Wilderness Safaris- Unparalleled Okavango

I have long been intrigued by the Okavango. As a sprog in the 70’s a school chum regaled me with fabulous tales. In the 90’s my late friend Steven Morris was a chef at a camp- and spent a month alone on an island on a personal quest.  Would I find some of what Steven did I wondered as we flew due North from Johannesburg  to Maun in Northern Botswana?

The flying was a breeze, leaving ‘Maritzburg aboard an Airlink flight, changing without having to recheck baggage at OR Tambo, and in Maun by lunchtime. Seemingly endless, uninhabited desert and semi- desert  had been the view for much of the trip to Maun, then some glistening water, scrub and tress as we approached the airport.  Once through the hot tedium of customs/immigration at the small but busy airport, changes came rapidly.

Superlatives may just be word on a page until you’ve experienced them, but our experience with Wilderness  Safaris/Air was filled with them.  This is one very slick, professional outfit packaging exceptional adventures. We were greeted with smiles, scented cool facecloths, whisked ahead of queues and were soon winging our way, hopping from airstrip to airstrip en route to our first camp- the premier Vumbura Plains.

Water glistened, shimmered and shone under the hazy blue sky as we flew. The Okavango Delta- where the Okavango River dissipates into the Kalahari sands- is a phenomenon words can’t adequately describe. Each year approximately 11 cubic kilometres of water spreads over the 6000-15000 km² area. What I kept asking myself was “how does it flow?” since there is a less than 2 metre variation across the Delta. Nevertheless flow it does. But, at first, words did not. Initial impressions of the Delta are thoughtful for most it seems- a time to simply take in its immensity. Words do eventually flow- unspoilt, pristine, primal for example. The water is 97% potable, filtered by the white sands. It appeared in a myriad aspects: glinting from between reed rafts and papyrus, festooned with lilies, fingering through grasses and over contrasting coloured bottoms of innumerable channels, marshes and lakes. The waters were punctuated with small islands, palm trees and many other (as yet) unknown plants, blobby grey elephant, swaying giraffe and other game.

Sadly almost, we made our last landing and were soon warmly welcomed at the gracious, designer delight that is Vumbura Plains. This is bush elegance of a high order. Attention to every detail- once your preferences are assiduously assessed you will find your preferred tipple as a nightcap in your suite, for example. And what suites! They are enormous canvas and shadecloth sided, thatched extravagances raised (for safety) above the ground – split level with a sunken lounge, plunge pool alongside lounger under a huge tree on the large, private deck with its covered, outdoor lounge.  The luxury and views made it tempting to do not much more than lounge- or arrange for a massage with elephants browsing metres away.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The star attraction- the Delta- awaited however and so, after dragging ourselves from the exceptional afternoon “tea” spread, we were whisked off by the charming Lazarus Maolosi for our first excursion. Ebony and Kalahari Appleleaf, Jackalberry and Rain trees, ubiquitous hornbills and plovers, starlings, bee- eaters and the gorgeous Lilac Breasted Roller.  I am not a twitcher (birder) or budding botanist but was fascinated by the make-up of our surrounds. We saw game in greater numbers, and at closer proximity, than I have ever seen. Wild dogs and hyena are generally elusive and retiring. Here they could have been mistaken for domestic pets.  Lechwe and Tsessebe are not to be seen back home. Elephant are- and buffalo too- but I’d not seen such numbers. As much as the game sightings were wonderful, the lessons on the ecology were especially rewarding. The symbiosis between species for example- with the hugely important role micro-termites and their massive mounds play particularly illuminating.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The water levels were rising and we spent time zipping through channels in a motorboat, as well as poling placidly in the fiberglass version (to save trees) of the traditional Mokoro dugout among bobbing lilies and spectacularly bright Angolan Reed Frogs. Two very different, but equally delightful, ways of enjoying the Delta waters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back at camp we shared our delights with fellow guests and staff over leisurely feasts and fine wines.  Later, after an outdoor shower under the stars (or the fabulous open- plan indoor shower), we were lulled to sleep by those same frogs, tinkling like distant chimes against a backdrop of profound silence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All too soon our Vumbura visit was over and we headed out of the Delta to Savuti Camp on the Savute (sic) Channel- a river system 35 minutes away by air. It’s different here in many respects- hotter, drier. Savuti makes the most of its perch above the extravagant sweeping bend of the Channel. It had a different feel – more “traditional Safari”- and is one of Wilderness Safaris’ Classic camps, with great food and a relaxed atmosphere. It’s perhaps “greener”, with a thermos flask instead of kettle in the room, no fridge, no private plunge pool.  “It’s bound to be even quieter” I thought, sipping Amarula and watching the firefly show, with frog accompaniment, before turning in after a hugely fun evening in the boma. Flopping catfish and munching hippo proved me wrong, but they had a good, metronomic rhythm going which worked just fine.

We were in the care of Goodman Ndlovu, the antithesis of Lazarus. Lazarus was quite the cowboy, Goodman the careful, precise “schoolmarm”. Whatever the character (both were charming), what made our Wilderness experience exceptional was the standard of guiding. I was deeply impressed by the guides’ knowledge and commitment.  I was beyond thrilled while at Savuti to have close, separate sightings within 26 hours of three leopards, to witness the display of the huge Kori Bustard, and chortled watching a massive troupe of baboons sharing a riverbank stage with charging young Impala. Quieter delights included Snowflake Grass- Christmas in Africa in the right light- and trees “decorated” with giant communal spider nests.

 

We learned a lot- in particular to reawaken and utilise our city numbed senses so as to understand and appreciate what the bush was teaching. This meant being still, attentive and so, in those and other ways I guess I did indeed discover some of what my friend cane here for. It wasn’t all Zen of course- like the time when, safely out of earshot (I hope) I whooped and punched the air, singing “Heaven, I’m in Heaven…”

You can understand why our fellow guests were abuzz about Wilderness Safaris’ African Residents Programme-  a loyalty programme which offers  whopping discounts. To find out more about member benefits visit www.wilderness-residents.co.za or e-mail  residents@wilderness.co.za. Visit www.wilderness-safaris.com.

Getting There
Airlink connects you to Maun with direct flights from Cape Town and Johannesburg. Airlink, now connecting you to 37 destinations in nine African countries. Book your flight direct on www.flyairlink.com. Spread your wings- fly Airlink.

Ukuwela- Crossing Over

A group of young English Animal Husbandry students was learning- a lot. A lot about being away from home for the first time, about early morning and nighttime chores, about the bush, animals, heat, Africa- and themselves.

Moon tans with red overlays, flushed and sometimes strained and tearful faces were the order of the day as some found themselves pushed and pulled way beyond any comfort zones by tough Tommy Dierkse, facilitator during their two week volunteer stint at Albizia Camp on Ukuwela conservancy, outside the small town of Hluhluwe in Northern Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa.

Here Anton and Emma Roberts, owners of neighbouring Umkhumbi Lodge, have founded a burgeoning conservation initiative that grows and grows- not just in size, but in diversity and reach.

Partnering and working with like-minded people and organisations- anybody who has their conservation shoulder to the wheel- and, most importantly, the Wild Tomorrow Fund, has resulted in Ukuwela Conservancy.

“Rewilding”

Ukuwela means ‘to cross over’ in isiZulu. Ukuwela was at risk of becoming a pineapple farm. That would have meant all the animals that lived on the land, including leopard, zebra, wildebeest, hippo and crocodile would have beenremoved or destroyed. As would every tree, plant and flower.


Securing Ukuwela as a wild space is the first piece of a puzzle in the creation of a successful and highly regarded habitat conservation program in Africa. It is a natural jewel. The precious river, fever tree forests, open grasslands, riverine thickets and mixed woodlands make it one of the most beautiful and diverse wilderness areas in the region.

 

The conservancy is a five minute drive from Umkhumbi Lodge and is the base for the Roberts’ environmental awareness courses for (mostly) school and student groups. In addition to those courses the Roberts offer internships with up to three month placements, or a minimum of two weeks volunteering. Included are basic bush skills, core conservation principals, night skies, game walks, game drives and more. There are visits to the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board, uShaka Marine World, to unique, pristine Kosi Bay and Tembe Elephant Park on the Mozambique border, while Anton frequently takes groups on overland safaris into the wildest parts of Namibia and Botswana.

 

Transition

I’ve spent many a night at the comfy lodge, where the accommodation- dotted around a sand forest- was carefully constructed using wheelbarrows to cart materials between the shrubs and trees for minimal environmental impact.  Umkhumbi Lodge has a small animal clinic and interns spend time working on animals that have generally come from rehabilitation centres such as CROW– Centre for Rehabilitation of Wildlife- and are now ready for release into the wild. After years of negotiations, the Roberts’ have convinced their neighbours to drop fences, expanding the combined area to 800 hectares.

24 hours on Ukuwela, at present also around 800 hectares, was a little different, as I observed what actually goes down.

The English volunteers had much to do, including clearing many tons of dumped black plastic left by a tenant pineapple farmer, while red ants nipped at any exposed legs. They had camera traps to set up,  pit traps to dig and inspect, alien plants to clear and, around the campfire at the evening Indaba, where anyone had the opportunity to speak their mind, it was evident that these youngsters were finding their feet, their voices, in a way they could not have envisioned.


A whole new world. A whole new world for animals too, as 11 zebra were released- and a day or two later a giraffe was darted and treated.

I doubt the Roberts anticipated the direction the internships and volunteer courses would take. They knew of course of the conservation awareness, the hands-on skills, but the courses have proved to be life changing for many.

Friendships and characters have been developed and strengthened. Self-awareness and understanding has grown and it’s great to see how just a short time in a life has helped many find direction.

Take Harriot Brill, Anton’s acting sergeant major, for example. After two Southern Africa trips, working two jobs to get there from the UK, she landed up overseeing the students and interns, of which she was once one. That was 18 months ago- and she’s not budging.

Eliz Thomas, who oversees student groups from Mid Kent College in England, is a regular. She was also one such student  See the video below to hear her enthuse about the benefits.

It’s had the Roberts’ thinking out of their box too- just the way they like it. They are relocating their own home from Umkhumbi to Ukuwela, converting and adding to old shipping containers so that they are always at the heart of what they so passionately curate.

Visit wildvolunteers.com and wildtomorrowfund.org as well to see how you could benefit or how you could help.

“Wildlife Tourism” Exposed

Exposing seal clubbing in Namibia, Madagascar’s “tortoise mafia”, hanging with anti-poaching teams and investigating wildlife crises worldwide – environmental photojournalist Aaron “Bertie” Gekoski has put himself in harm’s way many, many times for the sake of conservation. Or shall we just call it morality?

When he recently spent time in Thailand, exposing some of the horrific conditions animals are subjected to for humans’ pleasure, I was really worried for him. Being chased by a truckload of seal clubbers would have ended badly had he and his mates not made it across the border into South Africa but, with big money feathers being ruffled, Aaron and director Will Foster-Grundy could easily have been “disappeared”.

Thankfully that didn’t happen and Aaron’s bold, compelling expose hit the UK tabloids- The Sun, The Mirror, Huffington Post and others in April 2018. The results have been tangible. Last time I checked, at least one Thai zoo had not had its operating license renewed while Aaron’s crowdfunding campaign and petition gathers momentum, hopefully allowing him to investigate further.

Here’s Aaron’s story:

Wildlife Tourism Has A Dark Side – And The World Needs To Know About It

Image: Aaron Gekoski

In an industry worth approximately $250 000 000 per year with over 100 million visitors, there’s a serious dark side.

I’ve just returned from documenting Thailand’s Wildlife Tourism industry. As an environmental photojournalist and filmmaker, I have spent the last decade observing the cruelty humans do to animals. Yet what I witnessed in Thailand was beyond the pale; a level of abuse that has no justifications. And the public needs to be made aware of it.

Worldwide, more than 500,000 animals are suffering for the sake of entertainment. Many of them have been stolen from their families in the wild to lead a life in captivity. Here they are dressed up, humiliated and forced to perform on a daily basis. Behind the scenes they are beaten and forced to live in appalling conditions.

Image: Aaron Gekoski


The situation in Thailand is truly shocking. Alongside director Will Foster-Grundy, I saw orangutans wearing bikinis forced to box one another, elephants so drugged they could barely walk, a gorilla living in a filthy cell at the top of a shopping mall and monkeys yanked around on chains, before being made to ride bikes or lift weights.

A depressed orangutan on the floor of a filthy concrete cage with no food or stimulants (Image: Aaron Gekoski)

Two orangutans are forced to fight. Describing the show, Safari World website writes: “Who could miss the world’s first and only orangutan boxing show .. starring the funniest and hairiest champions of the Olympics? “Whether hanging upside down or rightside up be sure to hang out with the orangutans at Safari World.” (Image: Aaron Gekoski)
Image: Aaron Gekoski

During training, many of the animals will have been subjected to beatings, burned with cigarettes or electrocuted to make them completely submissive to their handlers. Many elephants will go through ‘The Crush’ as juveniles – a form of torture that literally breaks their spirits. It is one of the most horrific forms of animal abuse imaginable.

An elephant sits on a cold, stone floor as it tosses a hoop into the air with its trunk. The audience of tourists gasp with delight, unaware of how much the animal is suffering. Tourists are funding this trade by visiting shows (Image: Aaron Gekoski)

Yet, bizarrely, these shows also prove to be quite popular. Hundreds of tourists laughed and clapped and appeared to enjoy watching these beautiful, sentient animals forced to perform grotesque routines. We want the world to know that these scenes are far from amusing.

Not funny! (Image: Aaron Gekoski)

But now we need the public’s help to spread the world. We want the millions of people who view these tourist attractions every year to be aware of the abuses that are happening in front of their eyes and behind closed doors.

The lives of animals are at stake, which is why I’ve set up a GoFundMe to return to Thailand with a small crew to produce a documentary on the country’s cruel Wildlife Tourism attractions.

You can help us out and donate here for now. But that’s just the beginning. If we’re successful we want to visit other countries and create a global platform so users can #raisetheredflag on cruel Wildlife Tourism. Review sites don’t always reveal the truth. We can stop animal abuse – but only if people vote with their feet.

The goal of the film is to highlight the impact of irresponsible wildlife tourism. We will investigate how animals are mistreated: the training methods used, the unsuitable conditions they’re kept in, where they’re be sourced from etc. We will also introduce the people and organisations who are tackling the industry, including the rescue and rehab centre Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, along with visiting some responsible operators who offer a blueprint for the industry.

The goal is not to end all wildlife tourism – this will never happen – but to encourage better treatment of animals, whilst making the public aware of the broader issues. If tourists knew how an elephant was domesticated, for example, would they ever ride one again? That’s our role as documentary film-makers: to present the facts and then let the audience decide.

Aaron is a winner at this year’s Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year.
Check out http://www.aarongekoski.com/
Support Aaron’s photojournalism exposing animal abuse in the wildlife tourism industry at GoFundMe
Sign a petition against animal cruelty in the wildlife tourism industry in Thailand at https://www.change.org/p/shut-down-safari-world-for-exploiting-orangutans-in-boxing-matches

Umkhumbi Lodge

“Time for a lemonade” said Anton Roberts as we sat atop the riverbank in Ukuwela conservancy, some way outside the small town of Hluhluwe in Northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

One or two “lemonades” later and the sun was setting over the trees of neighbouring five star Phinda Game Reserve, a very different affair from where we were sat. Here the stars shine brighter, since there is only bush and distant Albizia Camp- a nice rustic camp for large or small groups with permanent ablutions and a central hangout. Perfect for Roberts’ frequent volunteers and interns- the latest batch being veterinary students from the UK whose moon tans vie with the luminous fever trees in the fading light. It’s also available as a glamping  option for people who want to just break away from the hustle at a reasonable rate.

Conservation In The Bush

I need to backtrack to 2011, when I first met Anton and Emma Roberts at Umkhumbi Lodge their three star lodge a short distance from Albizia, where the focus is on families and small groups. I was struck with the care they had taken in building guest units in the indigenous sand forest, using wheelbarrows to cart materials between the shrubs and trees for minimal environmental impact.

About The Lodge

Umkhumbi is a quiet, comfy place and the subdivided units dotted around the forest are roomy and airy, with lofty ceilings and private decks. No tvs, except at the bar, but all-important aircon and bar fridges, en-suite bath and separate shower. The main hub for guests is the dining area and upstairs bar with fantastic sunset views. Chef Meva Zisongo is a keeper and his meals are definitely four star, as is the very friendly, laidback atmosphere.

The upstairs bar

It’s an ideal base for exploring the region and you are likely to meet people from all walks of life, including the aforementioned veterinary students and film crews.

A visit to Umkhumbi is not complete without a close encounter with some creeping, slithering or crawling creature from the Roberts’ collection. Anton has helped facilitate wild life documentary film crews in 96000 hectare Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, the oldest proclaimed reserve in Africa, as well as other game reserves in Southern Africa and the Roberts’ have hosted The Survivor Man – Les Stroud, Nitro Circus, Nat Geo, BBC, Animal Planet and many others. Anton will find the creatures required for wildlife programmes and conservation, assist with inserting telemetry tracking devices and afterward monitor the animals and the transmitted data.

“I’ve led tour groups, film crews, scientists, film stars, presidents and other so-called important people from all over the world in Namibia, Botswana, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique” he says.

Here you can see what he gets up to in his spare time: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCAHAdOuD4E&t=34s

The large female also had a large clutch of babies, which Anton saved from certain death at the hands of the terrified local community.

The environment, its preservation and sustainable resource usage are driving passions for the Roberts family.  Umkhumbi is not a huge money spinner. But they are not in it for the money. “If we were we could simply start a pineapple farm” Emma says, rolling her eyes. Pineapples are big business in the area but that would mean destroying their forest, home to endangered Suni antelope and many other species.

Instead they’ve partnered with like-minded people and associations, most notably the Wild Tomorrow Fund. Anton says “John Steward and Wendy Hapgood are amazing people with total dedication to conservation and wildlife. I have been in contact with many NGO’s and non-profits but they are mostly top heavy with egos and consultants with nothing but theory and paperwork, which stalls the actual efforts where the money is badly needed. With Wild Tomorrow Fund the funds go straight into the field where it’s used and managed by the people doing the actual work. Their ecologists are 100% committed and have a great relationship with everyone they work with, both in private reserves and government parks”.

Their relationship with The Wild Tomorrow Fund resulted in the Ukuwela conservancy, the base for their environmental awareness courses.  Emma is often an “office widow” as Anton spends weeks at international trade shows and presenting to schools, colleges and universities to get youth groups- from veterinary students to expedition groups, sporting and educational school tours- to South Africa on very hands-on, customised programmes that cover all facets of ecology and the importance of conservation.

Umkhumbi offers internships with up to three month placements, or a minimum of two weeks (www.wildvolunteers.com) volunteering. Included are basic bush skills, core conservation principles, night skies, game walks, game drives, iSimangaliso Wetland park visits and more- work and play combined.

Umkhumbi Lodge has a clinic and interns spend time working on animals that have generally come from rehabilitation centres such as CROW (crowkzn.co.za ) and are now ready for release into the wild.

“Rewilding” the animals often involves weaning them off any form of human contact. The puff adder being treated for pneumonia and the hissing spotted eagle owl in the aviary seemed well keen to be rid of humans and the interns joshed each other about their reaction times.

“Releasing the rehabilitated wildlife in a very low game density area such as Ukuwela gives them the best possible chance of survival” says Anton. Various studies on the conservancy include game density studies with camera traps that have revealed the likes of aardvark, porcupine, honey badger and four leopards that were previously not known of. Bucket traps are also in place and data of insect and reptiles is recorded on a daily basis and the conservancy is also home to a variety of plains game- antelope like wildebeest, nyala, zebra and impala.

“Bring it on!” is Anton’s often heard life motto and it’s always “on” it seems, if one tracks his and the interns’ progress at Umkhumbi, at Albizia, or through South Africa into the Namib desert and other remote places. Back at the lodge, staffies Copper and Shadow keep Emma company and guests amused (Copper loves chasing bats in the evening). You should join them.

www.umkhumbilodge.co.za

 

Nosy Be

If You’re Heading To Nosy Be (and you should)

There are so many reasons to visit. Lemurs of course-and many other endemic or unusual species of flora and fauna too. 90% of the species in Madagascar are found nowhere else on earth.

I’ve never been to the mainland (though many I know have spent time there). I have, however, visited Nosy Be (Big Island) and several of the satellite islands- there are fifteen in total- that comprise the collective also known as Nosy Be, off the north western coast of Madagascar proper.

While the mainland is, in many respects, an ecological nightmare, Nosy Be and the surrounding islands is mostly reserve, on land and sea, making it Madagascar’s natural showpiece. And what a showpiece it is!

Dirty Laundry- Corruption, poverty, sex, disease

Let’s get this out of the way- and I’ll try not to rant. There’s some crazy shit going on around the globe and, whatever bad things you read about Madagascar (don’t get me started on sensationalist journalism), the Nosy Be area is not the same as the mainland and I feel way safer there than I ever did in, for example, Istanbul, between bomb attacks.

If you’ve been to Africa, you’ll understand. If you are scared off by what you read in the media, you will never know what you’re missing.

Corruption is rife but hardly affects visitors who are, after all, everyone’s bread and butter. You get a sense as you disembark at the Hellville airport. Make sure you have USD30 or Euro25 for your entry visa and don’t expect change. Know that you will be asked for a “gift” by each of the officials- and you will be needlessly shuttled between five or so. Just decline. No need to be intimidated. They are just trying it on.

Similarly at the frequent roadblocks. These affect your driver, not you, and I had a good laugh when I asked my driver what he had given the policeman. A hotel brochure. It’s a daily, de rigueur dance and the locals know all the moves.

The darkest side of corruption and poverty is the sex trade. You’ll see signs regarding that in Hellville and, if you hang around Hellville, a lot more besides. I have no tips for you concerning that.

International media had a field day in 2017 regarding the “Black Death”. To quote World Health Organisation official Charlotte Ndiaye: “It is as if the plague is the end of the world… but it is a disease like any other… We are lucky that treatment is available for this disease and it is free.”

More importantly, there have been no cases in Nosy Be. See this blog: https://lonepalmjewelry.com/blogs/captains-log/captains-log-16-october-2017-1027
It’s been handled very well and, on their website, “WHO advises against any restriction on travel or trade on Madagascar…”, something reiterated by the Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), Taleb Rifai, in November 2017.
“WHO expects more cases of plague to be reported from Madagascar until the typical plague season ends in April…”

You are more likely to get Malaria, so take prophylactic treatment to be safe. For the record, I have travelled in and out of malaria areas more times than I can remember. I stopped taking prophylactics years ago. I have not contracted malaria. Mozzie spray is recommended.

Comparisons

Nosy Be is way different to the Indian Ocean destinations that I have visited- La Reunion, Mauritius, Seychelles (though I have not seen all of the Seychelles islands, which are scattered across an immense area), Zanzibar and others spots on and off the Mozambique coast.

Mauritius is lovely but very commercialised (not my thing) and similar in many ways to my part of South Africa. Mahe and Praslin are extremely beautiful and I love it there, but I constantly remind myself that much of the flora is imported, as is most of the food. La Reunion is somewhere I would happily live but that’s another story. Besides, poking a tad over 3000m from the sea gives La Reunion a very different climate (climates actually) and, being a French province, it’s quite first world by comparison. Zanzibar is beautiful but my experience was largely of walled, cheek by jowl, resorts- a tourist trap with incredibly persistent hawkers. Mozambique is, well, complicated (the roadblocks are way worse) and not as beautiful.

Nosy Be is more densely forested, jungly, wilder, more exotic than any of the above. Only a few of the fifteen islands are inhabited. Poverty is evident but not abject. Delicious and varied produce and, of course, seafood, is abundant so nobody’s starving. “Nosy Manitra” (the perfumed island) is one nickname for Nosy Be and ylang ylang, coffee, cacao, vanilla and sugar cane plantations distil a deliciously balmy fragrance in the warm air. People are laidback. Shouting and gesticulating is not their way- even taboo (fady).  There are many fadys and they vary from community to community, so be sure to ask (quietly). This, and a few Malagasy words or phrases, will go a long way to making your visit all the more enjoyable.

I do have tips on tipping and money. Draw Ariary, the local currency, at an ATM in Hellville as money changers will maximise their profits at your expense. You will get better prices from traders if you use Ariary, but USD and Euros are widely accepted.

There’s another form of currency- just for tipping, and this applies in other poor countries. A seasoned fellow traveller’s suitcase was packed with clothes he didn’t use or need and he went home with an almost empty suitcase. I now routinely leave obviously placed caps, folded clothing, slip slops etc. when I check out, especially in remote areas where items are not easily available.
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Out And About

Diving is probably the top drawcard here and there is plenty of fishing, swimming, snorkelling and sailing if you prefer to stay close to the surface. Every lodge or resort will arrange those and other activities. Alternatively MadaGascaT have live aboard charters- which rolls all that into a package that I am itching to do.

Wherever you explore, be it by boat, foot, quad bike or mountain bike, be courteous. The Malagasy people are generally reserved but open up if you engage with them, I found. They are genuinely friendly, not just because you are a paying customer. I like that and was touched by several as I toured.

Claudio Harrys, my Be Welcome guide, was one. A gentle soul, Claudio first took me, paddling a pirogue (dugout), alongside a steeply rising, forested stretch of Nosy Be from Ambatozavavy to Ampasipohy Community Reserve (Lokobe National Park). Here Anwar Alle guided us through the muddy paths in the dappled light of the humid forest.

On hundreds of African game viewing excursions I’ve always been amazed at guides’ spotting abilities, but Anwar takes the cake! The Giant Leaf Tailed gecko may be huge but is incredibly well camouflaged, the large spiders and boa constrictors not so much (happily, no venomous types in Nosy Be). But the mostly nocturnal lemurs, some the size of mice and endemic to Nosy Be- like many of the trees and flowers- can be hard to spot, hidden in the dense foliage. Panther Chameleons, with males reaching 44cm, are a doddle but Madagascar also has the world’s smallest chameleons- the size of a pinkie fingertip- which take some finding.

 

 

 

 

Frogs, bats, trees and flowers- including some vaginal beauties- and much more. Then it was back to the little village’s lunch spot above the bay for a delightful lunch in yet another beautiful setting, accompanied by colourful song and dance from the women.

Back we went- this time getting a tow from a passing motorboat, so all we really had to do was bail water. If you are visiting Nosy Be, this is a must-do (not the bailing bit).

I was reunited with Claudio on a full day’s visit to Tanikely Marine Reserve- on and around a small, uninhabited island a little way off from Nosy Be.

The snorkelling at Tanikely is superb, swimming with green and hawksbill turtles in the tap water clear, warm water a real treat. Much of the coral was bleached a couple of years ago but the sealife is abundant- rays, eels, fish of every colour, ranging from shimmering shoals of tiny types to giant pufferfish and large groupers. Huge sea urchins and giant clams, nudibranchs, octopi and unusual sea cucumbers are just some of the sights around the reef which is only about 30m from the shore.

Lunch- made offshore on the boat (no fires allowed)- was what you find everywhere, and delicious: rice, veggies, seafood, Zebu (the local cattle)- seated on a log rectangle at a table of piled up and flattened sand bedecked with a colourful cloth, under the shade of trees fringing the forest. Entering the forest, one goes up, with many stops for pics of lemurs, crabs, bats and more, to an interprative centre and the now-defunct lighthouse which affords great views and a way to get your bearings among the islands.

If the tide is right, you can walk around the island in about 45 minutes. If you like solitude I recommend getting there early, before boatloads of other visitors arrive- though there’s always space.

Claudio also showed me Hellville, the colourful, somewhat chaotic and Cubanesque capital (named after a person, so never fear). The bustling produce market is worth a visit for a looksee, vanilla, fragrances and spices. Finely crafted jewellery from shops in the main road is worth considering and I came home with lots of fine Madagascan chocolate.

Heading out of town, we lingered at the site of a humungous, sacred banyan tree (Malagasy beliefs are largely a blend of Catholicism and Animism). Our guide, and the posing lemurs, were enchanting, the banyan truly impressive, the little museum rather interesting and the rhum arrangé and coffee, looking out to sea, most welcome.

Mostly Muslim Marodoka was another stop. The 9th century village of Swahili origin, which attracted Indians and Arabs, was the first in Nosy Be. Madagascar’s first mosque is here and the Indian cemetery, dating from the 17th century, was one of many sights that made me wish I was a film director.

There’s lots I haven’t done, lots yet to do (I unfortunately had to cancel my last trip- but soon!). Beautiful Nosy Iranja, a favoured hawksbill turtle hatchery, for example.

But it’s not so much about the doing as the being and soaking it all up. Pick a perfect spot (and another, and another) and be as rooted as the banyan, or gad about. Either way, unplug, observe and immerse yourself in the experience- “Mora Mora”(relax, it will happen – it just takes time) as the Malagasy say.

 

Getting There, Getting About

MadagasCaT Charters and Travel arranged my seamless itinerary. MadagasCaT are members of Nosy Be Tourism Board and are the private partner behind Airlink’s direct flight to Nosy Be. MadagasCaT are the main contributors for the Nosy Be chapter in the Bradt Guide to Madagascar for the last four editions. Call +27 21 2000173 and visit www.madagascat.co.za

Airlink connects you to your unique Indian Ocean island getaway, Nosy Be, on Sundays and also has seasonal flights from Johannesburg to Nosy Be return on Wednesdays from 28 March to 2 May, 27 June to 10 October 2018 and 19 December to 2 January 2019. Airlink, now connecting you to 37 destinations in nine African countries and St Helena Island. Book your flight direct on www.flyairlink.com or call SAA Central Reservations on 011 978 1111. Spread your wings- fly Airlink.