The Journey to Majunga


08 October 2011 | NW Coast of Madagascar

The next morning, we decided to go scuba diving and checkout a reef about five miles off the island. We had some information that there was some great diving and luckily Norman had agreed to shuttle us out there in his dinghy with a 90HP motor (without his dinghy we would have been sailing or motoring into the wind and surely wouldn’t have went on the dive). It was a bit of a punishing ride in the 4 foot swells on the 30 minute ride out and since I had unwisely chosen to sit in the bow of the dinghy, I had a pretty wild ride (I’m pretty sure at least an inch shorter after the constant jarring likely fused a few vertebrae). Once we found the spot (a coral shelf that goes from 40ft to hundreds of feet), we decided that only Kirk and I would dive due to the depth of the dive and the equipment available. The night before we got on the topic of shark attacks and had some pretty in depth conversations on the Oceanic Whitetip Shark (a shark that attacks as soon as it sees it’s prey…no circling, etc.) and the Tiger shark, both of which could likely be cruising in a area like this. It’d be pretty unlucky (or lucky depending on how you look at it) to see one of these animals, but I can’t say I wasn’t a bit nervous jumping in. We ended up having a great dive…no huge fish or sharks, but massive schools of fish would get almost close enough to touch and so think you couldn’t see light through the school.

We returned to the boat and sailed off to Nosy Saba. We had some good wind, and on the way over Norman sailed his 100ft boat right next to bubbles to get some pictures and videos. We got some great closeup pictures, and nearly ended up colliding (~25ft) as pawnee lost wind as she passed bubbles and Norman had to sprint to his wheelhouse to avoid disaster (he still pretty quick for a 60+ year old guy). Unfortunately, we had to skip the island that housed the only maximum security prison in Madagascar (like Alcatraz) but we were pretty sure it had been closed down for some time (a few years back some cruisers anchored at a nearby island and got killed by some escaped convicts that sailed the boat to mainland africa and got away).

At Nosy Saba, we did some more spearfishing and Daniel gave us all a good laugh. Anytime he shoots a fish, he immediately swims to the surface and holds the fish on the spear out of the water. His reasoning is pretty sound in that it’s less likely that sharks will come around if there is less blood in the water and the fish isn’t squirming on the spear, but it just looks a little strange to see a fish hovering above the water. That evening we went ashore to do some hiking and investigate some weird pillars that we could see from quite a distance away (they looked like smokestacks). As we reached the pillars we noticed that the island also housed a pretty fancy resort. We took a few photos of these weird looking pillars and altar that we later found out were part of that native religious ceremonies for sacrificing cows.

After a good night’s sleep, we got an early start and headed for Moromba bay which is a very protected bay and would be important as there was some strong weather in the forecast. As we pulled into the bay, we started seeing the baobab trees that madagascar is famous for. The baobab is a strange chubby trunked tree with just a few branches at the top. They can live to be hundreds of years old and have some religious significance to the local people…even touching some of the oldest trees is forbidden. That night the wind got fairly strong, but since the waves had no room to fetch we still got some great sleep.

The next morning was beautiful and Norman shuttled us to a little village. This being a very remote village and completely cutoff from the rest of the country, we decided it’d be a great place to bring some school supplies and toys for the kids. On our walk to find the school, we bumped into some young ladies that had their faces covered in the local skin cure-all (a mixture of water and tree bark that makes a yellow paste). Typically, women with this on their faces were very hesitant to get their pictures taken, but these girls were happy to pose. One of the toys I had picked up in chicago was a bag of gigantic fake diamond rings…so I decided this was a perfect opportunity to use one. I got down on one knee and proposed to this beautiful woman…who likely had no idea why a grizzly white man was kneeling in the dirt and putting a ring on her finger nor what I was saying. I took her puzzled look to be a ‘Yes’ and gave her a hug as she pulled away and went on her way. Alex’s globe and rulers were quite a hit at the school and the little plastic whitles, flutes, and bracelets that I picked up in chicago for almost nothing put some of the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen on the faces of these kids.

That day as the wind picked up, Alex decided it was a great opportunity to head out and make a run at my final destination of Majunga (the second largest city in madagascar). We had great wind and almost no waves as we hand-steered the 80 miles in 3 hour shifts to majunga. That morning as I started my second shift, we sailed into almost red water. Majunga is located at the mouth of a large river and the red silt getting washed into the ocean made for quite a spectacular water color.

After Norman arrived that day, we heard that a canadian boat had been boarded the night before by some thieves and quite a few things were stolen. Majunga doesn’t exactly have the best reputation among sailors with countless stories of thefts and even stabbings which was why Daniel decided to forgo a stop and sail by. We decided that we’d need 24 hour security for both boats (bubbles was rafted up with Pawnee) and set off into town to find some. After being put on a bit of a wild goose chase, we finally met up with a legit company. There was quite an imposing doorman… a dark black probably 6’3″, ripped guy with dark sunglasses on…needless to say we felt like the boat would be in good shape if we had a few guys like him on board. After a bit of negotiating, we settled on 3 days of 24 hour security with two guards on board at all time. Just before we were to pick up the first group of guards, we got a call from the security company wondering if we wanted the guards wearing fatigues or not…which we laughed about and obviously said yes, they should wear camo fatigues. Unsurprisingly, the guards they sent were not nearly as imposing as the doorman…I think this security company had a pretty good marketing strategy. The two skinny high school kids that we picked up did their best to look tough and they did have little black sticks, but they were clearly terrified of the water and it was pretty doubtful that they’d physically be able to ward off any thieves. Regardless, having someone on board was better than two empty boats, so we got them on board and proceeded to have quite a wild birthday night at the local bars.

The next day Alex, Christine, and I headed out to a National Park to check out some lemurs, crocodiles, and birds. Due to the heat, we didn’t get to see as many of the 9 species of lemurs that the park held, but we did go on a great hike and saw a ton of birds…many endemic to madagascar with radical adaptations like extremely long tail feathers or long curved beaks.

That night we decided to head out for indian food at a place recommended in the lonely planet. We were immediately told that since this was a muslim restaurant we wouldn’t be getting any alcohol which was fine for us. Although the menu had nothing that we could tell would be considered indian food other than a curry which was much more like chicken with mushroom gravy, the food was great and we headed out to the bars afterward for another birthday celebration. After a few games of pool, we headed to the dance club to bust out some moves. We were pretty surprised when the devout waitor and cook from the indian restaurant that sternly told us we wouldn’t be drinking during dinner were hopping around the dance floor with beer in hands grinding with women…we found this slightly strange, but joined in the weird dance with them and even ended up buying the guys a few beers.

The next day we had a final pizza dinner and I said my goodbyes and wished the best wind possible for Bubbles and her crew. While much shorter than my first tour, this second stint on Bubbles truly couldn’t have been better and, for that, I’m once again in debt to Captain Rust and the crew on Bubbles. I’m back to my life of concrete jungles and prisonlike cubicles (and warm showers)…and anxiously waiting for the next blog updates from Bubbles and scheming my next trip to get back on board.

Ross ‘Old Man’ Gerber


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