Something strange happened at the end of our three-and-a-half-hour Airlink flight from Johannesburg to Nosy Be (“Big Island”), located 8km from the north coast of Madagascar. The Fascene Airport appeared to be a ghost town. Landing early meant that the ground crew wasn’t ready for us. And so we had to wait while they finished what we assumed was their lunch. That’s life.
It was somewhat similar when we stopped at an ATM. While my two travelling companions had no problems withdrawing cash with their VISAs, my use of a MasterCard meant that it wouldn’t work for me. And so I had to wait in a vestibule that felt like a sauna while the machine decided what it wanted to do. That’s life.
But there was no sense of frustration about bumpy roads – less than 20% of the country’s network is tarred – or impatience about “island time” when we boarded Maki Cat, a motorised catamaran from MadagasCaT Charters & Travel. Indeed, with all excursions, activities, and meals included, there wasn’t much to worry besides our daily agenda: sail, swim, snorkel, eat, drink, sleep, and repeat.
Indeed, with no Wi-Fi to distract us, we were free to slow down and chill out. That’s how we got to enjoy lazy afternoons reading books we never have time to enjoy at home or indulging in the kind of long naps our bodies crave. And let’s not forget about the evenings we spent sipping on G&Ts and refreshing Three Horses Beer, mesmerised by a sunset that painted the sky in spectacular shades of pink. #Bliss.
SEE: PICS: 9 Majestic Madagascar landscapes
Who exactly are the Malagasy?
There was more to do besides playing a guessing game of where other tourists are from based on accents, tans, and their tendency to wear speedos and bikinis well into old age. We got to meet the local people too.
Archaeologists estimate that the first humans settled in Madagascar between 350 BC and 550 AD. Joining these Austronesian people (who came in outrigger canoes from Borneo) were the Bantu migrants that crossed the Mozambique Channel in around 1000 AD.
Fast-forward to the present and the Malagasy people now have more than eighteen ethnic sub-groups, although DNA research shows that the average person has an equal blend of Southeast Asian and East African genes. Furthermore, over 40% of Madagascar’s 24 million people are under 15 years old.
But who are the local people? On our first evening, as the catamaran was anchored in the Barahamamay River, a few of them came to visit. First was a young boy, perhaps no older than eight, selling fresh crabs from a tiny boat he rowed by myself. Then came a man selling what we first thought was rum but later discovered was a concoction of chilli, lemon, and other secret ingredients.
“His name is Walker; like Johnnie Walker!” captain Stéphane laughed. “He used to live in Nosy Be [population estimated at 73,010 in 2013] but moved to a small village to get away from the stress. He also used to be a Rastafarian and still keeps his dreadlocks in a bag to wear them on Bob Marley’s birthday.”
SEE: Madagascar: The wild one
Vibrant community life
Given his name, it seemed appropriate that Walker showed us around the village, which we got to after a quick speedboat ride with Noel, the skipper and our ‘Uber’ on demand. Despite its small size, there was a variety of people: from women tending over dried rice to a man painting a large boat with a tiny brush.
During our walk, we met Alexis Daniel, a schoolteacher and priest. He showed us into the first classroom, where around thirty younger children greeted us with a well-rehearsed chant and were happy for any distraction to take them away from the books. (The older children in the classroom next door were a bit more nonchalant, a bit like pre-teens from elsewhere in the world.) He also showed us the small church where he conducts mass every week.
I couldn’t help but marvel at the immersive experience we were having as we toured the village through a maze of elevated homes, as ducks scampering underneath. And how inspiring it was to see that even in a country with a nominal GDP of only $390 per person, there was still a sense of vibrant community life, from the children who were all-smiles to an elderly man who showed off some impressive dance moves.
It was hard to understand everything Walker tried to say, making me wish I’d spent more time brushing up on my French before the trip – France colonised Madagascar in 1840 but the island gained independence in 1960 – but it was easy to interpret the pride as he showed us the place he calls home and a new boat he was almost finished building.
Misaotra anao, feno aho
Back on our own boat, while we savoured the silence and the rare chance to be outside in the fresh air, Frederique the chef was hard at work preparing our meals, the smells of which would arouse our curiosity whenever they wafted above deck. Pancakes with wild honey for breakfast. Crab and vegetable curries for lunch. Kingfish (caught fresh that morning) with Walker’s special island sauce for dinner. Tropical fruits for dessert. It wasn’t long before we learned the Malagasy way to say “thank you” (“misaotra anao”) and “I’m full” (“feno aho”), as much as we were reluctant to use the latter phrase.
“I’ve been in Madagascar for twenty-one years,” captain Stéphane said as we enjoyed a bottle of red wine with a pizza Frederique made from scratch. “I haven’t been back to France for over a decade. But it’s okay. I connect to the internet every two weeks. It’s enough.”
As I lay in bed for another early night, being rocked to sleep by the gentle waves while the full moon shone like a torch over the distant hills, I couldn’t stop thinking about the idea of disconnecting from the outside world to reconnect with the world inside. It made me think of the words from Solitude by Michael Harris:
“To walk out of our houses and beyond our city limits is to shuck off the pretense and assumptions that we otherwise live by. This is how we open ourselves to brave new notions or independent attitudes. This is how we come to know our own minds.”
SEE: Otherworldly Madagascar – Planet Earth's eighth continent
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Eugene Yiga was a guest of:
· Airlink (flyairlink.com), which offers direct flights from Johannesburg to Nosy Be, the 320-km2 volcanic island (with eleven volcanic crater lakes) that was called Assada during the early colonial era of the 17th century and has been given several nicknames over the years, including ‘Nosy Manitra’ (the scented island).
· MadagasCaT Charters & Travel (madagascat.co.za), which offers customised packages and tours, including a full-day cultural tour in Nosy Be visiting The Royal Palace, The Sacred Tree that is part of the Sakalava culture ‘Antakarana’, and sunset at Mont Passot, the second highest point of the island after Mont Lokobe.