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Madagascar is the kind of place where you stop in for a visit and have NO IDEA what you are getting yourself into. It’s a challenging place to plan to visit, and there isn’t THAT much information available online. That’s how I found myself as one of four gringos paddling a traditional Malagasy dugout canoe across the small bay near Lokobe Park on the island of Nosy Be.
“Where exactly are we paddling to?” David asks our guide, Achim.
Achim pauses his paddling to point vaguely at an island 10 miles away. “Across the channel,” he says.
I do believe our guides have severely overestimated our paddling abilities.
About Lokobe National Park
Lokobe National Park is the number 1 thing to do in Nosy Be on Tripadvisor, so of course, I made inquiries about how to get out there.
I got a recommendation from fellow cruisers to contact Alex Damon at Nosy Be Adventures to book a land tour.
“I really want to see the crater lakes and crocodiles. But I’m interested in spending a whole day out. What do you recommend?”
Alex said we should go to Lokobe (actually he suggested Sakatia but we’d already been there) and made arrangements for us to be picked up by our guide, Achim, and our driver.
The park is 740 hectares and is full of all the unique and endemic critters that call Madagascar home. However, getting there is an adventure in itself!
Getting to Lokobe
I invited Kimi and Trevor from Slow Flight to join us, but Trevor had an emergency boat project, so he stayed behind while Kimi joined in.
We met Achim at 8 am to start our drive and met the fourth guest joining us, Luka from Italy/Switzerland. We were staying in Crater Bay, so we passed through Hellville on the 70-minute drive out to the village of Ambatozavary (Google Maps says 45 minutes, but DO NOT TRUST Google Maps in Madagascar).
This short drive was a good look at what road conditions are like around Nosy Be. I read somewhere that 90% of roads are unpaved in Madagascar. This usually renders them unusable in the rainy season. Sure enough, the roads we saw on this day were dirt and rocks, more suitable for offroading than a standard sedan. The roads that were paved were full of potholes.
Part of our drive, after we turned off the main road, was through cananga orchards. The cananga tree is best known for producing ylang-ylang, the sweet flower that is iconic for its use in perfumes, such as its most famous use: Chanel No 5. The trees are rather creepy looking; they are trained to grow their branches down to the ground so that the harvesters can reach the flowers, which gives the trees a “headless” look.
In Ambatozavary, Achim introduced us to our local guide, Joe. We had a whole army of local guys with us as we walked down the beach and through the muddy mangroves out to our canoe.
We waded up to the top of our knees to get into our canoes, where we learned that instead of horse-powered, we were going to be human-powered! Joe and Achim paddled, and the three remaining paddles were handed out between the four gringos.
We set off and paddled for an hour to get to Ampasipohy village. Thankfully, the “across the channel” was a miscommunication. We did NOT paddle 10 miles but instead paddled about 2.5 miles at low tide.
There were other boats that were around us and going from Ambatozavary to Ampasipohy. However, we were the only ones who paddled the entire time….some have engines, or some got towed by boats with engines. Alex hadn’t asked me about our fitness abilities, and I had to wonder what would have happened if we weren’t physically able to help paddle. The three of us (I can’t speak for Luka!) are pretty young and nimble, plus David and I workout a lot. I guess Joe and Achim would have had to carry all the weight?
Paddling the outrigger gave us a lot of appreciation and respect for the way of life out here. Paddling was HARD! We were all sore the next day, with knots in our shoulders and sensitive butts. The Malagasy people are very dependant on boating life – in Crater Bay we see hundreds of boats every day, many of them small canoes being paddled out to fish for the morning.
I had to wonder, if I was offered the option to pay more for a motor, would I have? Possibly, but then I would have missed out on a unique experience in Madagascar.
I have seen places online that say Lokobe is only accessible via boat. Achim said you can trek out to Ampasipohy, but it’s a lot faster and easier to paddle out. There are villages on the edge of Lokobe that are accessible by road – like Ambanoro, only twenty minutes from Hell-Ville.
Again, because the tide is so low, we leave our canoe in shallow water and wade our way to the beach.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the main income for the village of Ampasipohy is the tourism dollars that come in from people like us hoping to visit the park. Joe walked us up to find our pavilion – a nice and big hut with picnic tables set up for a meal. All around us were craft booths were the village women could hawk their items, such as carved wood in the shape of lemurs or whales, the Malagasy embroidered linens, or vanilla and ylang-ylang oils
I try not to clutter Starry Horizons with keepsakes from our trip (the boat can only hold so much and it would be a slippery slope) but Kimi did some shopping.
We were given about half an hour to recuperate from the paddle and were offered beverages – beer, coke, or water.
Then, we took off to lose ourselves in the forest.
An amazing thing about much of the wildlife in Madagascar is their camouflage. Joe knew the best places to look to find us some of the most well-hidden creatures in Lokobe.
Other animals were more obvious, like the lemurs who called to us and raced up and down the trees.
The path was winding and branched off many times. Once, we did get separated from Joe, who would often scout ahead to find the next interesting thing while we photographed the current one. Achim and Joe called to each other in the woods to get back together.
While many of the creatures were similar to what we saw at Nosy Komba, such as the black lemur, we didn’t see nearly the number of chameleons that we saw at Nosy Komba.
Back at the pavilion, Joe played a waiter and served us our lunch. We tried a variety of dishes, including crab curry, green mango salad, and bananas in coconut sauce.
Return to Ambatozavary
After eating a hearty lunch, it was time to paddle back to Ambatozavary! The tide had come back in, so we could take a more direct route between the two villages and we could paddle the canoes directly up to the beach instead of having to wade and then walk through the muddy mangroves.
Where to Stay Near Lokobe
While we were slaving away at the paddles, we passed a pretty cool beach-front eco-lodge called Le Coin Sauvage. It looks pretty neat and is in between the two villages. I assume it’s only accessible by boat, but the hotel can arrange transportation for you.
Otherwise, do like we did and stay elsewhere on the island of Nosy Be and arrange a car. Most hotels are located on the west side of the island, which is good for access to other adventures. Hell-Ville itself is pretty limited for hotels.
A great benefit of traveling in a country like Madagascar is that the cost is very low. Staying at some of the most expensive hotels on Nosy Be, like the four-star Ravintsara Wellness Hotel or the three-star Vanila Hotel & Spa, is less than $250 a night.
How to Hire a Guide
We booked our guide thanks to S/V Harmony, another cruising boat. You can contact Alex:
Alex sent our guide Achim, who can be reached here:
We’ve found organizing tours to be challenging. Cell phone calls are sometimes unreliable and rarely do people have Whatsapp or smartphones. For whatever reason, my local Telma number can’t send text messages. So, I often had to turn to emails or social media.
Prices for these tours can range from $30-55 USD per person for the entire day, with food and a driver.