Thursday, October 29, 2009

October 24, 2009 - Moramba Bay, Madagascar

We've been traveling along the Northwest coast of Madagascar for five weeks now and we're still loving it as much as when we first arrived. Between the diverse landscapes, the wonderful people, and unique plants and animals, Madagascar continues to be one of the most interesting places we've ever been. In a country of fascinating places, the bay that we've spent the past few days in has been a real highlight.

Three days ago we sailed forty miles down to Moramba Bay from Nosy Saba. It was late afternoon by the time we arrived in this large bay. As we sailed deep into a protected corner, we feasted our eyes on limestone islands dotted with giant baobab trees. There are eight species of baobab in the world, six of which are found only in Madagascar and seven of which are found in this bay. Baobabs are some of the slowest growing trees in the world. They take all their nutrients from water, which they store in their bulbous trunks. Because they are not dependent on soil for nutrients, they grow in environments where other trees could not survive, like straight out of the razor sharp limestone outcrops that dot Moramba Bay.

Shortly after we anchored, a weatherbeaten man paddled up to us in a dugout, offering us manioc. He seemed to have as little French as we did. Communicating mostly in hand gestures, we declined the manioc (as tasteless starches that rely a lot of processing to become edible do not feature highly in our diet - thank god) and gave him a bag of sugar. Well, his face lit up like a kid on Christmas morning. Then he asked if we had any "cafe," and I was happy to pass along half a bag of Starbuck's French Roast (which is a little darker than we like our coffee). Man, this guy was so happy. Little did he know the caffeine rush he was in for the next morning.

The next afternoon our weatherbeaten friend and his wife returned with a gift for us of ten large white eggs and three crabs. We tried to ask what he wanted in exchange, but he gestured that nothing was wanted. We couldn't let him go without giving him a few more things. We tried to give him batteries for a flashlight (which were a big hit up north) but he seemed to not know what batteries were. In this rural region, rope and crackers were much better gifts than batteries. We weren't that surprised, given how empty this section of Madagascar is. There are no roads connecting the isolated coastal villages. The only way to get around here is by boat, and I'm not talking about power boats. Yes indeed, the Age of Sail is truly alive and well in Madagascar.

A few minutes after our friend's second visit another canoe paddled up. This time, there was a man and an absolutely beautiful little girl on board. He offered us three crabs and a dozen limes, which we were happy to exchange for some cord and a t-shirt for his daughter. Then he asked if we had any balloons. We didn't, but I found a string of beads that seemed to go over well.

Since we now had six crabs for the pot, I had to make one last round of Mata'irea's Madagascar Maki, which are sushi rolls, filled with a delicious mixture of picked steamed crab, betsa-betsa (fermented sugar cane juice), and sakay (crushed red chili mixed with garlic and ginger). If we ever open a restaurant, these are going on the menu just so that I can sit at the bar and eat them at the end of the dinner rush. Every night.

The morning after our arrival in Moramba a beautiful dark blue sailboat with classic New England lines arrived in the anchorage. We assumed they were South Africans (it turns out they assumed the same of us) and were just tickled to discover that they were also from Rhode Island. In the past nine months we have only seen two other American cruising boats, and both of those started their trips from the west coast, so imagine how surprised we were to find ourselves sharing an isolated anchorage in Madagascar with another boat from Rhode Island, an Alden 54 Ketch, s/v Someday Came with a family of four on board.

During the two days that we spent in Moramba Bay, we tried to see as much of it as possible. The first morning we explored the limestone islands at the mouth of the bay. As the tide receded we could see that the bases of the islands have been eroded to create huge overhangs, like those we saw in Phang Nga Bay, Thailand. One of the islands here looks exactly like a mushroom, as the base is only 10% of the diameter of island it is supporting.

Sten scrambled up into a cave in one of the islands where he found a human skull (just in time for Halloween). The locals here bury their important dead out on the islands. We had heard that there were two bone caves in the bay, but we only found this one.

On our way back to the boat for lunch I spotted a small group of lemurs with white, black and brown coats and long white tails munching on young leaves in the trees near the beach. It was a family of three Coquerel's Sifaka, known to little tykes with TV's as Zaboomafoo.

We went ashore and tried to coax them over to us with an offering of bananas. But these fantastic jumpers were not as used to humans as the black lemurs we had met at Nosy Komba. They bounded away from us, using their long legs and arms to propel themselves seemingly impossible distances through the canopy above. It was a brief encounter, but an amazing experience to interact with such a rare animal in the wild.

That afternoon we dinghied upwind across the bay to another island where we visited a huge old Baobab tree, which is believed to have been planted by Arab traders around the time of Christ. We were humbled to be standing in front of a living thing that had been around for 2000 years. To think, when the remains of Magellan's scurvy-ridden fleet sailed below Madagascar some 500 years ago, this tree and its fruit had been providing critical vitamin C to Arab traders for more than a millennium. Simply amazing. Anything this old deserves our respect, so we obeyed local custom and walked around it counter-clockwise, looking at the offerings left around its base. It was a Friday, so we weren't in danger of violating the prohibition against visiting the tree on a Thursday. And thanks to our young, healthy colons we were able to avoid violating the third rule of visiting the tree.

The following day we went out in search of more lemurs (I'm a bit obsessed with lemurs . . . their human little hands, intelligent expressions and wonderful smell, like a cat that has been sleeping in the sun, just get me). So after a few hours, I was getting a little despondent that we hadn't had any additional sightings. We'd seen a Madagascar Kingfisher, a stunning little bird with iridescent blue and orange plumage, a Greater Vasa Parrot, a large black parrot, plenty of Dimorphic Egrets, both the black and the white versions, and even a giant Madagascar Fish Eagle. Sten had even scrambled through the thorny undergrowth of the dry deciduous forest to get up close and personal with a baobab with a crazy and apparently natural psychedelic pattern on its trunk. But who cares about birds and trees? I had my heart set on another encounter with lemurs, but I was starting to fear that I'd scared them off by my attempt to feed them the day before.

After cruising several more beaches I managed to spot a lone Coquerel's Sifaka in a tree, several hundred meters away. We pulled the dinghy up to the beach and approached it, both cameras going. Sten spotted another in a tree further back from the beach. They didn't seem too bothered by us, at first, and continued with a afternoon snack of fresh buds. But we couldn't keep our find to ourselves, and called over Someday Came to check them out too. Well, two humans might have been okay, but five proved to be a bit much (particularly when one is a toddler waving a long stick). After ignoring us studiously for a good 25 minutes, the closest lemur finally had enough of us and looked set to move away by leaping from tree to tree. But the other lemur seemed to be blocking his escape route through the canopy. With the high road closed, he switched tactics and hit the ground, bounding through the underbrush on his hind legs, swinging his arms for propulsion, a movement as ungraceful as his flight through the trees had been poetry in motion. We laughed so hard and thanked the stick waving little girl for making it happen.

We have really enjoyed Moramba Bay. However, it has been very hot here for the past two days because the gradient offshore wind has been so strong that the cooling afternoon onshore wind has not developed. By midday the strong offshore is carrying some extremely hot dry air as it blows across the arid interior to the coast. It is like hanging out inside a blast furnace. Today it was almost debilitating at times. The water is not clear in these mangrove fringed bays, so swimming is not appealing. Tomorrow morning we're going to pick up and head down the coast. We've got a theory that that anchoring along the coast could be reasonably comfortable as long as the strong offshore persists. With a long way to next protected spot, maybe we will put this theory to the test.

1 comment:

Blogger said...

New Diet Taps into Revolutionary Plan to Help Dieters Lose 23 Pounds in Just 21 Days!