We rounded Cape Ambre on the 6th of July 2013 after 6 month of passaging in the worst winds and confused sea we and all other cruisers in the Indian Ocean encountered.
Our passage South along the west and lee coast of Madagascar took 31 days and was one of the most memorable we have encountered in 15 years ofcruising.
We left Bala Bay on the 6th of August to cross the Mozambique channel to Richards Bay.
We departed for what was to be the most tiring stretch of the season. Although the sea was favourable as far as Mozambique our autopilot failed due to a seized bearing in the steering wheel assembly.
The 1000 mile passage took a tedious 9 days of which 7 days of one hour about at the helm would be enough to leave us exhausted. We would close down the boat for 3 hrs a day just to get some sleep and eat.
Approaching Maputo the weather closed in and we had to race 50 miles to the safe Haven of Inhaca, where we waited on favourable winds for 7 days. We had one aborted try but that comes later. I hope you enjoy sharing this experience with us Madagascar. A country I had neither reference, thought nor any consideration in cruising to. It’s a large island east of Africa. In part splitting Africa from the Indian Ocean.
Now-in a weird perverse way- we owe a debt of thanks to the Somali pirates? Under normal circumstance Africa would not
have been on our cruising agenda. Sensible people do not risk the Cape of Good Hope and the Horn. Instead we circumnavigate the world by ducking through the Panama and Suez canals. Normally it would be a milk run passage up the Red sea and into the Med! Don’t miss-understand me I was more than happy with that route! I have already alluded to the joy of East coast Madagascar a rugged and hard cruising sail. But nothing prepares you for the west coast. Here my romantic senses flowed, my mind drifted back to a lifestyle that has been lived for hundreds of years with very
little change. I realised this is what wecame cruising for. If Facebook, “I” pad,new car or Television steers your life then
you are missing life. Television is great to wet the appetite but the camera misses what the spirit soaks in. So where to start this chapter of our travels? Continue I suppose but skip out all mumbling about the stress of sailing. Why! because since we came around the top of Madagascar’s Cape Ambre it has become for the most part Gentlemen sailing. A 15knot breeze off the aft qtr. without so much as a wavelet is what sailors, sane ones anyway dream of.
The coastline we encountered is barren scrub, so dry that everything crackled underfoot. The scene is varying in beauty
from the pale yellow to the deep red ochre of the soil and rock, shades contrasting in intensity with the passage of the sun. On occasion we sighted a small enclave of green where artesian water resides. The sky, a clear deep blue that varied in hue as the day passed into night. The sunrise and sunset, were pure art. The strength of colour was amazing. The sun was capped in all its glory. Ruling supreme as it passed
over its domain. No polluted sky, no haze, humidity no city lights, absolutely stunning to sit and watch the stars. The occasional dash across the sky as a shooting
star tempts to close to earth. As we passed each sandy bay we see a hut or huts. Everything in the village will be made from natural fibres of palm and other indigenous trees. Some bays had but one lone single hut, many enclosed a complete hamlet.
The sailing canoes are traditional, dug out from a single trunk with outriggers, most with mast and square or lateen sail. We often saw them as dots on the horizon, miles out to sea with their lateen sails flying. For the most part these peoples live as they did hundreds of years ago. Spoilt only now and again by the pollutant white man with his ideology and plastic ideals.
The peoples are strong and fit seemingly well fed. The skeletal frame is well formed, they are all lean, muscular from hard work, the children are well developed the teeth are white, strong, no sugar decay! I can equate this with basic life but not poverty. We did not see fat nor even
overweight children. Neither did we see malnutrition.
They always smiled and waved. I would have so love to be able to communicate with them. It would have enhanced the
experience no end. I cannot imagine blood pressure or cholesterol treatment being of any use here. Where ever we stopped, whenever we passed the locals were friendly. As soon as we arrived at anchor the canoes paddled out to us, their agenda to trade for hooks or fishing line, caps, clothing in fact anything. Glass bottles were the gold of trade? our first contact would be to trade! How obscene when we have so much but we also have limited resource and an egg –
natural- tastes as good to us as anyone else. At the very least we would get a coconut, pau-pau, Mangoe or even a shell. If we were lucky we would get a huge lobster or Cameron, the large Mozambique Prawn.
Anchor in a river and we traded for the sweetest mud crab tasted outside Australia and honey from the wild bee.
As tourism starts to infest the country these simply trades are disappearing, the reefs will be over-fished, the crayfish and grouper taken in bulk. The hotels plunder the resource to pander for the wealthy. One tuna to feed an extended family is now ten tuna to feed the tourist. What seems a benefit to the community is only for the fortunate few? The hotels, mostly international companies have no interest
whatsoever in Madagascar. The rest of the local community may witness more luxuries but still they will be
unobtainable, tantalisingly out of reach, desired but not needed anyway! What will happen when the air travel becomes extinct, when oil runs out? Do they go and dig another canoe, will they remember how! They are not only seafaring, there was agriculture further south near the main
towns and we saw herds of cattle but what the cattle managed to eat from this barren landscape was beyond me.
The beaches we walked were totally clear of any rubbish; totally! Again it suddenly hit me like a wave of childish pleasure. No jetsam! Not one plastic bottle, not one flip flop, not even a Mc D carton!
The sea we sailed over was totally free of commercial fishing; a stark and beautiful contrast after the overcrowded over fished and polluted seas of Asia. In Asia we would be fouled at least once a trip by some obscure piece of rope or discarded fishing pot. A trip to Phuket or south through the Malacca straits would necessitate constant watch to avoid the Armada’s of trawlers and fishing boats. The difference and pleasure we now enjoy is difficult and somewhat emotional to explain?
We snorkelled on the deserted reefs, our own private domain! The water clear, cold and refreshing; after the Luke warm sea of Asia. The fish life abundant-new species
for us to see re-kindled the joy of snorkelling- and the fringe reef fish were large. They need to be now as I am quite blind underwater they have not yet been speared out by greed or sport. It is the first time since the Maldives in 1984 I have experienced such beautiful reef. Everything to now had been a rehearsal.
So if a Thai longtails (hangYai?) is a plague of longtails!
If jet skis are a rage of jet skis!
The dug out under sail must be a song of a canoe
The dhow must be a Symphony of dhows
Eventually we reached Nosy Be. This is the Phuket of Madagascar. We were againin “civilisation”. Crater bay is the community point for yachts. We needed fuel and provision.
The best thing about Nosi Be is the Pizza restaurant. An old train converted as an eating place the oven is the old boiler and the Pizza’s are superb, crusty and tasty.
Crater Bay is a trading bay. Here we now see the Trading Dhows gently sail in, no engines here, generations of local knowledge of the winds and tides is needed. Often they are a complete family, Gypsies of the sea, trading anything from bricks to rattan. They drift in, beach and unload as
they have for centuries.
At sea they will sail over to wave at us; everything is so relaxed and friendly. Why should they need mechanical power when life is timeless? We have charts and a host of gadgets designed to help us. Legislation in the west demands it if nothing else.We are coddled until we lose instinct, fail to see the reef, the changing colour of the sea, fail to understand the message in the clouds without electronic assistance. The stars have become a picturesque accessory to our travel, no longer the key to direction, the chart of our course over the planet. For that we have G.P.S.
We tried to be as “sailor” as the dhows but I did not have the patience. We have slowed down though. Our minimum speed
is now two knots not three before the engine
goes on! We did the tourist bit and visited an island named Nosi Komba. The islanders handcraft the linen table clothes that Madagascar is famed for. We also met the Maki-Lemur- and of course fell in love with them. The lemur is far more genteel and gracious than the monkey.
Our next main anchorage was Moramba Bay. Here we spent a few days spotting the Lemur in the wild. Each day children
would come out to trade. Here is the Balboa tree in all it’s splendour. We could have spent a lot of time here but
as always time stops for no one. Finally we headed South ready for the passage across and down the Mozambique channel. As enjoyable as the passage was we
realised part of our heart would remain in this beautiful island. Part of our sadness was in the realisation that we would never again witness such innocence and splendour.
Tourism was destroying yet another unspoilt paradise.
The famed Balboa tree. Wonder where Lord of the Rings got their Idea from??
Then we started phase two heading south as far as Bali Bay our kick off point for our next passage to Richards bay in South Africa. Once again we left the commercial world behind as we competed with the canoe and dhow for space endeavouring to pace them as they traded the winds up and
down the coast. Now we started to see slight differences in
the canoe. Often there are three or four men to a canoe!
When at speed in stronger winds the youngest crew member(s) can be seen balancing on the windward out rigger, keeping the boat stable as if racing dinghies. When the wind drops they jig for bottom fish, with the wind and sail they troll for mackerel, tuna or wahoo. They free dive the reefs for the largest crayfish I have seen.
The sail is fabricated from many types of cloth. Rarely did we sight one complete sail. The sail design would often place
a western designed patch work quilt to shame-an assortment of patches equals one sail. It is apparent that the sail is a
highly prized and a most valued item of cloth.
Only on one occasion did it become unpleasant. We stopped on one beach and were surrounded by children. They wanted
to trade coconuts and shells. We went back to the boat and grabbed what we could and returned. The children were like
animals over a dead carcass. I couldn’t believe it. What started as friendly trade became a nightmare as the bigger children tried to grab everything from the younger ones, no such gentility exists here. They were trying for our clothing
and I’m sure we may have left naked. The walk was cancelled!
In Asia it is rare to see begging. Here the children always have their hand out. Welcome to Africa. This really was the end of a very special trip. It was now time to meet the weather again and make our way to Bala Bay where we would kick off for the 1000 mile journey south to Richards Bay South Africa. Little did we know how stressful that
would be and how fortunate not to completely loose our steering capability. Only now as I write is it sinking in. It is one thing to loose the autopilot but to have the steering seize up completely would have been a catastrophe. Still we live to
tell the tale.
No I’m not staring to Mecca I’m staring at the compass at the compass at the compass for days and days and days!!!