Cruising North-west Madagascar

Perfect. That’s the best way to describe cruising in the Nosy Be area, on the north of Madagascar’s west coast. Everything about this area pretty much adds up to cruising perfection. The weather has been just wonderful – endless sunny blue skies, warm days, afternoon breezes, cool nights. So much  more comfortable than SE Asia. The winds are very predictable, on-shore during the afternoon, and off-shore at night and mornings, at the most 10-12 kts. The colour palette is striking – endless blue skies, blue/green seas, white sand, dark green vegetation, red/orange dirt, grey and black rocks. I know that these are the common colours of coastal areas, but when you are immersed in it every day, it dominates the vista all around. The clear water is just warm enough and there is very little floating rubbish. Security is good, with the proviso that outboards are locked onto the dinghies, and dinghies are not left in the water overnight. Provisioning in Hell-Ville, the main town on Nosy Be, is good and reasonably priced– lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, chicken and red meat readily available, basic groceries with some luxuries like good cheese and cured meats, local rum (good quality and very cheap) and beer.  Hell-ville has a couple of nice little coffee shops and bakeries, and there are some good restaurants dotted around the islands.

We visited about 13 different anchorages in the area and they all had something slightly different to offer. Russian Bay, a large well protected anchorage, gave us our first experience of village life in Madagascar. We had not long been anchored when a local man, Paul, rowed out to our boat, keen to show us the range of guided walks in his repertoire. As his English was pretty good, we arranged a day’s outing with him which would start at his house, and include sailing in his traditional boat, a walk to a village on the other side of the headland, and lunch.  The next day, we arrived at his place early morning and he proudly showed us his small house, comprising two bedrooms and a living room. The kitchen was outside, which is typical here. We then climbed aboard his traditional boat for a short (and slow in the light morning breeze) sail to the start of the walk. It took us probably an hour of walking up a steep hill to reach the place where we could descend down into the village. The views along the way were just spectacular.

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Russian Bay

The village was interesting, and was probably a little better off than most as a French donor had supported the construction of a water tower, with a solar powered pump, and also sturdy concrete troughs with water supply for doing the washing.

Typical village; Even the chickens have huts!; Char is the heat source for cooking

Laundry; Solar panel to pump water from the water tower

Fortunately, Paul took us on a slightly shorter route back to the bay, where his buddy had brought the sail boat for our return trip to Paul’s house. By this time, the breeze had picked up and we had a snappy sail back. It was fascinating for us to see close hand how these vessels are sailed. By the time we arrived back at the little beach in front of Paul’s, we were ravenous and so we greatly enjoyed the delicious lunch of grilled fresh fish, spicy lime sauce, coconut rice, and green papaya salad, prepared by Paul’s wife.

Paul hoisting sail; Sailing nicely at about 7 knots; Similar boat to Paul’s under sail

On Nosy Komba we had a completely different experience of village life, at the village of Antotaro, commonly known as Stephano’s village. Stephano is an Italian man who has been working with the villagers here since 1992. His achievements are nothing short of remarkable. He has built infrastructure which has vastly improved daily life, health and prospects – concrete paths (which would no doubt be sooo appreciated in the wet season), a hydro-electric plant, a toilet, shower and septic tank for each house, a school, a movie theatre, and an agricultural area.

Hydro-electric plant; new community building; agricultural area

When we were there, a new building was just being finished which would house chocolate and toothpaste production (ironic, huh?), a sewing room, and a small suite for delivering babies.  The school now has some 400 students, including those from surrounding islands who board in the village. The top five students in the final year each receive a scholarship to leave the island to go to university. But the most remarkable thing is the difference we noticed in the adults and children, compared with other villages. They were happier, laughing and smiling, and the children had a sense of self-esteem that was obvious. The girls are more secure here as rape, which is very common, has virtually been eradicated, and the teenage pregnancy rate has dropped. We also did a couple of quite challenging walks on Nosy Komba, with great views along the way.

An absolute highlight for me was a visit to Nosy Antosha, also known as Lemur Island. This is a beautiful little island inhabited only by lemurs and some other wildlife, and a caretaker/guide. As the lemurs are fed by the guide and visitors, they are somewhat used to people, but you are seeing them in their natural environment. The guide provided us the bananas and with some coaxing the black and white ruffed lemur were the first ones to take up the offer, followed by the more common brown lemurs who had no hesitation in jumping on our shoulders in order to get closer to those yummy bananas. They were very gentle though, unlike the aggressive monkeys that frequent tourist spots in Malaysia and Thailand.

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Black and white ruffed lemur

Common brown lemur – these fellows grunt a lot which makes them a bit easier to find in the trees

It was the sifaka or dancing lemur that stole our hearts, even if he did not demonstrate his special skills on the forest dance floor. This guy (or gal) was more hesitant than the others, but did come down a tree trunk and sat on a rock next to me, where he proceeded to gently pull my hand closer to him so he could reach the bananas, all the time keeping an eye on the brown leumurs which were still hanging around. It was the experience of a lifetime, as I have long been fascinated by these creatures.

What an extra-ordinary creature! Such an adorable face

At Nosy Sakatia we had another close encounter with wildlife – this time it was turtles. There are beds of seagrass quite near the anchorage at this island, and turtles can almost always be found feeding there. They are quite used to people swimming around them, especially the large older ones. It was just awesome to snorkel close to them, watching them grazing, and then to swim right alongside them as they come up for air.

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It was very cool to be able to swim beside the turtles as they came up for air

Sakatia is a very pretty island and is frequented by tourists, so there are a few restaurants there. We had a lovely meal there one night with a bunch of other cruisers, most of whom we had met when we were at Chagos, in the middle of the Indian Ocean. We found a couple of very nice walks on Sakatia too. A long one with three other cruisers to the north side of the island which was an interesting walk through a few different types of terrain – first along a little creek through pretty woodland, then open grassland and a small ylang ylang plantation, and finally up an exposed red soil headland dotted with some rocky outcrops which required some clambering over and careful footwork to descend down to the beach. We found a delightful Italian restaurant overlooking the beach where we enjoyed a cold beer (they were full up for lunch) before tackling the trek back. The second walk was across to the west side in pursuit of a beach where turtles were laying their eggs. We eventually made it to a lovely deserted beach where we spent a couple of hours just enjoying the vista and watching many turtles pop their heads up out in the water as they also whiled away the afternoon. There were a couple of tracks which suggested this might be a good place to come back to at night.

View to our deserted beach; spent a few hours sitting on these rocks; lunch time view

We did return one afternoon a few days later, this time by dinghy and in the company of three other cruising couples whom we had invited along. We had a disappointing snorkel during which we only spotted one turtle. Thank goodness those who ventured out a bit further were rewarded with some decent coral and quite a few fish. We enjoyed a pot luck dinner overlooking the sunset, shortly after which two of the other couples left to dinghy back to their boats while there was daylight. Adrian and Marianna from Anthem stayed with us on the beach and we enjoyed some robust discussion on various topics as the stars appeared in the night sky. Alas though, there was no turtle egg laying while we were there that night.

Evenings like this make special memories

Nosy Tany Kely and Nosy Iranja are both stunningly beautiful small islands, and more suitable for day anchoring than as overnight stops. In fact, Tany Kely is a marine protected area and overnight anchoring is not permitted. We visited this island early in the morning and so were lucky enough to be directed to a mooring by the park rangers which is much more convenient than setting the anchor for a daytime stop. This is definitely on the tourist trail but it does not get overly crowded, unlike the Thai islands. We enjoyed some of the best snorkeling we’ve had here, as well as a short walk up to a defunct lighthouse.

Paseafique at Nosy Tany Kelly (yacht closest to shore); Picnic spot ashore 

Phil had an unplanned scuba dive here when I accidentally knocked my glasses off when hanging our swimmers and towels on the lifelines. I watched horrified as my expensive tri-focal glasses quickly drifted away from the boat as they sank to the bottom. Phil was not very optimistic about finding them as precious time was lost while we got the dive gear out and he got it all on. Once he got into the water and down to the bottom (15 metres or so), he could not see the bottom of our boat so he was guessing where the glasses might be. Meanwhile, I anxiously waited for him to re-appear, hopefully with my glasses in hand. The longer I waited, the less hopeful I became. I was berating myself for not having the strap on them, which I always do when on passage, and imagining the cost and hassle of trying to replace them here. When he did eventually surface brandishing an old peg, my heart sank. Then the other hand came up with …..my glasses! I promptly burst into tears, crying with relief. Now I am a bit more diligent in strapping my glasses on!

Nosy Irnaja comprises two islands joined by a sand spit which is exposed at low tide, providing the opportunity for a lovely walk between the two islands. Another idyllic location for a morning stop and lunch while on the way to a nearby anchorage for the night.

Sandspit joining the two islands at Nosy Iranja; Local boats

Nosy Mumoko lies someway down a U shaped bay so very protected and the anchorage is framed by hills. We could simply sit in the cock pit and just marvel at the gorgeous view. We also found some good snorkeling here – very interesting range of healthy corals, although not many fish. We explored another anchorage nearby, also surrounded by hills (but no villages) and spent a very peaceful night alone in there.

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How’s this for the view from the cockpit? Sooo peaceful

Wildlife ashore on Nosy Mumoko- the tail on the this lemur was just magnificent

One of our favourites was Baramahamay River (also known as Honey River), south of Nosy Be on the Malagassy mainland. Another well protected anchorage in a beautiful location with gorgeous sunsets.

Honey River village; This lady paddled out to our boat to sell local wild honey (which actually was a bit of a disappointment)

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A beautiful end to the day

The first time we went there, we went exploring on a little beach on the coast just north of the river entrance, and found evidence of recent visits by turtles laying their eggs – tracks up the beach and big mounds of sand where they had clearly been digging and covering nests. We also saw lots of turtles swimming not far from shore, suggesting that there were sea grass beds out there.

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Searching, searching

Definite turtle activity here

We decided to return by dinghy that night in the hope of observing this remarkable act. What a mistake that was! We neglected to take the iPad with our navigation app on it so we could not be exactly sure of where to take the dinghy ashore. Further, it was now low tide, whereas in the afternoon the tide had been higher. We used the few large trees on the shore as land marks, but should have gone “one tree” further, as the spot where we did decided to go ashore turned out to be a large flat rock ledge – not an ideal place to be landing the dinghy, nor to be hauling the dinghy out. We thought we had ended up on another little nearby beach and abandoned the exercise, nervously (ok it was just me who was nervous!) dinghying back around to the river entrance, and up river to our boat. As it turned out in the light of day, we were on the right beach, we just had not gone further enough along the beach to the correct landing spot.

Some weeks later, we decided to return on the full moon, and be better prepared for such a night time excursion. During the morning at low tide, we took the dinghy and the iPad (recording our track so we could easily navigate later in the dark) and checked on the beaches on both the north and south side of the river entrance, only finding a couple of old tracks on the northern beach. We went for a snorkel and, unlike our previous time here, did not see any turtles grazing on the sea grass. We did enjoy seeing lots of healthy and interesting coral and good fish life. However, the absence of recent turtle activity, coupled with what turned out to be a cloudy night (so limited light from the full moon), greatly diminished our enthusiasm for a night time excursion, so we gave it a miss, promising ourselves we would try again when we return to Madagascar next year.

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We have found it a bit difficult to get much of a sense of the Malagassy people. They are not unfriendly, but perhaps shy. Happiness is not obviously expressed, unlike among other subsistence dwellers for example in Indonesia. Even the joyful enthusiasm of children is not as common here as in other places. This is the first country we have visited where we have really experienced a language barrier. Even in the most touristy area of Hell-ville on Nosy Be, English is not widely spoken, and when it is, understanding each other can still be difficult. My French has improved (which wouldn’t be hard!) but I really only have transactional French so having any sort of deeper conversation has not been possible. Still, we love the colourful dress and elaborate braided hairstyles of the women, and appreciate that the lives of both men and women are hard here.

Overall, we have loved Madagascar, both the islands in the north west and the little bit of the mainland that we saw. It’s a fabulous cruising ground, and the wildlife has been fascinating. We are looking forward to returning next year and enjoying another season here. It has been very sad though farewelling the wonderful group of friends with whom we crossed the Indian Ocean, as most of them are heading south for South Africa, and will be gone by the time we get there around this time next year.

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9 thoughts on “Cruising North-west Madagascar

  1. Great blog, you are doing such interesting things and I like your summary viewpoints of how you have experienced the people. You write how I like to read!

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  2. I hung on your every word! Although I only managed four anchorages (and one extra island, Tany Kely) in my very limited time there, I felt like you were taking me back to places I knew well. What a beautiful summary of your Madagascar stay.

    The stops I didn’t see were equally fascinating to read about, particularly Russian Bay and Antosha. I would have LOVED to see even more lemurs – having those sweet, gentle creatures nibbling at my fingers is one of my favorite memories. I feel so lucky to have seen a place that you cruisers deem tops; having never seen the others around the world, it’s hard to imagine the comparison, but your comments about the peacefulness and freshness off the coast of Madagascar were exactly my takeaway as a newbie sailor! Best wishes on your next passage, wherever you are headed, and maybe I’ll catch you again someday if you ever catch back up to Lisa and Fabio. I’ve not had my fill yet!

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    1. Thanks so much Lexie! I’m glad you enjoyed it. The lemurs were a real highlight for me too. They are just so cute. Sounds like you might be catching the cruising bug! Hope to see you again someday -in the meantime keep exploring.

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  3. You are making me miss Madagascar already and we haven’t even left yet. Perfect indeed. Striking color pallet, comfortable temps, good breeze, relatively secure and rubbish free … roger that!

    Still hopeful that we run into Paul on our way out of here for the wonderful adventure that you experienced in Russian Bay. And we did not see any black and white ruffled lemurs in Nosy Antsoha so perhaps we will have to stop by Nosy Antsoha again as well.

    Very cool pic with the turtle! How special was that experience. Lovely to see that I made this post munching away on those yummy appetizers at your private beach in Sakatia.

    I just wish we were going to return here with you next year to do it all again. Miss you and look forward to seeing you somewhere on the high seas.

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    1. Thanks for your kind comments Lisa. Phil was very good getting that photo of me with the turtle. I tried to get one of him but I’m not as good at juggling the dinghy and the camera! We are missing all our cruising buddies from the Indian Ocean. I can only hope that Paseafique and Amandla share an anchorage again someday xx

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  4. What an incredible time you had in Madagascar. As usual your blogs are so descriptive that we’re experiencing it vicariously, as dear Tom Triggs used to say. I just love those lemurs.

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  5. Hi Lesley & Phil
    Wow, I haven’t looked at your Blog for a few months. Just read about your experience in Madagascar, (the long ….. road trip) – Amazing pics – you will have heaps of material for a book when you finally finish…(if ever). Three years now since you left Aust – keep safe and hope to catch up with you when you are back visiting family in Queensland – Luv Andrea

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