Dreaming of a voyage in the spirit of exploration far away from the everyday? Have you always wanted to embark on a sailing ship to lands unknown- to encounter rare animals and to meet people in their own communities where tourists are non existent? To walk on white sand beaches and snorkel in turquoise ocean? I did too!
Embarking on a 10-day sailing trip from Nosy Be, a popular tourist destination in the North West of the fourth largest island in the world, you don’t quite understand the adventure in store. With the winds at our back, a capable crew, plenty of freshwater, some chickens and ducks for trading and feasting, and no schedule except a mandate for exploration of the remote coast where no roads are accessible, we boarded our boat, the Mahatsara. The website of the company promised it would be a trip like no other. And they were absolutely right. Luxurious and primitive at the same time, we would camp on remote beaches near abandoned coconut plantations, or in small coastal villages after getting permission from the chief. Everyday, we would spend time spear fishing for our meals, or trading with local fishermen for their catch. The food was phenomenal, freshly caught and prepared by our fantastic cook. Meanwhile, we would snorkel, swim, hike and meet people to our heart’s content. And in between, we would sail on the open ocean, with a hint of the “Grand Terre’- the Great Land as the locals call the big island of Madagascar on the horizon.
The Sakhalave people on this part of the island are mostly animist. Ancestor worship is the most common religion with trees, rocks and landforms having special meaning. The people are gentle and welcoming. Even though they were not used to visitors, they mostly left us alone but were happy to engage if we happened to come across them. One of the funniest stories our captain told us was that most of them had a philosophy that if you weren’t from Madagascar, you must be really sad so they went to great pains to make us feel at home, to remove our sadness. I can understand why they would think this after seeing the villages were they live in which is most people’s idea of tropical paradise- gorgeous beaches, palm trees swaying in the tropical breeze, rich and fertile earth to grow food and a bountiful ocean in which to fish.
Upon landing in a village, I would go with a big smile and armed with a single Malagasy greeting, “Salama” to meet the people who lived there. I have never felt so welcomed. Fishermen fixing their nets, boat-builders, mischievous children playing all sorts of games, mothers cooking meals, friends hanging out, old men falling down after drinking too much… It was real immersion into village life with no agenda except to explore, sit down and smile a lot. In a very special moment, I was invited inside a house where I met a baby who was just 2-days old! Another time, we were invited to a celebration of ancestors where upon arrival, discovered that the whole party had already been drinking for about 24 hours and were completely wasted. It made for a pretty fun atmosphere.
Getting to Madagascar: We traveled to Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar via Kenya Airways. However, Ethiopian Airlines now flies twice weekly to Antananarivo direct from Addis Ababa (and several Star Alliance destinations)
The trip starts off in the far North of the island, in Nosy Be which is a 2-day drive from Antananarivo. You can also fly but it was prohibitively expensive for us. We rented a vehicle from Madarental (Contact them at email@example.com). It was an easy and comfortable trip. They drop you off at a ferry terminal where you can get a boat to Nosy Be.
The trip itself was from the excellent company ALEFA Tours. They were amazing. If you don’t have 10 days, they also offer shorter trips but seriously try to take the time off to explore further. I highly highly recommend their excellent staff. The expat owners have been living in Madagascar for decades, speak the local language and want to help you discover the most off-beat of locations in the truest sense of discovery. Their website is (http://www.pirogue-madagascar.com/)
The one issue some people might have in Madagascar is that French is the official language. (Although in the remote villages, everyone spoke Malagasy.) Communication may be a little harder than usual but with good humor everything can be made easy. I speak French so this was not an issue.