With its 26.2 million population (bigger than Australia), this wonderful island is a paradise for wildlife lovers. It’s mega diverse. It has been discovered relatively late (500AD) and thanks largely to being undisturbed by humans for so very long, it possesses a vast number of different species. Among its resident animals are more than half the world’s chameleons and dozens of species of lemur.

Unlike the film Madagascar, however, you won’t see any tigers, giraffes or hippo. It is also a bird watchers’ paradise.

Why did I choose this country as my travel destination?

The main reason was because of its dive sites. I found a liveaboard online and started reading about the rest of the country which made me curious. And I am so so happy I visited Madagascar! It’s a country where I will definitely go back to in future, especially because of the friendships I developed with people living there. (Vazah -a slang the people of Madagascar use for white foreigners- and Malagasy).

So let’s start the journey..7th December I arrived to Antananarivo airport around midnight. There was no point for me to book a hotel for the night as I was due to fly at 6am up north to Nosy Be, where my liveaboard was due to depart at 2pm in the afternoon. It wasn’t the first time I slept on the floor of an airport..and it brought back all the memories and fun as a backpacker in 2012. Around 1am I received an email from Tsaradia (local airline) that the flight is delayed with an hour..oh well not the end of the world. I got to Nosy Be, a taxi was waiting for me that took me to Ambatoloaka beach, starting point for all cruises. As I entered the dive shop, Erik, the owner with not much emotion on his face said that the trip was cancelled due to the arrival of a cyclone. I couldn’t believe what I heard…my whole trip was planned around this dive trip…they had known it for days, just forgot to notify the customers…That was the moment when I realised that it was time to take off my London hat and put on my travelling open minded head. Every diver who was meant to be on the boat arrived..and shocked and surprised just like me. So I decided to make the most of the situation, created a WhatsApp group called “Cyclone Divers’ and the fun began…

Me and Lisa (from Canada) found a lovely hotel (Nosy Lodge) a little bit further North from Ambatoloaka beach and shared room for the next 6 days.

 

Sadly I got sick very early on. First I thought it was the side effects of the Malaria tablets, but then I realised that it was the water. My stomach is not my strongest part of my body and a slight change affects it. I had fever, cramps and all the rest. Lisa and the rest of the Cyclone Divers did a few shore dives whilst I was reading and resting. To be fair, I needed the rest. November last year was a hell of a month, an emotional rollercoaster, averaging 4-5h sleep every night so my body had enough. Wanted peace and rest. Life on the beach is so simple and nice…Malagasy ladies came by every day selling beautiful ripe fruit .. It was also nice to learn how in Madagascar people polish the wooden tables and floors! Another amazing use of the coconut!

Whilst recovering I made a plan. I just about had time to do the dive trip that was scheduled a week later, sadly the other cyclone divers didn’t have time to stay, so we maximised our time together and one of the days when the cyclone hit the island we decided to make a trip to Millot Plantation in Ambanja (mainland of Madagascar). Ha-ha. Yet another fail..but it’s in the bag with the other 5* stories!

The journey to the plantation was already an adventure. We didn’t bring our passports with us so we ended up boarding an ‘illegal’ boat with the locals, after 30 mins of semi rough ride on the sea in rain we arrived to the other side, where we took a taxi and after another 40 minutes of bumpy ride on dirt road we arrived to the residence of Madame Mado who greeted us with such an attitude….!

To be fair she was right…we left our brains home and assumed that we could visit the plantation in the rain but she made a very clear point that it was a mistake 🙂 We asked her to at least show us the vanilla and ylang-ylang plantation but she said..either full tour or nothing! Wow…but I like people who say things out right! In Lonely Planet -my bible on the road- you also had the opportunity to have lunch but as she didn’t expect visitors all she could offer was a few pieces of home made chocolate with a coffee..

After this day adventure we had a lovely dinner in the best restaurant in Nosy Be, Baobab Kafe. We ate here a few times, the chef is French and the food is heavenly.

After a few days together with these awesome people, it was time to say goodbye. They all left one by one and I had a couple of more days. In Nosy Lodge I met Etienne who has been super nice to me and we hung out a lot. He was my local friend and guide.

I changed accommodation to be more ‘in the town’, as Nosy Lodge was a bit remote. So I moved to this stunning villa:

I had 2 and a half day left until the boat, so one day I had a trip to Nosy Iranja (the nicest island around Nosy Be) and Nosy Komba the other day.

Nosy Iranja was like paradise on Earth:

Boats depart early in the morning, the trip is an hour and 20 minutes on a speedboat. When you arrive you can get lost in the maze of local boutiques selling pareos, the famous Malagasy rum, jewellery, fridge magnet, souvenirs, wood carvings, honey and other typical local products. Etienne took me up to a viewpoint, and we ate mango from the tree. It was like a dream..

The other day I went to Nosy Komba, which is a bit closer to Nosy Be, and I saw the first lemur!!

So here we are on the 14th December…day of the dive liveaboard! Spending a morning doing nothing (or preparing properly for the trip) would have been too boring so I got up like 5am, went out in the hope of finding a scooter and ride around the island, found a man washing his motorbike on the street and I talked to him with my very basic French: ‘ Je voudrais un scooter ‘

He disappeared into a web of narrow streets of Nosy Be and in 10 minutes he rocked up with a scooter. I paid 30.000 Ariary (6 Pounds), agreed on nothing in terms of bringing back the bike, I was asked no documents like passport etc. This is freedom! That’s when I fell in love with Madagascar! 😀 I went up North, did a quick 2 hour tour on Nosy Sakatia, which i highly recommend to everyone to watch turtles, smell vanilla and ylang-ylang, get to know a truly remote African lifestyle.

It was time to head back to the dive centre..and this is the only part I am not missing from my 6 week trip! Oceane’s Dream dive centre has all 4 and 5 star reviews on Tripadvisor. Therefore I had full confidence in them. Sadly what I went through with them from the beginning (Not informing us about the cyclone, then the refund/exchange process and just the general difficult communication since arrival) makes me wonder how they managed to get all these good reviews.

I was told that Joseph, a Malagasy dive instructor will be our cruise director on the liveabord and that was the reason why i took the exchange option and didn’t ask for a refund because I already felt that the French lady called Maud has been very arrogant and kind of forgot that they are a service provider and can’t just talk to/deal with the tourists the way they do. Sadly upon arrival I saw a group of 5 French people sitting on the briefing along with Maud. She set me off pretty badly with this team by talking to them about me whilst i was packing my stuff and getting ready for departure. (even if you don’t speak a language, you know when people are talking about you, plus I studied a bit of French and I speak 2 latin based languages) Sadly this hasn’t improved. It was her first trip on this liveaboard, didn’t know the dive sites and spoke 80% of the time in French, along with the group. I felt very much excluded but since i was in paradise and there were some ok moments (just not when we were eating at the table) I tried to make the most of this trip. The scenery, sunsets, sunrises, dolphins, remote islands we visited along with the kids and the crew were unforgettable. The people were very much forgettable.

 

I decided not to finish the trip. One of the reasons was the fact that they refused to speak English but also because I wouldn’t have been able to dive on the last day as i was flying in the evening to Antananarivo (Tana abbreviated), so I made my way back to Nosy Be, went straight to the dive shop, gave feedback, and on the last day in Nosy Be I met Etienne, and spent the day with him. He helped me find a lady who did my nails in her home, and we had late lunch with Etienne’s family, then they dropped me to the airport and this is where the real fun started!

Judit, my Hungarian friend who lives in Malta arrived a few hours before me, Miary, our driver and guide was waiting for me at the airport, dropped me at the hotel in Tana, and early in the morning we set off to our 10 day adventure in Central and South Madagascar.

I can honestly say that i have not laughed this much in the past 5 years as I did during this trip. We gelled so well with Miary and Judit was a joy to travel with. We were blessed 🙂

Our first destination was the Avenue of Baobabs near Morondava but you are not able to do the whole trip in one day so we spent one night in Miandrivazo. Wow this place was hot, as it was in a valley..the rooms were very basic, Judit got a little tipsy as even i was tempted to have a nice glass of Malagasy rum after a whole day of driving…but in the end I stuck with water. An interesting fact of Madagascar’s food and drink industry…Coca Cola Zero or Diet Coke or Pepsi don’t exist in Madagascar. It’s a product that has no purpose as people there NEED sugar. They don’t have problems with obesity or type 2 Diabetes..therefore you can only get full sugar Coke.

In the middle of the night we had a bit of an adrenaline rush as Judit left her bag in the hotel restaurant (we just withdrew a decent amount of money so the bag was full of cash), she woke up, ran out in pyjamas and luckily our guardian angel Miary took her bag in with him. Of course she woke him up with the night guard at 2am to double check this.:) So in Madagascar you ALWAYS have to have cash on you. You can’t pay with card nearly anywhere, even hotels, and the maximum amount you can withdraw/day is 800.000 Ariary (in 2 transaction) which is £200. And there are some cities where there is no cash machine. Miary was amazing as he always prepared us when and where to withdraw.

In the morning we went on a river cruise by dugout (pirogue), Miary came with us, and it was a great start to our day. It is the Malagasy way of transport along the river. It’s calm and slow with a full scenery. The colour of the water was red/brown due to the high iron content.

We then headed to Morondava, where we had a little dip in the Mozambique channel and then for sunset we went to the most iconic place in Madagascar, the Avenue of Baobabs.

After this incredible sunset photoshoot we had the best seafood in Morondava with live music! These are the moments to live for!

The next morning we went back to the Avenue for sunrise, but the sunset was by far the best. Then another 10h drive was waiting for us. On the way we hung out with some locals, ate in a traditional Malagasy restaurant, and finally we arrived to Ambositra, where we listened to live music and met Leslie, a nice French girl who moved to Madagascar from France, works in the food industry and is going to run an Ultra Marathon in Tana this year! (hats off with the 1280m elevation!)

We went for a run with Leslie in the morning then started our 8h journey to Isalo Rock Lodge, where we spent Christmas! The scenery en route was stunning, Lychee tree, fresh fruit, smiles from the locals, zebus, truck accidents …so much going on! And I even got to drive Miary’s car! It was so much fun! The pictures don’t give back all the fun we had in the car…playing games, teaching Miary some appropriate and some non appropriate English words..:)

When we arrived to our paradise, we spent the evening on our balcony, getting lost in the scenery and of course the rum (me in my favourite soursop and other exotic fruit juice).

We also had a ‘cash’ problem, Miary did tell us how much money we needed but somehow we didn’t withdraw enough, which meant that we couldn’t pay our guide for the next day…we panicked. We drove 10h without enough cash….But in Madagascar with Miary you don’t need to panic..he lent us enough money and just smiled and said..:

“it’s funny how you Europeans panic when you don’t have enough cash for 2 days..I can go a week without having any..and when i say any, without having any in the bank either!’

That sentence really hit me..we really do take our life for granted…:(

Next day we went hiking in the Isalo National Park. We were more than impressed with the natural untouched beauty of this park. No pictures can convey the awe that one feels standing in the presense of these massive rocks formations. The natural pools are pristine and getting to see ring tailed lemurs up close with their babies was a perk. We also saw the world’s smallest chameleon called Pygmy Leaf Chameleon.

After lunch we hiked to another fabulous natural piscine.

We finished our adventure by around 3pm, then luckily in a town half an hour drive away there was a cash machine and we could withdraw. I was driving again, it was a lot of fun!

Once we returned, me and Judit had a nice relaxing Christmas massage and finally we started getting ready to our Christmas dinner! It was so nice, the hotel crew did an hour show for the guests singing and playing on the djembe.

On the 25th December we drove to Fianarantsoa and visited the Anja Reserve. After Isalo, it was our favourite hike. Stunning views..rock formations…on cloud 9…

Upon arrival to our hotel we did a stroll in town, and found my favourite game EVER. Table football, or how we call it in Hungary, Csocso! What was even better that I got to play with the locals!!!

In the evening we played lots of fun games with Miary and Judit…including Spin the bottle Truth or Dare..! ha-ha

Here are a few shots of Malagasy street life…

On the 26th we visited Ranomafana National Park, a true Madagascan rainforest. It is one of the most picturesque national parks in Madagascar. Covering a mountainous area of 415 kilometres, the park is set at altitudes that range between 800 and 1,200 metres in a vast tract, comprised mainly of dense rainforest. The rare golden bamboo lemur was discovered here in 1986 by Dr. Patricia Wright, which led to the area gaining National Park status. It now provides a protected environment for these endangered animals and is one of the island’s most accessible and appealing stops on any itinerary.

At night, we went for a night walk…and we saw the Pigmy Mouse Lemur, very small and nocturnal along with lots of chameleons.

Next day was the last full day, when we drove to Antsirabe and visited the Miniature Museum, Zebu and Wood factory, where we met fellow Hungarians, led by Eddy- the Hungarian speaking Malagasy guide. I couldn’t believe this!!! We heard about him first in Isalo National Park from our guide Xavier, and voila, he happened to be in the gem store!  Here is a picture of the Hungarian squad.

And we arrived to our last night in Madagascar…well it was somewhat unforgettable…the last story out of many..Judit locked me our of my room! It was obviously an accident (one too many rums) and the way I got in was hilarious….The hotel didn’t have a spare key to the room, therefore the night guard climbed through our tiny bathroom window, knocking Judit’s make up bag on the floor which made almost as much noise as my pervious shouting ‘ Judit, Judit let me in!!!!’ but she was fast asleep..with eye mask on, and earplugs in..

Here is a little memory of the event:

Next morning, we left at 5am to be back in Tana for our 1.35pm flight to Ethiopia. In the car we had the best time…we couldn’t believe that we will be soon separated..this trio worked so so well and we had so much fun. We are so grateful to Miary for showing us his country in such a fabulous way.

If you ever plan a trip to Madagascar, he is your man!

And the last surprise that Madagascar gave me as a goodbye gift was bumping into Oliver, my previous client from NB….I could not believe that he was there on the same flight as we were to Addis Ababa! There are no accidents in life!

It is only when you travel the world that you understand how big and diverse it really is. Our connections should be invested in real people, from our neighbourhood to the world. And this is what I brought home with me.

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