big fish and graceful rays, occasional sightings of sharks and even wrecks to explore.
If you’ve always wanted to try diving this is your place. The water is warm and clear, there are shallow, protected sites close to shore and the instructors and facilities at Sakatia Dive Centre are world-class. Best of all it’s one of only two places in southern Africa, which offers fluorescent diving. With the aid of special blue light torches and filters over your mask, you’ll experience the extraordinary pinks, greens and other psychedelic colours of marine life fluorescing.
5. Go whale watching
If you visit between August and December, when humpback whales and their calves frequent the waters off Nosy Be, don’t miss a whale watching tour.
6. Cast a line
The proximity of the edge of the continental shelf means that the waters surrounding Nosy Be are a magnet for deep sea-fishermen trying to hook prized game-fish like barracuda, kuta, tuna, kingfish, wahoo, sailfish and even marlin.
7. Enjoy barefoot romance
Sakatia Lodge, run by Jose Viera (an Angolan who grew up in South Africa), his Italian wife, Isabella and Masha in the dive centre, is a great place to stay if you want a romantic island escape. Homely yet chic, the mid-priced lodge prides itself on its first-rate, personalised service and its cuisine. Right on the beach it offers a range of activities and a fantastic spa, Zebu Zen. Prices for a seven-night stay booked through MadagasCaT Charters & Travel start at around R17 500 per person sharing ex-Johannesburg.
If you looking for the ideal “remote” island holiday experience, where there are no cars, no busy beaches, great snorkelling only a few steps away, then this pristine ‘boutique-style’ lodge, 293 On Komba, which is owned and run by South African Marcine Cooper, is the ideal place to be. There are only four bungalows, the individual décor of each reflecting Marcine’s personal touch. 293 is a very romantic little spot and Marcine’s kitchen produces meals you will remember. Its ideal for Honeymooners, couples retreat and those special anniversaries! It’s the only lodge on Nosy Komba that has a fresh water Infinity pool. It’s a great base from which to explore all the major Nosy Be and Nosy Komba attractions.
Prices for a seven-night stay booked through MadagasCaT Charters & Travel start at around R18 600 per person sharing ex-Johannesburg.
8. Paddle the isles
Fancy something a bit more adventurous than a yacht charter? Then Bert Spalding’s your man. After living on Nosy Komba for many years, Bert eventually realised his dream of running guided kayak safaris. These safaris are backed up with a speedboat and take guests island hopping or – for the more experienced – on an ocean safari. Accommodation is in rustic beach huts or simple hotels. Prices for a seven-night safari (inclusive of all meals, kayak hire, excursions and a guide) booked through MadagasCaT Charters & Travel, start at around R23 940 per person sharing ex-Johannesburg.
MadagasCaT Charters & Travel are Madagascan travel specialists who can handle all bookings and will customise packages to your budget and interests. 084-524-9706, email@example.com,
Airlink (011-978-1111, www.flyairlink.com) offers direct, scheduled flights between Johannesburg and Nosy Be on Sundays and Wednesdays.
A generous sporting allowance means that you can bring that all-important dive and fishing gear.
GOOD TO KNOW:
Visas: Take 35 Euro cash to pay for your entrance visa on arrival.
Currency: The Malagasy Ariary is the local currency (currently R1 to
246 MGA). Euro and US Dollars are widely accepted. Most places accept Visa or Mastercard.
Safety: Madagascar is one of the safest African countries for travellers but use your common sense, particularly in towns and popular tourist haunts.
Medical advice: No immunisations are necessary for the Nosy Be area. Malaria prophylactics are recommended.
When to go: January/February is the cyclone season so avoid travelling then.