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December 24th 2010
Published: January 15th 2011
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Taxi-brousse travelTaxi-brousse travelTaxi-brousse travel

Bonnet up, a familiar sight
We are all very keen to spend some time snorkelling and Keith wants to take a good look at some of Madagascar's marine critters. Off the far northwest coast, Nosy Hara (island of large rocks) is at the centre of one of the country's most remote marine reserves. We are heading there for a Robinson Crusoe style visit with our trusty side kick from Montagne d'Ambre, Laudea.

We bump, slip and slide our way in the taxi-brousse for hours on a track filled with deep, muddy holes which we'd normally only attempt in a four wheel drive. Surprisingly we only have to get out to push once. When we arrive in the tiny fishing village of Ampasindava it's in the heat of the day, siesta time, and we eventually locate a captain who is willing to take us to the island and back. However negotiations stall over the price. Further inquiries reveal that ANGAP, who administer the park, have a working party going to the island tomorrow morning. After more discussions they decide that we can join them on the boat.

We spend the night in the village's ANGAP gite d'etape (hut) and early the next morning we head
In the villageIn the villageIn the village

off on the boat. On the way out we pass a significant nesting island for egrets, many white dots against the lush green foliage, and we pick up some local villagers who are the day's workers. They are a jovial bunch, chatting and laughing in Malagasy. It turns out that they are planning to tidy up our campsite. Perfect timing.

The trip across to Nosy Hara takes about an hour and approaching the island our first stop is to nose the boat into a nook on the island under towering cliffs where the crew fill a container with drinking water from a spring in the rocks. The water around the boat is clear and inviting and the coral looks stunning. We motor around the point to our white sand beach and see a green turtle making it's way towards the water after laying eggs, its a good sign. The bay we are staying in has been recently vacated by beche de mer fishermen and is littered with empty shells, crayfish carapaces and even turtle bones, hence the need for clean up.

While the work starts we walk around the bay to do some turtle watching. We wade through rock pools full of interesting critters and see moray eels cruising in the shallows. The open water has been stirred up by the choppy sea but Keith leaps in anyway for a snorkel. Immediately he sees a turtle within touching distance and the coral looks healthy. We are looking forward to some more exploring.

Back at camp we relax in the shade of a palm tree while the workers are clearing around it. Suddenly they are all animated - they have disturbed a two metre long boa hidden in the vegetation under the tree. Perfectly camouflaged in the leaves it's quite a sight and a bit surprising for us. Soon after they find a smaller one close by so we've got interesting neighbours within metres of our tent. The working party departs and the bay is all ours. In the evening quiet we cook our dinner on a camp fire, the sea glowing under stars and the full moon.

We spend the next few days snorkelling the nearby reefs and exploring the island and the evenings cooking on the campfire and chatting about Malagasy life and beliefs with Laudea. In the water the visibility improves and it's warm enough for board shorts. The coral is in really good shape with huge plate and big stag horn corals. We see more turtles, some spinner dolphins, loads of interesting small fish including a weird leaf fish, but see very few larger species. Perhaps a reflection of the proximity of the camp of the recently departed fishermen. We saw some huge reef fish being unloaded at Ampasindava so imagine there are some amazing dive sites around. With lots of interesting nearby islands and coral bays to explore, next time we will organise to have a boat for longer.

The island is also interesting with many species of crab scuttling about at different times of the day, of course our neighbours the snakes, huge black tsingy limestone outcrops and weird shaped baobab trees as coastal plants. It's hot and tricky climbing to the top of the sharp pointed tsingy but the views are worth it. The place is a botanist's dream with loads of unusually adapted plants surviving in the dry environment.

Our last morning comes around fast and we get up extra early for our snorkel, still hoping to stumble on a whale shark. They are around at this time of the year feeding on the thick plankton soup. Alas instead we are interrupted by our transport boat arriving early. We reluctantly pack up, say goodbye to our neighbours and make the crossing back to the mainland on a perfectly flat, glassy sea.

Back at the village we spot some very small humpbacked dolphins just offshore so we jump in for a final swim but they don't let us close. It's a long hot wait for the taxi-brousse but eventually we are bumping a very circuitous route back to our now familiar home base of Diego Suarez.

We are just in time for Papa Noel to visit - yes it's Christmas. Ho Ho Ho.

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