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January 6th 2012
Published: January 6th 2012
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Bruno, the tatted up Marseillais instructor, guided me to the edge, and then with a gentle push we began a slow descent along the Technicolor wall of corals, vibrant fish darting in and out of the crevices and waving sea fans. My nose skimmed inches above the bright textures.And all I could think: “Why have I never done this before?!”

Twenty minutes later, as we gradually ascended, the strange underwater world I had been nose-to-nose with began to slip away and the shimmer of the sun on the ocean surface began to come into view. I lost all sense of up and down for a moment. I also had no sense of how deep we had plunged.

When we broke the surface, the instructor pointed at me and said: “Seize mètres!”

“Seize mètres?” Really? 16 meters? Over 50 feet?

“Oui!” He seemed a little surprised that a first timer had made it so far down. And I was more than a little proud of myself.

But mostly I was still in awe of the Indian Ocean reef I had just been privileged to explore. Just Bruno and me….


Those of you who read my travelblog fairly regularly might remember my entry on the beach in Zanzibar – the one that explained how I was not usually a beach vacation type but was converted by my experience there. Figuring I’d give it another try while in Madagascar, I tracked down a beachfront lodge in the south of the country, one that seemed far removed from civilization and that would provide the requisite degree of relaxation Abby and I would need after a couple weeks of hard slogging travel.

Beyond that, however, I really didn’t know what to expect of Le Relais d’Ambola. We just called the office when we were getting close to Toliara, the main hub on the southwest coast, and they told us a taxi would pick us up from our hotel at 9am on Friday morning.

The taxi, thankfully, arrived promptly and whisked us down to the pirogue “port” of Toliara. This sultry town isn’t exactly on the ocean proper, but separated from it by a wide mudflat and mangrove forest. Thus most large boats can’t come to shore; only the small outrigger canoes and pirogues used by the locals or smaller speedboats can get close. It was a speedboat we were heading to – but it was bobbing about in the sea more than fifty meters away. How were we going to get to it?

Well, funny you should ask.

The answer: by zebu cart. Our bags were loaded onto one cart, all the passengers onto another, and out we went into the water. The zebu plodded along chest deep, pulling up alongside the boat. Naked local boys came swimming out to us wave goodbye and say “hello, hello!”.

Once everyone and everything was on board, we sped off into the Mozambique Channel, heading south towards the village of Anakao, a journey of about an hour. For most, Anakao was their destination, as it hosts a collection of beachside hotels that take advantage of the unspoiled white beach there.

But we weren’t finished.

As we disembarked on the beach at Anakao, Abby and I, along with a French-Malagasy couple, were met by a driver who threw our bags into the back of a 4x4 pickup and bundled us into the front cab. Off we went for another hour-and-a-half, driving along a sandy “road” (really, a couple of ruts in the sand) lined with the otherworldly plant life of the so-called spiny forest. Strange cacti and thorny trees; prickly flowers and spiky towers. Other than a couple tiny villages, we saw little sign of human activity.

So, after a morning of taxi, zebu cart, speedboat, and 4x4 rides, we finally arrived at Le Relais d’Ambola. I thought we had arrived in heaven.


Ambola overlooks an arch of deserted white sand beach and an expanse of impossibly clear blue Indian Ocean. Other than a village about 2km away, one so small that it is not on the map, there was nothing else around. It is about as close as one can get to escaping completely from the world.

Our lunch, served shortly after we settled in, was a collection of seafood – lobster, octopus, and fish – pulled right out of the ocean. That clinched it for me. I wasn’t leaving.

The following days were mostly spent taking relaxing strolls along the beach, swimming in the ocean, and reading Brothers Karamazov on the guesthouse’s main deck. Oh, and getting several massages.


But there were other activities to occupy our time.

Staying at Le Relais d’Ambola, we were practically at the doorstep of another Malagasy national park, the lesser-known (and almost unpronounceable) Tsimanampetsotsa. I joined the French-Malagasy couple we had met on the speedboat ride from Toliara for a late afternoon visit. As I suspected we would, we had the park literally all to ourselves. I have a hard time imagining showing up to a US national park and being the only visitor – but in off the beaten track Madagascar, that is more than possible.

Tsimanampetsotsa’s focal point is a long, narrow, and rather shallow lake that gives the park its name – “Lake without Dolphins” (so named because once people believed that there WERE dolphins in the lake – only to be proven wrong). It is a surreal milky white color and ringed with a “beach” of squishy white clay. Flamingoes hang out in the saline waters, searching for the few fish that can survive in the lake. Around the lake, the land is mostly pancake flat; indeed, some areas used to be lakes themselves, now dried to salt flats that can only support a few hardy species of grasses. However, all this flatness is overlooked by a rocky ridge with a mix of deciduous and spiny forest at its base and top. There are caves here and there in the cliff, including one, called Mitoho, that contains a pool with eyeless, prehistoric fish. The forest itself is full of wonderfully odd plant life, some of the strangest I saw during my Madagascar explorations. There were also a few familiar baobabs – but these had the special claim of being some of the oldest on the entire island. An enormous banyan spread in a self-contained grove, surrounding a mosquito-infested sinkhole.

And guess what? There were lemurs! I finally got to see some ring-tailed lemurs (species number eight!), perhaps the best-known species in the west.

As we drove back to the guesthouse, the sky blazed with a sunset that looked more like a painting than reality. It just made me wish all the more that I could find a little cabin on the beach and make Ambola home away from home….


The next day was in some ways even more special. I got to go on my first ever scuba dive.

I really don’t know how I have gone through nearly forty years on this earth, traveling to the four corners and undertaking some fairly adventurous endeavors, without going on a proper dive. I think I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to fully enjoy it, being half blind without my glasses. But my experience with the whale shark swim in Djibouti last year perhaps planted a seed; it gave me an indication that I could appreciate the beauty under the waves more than I thought.

Abby and I met Bruno, the dive instructor, at the dive “center” – a glorified thatched hut down the beach from the main guesthouse – right after breakfast. He kitted us out in oh-so-flattering wetsuits and sized up for fins, masks, and vests.

Things started off easy enough, as we practiced breathing through the regulator in the shallow waters just in front of the dive center. However, soon we were loading up the boat and heading out to the edge of the coral reef – which can be seen easily as the choppier waters of the outer sea crash against it on their way to the tranquil shore. Abby went first; I just snorkeled a bit around the boat, waiting patiently.

But when it was my turn… Into Jacques Cousteau's world I went!


Staying at Le Relais d’Ambola gave us the sense that we had discovered something off the chart. Not in any English guidebook that I know of – perhaps why all the other guests were Francophone! – it was a “secret” place, a retreat from the stresses of the “real” world. And a retreat into all that is beautiful about Madagascar.

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