Readers' Africa: To Hell-Ville or bust
Terence Eder’s Plan B for reaching Nosy Be in the north of Madagascar delivers a dose of adventure
LAST year, in need of a break, I searched for the ideal getaway spot. I was after a remote place to unwind, a locale not too far from home but one that would make me feel a million miles away.
I was drawn to the idea of “La Grande Île” — Madagascar, which had always intrigued me.
The island nation caught between a past of French-colonial influence and local Malagasy traditions is about as exotic and untouched as one could hope for.
I settled on the island of Nosy Be and called my travel agent about direct flights, only to be shocked at the exorbitant fares. To spend the equivalent of a flight to the US seemed ridiculous. I came up with a plan B, which was a little ambitious but worth the effort.
So began my journey through Madagascar. I flew with Air Madagascar into Ivato Airport in Antananarivo, where I briskly slipped through customs, a surprise in any African country, quickly exchanged my dollars for a wad of Madagascar ariary and then ran the gauntlet of taxi drivers outside.
“Tana”, as the locals call it, is a bustling city filled with smog, traffic, stray dogs and hawkers selling everything from fresh baguettes to linens and curios. The city is one of contradiction: it has all the elements of a war-torn city yet is filled with French flair and architecture, rice paddies, a labyrinth of disorganised, cobbled streets and the ever-present Rova Palace, which stands guard atop a hill high above Lake Anosy.
We snaked our way from Haute-Ville (upper town) to Basse-Ville (lower town), where I sourced a taxi heading north. The public transport is a little archaic and I settled for a taxi-brousse, a vehicle packed sky-high with baggage and local supplies.
Finally, I was on my way.
The journey north to Ambanja was arduous. In five hours, we suffered four breakdowns. If it wasn’t a flat, it was the radiator. I got comfortable, put on some tunes and turned to my travel guide as we drove off into the night.
Just then, I noticed a warning in my book: “Solo travellers using public transport are not advised to travel at night.” For a moment, I panicked. I was the only English-speaking Caucasian in a taxi filled with Malagasy, somewhere in the middle of western Madagascar. The fear eventually subsided as the drone of the rickety taxi and engine put me to sleep.
I awoke in the morning and realised my “16-hour” taxi ride was turning into a 25-hour nightmare. If that wasn’t bad enough, the driver’s UB40 CD had been playing on rotation for hours, Red Red Wine filling the air.
Despite the transport woes, I was happy to be taken through the heart of the country, along roads less travelled, seeing scenery that would have been completely overlooked had I flown. I gazed out of the window as the landscape morphed with every passing hour — plateaus, rolling hills, remote villages, lush jungles and banana plantations, arid red plains and locals driving herds of Zebu cattle.
Every time I asked my driver when the bus would arrive, he glanced over and mumbled “one hour”.
Well, that was the longest hour of my life. With each hill we drove over, I anticipated seeing some semblance of the coast or islands in the distance but was met with a vast, never-ending landscape of bush.
Twenty-two hours later, we pulled into the town of Ambanja, situated on the Sambirano River. From here, I transferred to a smaller taxi for another 40-minute drive to Ankify, the main port between Malagasy mainland and the islands.
At Ankify, I realised I had missed the last ferry. My driver came to my rescue, negotiating a price with a local fisherman. Exhausted and only too happy to end the journey, I agreed. Before I knew it, my luggage had been bundled into the small speedboat.
As the sun set, the boat glided across the turquoise waters, passing bright-green islands and eventually arriving at Nosy Be island’s capital and main port, Andoany (also known as Hell-Ville). I am told the town’s old name was in honour of a French admiral and former governor of Réunion, Anne Chrétien Louis de Hell.
I headed for the ATM to draw some extra cash before heading to my lodge, only to find that my wallet was missing. I frantically searched through my belongings but realise I had been pick-pocketed — probably back at the port while the taxi driver and fisherman were haggling over my boat fare.
I was not going to let this spoil my trip, however, and assured myself I had enough dollars hidden away in my backpack to sustain me for a week. Twenty-five hours since I’d set out, I arrived at the quaint resort of Domaine de Manga Be on Ambondrona beach, checked into my bungalow, showered and collapsed into a stupor.
I spent the next week exploring the waters and sandy beaches of Madirokely, Ambatoloaka and the jewel of Andilana on the northern tip; scootered my way through the interior across sugar-cane fields; island hopped to Nosy Komba to see the famed lemurs; snorkelled off the shores of Nosy Tanikely; ate fine seafood; and explored Hell-Ville with its bougainvillea-lined streets, colonial buildings, vibrant markets, expats sipping coffee at street cafés and French pâtisseries. And I rang in the new year with French, German and Italian tourists at the Fête du Nouvel An, back at the lodge.
All in all, it was just the adventure I needed.
To sum it up, mishaps maketh Madagascar. — © Terence Eder