Paradise Found on Madagascar’s St Marie Island
Even as I boarded the connection flight from Nairobi towards Madagascar’s capital city of Antananarivo, I still knew next to nothing about the country I was fast headed to. Sure, I could have done some prior research or even simply have had a quick look at Wikipedia but sometimes, I like to play little games with myself and make my adventures more interesting (and potentially dangerous) by heading into the unknown armed only with a headful of wonder.
In fact the little I did know about Madagascar came from the animated Dreamworks film so I half expected to land and find 3D, talking Zebra’s and the voice of Ben Stiller. In case you haven’t seen the film, the characters find themselves unexpectedly stranded on the gigantic island and what follows is all manner of whimsy as they try to work our what the hell is going on; I liked the concept. It reminded me of most of my own travel experiences to date.
I landed in Antananarivo in Christmas Day to find the city streets bustling with activity. The capital cities centre is a collision of pretty, French colonial buildings fading into concrete modernist monstrosities; I guess that aesthetics take a backseat to functionality when it comes to 21st century third world city planning. Against this unremarkable backdrop though, the street life itself was truly endearing. Whole families had donned their “Sunday best”, and attired in suits’, ties or prom-dresses, they strolled up and down the Avenida de Liberation tasting street foods, riding the merry go-rounds and posing for family portraits. It was a carnival atmosphere befitting the holiday with children stood on corners singing Christian hymns and all manner of consumerist tat for sale. I was very conscious of been the only white face in the whole city but I did not feel in any way threatened like one might expect on ones first day, alone, in an African capital city.
Readers of this blog will well know that a countries magic is rarely found in its capital city and this is certainly the case in Madagascar. As such, I had no intention of hanging round Antananorivo longer than was absolutely necessary and so headed east early the next morning.
The end destination was St Marie, a tiny tropical island paradise situated some 200km from the mainland.
Crossing Madagascar By Bus
I’ve backpacked around India, Pakistan and Nepal and so consider myself something of a veteran of the long, hard bus journey. However the gruelling 2 days journey from the capital city to … was pretty tough and took the “window seat blues” to whole new levels. Outside of the main highway, the countries roads are very basic and not at all suited to multi-lane traffic, or large busses. The roads also seemed unable to cope with the rainy season’s annual deluges which were now starting to fall.
Oh, and that’s something thing I should probably tell you, my deliberate ignorance meant that I had no idea that Madagascar was now entering its monsoon season. As such I was completely unprepared for what lay ahead.
However, whilst the bus journey was long, it was also very incredibly scenic. It was a real joy to pass through each town and witness the day to day life of Malagasy towns unfolding before me. Markets sold coconuts, chickens sprinted across the streets and girls and boys flirted. You know, markets and street scenes the world over are more or less exactly the same, and yet always different and so they never fail to fascinate me.
Poverty in Madagascar
Your primary association with Africa may be one of poverty. Whilst Madagascar is currently undergoing a difficult time economically, politically and with an recent outbreak of black death, hygienically, the problems are nowhere near as punishing as elsewhere.
That said, poverty was still evident in some towns. Some locals were dressed in what were clearly donations from the west, old English football shirts, 90’s tracksuit pants and in one case even a Bill Clinton electoral campaign T-shirt from 1994! Malnourishment was also visible and dental care seemed to be almost non-existent amongst large swathes of the populace. On one occasion I saw a young boy of maybe 10 years old playing with an old metal toy car which has no wheels and no chassis – quite beautifully though, he was playing just as happily as any child anywhere in the world ever could.
Aside from the towns, the ride passed over forest covered mountains and through small villages built of wooden shacks. Madagascar has one of the most unique bio-diversities in the world and many of the animal and plant species here exist nowhere else on earth. Whilst this is primarily of interest to zoologists and botanists rather than travel bloggers, even I could not help to be awed by some of the trees that adorned the mountainsides the likes of which I have never seen before in my life. The Malagasy Baobab trees are probably the most striking and famous example of the countries unique, bio-diversity.
Flights To Madagascar
Madagascar isn’t exactly accessible. The giant island is situated bang in the middle of the ocean lying someway between Africa’s East coast and India’s southwest. For a westerner or anybody coming from the northern hemisphere getting to Madagascar is a mission and a half and often a costly one.
If you are interested in visiting Madagascar, then the good news is tat on the grind costs are very reasonable. However, flying to Madagascar is not and you an erect to pay $1000 from Europe. However, I do have a little hack for you. By signing up to Jacks Flight Club, you can find cheap air fairs to many destinations across the world. Jacks Flight Club is a members only Flight Search Engine which finds error fairs and promotions and emails them to you as soon as they become available. You can sign up for it through this link right here.
Ille St Marie
Ille St Marie is a tiny, tropical island some 200k east of Madagascars mainland tantamount to some 100 or less square meters of paradise. Its a laid-back idyl of tiny fishing villages where the way and pace of life has hardly changed in ages.
Upon disembarkation at St Marie’s tiny dock, the merry, celebratory island atmosphere was almost tangible and definitely contagious. Locals strolled passed playfully haggling for fish on the market, buying fresh coconuts to drink or simply flirting with one another. The town itself basically consisted of a few two storey buildings, two cash points (neither of which accepted my card…) and one straight road punctuated by parked up Rickhshaws, the drivers of which seemed far too relaxed to actually try and tout for my custom! Whatever worries and cares I may have had in my being upon leaving the mainland didn’t make it off the boat and I instantly felt more relaxed than a heavily sedated monk in a massage parlour.
There are some hotels and guesthouses situated within the town centre but the real beauty of St Marie lies out in the villages and resorts which have sprung up from north to south along its coastline and thats where I was headed. After a bumpy jeep ride along the islands one, bumpy road I arrived at my temporary home at the Natura Resort. Now, my usual travel style is “budget” and I quite often find myself sharing mouldy dorms to save a few dollars. In St Marie however, my accommodation was a tad more luxurious and for the princely sum of around $15 a night, I checked into a gargantuan, semi-luxurious wood hut situated right beside the ocean. Had this been in the Caribbean we would talking about adding a few 00’s to that rate but Madagascar represents pretty fantastic value for for money.
In the mornings, I would venture out from my bedroom, make the short descent down to the coral beach and take a dip in the sea. As I performed my daily meditation & yoga routine on my huts veranda, curious Lemur’s would come to take a look and see what I was doing. In exchange for a piece of fruit or glass of juice they could even be convinced to let me pet them…
I passed my days in St Marie either trekking or riding around the island checking out its empty pristine beaches or venturing deep into the dense rain forest which dominated the centre of the island cutting its eastern and western flanks in two. Heading out into the rain forests is not recommended for the feint hearted as there a real risk of dehydration and of getting lost. There are also plenty of big snakes in there although I am informed that they are not venomous.
There are not exactly any “sights” in St Marie and the attractions are simply observing the day to day life in the villages and relaxing with a delicious sea food meal washed down by the plentiful local rum. That said, one day I did ride to the spooky pirate cemetery and visited some sacred stones which the natives still revere as deities and make offerings to in times of trouble; in Madagascar staunch Christian Protestantism and ancient primeval animism make fine bedfellows.
Thunder in Paradise
In case this all sounds too perfect, then rest assures that storms were quite literally a-brewing.
In my enthusiasm in booking the trip, I had quite failed to check what the weather would be like during my visit and soon learned the hard-way that I had waded into this little paradise during “cyclone season” (fortunately my trusty Osprey Aether Backpack has a rain cover). After a few days exploring and sunbathing, Cyclone Ava turned up transforming the sea into a rollicking tempest and smashing branches down from tall tress. Boats were cancelled, flights grounded and the town closed down completely as traders headed home to try and hide from natures wrath. The electricity went, the water was cut off and the island steadily began to run out of food. The time of my my flight home was fast approaching and I needed to get back to the mainland the capital Antanonrivo.
To cut a long story short, I managed to get a seat on a tiny, private speedboat who’s captain was mad (or drunk) enough to try and cross the seas and, after a choppy ride across the waves, just about made it back in time for my flight!