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Madagascar’s Enchanting Isle

“Turtle” says Claude our boatman, cutting the engines. There in the shallows, nonchalantly munching on sea grass is a big green turtle. One of five types of turtle found off Nosy Be and Sakatia Island he tells us. Minutes later we’re walking over golden sands to the steps of Sakatia Lodge, where owner Jose Vieira welcomes us. There’s something wonderful about arriving at a destination by boat, a curious freedom and romance. Rinsing the sand off our feet we wander through the leafy garden to the lounge where snacks and welcome drinks await. Along with Frederick, a resident green gecko, who’s shimmied down a post on the bar counter to check us out. Haifa dozen of the passengers off Airlink’s flight from OR Tarribo to Nosy Be have joined us at the lodge and after a quick tour we’re shown to our rooms. Ours is a villa on the beach while others have chosen gorgeous bungalows in the verdant gardens.

I feel a sense of homecoming. This is my third trip to Madagascar, but I’d forgotten how beguiling it is. On my first visit, over a decade ago, I spent a month backpacking around the main island, revelling in its diversity. I soon understood why everyone back home was envious of my visit. Madagascar’s isolation has resulted in an extraordinary biodiversity and level of endemism. Ninety percent of its flora and fauna are found nowhere else in the world. It’s a special place. But the poverty and limited tourist infrastructure of the mainland Madagascar made travelling hard, so for my second visit I chose a luxurious, fully crewed, yacht-based holiday out of Nosy Be. That was a very different escape on which, between trips to islands, we fished, snorkelled and dined in style.

Nosy Be
Nosy Be

It was divine, and I concluded that Nosy Be offered the perfect balance of tourist facilities, authenticity, wildlife and adventure. Now that I was back I planned to stay put and chill and I couldn’t have picked a better place. Family run by Jose, an Angolan who grew up in South Africa, his Italian wife Isabella “the Minister of Decor”, and Jose’s son Jacques and his Dutch wife Sandra (who also run the dive centre), Sakatia Lodge is new since my last visit. With only eleven accommodation units it’s homely, yet chic. Dinner is a typical Malagasy buffet, a beautifully presented spread of fresh fish, skewers of local zebu cattle, at chars, vegetables and salads. As we wander down the beach looking at the star-studded sky I feel the stresses of city life slipping away.

A few minutes into the boat ride in the morning, Jacques tells us to grab our fins and snorkels. He’s seen a whale shark. Watching the telltale signs of diving birds and jumping fish, we zone in. As soon as I hit the water I see three whale sharks cruising right underneath me, their white spots sparkling like stars. We clamber back onto the boat and the skipper drops us several times more above the gentle giants before he spies a humpback whale and its calf cruising past the bow. In the afternoon we take a tour of the island. Six kilometres long and two wide it has no roads, only a few footpaths linking the villages. Black (Macaco) lemurs (the males black, the females actually brown with pretty white tuffs on their ears) stare down at us from a big mango tree and a chameleon poses obligingly on a branch.

Our guide points out the evil-smelling fruits of the noni plant. Utilised by healers for thousands of years it has now gained international renown for its cell rejuvenation qualities and is used, particularly in South America, in the treatment of cancers. He crushes the yellow flowers of the ylang ylang for us to smell, identifies vines of vanilla and takes us to a hilltop from where we enjoy magnificent views over Sakatia and Nosy Be. Youngsters peek out from behind their shacks as we pass through the clean, orderly village. There’s no asking for money or pens; the villagers are happy to pose for photos, proudly showing off their fighting cocks and their arts and crafts. It’s refreshingly genuine. The next few days pass in similar fashion. We walk and kayak around the coast line, snorkel with turtles and dolphins, dive on wrecks and pristine, coral reefs and checkout spawning corals, tiny shrimps and big lobsters on night dives.

Kayaking along the coastline
Kayaking along the coastline

By day four we’re ready to explore Nosy Be, the “Big Island”, so board the boat for the short hop to Chanty Beach where a taxi is waiting to take us to Nosy Be’s sacred tree, an enormous Banyan Fig. Cheeky Macaco lemurs eye us from a low branch as we’re helped into the traditional dress, a circular wrap called a salovagna with a kisaly draped over the shoulder. Leaving our shoes at the entrance and following the fady of entering and exiting with our right foot first, we step into this hallowed place. The towering fig is over 200 years old and its maze of roots spreads over an area of 5000 square metres. Red and white cloths, gifts from worshippers, and the skulls of sacrificial zebu decorate the trunks along the winding path that we follow. The awe that I feel is similar to that I’ve experienced in magnificent cathedrals. Whatever your faith, it would be hard not to be moved by a visit.

On our penultimate day we board a wooden pirogue and paddle to the village of Lokobe. A walk in the forest here rewards visitors with sightings of some Madagascar specials in their natural habitat. Although low key the village is geared up for tourism. We’re shown to a water tap where we can rinse our feet and cool off after the fairly strenuous paddle, then instructed to put on lots of insect repellent before setting out. The eagle-eyed guides locate a couple of black lemurs and various geckos, a male, techno-coloured panther chameleon, a boa constrictor and a cute little nocturnal gray-backed sportive lemur asleep in its nest, then excitedly point to the base of a narrow tree trunk. I study it carefully but see nothing. Frustrated I get down on my haunches. Still nothing. It’s only when our guide Jean-Pierre traces the outline of the sleeping creature’s head that I distinguish the well-disguised leafed-tailed gecko from the bark.

The treasure hunt continues with the spotters ruffling in the leaves of the forest floor and emerging with a tiny, leaf chameleon. One of the smallest reptiles in the world, it’s both endemic and endangered. It’s a caution to stay on the path; goodness knows what else lies hidden in the undergrowth. A magnificent lunch of fish, prawns and with freshly caught crab is waiting for us at the village before the finale, a visit to Flelle-Ville. We spend our last Ariary on spices and bottles of hot chilli sauce at the market before wandering down to the cannons overlooking the port. With its quaint wooden colonial buildings and leafy park this section of town has a decaying grandeur and romance. I long for more time to explore. The week has passed too quickly, but Nosy Be’s charms will draw me back. There’s just no-where else like it: one to put on your bucket list.

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