At 04:00 I climbed up to the cockpit to relieve Manu of his watch. Still shaking off the slumbers of sleep I looked up at the Milky Way and grinned. Beautiful, I thought. I followed the stars down to the horizon but they disappeared well before it – right into the huge, black, planet-eating sized cloud that was incoming and fast.
“What the fuck is that?” I said, wide awake quicker than a slap to the face could ever wake anyone up.
Manu was grinning. He loves this kind of shit. The kind that makes any normal person actually shit cubes. “That is for you, my friend,” he said.
“Well, take it back. I don’t want it,” I said, sighing as I knew what I was in for. “I’ll get my rain gear,” I grumbled and reluctantly trudged below deck.
When the cloud hit, it hit hard. I was wrestling with the helm, the boat was heeling to about 50-55 degrees and the rain was coming in from all angles. And I was wearing the kind of rain gear where it seemed to invite the rain in, rather than keep it out. I had to yell to be heard above the howling wind and as I tried to keep the boat on course, Manu reduced the sails. The phosphorus that we cut through made it look like we were hitting hyper-space speed.
It only lasted 20 minutes but that was enough to make any sane man (or woman) seek out his God and ask Him, ‘What the fuck did I ever do to you?!?’
As Manu headed below deck to the comfort of his bunk I looked around and saw that the first cloud had invited a friend.
“Manu!” I called down to him. “I think we got round two coming up.”
It was weaker than the first cloud. Weaker as in it wouldn’t blow over a village but could definitely move untied objects. It cleared up as the sun rose over Madagascar and I breathed a sigh of relief and grinned.
We made it. We finally fucking made it.
It took six days to sail 603 miles from Agalega, Mauritius, to Nosy Be, Madagascar. It being a former French colony, everybody spoke French and Malagasy. But not English. The only two people who spoke any English in Nosy Be (pronounced: ‘Nossi’ which means ‘island’) were John and Jimmy, two local boys that paddled up to San Miguel once we anchored. They became our local guides.
I became the tagger-along who went with whatever was discussed without being translated for my benefit. It was my own fault though. You’d think after having shared a house with a French guy for a year in Australia and then sailing for 50 days with two French guys on a boat I’d have picked up enough of the language to understand some of it.
But no. Just the curse words, a few basic formalities and a goofy smile to make it seem like I know what the hell is being said.
After customs cleared us (which was surprisingly quick), they took us to the ATM services to get some local money. On the way I had some meat-filled samboosak pastries with chilli. We then hit the fresh produce market which was housed in a jail-looking building with peeling creamy-yellow paint. Inside, past the fresh fruit stalls of pineapples, mangoes, breadfruit, spices, jams, weaving baskets, cuts of beef and chicken, baskets of mud crabs, lobsters and calamaris, we reached the food court.
We ordered rice and chicken. From there John and Jimmy took us around Hellville, the main town on the island.
“Here you can rent motorbike,” said Jimmy.
“Here is internet,” John pointed out the bar with a cyber cafe.
On the way back to the boat we passed some guys playing basketball. I haven’t shot hoops in years and hoped to get a chance to play later on. We were also taken to a cockfight being held outside of a school.
“What do you think?” John asked me.
“Not really my thing,” I said, taking more note of the scenic lookout across the road than the two cocks pecking each other to death with locals yelling out and placing bets.
The next night I ate from a street vendor. Rice and chicken. The chicken on both occasions tasted like rubber. But regardless, I chewed on it. It’s been almost two months since I’ve had anything but coconuts and tinned fish so chicken was a fresh change (this one was anything but fresh as I would later discover).
Losing track of the crew I ended up going past a bar called Nandipo Bar. One of the managers took one look at me and asked, “Need a place to stay?” He was completely drunk.
“Maybe,” I said. “I’ll head down to the dock and if the dinghy’s gone I’ll come back and take you up on the offer.”
I never reached the dock. I walked 200 meters and, without a single street light and it raining, I got a gut feeling that something was wrong (besides the chicken). I turned around and walked back to the bar, passing (and surprising) the local guy that was following me.
Did he have robbery intentions? I dunno. But I wasn’t about to find out.
Dominik, the manager, took me to his place and provided a mattress that felt like I would be sleeping on a wire cage. I took the thin sheet he provided and laid it out on the floor then covered myself with a mosquito net. The net may keep the mozzies out, but it won’t keep them quiet. I almost became deaf slapping at my ears, hearing nothing but ringing and mosquito buzzes.
And if it wasn’t enough to be hosted by a complete stranger who took it on himself to help me out, the chicken from dinner was raising the stakes on a very heated debate with my stomach.
And the chicken was winning.
“Where is the bathroom?” I asked Dominik softly.
“Follow me,” he said, leading me in his drunken stupor to the bathroom which was right by the kitchen.
To reach Dominik’s bedroom, one had to go through the bathroom. As he shut the door bidding me a ‘good night’ I hastened to settle the argument between the chicken and my stomach.
It rains every night in Nosy Be. Like clockwork, from 17:00 onwards the heavens open up and water just drops.
But tonight was quiet, except for the thunder erupting from me.
Shit – and not just literally. I was loud and in a quiet house it sounded like a train about to hit the place.
I had four more trips that night plus the next day and into the next night.
That damn chicken almost killed Nosy Be in more ways than one.
By Saturday I was back to normal. A good thing since we, the San Miguel crew, had decided to hire motorbikes and with Jimmy, go around the island. From Hellville we biked out to Mount Passot, the highest mountain on the island at 329 meters above sea level. Jimmy rode with Francois while Manu and I rode the bike whose chain came off every 10-12 K’s.
Upon reaching the top we were greeted by an amazing sight of a few fresh water lakes surrounding the mountain (there are a total of 11 lakes in volcanic craters on the island).
“They have crocodiles,” Jimmy said.
“What? Every lake?” I asked.
Beyond you could see the waters of the Mozambique Channel, blue and bright on the blessed clear day we had bestowed upon us. From Mt Passot we rode north to Andilana Beach, “The best beach on the island,” Jimmy said.
The tide was so far out you could walk to Mozambique. Moses would have loved a tide this far out to take the Israelites across the Red Sea during his Egyptian exodus some 5,000 years ago.
We rode on looking for a place to eat. We found a little road-side shop by the airport (I mean, right by the airport. The back fence was the fence that kept people and animals off the runway) and had some pastries and what looked like a huge orange cucumber but turned out to be a species of rock melon. We chopped it up into a large dish that the shopkeeper let us use, added brown sugar and water, mixed it and ate it.
“Damn,” I said, “It’s good.” We wolfed it down, thanked the shop-keeper and headed to Ambatozavavy (say it three-times fast) on the east coast.
On the way we stopped as a bright green chameleon with eyes that looked like it could explain what an acid trip was all about was crossing the road in it’s weird little dance steps. We made sure it made it across safely before continuing on to Ambatozavavy.
It was a national park and to get in (via canoe) we had to pay. Manu negotiated a price that not only included entrance, it included the hire of a canoe with paddlers, two guides and lunch with a beer. All for 80,000 Malagasy Rupees ($40 AUD) which we split three ways as Jimmy was our guest for the day.
We paddled across the bay and after beaching the canoe followed the guides into the thick jungle. I don’t know how he spotted the first lemur we saw but he did. I also don’t know how he spotted the world’s smallest species of chameleon, one so small that it’s no bigger than your thumb (of reasonable proportions).
We saw black, orange and brown lemurs, vanilla pods and mango trees as well as a chameleon big enough to make you worry a little bit, although they are harmless to humans (I think… I hope).
The mosquitoes were also included in the price and attacked our feet. We took small bush plants and used them to sweep our feet like a pendulum to keep the blood-suckers off us.
We paddled back for our lunch which was Captain fish with coconut rice.
And it was spectacular! The fish was amazing but the coconut rice won me over. I mean, I’ve been eating coconut three times a day for 21 days straight since leaving Chagos but this rice; this was how it was done!
We thanked our guests who gave us some freshly picked bananas as dessert before we headed back to Hellville and the boat.
There was a disco party planned for the evening but when we reached the boat by 20:30, we were all too tired to even think of heading back. I fell asleep ready for the next port, Mahajanga (pronounced: ‘Ma-janga’) which we were to leave too just as soon as our rudder was ready.