Issue 38
Be Nosey
Sampling the many charms of Madagascar opens up a world long hidden from view
By Jo Kromberg  ·  2017-08-02  ·   Source:
Photos by Jo Kromberg
Madagascar. What a peculiar name for a country. But then again there is Vanuatu and Kyrgyzstan.  

Located off the southeast coast of Africa, it’s the fourth largest island in the world and I always imagined it to be a place of great mystery where ancient languages are still spoken by practically naked locals who hunt wild boar with spears and put curses on white invaders. Where dark forests with its weird creatures swallow the odd lost tourist whole.

Boy, was I wrong...And right.  

Very warm welcome 

My first impression of the tiny Nosy Be airport where my Airlink flight lands from South Africa is, of course, of chaos and color. Africa is a beautiful noise in even the tiniest of spaces.  

After a brief debate regarding visa fees, resulting in a bewildered me and local officials alike, my driver Amido disappears and eventually turns up with the required $30 for an entry visa. Bless his heart. So hark, dear reader, there are no ATMs at the airport and no credit card machines either so bring cash to pay for your visa.  

We hop over what is not even a reasonable facsimile of a road for the next 40 minutes to the lodge from which my ferry departs - all seven kilometers of it. 

My surrounds are lush green tropical forests and palm trees steeped in the heat and humidity and smelling of vanilla. Cows graze next to the road and we pass fishermen plying their trade.  

The boat ride to my abode Constance Tsarabanjina takes about an hour and the water is quite choppy. Tsarabanjina is a small island off the northwest coast in the Mitsio archipelago and my faint nausea from boat fumes cannot curb my enthusiasm and excitement of being in Madagascar for the first time and I smile like an idiot savant without the savant part.  

I arrived from a bone-chillingly cold South Africa earlier and the warm 30 degree sun on my face is just what I needed. The island creeps closer at an agonizingly slow pace but my eyes almost get dislodged from their sockets once we arrive. Not at a jetty. No. I am deposited in front of my bungalow and greeted by every single smiling and singing staff member with both hands waving as we approach the beach in the last rays of sunset.  

I hop off the boat and walk the 10 meters to my bungalow front door where Lodge Manager Henry introduces himself and his wonderful staff with a welcome drink and wet towel - but I am transfixed by the scene. The sun bounces off the blue, warm water as a honeymoon couple cavorts in the calm ocean like children. It is genteel. Serene.  Photoshopped.  

Beautiful to see 

Customer Relations Manager Erhet then briefs me about my bungalow, the island, mealtimes etc. All this while sitting on my own veranda - no cumbersome check-in and waiting around.  

Constance Lodge Tsarabanjina is renowned for its snorkeling and diving. All non-motorized activities are free of charge and the Lodge is all-inclusive and there are only 25 villas. You can stroll around, climb up the hills and lose your way in the mesh of its luxuriant vegetation. Bungalows look out onto the sea with private terraces, some of them built from rosewood with a thatched roof. Every bungalow is unique, each one bearing the name of a flower, a tree or a fish. It consists of the main bedroom equipped with fans, a bathroom with shower, a private terrace with deck chairs and coffee table and they are built on two beaches. Meals are served in the restaurant on the mezzanine above the bar overlooking the sea. And their rates are reasonable - expect to pay about $1,000 per bungalow per night during low season. 

It’s not big. You can walk or snorkel around the island in about an hour.  

I have a shower and then head off to find the restaurant for dinner. I would say that this is barefoot luxury, only I balk at cheap clichés. But this is barefoot luxury. Guests literally come to dinner barefoot. 

I have a cocktail with Henry at the bar as a balmy breeze gently rocks the soft lanterns ahead from side to side, accompanied by local island music in the background and of course soft waves lapping the beach meters away. Are you kidding me? Can this get any more clichéd? Or better? Yes. It can. The food is superb and caters to western tastes as well as incorporating local cuisine. The staff are all darlings and though their English is not fantastic, they can make themselves understood. Henry proves an exceptionally funny and informative dinner companion. He tells me that Tsarabanjina means "beautiful to see" in Malagasy which is the local language and well, yeah... 

The whole place is just beguiling and we end up chatting and laughing quite late into the tropical night. 

Rich history 

I sleep late the next day and after breakfast I make myself at home in the hammock in front of my veranda and stay there with my book until lunch. Without one iota of guilt.  

A swim seems in order after a lovely buffet lunch. The 25 degree water never really gets colder than that - this is winter after all. The water is the color of light blue silk and all is right with the world.  

Dinner that night is a traditional affair and all guests meet at a lookout point with a make-shift bar, dressed in traditional sarongs. We get our faces painted in local traditional patterns as the sea swallows the sun and from this high vantage point it is breath-taking.  

We are then treated to a talk on the history of Madagascar by a couple of the locals - most interesting. The first inhabitants of the country were of course lemurs and they can be found in the northern parts. Unfortunately I didn’t get to meet these friendly and unique little critters but they are apparently very friendly and of course a favorite attraction for tourists. 

They are now a protected species thank goodness and there are more than 100 species, I am told.  The island was a French colony and most locals speak French, Italian and some English. I discover that Tsarabanjina is a sacred islet. On the small peninsula of the eastern beach is found the tomb of the Sakalava kings of the Mitsio islands. Up to this day, the people of the Mitsio islands venerate this place; they come here bringing their offerings (money, honey, rum ...). Les Quatre Frères Les Quatre Frères (The Four Brothers islets), facing Tsarabanjina, on the northwest side, are mythical rocks where a large number of birds come to build their nests. 

The talk is followed by a menu of local cuisine which is most unusual. The locals eat mostly bland rice soup, accompanied by fish or chicken. My dinner companion is Activities Manager Cillione and he tells me about the fascinating tradition of Fady, practiced by the Malagasy.  Basically, many things you can think of, and many more you can’t, are taboo. These animists believe that if you break the taboos, death and disease will be visited upon you and your clan. Cillione cannot believe that guns are legal in some parts of the world such as South Africa.  

As I walk back to my bungalow, the full moon bathes this impossible piece of paradise in a silvery light.  

Island hopping 

We’re off messing about in boats on my last day. On the agenda is a spot of snorkeling around the islands and not much else. The Archipelago owns rain forests and beautiful beaches, not very often visited. The small fishing villages have to be seen not only for the kindness and the welcome of the locals, but also in order to discover their way of living. So breakfast done, seven of us set off to the first island Ratapenziky.  

There lives a small local community here with the usual bunch of French volunteers. We meet some of the locals and then set off to another island where we explore an underwater wonderland of warm, crystalline water, myriads of small colorful fish and pristine coral.  

There are many uninhabited islands here, some with massive boulders thrust up from the ocean. Our captain takes us to an especially unique island, boating ancient rock formation visible from the boat called "tsingy"  which translates as "where one cannot walk," due to the hazardous formations of razor-sharp pinnacles made from limestone which have been eroded by tropical rain. 

I feel very privileged to see such a magnificent and special natural phenomenon.  

Then we basically spend the day going where our fancy takes us, stopping to snorkel as and when we please. We even swim into a cave at one point.  This is a million light-years away from the tourist chaos in Egypt, Greece and Australia only with a far superior snorkeling and diving experience.  

As we enjoy our last dinner, the horror of my imminent departure dawns on me.  

We get the same send off from the staff as when I arrived. I’m smiling but crying on the inside as the boat ride back gradually makes them smaller and smaller on the beach. Dancing and singing. With both hands waving... 

Contact: 

https://www.constancehotels.com/en/hotels-resorts/madagascar/tsarabanjina/ 

Getting there: 

There are currently no direct flights from China to Madagascar so fly to Johannesburg and go to Nosy Be with Airlink.  

Airlink offers a wide network of regional and domestic flights within southern Africa and operates as a franchisee to SAA 

Route Specific Information:  Airlink offers direct scheduled flights between Johannesburg and Nosy Be in Madagascar on Wednesdays and Sundays.  

Connectivity: Through an alliance with SAA travellers connect conveniently with SAA, their Partner airlines and other carriers throughout Southern Africa and the world. 

Frequent Flyer Program: Airlink is a member of South African Airways Loyalty program -Voyager. 

Website:  www.flyairlink.com  

Flight Bookings:  Online, booking agent or SAA Central Reservations on +27 11 978 1111. 

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