VISITING THE NORTHERN ISLANDS & MAKING ONE LAST TRIP BACK TO TANA

We left Diego for Nosy Be at 8:30 the next morning. Everyone said it was too late to leave and catch a boat, but luck was on our side that day. The day went a little something like this…

We found a taxi-brousse on the side of the road thanks to our tuk-tuk driver and bought tickets to Ankify. I’ve never been more terrified in a car. Aside from the dozen suitcases on top of this taxi-brousse, we also had 10 sacks of rice, a few bicycles, and two motor scooters. And then we threw our backpacks on top of all of that. It seemed like the rides were getting scarier by the day. We were in the front of the car and like most taxi-brousses, the motor was underneath the front seats. I sat on top of it for 7 hours and my butt was burning, to say the least. The driver flew over holes in the road at full speed giggling as I hit my head on the top of the van a few times (seat belts are nonexistent and the roads were crazy). Anyways, my real worries began when our driver stopped and slammed two beers, smoked at least 25 cigarettes while driving the van, and chewed on khat leaf for the last few hours of the trip. We were dropped off in Ankify, where we needed to get a taxi to the port. The adventure was far from over. There are two different areas of Ankify – the “real” area and the very touristy area located next to the port. On the touristy side there is a nice hotel and trails through the lush jungle. On the real side of the town there are cocoa plantations and markets. To put it simply, foreigners are not very well received in Ankify. I stick out like a sore thumb in some parts of the world. Ankify was one of those places. Malagasy people are by no means racist, but later a taxi driver explained to us that people in Ankify are tired of seeing the “(white) foreign people” pass through their town to party on the islands. They’re tired of seeing the young women from their towns “date” old rich men and pay bad wages to those working on the cocoa plantations. When I heard that, it made sense. I couldn’t blame them because I would have lumped myself into the category with all of the other tourists, too. After waiting for a while in the back of the taxi, we left. Our taxi was an old car with a broken windshield, two windows, and a very holey floor. He hot wired the car to make it start and brought us to the port. We were lucky and ended up making it onto the last speedboat going to Nosy Be.

Had we done a little bit of research the night before we might have learned that crossing the ocean at that time is dangerous, but we were living in the moment and we were ready to make it across. So we bought tickets and hopped onto the boat. Then we waited some more. They don’t leave until boats are filled. I thought we’d leave when there were 11 people because the capacity for the boat was 10. Instead, we crossed with about 17 people on the boat. Seeing as the boat was overloaded, it sat very low and the waves came crashing in. When the motor stopped working around the half way I thought we’d be swimming to shore, but after a few minutes we were going again. We made it to Hellville (yes, that’s really the name of the port) by early evening and were happy to be on land to say the least. It wasn't my favorite of travel days and my patience was tested a few times, to say the least, but it was all part of the adventure. There are a few things I’d do differently if I were to take that trip again, but we made it and that’s all that matters now. 

Before traveling to Nosy Be (Malagasy for the “Big Island”) we’d been warned by a few people that it’s extremely touristy and there isn’t anything authentic left on the island. I’d go as far as to say it’s a bit more touristy than the average place in Madagascar, but that’s because Madagascar isn’t very touristy at all. While we were hesitant to go to Nosy Be, it turned out to be the perfect place to end our trip. 

Nosy Be is surrounded by lots of small different islands, some inhabited and others are protected parks.  We had considered island hopping for a few days but since most boats departed from Nosy Be, we decided to stay in the same bungalow in Ambatoloaka for the entire time.  The bungalows were known for their views of the sunset and we could get everywhere we needed to go on the island by foot from there. It wasn’t dangerous to walk through the town at night and locals were very friendly.

Two German girls had arrived at our guesthouse the same day and were looking for people to share tours with, so we jumped onto their schedule so we could share a boat. The next morning we went to Nosy Komba and Tanikely Park where there was the most beautiful snorkeling I’ve ever seen. We also saw sea turtles for the first time, which proved to be very exciting! We had lunch on a table made of sand and took the boat back through a very harsh storm. The thing about storms in Madagascar is that you don’t see them coming. One minute the sky is clear and the sun is shining and the next minute black clouds roll in and it’s pouring buckets.

* Note: We didn't learn until later that you're not supposed to touch the sea turtles. Captains of the boats told us we could, but I think we were told we could in hopes of a happier experience and a better tip. Don't touch the sea turtles!

We spent another day on the ocean with the German girls, Liv and Alena. We took a boat out for a day to see whale sharks. When I agreed to swimming with whale sharks, I thought their name must just be a nickname. I thought they’d be relatively small. I was SO wrong. We were all on the side of the boat about to jump into the water in the middle of the ocean to see a whale shark. Then, as it got closer I realized it was bigger than the boat itself and we all chickened out and missed it. With a little patience, we found another couple of whale sharks swimming near the bay and we were able to jump in and see them. I’d always imagined sharks being mean, but whale sharks are harmless to humans. It was breathtaking to watch them and incredible to feel their strength as they swam by us.

After spending a few days on boats, snorkeling, and enjoying the sun on the beaches we decided to spend a day on the main island with Liv and Alena. We rented scooters and began driving around the island. We made it up to Mont Passot where we had beautiful views of the island. On our way down the hill, we veered off the main road and took a small road to see the sacred lakes. The day took a bit of a downhill turn at that point. Liv and Alena hit gravel and fell off their scooter. We turned around to find that both of their knees were gashed open. I don’t like blood, but their cuts were beyond just blood. Their knees were so gashed up you could see the bone underneath. We cleaned them up with a little water and waved leaves to keep the flies out of the wounds, but the damage was beyond a little Neosporin and a Band-Aid. So, we called the scooter company and they sent a car up and we followed them to a doctor where they got stitched up. It sounds so much less painful than it actually was as I write about it. They were tough – no tears just a few screeches. I was just happy I didn’t throw up and make things worse. We were going to take the scooters to a few other places that day, but after everything that had happened we didn’t want to test our luck anymore.  

Liv and Alena couldn’t get their wounds wet, so their last few days weren’t exactly what they’d imagined since we’d planned to go scuba diving, but we did what we could. We spent our last day at Nosy Iranja, the most beautiful white sand beach I’ve ever visited. There was a white sand strip connecting Nosy Iranja to another small island at low tide. The sand was the type of sand you bottle up because you don’t want to forget how beautiful it is. It was magnificent. I hiked to the top of the island to see the view of the two islands. While the view was beautiful, it wasn’t the only thing that made the hike worth it. I made it to the top of the mountain just in time for what turned out to be recess for the one-room schoolhouse on the island. Kids knocked mangoes out of the trees and played soccer. A few were curious as to who I was and we chatted a bit in broken French. When they learned I was from the United States they asked me to teach them a few English words. Soon enough they had to go back to class and I headed back down the mountain to take a boat back to Ambatoloaka to watch one last sunset over the ocean.

We had planned to take a taxi-brousse back to Antananarivo. Liv and Alena had too. But seeing as they couldn’t bend their knees very well after the scooter accident, a cramped taxi-brousse didn’t seem like the best idea. So instead, we had called Fred to find out if he would be able to pick us up in Ankify. He said he could; so early the next morning we woke up to take the first speedboat back to Ankify. Mother Nature wasn’t on our side that morning. It was the beginning of rainy season and it was pouring buckets. We wore our raincoats, but we were soaked from head to toe. There wasn’t a dry inch on any of us. Fred saw us as we arrived. He smiled, gave us a hug and said, “It’s Madagascar!” We all pulled out the driest things we had from our backpacks to change into, jumped into the car and made our way back to Tana.

We stopped for breakfast at a roadside stand in a small town – coffee with condensed milk and donuts. It had been a month and a half since we’d seen a stoplight. There aren’t any stoplights in Madagascar – the electricity isn’t’ reliable enough for them to work. The only thing that stopped us on the road was herds of zebu that would zigzag across fields. After two days and one night on the road, we made it back to Tana and said goodbye to the girls. We went to a market to buy Christmas presents for our families on the last day, and enjoyed one last zebu steak at the hotel where we had met Fred on our first day in Madagascar. The next morning he dropped us off at the airport. He was such a big part of our trip; we traveled as far West, East and North as we could go with him. We talked about everything from the Malagasy culture, to how to order chicken and rice at a hotely (local restaurant), to what he thinks the solutions to problems like deforestation might be. We hired him as a driver, but he turned out to be so much more than that.

From the wildlife to the flora and fauna found nowhere else in the world, to the beaches, to the jungle, to the famous Avenue of the Baobabs, to the crazy transportation system that connects all of these unique places, Madagascar is different than anywhere else I’ve ever been. Someday, I know I’ll go back to explore the South and visit a few familiar places. I only hope Mr. Fred keeps the same phone number so we can travel together again! 

THE FAR NORTH OF MADAGASCAR

I saw more sunrises during my six weeks in Madagascar than I’ve seen in my entire life. Fred picked us up at the taxi-brousse station while it was still pitch black out and we began heading north. We watched the sun rise over rolling green hills. Once again, I found myself amazed by how drastic changes of scenery were from one part of the country to another. After an hour or so of rolling through the green hills we made our way into the mountains. Shortly there after, we stopped at a waterfall that was gushing with tinted red water.  We spent time in another town because there was a truck stuck on the one-way bridge. Madagascar is full of unexpected twists and turns, but that’s traveling. After waiting for a couple of hours we made it across the bridge and we kept heading north. We passed through desert like areas; coco plantations and we saw the small version of the Tsingy that we had seen in the West.  Mango trees were everywhere and soon enough, we saw the sea again. After 58 hours in transit – one night spent on a taxi brousse and another in a roadside hotel, we made it to Diego (Malagasy: Antsiranana).

Diego is known for the deep-water harbors, the crumbling colonial architecture, the Emerald Sea, and a few national parks that aren’t too far away. It’s a place where the lush jungle meets the white sand beaches. It’s a haven for wind surfers and deep-sea fishers. Diego seemed to be a melting pot of the many different Malagasy ethnicities and old European traditions.

It was humid and with the warmer season approaching, it was getting hotter by the day. As we wandered the city the next day, I felt like I was in an episode of “The Walking Dead.” Not a soul was in sight. Humidity had caused old playgrounds to rust and as a little breeze blew through everything around began to creak.

Part of exploring Diego is about exploring the colonial buildings, now in shambles, and imagining how magnificent they must have been once upon a time. Walking through the ruins of the Hotel de la Marine, destroyed by a cyclone in the 80s, gave a peak into the luxurious past of foreign settlers and a not so glamorous look at an abandoned building a few people now call “home.”

Yellow 4L’s fill Diego’s streets filled with potholes. While a 4x4 is the best bet to get to most places around Diego, there are plenty of taxi-drivers who are willing to brave the rough roads, too. We took a 4L to a small fishing village called Ramena. We picked up a local teacher on the way to school; our taxi driver knew her and asked if it would be okay if we dropped her off on the way. We didn’t see what the problem would be, so she jumped in the car with us. She spoke both English and French, so conversation was easy. She gave us a few recommendations of things to do in the area and pointed out different sights like the Pain de Sucre and the baobab trees along the way. She was a teacher in a small village in between Ramena and Diego, we learned that she walks to school on days that she can’t find a free ride. The drive took 30 minutes, so I can’t even begin to imagine how long the walk must be. When we asked her why she doesn’t live near the school, she told us that she had grown up in that village but moved to Diego so her kids could go to a better school. Nonetheless, she continues teaching in the village she came from. It would have been nice to have more interaction with her, but we dropped her off and that was that.

Ramena is the perfect beach town/fishing village to go to if you want to relax on a backpackers budget. Not much is luxurious, and it smells like fish just about everywhere you can walk, but the village was charming.  We arrived early, so we watched the fishing boats come into shore with their morning catch while digging our toes into the sand. Slowly but surely, other tourists who wanted to take an old boat out onto the Emerald Sea began to arrive. We climbed in the wood fishing boat and began to head out into the sea. I’ve sailed around the world on a ship, but I’d never seen colors like I saw in the Emerald Sea. Madagascar truly is one of the most beautiful places I’ve had the opportunity to visit. Snorkeling in the warm, turquoise waters surrounded by tropical fish, followed by grilled fish and crab on the beach made for one of the most relaxing and luxurious days in Madagascar.

After a day on the sea we traded in our flip-flops for our hiking shoes and went to the Montagne d’Ambre. We shared a 4L taxi with two girls we met at our guesthouse. The ride was great until we were going up hill and our taxi driver told us that we’d need to walk up all of the hills because the car can only make it up with a driver in it. So the taxi drove us the flat distances in between. It wasn’t exactly what we’d imagined when booking the ride, but in Madagascar you just go with the flow. It was probably good for us to hike up all of the hills anyways. When we made it to the park entrance we hired a guide and began exploring the park. We saw at least 100 chameleons and lizards while hiking through the park, lots of lemurs and at least 15 spiders too many!

I’ve never seen a city transform so quickly overnight like Diego transformed on our last day in town.  A cruise ship stopped in the bay for the day (they were in town from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m.). Suddenly, the storefronts that had been boarded up for the previous four days were open. There were dozens of women walking the street and selling fruit in baskets on their head and men were selling hand painted toys and model ships. Restaurants that hadn’t been open any other day were suddenly open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Tour companies and chauffeurs were everywhere in sight. There were dozens more beggars than there had been other days. We left the guesthouse that morning with no idea that a ship had come in. We needed to get to the bank and the grocery store, so we quickly did our errands before the banks ran out of cash (if you’ve read the other blog posts about Madagascar, you’ll know that’s a common occurrence). We'd been planning on going to the Red Tsingy that day. To get to the Red Tsingy you needed to go in a 4x4, apparently the roads to get there were worse than anywhere else. The problem was that the cruise ship had reserved most of them in town.

After a little searching, we met the owner of a tour company who understood we were backpackers, not tourists from the ship. He knew we’d been in town for a few days and was willing to help us out and get us a car.  He picked us and a couple we’d met on the fishing boat up at noon and we were off. As soon as we made it to the 17 km stretch to get into the Ankarana Nature Reserve, I finally understood why we needed a 4x4. We’d been on some pretty rough roads in Madagascar, but this one was one of the worst. The road was completely eroded away in some spots, leaving nothing but gaping holes and boulders sticking out in some areas. We made it half way down a path when we ran into a taxi-brousse that was broken down. There was no way around the mini-bus, unless we wanted to fall to the bottom of the canyon. Our driver laughed and said “pas de problème” (no problem)! He reversed the car and gunned it. Then we took the “bad road” down. I don’t even know how to begin to explain the bad road. My palms were sweating, I tried not to look over the edge, I was hoping and praying the wheels wouldn’t fall into the gap in the middle of the “road” that was essentially made of two different cliffs… we made it! We walked a little ways through a stream filled with red quicksand and dirt until we made it to the Red Tsingy that were formed by erosion from wind and rain. The Tsingy we had visited in Western Madagascar were impressive – the Red Tsingy were bizarre. It looked like another planet – we could have been on Mars for all I knew.

Our nights were spent on the roof of the guesthouse watching the sunset and exchanging stories with other travelers. I’d write a little in my journal every night and we’d flip through photos. At our guesthouse in Diego we’d stargaze on the roof at night as we coated on bug spray or citronella (an essential oil used as a bug spray in Madagascar).

The next morning we were heading to Nosy Be. We didn’t know how yet, but we were tired and decided we’d figure it out in the morning. 

DISCOVERING EASTERN MADAGASCAR

If you don’t have the means to take flights around Madagascar, be prepared to spend a lot of time on the road. After taking a 15-hour taxi-brousse ride from Morondava to Antananarivo, we slept for a few hours and were on the road again by 6 a.m. the next morning. While taxi-brousses are budget friendly, the down side is that they don’t allow you to stop and see some of the incredible landscape, parks, and cities on the way. For most of our trips we took a taxi-brousse one-way and a private car the other, allowing us to visit more of Madagascar.

We were in the back of Mr. Fred's car winding through tropical jungles and heading east. We stopped for a day in Andasibe where we hiked through the jungle (in a reserve) and were lucky enough to see Indri-Indri lemurs, the largest of the lemur species, brown lemurs, black-and-white ruffed lemurs, and more. Although the Indri-Indri weren’t the cutest of the lemurs, their calls through the forests were incredible. They sounded like ghosts screeching in the distance and sent shivers up my spine. (Click here to listen to the Indri-Indri.)

We also saw chameleons, birds & more while hiking through the jungle. One of my favorite parts about the reserve that we visited is that the community created it in efforts to put deforestation to a halt. Former lumberjacks were taught to be nature guides and given courses in French and English; so now instead of cutting the forests down, they’re educating others, rebuilding the forests and making a living as tour guides.

After seeing lemurs in the wild, we visited a lemur reserve where the furry creatures were anything but shy. They were used to visitors and LOVED bananas. I wasn’t even holding one when a lemur came flying at me, landing on my head. It was incredible to have such close contact with them– and I never imagined how soft they might be! (For all those ‘90s kids out there who watched Zoboomafoo on PBS, you can only imagine how exciting it was to actually pet the lemurs!) 

The main attraction of Andasibe really was hiking in the jungle and having the opportunity to see the animals. I enjoyed seeing the town too. It reminded me of abandoned towns in the wild west. 

Nightfall came before we knew it and after a long day of hiking and observing Madagascar’s wildlife, it was time for bed. But just as we were making our way back to our bungalow we saw two little eyes in a traveller’s tree (a palm tree species from Madagascar), so we stopped and saw that there was a microcebus -- also known as the grey mouse lemur -- one of the smallest of the species!

The next morning we woke up to the calls of the Indri-Indri (at 4 a.m.) and soon enough we were on the road again. We kept heading east and passed through Tamatave (or Toamasina in Malagasy) on our way to Mahambo where we planned on taking a boat to Sainte-Marie. We missed the boat by 5 minutes. We ran into the same problem as we did out west with banks and lack of cash (since you can only withdraw a certain amount/banks are often completely out of cash). We had enough cash for our boat tickets and knew there were banks on Sainte-Marie, but we couldn’t stay the night and wait for the boat the next morning. So we kept going with Fred, he brought us to a town with a bank in it and then we decided to go further and head to a different port where we could spend the night and take a boat earlier the next morning. We made it to Soanierana-Ivongo (it’s a bit of a mouthful to say) and were greeted by a few men who began pounding on the windows. First I was startled, then I was excited. Fred said they told him there was a boat that was going to leave in 10 minutes, so if we could buy our tickets and register at the police station in that time we could make it. The boat that was supposed to have left two hours earlier but because the bus that had 15 passengers going to Sainte-Marie had gotten a flat tire the boat had to wait. So in the end, we made it to Sainte-Marie that day after all.


Our main purpose in going to Sainte-Marie was to head to Ile Aux Nattes, a small island just south of Sainte-Marie, where Vincent’s parents have a cabin. After taking the boat from the main land, we arrived in Sainte-Marie where Mikael the tuk-tuk driver was waiting for us. He drove us to the passageway to get to Ile Aux Nattes. The only way to get to the cabin is by taking a pirogue. So we loaded our backpacks into the wood canoe and were dropped off at the beach in front of their cabin. We had spent time in the rivers and seen the ocean in Morondava, but nothing could compare to the crystal clear waters of Ile Aux Nattes.


Up until this point, I had thought everything on the main land was mora mora (slow, slow), but island life took that to a new extreme.  While everything was slow, indeed, it was also relaxing. In the morning, we’d wake up and have breakfast. Shortly thereafter, people began coming by the house – instead of going to a market everyone purchased groceries at their houses. Women walked around selling fruits, fish, or shrimp in the baskets they balanced gracefully on their heads and men biked with vegetables and live chickens. It was fun to see every day life on Ile Aux Nattes. 

We took walks around the island, spent afternoons snorkeling, and read in hammocks. 

Other days we rented scooters and explored Sainte-Marie. We spent one day exploring the Northwestern part of Sainte-Marie, which brought us through markets, mangroves, past waterfalls and beautiful beaches, all the way to la piscine naturelle (natural pools) in the north. 

La piscine naturelle is one of the most beautiful places we were in Madagascar. I felt like I was at the end of the world. Waves came crashing over rocks, making the pools feel like a jacuzzi. As beautiful as it was, we didn’t realize how strong the current was until it had pulled us into an area filled with sharp rocks and coral. We left with quite a few cuts, but I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.

Another day was spent exploring the eastern and undeveloped side of Sainte Marie that overlooks the Indian Ocean. The colors were magnificent, but it remains relatively undeveloped due to cyclones. The east is known for tremendous mangroves, but my favorite part about the eastern side of the island was getting there. The road was something else.  It would be “paved” for about 20 feet, then there would be sand, then dirt, then mud, then deep holes. It was definitely unpredictable. Life was simple. We passed through on a Saturday afternoon. Ladies were braiding hair, clothes were drying on the roofs of homes, and people were cooking outside or napping underneath their elevated bamboo houses.

As easy as it would have been to stay on Ile Aux Nattes and Sainte Marie for the rest of our time in Madagascar, we were ready to see more.  It was time to head back to the mainland. The next day we had lunch with Vincent’s parents, grabbed our backpacks and walked barefoot on the beach to the passageway where we’d take a pirogue. Mikael the tuk-tuk driver who had picked us up on the first day just so happened to be waiting at the passageway, so he took us into town. I tried to convince him to come to the mainland with us and drive us all the way to Northern Madagascar in a tuk-tuk. He laughed and said I was crazy. I probably was, but someday, I’ll get a tuk-tuk and I’ll drive it across a country (that trip is in the works). They’re by far my favorite form of transportation. We stayed at a hotel next to the port that night, were up by 4:30 and headed back to Antananarivo via Tamatave.

We made it to Tamatave by early afternoon; all taxi-brousses to Tana left about a half hour earlier so we decided to spend the night. We met a pousse-pousse driver (a bike with two seats behind it), named Jean-Joseph, who took us to a very cheap hotel (5 euros/night), and since we only had an afternoon to really see  Tamatave we decided we’d have him take us on a tour of the city.


After leaving the islands, seeing Tamatave was a reality check.  Life for most who live in the city is difficult. Spaces were cramped and odors were overpowering. We went to “the other side of the train tracks” where the poorest of the poor lived. Open sewers ran in between tarps that were strung together to make homes; garbage was dumped in front of their houses on the beach. When a gust of wind came through, it relieved me from the sweltering heat for a moment, but the smells were almost worse with that gust of wind. The same gust of wind blew one of the tarps up into the air allowing me to see a man. He was eating rice off the dirt floor. I don’t know his life story, but I could only imagine how hungry someone must be to be eating rice, piece by piece, off a dirt floor. I didn’t get to talk to the man and I didn’t take a picture, but I can still see his eyes. It was another moment in Madagascar that I realized how much we have in the United States and in Europe.  This wasn’t the first time I traveled to poor countries, but somehow the poverty has struck me in a different way in Madagascar. It’s not hidden; it’s everywhere. We continued our “tour” on the pousse-pousse and made our way through the port, parks, and back to the city center. All the while I couldn’t stop thinking about what I’d seen on the other side of the train tracks.

We changed plans and decided to leave that night instead of early the next morning to save ourselves a day. We took an overnight taxi-brousse from Tamatave to Tana*. Fred picked us up at the taxi-brousse station at 4:30 that morning and we started heading north.

Note: *Taxi-brousses at night can be considered dangerous. We took a well-known company “Cotisse” that is a “first class taxi-brousse.” They leave in groups of 5-6 buses at night to avoid problems. Their taxi-brousses are also a bit more spacious than other companies.