Claire Keeton heads for Madagascar with the winners of a competition of a lifetime
Riaan Manser, leader of this trip to the Indian Ocean island and the only man to paddle its almost 5,000km coastline; Ockie Snyman, the only English-speaking castaway on Ile aux Nattes, an island off the east coast, and Three Ships Discover Madagascar competition prize winners Renault and Heidi Kay and Duane and Wesley Daniller.
Add Three Ships whisky master distiller Andy Watts, island chef Oliver Ranalason and barman "Pepe" Peggy to the mix. Blend with Three Horses beer and Three Ships whisky, lemurs, whales and dolphins, toss in a few extras like me, and you get an island adventure with a piratic twist. After all, Ile aux Nattes lies off a bay where pirates hid centuries ago, and on the hill above is a cemetery with a skull and crossbones gravestone.
Legend has it that pirates once lived on Sainte-Marie, a narrow island at the northern tip of Ile aux Nattes (Nosy Nato). These days Sainte-Marie (Nosy Boraha) is home to some of the prettiest villages I've ever seen and which thrive on tourism not booty.
We flew in from Antananarivo, landing on an airstrip that ends roughly 100 paces from the beach. We climbed into pirogues - wooden canoes with decorations like the polka-dotted Potemkime III - to cross to Ile aux Nattes.
The boatmen rowed us about 300m through crystal water to the lodge of La Petite Traversée (the small crossing), where Ockie, with a beard and laugh strong enough to shake coconuts off the trees, waited to welcome us.
He was not alone. Swinging on wooden posts at the entrance were two ruffed lemurs, looking as fluffy as King Julian in the movie Madagascar. These two are the descendants of captive lemurs brought onto the island years ago. They escaped and bred but villagers found them a nuisance and some were killed. To prevent further conflict, Ockie began feeding the lemurs with bananas and every day they cruise by, wary of humans but willing to accept their raw offerings.
Mikey, an abandoned lesser bamboo lemur hand-reared by Ockie, also comes to visit. "He was the size of my fist when I got him," says Ockie, watching him lap water. When a female of the same type landed on the island in a cage, Ockie bought her, hoping she would become Mikey's companion. The two soon eloped.
The lemurs are only one of Madagascar's charms in Ockie's eyes. Born 56 years ago in the Kalahari, he says: "The first time I saw the island I loved it and the people. The Malagasy are so peaceful."
At the turn of the century he moved to Ile aux Nattes and took over La Petite Traversée in 2003. He says: "One guest wrote on Trip Advisor that it's two-star accommodation but a six-star experience."
La Petite Traversée is far more comfortable than two stars suggests, but it's true that Ockie, chef Oliver and Pepe the barman are what make the place - which has won Trip Advisor awards the past three years. The stories and meals around a communal table, rock music and parties and even games of poker (at which Oliver reveals his other talents) make it memorable.
Riaan beached here during his solo kayaking trip around Madagascar and found a welcome connection.
"On that trip nobody had my back," he says. "I thought it would take about four months but it took 11 months. Every day I would set my alarm for 3pm and then start looking for a break in the reef where I could land with my overloaded 80kg kayak."
After paddling into the deep with Riaan to visit the shell-covered sand islands (Ile aux Sables), I got a sense of how intimidating it must have been to sit behind the back line and plot a landing without knowing where it would be safe.
The group went out in a motorised pirogue and we followed in a kayak, in and out through a break in the reef. A pair of dolphins followed our boats, playing with each other in our wakes.
Even more riveting was the sight of two humpback whales, a few boat lengths away, when we all went paddling from Sainte-Marie. We kayaked in doubles for about 14km along a sheltered channel outside the reef across to La Petite Traversée. We lost Riaan to rudder problems on that outing, but later Andy and I paddled around Ile aux Nattes, with Riaan in a single.
The perimeter is less than 7km and has a coral reef off the western shore. When Ockie, Riaan and I snorkelled there we saw an array of tropical fish and corals in shades of purple, red - including fire coral which stung Riaan - and orange.
Duane, Wesley and Heidi, who looks like a James Bond island girl, also enjoyed the snorkelling and Heidi and Renault went for a kayaking trip on their own.
On a windy day I scuba dived to 20m but the visibility was worse than on the surface, where we could see about 10m ahead.
The island's west coast has bungalows and bars on its white sands. Its beaches are wider than the eastern side, which is more susceptible to hurricanes. La Petite Traversée is in the northeast, near the point from which sunrise and sunset are seen.
Sundowners are a ritual in this tropical paradise and the parties, lubricated by bottles of whisky went on long after the stars came out.
When asked what he liked most about the trip, Duane, a forensic auditor, said: "Everything! We had the time of our lives."
In his ballad Onder in my whiskeyglas, Koos Kombuis sang: "Drie skepe moes my wegvoer na lande ver van hier" (Three Ships had to take me away to lands far from here).
Three Ships certainly made this wish come true for its winners by spiriting them away to a far away (is)land.
Keeton was a guest of Three Ships.
IF YOU GO ...
WHAT IT HAS: Ockie Snyman may rename his lodge La Petite Traversée since it's an English enclave on an island catering to French tourists. But that's not its only distinction. The dining room, bar and verandah are popular hangouts for visitors after crossing the narrow channel (an easy swim). The windows of this communal space have no glass (a precaution against cyclones) and this is where the lemurs swing by.
The villas under the palm trees are comfortable, with mosquito nets over the beds. Out front is a small table and chair with another at the water's edge. The shower is usually warm and the ocean isn't cold. Power from a generator is on mornings and nights and Wi-Fi is limited. The nights tend to be more social than peaceful, though that could be the Three Ships group spirit boosted by the spirits.
THE FOOD: Another reason to stay at La Petite Traversée is chef Oliver Ranalason whose excellent cooking includes home-baked pastries and freshly-caught fish and seafood. He serves an English breakfast with croissants. His fish cakes are the best, the local curry is great and he even made duck.
A rose-carved tomato adorns his starters and his desserts include a coconut-flavoured brûlée. Besides the usual island cocktails, the bar was supplemented by Three Ships whisky who sponsored the trip. Three Ships 10 Year Old single malt has just won gold at the 2015 International Wine and Spirit competition.
RATES: Rates start around €40 (about R600) per person sharing per night for dinner, bed & breakfast.
GETTING THERE: Airlink (flyairlink.com) flies between Johannesburg and Antananrivo and takes just over three hours. Air Madagascar (airmadagascar.com) is the only airline flying internally. During our trip the airline cancelled a number of flights, delaying our return to South Africa by some days. Be prepared for schedule changes. Madagascar is the fourth-largest island in the world and road conditions mean driving is slow - most travellers prefer to fly.