A July 2005 trip
to Nosy Be by Golem
Quote: Having completed a fortnight of volunteer work in Madagascar's interior, the inevitable return to the real world was imminent. So, reining in thoughts of further adventures, I spent my last few days of freedom enjoying the pleasures of the paradise island that is Nosy Be.
Nosy Be In A Nutshell: The island's highlights in brief.Despite being undiscovered by the developers of the upscale resorts that have sprung up on more familiar Indian Ocean locales, Nosy Be is nevertheless the closest thing that Madagascar has to an outright tourist destination. Anyone looking for plenty of opportunities to swim in warm waters, stroll barefoot along palm-fringed beaches, and bask under a cloudless sky will not be disappointed by what they will find there. Nor will those wishing to combine the leisurely rhythms of tropical island life with an easy to digest, although somewhat watered down, taste of the country's unique culture and wildlife. Meanwhile, as I found, it is also an ideal spot for a relaxed goodbye to all things Malagasy after visiting the mainland.
Pick Of The Bunch: Looking for lemurs in Lokobe.Nosy Be's primary attraction for most people is its alluring combination of sun, sea, and sand. But the real highlight of my time on the island came in the jungle rather than on the beach. Although not fully pristine, the buffer zone of the otherwise inaccessible Lokobe reserve is still a lush and beautiful place. More notably, it is a prime spot in which to discover why black lemurs are among the best-loved primates in the country.
Uniquely Nosy Be: Savouring the aromas of the 'Perfumed Isle'.There are perhaps few places anywhere quite as fragrant as Nosy Be. It is one of the only exporters of an essential oil used in some of the world's most famous perfumes, which is taken from the sweet-smelling yellow blossoms of the gnarled ylang-ylang trees found all over the island. Visiting the alambic just outside Hell-Ville to see the distillation of the aromatic essence is a rare insight into the rustic beginnings of an ever-so-sophisticated product.
Thanks For The Memories: A timeless beach scene.Having decided to take a stroll along the strand at Ambatoloaka, away from tourist territory, I stumbled across a sight that was for me much more beguiling that anything a resort could possibly offer. Just beyond the spot where the beachfront hotels and bars gave way to modest thatched huts, a group of men talked and laughed whilst building a traditional boat, evoking the humble fishing village that their forefathers would have known.
Get Your Papers In Order: Remember to reconfirm.Anyone scheduled to leave Nosy Be on an internal flight should validate their booking a couple of days beforehand at Air Madagascar's office in Hell-Ville. Although doing so is an inconvenience and is not officially necessary, it can really help to prevent problems at departure time.
Much Ado About Nothing: Don't believe the hype.Even though some guidebooks list it as a top attraction, conscientious animal lovers may well want to think twice before joining the many people that flock to Nosy Komba each year. The small island's famously tame black lemurs are in poor condition, and their belligerent behaviour is as unnatural as the habitat in which they live, making for a rather sorry spectacle indeed.
Shop 'Til You Drop: Take home a taste of the island.Hell-Ville's bustling main market is undoubtedly a colourful place to visit. But perhaps more pertinently for tourists, it is also the ideal spot to buy edible souvenirs and gifts, most notably the wonderfully fragrant, locally grown spices and vanilla that can be used to season meals with the intense flavours of Nosy Be long after leaving.
Getting There: Arriving in Nosy Be.Currently, the most popular way to reach the island is to fly there from Antananarivo. However, that is likely to change soon when direct flights link the local airport with Europe, which will render making a connection in the capital unnecessary. Meanwhile, those travelling on the mainland prior to visiting Nosy Be may find the ferry crossing from Ankify to be a more convenient and much cheaper alternative.
Going Walkabout: Exploring the island on foot.Nosy Be may look like a mere speck on a map of Madagascar, but don't be fooled. It is actually more than 100 square miles of undulating terrain with a hot and humid climate. So, whilst places like Mont Passot offer good hiking opportunities, walking from one part of the island to another is rarely a practical option.
Catch A Ride: Using public transport in Nosy Be.The incredibly economical but invariably uncomfortable bush taxis that are the most common way of getting around much of the country are relatively absent from the roads of Nosy Be. However, the fairly short distances involved mean that shared and private taxis are for once a feasible and affordable mode of transport.
Hotel | "A spot of R&R at Hotel L'Ylang-Ylang."
Of the numerous small-scale establishments that have sprung up in the vicinity, my choice was the fairly typical, but very well-liked Hotel L'Ylang-Ylang. It provides beachfront accommodation for approximately 30 people, in two blocks that both overlook a pleasant courtyard garden. The newer of the pair offered the sole advantage of air-conditioning, rather than a fan, and the prospect of cool, mosquito-free nights proved to be irresistible after a fortnight sleeping in a tent, even when considering the extra cost incurred.
The reasonably sized bedroom was simply but pleasantly furnished in a mixture of Western and local styles and featured other moderate luxuries, such as an en-suite bathroom, television, and minibar, but it was perhaps somewhat hard to get too excited about it. However, the veranda offered much more inspiring possibilities, and reclining in one of its comfortable wooden seats with a cool beer, luxuriating in the warm glow of the sunset, quickly became a relaxing evening ritual.
With the exception of a highly regarded restaurant that specialises in freshly caught fish, served on a terrace with sea views, the hotel has few of the facilities associated with major resorts elsewhere. But the genuinely intimate atmosphere was a fine compensation. I, along with the resident handful of French sun worshippers who had come looking for a slightly different destination, were always treated very well by the staff, from the affable and efficient manager to the friendly cleaners who left fragrant blossoms behind when they had finished making every surface gleam.
Meanwhile, alfresco breakfast was an ever-appealing prospect. Even spending time shooing off the large wasps inevitably attracted by the tasty honey and jams that accompanied the fresh bread could not detract from the views over the golden sands, glistening under the rising sun in the wake of the retreating tide.
Another regular fixture were the souvenir hawkers who would alight nearby in the hope of making a sale, unfurling the bundle of merchandise that they had hitherto carried upon their heads, which may have had some folk longing for lodgings with a stretch of private beach. But despite my bleary-eyed state each morning and disinterest in shopping, I nevertheless delighted in the open nature of the strand. Every day, it was possible to interact with many other locals as they went about their business, and also to enjoy some rather delicious slices of Malagasy life alongside a leisurely coffee. Particularly heart-warming were the charming scenes as a group of local children would take turns to experience the simple pleasure of riding a shared bicycle across the sands over and again.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on January 16, 2005
Beachfront boarding at Hotel L'Ylang-Ylang.
Nosy Be, Madagascar
Attraction | "Hitting the road to Hell-Ville."
There usually comes a time, even during the most exotic getaways, when dull practicalities need to be attended to. During my stay on Nosy Be, visiting the bank, sending postcards, and reconfirming flight tickets all became necessary, ensuring that a taxi ride from Ambotoloka to Hell-Ville was inevitable. Although to be honest, visiting such a deliciously named place would have likely been too much for me to resist anyway.
My visit started at the colonial cemetery, which marks the beginning of town, but is nevertheless still a forgotten place that nature seems determined to reclaim. Lush tropical vegetation sprouts wildly among the imposing mausoleums and humbler tombs of the administrators, missionaries, and sailors who had come from far away and ended up staying forever.
Moving on from the atmospherically forlorn spot into the modest neighbouring urban sprawl provided a sudden jolt back into the land of the living. Aging French cars rattled along potholed roads, and crowds made their way to and from shops housed in shacks. Elsewhere, the occasional group of young men loitered furtively, as if trying to make the town's name seem justified rather than just an unfortunate inheritance from a 19th-century admiral.
At the epicentre of it all was the main market, a frenetic feast for the senses housed in a cavernous hall. Elegant lamba-clad women filled the place with a wonderful joie de vivre as they browsed the numerous stalls, which were all pilled high with the abundant local produce, from fruit to the vanilla and spices that made the air heavy with intense aromas.
In the time that it took me to get from the mouth-watering display of African commerce to the older part of town, I started to think of Noël Coward's words. Midday had arrived and the streets were deserted, save for a few mad dogs and me, an Englishman. Meanwhile, crumbling reminders of a long gone heyday, once grand structures that had long suffered the depredations of economic woes and frequent cyclones, accentuated the feeling of being in a ghost town. Of course, the bank, post office, and Air Madagascar were not open, so finding somewhere to escape the now blistering sun seemed like a very good idea.
The nearby Hotel de la Mer, with its covered but otherwise open-air terrace bar, proved to be a decent option. The views over the natural harbour were quite magical, and as swallows darted back and forth in front of me, it felt more like heaven rather than hell. There was no need to clock-watch whilst enjoying the scenery and a cooling drink, and doing so would have probably been futile anyway, given the nature of Malagasy timekeeping. Instead, the age-old sight of a small armada of traditionally built fishing boats heading back out to sea indicated that siesta had ended and the business that had initially brought me to town could be taken care of.
Hitting the road to Hell-Ville
Nosy Be, Madagascar
Attraction | "A close encounter with the lemurs of Nosy Komba."
Anyone visiting Madagascar will at some stage come across fady, traditional taboos such as those found on Nosy Komba that holds the resident lemurs to be sacred and thus safe from any interference. The combination of the small volcanic island's close proximity to Nosy Be, the nearby holiday hotspot, and the resident population of adorable and far-from-timid animals has made it the nation's most visited "wildlife" attraction. After all, few people can resist the unique prospect of getting up close and personal with these creatures whilst in the area. And being no exception myself, I joined one of the many excursions that go there.
As we bounced across the waves, the first glimpse of our destination's palm-shaded huts spread along golden strand was promising, but actually flattered to deceive. Closer inspection quickly revealed that the potential paradise found was in reality paradise lost. Rubbish marred whole swathes of the beach, whilst the village resembled a souvenir market rather than a rural settlement.
Having made straight for the so-called sanctuary, I almost immediately found myself surrounded by the famed black lemurs. Perched on the rough wooden fences and among the sparse tree coverage that is their degraded home, the primates were close enough to provide some unusual photographic opportunities and to observe previously unnoticed features, such as hands resembling those of a human encased in soft leather gloves. Sadly, they were also close enough to notice their evidently poor condition, which rendered them a dishevelled shadow of a species that at best is possibly the most attractive in the whole country. The root of the problem soon became apparent with the arrival of some tourists baring the next in the long line of fruit deliveries that has dramatically swollen the troop size and led to the sadly obvious bad health and aggressive behaviour.
With the bedraggled creatures busy leaping on the newcomers and fighting among themselves in their quest for yet another free lunch, waiting for the return boat on a rare clean spot on the sands seemed like a good idea. However, that made me a sitting target for the local youngsters, who were quite unlike the charmingly shy but curious children encountered elsewhere. Instead, these preteens clearly associated Westerners with handouts of sweets and suchlike. So much so that my refusal to play ball led to increasingly shrill demands and much sulky foot stamping.
Although not exactly uncommon, such incidents never fail to give me gloomy thoughts about the possible cost that any economic boon brought by tourism might exert upon the upcoming generations in the developing world's more popular destinations. In addition, following the earlier disappointment, it felt like truly the imperfect way to end an imperfect day. Presumably, things were once mutually beneficial for villagers, lemurs, and visitors alike, and the island was actually the must-see sight still recommended by guidebooks, but not anymore.
Member Rating 1 out of 5 on January 16, 2005
Lemurs of Nosy Komba
Nosy Be, Madagascar
A chance encounter.Clearly the most sensible epilogue to my few hectic weeks in Madagascar would have been having an utterly relaxing stay on Nosy Be before returning home. But good sense has rarely come naturally to me and neither has being a beach bum, even when in the midst of such undeniably fine surroundings. So inevitably, it was not long before I started yearning for previously cherished pleasures of the country's wilder places. However, having already found Nosy Komba's supposed charms to be actually quite distasteful and knowing that Lokobe, the only reserve in the region, was off limits to tourists, my hopes of rekindling the love affair were admittedly not high.
Fortunately, that all changed when I happened upon Donald Retsila touting for business in his own gentle way on the beach. He was an immediately likable person and very well-informed too, especially about the alluring possibilities of the national park's buffer zone, which is actually accessible to visitors.
The slow boat(s).The very next morning we hit the dusty, bumpy roads. However, as the strictly protected area blocks direct access to our destination from the rest of the island, it was soon necessary to swap the car for a more time-honoured form of transport. So, we pushed on towards the awaiting pirogue, stopping only to admire the superbly vibrant markings of a panther chameleon, which surely proves that the alleged reptilian masters of disguise do not change colour to blend in with their surroundings.
After nearly sinking whilst in a modern contraption earlier on the trip, the traditional simplicity of our dugout canoe reassured me. I relaxed straight away, took up an oar, and felt thankful that the firm breeze would make the potentially hot work of rowing a much cooler prospect, as would the water sloshing around the deck. The realisation of what my increasingly wet feet might mean was less immediate, but fortunately before the thought, "oh no, not again," could fully come to mind, we were already heading back towards dry land.
As luck would have it, waiting for the skipper to track down a more robust, less leaky replacement did not really prove to be particularly bad news. In fact, the false start meant that we were privileged enough to be able to watch a mother teaching her young daughter how to fish for crabs in the nearby shallows, passing age-old knowledge down to a new generation.
Finally getting underway in a dryer craft, it was third time lucky for me as far as Malagasy boat trips go. Admittedly, our progress was much less swift without an outboard engine, but that simply increased the opportunities to appreciate the lovely scenery that was on offer. On the horizon, the blue skies merged with the turquoise sea and verdant hills rose from palm-fringed strands, whilst shoals of fish slipped by underneath the wooden hull easily seen through the crystal-clear waters.
Once more into the jungle.Having swapped heavenly, sweeping vistas for the much more confined spaces surrounding the steep jungle trails, we also exchanged the easygoing tempo of the crossing for a much quicker pace that was urged on by Donald's assertion that "the early bird that catches the worm." Nevertheless, there were frequent breaks so that he could demonstrate in hushed tones both his impeccable English and encyclopaedic knowledge of any interesting flora or fauna found among the luxuriant foliage, from wild growing coffee plants to tiny colourful frogs barely the size of my thumbnail. But no one would have needed any assistance spotting the large and attractively striped snake that grudgingly slithered for cover in the thick undergrowth as we approached, and it would have been impossible not to notice the heady smell of unpicked vanilla pods that permeated through the humid air.
Of course, the main goal was sighting some of the country's famous primates, in this case a rather elusive group of black lemurs that took a little while to track down. The species takes its name from the appearance of the males, which are as dark as coal from head to toe and can be somewhat difficult to see in the half-light under the dense canopy. However, no such problem exists with the more striking females, which have rich chestnut-coloured coats and beautifully distinctive white tufts of fur protruding from their ears and cheeks. It proved to be immensely satisfying to do no more than just stand there, quietly observing the magnificent creatures going about their everyday business high above our heads. At any given moment some were leaping from one branch to another whilst others were more static, occupied with feeding or grooming, and at least one was always peering down at us with piercing orange eyes, presumably to ensure that our intrusion definitely represented absolutely no threat at all.
All good things must come to an end.After what had seemed like a hugely enjoyable eternity with our newfound friends, the silence, until then only interrupted by the occasional birdcall, was well and truly broken when a large tour party approached with all of the stealth of a herd of elephants, making the reason for our earlier hurry quite obvious. The hitherto calm troop immediately scattered, and was only coaxed back when the guide brandished a bunch of bananas.
In a way, I can understand that approach from those that accompany such groups of people, who will often have had no better opportunity to encounter the creatures in a natural setting, and who will find it almost impossible to be quiet due to sheer numbers. But for me, feeding wild animals is rarely acceptable, and acting as though they are little more than furry tourist attractions to be bribed into performing on demand is never going to have the same thrill as the more hit-and-miss process of experiencing them on their own terms. As the old Malagasy proverb says, "Nothing is so full of victory as patience."
The art of conversation.Leaving the excitable newcomers to their own devices, we headed for a quiet spot on the beach, pausing only to procure some Three Horses Beer in the local village. With both of us soon lulled into a wonderfully relaxed mood by the warm sun and the gentle lapping of the surf, not to mention the refreshing alcohol, a good old-fashioned chat flourished. We talked of my life in London and Donald's dream of saving enough money to settle in the country with a few zebus, thereby fulfilling his heritage as a member of the Bara tribe, Madagascar's cowboys.
The revealing and hugely enjoyable conversation continued long after we departed, returning across the open bay and weaving through the semi-submerged mangrove once more, and proved to be an unanticipated highlight. In fact, although the opportunity to exorcise past disappointments and revisit the mottled green world of the forest had more than lived up to expectations, on reflection, what made the day so memorable was the chance to spend time in the company of an articulate and charming local uninhibited by the usual language barrier.
St Kilda, Australia