While I am not prone to laughing at the expense of others, there are times too precious to resist my evil twin. I have a handful of favourite quotes from fellow cruisers that make me smile whenever I reflect on comical moments throughout our years afloat. An Australian made one of the best (and one of the most outlandish) statements when we were hanging out in Thailand contemplating whether or not to sail into the Indian Ocean. “There’s nothing for me in the Indian Ocean,” he loudly stated. Whaaa?!… buzzed my brain. In an entire ocean, NOTHING AT ALL?!
When we set our sights early in 2013 on a transit through the Indian Ocean, Madagascar was the buzzword. After reading numerous accounts of cruisers experiences of their IO crossing, we’d locked on Madagascar as the highlight of the Indian Ocean experience. Through the narratives of our friends we painted a picture of wild territory where only the intrepid dare wander; where life was so poor and remote that to visit was to step back in time a century. It was a country that had been so cut off from the larger world that you’d encounter species of animal only previously seen in David Attenborough’s documentaries of lost species. If for no other reason, we were going to transit an ocean to experience this forgotten world. There was something for us in the Indian Ocean, and that something was called Madagascar.
Our attempt to cross the Indian Ocean and get to this enigmatic land had been thwarted twice: Once in February 2015 by a pregnancy that didn’t happen and a second time in January 2016 by a medical crisis. By our third attempt in June 2016, it was either Go IO or Bust. As we pushed out into the Indian Ocean we couldn’t know then just how rich and rewarding the Indian Ocean was going to be for us. Looking back now, after two years spent trawling through her waters, I can assert that there is oh-so-much on offer in the Indian Ocean – and we made the most out of our commitment to explore it. We’d hit highlight after highlight: The diversity of Sumatra, the comedy of Cocos Keeling, the beauty of the Seychelles, the natural wonder of Chagos, the colorful dynamism of India, the underwater magnificence of the Maldives and the cultural richness of Tanzania. And now, finally, the jewel of the Indian Ocean lay ahead of us.
Yet with the country at our doorstep, I was dragging my heals… Should we go? At the time we were in the Quirimbas, a network of atolls in northern Mozambique, and we were loving it. The islands were breathtakingly beautiful and there wasn’t another boat in sight, the reefs were ablaze with life and the corals healthier than we’d seen anywhere in the Indian Ocean. Humpback whales filled the bays, as mother and calf sought protected waters until their newborns were big enough and strong enough to make a safe migration back down to the southern ocean. I was in heaven. For all our anticipation and expectation of Madagascar, I didn’t think anyplace could compete with the beauty and richness around us. I didn’t want to go. The pearl of the Indian Ocean could wait, if only we could have just one more year in this ocean that “holds nothing.”
As it was, we were short of time and needed to make a decision. We had already cut a month off our Madagascar timetable by including Tanzania in our route – a decision that proved well worth it not only from a traveler’s perspective but from a mariner’s one as well. The passage southwest towards Madagascar is a notoriously challenging one with winds on the nose and huge southerly swells. There is no shortage of reports that indicate the passage southwest across from the Chagos or the Seychelles to Madagascar is one of the most damaging to boat and soul. By choosing a westerly run to Tanzania, we turned the wind and waves to our beam and had a fantastic run from the Seychelles to Tanzania; we negotiated the north flowing current by staying close to shore and picked up the southerly Mozambique current just 300 miles south. From Mozambique we would be in the wind shadow of Madagascar, which would protect us from the strong weather that sweeps across the Indian Ocean. Ultimately it was extra miles and more motoring, but a very pleasant and non-demanding run.
Having fallen in love with Mozambique it would have been easy to cast aside all prior plans; had it not been for a longstanding interest in Madagascar and a depletion of our rum we would have done just that. But holding tight to a philosophy based on making the most out of any situation, or as John puts it, choosing a and b AND c when given the option of a or b, we decided we would regret coming all this distance and bypassing Madagascar all together. Plus, we’d spent weeks hyping the kids up for a trip to the land of lemurs and we were only 500 miles away. For the adults we also knew that Malagasy rum was only a few days distant and no matter how prolific the humpback numbers or how extravagant their display, life onboard a boat is just not as much fun without a bilge full of rum.
There was also the consideration of John’s 50th birthday – a year that deserves special attention. It had been John’s hope to be sitting on Malagasy shores to toast a half-century and our general timeframe made this target a viable one. However, as we delayed week by week in East Africa that window had quickly diminished. We progressed down the coast into northern Mozambique and we were taken aback by the absolute wonder of the Quirimbas and the proliferation of humpback in every anchorage. How could we leave with daily displays made by such majestic creatures? We waivered and debated and struggled to make a decision, and finally committed to a Madagascar run. However, soon after we pulled anchor and sailed west we received an email that our cruising mates on S.V. Dallandra were only hours away and prepared for an early 50th celebration. It was ironic having spent so long deliberating on departure and committing to that hard-made decision, to then turn the bows around and head back to where we’d just come from – but hey, a party awaited in John’s honour.
At dusk we turned the boat around, 20 miles towards our destination, and retreated. Navigating coral waters after dark is not something to take lightly, but we pulled in under starlight by carefully following our GPS tracks and settled in for the night. In the early morning we woke to the mast of our mates approaching, and then watched as it suddenly stilled… a grounding on perfect, pristine reef. Knowing we only had the day to connect and that we’d be waiting four hours for the tide to turn, we moved Atea over and a proper 50th bash commenced. What made this day memorable was the pristine beauty that surrounded us. We enjoyed total isolation from the outside world with no stress, worry or preoccupation. We swam in clear, temperate waters with whales within sight. We enjoyed a complete silence other than our chatter and laughter and the occasional sound of air rushing through a blowhole. We rounded off 49 with cruisers who’d become our close friends, and we had no obligation in this remote corner of the world other than to laugh, play and enjoy, and to fully live in the present moment.
What a finale to Mozambique… we had daily sightings of humpback whales throughout our time in the country but none were as demonstrative as on that day. As we swam we had whales pass by us; as John blew out his candles we had mother and calf swim between the two boats; as we cracked a bottle of champagne we had a single whale raise out of the water to slam its body back into the sea with a huge displacement of water around it, a clap of sound and a spray of water as a salute to John’s next fifty years of life. I don’t think any fancy affair or extravagant party could compete with the magic of that day. Thank you Kate, Tom and Marley for calling us back for an epic birthday celebration.
In the evening we raised our anchor and sailed past Dallandra as we headed back out to sea. We sat on deck as we drifted out of the channel and watched the sun set on the horizon with dolphin and whales silhouetted in the evening light. The boat was pointed due east with 500 miles of flat sea ahead of us. We knew while we wouldn’t get a beating by sailing to Madagascar in the shadow of its landmass, we knew we would struggle to get any wind to propel us forward; while it is physically demanding to push a boat through extreme conditions, it is mentally demanding to slog through flat seas with the repetitive drone of an engine. In addition to the noise and the expense of fuel, there was the knowledge that our faithful diesel was only running as a result of our constant care and attention. We were chewing through alternator belts, we had oil pressure issues and we had to prime the water pump on every start – so another three days motoring imposed its own anxiety. But with the experience of whales behind us and the excitement of lemurs ahead, we were full of the richness of our experiences and looking forward to what lie ahead.
However, after three days of brain-rattling engine noise, we were ready for a break. Given Mayotte lay ahead of us and was reputed to have the Indian Ocean’s best collection of French wine, cured meat and cheese, our detour was not surprising. We pulled in just before dark and dropped anchor in the first viable spot; not twenty minutes later we were blasted with spotlights from a large darkened RIB, and the police were on us asking for our paperwork. After a polite but professional welcome, we agreed that we could stay the night but would need to make our way around to the other side of the island the next day. After a quick morning snorkel on one of the healthiest coral reefs we’ve seen, we were escorted through the inner lagoon by a pair of adult humpback whale towards the main clearance port. We’ve mutated the mariner’s superstition from “never leave port on a Friday” to “never arrive in port on a Friday,” though no matter how many times we say it we invariably arrive on Friday. Mayotte was no exception. We traversed the 25-mile lagoon to arrive at port control at 16:30 to be greeted by an empty office. Immigration held the same quiet reception. In theory you are not to leave your vessel until you’ve cleared in however we could smell the aromas of French cuisine floating through the air and we were too weak to resist its aromatic beckoning call. We defied protocol and enjoyed a fantastic meal ashore. In the morning we tried to clear in again but were told by Border Control to return to our ship for the remainder of the weekend and try again on Monday when offices were open. Clearly the French influence was thick here, and with it the French work ethic. And so we defied protocol again and spent the day enjoying the quaint seaside town and indulging in the exquisite local cuisine. Come Sunday we decided it best to bail when the going was good, so we pulled up anchor and said farewell to Mayotte as the authorities continued their weekend siesta.
Turning to the ocean again, we were now only 150 miles from Madagascar and could almost smell the rum. Of course, sailing so far to store up on rum isn’t just to satisfy a personal fancy… it is to uphold a longstanding tradition and fulfill our duty as sailors. Rum-slogging seafarers date back to 1600s when rum was brought onboard ships as an incentive and payment, often being of more significant value than silver or gold. While rum isn’t used as payment on Ātea, it is used as an incentive to get us through a hard afternoon’s slog. Come midday when the sun is high and the deckhands have run the captain and quartermaster weary, there is nothing that beats grabbing a quiet moment with a cold, refreshing rum. And so, it was with great sadness that we said farewell to our last bottle of Captain Morgan’s Spiced Rum at the end of our time in Mozambique. With the bottle still sitting empty at the bottom of our rubbish bin, we pulled into Madagascar to a warm reception put on by Captain Morgan’s sumptuous and seductive foreign cousins. Goodbye spiced Morgan, hello sweet Malagasy rum!
Nowhere have I met such a varied collection of extended kin and it took us no time to become acquainted with them all: Vanilla, banana, pineapple, orange, honey, chocolate, coffee, coconut, kaht-flavoured goodness. With such an assortment of liquid extravagance, what’s not to like? Just like the 300,000 other tourists drawn to Madagascar each year to play witness to its unique biodiversity, we traveled 500 miles out of our way to indulge in diversity of a different kind. Like a scientist committed to discovering every nuance of similarity and difference in a single species, we dedicated ourselves to uncovering every expression of intensity and richness of flavour in every bottle of rum, each as unique and varied as so many other plant and animal species endemic to the country.
Through our rum-fogged euphoria we discovered the beauty of northwestern Madagascar. Located 400 kilometers off the southeastern African content, Madagascar is the fourth largest island nation in the world. Splintered from Africa some 135 million years ago, it has maintained an African cultural heritage tinged with a hint of French colonial rule. Having gained its independence from France in 1960, the influence of its foreign master is still evident in the language, food and social dynamics. Locals are fluent in both French and Malagasy, and it is often hard to get by without an understanding of the fundamentals of either language. You can buy the typical local produce off the street then walk into a market and buy an assortment of French wine, cheese and cured meat. If you are an old knackered Frenchman, you can also buy a poor, young Malagasy woman and the evidence of this inequitable relationship is everywhere, particularly in popular regions where tourism and foreign expatriates have found their niche. Regardless of its now apparent popularity, it is still a poor nation by any country’s standard with 70% of the Malagasy people living below the poverty level and an average annual income of US$400. With a monthly income of $33, you can see the disparity that exists between the local population and its expatriate imports.
The western side of the country has a rugged beauty about it, with lateen-rigged dhows peppering the seascape and a landscape of parched, dry earth. One of the most diverse places on Earth, Madagascar offers much more than merely a haven for alcoholics looking for cheap fruit-flavoured rum. Once a destination solely for the intrepid, now tourists flock to her shores to experience a slice of remote isolation with the perks of a collective network. With 11,000 endemic species of plant and 175,000 endemic species of animal and a mind-blowing 90 percent of the total plant and animal species endemic to the country, the world has now recognized Madagascar’s uniqueness and the diversity it has to offer. Unfortunately, for many species this global recognition has come too late. While the country has the highest biodiversity per capita in the world, it has suffered massive habitat loss – with about 90 percent of its biologically bountiful forests wiped out by logging and slash and burn agriculture, and many of its regional forests reduced to 4% of their original size.
I would have loved to travel to more remote regions of Madagascar where the word ‘intrepid’ still holds true, but we didn’t have the time. We had two months in country and so we focused our travels in Nosy Be, a small-sized island located eight kilometers off the northwest corner of Madagascar. Named “Big Island” in the Malagasy language, Nosy Be has 75,000 inhabitants living in an area three-quarters the size of Singapore. Nosy Be is generally regarded as the largest and most popular tourist destination in Madagascar, and the island has monopolized on its popularity by offering an outcrop of guesthouses and restaurants, nature tours and guided trips to surrounding islets. There is a small but established yachting and fishing charter industry and Hellville – a very unfortunate but appropriately descriptive name for the island’s main town – provides an active night scene with boisterous bars and throbbing nightclubs. While “off the beaten path” is attainable in most reaches of the country, it is a bygone reference in these parts. It s the most expensive destination by two-fold, where the cost of food and the price of accommodation is double what you’d find throughout the rest of the country; that said, our propensity for local rum at $5 a liter rum puts cost into context. Regardless of its international draw, there is still a laid-back feeling to this hub of Madagascar activity and we slotted in quite nicely to the slow pace of life.
In yachting terms, Madagascar is now a stock standard stop in the cruising circuit across the Indian Ocean and Nosy Be is where all yachts eventually congregate. In the height of the season it is buzzing with activity, and it is not just foreigners who crowd the anchorages. Yachts mix with dhows as they vie for room in the bay. Nearly all the local trade is transported in sailing craft and local mariners are masters of handling engineless solid wooden boats as they gracefully slip past the modern lightweight plastic yachts with inches to spare. Well, that is, masters of craft most of the time. We were witness to an incident where a local dhow misjudged their approach and scraped past one yacht to go full broadside into another – the latter a spotless 60-food luxury yacht. The owners were good-natured about the incident and, after assessing damages, even better natured after inviting Captain Morgan’s cousins onboard to commiserate with them. Out of craving and consideration, we joined them.
Another of my favourite quotes came from my son who, at age three, took to telling all the restaurant staff, “I like beer. I like it all day long.” So it was for us with rum in Madagascar. For non-rum drinkers, what is there to do in Madagascar other than to drink rum all day? While the temptation to slip into a drunken stupor is very enticing on such cheap booze, there is so much on offer in Madagascar that warrants the occasional cap on the top of the rum bottle. For one, there are the lemurs – non-aggressive, gentle, and curious. Once spread across the country, extreme deforestation and population growth have reduced their territory and their numbers. Out of the seventy-one different type of lemur still in existence, currently all are listed as endangered species. Nosy Be has capitalized on their pull on tourists and there isn’t a stop where you don’t see them bounding through the trees – wild but habituated to human contact, incented to stay with handfuls of daily bananas. In almost every stop we made these gentle, docile creatures would leap from the trees with cat-like agility and land on a shoulder with a soft velvet touch. Unlike their raucous monkey cousins, lemurs are a model of good manners and patience.
If you’ve had your fill of lemurs and need to clear your head after a visit from one of the captain’s cousins, there is nothing better than going to sea. The sailing conditions in Madagascar are remarkably good. As the world’s fourth largest island, Madagascar is big enough to generate its own sea and land breeze – with a regularity with which you can set your watch to. With a reliable 15-knot afternoon sea breeze on the beam, sunshine in the sky and green shores gliding past one can easily forget the early morning promise of “never again!” and enjoy a perfect afternoon sail with rum in hand. You may take a dip in 28°C waters unspoiled by plastic litter, perhaps the result of extreme poverty levels that mean locals cannot afford to buy western packaged goods. You may sit back and watch the procession of sailing dhow glide past as they transport cargo up and down the coast. You may gaze out on the thatched houses that dot the hillsides, all made with organic materials that make Malagasy homes eco-friendly by design rather than fashion. You just may top the moment by looking over your rail to see a humpback or whale shark gliding past, the gentle giants who grace these shores every year from June to November.
Many yachts take advantage of these conditions to enjoy a cheap cruising ground. The anchorages are numerous and well protected, the locals are pleasant and the costs are minimal, and in season the winds are predictable. Since Ātea has followed an unusual route this season and arrived in Madagascar late and from the ‘wrong’ direction, we were out of touch with most of the Indian Ocean international fleet. The majority of our compatriots had already departed for South Africa and only by a stroke of luck and bad weather did we reunite with our good friends on S.V. Ngalawa for a bash out and birthday do. Instead of reconnecting with the international fleet, we fell in step with a mix of resident charter boats and South African cruisers. Just as New Zealand and Australian sailors frequent Tonga and Fiji, so do the South Africans frequent Madagascar – just one passage from home and all the delights of a foreign world lay afoot. Team Ātea jumped in and did all that we could to join in the fun with our new friends, with the captain’s cousins trailing close behind.
As Ātea and her crew loiter in the midst of a shiny fleet of newly baptized boats and cruisers from South Africa, our own sea miles continue to add up. Ātea has sailed over 30,000 miles since we started this adventure and it has been nearly two years since our last haul-out and maintenance period. The rust streaks are getting longer, the oil leaks are getting worse, the genoa furler is unreliable and we rely more and more on our backup systems, the skippers toolkit, our experience and plain old good luck. We have run out of fingers and toes to cross and safe anchorage at the end of each day is greeted with a sigh of relief, closely followed by a call to the Captain.
And so, we drank our way in and drank our way out in true Malagasy style: To the rum-flavoured fruits from the Garden of Eden. After a daily assembly over a two-month period, it was time to move on. We made our acquaintance with Captain Morgan’s Malagasy cousins and, with a dedication of time and attention, our tight bond was quickly forged and it is only at departure that I can look back and see how interwoven the relationship had become and to know, with absolute certainty, that a forced separation was necessary. But then, how were we to know, and how could we be blamed?
Having made our dash out to Madagascar, and having thoroughly enjoyed it, we are ready to return to Mozambique. The next leg takes us west again, to a small bay just south of the Quirimbas and to a friend of mine from a lifetime ago. We leave one amazing country to return to another amazing country, in an ocean that “holds nothing” for another but holds a world of wonder for me. We head back to unfinished business in a country we only touched, to eek out what we can of our time in the Indian Ocean before the turn of season demands our departure. With our bilges fully stocked with Malagasy rum, we are ready to tip our glass to the shores of Mozambique, to the migrating humpback whales that transit down the coast, and to friends from life past.
Tomorrow we raise anchor for the last time in Malagasy waters and depart this unique land. It has provided happy days and happy nights and deserves its place as a “must do” on the Indian Ocean cruising circuit. The dependable and undemanding weather, the attractive and secure anchorages, the colourful and culturally distinct people, the unique encounters with rare species both below and above the water and, of course, the ever-present taste and smell of flavoured rum permeates our minds and our memories. Tonight we raise our glass for the last time with Captain Morgan’s raucous cousins and seal a special friendship, and toast to the memories made that will span a lifetime.
Moments of our time in Mada: Photos
Footnote – we actually departed Madagascar in late October 2017 but have been characteristically late in getting this article to press!