“Maybe we should wait it out,” I suggested loudly over the cyclonic storm that was ripping the coastline.
It was just past midnight as we stood on the beach by the dinghy. Manu and Francois were discussing the next step in French (so I assumed) while 100 km\h winds howled around us. Rain came down like it was seeking revenge and the waves were laughing sinisterly as they exploded on the beach.
Yet, we had to get back to the boat somehow in a dinghy without a motor. The boat that was anchored about 300 meters off shore. The boat which we couldn’t see in the biblical, Egyptian black night. The Mozambique Channel threatened to swallow up anything that entered it. And here we were, contemplating the challenge.
Well, the captain and Manu were. I was happy to wait it out. I was terrified. I reckoned if we attempted to paddle out to the boat (which was as visible as dust mite) we would end up on the shores of Mozambique.
“I think we should wait it out,” I suggested again. But no one was paying attention to the one guy with a little bit of rationality. Besides that they were both drunk.
It had been a hell of a day in the small seaside town of Morondava, the place to see the famous Madagascar baobab trees in the Tsaravahiny National Park, just a few K’s outside of the town.
The day itself had started with a botched attempt at reaching the anchoring point. San Miguel became grounded in two meters of water. With help from passing fishermen we managed to push her off the sandy bottom and anchor off the beach.
Jean, a local fisherman became our guide and dinghy guardian when we left it on the beach. He took us to the place to go to in Morondava: The Oasis Rasta Bar where we met the owner, a dreadlocked Jean de Rasta. He appears in most of the guide books concerning the small town.
The sign outside had advertised that live music was played every night.
“It’s a jam session,” said Jean in perfect English, grinning.
Some locals in the bar were strumming on a beat-up ol’ six string and I promptly sat myself with them as Francois and Manu negotiated a price for the tour to the national park. I played some chilled songs and drummed on a djembe (African drum) before Jean de Rasta took us around to the market where I found a brown fruit that resembled an American football.
“What is that?” I asked, pointing at it.
“Fruit of the baobab tree,” Jean said proudly. “It is rich with vitamin C. It tastes sour but very good.”
“I’ll take one,” I said to the girl under the shade of her street stall.
The skin of the fruit fascinated me. It felt exactly like velvet, plush and seductive to the touch. Jean took the fruit and broke it open on the road.
I was disappointed that nothing spilled out. The seeds inside had little flesh on them. The fruit itself is dry. Jean took a seed and demonstrated how to eat it. “You suck on it,” he said. “Then eat the seed.”
The taste of the flesh was sour. A bit like those Warheads candy I used to indulge as a kid but not to the face-shrinking level of sourness they possessed. The seeds tasted like hazelnuts.
The market was full of colour and smells from the fresh produce to the meat stacks to the piles of dried fish. But there was something different about Morondava. Something that I hadn’t experienced in Madagascar yet. The people were actually smiling at us, answering, “Bonjour. Ca va. Salama,” when we greeted them. There were no stares of hatred. No looks of, ‘There will come a day when I will kill you,’ which is the vibe I had been feeling since arriving on the world’s 4th largest island.
“I like this place,” I grinned to Manu. “There’s good energy here.”
We each headed on our own to explore the town. I was in search of a cheap, local restaurant which I found a little further up the road. For 5,000 Ariary ($2.50 AUD) I had a massive meal of rice with zebu (beef) and sautéed manyok leaves and a 650ml beer.
I continued on down the road where I was stopped by a girl. She grabbed my arm and tried to lead me to the nearest bar for a drink.
She didn’t speak a word of English but that didn’t deter her. I somehow managed to explain to her that I had a rendezvous at Jean de Rasta’s bar for a tour of the baobab trees.
“OK,” she smiled and walked with me.
She tried to hold my hand but I politely pretended to always look for something in my pocket, like for a way out, for instance. As we walked she played some Malagasy music off her phone. It gave me the idea to play her a song off mine.
She loved the hip-hop beat and Kanye West’s rap as ‘Gold-digger’ blared out of my iPhone. “The song is about you,” I said, knowing she didn’t understand.
“Ce bon,” she said.
I laughed. At the bar I caught up with Francois and Manu and we headed to the Toyota Landcruiser parked outside. The girl had followed me to the car and I asked Manu to explain to her that we were going on a tour and that we’ll be back later for the jam session.
“OK,” she said, walked off all the while smiling at me.
“How does this always happen to me?” I groaned.
It’s flattering to be approached by girls and out of the San Miguel crew the Malagasy ladies seemed to single me out (perhaps because I was the only single guy on board). The problem in Madagascar is that they only see the western man as a sack of cash. And they expect to be wined and dined in exchange for a ‘good time’.
I’m not that kinda guy, even if I had the money for it. It’s just not me.
Too distract myself from trying to figure out how to avoid buying her a drink that night, I focused on the baobab trees that began to pop up alongside the roads in the small villages we passed. We turned off-road onto a muddy, red dirt track with puddles big enough to hold swimming competitions.
Thick trunked baobab trees shadowed us. Everything was lush and green. Small villages with mud huts and thatched roofs hid by the side of the road among the shrubbery as we entered the Tsaravahiny National Park.
About an hour of bouncing and splashing through puddles, we came to the most famous point in the park known as the Avenue of the Baobabs (or ‘Alle de la Baobabs’ in French). It’s a section in the park where the road is carved between 10-15 baobab trees, each ranging between 300-500 years of age. They rise to about 60 feet with the first branches branching out at 59 feet.
There’s a lot of wet land around with rice paddies and billabongs filled with lily pads and zebu that cooled themselves off in the water. It reminded me of Australia’s north. Except for all the little Malagasy kids that would run up to us and ask, in the following order, for:
“I don’t have money.”
“No bom-bom,” I’d say. “Not good for your teeth.”
“Puppet,” they would point at Animal, my traveling companion.
“Mon ami,” I’d say, hoping they would understand that there was no way Animal was staying with them. “Don’t worry,” I told him and he calmed down.
We drove to a famous baobab tree known as the Baobab Love Tree. Its two trunks intertwining like lovers embracing each other. The trunk is full of carved initials and names of couples that had visited the tree previously.
From the love tree we drove back to the avenue to await the sunset. As we waited for the next three hours (early arrival) we were continually hassled by the kids wanting money, bom-bom’s and Animal. I taught them to whistle between their thumbs and other various party tricks I knew.
They played along but they still kept repeating their want of money, bom-boms and Animal. To escape their harassment I decided to walk down the muddy track. I was still barefoot refusing to buy sandals from the country that stole mine.
I loved the feeling of the thick, red mud between my toes as I walked along, locals saying ‘hello’ and looking surprised that I was barefoot.
As the setting sun played a spectacular orchestra of purple, orange, red and pink light, splashing the majestic baobab trees with a hint of gold, we drove back to Jean de Rasta’s bar to find that the power was out in town.
“Political instability,” Jean explained, reminding us that the country was still in political turmoil and that in turn, reminded me of the Bubonic Plague outbreak somewhere on the east coast.
Good times, I thought.
Some local guys brought out an acoustic guitar and a djembe and began to play and sing by candle light. I joined in by drumming on a few songs, then playing the guitar and clapping to the beat when I was out of instruments.
Then the gold-digger girl arrived with a friend.
“Drink?” she said, referring that I should buy her and her friend a drink.
I smiled. “No money,” and continued to play with the guys.
They were good. Real good. And when the power came back on and I sat down to eat my $5 bowl of spaghetti (which was big enough to feed the entire island) I saw that the guys I had been jamming with were a reggae band.
The reggae band.
And boy could they play. Each one switched between guitar, djembe and bass guitar, playing each instrument as though it were second nature, singing along to the originals they smashed out and an awesome cover of Bob Marley’s ‘Exodus.’
My feet wouldn’t let me rest. The place was packed as I danced to the music. Joints were passed around while Jean de Rasta handed out free shots of local rum. And one local fella taught me some African dance moves which should have rendered me with a dislocated hip, torn knee ligaments and a pulled calf muscle.
It was an awesome night and only added to what I had felt since arriving in Morondava – the energy here was the best I had experienced in Madagascar.
The disadvantage of being on a boat that is also your bed is that you’re completely at the mercy of Neptune and the tides. Especially when the wind suddenly picks up and rain comes down at an impossible angle.
“We have to go,” Manu rounded me up and along with Jean (the dinghy guardian) and another local that had latched onto us and the two gold-digging girls we walked through the dark streets, instantly getting drenched with rain. The girl from the afternoon kept trying to hold my hand while I kept slapping it away as I was too focused on placing my phone in the ziplock bag I carried and hoping that we would be waiting out the weather.
“Maybe we should wait it out,” I yelled suggestively to be heard even though we were walking side-by-side.
We needed to ditch the locals that had presumed they were invited to the boat while I, the only one of the San Miguel crew with 20\20 vision, was searching the black water for any sign of our floating home.
Regrettably, I found myself dragging the dinghy into the raging water and then Francois yelling for me to get in and start paddling. 3-foot waves crashed on us and one threw me out of the dinghy. Francois caught my leg as the midnight underwater dive woke me up to the reality of being in stormy waters.
And me without a surfboard.
We managed to get past the break point but we still couldn’t see the boat. We paddled as though our lives depended on it (because it actually did), paddling up rising waves and then down their back, the dinghy filling up with water from the torrential rain and crashing waves.
And then, as lightening lit the sky up, I saw San Miguel bobbing like an apple in a hurricane, straight ahead.
“I see the light!” I exclaimed referring to the anchor light and with renewed energy I paddled hard and strong.
She was the only boat anchored in the water. It would have been hard to miss her in the day but in the conditions we were in, it was a fucking miracle that we had somehow managed to paddle straight for her.
Now I could enjoy a fresh water shower while Francois and Manu argued who had the key, realising that it was lost (it would be returned to us by Jean in the morning after he would find it washed up on the beach). Manu managed to open the hatch to the galley from the outside and unlocked the main hatch for us.
At 02:00 I dozed off, not quite believing that we had made it back to the boat alive.
Good times, I thought. Good times.