5 :30 comes early no matter where you are, but in the tropics, it is a soft and scented coming.
It’s September 14, the first day of our Alefa trip and we are out of the hotel by 6:15, lugging our baggage down the beach toward breakfast and adventure. On the tables outside the Alefa headquarters is a taste of what will come during our voyage: fresh fruit galore, piping hot coffee and cinnamon tea, baguettes., butter, and wild honey*.... The crew is busy loading the pirogue, and our guide Jo Black, with his ever-ready smile, chats with G, V, J, and me over slices of pineapple and papaya. O & S are running late. Again. G’s sunburn is so painful, he can barely walk, but he doesn’t want to miss this trip. Once O & S finally show up, we load our bags, and set off for La Grande Terre, our departure heralded by Jo and Mena who take turns blowing in a giant conch shell. Unfortunately, the morning winds are ever contrary to heading south, so we must use the motor for the first part of the trip and not the sails as everyone is hoping.
We trail a fishing line and catch the 30th fish of the year before we stop for snorkelling just off the coast of Mada. Clouds cover the sky and we all start to wonder if our trip is going to be rained out; there’ve been storms on La Grande Terre every night since our arrival. Despite the overcast sky, the view is stunning: numerous islands, blue-green waters, the mountainous coast of Mada; everywhere you look is beauty. Well, every direction but one: where O & S are sitting hunched over and pressed together like one miserable lump. They barely raise their eyes to admire their surroundings. Jo creates a little ambience with tales of where we’ll go and what we’ll see as he prepares the aperitif. Caïperinhas, of course. We eat shrimp and rice on the boat as we motor to our first bivouac spot, a long, empty beach, marred only by the wreck that is the cabin of the Guardian of the Coconuts.
Everyone helps unload the pirogue, some more than others, and while the crew--Mena, Flavio, and Jo set up the camp--Julien and I are the first to take our showers, Adam and Eve style amongst coconut trees with a bucket of well water. While the other couples take turns showering, J and I go for a walk, collecting shells, seeds, and photos. We try to catch a mangrove crab, but it escapes. Too bad; we wanted to contribute to our rations.
Remember the blurk shrimp? The one I refused to finish but J ate? Well, he starts to feel nauseaous and I’m sure the shrimp is the cause (I had a bit of a niggly tummy earlier on, and I’d only eaten a few bites). Rain starts pouring down, so everyone seeks shelter in their tents, which is fine by J. He just wants to lie down and pray that the meds kick in. When the call for the apero comes, he decides to stay in the tent, promising me he’ll come eat if he feels better.
Because of the rain, our woven picnic mats have been moved by the “kitchen,” protected by a tarp already bellying under a load of rain. The locale doesn’t stop Jo from doing a bang-up job with the décor. A branch of black coral is laid artistically in front of a huge fruit platter; the kettle and mugs are lined up in front of a cutting board for the caïpes, the rum, sugar, spoon, and pestle arranged just so. Blue lanterns help the cooking fires light the whole. It’s cozy and convivial and we all appreciate it despite Jo’s apologies for making us sit in the kitchen. Unfortunately, J misses the first chaki-chaki (appetizer)--and one of the best we have on the trip--spicy fried mackerel steaks. Flavio doesn’t let us down with the main course either: Beef Romazava, and even J, who does not like boiled meat, enjoys it. We see the first firefly of the trip (saw one every night). Like dolphins, no matter how many times I see fireflies, I just have to be happy.
It rains through the night, and I don’t sleep that well. The first night in a tent is usually like that, but we have tropical sounds to contend with, too--strange birdcalls, a grunt between that of a maki and a pig, a crab trying to get into the tent. Revenge for the attempt on its brother’s life? I’m the first one up (excepting the crew) at a little past 5, and the sun is just starting to rise. A badamier tree is blooming just behind our tent (don’t know the name in English), and the air is redolent with its heady perfume. I get the camera and take another walk along the beach while breakfast is being prepared. J joins me and I’m happy to note he is feeling better. Breakfast is even lovelier than supper, everything--plates, cups, spoons included--is laid out with an eye to symmetry. Papayas alternate with lime halves down a long cutting board; a pineapple, still seeming whole, is peeled, sliced, and ready to eat; mangoes are whole but sliced around the seed--when you open them, you see the inside is diced, ready for each morsel to pop into your mouth as you peel the skin back--finger-sized bananas are sunshine smiles on a woven basket. Then Jo arrives with fresh-made doughnuts. Paradise.
Jo wakes the slug-a-beds (O & S) with a blast of the conch shell. He tells the rest of us not to wait; we dig in. We have to move out before the tide deserts us.
We help the crew load up, some of us dragging our feet and playing with our bellybuttons, and head to the first snorkelling spot. J, Flavio, and Mena take their spearguns and ensure that we have our lunch. The wind is in our favour. We unfurl a sail and slide along in silence. S doesn’t feel well--a stomach bug like J had, most likely. O has a rash on his arms. I give him a Zyrtec and take one, too. I seem to have allergies that affect my right eye. O & S continue to huddle together, eyes screwed up against the sun. Jo regales us with medicinal advice.** We set up camp in a village called Ambarioména (The Red Court, birthplace of the king). With a few hours remaining before sunset, we set off into the jungle for a shower. O & S don’t want to go, but Jo insists. The shower this time is a communal one. Everyone strips to their bathing suits and the race is on to get clean before the mosquitoes devour us alive.
After the shower, we get back into the pirogue for a jaunt up the river mouth, on the lookout for crocodiles. It reminds me of the swamp tour J and I took in New Orleans. We don’t see any crocs, but we do spy a kingfisher, a black parrot, and a flock of egrets. That night, we have the sweet serenade of an impromptu village fete. Mena is from this area, and his people are happy to spend time with him.
I sleep better and am again the first one up. The colors are breathtaking and the serenity is a blessing. I enjoy it to its fullest. O stomping up the beach ruins the moment. S feels better, but O’s rash hasn’t disappeared. He insists it is worse. He doesn’t want another Zyrtec; he wants to go back to Nosy Be. Now. The boat must take him. Now. Then he can be flown back to France more easily if he is correct and he really is on death’s door. Jo is flabbergasted--never has such a thing happened--but after consulting with the crew, he asks the rest of us if we want to stay another night here or go back to Nosy Be with O & S. Naturally, we opt to stay.
Not taking the easy way out and leaving us in the same camp, the crew decides to move us about 200 yards up the beach to a presque-île so we can experience something slightly different. Some of us load up the boat, some of us not at all. Some of us unload the boat, some of us...well, you get the idea. Flavio and Jo motor way with O & S, leaving Mena to take care of the rest of us. We want to help him set up the tents, but he tells us we can do it later, that we should go swimming now, while it is still high tide. J grabs a speargun, the rest of us just take masks, snorkels, and fins. We see lobsters galore (on the small side though) and schools of flat, palm-sized fish escort us past barracudas and parrotfish. I’m getting blisters on my toes and prefer to walk back to camp. I see some barnacle-free rocks and think to use the push of the waves to pull myself up onto them. The wave is too strong and it shoves me into the rock. I try to stop before I kiss the stone, and the rocks scrape away several layers of skin the back of my hand and wrist. The water tows me back out, and the stone claws my upper thigh, my knee, my calf. I turn tail and swim for a strip of sand, where I should have tried to get out in the first place. Bloody, my wounds on fire, I pick my way over the stones toward G, who has decided to walk, too. With the help of two Malagasy boys, who have come watch J hunt, we carry back three of J’s catches (he returns to camp later with a little lobster and a fourth fish). Mena has tricked us and the camp is readied. We give the villagers two of the fish, and Mena cooks up the other two for our supper. Lunch was crab claws with homemade mayonnaise and crab stew. Yum.
The next morning, the pirogue comes back...with O & S. I was betting on them staying behind. Since we’ve lost a day, we loose the sails and navigate for several hours straight under the pounding sun to reach Kalakajoro, the first of the Radama islands. On one side of the island, a ramshackle steading of itinerant fishers decorates the beach. Around the point, a sight a little less pleasing: a “hotel” of sorts started by a fishing school. The cabins are small, inspired by traditional housing, but clean, clinical almost. It’s jarring to see a place with electricity after the past few days. J and I spearfish for about an hour and a half. Cold and tired, we follow Jo up a hillside to the “shower.” On the hotel premises we see makis. Caged.
The shower is a well in the middle of a sloping field of nettles and stalks of some already-harvested crop. Two buckets of murky water await us. The water makes us laugh ruefully, but the view over the sunset-tinted sea makes the shower luxurious. The battalions of mosquitoes make it expedient. After supper, there is harmonica playing, but I’m tired and retire early, O & S on my heels. Can’t blame them. They did a heck of a lot of navigating.
Late morning, we make it to the second of the four islands and camp not far from a village. My eye is giving me fits again and I can’t wear my contacts. I was stupid and didn’t bring my glasses, thinking to save some precious room in our luggage. Still, I go on the nature hike that Jo leads us on. Lovely birds (truly seen later in the guidebook *grin*) and wildly colourful insects. O refuses to take a shower. J and I are the first behind the palm screen and a little village girl delightedly introduces herself and chats with us through the slats. Ah, the joys of showering in a swimsuit under the regard of curious eyes. That night, there is music and dancing around the campfire. Everyone is in the “kitchen,” except O & S, who retire early. Flavio plays my harmonica (which we decide to gift him), a village man plays a kabosse (don’t know the correct spelling; it’s like a four-stringed guitar, which J buys off of him), Mena plays a bucket, Jo a kettle. A village girl plays the spoons. V takes up a plastic sack and rubs it between her hands, contributing to the surprisingly harmonious sounds. Just outside the lantern glow, I stealthily join in on the dancing, trying to learn the moves to the traditional selig.
September 19. We have only one more night and two days left to our trip, so we have to start the trip back toward Nosy Be. I get up “late” for me, at 5:45, and have my normal walk along the beach. Don’t collect any souvenirs besides two stings from an angry fly-bee thing. After the daily hunt, we eat fish in coconut sauce while navigating. We go back in the water just off the beach where we’ll camp, but the visibility isn’t great. J and I, the last back to the boat, opt to swim to shore while the others motor there. They’ve already started unloading by the time we arrive, but we still managed to carry more than some of the others. I beachcomb while everyone else naps, then it is another nature walk up a pink-crystal-studded hillside. A gorgeous view of a mangrove-bound river and floodplain awaits us. To the interior of the land, hills roll away covered in white-trunked trees. Back at camp, it is shower time again. Both O & S refuse. The rest of us trek through the village--home of the king,*** who is away in Nosy Be, so we don’t get to meet him--past cashew nut trees, gardens, and outlying homes on piles, up a rise to another bathing hole.
After yet another wonderful supper, we stage a concert and dance with the villagers. This time there are more women to play with us and their instrument of choice is a length of bamboo filled with seeds. (The seeds, red with an end tipped in black, are called Devil’s Eyes in Mayotte; in Mada they are called Eyes of the Passed-out Dog.) The princess plays and sings, too. There are about ten dancers, all girls less 12 or so years. They timidly take me by the hand and lead me to their ranks where one of the most outgoing “challenges” me to a dance-off. I gamely follow, blushing a bit when required to do moves that inspired some of MTV’s hottest videos. As I’m coming back from my beach walk the next morning, an old woman tells me I have rhythm and impressed her with my skills. :D
Even though most of the return to Nosy Be happens under full sail, a hint of sadness pervades two of the three couples. Guess which two. One of the couples does not really appreciate our joke that it is the “next to last day.” (Jo says that the Malagasy don’t like to say “the last day,” especially when they don’t want something to end, so they always call it the next to last.) Said couple even yanked out their itinerary on the fifth day, heartbroken that the trip lasts seven days and not six as they first thought. Still, the sight of whales, a cow and her calf, help lighten the mood. We pass close by Nosy Iranja (Turtle Island) to get a glimpse of a hotel where bungalows cost around €500/night. I wouldn’t trade my camping trip for that kind experience, no matter how turquoise the water around the beach. One last snorkel behind another tiny island with like-hued water. It’s like being in an aquarium. One last meal on board: Duck (the last of our stowaways)! The last stretch to Nosy Be passes in virtual silence. I often glance back at La Grande Terre, sad to leave it behind but happy it gave me such a wonderful life-long memory to hold on to.
At 5:30, we slide into the bay, under the glow of a setting sun. Mena and Flavio reef the sails, while Jo takes the helm from G, who has been our helmsman for the past few hours. Our trip ends with the day’s last glorious colors streaking the sky, the magic of my birthday surprise still hanging in the air, held aloft by the breath of frangipanis and ylang-ylang.
* We bought a liter and a half of wild honey in Ambariomena, and it cost us 7500MGA, less than €1.50 a liter. O.O
** Jo says, “If you are suffering from tetanus, reach in the back of your drawer, pull out four or five cockroaches and squash them, making sure the juice runs on the open wound. If you prefer, you can drop the roaches in boiling water and drink the infusion...” Also, “if you’ve just been bitten by a centipede,” Jo says when a four-inch one crawls out of his sea chart, “catch the centipede, crush it, and apply its juice to the bite.” I’ll have to remember that next time I have an unsavory encounter with one of the hundred-legged horrors.
*** The king is really an everyday kind of Joe. He fishes like everyone else, has a home like everyone else, harvests rice like the rest. But he is a respected voice when decisions have to be made.