I am woken by a strange bird call. It’s a gurgling sound, similar to our rainbird. But this is Madagascar, where everything is different. From my bed, I look out the doorway of the A-Frame bungalow at the waves lapping a few metres away. We are on tiny Nosy Iranja island, off the north-west coast of Madagascar. With palm trees, powder-white beaches and translucent turquoise water, it is the quintessential Indian Ocean island.
Yesterday we were on a boat, travelling from Nosy Be, the largest of over 250 islands that surround Madagascar. Kiki, our skipper, is tall with polarizing sunglasses, making it easier for him to spot underwater creatures. We are with Safari Baleine, which specialises in whale sharks, cetaceans and turtles. He slows the boat, telling us to put on our fins and masks. A frenzied school of shiny bonito are leaping – a marker that whale sharks are nearby as they eat the same diet of plankton and krill. Kiki points to starboard and gently we enter. And there below us, all eight metres of it, is the largest fish of our seas. Its wide head and spotted back are a mere metre beneath me, with synchronised pilot fish keeping pace with his every move. I think it will be easy to keep up, as he is moving ever so gently. But as I swim faster and faster, the sea giant slowly and silently moves away. Luckily for us this is the season when they migrate here and we find three more.
Swimming with whale sharks builds an appetite and on Nosy Iranja we feast beneath shady badamier trees: Octopus curry, red snapper, fresh vegetables, coconut rice, prawn skewers and zebu brochettes (extremely heat-tolerant humped cattle that were brought here from India). Afterwards, we walk through the village. The women’s displays of beautifully embroidered cloth bring a prickle to my eyes. My parents visited Madagascar in 1972 and my Mother bought a large tablecloth, which I recently inherited. Nearly fifty years later, I find an almost identical cloth, with intricately embroidered figures and village scenes. In the morning, at low tide, we walk across the exposed sandbar connecting Nosy Iranje to an even smaller island, Iranja Kely. We are the first to cross, leaving our footprints in the virgin sand.
Back on Nosy Be we explore the energetic town of Hell-ville, with noisy markets selling fresh fish, spices and vegetables. In a plantation just outside Hell-ville, our guide, Mari-La, stops the car and picks flowers from gnarly bonsai-looking trees. She crushes them and the exquisite scent of fresh ylang ylang fills the car. “Keep them,” she says, “they smell stronger when they dry.” This is the tree that gives Nosy Be its nickname “Perfume Island.”
Another day, another island. Nosy Sakatia is a ten-minute boat ride from the west coast of Nosy Be. Sakatia Lodge, set on the beach at the foot of the Sacred Mountain, is a Mecca for divers from around the world. Their NAUI centre offers a range of dives from shallow pristine coral to night dives, walls and steep drop-offs. We catch a lift with the dive boat and are dropped off to snorkel the reef ringing the island. We marvel at the kaleidoscopic assortment of coral and tropical fish. On the way in we encounter five Green Sea Turtles, grazing on seagrass. Measuring two metres from nose to tail, they pay no attention to us as we sink down to watch them.
I am woken from my afternoon nap by a grunting noise. It is a lemur, climbing through the wooden shutters above me. It is followed by another and then a third, with a baby clinging to her tummy. Soon the veranda and bungalow are filled with their fruity aroma as a conspiracy of lemurs arrives. We quickly realise the bunch of bananas – their favourite delicacy – in our bungalow has attracted them. We hide it but still they hang over the doors, watching us, climbing onto our shoulders to see if we have something in our hands and making effortless flying leaps from rafter to rafter. I fall in love with their huge curious eyes, soft fluffy tails and tiny gentle hands.
Our last night is spent is spent at Ravantsara, a wellness centre on the west coast of Nosy Be. Set in five hectares of sub-tropical gardens its spa, hammam and reflexology salon overlook lily ponds surrounded by psychedelic red and orange heliconias and coconut palms A perfect rejuvenation spot to end a holiday.
When the familiar strident sound of hadedas wakes me, I know I am home. On my bedside table is a collection of goodies I’d emptied from my pocket the night before, including a dried ylang ylang flower. Mari-la was right – the scent is even stronger dried. I inhale its exotic fragrance, a reminder that the trip to Madagascar was not a dream.
MUST-SEE SIGHT: Visit a plantation to see vanilla, cocoa, pepper and much more growing. 80% of the world’s vanilla comes from Madagascar.
NICE-TO-KNOW: Don’t drink the tap water. Rather stock up on bottled water at the supermarket than buy at the hotels.
WHAT TO DRINK: Three Horse Beer is a popular and delicious local beer. Do try sampling some of the local rums infused with fruit and spices.
Planning your trip
GETTING THERE: Air Link has weekly flights to Nosy Be and daily flights to Antananarivo. flyairlink.com
Our trip was arranged by Animaltracks Islandventures
VISAS: Get your visa on entry for €25
CURRENCY: The Malagasy Ariary. Preferably take euros, which you can change at the airport when you arrive. Many hotels accept euros.
WHERE TO STAY: There is a range of accommodation from five-star luxury to comfortable bungalows on the beach
GETTING AROUND: The roads are bad and you average 30 km an hour. Boats are frequent between the islands and many hotels offer shuttle services.
WHEN TO GO: The best time for the Nosy Be area is the dry season from May to October
CREDIT: Text: Jane Griffiths. Photographs: Jane Griffiths and Keith Knowlton
This blog post was derived from this article.