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!