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.

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.