Ile St. Marie and Ile aux Nattes

The first time I went to Madagascar, I only visited the mainland, and only a small part of the south at that. This time around, I wanted islands, and paradise can easily be found in the Malagasy Islands.

the mainland was great for National Parks, like this one, Ankarana

Antananrivo, the capital, is basically in the middle of Madagascar. The road that goes to the east coast is okay until Tamatave, or Toamasina, Madagascars second biggest city. But from there north, the kilometres pass by a lot slower, and the road slowly ends just after the port for Ile St. Marie where the first unbridged river crossing makes travel further north a bit more complicated. You can take a ferry only once or twice a day out to Ile St Marie, if the weather allows, from Soanierana-Ivongo. They say it takes 1 hr and 15 mins, but by the time the ferry is loaded and departs an hour late, the trip takes 2-3 hours.

leaving behind the filth of Tana’s city

Setting foot on Ile St Marie is like arriving to a new world. The filth and clutter or Tamatave seem countries away, and the roads on the island are paved and sealed (for the most part). Tamatave’s rickety cycle carriages are replaced by brand spanking new rickshaws, and tourists wander between the hotels, restaurants and bars. You can travel to the south extreme of the island and take a pirogue taxi to Ile aux Nattes, a place that made even Ile St Marie seem crowded.

There are no roads or cars on Ile aux Nattes, but the occasional scooter gets shipped over on a very narrow, unstable canoe once in a while. The trail through the island can be done in under an hour, and at the end of the road is the very charming Hotel Les Lemuriens, which actually has 2 resident black-and-white ruffed lemurs.

The best place to stay was Chez Sica, a beachside heaven where you can rent a private bungalow for less than €10 a night. The bar is always missing its bartender, and one cook shows up for breakfast, and another can be ordered for lunch or dinner. But surviving on avocados and Three Horse Beer usually worked fine throughout the heat of the day, and we always found a kitchen open for fresh grilled fish and sautéed vegetables in the evening.

Chez Sica

If you ever go there, try to spend all your time on Ile aux Nattes, since you can hotel hop for a whole week. If you do want to stay on Ile St. Marie, try the Libertalia, which has an infinity pool and a dock out to a little island where the snorkeling is excellent. Watch the sunset form L’Idylle beach restaurant with a cocktail, and eat steak at Chez Nath’s, who also has a dock out to the seat that’s excellent for sundowners. But don’t rent a scooter; within the first 5 minutes of arriving I witnessed another fatal accident where our rickshaw drove around a mangled scooter and bloody corpse. This is still Africa.

Great Zimbabwe

I could have backtracked thru Mozambique to get back to South Africa, but that didn’t sound nearly as fun as cutting thru Zimbabwe and having the chance to visit the county’s medieval namesake. Great Zimbabwe is thought to be one of the most advanced civilizations in Africa during the middle ages, and it was continually inhabited until the 15th century with as many as 18,000 residents. Today you can walk around the ruins, the hill top fortress, and wonder what it must have been like to live there in its heyday.

Tess and I in Great Zimbabwe

I was in near the Zim border on the Mozambique side in Chimoio with a Dutch backpacker named Tess, and we wanted to make the 350*km trip in one day. It was a Sunday, which means fewer ‘chapas’ (buses) that don’t fill early, but we were lucky enough to be on the road shortly after 7. The bus we were on said it was going to the border, but stopped one village short of it and shyly asked us to take another bus.

We met an American doctor at our hostel in Chimoio who had been through the same border a handful of times. She had no idea how much the visa would cost, since it ranged from $30 to $80 depending on when and who crossed, but once she got thrown into jail for under-staying her visa. She said she would stay the weekend in Zim, but came back a day early, and they charged her with ‘fraud.’ 20-some odd days later, she bought her freedom from a guard for $5, who simply left her door open and she walked back to Mozambique, without any belongings, or a passport. I’m still not sure how or why something like that happened, or how she got back into Mozambique, but I intended on buying my visa on arrival for the exact amount of days I needed.

sunset from the top of the Great Zimbabwe fortress

We crossed the border 3 hours later, with a $30 visa, and had to make 2 more connections. First we went to the bus station at the border town Mutare, and bought our $8 tickets to Masvingo. It’s strange how much more expensive Zimbabwe is than Mozambique, especially since its one of, if not the poorest countries in Africa (according to the Africa Wealth Report and Global Wealth Report in 2015-2017). Zimbabwe used to be one of the richest countries in Africa, as recently as the year 2000, with tons of gold reserves still unexploited, but after a whole lot of corruption and inflation, the local Zimbabwean money in million and billion dollar notes had to be traded out for the US dollar. They have print money and coins that are different, but it’s the same value, and even the locals don’t trust them so they prefer US bills.

From Masvingo, we took a shared taxi the last 25 km to Great Zimbabwe, and though we didn’t expect great things for accommodation, the so-called ‘hostel’ they had there resembled more closely a prison bunk. The bathrooms were fitting to the theme; the toilet stalls had no doors, but I did walk thru a spiderweb to get to it, and the showers were simply pipes that opened from above. I couldn’t brush my teeth in the sink because 3 massive bugs that looked like a hybrid of queen bees and swollen termites were still scrambling for their lives to get out of the slippery basin.

the secret passage

Great Zimbabwe itself was, to my relief, still worth the trip, even with the shanty accommodation. Tess and I watched the sunset from the fortress, shared with a group of animated baboons, and got back up at sunrise to explore the various ruins and relics many-hundreds of years old. I remember going through the secret passage in the Great Enclosure and wondering out loud, ‘if only walls could speak,’ then all the gaps of time and decay could be filled with stories of what Great Zimbabwe once was.

The ups and downs of Mozambique

Traveling in Madagascar was what I imagined Mozambique to be, but now Mozambique has developed an entirely different identity. I don’t know why, but it threw me when I left Swaziland and entered a place where the default tourist language was Portugese. I tripped over some kind of Spanglish, and had to smile to see these Africans speaking like native Brazilians, and eventually I got used to it. The UN named Mozambique the 4th worst in the world for human development in 2011, and Mozambique is still one of the poorest countries in Africa (according to GDP per capita), yet everyone I know has been or wants to travel there.

can’t get tired of this

The tourism appeal is huge – endless Indian Ocean coast, with whale sharks and coral reefs to dive, waves to surf, and the interior full of forests and elephants to trek. The country is also huge – it would take weeks just to travel thru Mozambique from South Africa to Tanzania, and heading inland to Zimbabwe or Malawi adds another few weeks. The roads were fine in the south, with a selection of buses, chapas, shared taxis and 4×4’s to hitchike. In central Mozambique, an unstable place declared to have been ‘at war’ until just recently (apparently December 2016 was the end), the only road connecting the north and south has been overtaken by potholes, and the burnt-out, rusted skeletons of cars and buses still stand on the side of the road throughout a stretch of a few hundred kilometers.

the wonderful ladies that made my trip unforgettable.

I hitchhiked this section of road, since buses havent yet started carrying passengers between Vilankulos and Chimoio. I had a Dutch friend with, and we lucked out with a local that could explain the conflict and what it was like to travel through the area the last few years. Apparently people would wait on the side of the road, closest to the worst potholes or largest speedbumps, and ambush the slowed down vehicles. People were shot, cars were lit on fire, and bridges were controled by bribes. We still had to bribe a few ‘official’ soldiers at these checkpoints, but noone tried to shoot us, even though they were all armed. The driver said there was a fire just 2 days ago, and pointed to a freshly abandoned bus still partly on the road, but ‘it must have been an accident.’

sanddunes on Bazarutu Island

Traveling by bus was always a fun challenge. The price was always set and I never paid more than anyone else, but negotiating the best seat in the over-stuffed mini van was never in your control. The departure time was always unclear, since they just left when they were full, and the travel time depended on when and where passengers wanted to get out. The first few km’s would always go quickly, but the closer you got to your destination, the more the bus started stopping, and the last 2 or 3 km’s would always take the longest – unbearably slow to the point it sometimes made sense to get out and walk.

Tess cramped into her bus seat

Maputo wasn’t anything worth staying for, though all sorts of travelers and guide books seem to rave about it as one of the best African cities. African cities are never the attraction, just large, crowded, filthy, smelly and often dangerous areas of countries with much more to offer. I headed straight to the beach – Tofo and Vilankulos. Nearby was always an island or two, and the most amazing coral reef off the coast of Bazarutu island I’ve seen since the Great Barrier Reef. I saw more types and colours of corals I knew existed, and a strange type of starfish called a Harlequin –  a ferocious little star-fish eating monster.

a tidal island in Inhambane bay to go shell picking

Mozambique was also full of disappointments. We went on an Ocean Safari in Tofo to see whale sharks, but spotted no whale sharks (even after taking the journey 2 or 3 times since the sighting was meant to be ‘guaranteed). We went to Flamingo Bay and saw no flamingos. We went on a Seahorse safari in Inhambane bay and saw no seahorses. Finally, we went elephant trekking near Chimanimani National Park and succeeded in finding only foot prints and day old poop. Mozambique was full of monkeys, baboons and macaques, and definitely wins for largest mosquitoes. I would actually feel the mosquitoes land on me before they managed to bite me, so luckily I left with few bites, and no malaria.

 

Adventures in South Africa

I kind of ended up accidentally in South Africa. After my 30th birthday in Mauritius, country #201, I had only a few one-way options out. London, Dubai, Johannesburg, or one of the Indian Ocean islands I had already been to. It wasn’t nearly time to go home, so South Africa was an obvious choice, even though I’ve already been there twice.

up close and personal with a Kruger elephant

I flew into Johannesburg, where I had a couchsurfing friend I met 6 years ago in Rwanda to stay with. Thru the wonderful world of facebook, I realized two Latvian friends, who I know from Iceland, had also just arrived in Johannesburg. They had rented a bright yellow VW we nicknamed ‘Lil’ Miss Sunshine’ and spontaneously left for Kruger the very next morning. There we spent 2 days on a self-drive safari, saw 4 of the Big 5, and nearly got trampled by an angry elephant bull three times the size of our Lil Miss Sunshine (I don’t think they like yellow).

me and the Latvians at Berlin Falls

On the way, we stopped in Nelspruit, where we couchsurfed with a woman, all her cats and one Jack Russell Terrier I had to share my couch with. Her boyfriend is part of the band Minanzi Mbira, and we watched one of their rehearsals in a storage garage late at night, joining in for the precussion bits with drums, triangles and shakers.

the orphanage

We roadtripped past waterfalls, swimming holes, the Bourke’s Luck Potholes, and thru the Blyde River Canyon, taking countless selfies from all the panoramic views along the way. Later we went to Durban, visiting the valley of 1000 hills. We visited an orphanage, ate Indian food that tasted even better than food in India, and then went our separate ways, I, to Lesotho.

the chain ladder up to Tugela

Later I roadtripped with my South African host to Golden Gate National Park and the Drakensberg, where we frolicked inbetween and ontop of mountains, with stunning views down to the Irish-green valleys. The chain ladder up to Tugela Falls nearly gave me vertigo, but it was all worth it once we got to the top and went skinny dipping in one of the frigid pools above the falls – the world’s second highest.

On top of Lion’s Head, with Table Mountain in the background

I spent a week in Cape Town, including a day of wine tasting in Stellenbosch. I stayed in SeaPoint, and one of the roomates there had a horse we could giddyup. We spent our days beaching, or hiking at Newlands Forest and Kirstenbosch Garden. There was a swing dance festival kicking off my last night there, and lots of great coffee, wine, and food everyday.

My base for all these adventures was Johannesburg, which I had never really thought of as more than just a base. Its reputation for being a big, sprawling, dangerous city really changed when I got to spend a few weekends tieh locals, exploring the restaurant and nightlife scene. Neighbourgoods Market was a major highlight, a Saturday food and beverage festival where an old fried from UBC randomly sat across the picnic table from me. After giving eachother long, awkward glances (neither of use could remember eachothers names or just where exactly we knew eachother from – or if we were just doppelgangers), I finally asked where he was from, and answered ‘Vancouver’ in a perfect Canadian accent. Then our worlds collided as we remembered all the stories, friends, and parties from Totem, our residence dorm, 10 years ago. Small world, eh?

Madagascar

I’ve literally procrastinated one month to write a blog on Madagascar, because I feel it’s impossible to put into words. Malagasy words are also impossible to remember – lots of letters and syllables. But now I’ll attempt to rant in some coherence about all the crazy, indescribable, and magical things that happened (not all good), and what a wonderful surprise it was to enjoy traveling there as a solo-female.

Tritriva Lake with my biking guide

My first moments in Antananarivo (aka Tana) were a bit stressful. Everyone I had left behind in Reunion told me to be careful, and that it would be dangerous. I landed just after sunset, which is always a bit discombobulating, and the airport didn’t seem like a very big or important international airport, or at least not an airport serving the capital city. I walked out to the small arrivals hall, filled with only taxi drivers, exchanged some money, bought a sim card, and took a taxi 45 mins to town for a little more than 10 euros.

The road was also dark, no kind of major highway, but we hit one traffic jam. There were hordes of people rushing from the dark to the road, and someone exclaimed ‘2 dead!’ It was a car accident, where a truck had rear ended a scooter. Its two passengers were scattered, meters apart and yards ahead of the shredded scooter, and only one helmet lay a few inches from the drivers head. My taxi driver simply drove on the curb to get around it, and didn’t seem at all bothered by the sight. It took me a few days to shake the image, though I can still recall it, slightly more blurry, but it still makes me gasp.

Another day I was on a bus that got stopped by an entire school of children. Everyone stood roadside in their uniform while a teacher held a life-less girl in his hands. She was board-stiff, so still alive enough to have all her muscles clenched. I guess she must have had some kind of seizure, but they couldnt fit her into our full bus, and the next car that passed took her to the hospital. I wonder what happened to her.

My first couchsurf hosts were actually some Turkish guys that had just moved there, and had seen almost as much as I had of Madagascar. I reached out to a couple other locals – one gave me a walking tour of the lower, middle, and upper cities of Tana, and another took me fishing. We didnt catch anything, but it was still fun, and he taught me the basic Malagsy words I’d need to know to greet people well enough to think, just for a moment, I spoke Malagsy.

a zebu cart taking me out to my boat to Anakao

I have 1 friend that lives on and off in Madagascar, and 3 friends who had recently backpacked Madagascar, so I asked them for some tips. Strangely enough, they came back with very similar ideas and itineraries, so I ended up traveling the N7 from Tana south to Toliara and surrounds. I spent a night in Anakao where I was the only tourist on the beach. I had the only bungalow rented out, I ate dinner alone, and I shared the beach with a plethora of children. There were always a lot of children in public areas, and never any parents. There were kids driving zebu-carts (zebu are the cattle in Madagascar), and kids alone in the middle of the open sea in dug-out canoes (some to paddle, others to sail with sails made out of old clothes) fishing with nets. Its strange how that makes you feel safer, but it definitely does.

my bungalow at Anakao

Then I went to Ifaty, or Mangily, I never figured out the difference, and visited a forest of baobabs and cactus-like trees. I saw some strange bugs and birds and then got escorted by my hotel security for a late-night walk, just before he proposed sleeping in my bed. I said no, quite politely, and he said ‘okay thank you, just had to ask. Good night!’

one fat baobab and a cactus tree fence

People had warned me that buses break down a lot in Madagascar, and it never happened, except for the two ways to Ifaty and back. Both ways, only 20 km, took hours to complete. One bus went up in smoke and we waited on the side of the road at high noon until they figured out someway to stop it. Another had the gas peddle stuck and the car stayed revving up its engine for a good 20 minutes, black exhaust smoke spitting out behind it until they also finalyl figured out what was wrong. They always did.

a ring tailed lemur at Anja Reserve

People also warned me about broken bridges. Luckily none broke when we were driving over them, but we passed 3 that I could clearly see had collapsed unexpectedly. One was on the way to Ranomofana National Park, a place where I stayed 3 days, also the only tourist at the auberge. I took a 8 hour hike through the park, a lush valley of greenery, rivers, waterfalls and of course, lemurs. Noone warned me about the leeches though, and those suckers were thirsty for blood. I actually had to pick them out from between my toes, where they had slithered to through my shoes and socks! some even crawled up my leg and I had to pinch one off my calf the size of my thumb. Ew. My guide kept reminding me it wasn’t life-threatening, which I knew, but its still gross.

Not much was gross in Madagascar. For an African country, it wasn’t even that polluted or smelly. All of the accomodation I stayed at were clean enough, just the occasional cockroach and a few mosquitos, except for one night. In that same bus stop I got stuck at with the slaughtered chicken. There I ended up spending a few hours at a guesthouse the size of a prison cell where you werent sure if the floor or walls were dirtier. There were smears of brown, maroon and yellow, all fluids I couldn’t recognize, and opening the mosquito net revealed more blood spots and dead mosquitos than were already in the room. I couldnt decide if it was better to sleep under it or not, and eventually just covered myself in bug spray and lay on the bed under my silk-liner.

I usually went to bed shortly after sunset, maybe around 8 pm, and I always  rose before sunrise, maybe 5 am. The streets were bustling by 5:30, and all the buses departed for their destinations by 6am. Traveling a mere 150km could take 4 hours, and I took one 20 hour trip with only 4 hours of stops. One bus station I got stuck at unexpectedly, in a small bus-change city, was a small parking lot with a few buses and passengers waiting around, and not much else. As I stood there thinking about how hungry I was. a man walked infront of me with a chicken in his hand, a knife in the other, and stood on its wings while it slit its throat, right there in the parking lot. It bled out in a minute and stopped twitching after another, and he casually returned with the chicken to a food stall to prepare dinner. Needless to say, I lost my appetite.

rainy season makes everything green, especially the rice fiels

It was the tail-end of rainy season, but I managed to almost always miss the rain. I could see the dark clouds in the distance, and often heard lightning, but I never saw the thunder and the sun still shone overhead. During my long bus rides, we’d sometimes drive through a rainshower, or pass one by just to the side of the road. I was unlucky enough to once get stuck in the window seat where a window was stuck open, and got drenched to everyone’s entertainment. I thought I had figured out the best seat in the bus – the one beside the driver in the front – until I got into a stick shift van and the driver had to maneuver the gear stick between my legs for 6 hours.

I saw a guy working on paving the road in flip-flops, and the soles of his shoes had melted onto a layer of tar that must have made it really hard (and hot) for him to walk. There was a guy who threw a butterfly at me from out his passenger window when we passed, and I wondered if it was a nice gesture or not. I guess its better than getting hit by someone spitting out the window, which also happened to a few people.

Isalo national park

There were the most beautiful big blue butterflies floating around, and these little robin birds with bright red and orange stomachs. There was a boy who passed my in the street and sniffed me as he walked by. I never really understood if that was a good or bad gesture either. The kids I saw on the beach also had strange reactions; one splashed me, which may have been playful, but another threw a handful of wet sand at me from behind, which was a little mean. Others tried to

Both men and women like to wear hats, all kinds of hats. Straw hats, baseball caps, bucket hats, and their Sunday’s best hats. The local hat fashion was usually a multi-coloured woven straw hat, which sometimes just fit like bowls on the tops of people’s shaven heads. It was beautiful to see how people had shiny, new hats, or at least very well taken care of hats, but their clothes were in rags and their shoes were either filthy or non-existent.

Madagascar was a pleasant surprise. In general, I never felt danger, I never felt lost, I never felt abused or taken advantage of, and I even think I barely got ripped off. And if I did, it was only for half a dollar at most. I thought Madagascar would be a bit weirder, more other-worldly, exotic to the point of unrecognition – but, it was very familiar. I’ve never been to Mozambique, but I imagine it was very similar to Mozambique.

 

What to know about visiting North Korea

After traveling to North Korea and receiving the various reactions from people before and after I returned, I thought about writing a blog that would answer the most common questions and curiosities. For anyone that wants to go to North Korea, drop me a line since I can now hook you up with a tour and a tourist visa 🙂

  1. The food and drinks were plentiful and delicious! I met a South Korean who said North Korea has better beer, which I have to agree with, and the amount of rice wines and strange alcohol meant we were tasting something new every day… except for the strange schnapps with a whole snake inside. The food was served in cute little plates, a buffet of meat and vegetables, eaten with metal chopsticks, and their famous cold noodle soup (buckwheat noodles in a broth flavoured with mustard, vinegar and chili) was a specialty worth trying. Their “sweet” meat soup, aka dog soup, was something I skipped.
  2. You will always be isolated or somehow filtered from the public. Your lunch meal will be eaten alone in a room fit for 50 people, but it will only be the tourist(s), and a handful of servers, walking in and out of the room with enough food to feed an army. Your sightseeing will be shadowed by your appointed guide, and once you’re in the hotel you’re only surrounded by other tourists (mostly Chinese) and can’t leave the building.
  3. You are not allowed to make any transactions in their local currency, the Korean won. You must pay for things in Chinese yuan, US dollars or Euros, and keep them in small denominations – things cost very little. For example, a ride on the metro is 5 cents.
  4. There are only a couple of media channels, and all are run by the government – magazines, radio and television. Newspapers or other print material always have an image of Kimg Jong Il or Kim Il Sung, so it is not permitted to crumple, throw into the garbage, or sit on the newspapers – since this would be an act of disrespect to their leaders.
  5. Cameras and smartphones are allowed, and you are allowed to take pictures of anything you like – except labourers and military. I still managed to take photos of some construction workers (but was scolded for it) and a selfie with a soldier, but portrait photographs were discouraged and local people didn’t seem excited to be captured in the background.
  6. Koreans who do speak English will usually ask you “what is your impression” when they want to know your opinion on something. This seems like a loaded question if its about the DPRK, but they just want to know what you think of North Korea. And a hint for the wise – don’t be too honest if you have negative things to say, especially concerning politics or warfare.
  7. The roads are wide and cover the whole country, but their in terrible condition and barely any cars drive them. Be prepared for a long and bumpy ride if you leave Pyongyang, but definitely get out of Pyongyang to visit the mountains, Buddhist temples, and endless field of rice that made the country feel so green and peaceful.

If you’d like to visit North Korea, please send me a message or reply to this post with a comment. I am excited to be working directly with the North Korean tourism agency, booking private tours of groups of 2 up to 10. I think its fun to be promoting a bit of exposure both to those who want to visit the misunderstood DPRK, and for the local Koreans to have the chance to meet more of the outside world.