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.
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.
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:
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 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?
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…….
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.
I recall having a conversation with Alex just over three years ago, before the start of this voyage, basically pleading with him to add Madagascar to our destination list. It’s a country that has always fascinated me and somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit, mainly due to its abundance of highly unusual wildlife.
In Mesozoic times, Madagascar was part of a gargantuan supercontinent called Gondwanaland, which included mainland Africa, India, Arabia, South America, Antarctica and Australia. The primates of this era evolved into the most dominant animals on the Earth today – us. Those same ancestral primates on Madagascar, however, followed a completely different evolutionary path and became what are now known as lemurs. Due to the lengthy separation from the rest of the world the wildlife here has evolved into a collection of truly weird and wonderful species that are found nowhere else. You can imagine why, as an ecologist, Madagascar is at the very top of my bucket list!
To say it’s been a struggle to get here would be a massive understatement! We had to endure over 30 sea-days in the relentlessly lumpy Indian Ocean. My sea-sickness was like having a huge and chronic hangover, only without the initial fun of actually getting drunk. On top of that we had to divert to Rodrigues to avoid a 90-knot cyclone, which put us even more behind schedule. We’re now well into the cyclone season and are located in a particularly vulnerable part of Madagascar that could get completely battered at any moment should a cyclone decide to form. I should also mention that being one of the poorest countries in the world, Madagascar is known for its super high crime rates and boasts an intimidating list of horrendous infectious diseases. Cholera, tuberculosis, dengue fever, bubonic plague and the worst form of malaria in the world are just a few of the people-killers to be wary of. This is a hell of a lot to contend with all for the sake of some lemurs! At one point I was convinced that Madagascar would remain nothing but a pipe dream for me… but amazingly, we made it! Against all the odds, we’re actually here.
Our priority destination was a town on the east coast called Manara-Nord, where just up the river from the bay is a small privately owned reserve called Aye Aye Island. The Aye Aye is a nocturnal species of endangered lemur and according to my research, this is the most likely place in the whole country to see them (in the wild at least). The island is owned by a hotel called Chez Roger and through them, you can hire a local guide to take you on an evening tour.
A truck arrived at the hotel a few hours before dusk to take us, by road, the first part of the journey. The word ‘road’ is used very loosely in Madagascar and what is considered a road here looks more like the surface of the moon. After about 30 minutes of bouncing and hitting our heads on the truck’s ceiling, we arrived at a small opening to a river, across from which we could see our destination – Aye Aye Island. Our guide, Romanha, hailed down a man passing by in his homemade dugout canoe and paid him to take us across. We boarded the large piece of floating drift wood, but our combined weight caused it to immediately start sinking! We frantically bailed out the rising river water as our guide paddled us to the other side and, thankfully, we made it with all camera equipment dry and intact.
The island is not exactly an untouched wilderness. It’s a farmed property with cows, chickens, dogs and reams of planted fruit trees. Nevertheless, it’s extremely densely vegetated in places. We spent the hours after dark in a frenzied march, trying in vain to not step in cow pats (Alex racked up five strikes) while following our guide through the bush looking for signs of Aye Ayes.
After less than an hour of searching, there it was – just above our heads climbing along a coconut frond. Our reward for travelling all this way! A glimpse by torchlight of one of the world’s rarest lemurs staring inquisitively back at us.
This is a creature that, for many years, has fascinated me far more than any other. I feel a truly dizzying thrill knowing that I am one of the lucky few to have witnessed this animal in the wild. Still, I must admit that an eerie sinister feeling came over me when I first saw it. A feeling I was not expecting. Perhaps it was due to the strange and dark environment, or perhaps because the torchlight made the Aye Aye’s eyes appear hot and fierce, but it’s like this creature really can see over your left shoulder and into the gates of hell. No wonder some of the locals think they are deathly omens.
As creepy as these animals are, this visit has reinforced my belief that they are one of the coolest, most interesting species on the planet! I mean, where else can you see a real-life gremlin?!
Not only have we managed to see one of the world’s weirdest and most remarkable animals, but Madagascar has turned out to be a truly beautiful place in itself. Moreover, our worries about crime have been so far unfounded and most people seem to be incredibly friendly.
We’re now sailing south, working our way out of the (now non-existent) trade winds and away from the tropics, to Fort Dauphin in southern Madagascar. Hopefully there’ll be more wildlife adventures waiting for us there and, with even more luck, no terminal tropical diseases either!
I should probably start by apologising for my recent silence. You may have been wondering if I had been lost overboard during our Indian Ocean crossing given the supreme amount of blogs written by Alex compared to the meagre amount (well, none) written by me. I’m sure you’ve been sick with worry about me! Please, worry no more – I am alive and well!
We arrived in Rodrigues a few days ago and never have I been happier to set foot on dry land. I’ve been walking around with a new and bountiful lease of life. The world seems better somehow – brighter, cleaner and generally more pleasant than I remember it. In all honesty, I had forgotten that it was possible to get this much enjoyment out of life. Of course escaping from a deathly cyclone probably has something to do with my enlightened feelings, but mainly my intense happiness comes from being away from the unforgiving high seas.
This recent passage was a very difficult one for me. It turns out that my initial excitement in Indonesia of “having gotten over my sea-sickness” was completely unfounded. The seas in Indonesia were so wonderfully calm and the stark contrast of the reputably-lumpy Indian Ocean meant that I spent most of the passage in a prostrate position feeling very sorry for myself. I had very little energy or motivation for blog writing and anything I would have posted would undoubtedly have been very negative. I must admit that I did, in fact, write a blog towards the end of our passage but it ended up turning into an outlet for venting my frustrations. It’s actually quite hilarious to read back as it clearly demonstrates the psychotic episode of a woman going completely insane. In the end I decided not to post it for risk of sounding too negatively opinionated about the sea. I hope you can forgive me.
The good news is that we are now safely in Rodrigues and refuelling our energy reserves. The island is charming. It has a relaxed Caribbean feel alongside tasty French desserts. We went for our first snorkel yesterday and today we hope to rent a scooter and do a spot of sight-seeing. Apparently there is a lot of interesting endemic wildlife here along with some impressive cave networks, which I’m very much looking forward to seeing.
Most of our boat jobs have been completed and we are ready to head back to sea once the time is right. We are keeping a close eye on the weather and assuming there are no major changes we hope to continue on to Madagascar on Wednesday morning. In the meantime, I am doing my best to repress the memories I have of the Indian Ocean so that I can bring myself to board Bob once again and head back to sea. It would be unfortunate for Rodrigues to acquire itself an illegal immigrant.
Sitting out in the middle of the Indian Ocean with a storm bearing down on us, just holding our breath and hoping it will go away. The forecast models still can’t agree on where this cyclone is going to go or what it’s going to do. Some say it’ll go West and sit over Northern Madagascar. Others say that it’ll go South and cut across our track about 400 miles to the West of us. Either way, we’re faced with sitting out here for four more days, doing nothing except watching films, reading books and trying not to be too nervous. There is an alternative though. Rodrigues Island lies 500 miles to the South West. That’s four and a bit days of sailing. It is also far enough East that none of the forecast tracks hit it and it would leave us no further from our destination in Madagascar than if we had simply stayed put. We’re tired and haven’t had a fun time of our Indian Ocean crossing. We’ve had relentless squalls for the past week and before that winds dead astern and sloppy seas. The lure of land is strong. So, we’ve decided to change our plan and head for Rodrigues. We have set sail and are now making 5.5kts South West under a triple-reefed mainsail and a little sliver of genoa. It’s pretty rough but Bob is handling things very well.
Since we’ve decided to make landfall earlier than expected we can afford to be a little more opulent with our supplies. So this morning I decided to make bacon and egg sandwiches for breakfast, with jus de baked beans. I managed Sarah’s sandwich successfully, but it was too much to expect to be able to pull off a second performance without a hitch. At the critical moment, just as the sandwich was being converted from a menagerie of parts into something of beauty and elegance; just as the bacon had been laid onto the toast but had not yet adhered to it with the aid of a liberal smearing of mayonnaise, a particularly large wave re-distributed my sandwich impressively. One bit of bacon was hurled across the cabin and slid down the side of the portable generator. The other bit of bacon landed on the floor and became one with the hairball in the corner. The mayonnaise on the toast worked beautifully as a glue, adhering it to the side of the companionway stairs. The beans, thank Neptune, we’re still safely contained in the pot on the stove. I picked up the pieces, and through careful timing with the swells managed to reconstruct the sandwich. There were some distinctly unusual textural aspects but overall I was determined to enjoy it. Sarah, meanwhile, having eaten and enjoyed her un-molested sandwich, proceeded to laugh at me. I couldn’t help but laugh along with her.
So that’s life on Bob, as we bob around out here trying to dodge cyclones. There’s another tropical depression to our North East that we need to be careful of in addition to the one we’re really concerned about. The French meteorologists on Reunion Island think it won’t amount to much but we don’t want to take any chances. It feels good to be sailing away from these things rather than just sitting like the proverbial duck with our fingers crossed.