On the beach

Madagascar's flag
Africa » Madagascar » Toliara » Manja
October 27th 2023
Published: October 27th 2023
Edit Blog Post

The view from our bungalow at Belo sur Mer across the tidal inletThe view from our bungalow at Belo sur Mer across the tidal inletThe view from our bungalow at Belo sur Mer across the tidal inlet

It reminded me Goa in the 1980's - hard to leave
We have hit the beach. I write this at the Shangri-la Hotel in Ambatomila on Madagascar's South Western coast. There is a reef that follows the coast about a kilometre offshore which calms the biggest breakers.

We got to the coast at Morondava and the next day we drove 4 hours down to Belo sur Mer. The track has now turned to sand. We have another 4x4 (I hesitate to say new as all cars are second hand imports from France, Dubai, Korea etc) and another driver, Ando, who seems equally as skillful as Jacko.

Outside the town are vast salt flats where they still harvest salt from evaporated pools using Zebu carts for transport. The only cars we see are the odd 4x4 taking Western tourists on the same route as us.

In Belo sur Mer we had a spacious bungalow facing a shallow tidal inlet. On the other side, sand dunes hid the sandy beach. It reminded me of Goa in the 1980's - a difficult place to leave. Unfortunately we only had one night.

We had a happy time picking out the different species of waders from our verandah, mainly wimbrells and turnstones.

We walked across the dunes. The local shore based Vezo were living in simple tents above the tide line. Apparently they have a somewhat nomadic existence along the coast. Sardine-like fish hang from poles drying in the sunshine.

Several pirogues were coming into shore with their catch of the day. The pirogues are slim dugout canoes with a single outrigger on one side and a large patched mainsail. There is a diagonal boom (a cross between a boom and a gaff). The sail is controlled using a rope to the end of this boom and a second to the bottom of the sail. They are steered with a paddle and can reach across the wind at best (there is no centreboard).

The Vezo appeared very friendly and we were surprised how they showed such little interest in us.

What looked at first like families paddling in the sea on a Saturday outing turned out to be an earnest operation to harvest white sea cucumbers from the sand. They brought them ashore by the bucketful, scraped their skin off and gutted them using large sharp knives. We then saw sacks of the catch being loaded into pirogues to
The Catholic church at ManjaThe Catholic church at ManjaThe Catholic church at Manja

I love the dignity of the women carrying loads on their head
be taken to Morondava which was luckily down wind.

It turns out they are destined for the Chinese market where they are considered a delicacy. Apparently in a dried state they can keep for years. The locals think they are disgusting and I am with them.

We met a German girl, Meri, on the beach who with another girl had hired a pirogue to sail them from Morondava to Tulear, the main city in the far South. They planned on it taking a week. The crew had turned the sail, boom and mast into a beach shelter where they could sleep and rest when the wind got stronger in the afternoons.

The next morning we drove inland. The highlight was a river crossing where the water line was well above the car doors. At one point I swear we were floating.

We regularly come across majestic Baobabs with tremendous girths and other trees known as Didierea. These are endemic to Madagascar and look like giant spiny witches' fingers pointing to the sky. A few have green coatings of small leaves.

Periodically we arrive at a branch barrier across the track. It is manned by a local who demands a 5000 ariary/£1 toll for keeping the track clear. This is paid without fuss, although there is no evidence of any work, and the barrier is raised.

After 4 hours of rock and roll we arrived at Manja, a provincial town in the middle of nowhere. We were shocked to suddenly hit good tarmac! There was only one place in town, the Kanto hotel, run by Madagasys of Chinese origin from some time back.

In the afternoon we had a wander. The Catholic church was bolted shut. We followed the singing and found the Lutheran church down a side alley. We were reluctant to barge in and then members of the congregation invited us in. Jane had to sit on one side and me on the other. The congregation happily continued singing and clapping with the help of the priest and the electric organist on a raised stage at the end. The church and altar were bedecked in a lurid pink. It was all in Malagasy and the tunes seemed to be country and western influenced. We listened to a few hymns and then bid our leave.

The Kanto is the only place in
The vicious guinea fowlThe vicious guinea fowlThe vicious guinea fowl

One drew blood when he pecked my ankle
town and consists of a bar and a shop downstairs frequented by many locals (they also had a restaurant area out back for residents i.e. Westerners). It was very pleasant to sit out on the street with JeanBe and Ando for drinks. At one point it looked as if an argument would kick off between some local youths. It quickly attracted a crowd at the crossroads but came to nothing after a few slaps and quickly dispersed. We told them that it was just like England! It is nice to feel just a bit among the locals as for most of our stays we are divorced from reality in the evenings.

The next morning we discovered that the start of our journey South would be on a new chinese road (are you noticing a theme here? without being obvious the influence of China is widespread). It was amazing how different it felt. We were going through the same land: burnt scrub, the odd Baobab and Didierea and yet I felt more separated compared to being on a sandy track.

The road lasted 75 km to the Mangoky river, the longest in Madagascar. During the whole drive we saw three other vehicles including a broken down tuktuk. Weirdly when we got back to dirt track vehicles, especially Zebu carts, seemed to appear.

Fundamentally it saved huge amounts of time and we then took a new dirt road back towards the coast along a concrete irrigation ditch that was equally efficient. We were in Morombe back at the coast for an early Madagasy lunch by the roadside. JeanBe was last in this area in 2019 and he was disappointed that Morombe seemed to have faded.

This part of the coast south of Morombe is where the reef starts. It is peppered with resorts (ensuite bungalows surrounding a restaurant/bar area) and served by a rough track only fit for 4x4's all the way to Ifaty, 100 miles to the South.

We had one night in the OleBe Lodge, a modern place ideal for the instagrammer complete with infinity pool and view to die for from the verandah. All the resorts are off grid and the OleBe relied solely on solar power. It had vicious guinea fowl who chased us and pecked our ankles at any opportunity. It was positively Hitchcockian! We had a pleasant canoe around the bay examining other boats. We could have been anywhere.

We were the only residents except for a French family who did not want to leave their room. We discovered this in a brief chat with OleBe's manageress who, like all the workers, was from Tana. Apparently the hotel closes from January to March. It is tough for them to get back to Tana because she says it takes six days (by taxi brousse/van) and is so expensive.

A short ride South was the Shangri-la Hotel from where I write this blog. This is a level down and more our scene. We are here for three nights so we can recharge our batteries and be ready for the rest of the trip.

The beach here is exceptional. I don't think I have walked on a beach with finer sand. In the sunset the Sandlings do-si-do with the wash from the waves. White crabs, perfectly camouflaged, run for the cover of their holes as you pass.

This morning we finally got to sail in a pirogue. We reached out to the reef with three crew. It did not matter that we had no common language. They efficiently furl the
Boat traffic at sunsetBoat traffic at sunsetBoat traffic at sunset

There was a continual stream of sailing boats passing by
sail and dived down to tie the boat off on a lump of old coral.

It was only 3 to 10 feet deep. The reef is not in great shape. There were some nice bits of coral in between dead patches. The reef was surrounded by fishermen in canoes and some fish still managed to keep out of harm's way. We snorkelled around for an hour and then cruised back into the beach under sail.

One of the crew's son, we think about 3, helped pull the boat up the beach. He befriended us for a while. The crew gave him a small dead fish to play with. He enjoyed pushing it into one of my limbs with me pretending it had bitten me. It was one of these never in the UK moments! Later we found a bruised model of a pirogue on the beach and gave it to him as a possibly more appropriate toy. He was very pleased to have it.

Today has been calm and this morning the same three crew paddled us out to the small limestone island offshore in the same outrigger. I should have taken shoes as Jane did. The
The catch from the 'seine' netting is in the basketThe catch from the 'seine' netting is in the basketThe catch from the 'seine' netting is in the basket

Note the chap in the foreground with speargun and solar powered radio
Madagasy had a good laugh watching me wince on some of the sharp rocks. They took us to a tidal pool full of fish, a small enclosed bay and a tidal cave. The edge of the bay was rimmed with large crabs which skittered off as we entered. Jane continued her pastime of collecting empty shells. On our return a southerly wind had come up so the crew could rig the full sail and we reached back to shore. I am so glad to have had the opportunity to sail on one of these amazing boats.

An hour later the same crew and helpers were 'seine' netting off the shore in front of the hotel. In one scoop their catch was a basket full of 'whitebait'. There was probably enough protein to feed at least 10 families.

We had a last stroll along the beach into the brisk Southerly breeze and said goodbye to the Sandlings and the crabs. I swam back keeping the sun and the island to my left. As I walked out of the sea an almost full moon was rising above our bungalow.


31st October 2023

Good to hear from you!!!
Hi J&J, So good to hear from you and I am glad to see that you still enjoy your trips. Always a pleasure to read your travel novels. Keep us update please :)
1st November 2023

Enjoying the blogs:)
Enjoying the blogs:) Quite the adventure! Will look forward to more!

Tot: 0.064s; Tpl: 0.011s; cc: 13; qc: 28; dbt: 0.0402s; 1; m:domysql w:travelblog (; sld: 1; ; mem: 1.1mb