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After a four-day passage from Seychelles to Madagascar, we dropped anchor in one of the most exotic – and poor – countries we will visit while cruising.
We spent 35 days in Madagascar, mostly in Nosy Be, which is one of the (if not the biggest) tourism hubs in Madagascar.
I was surprised to find charter boats in Nosy Be! Dream Yacht Charters even has a base there. We often saw charter boats in anchorages with us.
Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world by nominal GDP per capita. In many of the remote locations we went to, sailing boats are their best source of anything! Primarily, these people don’t necessarily want ariary – the local currency.
David and I had KonMari-ed our boat a few months ago, so we had bags and bags of stuff we were prepared to give away or trade.
I realize this can be a controversial topic. When the very first trader in Madagascar asked for a snorkel mask, it reminded me of this Fatty Goodlander article. Simply giving away items to these locals has ramifications, but so does trading for local resources.
Here’s a list of items that are a good idea to stock for trading/gifting:
- fishing gear (filament, hooks)
- snorkel gear (masks and fins)
- tee-shirts and shorts
- OTC medicines (pain relievers, laxatives, or antidiarrheals)
- playing cards
- crayons, notebooks, pencils
- hats and sunglasses
- food items (I traded or gave away pringles, raisins, nuts, etc, though some friends carried candy to give away to kids)
- personal care items (toothbrushes and toothpaste, soap, feminine products)
Only a few times did someone ask for beer or cigarettes. We did encounter several addicts (alcohol or drugs) and seeing as how neither David nor I drink beer or smoke, we don’t give them away.
Our friends that made it to Madagascar before us claimed that the days were extremely clear and sunny. As October approached, the days started to get a bit cloudier. During our visit, we saw a few storm systems roll through, bringing rain.
The winds are entirely dominated by land and sea breezes. During the morning, the winds blew from the south, though they tended to be light. During the afternoon, the winds blew from the north and typically were stronger.
Learn more about sea and land breezes.
Thanks to the various fires locals light in their yards to cook or burn trash, the air is heavy with ash. Starry Horizons was usually pretty filthy.
I was concerned that provisioning would be awful in Nosy Be. Based on the economy of Madagascar versus other countries we’re been to, I was expecting there to be less Westernized provisions (much like we saw in Tonga or rural Indonesia). However, Nosy Be has a huge influence from European countries, and there were two large supermarkets on the island: Shampion in Hell-Ville and Leader Price between Hell-Ville and Crater Bay.
Plus, the local market was pretty good. While there were issues with the quality of some produce, I was thrilled to find locally caught tiger shrimp. OMG, they were so good, and at 70,000 ariary per kg ($8.50 per pound), we enjoyed the crap out of these shrimp.
In the grocery stores, you can find Malagasy chocolate. David and I keep Starry Horizons stocked with Swiss dark chocolate, but after tasting some local brands, I’m a convert. There’s a huge flavor difference between the two, with the Malagasy chocolate having a fruity and rich flavor.
Jimmy recommended Telma for the cell phone provider. We bought data-only packages and paid about $2 USD/GB.
However, we should have gone with the alternative, Orange. We had service just fine around the Nosy Be area, but further south, with the exception of Mahajanga, we didn’t have much coverage at all.
Our first stop was Mitsio Island. The island is dry and arid, but pretty.
We had our first trading experience. One guy came by and took our “order” for fish, langoustine, bananas, and papaya. The “gros” fish was just enough for two American-sized portions, plus fish stock. The langoustines were beautiful and well-sized for one per person. However, I made a mistake with the papaya and bananas. The guy asked if I wanted “vert” or “juane”. I said “vert” thinking that would give them time to ripen onboard, but no, these green bananas and papayas are meant to be eaten green. This led to a kitchen experiment – Vietnamese beef and green papaya salad.
Another guy came by and had tomatoes and yellow bananas to offer. We traded for the tomatoes but I declined the bananas; ah, regret!
Communicating was really hard. The second guy mimed the things he was trying to say. The first guy absolutely did not, even when I asked him how much money he wanted.
After two nights in Mitisio, we had a glorious day sail down to Nosy Be.
We made our first stop in Crater Bay for one night. Crater Bay is home to the Nosy Be Yacht Club, a small facility. We dropped our anchor instead of picking up a mooring, but this is really where most cruisers congregate in Madagascar.
We stopped in Crater Bay several times, as it’s a nicer anchorage than Hell-Ville. A taxi or tuktuk into town to shop is cheap.
The NBYC does charge for dingy access: 15,000 ariary ($4 USD) for one night or 100,000 ariary ($27 USD) for a week. This includes rubbish and the dinghy dock. There’s a small store that sells bottles of liquor and wine, homemade foie gras, a small selection of souvenirs and boat supplies. There’s a big bookshelf for book swapping. The attached restaurant is pretty good; popular and cheap. The pizzas are made in a wood-burning oven and David enjoyed them.
Every morning, we would wake up to find the local fishermen already out in Crater Bay. There were easily over a hundred out every morning hauling in nets full of fish. It’s a wonder anything survives in that bay.
Malagasy people are sailors, and many words come to mind when we see their boats: archaic, prehistoric, ancestral. These people (mostly men) sail in the lightest of air. They come right through Crater Bay, weaving (sometimes unsuccessfully) through the modern yachts in the mooring field.
After one night at Crater Bay we made our way to Hell-Ville bright and early. At the town wharf, we found Jimmy, who was recommended by friends. Jimmy acts as a guide or agent for sailors checking in and out of Madagascar in Nosy Be. It’s not required to use him, but for the small amount we paid him, it was worth it for him to walk us to each office and translate for us.
Jimmy also took us to the ATM, Telma to get SIM cards, and the Shampion grocery store.
Here’s what we paid to clear into Madagascar:
460000 ($124.32) – immigrations (includes taxi to airport, 60-day visa, Americans)
100000 ($27.03) – customs
160000 ($43.24) – harbormaster
3000 ($0.81) – tuktuk
60000 ($16.22) – Jimmy and Smile (who watches dinghy)
That totals to 783,000 Ariary ($210 USD). It is interesting that Madagascar is relatively expensive to clear into for such a poor nation.
We didn’t get done with formalities until nearly 5 pm, so the day was over and we stayed the night in Hell-Ville.
In the morning we raised anchor and sailed to Nosy Komba, just about 5 miles away. Our friends on Slow Flight were already there. Here we spent two nights and hiked up to the top of the island and visited lemurs.
My birthday was quickly approaching, so with Slow Flight, we moved over to Sakatia next. I’d started following Sakatia Lodge on Facebook and they post some truly amazing dive photos. And for my birthday, I wanted to dive!
We stayed two nights at Sakatia and dove with Sakatia Lodge and swam with green turtles.
Then Trevor’s birthday was coming up! We moved out to Russian Bay, and very nice and protected spot. Slow Flight threw a party for the cruising boats in attendance.
On our dinghy ride back to Starry Horizons, the sea state was so flat calm, the moon was nearly full, and bioluminescence sparkled in our wake. Magical!
To clear out or not to clear out?
Technically, one should clear out with the port captain of Nosy Be to head south but not leave Madagascar. There is another clearance port further south, Majunga, where boats can clear out of the country.
However, Majunga is a bigger city than Hell-Ville, and with it comes more crime. Plus, there isn’t a great anchorage there, and the water is a river, with a red color and lots of sediment.
We decided, for the first time ever, to clear out of the country and then continue south. We cleared out on October 21st, with Jimmy as our guide, but we didn’t leave Madagascar waters until November 3rd.
In retrospect, it would be better to clear out with the Harbourmaster only. You would still legally be in the country as you made your way south. Then, if you choose to, you could skip clearing out of Madagascar in Mahajanga.
We have several stories of boats who got into South Africa simply by showing the clear out paperwork from the harbormaster in Nosy Be.
After clearing out in Hell-Ville, we made our way back to Russian Bay. Since we didn’t depart Hell-Ville until afternoon, we didn’t have as much time as we would have liked to get south. Russian Bay served as a great pit stop though, allowing us a quiet night. We anchored closer to shore this time – we had better cell phone service, but also had mosquitos.
Our next stop was Honey River.
When we arrived, it was only Mirniy Okean in the anchorage. Carlos and Linda were on shore already and stopped by to say hello. The big reason to stop in Honey River is for, of course, the honey. Our weather router, Des, asks cruisers to pick some up for him on our way to South Africa. Linda was headed back to shore to buy honey in the afternoon, would I like to join her? Yes!
We got to shore and said hello to a few children who were on the beach. Linda made a little mistake in passing out some gifts early – she was swarmed by the children who incessantly asked for things and tugged at her bag. I was focused – honey first.
There was a crate of plastic bottles on the porch of the small shop. The plastic bottles were full of honey and were 25,000 ariary for 1.5 L of honey. I had brought my own glass jars to be filled, and shame on me, I did not negotiate the price down enough. Negotiating with people who have very little makes me uncomfortable, but I did get a lower price by gifting some cloth.
The woman at the shop didn’t speak much English or French. We watched as she pulled out an old jerry can, a strainer, and a funnel to fill our jars. When she was done, she pulled the strainer up and passed it by her face. Wait a minute – did I see that right? Yes, she did the same thing with the funnel – lifted it up and licked the last few drops of honey off.
Ah well, this isn’t my honey!
Linda and I continued to walk around the village. The younger girls (three or four years old) liked to delicately hold our hands. There was a small library and a flat field where some older boys were playing with tennis balls and rackets (Carlos, an ex-professional tennis player, had played with them earlier).
Linda gave some of the kids notebooks, and I gave them a pack of crayons. At the library, I gave one of the women a deck of cards, which the middle-grade boys immediately started playing with.
The kids all asked for hats or sunglasses. One particularly insistent girl kept asking for MY sunglasses and I had to over and over tell her no.
Interestingly, at the small shop was a sign with prices for a local boat builder. For 3 million ariary ($800 USD), you can have a traditional 4-meter pirogue. There was even a boat in progress in amongst the houses.
Honey River was a nice anchorage. The winds in the afternoon blew in from the ocean, but the chop wasn’t very bad. Throughout the day, charter boats came in to fill the river and stay one night. We had Linda and Carlos over for dinner and Carlos made his special paella.
Next, we dropped anchor on the south side of Antanimora Island. While most boats – charter boats – drop on the north side of the sand spit, we found our side to be more comfortable. The wind blows from the southeast during the morning, before switching around to blow stronger from the northwest. Our anchorage was well protected in the afternoons from the stronger winds. Carlos and Linda joined us.
The big thing to do on Antanimora is to walk the sand spit. At high tide, there’s still the full length of the sand spit available, it’s just a bit thinner. For us, the timing worked out, and at four o’clock we headed to shore with Carlos and Linda to walk the beach on a receding tide, a few hours after high tide. There was plenty of beach to see and I found tons of interesting shells. Absolutely no hermit crabs though – very weird!
That night, Carlos and Linda shard their catch-of-the-day with us; a mackerel! While we were sitting in their galley we heard some weird noises: we discovered these huge flying bugs attracted by our lights.
When we tried to shoo one out of Mirniy Okean’s cockpit, it started shrieking! Oh my god, ya’ll, the noise was terrifying.
David and I debated about moving south again, but Carlos and Linda were staying another day and there was no window to cross the Mozambique Channel anytime soon, so we stayed an extra day too.
In the morning we enjoyed a snorkel with Carlos off the north side of the sand spit. The water was pretty clear, though there were only small fish and nothing too terribly exciting to see.
On our way back to the boats, we spotted a plume of mist just off Starry Horizons’ stern. Whales! We dinghied near them and watched them surface and breath a few times. We tried to get Carlos in the water with them, but the water visibility was too low for him to see them.
That afternoon, Linda and I ditched the boys and headed to shore. Antanimora has a beautiful peak that’s not too high, so we thought we’d see about hiking up to the top. We left the boats at three in the afternoon and walked to the village. It took us a while to get our thoughts across, but we did eventually find an older gentleman who spoke French and agreed to take us up.
We were joined by two younger guys with excellent English. They were from Nosy Be, visiting Antanimora on a small fishing charter boat. Together, the five of us made the hike up.
We passed through the forest and grassy knolls with tall blades. The path existed but was clearly not used often. Our local guide pointed out many edible plants and medicinal herbs, even picking some leaves to stop bleeding when Linda accidentally cut herself.
We made it up to the top, and what a spectacular view! The last half was pretty challenging – steep and slick grasses – so we all cheered when we got to the top. I hailed the boys on the radio – they were on Starry Horizons playing video games together – and the boys got the drone up.
Unfortunately, David only flew Pheonix for a few minutes when he got a technical malfunction and could not see anything on the screen. Because he was trying to fly to the peak, he couldn’t see the drone either. Using the radio, we tried our best to guide the drone back to the boat, but it was really nervewracking – for us, Pheonix was just a tiny dot and it was hard to tell which way she was moving. Eventually, David got her back and we did not lose the drone!
Hiking up to the top of Antanimora during sunrise or sunset would be absolutely stunning, but we didn’t want to contend with a dinghy trip in the dark or night-time bugs.
Our guide walked us back through the village and stopped at a small bar, asking if we wanted beers. We said no thanks but we did chat briefly with a European group. Apparently they’d arrived via pirogue and were camping the night on the island.
As usual with local interactions, there were somethings we saw that we did not like. In the village, there was a loud and disturbing man. Thankfully he did not come with us on the hike, but our guide pointed out a plant that locals take as a drug. Also, there was a lemur tied up on a leash as a pet. Finally, there were strips of fish hanging to dry near one of the huts, and based on the color of the flesh and the spots on the skin, I believe it was whale shark meat drying. When I asked one of our guides about it (later) he said this is a conservation area. But….I remain unconvinced.
We had Carlos and Linda over for one last dinner before we parted ways. They headed back north, while we kept going south. As we usually say: another day, another bay!
We stopped at Nosy Lava next. We had spent the morning very slllloooowwwlllyyyy sailing south, but once the wind picked up we did get to really zoom along. After about an hour of decent sailing, we dropped our anchor near the southeast side of the island. It wasn’t a very protected area, and many years ago, this island had a reputation from being a prison and the location of a cruiser’s murder. We stayed the night quietly onboard and left for our next stop.
Moramba Bay was another great stop. The anchorage is well protected. We stayed for five nights, mostly because our friends had told us that Moramba Bay is a better anchorage than anything that waited for us further south. We knew there was no window coming to cross the Mozambique Channel anytime soon, so we had time to kill.
When we arrived, we had caught up with several friends (including Slow Flight). There were ten boats in Moramba Bay.
After our first night, we tackled the most important thing – baobab trees! Kimi and Trevor had told us the best spot to find the baobabs, and we found it! There was a small cluster of three big trees together in a clearing. There were many more baobabs around the edges and on the surrounding hills.
We also walked the trail system for a bit and spotted some lemurs. We didn’t see anyone on land.
When we arrived back to Starry Horizons, we found that seven boats had left. Another boat left that night. From then on, we had Moramba Bay mostly to ourselves.
Friends had traded for beautiful shrimp here. I think with us being the only boat, the locals didn’t come out very often. I thought I negotiated for some shrimp and was expecting the man to come back that afternoon (or the next) with shrimp for me, but he never came.
We arrived in the early afternoon. Friends ahead of us had an official from the port come around to all the boats asking questions, so we were hesitant to stay long.
We anchored just inside the breakwater in Majunga. I dropped David off on the beach and he filled our jerry cans and did our last grocery trip. The anchorage got very rolly, and we had to readjust closer into shore before it got dark. But, when the tide turned to flow out of the river we upped our anchor in the dark and took off.
Baly Bay was the final stop in Madagascar. Many friends had spent days or weeks there. We anchored in the bay, and it got pretty rolly. We considered moving into the lagoon, but the entrance is shallow so we wanted to wait for mid-to-rising tide. We stayed one night in the bay, and in the morning, instead of moving, we took off for South Africa!