Antananarivo - “Ylang ylang” announced Edmond, our driver pointing to some low trees on the side of the road.
We were on route to Sakatia Lodge, in Madagascar, for a week of adventure. Seeing our interest he slammed on his brakes and leapt out to pick a flower, which looked more like young yellow leaves to me.
He crushed them in his hands and inhaled. “Ylang ylang is the basis of “Chanel No 5 perfume” he said “most of our crop goes to Paris”.
The journey became the perfect introduction to Madagascar with Edmond appointing himself as our ultra special tour guide stopping frequently to point out other exotic crops like pepper corns, coffee, vanilla, mangoes and various volcanic lakes.
I soon realised the Malagasy people are not only incredibly proud of their country but that they're unbelievably friendly people. We were in for a spoil.
We had just landed on Airlink's direct flight from Johannesburg to Nosy Be, which lies off the northwest coast of Madagascar, and were en route to Nosy Sakatia, a much smaller island that's a hop and a skip across the water.
Sakatia Lodge, our final destination, is a 15-minute boat ride from Nosy Be's Chanty beach and the only lodge on the small island (along with a rustic backpackers) - an idyllic tropical retreat.
Owners, Jose and Isabella Vieira greeted us warmly as we landed on the beach and I immediately felt at home. The gorgeous beach lodge has 11 bungalows (including a stunning family unit close to the water) and two spacious villas right on the beach.
Nestled in a beautiful protected cove it's the perfect place to take time out, to read a book, soak up balmy sunshine, swim, kayak in the mangroves or snorkel with turtles in warm turquoise waters.
There are no roads so if you want to explore the small island you have to follow footpaths which lead up through beautiful forests to high points with stunning views over the pristine coastline and small local villages.
The lodge is also home to the best diving centre in the Nosy Be area, an exceptionally professional outfit run by Jacques Vieira and his gorgeous wife Sandra.
A South African, Jacques is not just an excellent instructor but a passionate environmentalist and true pioneer. In fact only recently, on the 25th August 2016, he was awarded with the 2016 NAUI Environmental Enrichment Award for the work that he has been doing on a coral restoration project in the reefs around Sakatia.
He also wrote up Naui's Instructor Specified Speciality Flourescent Scuba course, which he excitedly told us about on arrival. I had never heard of Fluo night diving before, hardly surprising given that it's so new and Sakatia Diving was the first, currently the only dive centre, to offer it in Madagascar. But I'm game for anything so without hesitation I signed up for a dive that evening.
It was a very different, almost surreal experience. Instead of using normal underwater torches we were each handed expensive waterproof fluorescent torches and an orange filter to slip in front of our masks.
Having no expectations, I was absolutely blown away when I entered the water: as one of the other divers commented afterwards “it's a bit like stepping back into an 1980's disco”.
The corals were the first things I noticed, shining so brightly I initially found myself squinting. But just about everything glowed: large scorpion fish, small cleaner prawns, blunt decorator crabs… you name it.
One of the interesting things was that unlike diving during the day, most of the marine life that we encountered seemed to stare back totally unfazed. I was gob smacked, it was one of the best dives I've ever done. Jacques smiled. “It's real eye candy down there, huh?” As soon as we surfaced I signed up for another Fluo dive.
As we were to discover over the course of the week the diving off the coastline around Nosy Be is incredible with pristine sites for every level of qualification from open water to advanced. And if you haven't qualified yet, I would hands down recommend Sakatia Lodge as the place to do your scuba course. Or, if you just want a taste of what the water in the area has to offer, you can always do a short “resort course” whilst there.
Another treat is sightings of whale sharks that frequent the waters from August to November (peaking in September) when they move to the area to feed. The lodge runs snorkelling trips out to see them but we were incredibly lucky while en a route to a dive site, to spot a flock of birds following a bait ball.
As we approached, Claude, the skipper told us to quickly put our masks and snorkels on. With great excitement a handful of us then slipped quietly off the back of the boat and joined three magnificent creatures as they effortlessly glided past.
Venturing back to Nosy Be, the “big island” as it's called in Malagasy, we took a trip to see the sacred Banyan fig tree near Mahatsinjo. Planted by the Queen of the Sakalava tribe in 1836, today its limbs and dangling roots sprawl over 5 000 square metres.
A handful of Macaco lemurs, known locally as “maki maki” hang out in the tree and we got close enough to get portraits without having to drag out massive telephoto lenses. For sunset we headed up to the island's highest point, Mont Passot (350m).
The 360-degree views over Nosy Be including its volcanic lakes and Mitsio Islands in the north are absolutely stunning. It was one of the few touristy spots on the island, but if you wait a few minutes after sunset you can have the place to yourself.
Our last outing was to Lokobe Village, which borders the Lokobe National Reserve, the only protected area on Nosy Be. Many of the wildlife species in Madagascar are endemic, (existing nowhere else in the world) and a walk from the village allows you the opportunity to see some of the local specials including panther chameleons and black lemurs (the males of which are black and females a beautiful reddish brown).
Getting there was an adventure in itself; we paddled along the coast in a traditional wooden fisherman's pirogue. Our boat had a small leak so I spent some of the time bailing water whilst my friend Fiona and the owner of the boat paddled - all part of the fun. We were met at the shoreline by some “spotters” who took us through the village and up into the dense forest.
His skilled eyes quickly spotted some of the reserve's highlights, the Madagascan Tree boa, a small leaf-tailed gecko and a brightly coloured, giant day gecko.
No sooner than I'd settled into the island lifestyle and it was time to head back home. But I'll be back to the Big Island. There's so much more to explore.
If You Go...
Airlink offer direct scheduled flights between Johannesburg and Nosy Be in Madagascar once a week. Call +27 11 978 1111 or visit www.flyairlink.com
MadagasCaT Charters & Travel have been specialising in all travel to Madagascar since 2008 and have personally experienced every hotel on their list.
They offer the most competitive rates with a variety of exciting packages to Nosy Be including flights and transfers. Call 079 149 6438, email [email protected] or visit www.madagascat.co.za