There is a Malagasy island that could steal your heart
Madagascar’s peripheral islands offer an untouched paradise that is lost to much of the rest of the world
After a three-and-a-half hour Airlink flight from Johannesburg to Nosy Be, an island off Madagascar’s north coast, our journey continues with a drive to Chanty Beach.
"Is this your first time here?" an elderly woman asks as we prepare for the short boat ride across the channel to Nosy Sakatia. I tell her that it is and ask her the same question, expecting the same response. "It’s my third," she says with a hint of pride.
I can’t help but wonder what would bring a tourist here again and again when so many prefer the safe and familiar tropical getaways of Mauritius and Zanzibar. But it soon becomes clear: Madagascar’s peripheral islands offer an untouched paradise that is lost to much of the rest of the world.
Nosy Sakatia used to be called Nosy Mamiloma ("the island that helps") because it provided an abundance of food to the people who first called it home. But legend has it that the named changed to Nosy Sakatia ("the island that blocks or hinders love") because a man who lived and worked in Nosy Be ("big island") fell in love with a woman on Nosy Mamiloma but couldn’t get to her.
From the moment we set foot on the island, it was easy to see why the woman was reluctant to leave.
Sakatia Lodge opened in June 2006 after two years of construction. It accommodates just over 30 guests in 11 bungalows and two beachfront villas that are ideal for families and friends. While it’s easy to kick back with a cocktail and drift off to the sound of the calm waters only 25m away at high tide, there’s a lot to do.
First on the agenda is a two-hour guided walk of the island, which measures 6km by 4km at its widest point. Since the arrival of the first humans almost 2,500 years ago, Madagascar has lost more than 90% of its original forest (mostly through slash-and-burn practices to clear the land) but this island, like many others, remains lush.
It’s hard to keep track of all there is to discover as we walk through shaded tunnels of vegetation that give us a break from the early morning heat. They include bamboo, palm trees (one of the 170 or so species on the island is the national emblem) and plants that yield coffee, guavas, limes, oranges, pepper, pineapples, rice, vanilla and ylang ylang (for essential oils).
The walk ends with a stop in the adjacent village, where children practise their skipping during a school break, after which we make our way back to the villa. A dip in the sea, where water temperatures range from 26°C in winter to 29°C in summer, feels like a relaxing bath.
Snorkelling in the lodge’s "house reef", which is more than 1km long and only 400m from the shore, we encounter a variety of tropical fish and the area’s largest population of green sea turtles, grazing away with seeming nonchalance on the ocean floor.
"Unfortunately, YouTube and Instagram have made it way too popular," says dive master Jacques Vieira, who first came to the area for a two-month holiday and later came back to make the island his home. "But it’s not the swimming with the turtles that’s the problem; it’s the boats going over them and people trying to take selfies.
"We’re introducing restrictions on boat speeds and will have buoys in the water where boats aren’t allowed to go. People must come responsibly with a qualified guide," Vieira says.
Given that the area has more diversity than the Red Sea, it’s not surprising that the majority of guests come to Sakatia Lodge for scuba diving, especially in the last four months of the year, when whale sharks and humpback whales visit.
There are more than 20 dive sites around the island, with an average depth of 18m. Most are suitable for all qualification levels, although there are some in the channel between Nosy Be and Nosy Sakatia for divers limited to 12m.
The lodge also offers fluorescent diving, a relatively new practice that happens only at a few places around the world. This requires advanced skills so that divers don’t accidentally damage an environment they can’t see the way they normally do.
"I’ve been doing fluorescent diving for the last three years," says Vieira, who was inspired by a BBC documentary series he got as a wedding gift from his father-in-law.
"We’re the only ones to do it in Madagascar. It’s something else. About 80% of the underwater world sees in this frequency so what we humans see is completely wrong. We give you a lamp with certain frequencies and certain filters and you see how animals in the ocean see in everyday life. It changes everything."
The underwater activity is just what we need to justify indulging in a traditional Malagasy dinner buffet. On the menu are green pawpaw salad, pumpkin with coconut, shrimp, kingfish and a stew made with wild spinach leaves and zebu, a type of long-horned, humped cattle first brought to Madagascar by Bantu-speaking migrants from Africa in about 1,000AD. The feast ends with a tasting of homemade infused rum.
"Madagascar is almost the size of Mozambique," says lodge owner (and Jacques’s father) Jose Vieira. "It’s huge. I’ve been here for 20 years and I’ve made a point of taking 15 days or so to go and see around a little bit every year. But I still haven’t been able to see everything."
Clearly, it’s the kind of place worth coming back to over and over again.
• Yiga was a guest of Airlink, MadagasCaT Charters and Travel and Sakatia Lodge.