East Coast,  Fort Dauphin,  Madagascar

Peek into Poverty

Wow! Madagascar has been quite the roller coaster. It has both exceeded all expectations and been hugely disappointing.

The sail South from Ile St. Marie was really quite idyllic. We hopped from one beautiful anchorage to the next for the first few days and spend two nights anchored in the lee of a gorgeous offshore reef that was reminiscent of Beveridge and Minerva. Perhaps naively, we didn’t expect to find such places in Madagascar. The idea we had in our heads of this country was more along the lines of dense green rainforests with lemurs leaping between the treetops and all manner of weird and wonderful life scurrying through impenetrable undergrowth. These places exist, of course, but there is also a healthy abundance of coconut palms and deserted white sand beaches of the type more typically associated with Polynesia and the South Pacific. When we looked at the globe years ago and saw all the places we were bound to visit, we thought those little Pacific islands would be special, in part, because of their remoteness. But Indonesia and Madagascar have taken that trophy. Being so vast and relatively untraveled by yachts we have gone weeks without seeing a single other yacht, which never happened in the Pacific even at uninhabited atolls hundreds of miles from anywhere. Here there are no online resources to tell us what to expect when we arrive somewhere, the charts haven’t been updated in hundreds of years and choosing an anchorage has proven to be as much down to luck as anything else.

We left our mark on a sand bar at the offshore reef we were anchored behind for two days. Merry Christmas everyone!

From that idyllic little offshore reef we set out on a 400-mile run down the East Coast of Madagascar to the South Eastern tip of the island. The conditions were excellent, though I was kept constantly on edge by the thunderstorms that lit up the sky to the West at night. More than once I shoved all of our electronics into the oven when I thought those menacing clouds of fire were getting a little too close. But the real adventure was yet to come.

We arrive at our intended anchorage at daybreak on December 15th – a little bay near a place called ‘Sant Luce’. But scanty charting and a high South-Easterly swell made the entrance dangerous so we chickened out and decided to make the run to the city of Fort Dauphin instead, just 25 miles away.

We arrived there a few hours later and made first for the ‘Old Harbour’, but upon entering we found ourselves with less than one foot of water under the keel and very little room to swing to an anchor. There were bits of steel poking out of the water here and there, and the harbour had obviously silted-up and shallowed since the charts had been made. So, we took off again, tired and sun-burned by this point.

The anchorage we eventually found was not ideal. It was protected from the bulk of the ocean swells by a peninsula, but the bottom was hard rock with nothing for the anchor to grab into and the wind was howling over the land between two hills and out across the water. It would have to do though, so I dived overboard, found a big rock and shoved the anchor underneath it. That would do the trick provided the wind direction didn’t shift too much.

Fort Dauphin is a bit unique in Madagascar. Almost everywhere the people are very poor, but the difference here is that they once had a taste of relative affluence which was later taken away from them. The city is in a beautiful spot and boasts lovely beaches, a rich history and easy access to some of the best wildlife reserves in the country. But a few years ago a decision was made to build a new port to support the titanium mining industry. The project took years and employed hundreds, but mostly foreign workers. To house these workers, the hotels were booked up for years in advance. Having no-where to stay, the tourists stopped coming. And all the people whose livelihoods depended on those tourists suddenly lost their source of income. They’d had a taste of the good life. The consumerist life, where you buy the things you want or need. You move to a rented house in the city, with no land to grow crops, dependent on a centralised water system and public sanitation (or lack thereof). You need that money because it is food, it is clothing, it is life. And you can’t simply choose to go back once the money dries up, because there is nothing to go back to.

When we turned up on the beach in our dinghy it was immediately apparent that something was different about this place. Whereas in other places people might have been interested in us, here they were only interested in our money. In what we could give them. As soon as we arrived, fifteen or twenty kids rushed to us to be the ones to carry our dinghy in the hope that we would give them some money. Fifteen or twenty adults jostled for position to be the ones to get to us first so that they could try to sell us whatever useless thing they were selling. Bracelets, necklaces, a massage perhaps? One person even tried to sell me a sword!

Being a bit shell-shocked by all this, we made the mistake of giving in to some of their offerings. Sarah agreed to have a massage with a lady called Marie, and I bought some oysters from a man who I’d seen catching them earlier that day. They were, in fact, the best oysters I’ve ever had, but it wasn’t worth it for the simple reason that it put the message out that we were open for business. We could never again set foot on the beach without being instantly accosted by a horde of people shouting at us thirty centimetres from our faces. Many were trying to sell something – anything! – but others were just asking for money, and we couldn’t give it to them. We’d have been broke in a minute flat. We did pay the kids though. Not much, but we had to give them something. If not, our dinghy would have disappeared in no time.

Poverty is a complex thing. It’s not just about money. You can’t look at a person’s bank account and decide whether that person is in poverty. Or rather, how impoverished they are. The people of Vanuatu have very little money, but as I’ve discussed in a previous post they are rich in other ways. Their land is rich and fertile. They can feed themselves well on the foods that are available to them from their own gardens. All the villages we visited were services by a tap giving clean, fresh water. Each house, or group of houses, had a covered latrine area. In Madagascar, however, the land is arid and nutrient-poor. They try to grow rice in fields of cleared rainforest, but must abandon a field every three to four years and cut a new one due to the lack of nutrients in the soil. Here, there are not so many fruit trees. Most importantly, they might have to walk several miles from their home just to fetch a couple of buckets of filthy water from a stagnant pool, and that it the best water they have access to.

This was the scene all the way along the road. People walk for miles and miles and miles to take a few bags of coal to market, or to fetch water from a river.

These fundamental differences in the hardships that the people here face on a day to day basis have, I think, manifested themselves deeply in the psyche of the people, to the detriment of the community as a whole. Whereas on the poorer Pacific islands – even the ones where living conditions are basically the same as here – the population have a collectively beneficial mentality; a culture based on generosity, kindness and mutual progression towards a better life. But in Madagascar and also, I suspect, mainland Africa the people are much more focussed on short-term gains and goals and on personal acquisition of resources. We saw a direct example of this. The wonderful ladies at the SPCA charity shop in Kerikeri, New Zealand gave us several large bin bags full of clothing to give to the people we encountered. Every time we dropped anchor in Vanuatu we’d go to shore and give a bag of clothing to someone; usually the chief of the village but not always. When we went back the next day we could see that the clothes had been distributed throughout the community because everyone was wearing them. But on the beach in Fort Dauphin when we gave a bag of clothing the people fought among themselves to grab as much clothing for themselves as they could, with no thought as to the needs of anyone else and irrespective of the size of the pile they were already clutching.

The titanium mines and construction of the new port are blamed for the lack of recovery of the tourism industry, but I think there is also another reason. The people of Fort Dauphin are simply not very nice. I think the tourists did come back. In dribs and drabs perhaps, but I doubt many will have returned. I don’t think I would, which is a great shame in many ways because the experiences we gained there are some of the richest of our whole voyage, and the sights we saw some of the most special. Trash disposal for instance. In New Zealand we separated all our trash into a million different colour-coded bags and disposed of each one as directed. In Polynesia the usual practice was to take it to the community fire pit where it would be burned and then buried. But the way it was done in Fort Dauphin was to throw it at a small child in the street. You couldn’t approach the child, you see, as he or she would run away for fear of being abducted and sold into slavery. A terrifyingly justified fear apparently. But the trash of rich foreigners such as ourselves will buy that child a meal or two. He or she can sell the aluminium from the cans to make a few cents. It’s perhaps the only time in my life I’ve ever been happy with the abundance of beer cans that constitute our trash!

Of course, it is by no means all bad. The whole point of visiting this country, at least for Sarah, was to see some lemurs, and we have seen so much more than that! One of the people on the beach when we first arrived was a taxi driver called Mami. He called his friend, Blaise, who is an excellent local guide, and Sarah and I hired them for two days to take us to a couple of nearby – but not exactly accessible – nature reserves.

Day one was relatively straight-forward. We visited the Nahampoana Nature Reserve, which is located about 7km north of the city. The drive took about an hour on account of the bad roads and both Sarah and I thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. We passed through several villages, past rice fields and markets, and arrived at a managed reserve where up-close and personal encounters with lemurs are guaranteed, as well as tortoises, chameleons if you’re lucky, and a crocodile (though not so up-close and personal with that one). Here are a few highlights from the day:

A ring-tail lemur with jazz hands.

This White Lemur was particularly partial to bananas and would literally eat of of our hands.

Sarah snapped this beautiful close-up shot of a chameleon.

Sarah’s favourite lemur shot. For obvious reasons 🙂

Day two was not so wildlife heavy but perhaps even more rewarding in its own way. Instead of a heavily-managed reserve with semi-tame lemurs that will literally eat out of your hands, this time we chose a more natural, wilderness reserve. Much less visited, this one lies 35 kilometres from the city of Fort Dauphin and spans across 76,000 hectares of land. This time we started the day early as the drive would take three hours each way.

Clearly Mami really needed the cash, because his taxi was completely unsuitable for this drive. After the first half hour we didn’t see a single other vehicle anything like ours. All the ones we did see were four by four off-road beasts. We were in a tiny Hyundai of the type that is more suited to nipping down to the shops to grab a pint of milk. I have to hand it Mami, though – he was a superb driver. Some of the potholes could easily have swallowed his car. It was like driving over the surface of a turbulent sea that had suddenly solidified in whatever shape it happened to be at the time.

We often had to get out of the car and walk the more difficult stretches. There were many!

We had planned to visit two areas of the reserve. The first went off without a hitch. We paid our entrance fee at the office, another guy climbed into the front passenger seat with Blaise and we parked up just before a little stream that in the wet season would become a raging torrent. What a great spot! A wonderful two-hour walk showed us no lemurs but a plethora of other wildlife, including chameleons, very colourful flying beetles and some kind of parasitic worm that stuck to us when we went for a swim in one of the crystal-clear pools. They weren’t leeches. We’re not sure what they were in fact, but it was a hot day and we think we got them all off afterwards so we’ll probably survive. The locals didn’t seem too bothered, and they’d know about these things, right?

A Baobab tree in the Spiny Forest. The Spiny Forest habitat is unique to Madagascar, like so many other things that are found here.

The pool where we found respite from the stiflingly hot day. I’m sure the little wormy things that were attached to us afterwards were just being friendly.

The second area of the reserve was a bit more challenging. The car simply couldn’t make it. A chasm and several boulders barred the way in the ‘road’ so we hiked the last few kilometres through the stiflingly-hot scrubland. Sarah and I started out with a full 1.5-litre bottle of water but by the half-way point it was 2/3 gone and we still had a long way to go. I was more concerned for the two locals who were with us. They had no water at all. Fortunately, they had a solution for that.

After hiking for about 45 minutes we came to a tiny village of perhaps the poorest people I have ever seen. All of them were as skinny as rakes. They kept fairly large numbers of cattle which they grazed in the scrub during the day and ran into pens at night, but I doubt their diet consisted of much other than beef, milk and any rice they could buy. Perhaps they drank the cow’s blood in the same way as some of the mainland African tribes do. We don’t know. But they greeted us with smiles once they had looked at our tickets and decided that we weren’t people-traffickers. Most importantly they were also able to give some water to our two local guides. Though we were told repeatedly that this water was not suitable for our delicate dispositions, the warnings really weren’t necessary…….

This was the drinking water that our guide Blaise begged from the people at the village. Apparently the Malagasy have very strong stomachs.

The journey back was relatively uneventful. The exhaust fell off the car twice but it was no big deal, and in the end we simply put it in the boot and carried on. Mami charged us $90 for that day, which at the time we’d thought was pretty steep by Malagasy standards, but after seeing what it entailed, and the experiences we had, we think it was a bargain. We never actually saw much of what was inside that second reserve. We had to head back, because if we weren’t on board Bob by dark there was a good chance she’d be robbed. It was OK. The day was still a resounding success in our view.


  • Brooksie Snr

    A very stark and frank account of your experience in Madagascar, which, as you say, was at once enlightening and at once a nightmare! You have to write a book!

  • Paulina

    Well my two zooologist Imperial College degree superb sailors I thank you again for a good blog. My favorite is everything and especially the Christmas message. Love Mother
    I think you have reached Port Richard to be able to post this blog. You have 4 weeks to get to Cape Town 😎

    • Grayburn Owen

      Great write up of the highs and lows of Madagascar. We all(Joanna, Agro, Jess & ptnrs)were at the Heathies on Boxing Day at their Cornish Retreat. Your ears should have been burning as Josh , Abbie & Jess were remembering The Big Black House at Treyarnon Bay when you were all very young. Keep safe and take up your Dad’s suggestion of getting the book under way.

  • Geoffrey R Frith

    Thank you for the wonderful descriptions of your voyage and just as important your insights of the places and people that you have visited. Your posts are some of the most interesting things I read – keep it up.

  • Mari Anne Ellery

    Quite the voyage to Madagascar!! You two are sharing experiences that we will never visit but you allow us on board! Loved the two Lemurs as well, SO CUTE!!! Be safe! Mari

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: