The vast emerald island across the Mozambique channel, is not yet a readily accessible tourist destination. Strung in the crucible between the East and Africa, as it has been for thousands of years. Once a famous haunt for pirates and privateers in the 17 th and 18 th centuries, who swashbuckled and marauded the many treasure-laden vessels travelling the trade routes between the Red Sea, the Spice Islands and Europe. Madagascar's many quiet, tropical bays, offshore islands and relatively safe 'hurricane holes' - as well as friendly locals and friendlier local women, provided welcome sanctuary for pirates wanting to lay low, scrape yon barnacles from the bottom of their ships and brew a bit of island rum. Saint Augustine's Bay, Diego Suarez, Fort Dauphin and Ile St Marie are all Madagascan towns infused with pirate history, and surrounded by pirate graves.
Today, the world's 4 th largest island still attracts it's fair share of pirates whether they be Chinese businessmen with an eye on what's left of the indigenous rain forests, American NGO workers, feral ecotourists or Western hedonists (mostly French and Italians) fishing for Malagasy mermaids with tackle made up of fat wallets stuffed with Euros and empty promises of an easier life than being the wife of a 3 rd world fisherman.
The beauty of Madagascar lies in the fact that it is not yet a comfortable escape to paradise. Sure paradise exists, but you must pass through the bowels of a lower 3 rd world Babylon to reach it. Which means you have no illusions about the transience of your idyllic moments under a palm tree in the sun. It's realistic. In the North, the tourist mecca of Nosy Be, it's tropical jungle fringed islets and unspoilt coral reefs, it's crystal clear, warm blue waters alive with sailfish, humpback whales and dolphins - are only accessible via a tropical clusterfuck called Hellville. Reality being stranger than fiction, and irony playing no part; the name of the largest urban centre on this otherwise beautiful island is Hellville. So named after the French Generale de Hell, but that's just a coincidence. The name suits the jostled, decaying, tropical capital. It's the usual over-populated, densely compacted jumble of hardwood shanties, palm trees, corrugated iron roofs and the smoke from perpetual woodfires. The power station is a warehouse full of fuel oil generators beating away into the night. Churning out electricity and fumes. Sticky, fetid and alive with people and a fair amount of vice. Mainly sexual and some petty theft. Mosquito bites and hangovers. All set to Malagasy pop music and the nightly smell of sizzling Zebu meat. The next day you're skimming across warm, clear water in a traditional dhow. Camping on the beach, tempting lemurs with bananas and eating fresh, grilled gamefish with coconut rice and limes. Washing it down with Three Horse Beer - every bottle tastes a bit different - or the standard home-made vanilla rum and Coke.
Repoblikan'i Madagasikara, as the locals call the 4828kms of coastline 375 kms East of Maputo. It's a wonderful place: raw, exciting and entirely unaffected by the 1 st world faux-art of Political Correctness, that so cheapens our existence. It's honest. Pollution, poverty and prostitution mingle alongside unspoilt jungles and inquisitive lemurs, while well-heeled tourists park their million dollar catamarans offshore, floating on clean tropical water and effluent. According to my guidebook, the African continent has 1 species of Baobab, Madagascar 13. In the South, the lush tropical jungle gives way to dry, windswept thorn scrub. Strange spiky plants like coral trees and spiny dildos - the vegetation warns 'don't touch'. Navigate your way through the arid South's coastal capital. View the bustling markets on the back of a rickshaw, known locally as a pousse-pousse - sounds rude to a South African but it means push-push in French - powered by a wiry local who will act as your engine, bodyguard and guide - if the price is right. Play your cards right and you may find your way to one of the small fishing villages, with long white beaches, azure oceans and beachfront bungalow setups. Here you can count down the hours between meals and rums as you swing in a hammock and watch the local fishermen sail their pirogues out to sea on the morning offshore, and back to land, filled with fish, on the afternoon onshore winds. Island clockwork. A pirogue is a large dugout canoe with an outrigger tied to the side. Two small poles function as a mast with a bedsheet, or stitched together grain sacks, as a sail in between. A large, handheld wooden paddle functions as a rudder. Learning to sail a pirogue is a noble art, but the South has more to offer the average adventure sports enthusiast. The daily, steady winds and coral fringed barrier reefs and warm water creates a paradise for kite and windsurfers. The outer reefs boast good spearfishing and scuba diving. A few kilometres further offshore, depending on the wind and swell you might find the fleeting nirvana of perfect waves, breaking on shallow coral reefs. If the universe conspires, the tide is right, the wind not too strong, you may even get to slip into a long illuminated liquid tunnel. An ephemeral moment where the ocean opens up and allows you to thread yourself through it.
Then meander back to your bungalow, eat a Malagasy calamari salad, wash it down with another Three Horse Beer and pack your bags for the 3 rd world migration back to South Africa. Early morning motorboat, Zebu drawn cart, trashed-up taxi blaring Celine Dion's greatest hits, police roadblock and informal roadside negotiations. Airport baggage overweight negotiations, old school Boeing 737-200 circa 1981 via Fort Dauphin to Antananarivo, international customs negotiation and passport stamp, re-board old school Boeing 737-200 circa 1981, fly across the channel. Look down over Maputo, circle through the smog and land back in Joburg. Sigh, smile, scratch that mosquito bite and feel the sting of fresh sunburn.
I am waiting in the arrivals hall at the airport in Antananarivo. Friends have just arrived from South Africa, 45 minutes before our scheduled departure on a smaller plane to the South of Madagascar. The baggage claim is bedlam. The airport's organisational capacity is defunct because two planes arrived within 10 minutes of each other. If my friends can find their bags, and make their way passed the inquisitive customs official, we might just make our connection.
While I wait, I delicately scratch a mosquito bite on my calf with my big toe. A policeman sidles up to me and strikes up a conversation. The usual: where are you from, what are you doing here. A fair amount of friendly, smiling. He is portly with a few gold teeth. In my finest French, I tell him about our trip to Nosy Be, how beautiful Madagascar is. What a pleasure it is to be here.
'And the Malagasy women are very beautiful, too, non ?' He asks with a pervy wink.
'Wonderfully beautiful.' I agree, distracted by the sight of my friends scrumming for their bags on the carousel.
'Have you got a Malagasy girlfriend?' Asks the friendly policeman.
'Uh... no, I don't.'
'That's too bad.' he says. 'Would you like one?'
Whoa! What's this, a Malagasy sex tourism sting operation? Entrapment or entrepreneurialism?
'Um, not really.' I answer carefully.
''She's really beautiful.' He insists. 'Wait here, I'll go fetch her.'
'What? No wait.' I put a hand on his shoulder. He looks at it with that policeman look that says, now you've crossed the line, buddy. I remove my hand.
'You see, I'm travelling with my fiancée.' I explain.
'Hmmm.' He says shiftily. 'That's too bad.'
Deflated, he pauses to think. 'Is not possible for you to take both?'
'No.' I say rather too forcefully. 'Besides,' I smile, 'I'm supposed to be boarding a plane in 15 minutes.'
There's a long pause. Finally he says
'What did you bring your fiancée for?'
'Well, she's my fiancée.' I counter. 'We're getting married soon.'
'Oh.' He nods his head thoughtfully. 'Next time you come to Madagascar, don't bring her.' He advises. 'Malagasy women very beautiful, and good at fait l'amour .' He nods knowingly, then says nothing. Gives me the thousand yard stare.
We stand uncomfortably, silent, looking at people through the glass window scrumming for their bags on the carousel or having said bags thoroughly searched by the customs officer. I start to try and shift away from this noxious policeman. But he's quick, and well practiced. He closes the gap and gets up close to me and says, almost directly into my ear.
'Listen... uh... I helped you out, back there... You know,' He pauses. 'We almost had a deal.'
I look at him incredulously. No we didn't.
'So can you give me and my partner here some money, just a little something for a beer after work, un petit coup .' He points to a skinny, older cop with a worse set of teeth, who has been standing next to him all the while, now smiling a gummy smile at me.
I think about this for a moment. I'll certainly pay this fucker to leave me alone. But I'm not going to fish out my wallet and hand over cash to a policeman in the Arrivals hall of the nation's largest airport.
'I can't give you money in public.' I say.
'No!' He agrees, nodding his head enthusiastically. 'Go with my partner to the toilet.' He nods to the tall gummy one.
Yeesh Davis, how did you get into this one? Resigned, I start walking towards the bathroom, we enter a small corridor and I quickly pull out the equivalent of R20 and palm it off to the tall gummy cop. Just as I do this a Madagascan customs official rounds the corner. He says nothing. Barely registers the exchange. Gummy cop smiles and stuffs the cash into his pocket, then says thank you and shakes my hand.
We walk back to the Arrivals hall just in time to see my friends clear customs. The race is now on to make our connecting flight. Pushing a trolley at full speed, I round a corner and come face to face with the other cop with the gold teeth.
He stops my speeding trolley, by holding his hand up a la traffic police. He smiles a friendly smile.
'This money is only enough for two beers.'