How not to get lost in paradise

The 'travel' palm is one of 5 national symbols of Madagascar

Although Madagascar’s paradisiacal nature cannot be brought into question, the journey into a land of foreign languages, outdated guidebooks and mixed safety reviews is not always an easy one. With a bit of research and the guidance of some helpful operators dedicated to the South African traveller, we made our way to a small constellation of islands northeast from the mainland. Here we found sandy-white seclusion, sleeping in bungalows crafted from palm trees, fresh seafood caught off a boat, and the perfect route for island hopping.

With a landmass of just over 580 000 square kilometres, Madagascaris the fourth largest island in the world. The terrain changes from dense, tropical rain forests and coastlines to dry, arid deserts. There is a mountainous spine running like a vein through the north-south poles of the country. It is wonderful to think that so much extraordinary biological and cultural wealth waits less than a four-hour flight from home.

Foreign clubs and cultures have invaded the main centre of Nosy Be. For most, it serves as nothing more than a connection point to other, more secluded islets. We arrive at the port of Hell-Ville, met by our host Mohamed and his pirogue that is carrying all of our food supplies for the next few days. Mohamed is a yacht pilot, and has lived in Nosy Be his entire life and he met Ross, based in Cape Town, some years ago. They spent two years sailing the Indian Ocean, which lead them to set up Madagascar Island Safaris where they create tailor-made experiences for travellers in the north.

The Scented Isle

We set sail for Lokobe Special Reserve, a dense forest respite on the southeast corner of Nosy Be. This marks our first sight of the magnificently crafted dhows scattered across the waters like an ancient fleet of pirate ships. Against the backdrop of the darkening and infinite sky, I feel my first sense of joyful remoteness since leaving the busy city. There is no electricity as we approach the shore; only the soft glow of a campfire beckons us like a lighthouse.

“Between the uninhibited land and natural coral aquarium, time simply does not exist. The whole day is spent floating among turtles and tropical fish and then coming back to shore with giant appetites, where a spread of mouth-watering seafood is laid out. We happily wash down our meal with coconut infused rum.”

Lokobe is a strict reserve and permission for outsiders to visit has only been granted in recent years. Known as the ‘scented isle’ because of its abundance of ylang-ylang blossoms, vanilla and pepper, it is also home to black lemurs and the endemic panther chameleon. The stridulating cicadas - the trademark sound of the wild - and a salty sea-dog affectionately named Blondie, greet us. At the shore of a thick, tropical forest stretching over vistas of Indian Ocean, four rustic campsites are set up. The deck and palm leaf shelters keep the mud and mosquitoes at bay. Each night the rain is brought in with the tides and the permanent chainsaw-choir of cicadas is finally soothed.

Mohamed coordinates a range of activities around the archipelago from hikes to dhow safaris and fly fishing. Snorkelling at the exquisite marine reserve of Nosy Tanikely should be high on the list of things-to-do. Between the uninhibited land and natural coral aquarium, time simply does not exist. The whole day is spent floating among turtles and tropical fish and then coming back to shore with giant appetites, where a spread of mouth-watering seafood is laid out. We happily wash down our meal with coconut infused rum.

Nosy Komba Island
After two nights in the Lokobe reserve, we catch a taxi boat to the lemur island of Nosy Komba. Madagascar is the world’s only Afro-Asian population and the island is home to a small but strong community whose lives are rooted in unbroken tradition. The women weave beautiful tapestries that are left blowing in the wind. The captain of our taxi boat invites us to his home to enjoy a barracuda on the fire caught on the ride in. We are welcomed into the village as friends.

It is strongly recommended to leave the hotels and look for dinner in the village for superior tastes and lower prices. We are treated to poisson de coca, slow-cooked fish in a coconut and vanilla sauce. With any meal there is the option of sautéed vegetables, rice and fried or sautéed potatoes. I opt to try them all.

We find our rest at Floralies - a collection of beachfront bungalows at affordable prices. Here, we are warmly greeted with a fresh blend of papaya, milk and mint juice. During the day, you can tune into the sound of a leaf falling, even hear the notes hidden in the singing wind and trace the path of the ants in the sand. The sun pours down into the ocean, making it a bath. I walk a kilometre in before feeling the welcomed chill in the water.

An hour’s boat ride to the other side of the island takes us to T’sara Lodge, an eco-oasis for travellers on a more generous budget. Enthusiasts from all over the world come here to tour one of the world’s most beautiful locations set in a tropical, botanical garden. The garden alone has over 200 species of flowering plants and six species of baobabs endemic to Madagascar.

Madagascar is also one of the most sought after dive spots in the world, offering spectacular coral formations and abundant underwater life. During the dry season the surrounding Indian Ocean and Mozambique Channel is a warm bath for humpbacks to breed, migrate, or simply enjoy breeching the velveteen-like waters. It is also a chance to swim with whale sharks. This means that the market has been exploited with businesses popping up all over the shores of Nosy Be. We had heard of the dive centre on Sakatia Island run by a passionate South African dive expert. Just a ten-minute boat ride from Nosy Be, our hosts at Sakatia Lodge provide a truly memorable dive experience and a lovely connection to home.

When to go
Avoid planning anything from January to March as heavy rainfall brings threats of cyclones. The optimum period is during the dry season from May to October.

Money exchange
Take enough local Ariary to see you through your whole trip, as there are no ATMs or card facilities on the islets. There is a fair exchange rate when drawing from the ATM on Nosy Be or at the airport. Madagascar Safaris organizes a money changer to come to the hotel on your first night to exchange local currency.

Getting there
Flights leave every few days from OR Tambo to Antananarivo. If you want to skip the capital city completely, consult operators who can book direct flights to Nosy Be. If you are taking Madagascar’s national fleet, leave room for extended delays and rouge itinerary changes.