If the bulk of travel journalism is to be believed then modern voyages are an endless buffet of luxury bush bungalows, delicious meals and unspoilt vistas. Much like the one described above. Paradise is linked to luxury and strung together by exciting and exotic episodes.
But let me remind you, travelling can suck. Sure, it doesn't have to. You could spend much of your hard earned boodle, tar your leisure route with dollars, hop a shuttle, fly first class and be cushioned in the lap of luxury all the way. You could also be boring, overweight, suffer from heartburn, parade a trophy wife on your arm, have more money than sense and a penchant for golfing weekends. But then you'd be on your way to Mauritius. You wouldn't be sitting next to me on the vintage (circa 1980s) Airlink Boeing 737 to Antananarivo. Airlink's grand old dame of the skies. She's had more take-offs and landings than you've had hot dinners, sonny. When you board you notice how, uh, retro she is.
Thankfully the old dame can still fly. We do not perish in a plummeting ball of flame and twisted fuselage. Looking down on clouds and the Mozambique Channel, you're not quite sure which way is up. Arrive at Madagascar's northern tourist mecca, Nosy Be. The airport is a small room near the runway with two doors: Arrivals and Departures. Drive through the dark jungle across the island from the airport to the city of Hellville, Nosy Be's poorly named capital. You can smell the ylang ylang trees as the fecund jungle exhales. Pull into Hellville, pass the huge power station, a massive warehouse filled with fuel oil generators, clanging through the night. The streets are bustling with people, the smell of Zebu meat roasting over a thousand wood fires. Jumbled homes line the street with windows flung open to let the smoke out and the air in. Wahid our trusty taxi driver deposits us at the Bellevue hotel, which boasts a rocking bar on the ground floor called La Porte Rouge...
Drop off bags, wash off the travel icky sticky and head upstairs for a quick rum before lights out.
Mohamed, our captain and guide for the next week meets us at the bar to discuss plans for departure. I stare dumbfounded at the string of beautiful Malagasy women, in skimpy attire, out to drague un Vaza (loose translation: to pull a white man) and get on the Malagasy welfare system. This is a constant theme in Madagascar. Ropy whiteys with local 'girlfriends'. According to the Malagasy woman I questioned on these matters, this is quite normal. It's not so much prostitution as an 'affair', un relation . Many Europeans send regular payments to their Malagasy mistresses, in exchange for fidelity. But what if you make the girl pregnant, I ask, incredulously.
'Well then you get to come on holiday frequently and watch your son grow up.' She said with a smile.
The boot of the old Renault does not close. Our bags hang precariously from the vehicle as it bounces over the potholes. The harbour is a functional mess. Touts fight and scuffle with each other for the right to carry our bags from the taxi, 100 meters across the harbour, to the boat. The feeling is of unfettered bliss as we leave the greasy mayhem of Hellville behind - and head into a scenery of organic jungle fringed islands floating in a clean, warm blue ocean. We stop and snorkel off Nosy Tanikely, a small island with an old defunct lighthouse and excellent corals. Swim with a variety of fish: clowns, parrots, triggers, kings, queens, sea horses, anemones, urchins - and a vast changing undersea landscape of hard and soft corals. I slowly morph into dolphin boy, hold my breath and investigate this undersea world until my eyes bulge and chest squeals for air. As I rise to the warmer surface water and clear my snorkel, my ears fart. It's a full body experience. Tropical immersion. Lounging on the deserted beach around the corner in my birthday suit. The thick Malagasy jungle rises up from the white sand beach and sighs with strange sounds of birds and limas, reptiles and odd goggatjies.
From Tanikely we sail to Nosy Sakatia, a small island perched off the East coast of Nosy Be. Our destination is Sakatia Towers - a small, immaculate kind of Guest House run by a rather eccentric South African guy. Eat, swim in the sea, drink, read book, eat, talk, drink, sleep. The island routine.
The next morning we head South West to Russian Bay, (and to the beginning of this little article). So named because in 1905 a Russian warship anchored there with orders to attack any passing Japanese ships during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905. Alas the crew took one look at Madagascan life and decided against war, and Russia. They opted to stay. Mostly the Russians were taken out by Malaria, but those who survived lived by fishing and selling anything they could scuttle from their warship.
Another day, another island. Nosy Komba is a large landmass to the South of Nosy Be. We dine on grilled fish and skewered prawns at a place called Chez Zou Zou. Across the way, a group of men sit in a courtyard and play traditional music with a djembe and a handmade wooden guitar in the shape of a Fender. Another dude has a shaker, while the last just bangs his flip flops on the wall percussively. I fall asleep to the sound of frustrated mosquitoes trying to get into our net and the radio in the hut next door, belting out Madagascan pop tunes, one of which has ripped the melody from Johnny Clegg's 'Dela'. As I drift to sleep: 'I think I know why the dog howls at the moon'.
One last snorkel before heading back to Hellville. Float face down like a visiting astronaut peering into another galaxy. Swim with turtles and chase large schools of beautiful blue fish. Returning to Hellville is a rude awakening. People are shouting and clamouring to board our boat. Hands reaching, grabbing at bags. It's bedlam. Some dodgy 'official' reckons we have to pay a fee for disembarking through his boat. Impromptu tourist taxes are common in Madagascar. Mohammed argues vociferously on our account and soon wins out. He selects four touts to lug our bags and advises us to keep an eye on them.
For the last night, before our early morning flight, we head out to Ambatoloka, a touristique village on the coast a little way out of Hellville. Compared to our dhow, this is positively crappy. Our beachfront bungalow hones like a public latrine and as I am later to learn, is where the vast majority of Ambatoloka's mosquitoes live. I eat Zebu steak and Madagascan green peppercorns at a nice little resto called Chez Bebeto. Opposite is a bar filled with Malagasy working girls and the odd, middle-aged French legionnaire. Return to the latrine for some kip before we fly. Feeling deeply tropical, and somewhat cocks-sure, I shun the mosquito net. Get stuck like a pincushion. A veritable cloud of mosquitoes feast on my Tabard-basted flesh. I am glad to leave Ambatoloka.
Le FinThe real fun of travelling in Madagascar is that you're not walking in the footprints of a million other tourists. Unlike Mozambique, the channel and the French language have guarded this massive island from the exploits of rotund, zealous 4x4 and beach fishing enthusiasts from South Africa. Instead you mingle with ropy French and amorous Italians in the grip of mid-life crisis. It won't last, nothing does, but by visiting you at least can play a small part in how this beautiful tropical island develops as a tourist destination.