Skipper and crew agree: Madagascar is Nirvana

As White Dragon approached the southerly end of Isle Saint Marie we eagerly anticipated seeing the humpback whales which congregate to breed and give birth there from July to mid September, writes Dick Beaumont. It was 2nd September, would we be too late?

Our fears were allayed as we saw the first humpback breach five miles before we were even inside the channel that separated the island from mainland Madagascar.

Suddenly there were whales ahead, astern and on both sides of White Dragon, as she sailed into the channel.

These huge animals were jumping completely clear and crashing back into the waves leaving huge plumes of water. Some were tail slapping, others rolling, what a display! We had seen 30 humpback whales in the two hours it took us to enter the channel and run up to the quirky little town of Ambodifotatra on Isles Saint Marie where we had to clear in.

Clearing into Madagascar is a pretty hit and miss affair. The tourist information desk sent us to government officials who had no idea what we wanted and the fact I couldn’t speak French, left me wishing Madagascar had been an English colony and not a Gallic one.

After much gesticulating and repetitive requests for ‘parlez vous anglais’ all to no avail, we were rescued by a very helpful young French woman, Emily, who explained we needed to visit the police station and gave me a lift there on the back of her bright pink, Lambretta scooter.

The police station was of course shut for a 2 hour lunch, but after eventually registering with the police station, I then set off to the ‘port’, to meet the customs, immigration and coastguard who insisted on a visit aboard the next morning. See the photo below of Customs, Immigration and Port officials arriving in their launch!

The whole process had taken up more or less a day, but everyone was very helpful and pleased that we were visiting their country. For every official cost we incurred, a receipt with several stamps and signatures was provided.

The following two days we headed out into the channel to see the whales, which were everywhere, mostly mothers and calves, but on several occasions we were treated to magnificent displays by pods of up to
15 whales. We scuba dived several times and hearing the whale song was other worldly. We could clearly hear the deep rumbling sound of the mothers being answered by a high pitched whine from their calves.

Isles Saint Marie was the base port for the notorious Captain Kidd and dozens of other pirates and their crews.

We just had to make the short trip out of town so see the famous pirates graveyard. Captain Kidd himself wasn’t buried there but this ancient graveyard is the resting place of many less notorious pirates, as our guide explained, whilst they were considered pirates in England, in Madagascar they were dignitaries who brought wealth and prosperity to
their shores.

Ambodifotatra is a strange eclectic mix of good French style cafes, restaurants and yet desperate poverty too. At the market, we could get good fruit, vegetables and Madagascan spices of all sorts. Meat, fish, prawns and squid were fresh, plentiful, and cheap so we stocked up our depleting fridges and freezer. The stocks of wahoo, tuna and mahi mahi we’d caught on our crossing were running out.

On our last evening we jumped into a bright yellow tut-tut and visited Chez Nath, the lovely bungalow hotel and restaurant owned by my clearance guide and chauffeur Emily. It is just a mile or so out of town and one of the best restaurants in the area. We enjoyed a variety of tapas and grilled zebu, which looks like a cross between a cow and a water buffalo.

Zebu is finer grain than beef and is very tasty, especially washed down with a few tots of first class local rum.

As assignments go photographing a 66ft luxury yacht in warm, tropical waters was not too shabby, writes Trystan Grace.

Dick was very keen to show off White Dragon, Kraken’s 66 flagship in a truly remote tropical paradise for the front cover of Sailing Today magazine, which contained their Blue Water Yacht of the Year Award, which the Kraken 66 had won! 

Where better than the northern reaches of Madagascar to highlight the true blue water attributes of the Kraken 66. With that, I found myself changing onto a small commuter jet in Johannesburg with maybe eight other people bound for Nosy Be, a large island with a beautiful coastline, inlets and diving spots, in the north of Madagascar.

I arrived at the very small airport with a shack sized terminal building, only to find that my passport needed to be checked by at least five staff before I was allowed to enter. A visa is required and purchased on arrival, 25 euros in cash at the time. I collected my luggage and made for the exit, only to be stopped and my passport checked once again. My passport was again returned, I set off, but didn’t get far. A smiling gentleman, blocking the corridor casually asked, ‘So, do you have something for me?’

I did not and hastily made an exit to meet Dick, who drove me to the boat through wild forest and endless banana trees. White Dragon was anchored in Crater Bay, a large safe spot which was home to the islands’ only yacht club. Sailors sat chatting and drinking in front of the bar and restaurant, made up of old train carriages. 

Life in Madagascar for the next few days ran like clockwork: in the afternoon, experience some of the best sailing conditions as the wind picks up and then find a beautiful, calm anchorage in the evening. We sailed past locals in their dhows, a simple Madagascan boat of Arab origin with over 1000 years of history. I love the shape of the sails as they are so photogenic.

On day two, the crew decided to go on a dive in the morning before the wind got up. Dick had his sights on a small island (Nosy Kivinjy) which he considered would be a good spot for a wall dive. Deciding to stay onboard, I flew the drone high over the yacht and island, the overhead perspective providing some idyllic shots.

After the dive, the ever predictable afternoon breeze whistled through the rigging so we stowed the dive gear and set off. I circled the yacht with the drone, trying to capture each angle, using the coastline and dhows as a backdrop. Sailing past a smaller island on our way to the evening anchorage, we could hear the thunderous racket of hundreds of lemurs ashore.

As the wind died down and the sun sank lazily towards the horizon, we rounded a headland and sailed up the Honey River channel to find a safe spot to stop overnight. After boxing the anchor several times we eventually found a perfect anchorage and dropped the hook in front of a small village, a hive of activity with children playing and the locals mooring dhows on the beach. Not long after the anchor was set, a couple of teenage boys approached in a small dugout. Dick smiled knowingly and winked at us before walking to the transom to talk with them. Intrigued, I peered down and saw one of the boys reaching carefully into a sack, retrieving a large crab and holding it up for Dick to inspect.

A few minutes later they paddled off towards the village, happy with the sale and Dick set about preparing the evening’s meal.

I remember the first time I came aboard White Dragon, I thought how well laid out the galley was and I soon realised that even down to the moulded fiddle rail, Dick had specified how each element had been designed to make cooking at sea an effortless experience.

Now with music playing, our captain set about chopping this, mixing that, almost dancing around the galley. Before we knew it, a huge pot of chilli and ginger crab was placed in the centre of the cockpit table, the fragrance of ginger and chilli took me back to Hong Kong. Thus concluded the perfect end to a perfect day, sat in a beautiful anchorage, ravenous sailors digging into the delicious dinner Dick had prepared, accompanied of course with local vanilla spiced rum, a luxury which will set you back US$1 a bottle…This is my kind of cruising, remote idyllic islands where you can detach from the hustle and bustle of modern life, with the bonus of creature comforts and self-sufficiency that a yacht like White Dragon provides.

The perfect way to visit Madagascar is by yacht as so much is unreachable by other means of transport. This is part of the charm, the wildness like stepping back in time. The Indian Ocean can bite when the wind and waves get up but with the right boat and good seamanship, the rewards for traversing it are bountiful.

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