We try our first taxi-brousse!
Trip Start May 16, 2006
13Trip End Jul 11, 2006
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Our flight to Diego Suarez (otherwise known as Antsiranana - every town has a Malagasy and a French name, and you never know which is in common usage) leaves at 6.30am, and we're up before the alarm, at 4am, DP luxuriates in hot water, and finally gets to wash her hair. Down to reception as quietly as reasonable with our own bags. Taxi is waiting, and away before 5, through dark, but not deserted streets to find petrol in the classic style, so we can drive the 12 kms to the airport. Second attempt gets us petrol without the need for a prepayment from us, which is unusual, then through street with few vehicles, but lots of early workers and market/stall holders already on their way into town, and the more "modern", out jogging in virtually pitch dark, before going to their office jobs.
There are a couple of fires burning in the streets to keep the early workers warm, not a lot of other light. Our driver is quite good, doesn't scare us, and we now can recognise the general route, so are pleased, but not surprised to make it in 30 minutes. There is no security checking, and we make it through without incident, except they weigh the cabin baggage. Check-in girl surprised at the weight of DP's backpack - doesn't know it has a 2 kg papaya in it.
Decide to take advantage of open seating again, and both get a window seat on either side of the plane, as far forward as the steward will allow. Probably keeping front two rows vacant for weight distribution. Seats OK, but both end up with a large local. She was chatty to DP, he sat with a computer bag on his lap the entire flight, took up a fair bit of MP's room, and seemed overbearing to the staff.
MP has the sun on his side, and cloud below, so doesn't get a lot of observation or photography in. DP,on the other side, gets a better view. The terrain is rugged all the way. High, steep mountains, braided rivers, steep gorges cutting through long, barrier ranges.
Closer to Diego, we see a large river spreading out over the plain, with agricultural land, villages and the first roads we have seen in 1000 km of mountains and valleys. The terrain becomes increasingly volcanic, with old crater lakes, some eroded into cirques, others forming sinkholes. From DP's side can see the sea for a long while, plus islands, and then the harbour with the distinctive sugarloaf island.
There is a brisk cross wind, so landing is a bit rough, but we are OK. Long wait for the bags, DP talks to a Dutch couple who are travelling independently, using mini-buses, rather than taxi-brousfes. Seem to go most places, we should be using them.
Arrange to meet them in town when we find out some information about available tours etc. Find they have arranged a taxi to town for 4000 Ariarys, so we sort out the scrum of would-be taxi drivers by taking one who accepts 5000. End up with a driver and an offsider, who chats us up about possible charter, at say 150,000 to get us a couple of days transport. It is too early to make this sort of decision, so get dropped off at the Cap-Nord Travel agency at the Hotel Colbert. After MP waits for some time for the agent to write an air ticket for two attractive local girls, we are told we are in the wrong Cap-Nord office, and are directed all the way down town. The day isn't too hot, the direction is downhill, and the streets are practically empty, so we suss out the town while dragging our bags.
We get a lot of taxi attention on the way, but the palm down, waggled hand signal sorts most of them out.
At Cap-Nord we get a rundown on tour costs for two and possibly four people to Amber Mountain, and also to the Nosy Be tum-off port, Ankify, via camping at the Ankarana NP. Prices are pretty steep, so we walk on to comparison shop at King de la Piste. Still dear, prices 66 Euros each for the day to Amber, E125 to E169 each, plus certain extras for Ankarana.
Diego has a much different feel to the towns down South. The streets are quite empty, and the pace seems much slower - a real tropical langour and feeling of decay, even though it's Madagascar's fifth largest town, with a population of 80,000.
As we're now down near the harbour, walk to the park with the famous bandstand (well, the fact that it has a bandstand makes it a site - there aren't many others). Find the park clean, but pretty moth-eaten, with very few plantings. The impression is spoilt somewhat when we see workers at the edge of the park with a wheelbarrow full of just-raked leaves, papers etc tipping the garbage over the side of the hill towards the water. There is a yacht at anchor, and a dugout canoe paddling past, but the water looks grey, and the far side is a long way off.
Look at the East side, where the port is, see wharves and cargo ships, but not all that attractive. Decide that we don't need to stay a night here, and will head to Amber Mountain National Park straight away.
On the way back, price a charter taxi to Amber mountains. Wants 60K, won't come down, but at least gives us an idea of what the price is. A more persistent white-haired driver makes us an offer of 50K, which we accept, subject to talking with "nos amis". Say we will meet him at the Rosticceria Restaurant, where we are meeting the others, but when we eventually find it (on the wrong side of the road to our guide) find it's closed for a couple of weeks. Luckily the taxi driver also twigs this, and finds us at the nearby bar of the Colbert, where we set up and wait for the others. We are plannig to stay at the Nature Lodge, which is owned? by the owner of Malagasy tours. Decide we had better check that they have accommodation before committing (though consider this is only a formality, as most places are empty. MP goes in taxi to learn about the local phone system.
Find the booth at the PO available, but the only payment form is card. Try in the PO, but directed around to the internet office, where MP uses all his small change to get a 25 unit phone card.
Back at the booth, it is now occupied. Wait 10 min, becomes free, try to work the system, but get an insistent beeping, no answer. Taxi man can't help, but get a woman who is hanging around as some kind of facilitator to try. She eventually gets through, as the beeping is just a sort of dial tone.
After a couple of false starts, MP gets thru to find tonight is booked out, so books next two nights. Meanwhile, the Dutch couple have found DP, and she shares a coke with them. They are not interested in the tours when they find out just how expensive they are , so we are on our own. Decide we will go today, back to phone another (budget)place, Auberge Sakay Tany, at Joffreville.
The others, meanwhile, leave the hotel, but pay for DP, as MP has all the money. Later, on MP's return, she pursues them down the street to pay, but finds all the small change gone, so can't.
We load the taxi, and set off, via one boulangerie, for bread, then another for water and juice, then the police permit branch, then the servo, where we advance A10K for petrol. Reassured we are still in the 3rd world, we set off in earnest for the Amber Mountains, 27kms away.
Back out past the airport, then a few kms to a turnoff area with the usual collection of stalls and bystanders to indicate it might also be a transport hub. The road is relatively good, and runs steadily uphill through fertile but not lush farmland. As we climb, we start to see the coastline and port below us, but a long way off, so our stop for a photo doesn't yield much.
Taxi driver finds out we are Australian, and gets VERY excited, and proceeds to give a highly animated replay of the Japan versus Australia football match, where Australia scored three goals in the closing stages. We had a further two replays along the way. Made us wish we'd seen it. Further up, we pass the Nature Lodge hotel, where we would have stayed. It has some good looking rainforest back from the road, but is quite a few kms from the "main" Joffreville village, which would have made it impossible to see the park from it without taking a tour. We start to wonder if the park is this side of the village.
The village has a wide, once-grand main street running straight uphill for several blocks, with gardens in the middle, and a severely potholed carriageway each side.
All the buildings look dilapidated to the point of destruction, but our hotel, "Auberge Sakay Tany"off to the left, has extensive grounds behind an imposing stone wall, with a large thatched shelter in the middle of the grounds, with chairs and tables for 20 people. The main building looks like a genuine alberge, with polished wood floors, a large polished wood table to seat a dozen,and other smaller tables. There is a fairly modern kitchen off it, and three or four rooms upstairs. Our room is quite OK - simple, but with double bed, mosquito net, hand basin, and a toilet shower area. The ceiling is stretched cloth, but looks OK. The only sour note is the two large buckets in the shower. We are told there is water in the morning, and can have l'eau chaud in a bucket at night. Not too bad, for A30k, so cop it.
It is now about 2pm, and we think we will have a quick look at the park, suss the permits and maps out, and regroup for tomorrow. Dianne has the bright idea that if our taxi is still around, he can take us the 4 kms to the start of the park, as doesn't seem to be any other transport around. Find him, but he can't take us. Finally work out that he has only bought enough petrol to do the return trip. There is no place to buy fuel here, and the extra 8 kms will leave him with not enough to get back to town. Why can't he have a 1-litre water bottle of fuel on his dashboard like most of the other taxis?
Decide to minimise the pack, so only take half a bottle of water, no rain coats, and not much food.
At the top of the town, we turn left away from the high school, pass the taxi-brousse booth, pass a giant abandoned multistorey building behind the Angap, national parks office, where we see the famous orange R4, which our guidebook says may take one the 4 kms up the steep hill to the start of the National Park. At the office, we get no help whatsoever - no maps, no permit, no transport possibilities.
By now we have accumulated a rag-tag escort of school children, most of them good-natured, but with the one nasty little girl, who unzips DP's backpack and extracts a hygenic wipe, but, we think, nothing else. The larget boy is carrying one of the native shovels we see everywhere, says it is to work on the road gutters. We lose them after the first km, and trudge up the steep straight road, without a lot of shade, but cut into the hill so it misses the breeze.
We are already into the "give it another km" phase of walking, when the road flattens, and we see what turns out to be a settlement. Decide to keep going, and get to the park entrance. Staff not particularly helpful, have no maps, don't offer the 40k 3-day pass, just the 25k one day, until we ask (maybe he knew more than we did)
At the entrance, there are a number of taxis waiting for their clients. We are told a lift costs 30k, even downhill. Take this into account in planning additional visits.
It is not yet 2pm, so we think we will have a little walk, just to suss it out. Not far into the park, we stop an Australian couple, who say they have only seen one group of lemurs, right near the entrance. Further on, a youth in an English group says they have made 5 sightings, so we carry on further. The rain forest is really good, large, old trees covered in epiphytes and tree ferns, with a dense understory.
We take a turn off the main road toward the Cascade Antomboka, along a heavily shaded dirt road. There was a fair bit of wind in the top of the trees, and it was heavily overcast - all-in-all, pretty gloomy, making it feel late in the evening. We pass a turnoff to the left, with a typically enigmatic sign- no North point, and trails which are supposedly loops, but disappear off the sign, Decide to press on, keeping an eye on the time but the road seems to be leading strongly downhill, and away from the rainforest, so stop for a lunch from half the papaya DP brought from Tana, plus the always useful peanut butter baguettes. On the way back up the hill, we have our first lemur sighting, a family group of Sandford's Brown Lemurs. As usual, difficult to photograph in the light conditions, but they add to our enthusiasm, and we return to the enigmatic sign, and decide to carry on down the voie de mille arbres, for a short while, until something crops up. The path is quite pretty, lots of roots across it, large trees over, glimpses out the side to the valleys. The track is, however, getting narrower, and the day older. MP, who has mis-read the initial sign, and isn't sure we won't have to come back the same way, is pushing the pace.
We finally come upon a couple with a guide, who reluctantly reassures us the way back is still ahead. We are on the way to the Cascade Antankarana, and can hear it, but not see it, think we have missed something. We find another signboard, and shortly after, run into the big group of American birders we have been following around the country, and last saw in Fort Dauphin. Also found that they are the ones who have booked out the Nature Lodge. Get a photo of the pretty, but not spectacular fall and pool below,
and carry on to the camping area Station de Rousettes, which is beautifully set up in a clearing in the rain forest. Wait for lemurs to make an appearance, but leave without seeing any. MP is now convinced that we are on the right track, so is a bit more relaxed, in spite of us running late exiting the park. Pass the group of 4WD vehicle belonging to the Americans, then start to see wildlife. A very flash Wood ibis,and at least 6 sightings of crowned and Sandford's lemurs,
including a group right near the exit.
Hope to get out of the park, before the Yanks go past, in the hope of a lift. At the entrance, no sign of any transport, and the staff have already gone home, so glad we didn't need a search party.
We are a fair way towards the steep part of the hill when the Americans go by, and the vehicles are pretty full, so no lift in spite of hitching. The feet are getting pretty tired and sore, as we have now racked up some 14 kms on our short walk, and have another 2 to go. Decide that we've had a good overview of the park, and don't need another day, particularly if we have to walk the 4kms to and from.
At the taxi-brousse stand, we are a bit horrified to find it leaves at 7 in the morning, but then reassured by 8,9...
Back at the hotel, we order fish for dinner, as DP had seen the fish vendor arrive earlier, with a big box on the back of a ute, and the fish looked good.
We sit with a large bottle of cold Coke, while Madame explains abut the water. Seems we can have l'eau chaud now, or in the morning. Settle for now, and they bring a big bucket of hot water into the bathroom. Decided to use it while it was hot, and had a good bucket bath before dinner.
Having broken our rule about fish this far from the sea (even though it is only 30 km on a fair road), we are very pleasantly surprised by an excellent fried snapper, plenty for the two of us, and good frites.
Can't do anything in our room, as only lighting is two torch-like bluish lights high on the wall, so read at the dining room table, under a reasonable low voltage fluoro light until after Mme and the mystery other guest/owner retired, but still not much past 8. He seemed European, possibly an overstayed guest, or some sort of partner.
The wind blew strongly all night, and at one point there was a very heavy downpour, severe enough for MP to get up and check for leaks using the surprisingly sophisticated solar/LED system, plus head torch. OK, so back to bed on the soft but weird-textured mattress.
Thursday 15th June Joffreville - Ankify
Up pretty early, having been in bed about 10 hours. Decide against breakfast, but have trouble rousing Mme so we can pay. Can't find her in the yard, the house, or in the street, even with loud hails, but eventually rouse her out of bed. Unusual for a Malagasy to be in bed at this hour (7am), but there is an eaten breakfast, maybe the mystery guest, and she may have gone back to bed to wait for slacko's like us.The whole exercise came to 49k, not too bad for us, and probably a windfall for her, as business looks pretty quiet, either just too early in the season, or the decline generally in independent travel this year. We've discussed this with a number of people, and two possible reasons are the outbreak of Chickigunya (incorrect spelling) in the Indian Ocean countries, particularly Reunion (it's symptoms are similar to dengue fever, and you get it from mosquitoes); or the fact that the World Cup soccer has just started, and people are staying in Europe to watch it.
It is a tough haul up the rocky main street with the bags. Told we could wait at the intersection, but don't like our chances, standing by the road with a full Taxi-brousse passing, so go to the starting point. At the stand, there are large sacks of carrots, (the small ones were 50kgs), freshly unloaded from an ox-cart, and there are two unhitched teams of zebu being stroppy in the loading area. We park our bags against the freight office, get the attention of the show-runner, then repair to the concrete wall of a culvert to breakfast on papaya, eaten with a spoon. After a decent interval, we ask when the taxi brousse will come. Just as we ask, it turns the corner. It is a Peugeot 404 Ute, and is already loaded, and in our naievity, we think this is an incoming load. It is unloaded, our bags are brought across, and we now figure we have a start, and fairly soon.
With a lot of backbreaking grunt work, the carrots go in the tray, and the incoming freight, including a giant woven basket, which requires a 3-man lift, is hauled onto the top, 2 men under, one with a rope from the canopy. A stack of hardwood boards in a bag go next, then our bags. Then a team assembles to push-start it. Although there are about 20 people standing, or sitting, there is no general rush, just one old woman who plonks herself in the best position. We go to follow, but are waved back, and the taxi brousse, and our bags head off up the hill without us.
Twenty minutes later, they reappear, with the Taxi brousse now full of people and extra freight. We feel we will have to squeeze in as best we can, but are told "devant", and get to share the front with the driver. Having got in, we may well consider we are on the way, and indeed, move 10 metres before we stop. The wheel is chocked, the two wires which sub for the horn button are rubbed together, and the engine is stopped to await more freight. This is an act of some faith, as they had to push start it only 3 minutes before. When all possible avenues are exhausted, with over a tonne of freight,and at least 15 souls on board, we do another push start, and proceed very gingerly down the bumpy road to the main street.
We proceed down the rocky street at a slow walk, under full brakes, such as they are. There is a large crowd, maybe 100 schoolchildren, with shovels maintaining? (must be early days in the lessons, as though lots of activity, not much result) the roadside and centre gardens at the bottom of the hill.
Manage to avoid a massacre, and carry on a bit faster on the flat. Still picking up more freight and passengers. Hard to see if it is greed, or just a wish not to disappoint customers which leads to such gross overloading of a vehicle which would be battling even empty.
We stop for a while outside the Nature Lodge,
where there is a well-dressed local woman who carries some authority. We figure she is with the lodge, and manage to get a cancellation message to her, verbally, and then in written English. By the sniggers from the crowd, we may have asked for a divorce from the lodge. Our time parked here was also livened up by smoke and fumes coming out from the front left. Smelled like cooked brake fluid - nice!
We were pleased to do the right thing by the lodge, yet not waste time actually staying there, as we felt we had seen most of what the park had to offer, and certainly did not want to walk 8km to it, or organise overpriced transport or tours.
From here, it is downhill most of the way to Diego, on the sloping flank of an ancient volcano. A fair bit of the trip was in "angel gear", with the engine switched off and no power brakes.
At the junction of the side-road and the main road we stopped for some reason, and Dianne sees a couple of parked, empty taxi brousses going the right way on the main road, so we enquire about the possibility of getting one to Mahamasina, the town closest to Ankarana Special Reserve. This would save us backtracking 20 kms or so, and would solve the problem of not knowing which bus station we had to go to.
Suddenly we have a team of transport touts on the job. One particularly peristent tout, Mr Green Shirt, assures us there is, and we start getting our bags down. They have been moved half a dozen times, but, by luck, are now top, front. We stop to pay the driver in this rush, get hammered 10k by the time we sort out the details, but cheap at twice the price, including some excellent photos.
During the excitement, our touts have managed to flag down a passing Mazda mini-bus. It looks full, but we give it a go, two packs plus MP's daypack on top, and we are found a sort-of seat, the second row back, which has the folding seat allowing access to the back two rows. Not ideal, but at least it is a half-cheek seat, and you do get to stretch your legs when other passengers get in or out. Shouldn't be a problem, as the mini-bus is pretty full already, we think, with at least 4 per 3-person row, and 3 in the front.
The country we are passing through is quite pleasant, wooded hills, rice paddies, haymaking on the slopes, rocky bedded creeks with plenty of water and the usual laundry operations. It is a bit hard to see forward, and MP is too close to the window to turn his head, so most observation is across the bus to the left side.
Our first stop is at a roadside stall selling baskets, and a local woman passenger buys a few, and they are roped awkwardly onto the top. We are still picking up passengers, as the bulkhead behind the driver's seat is virtually unoccupied. Pick up a young boy carrying something wet in a paper bag. Turns out to be the local drug of choice, quat, pronounced "cat". The boy is protecting it, trimming the damaged leaves and stems, and keeping it fresh. The bunch is passed around in the front, and commented on. A particularly Arabic looking local woman seems to be giving the boy a hard time, and appears to buy the quat. An English speaker, a guide from Nosy Be, confirms that it is quat, and hands us a stem. It is surprisingly soft and fresh, looks like a fresh shoot from a gum tree.
We endure a horror stretch of a detour where a bridge is out. The road is winding, potholed and very dusty, so we have to close all the windows. Sometimes you can't see out at all because of the dust. It is very hot, and the locals, particularly the quat seller, sweat rivers. We aren't much better. Manage to get back on the main road without crossing a major watercourse, must have cut out two bridges and skirted the river. Cheers all round when we are back on the road, but takes a while to open the windows, as the tracks are full of dust.
We are now getting near where we get off. Have been able to see mountains in the distance for some time, and now we are getting to limestone country. Can see pinnacle-type outcrops, but nothing substantial. It is hot, and the terrain is a lot drier, and not all that attractive. Certainly no close karst limestone outcrops to delight the eye, so when we stopped outside the Ankarana National Park HQ, we did a quick consensus vote, and stayed on the bus. Our decision was helped by the fact that no real town, just a few buildings in the middle of nowhere.
This tended to confuse the bus driver and offsider. The bus was possibly overfull in anticipation of our departure, but probably not. At this stage we had 26 adults and five children - two chundering. Our row which had seating for three adults had five adults and one child. The offsider was spending a fair bit of the time in MP's lap, particularly at police checks. Looks like you can overcrowd, but not stand.
Arriving at the large local hub, Ambilobe, 30 kms away, we do the round of the town, shedding passengers and freight.
Take photo of quat for sale
Our bags are nearly unloaded, and have to get our English speaking friend to sort it out. Seems we have only paid, at the isolated shakedown spot they choose to sort out fares, enough to get us here, not to the Nosy Be jump-off spot, so have to OK another 5000 each. Still in the same spot, even though the crew has changed. Have the pimp-dressed local (complete with gold chain) from before on our window seat, and a woman and baby next to us, to replace the chundering girl and two women, from before. It is obvious these are not the seats of choice. We still have the English speaker, plus a new youth from Tana who speaks some English, possibly a would-be guide. The front seat is mostly new, with a large policeman and his wife and child now beside the driver and the dolly bird.
We have a lot less trouble at police checks with our new passenger, but the conductor still sits down. We are in a large coastal plain, tropical vegetation, mountains on the horizon, probably islands. Pass a large roundabout, with some comment that we could get out here for Ankify, but hang in through to Ambanja, a large town with a lot of market action.
While MP supervises unloading, and is pleased his daypack made it, DP is negotiating onward transport. Our Guide friend has found some, then headed off in the direction of a TB about to depart. Takes a while to get the bags down, then we find a place in a small Renault van to Ankify, 15k, bags in the back with a number of people, and DP, the would-be guide, and a suspiciously sophisticated local girl in the back seat (Madagascar has quite a bit of sex tourism, and is trying to stop it, particularly the under-age sex, and it is particularly prevalent in Nosy Be, where we are heading.) MP and the daypacks are in the front, with seat belt. Sheer luxury!
There is a strange shuffle where our initial driver can't find the keys, and has to beep for them. We drive 50 metres, driver gets out, man who gave him the keys gets in, and off we go.
MP has to unbelt and get out a couple of times for passengers, but proceed slowly but steadily along a pothole ravaged tar road through cocoa plantations, later into tidal areas with mangroves to the horizon. As we get nearer to Ankify, the terrain gets steeper, with rain forest trees, dense scrub, and views over the water to the mangroved shore and mountains beyond. We end up at the ferry ramp at Ankify before we can ask to go to the Baobab Hotel, as we're exhausted, and need a nice hotel to recover from our first experience with the local taxi brousses.
Unload our passengers, meet our guide friend again, and just manage to lose our would-be guide. Take the taxi the 2km further to the Baobab hotel, which looks lovely, but deserted. Pay our taxi 20k to include the extra, as glad to get there, as it is uphill on a rough road.
Our taxi driver finds us the French manageress, who explains the new, higher tariff (double what the guidebook says) and shows us a waterfront bure, which looks really nice - has a monster 4poster bed, with good mosquito net, and a lovely view of the water through the palm trees.
Not bad for 100k, except for no hot water, and no lights or electricity in the middle of the night. Looks like not a bad spot to hole up, but Dianne is suffering sandfly paranoia as there is a whole forest of mangroves on either side of the hotel, so decide to stay for only one night.
Go for a paddle in the water, which is clear and blood temperature, with a sandy bottom, but not too much fish life. Decide to swim later. Get a large coke sent down, and relax after an epic journey.
Retire behind the immense mosquito net, then out at 7 in the formal gear for a big night out. The elevated restaurant area has tables for about 50, and room for 200, but has two tables set up at the end.
We settle for fried fish and fries, DP ends up with a savagely limey caphirina, a pretty good attempt, and MP with the big 3H beer. The fish is a big disappointment after our last night's effort, but edible.
During dinner, we get to meet the only other guests, a French travel agent from Tana, his driver,and his local assistant/colleague/girlfriend? At no time are we introduced to her, and at no stage does she address us directly, but she provides him with a lot of "comment dire?" answers to round out his English. They have driven 20 hours from Tana in a 4wd, arriving at 4am. Have chartered a speedboat at 8.30am to go to Nosy Be, and say we can go too if we want. It is a long way back to the port to get a public one, so we weaken, even though the hotel is probably worth a mornings stay.
To bed early, as we have had a long day. Not expecting to have no light at all in the middle of the night, so are lucky we had a spotlighting walk after dinner, and know where the torches are when MP has a midnight relapse of his tummy condition.
Friday 16th June Ankify-Ambatoloaka
Up early, MP is now cleaned out and has taken a gastrostop, and feeling confident of carrying on, but not of having breakfast just yet. Draws short straw for the early swim to check out the water. The water is coolish, but clear, and there are a few tropical fish and quite a few of the pan-sized silver fish the local kids have been netting along the front. No real bottom topography, but some reasonable sea grass.
After packing, while waiting for our lift, MP walks the shore, find some old hotel sewer works, and a dugout canoe. Talks to a worker who is busy with hammer and chisel splitting up an outcrop of bluestone, into handleable chunks so others, probably women, can reduce it to road gravel. There is an ambitious stacked rock foundation under construction, maybe expansions for the hotel, in case they get 3 guests.
The position of the hotel is clarified a bit by the travel agent, who says package groups are staged overnight here before making the crossing to Nosy Be.
The boat turns up at 8.20, with uniformed crew, which gets our gear aboard, then the other couple turn up. Off at about 8.30, with a 75 hp outboard pushing us along pretty well on a smooth sea. Pass a lot of native fishing craft, some large ferries coming the other way loaded with locals, and a landing craft. The water colour gets better as we get further out. Pass Nosy Komba, a conical tree covered island, with no obvious beaches, and a couple of buildings; a large new sailing cat, and a number of yachts before reaching the commercial harbour. Do some milling around for a berth, then unloaded onto the ramp. Have to struggle to hang onto our bags while we sort out payment. End up paying 36k each to the girl assistant, (about 10 times what we think is the going rate). Think we may have been scammed as it was a company booking. Probably we were better not knowing, as we had a pretty easy morning for MP's again delicate condition.
Possibly because of some port security condition, we ended up with assistance beyond the gates, but as usual, the help ended up with the light,easily pulled bag, and MP with the black beast. Even outside we had to struggle with porters to stop our gear being loaded into a taxi. The concept of tourists walking is new.
We do a long haul uphill in the heat to the town proper, checking out where the low cost ferries leave from. Walk as far as the Oasis Cafe, where we find the internet down as usual, but stop on the verandah with other seedy looking expats for breakfast. DP has a good mixed juice, MP the bread and jam, but good, system handles it OK, then set off in pursuit of the Air Austral office.
It exists, in a substantial building, and we start negotiating a possible date change for our flights to Mayotte and Comoros, as we have nine days before our flight, as we've spent less time in the national parks than we planned. First operator gives a flat no to English, the second a bit more helpful. Find we have what they consider a weird "k" class ticket, and we cannot change anything. Can confirm to Mayotte, but not beyond. Also, they can't understand why we don't know which hotel we will be staying at, and insist on an answer. In the end we take a name out of the guidebook, Benjamin (which we never stay at, because we can't even find it when we look). Back to get a taxi to Ambatoloaka, which one of our guidebooks says is a tiny fishing village, and the other says is the main tourist centre on Nosy Be. Stop a taxi in the street, he offers 15k, take it. He seems pleased, probably over the odds Stop for petrol, then out of town on a good road, alongside the abandoned railway line, past a large crater lake. The countryside is quite open, but can see hills along the coast. Turn off on a really bad road toward the coast, not sure we are on the road to the Tourist Zone.
The road deteriorates, becoming a track through a dusty, dirty, run-down village, complete with a rubbish-strewn stagnant mangrove swamp.
Start to see bars and kiosks, and the trappings of beachside culture, like Asia 30 years ago. Can't believe it when we pass the Espadon, which our guidebook says is the flashest hotel in town. Looks in need of paint and architecture. Others are worse. We have asked our man, the Malagasy Morgan Freeman, for the L'YlangYlang, and find it. Decide to have a look first. Once we enter the hotel and leave the main street, it is a different world. The hotel has a terrace, with sun lounges and plastic tables and chairs, which is right on the beach.
Lovely view of sand, water and headland, with mainland in the background, and lots of sailing dhows out fishing.
Room is clean, with own bathroom, but doesn't have mosquito nets.
Decide this will do, in spite of ambiguous data on electricity and hot water, for E40 with breakfast, down from E43, no breakfast. We appear to be the only guests.
After we settle in, swim out from the shore towards some exposed rock, and start to find tropical fish, lots of long, fine spined sea urchins, moorish idols, and various coloured fish. Further out, we see fresh coral boulders and small bombies, then when we get into deeper water, find channels and complex terrain with reasonable fish life. There are a number of giant clams, some large - obviously mustn't figure on the menu. Coral is better than we expected (some actual coral gardens), and fish life is a bit less than you would normally expect for the location, but OK nevertheless, unlike Ifaty where it is completely depleted. May have something to do with the fact that though it is intensively fished here, they are doing it with cylindrical woven bamboo fish traps rather than netting.
There is a bit of current to the south, so we head in, coming ashore earlier than DP would like, as we have to walk over some rocks on the headland on the way back. Unfortunately we have to negotiate a serious shitter's ditch. This is obviously a problem to the locals too, as there is a strangely graphic "no shitting" notice fixed to the rock wall.
After recovering from our swim, we walk the street, looking for possible alternative accommodation. Hotel Gerard and Francine looks OK at E40 ish, but the possible dates are obscure, and the rooms are a bit dark, and mosquitoes could be a problem in the dense shrubbery. The other possible was a long way back, and the waterfront cafe/hotels looked a bit basic,so now happy with our hotel selection. Climbed the steep headland at the south for a view, but find a private residence, a lot more flash than the hotels. We checked out the Espadon, priced between E34 on the hill side, to 69 for the panorama room. Decided to leave the exploration of the rest of the town to the cool of the evening, as now middle of the day and stinking hot. Lunched very late on fried cooking banana from a local stall. Unfortunately we want to lunch around 3-4pm, when there is nothing open.
In the evening, we walked the full length of the "main" street, checking out the still-closed Internet, which may have something to do with the fact that there has been no electricity in the town since 3pm, and the only light, which isn't much, comes from the generators, which can be heard running all up the street, and oil lamps in the small food stalls. There is really only one street, which is lined with lots of simple little shops, restaurants, and stalls, all trying to attract a dollar from the few tourists in town, the majority of whom seem to be single males with a local girl in tow. Walking along the street is a bit of an adventure, avoiding the deep, sandy potholes in the dark, as well as cars approaching from both directions. Two cars can just pass, if there are no obstructions such as parked cars or pedestrians. The tourist-type shops slowly give way to market-stalls, families cooking dinner on the street, and all the typical third-world scenes. Could be quite intimidating, but feels pretty safe. Find a good supermarket, which has plenty of pasta and tomato paste, which says something about the origin of tourists. We've been told that there are three charter flights a week from Milan, but can't imagine package tourists staying here. Over the next few days will investigate where they are staying.
There are tourists in most of the bars, but it isn't easy to select a restaurant which looks busy. Our hotel, which is supposed to have a good restaurant, is deserted. Finally chose the well lit and decorated Baobab, with an upstairs restaurant. A couple of Dutch women we talked to earlier praise the food, so we take a chance, have excellent grilled fish and sauteed potatoes, almost as good as Joffreville.
Take a last swing through town. One bar has a projection screen set up, and a very good picture of Holland v/s someone, with a lot of happy Dutch in the audience. Read for a while in the garden by the light of the security spotlight, as no power in our room, then have a pretty sweaty night until about midnight, when we notice the power is on, and turn on the fan. Some mosquito action in the night, as kill a blood-filled one in the morning, but not too bad a night, apart from one persistent barking dog, eventually choked by someone, and a wild dogfight right behind out room. There is a guard who spends the night on the terrace, right near our room, but he doesn't seem to see the need to stop the dog from barking.
Saturday 17th June Ambatoloaka, Nosy Be
Good hotel breakfast at 8ish, after a trickle shower of hot water. Later talk to manager, who admits they forgot to turn the hot water on yesterday. MP reluctant to do anything ambitious, so sit around, knocking back vendor offers and doing diary/reading, and watching the local goings-on from our terrace. Most of the fishing pirogues are out fishing. Local kids play in front of us, including what seems like one family with five boys and one nasty girl about eight. For no reason apparent to us, she pinches a little one till he cries, then not content with this, gets a stick and threatens another one. Later see the mother, with a stick in hand, threatening one of them, and realise from whom she picked up her habits. There is a boy about nine as well, and every time we see him over the next few days, he is carrying a two-year old, and looking after him very well. A complete role reversal to what you normally see.
Around lunchtime, there are quite a few fancy catamarans in the bay - obviously someone is selling excursions to here for lunch, and as usual everyone does the exact same tour at the exact same time. Realise that arriving by boat, and lunching at waterfront restaurants, obviates the need for the tourists to see the actual squalor of the place.
Another time-filler was watching a great crowd of locals coming down to the waterfront, singing, while two, who were fully-clothed, walked into the waist-deep water. Another person led someone, who was dressed all in white, out to the first two, one of whom completely immersed the person in white. Obviously a church baptism, with about a dozen being baptised.
Also spend a fair bit of time shoo-ing away one of the three dogs that live at the hotel. It looks like a male with what looks like large bulbous balls hanging down, and what we can only assume is some sort of growth. It stinks (any of the family reading this - think Neddie, and you'll know exactly what we mean), and insists on sleeping on our verandah, or under our table.
Buy bananas and good bread for a banana sandwich lunch.
Today' expedition is to walk all the way North along the beach to the far headland, the area known as Madirokely, walk out along the rock, and swim back. As we get closer to the headland, it is obvious that there is a big resort on it, and the bay is only shallow and muddy at this end, so swim out from in front of one of the concrete 3 storey monstrosities for a long way until we get into clearer water. There is a lot of sand and seagrass, but there are occaional beige starfish with bright orange/red markings, and small coral outcrops to make it interesting. When we get into 2 to 3 metre water, there is a change to definite coral formations, bombies and gutters. Quite interesting, plenty of anenomies, not many anenomie fish. There is a wide entrance with a sandy bottom for the yachts, and we swim past a few of them before reaching anything of interest, but the best part is north of the yacht channel. . Swim the length of the beach, all the way back to our place. Avoid having a sleep when we get back. Do the usual evening walk in the dark, to fill in time before the restaurants open about 6.30. Have dinner at Papa's, one of the cheap gargottes recommended by other travellers. Have good fish with just OK chips, and a good tomato salad. Talk to a young Swiss couple who have been travelling part of the time on motorbikes, with some success, but also some hard times.
Back to our room, which still doesn't have electricity. Sit up in bed with our headlamp torches on, reading in much better light than we normally get. Better nights sleep, with only the occasional dog bark.
Where I stayed