Voyage is the destination
Madagascar is a time warp. A paradigm shift away. I was in love with the big island before the plane landed. 4 hours flying East from Johannesburg; this vast, undiscovered chunk of earth, the size of a small continent. The sight of land from the air, emerging out of the blue Mozambican channel had me craning out the window, face smoeshed up against the perspex. Turquoise seas, and coral fringed islands, ten kilometres below. Red sand tributaries feeding big red rivers, like snakes cut into the topography, the land's veins and capillaries, flushing into murky sea estuaries. No roads, no cities, lush jungles, mountains and valleys. From the air, the capital Antananarivo (or simply Tana) looks like Tuscany must have a century ago. Rolling red sand hills dotted with green shrubs. Dust roads, rusted corrugated iron roofs atop old colonial French style houses. That pleasant warm rush of air and the punge of jet fuel greets us as the plane door is ptssshed open like a beer can. The airport is small and easy. Customs formalities are slow and relaxed, with a dark, skinny moustachioed official.
'Open zees bag.' He says. Surfboards, rash vests, flippers, mask, snorkel, ding repair, fins...
'What's zees?' He says holding up my wetsuit. Should have known I wouldn't need it. He loses interest. Nods for me to move on.
Once processed and stamped, we head straight back to the departure hall to catch our one hour flight to the South West. The most beautiful girl is working the Air Madagascar check-in. Check out. The Malagasy people are a distinct mixture of African and Asian. The first inhabitants of the island were thought to be Malay-Polynesians, East Africans crossed the Mozambique channel as well as Arab traders, Portuguese and French colonists and a few pirates all added their DNA to the island's genetic potjie. At one stage in the 17 th century, historians reckon there were as many as 1000 English, French, Dutch, Portuguese and American pirates operating from Madagascar's East coast, using it as a convenient base to attack and plunder the passing sea trade between Europe and the spice islands of Indonesia.
'Vous etes trop lourdes, monsieur.' I know it. She wants us to pay extra for being overweight. We argue in a broken, phonetic kind of French sign language. They conduct a mini Air Madagascar check-in conference. Adding up all the weights of our many surfboards. They are bad at maths. Eventually they load our bags for free. She smiles sweetly. Hands over the boarding passes, and we board the same plane. Free seating. Tuna sandwiches and Soda Fruit Orange . Madagascan Fanta. We land in the desert. Hot, dry and dusty. We're met at the airport by Libe, our caddy, we load all the boards on a combi, tie them down with hessian string and drive to the port. Through the palm tree lined, ramshackle town. The whole place is permanently under construction. Pass smoothly through the obligatory roadblock. Lazy soldiers, leaning on their machine guns. The officers seated on plastic chairs in the shade, alongside the road. The port is a mudflat. At low tide the boats flop, humiliated, on their sides in the mud. At the end of a long concrete jetty, stretching into the deeper water, cargo ships get unloaded by a single crane. The containers are piled high.
We load all our fancy surf equipment onto rickety zebu drawn carts. Zebus are Madagascan cows with massive upright horns. The drivers abuse the zebus in a language the sound of sucking a sour lemon through your teeth, interspersed with a range of clicks.
'Katik! *suck *click* Hatik!'
Under the whip and a foot jammed up their ass, the beasts are coaxed along the mudflat. Kids run alongside the Zebu carts. 'Monsieur, monsieur. Cadeaux!' Demanding presents. The Zebus drag us, atop our little wagons, through the shallows, to the speedboat bobbing in the deeper water. A sleek yellow beast with two engines and a proud driver, Kamil, who looks like Chris Eubank, with bad teeth. He smiles shyly and welcomes us aboard. And we cruise.
As the sun mellows and dips towards the horizon we are bouncing rhythmically across the waves, warm salty wind and sea splashes; far, far away from home. Cruising inside the barrier reef, land to the left, waves to the right. We pass a few rural fishing villages and an imposing river mouth flanked by cliffs. We hook a left at some inviting little three foot waves and park the boat in the shallows. Hop off and lug the boards into a wooden bungalow, the games room, of the Safari Vezo beach resort.
It's a small, subsistence fishing village on the South West coast of Madagascar. There is no electricity or running water. The people live in family compounds fenced off with prickly pears, aloes and other strange, thorny indigenous plants that warn, 'don't touch'. The ground water is brackish, but consumable. The majority of people here have the same job. Fishing. They do it different ways; spearguns, lines and nets. No one is using dynamite. Yet. Albeit, the surrounding reefs are picked clean. And the fishermen have to sail far out to sea on their wooden pirogues. Pirogues are long thin wooden kayaks with an outrigger and what often looks like a bed sheet, or a series of grain sacks sewn together, as a sail. And they are master sailors. Launching daily, early in the morning, with the prevailing offshores. Sailing beyond the barrier reef and into the open ocean to catch their fish. Like clockwork, by the early afternoon the wind switches and they make their way home. A few months previous to our arrival 60 men from the village sailed out one morning into a tropical cyclone. They never returned.
The sea gives and takes. The work is hard, over the years the hot sun has burnt them all dark chocolate brown. The high protein diet and the daily toil shapes strong, sinewy muscles. You mind your manners. It's hand to mouth. And the people are more real than most. Subsistence life is simple. Catch your food and eat it. Those who are healthy and good hunters are rich. The poor, the infirm and the elderly pick the mudflats clean at low tide. And that's just how it is. At the same time advances in medical care and vaccinations have resulted in a steady population increase, putting further pressure on the reefs that provide.
Stuff found on the beach:
Hammerhead shark skull
Those big spiky shells people keep on their mantle pieces
Hardwood planks (black and weathered)
Turtle shells and bones
Shark vertebrae (all connected)
They eat turtles in Madagascar. We visited a local homestead. Walked through the front yard. Passed women sitting around cleaning pots, killing time. A little girl smiled and said, 'bonjour,' through a hairlip. And there in the back, tied to a tree was a huge, old turtle. I touched his back, he opened an eye and looked at me. I offered to buy the turtle and release him. But Kamil explained that it would be bad luck, 'fadi' (taboo) to sell the turtle to a white man. And besides someone would have followed us out and captured it again. Turtles represent the ocean's bounty. They are a feast and a blessing, explained Kamil. It was like visiting a friend on death row. Both of us powerless; caught up in cycles beyond our control.
They ate the turtle two days later.
The largest contributor to Madagascar's GDP is tourism. The second is it's natural resources (wood, coffee, sugar, cocoa and vanilla). In many places along the road between Tana and Tulear the local population slave daily to cut down and burn the indigenous forest that sustained their ancestors for millennia. Just to make charcoal to sell. When you're that poor you'll eat everything in the jungle, then chop down the jungle and ship it off to make tables and doors and lattices for the homes of people like us. Hand to mouth in the global economy. Then burn what's left of the forest to make charcoal. The large scale devastation, or 'exploitation' of Madagascar's natural resources is slowed only by the pitiful state of the national infrastructure. There are no roads in Madagascar, save a pot-holed, barely tarred, 4x4 artery running the 1500km odd North/South length of the island. Tourism has been earmarked as the big island's great salvation. Bring in the first world pleasure seekers to fund Madagascan social and economic development, and hopefully preserve the wildlife. Yet cash, like water, always follows the path of least resistance. And we surfers step blindly into this breach. Feigning ignorance. 'It's not my problem, bra.' Slipping neatly between the cracks and into the line-up. Pleasure seeking pirates of the new age.
The Zsa Zsa Club is the only nightspot in the vicinity. Tourists, male and female alike, are often set upon and duly fondled by the local pick-up artists, and prostitutes. A direct hand to crotch grab and gentle squeeze is widely reconised as the 'Malagash handshake', and makes for a very direct business proposition. There is no doubt that a lot of tourists come to Madagascar to participate in the freely available sex tourism industry. Interestingly it seems to work both ways. It is not uncommon to see middle-aged French women shacking up with young, muscled Malagasy fishermen.
But the real beauty of Madagascar is that it's not yet a comfortable escape to paradise. There is no suspension of disbelief. You cannot block out the local population from behind the wall of the Hyatt or Club Med. You cannot clip on the 1 st world survival mechanism of denial. When you visit Madagascar you confront the poverty and the beauty together. The place is raw, beautiful, undiluted. Eden meets Babylon on the beach. The development of a viable tourism industry will potentially slow down the ecological destruction and perhaps even foster a culture of environmental protection. As long as there's money to be made. Inevitably things will change. That much is sure.
As days melt into each other, the swell drops off and there is more time for exploration. Even in the desertified South West there is a huge variety of strange plant and animal life. Miles of sand, succulent coral trees, sisal, aloes and a weird spiny plant we dubbed, 'spiky dildoes'.
Sitting around, getting drunk again. Eating toasted baguettes swathed in chili oil. Fresh fish. Homemade rum. The days run into each other. In the long hourse between snorkelling and eating, you start to get the feeling people are rifling through your stuff. Not stealing anything big or important, like money, passports or clothing - but nicking some of your ganja. Having a few extra nips from your whisky bottle, stashed in the cabin. It's like a sin tax. It's hard to get angry or even take it seriously. Comparatively, we just have so much stuff. Some of the Malagasy are playful and mischievous like that. The guy I suspected of lifting my herb, offered to share his spliff with me... It was like a nod and a wink. You had to laugh.
Too much time without waves, on a surf trip and the tension begins to rise. It's another long hot day. Flat. That itchy feeling, fearing the skunk. Praying for waves. Beers at lunch. By evening we're all on the Malagash rum. Excellent stuff. Makes you feel like a pirate, which is not far from the truth. Top draw. First class. The more we drank, the more we knew there'd be waves. So we drank more to make sure they'd be big.Wake up early to the sound of waves. Thick and chunky slices of blue and white on the horizon. Hangover victims moving quickly, against the odds, in the first morning light. Motor out to the right hander. Fresh salt water permeates the dreamy consciousness. I catch a wave first, hardly awake, but then feel the push of last night's prawns (delicious), beating at the gate. Nothing like setting the kids free in the water on a surf trip. It's a talent, really. Warmed up and wide awake. A few good waves later and it's like we've burgled our way onto the set of a surf movie. Winding the wave far down the line, just ripping the juicy ocean wall. I mange to pull a nice long floater. This time with my surfboard. On the next wave I go too vertical and get swabbed. Salt water washing machine. About two hours later we head home for breakfast. A brioche with apricot jam and premium zebu butter. Strong, fine Madagascan coffee. Get the bigger boards, load up the boat and head out to Flameballs, Les couilles de feu . Vlamballe . The deep blue lunatic left. The waves are busting. Big sets reeling across the shallow reef. Hours of joy. Amp. Stoke. Wave after wave. Howling and mayhem. Sweetness and light. Treasure plundered. Eventually, when the tide drops, we head home for a late lunch. Eat like kings. Game fish curry and Coca Cola. The afternoon light is bright and yellow and fuzzy. Swing the sun down in the hammock until the night sneaks up on you. Looking back West towards South Africa, where a big band of orange hugs the shiny blue and silver sea, the colour of a tuna's belly.