Wednesday, October 14, 2009

October 12, 2009 - Baie Andranoaombi, Madagascar

While the rest of the world is focused on the H1N1 virus, a much older affliction has crept on board Mata'irea and struck down all three persons on board. We've had an outbreak of conchylomania. The symptoms of the affliction are varied, but the most obvious is an obsession with beachcombing. Sufferers of conchylomania can be found pacing back and forth on beaches all over the world, their heads down, studying the ground at their feet. In advanced cases, the afflicted can be found free diving dozens of feet deep to search the ocean floor. The stricken suffer from a slightly autistic need to identify and catalogue all finds. Conchylomaniacs are known to display a desire to nab their friends' and families' best specimens. While all three of us have long had interests in shell collecting, the shell covered beaches of Northern Madagascar have turned our interest into an obsession.

We came north from Mitsio for the shelling, but also for the opportunity to see humpback whales. Our efforts were rewarded just north of Nosy Mitsio as a whale spouted right next to Mata'irea. We slowed down to see if it would surface again. It did, not once, but several times. It circled the boat, displaying more interest in us than we expected. It was a very cool experience. Which was lucky, as we wouldn't see another whale during our entire trip north.

We spent the first night up north in Baie Ampamonty, which is a deep bay, protected from the swell, but unfortunately, the wind gusted down the mountains into the bay. The holding in the bay is mud and our CQR loves mud, so there was no fear of the anchor coming loose; but, the violent jerking on the chain made for a difficult night sleep, particularly for Suzy as she was sleeping in the v-berth in the bow. The next day we made a minor adjustment to the anchor set up that made a major improvement in her comfort. We wrapped the anchor snubber in a towel. The towel was enough to eliminate the noise the snubber makes as it slides side to side on the oversized bow roller.

The northern region of Madagascar is quite arid, which leads to a lot of brush fires. When we arrived in Baie Ampamonty, the island at the entrance to the bay was on fire. We could see the smoke from several miles away. Once anchored, we sat and watched the fire working its way across the island. The temptation was too much and Sten decided that he had to go check it out. On shore, he found a moonscape of parched burned ground cleared of all small underbrush by the fire. Rectangular outlines of thin ash and exposed midden piles were the only evidence left of a primitive fisherman's camp situated just back from the exposed sand spit.

The next morning we sailed up to Nosy Antolo, where we spent several nights when we first arrived in Madagascar and had wonderful encounters with humpback whales. While we waited for the whales to appear, Suzy and I spent the morning hunting for shells on the beach while Sten repaired the refrigeration system, which had stopped working that morning. The whales never showed, which was okay as repairs to the compressor motor took all day. He finished just in time to get in a swim in the sea (a much better place to scrub off carbon dust than in the shower) before we raised anchor and tucked into Baie Andranoaombi for the night. This bay was more rolly than the previous bay, but not as gusty. It seems that almost every anchorage in Madagascar (based on the dozen or so we've sampled so far) is a compromise.

The next morning we went back out to Antolo. Sten set out in the dinghy to see if he could land a fish for our supper (no luck). Afterwards, he and Suzy shelled on the beach. She is in shell heaven here and has picked up more shells in the past two days than we have this entire trip. She's now the owner of some serious shellage, including some beautiful specimens of cones, strawberry tops, and cowries.

While the shelling was going quite well, we still hadn't seen any whales since the beginning of the trip north. So we set off to another outlying island to try to find them. On the way there we encountered steep cross swell caused by the dying offshore wind and the ever present current, which was a bit entertaining as we were in no way ready for the gunwale to gunwale rolling that ensued. Several times we had to stop and stow more gear. Meanwhile, I was down below finishing preparing lunch. I kept eyeing the big pan of chicken tikka masala (ripe with stain potential), watching it swing back and forth on the gimbaled stove, just waiting for us to come off a big enough wave to cause it to launch across the galley.

It was with much relief that we anchored off the west side of Nosy Mandazona and enjoyed a late lunch while watching big birds of prey swoop around the cliffs. After lunch, Sten took his spear gun and went off to try to find a fish for dinner. He didn't find a suitable fish, but he did attract the interest of a very aggressive shark which must have learned to steal catches from local spear fishermen. Unfortunately, Suzy was swimming from the boat to shore when she came face to face with the shark. The poor girl got a terrible fright, and took off swimming at full speed back towards the boat.

We had a punishing, pounding trip against the wind and current back to Baie Andranoaombi, where we would spend our final night up north. When we dropped anchor, the windlass stopped working while I was setting the snubber. Sten troubleshot the electrical system before dinner, but it was too dark and late to get into a project like that; particularly since the motor was right above Suzy's bunk. This morning he re-terminated the control battery negative connection at the windlass motor and we were back in business.

Shortly after we anchored, three young boys paddled out to Mata'irea in an outrigger. These were the first people we have seen in three days, so we were pretty happy to exchange pleasantries with them. The Malagasy in this isolated region are the descendants of the Indo-Malay seafarers who populated Madagascar in the 2nd century AD and the European pirates who used these protected bays and islands in the 17th and 18th centuries as a base for attacking merchant ships on their way to and from the Cape of Good Hope. Their features reflect their unique ancestry.

The boys in the canoe had come out to check out the boat and to ask if we had any shoes and magazines to give them. We asked if they had brought out anything to trade - a papaya, a mango, a sea shell, anything. We don't like to give things away if the locals have not brought anything to trade. We feel that sends the wrong message. But as long as they bring something - it doesn't matter how small - we'll trade, even if we don't want what they've brought. For example, this morning a brother and sister in their 20's came paddling out with three small crabs to trade. We were about to raise the anchor and head back south, and we didn't want to mess with cooking and picking crabs. Even so, we acknowledged the effort they had made getting the crabs by giving them a few items that they asked for, including a shirt, some medicine, and a magazine.

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