"Arctracer" Letters

Nosy Be Area, August 2011

We cruised around the Nosy Be area for a couple months, visiting anchorages and small islands near the big island. ("Nosy Be" means literally "Big Island.") Many cruisers visiting Madagascar spend practically all their time in this area. It is an outstanding cruising ground which combines secluded anchorages, small villages, the large town of Hellville, cellphone and Internet services, safe drinking water, cooking gas and engine fuel availability, supermarkets, fresh food markets, shops of all sorts, restaurants and bars within an area small enough to be traversed easily in less than one day. The winds during our stay were fairly predictable and never very strong, providing excellent sailing conditions. Typical winds were from the east in the morning, dying out about noon and then coming from the west during the afternoon. Our cruising experiences included visits to Crater Bay, Hellville, the Lokobe Nature Reserve, Nosy Sakatia, Nosy Tanikeli, Nosy Komba, Nosy Mamoko and Russian Bay. This letter describes these places and what we saw in each of them.

Crater Bay

We spent more days at Crater Bay [13 deg 23.8 min S, 48 deg 13.1 min E] than at any other anchorage in Madagascar. It was popular with most cruisers, convenient for shopping and services. There was a marina and bar, the market and shops of Dar es Salaam were a short walk away, good restaurants were along the tourist beach around the corner, and taxis were available to carry us to Hellville. The marina had good water for our tanks and got cooking gas for us from Hellville. We filled up with diesel by taking our jugs to a fuel station halfway to Hellville. One of the delights of Crater Bay was watching the local boats sailing in and out. We described this bay more completely in our previous letter.

(view photos of Crater Bay)


Hellville was the big town of the region. It had officials for clearing in and out, banks with ATMs, restaurants, bars, large fresh food markets, a supermarket and shops of all sorts. We made several trips there to get cash, visit officials and restock our boat with food and drink. It was a bustling place which seemed crowded with people after spending so much time in quieter places. Although the officials wanted all boats to anchor at Hellville for checking in and out, we knew very few which went there. The anchorage was busy with ferries and commercial boats and there was no place to leave a dinghy on shore. "Boat boys" were available to watch dinghies, but we heard stories about theft, joyrides and damage so were happy to keep our boat outside Hellville. We always used "collective" taxis between Dar es Salaam and Hellville and their fee was always 2,000 Ar per person. The drivers always wanted to provide "express" service at a higher rate so we had to specify "collective." When we had big loads of groceries we sometimes asked the drivers to take us down to the marina for another 1,000 Ar each. In Hellville the taxi stand was at the main market and a ride all the way down to the port would cost another 1,000 Ar per person. Ferries ran from Hellville to Ankify on the Madagascar mainland. Fast ferries took about 1/2 hour and cost 10,000 Ar each while slow ferries took over 2 hours and cost 5,000 Ar each. We used "fast" ferries between Hellville and Ankify when we took the land tour of northern Madagascar described in the next letter.

Checking-out in Hellville was very fast and easy. We went first to Immigration (Police) at the port where they stamped three copies of our Crew List. We took one copy to the Port Captain, who added his stamps after checking our receipt for port dues paid on arrival. At the office next door we were given our Clearance, and then we returned to Immigration and got our passports stamped. There were no fees.

Nosy Tanikeli

Nosy Tanikeli was a small island about five miles from Crater Bay. It was designated a Marine Reserve and yellow buoys were placed around the island to indicate a no-fishing zone. There was a nice beach on the southeast side protected from typical afternoon breezes. Many small boats brought tourists to this island from resorts on nearby islands. We took the one mooring for a yacht near the beach [13 deg 29 min N, 48 deg 14.4 min E] while other boats anchored further south. The snorkeling was pretty good and we saw batfish, bannerfish, sweetlips, triggerfish, a big school of silver batfish, a barracuda, and a Gomphosus Caeruleus Wrasse we hadn't seen before. We paid the park fees (5,000 Ar per person) and walked up the trail to the lighthouse on top of the island. On the trail we saw Brown Lemurs (Eulemur fuluus) for the first time, green and brown skinks, and white-tailed tropic birds. We attempted to walk around the island which is possible at low tide but we were stopped by rocks on the west side with the tide too high. Just before we left the mooring, two small tourist boats tied together floated off the beach as the tide rose and their anchors did not hold. Jerry launched our dinghy, towed them to "Arctracer" and tied them on. An embarrassed boat driver swam out to reclaim them a bit later.

(view photos of Nosy Tanikeli)


The southeastern end of Nosy Be has a large area designated as the Réserve Naturelle Intégrale Lokobe, a Madagascar National Park where we thought we might see wild lemurs and other animals. We anchored once [13 deg 24.8 min S, 48 deg 20.3 min E] across from Nosy Komba near a small resort. We went ashore for a few hours to walk a trail up the hill and bushwhack through the rainforest beyond the end of the trail. Here we saw our first Crested Drongo, a flycatcher called "the King" by the Malagasy. We also saw two snakes, one mostly brown and one black with gold stripes. We heard there were no dangerous snakes in Madagascar. There were water pipes running down the hill to buildings along the seafront. The forest was thick with vines and thorny bushes but we weren't worried about getting lost as we only had to head back down the hill to the sea.

On another day we anchored in Ambanoro Bay [13 deg 24.3 min S, 48 deg 17.9 min E] to explore Lokobe from a different side. We tied our dinghy to the big stone wharf which stuck out across much of the flat which is exposed at low tide. We walked to the road and along it to the right through Marodoka, the original settlement on Nosy Be but now a quiet village with a few guesthouses along the beach. At the end of the road we continued along a well-traveled track. We reached the park headquarters buildings hoping to find a map of walking trails but there was nobody around. Continuing on the trail we met two French tourists from Mayotte walking with a guide. We noticed a large fleet (perhaps 75) of small outrigger canoes with fishermen bunched together in one small area of the bay - quite unusual. We reached a beach where a small black and white chameleon walked along the ground and two Malagasy Kingfishers fished from big rocks on the shore. The trail led to an old factory complex of big buildings, now partly used for housing. We noticed a few rusty old machines, an ancient car body and a bronze bell.

Just past the factory was a huge old tree, and we had passed a few others along the way. Some trees could not be chopped down because of local superstitions called "fady." When we inquired about taking small trails up the hillside we were told that this was "fady." We assumed this was because of tombs scattered up on the hillside. Ancestors ("razana") were extremely important to Malagasy people and there was an elaborate system of beliefs relating to them. Tombs often were more elaborate and more expensive than homes. Ancestors were believed to provide help to the living if they were kept happy by appropriate ceremonies. We did not understand much about these beliefs and practices.

Walking back towards the town we saw Bee-eaters, a Bulbul and one male Black Lemur (Eulemur macaco). We continued up the road through the village, looking unsuccessfully for a restaurant where we could have lunch. We passed a marina and a factory which made fiberglass boats. A trail along the shore towards the fleet of fishing canoes had a stream of people coming up with baskets full of small fish. They filled a small car and its roof rack, then motored slowly towards the fish market in Hellville. We returned to our dinghy in mid-afternoon after an interesting walk.

(view photos of Lokobe Nature Reserve)

Nosy Sakatia

This was a small island on the western side of Nosy Be with a relatively narrow channel between it and the big island. On the eastern side were a few small resorts and beaches. We anchored several times [13 deg 18.1 min S, 48 deg 10.6 min E] near Sakatia Towers. This resort was owned by South African cruisers with houses here and offered dinners and drinks. This popular anchorage held a dozen cruising boats for a few days so a potluck supper was organized on the beach and we got to see several Chagos friends. Somali pirate attacks on ships only 150 miles away from us and 60 miles from Mayotte made us start paying attention to the web site www.icc.ccs.org where after clicking on 'IMB Piracy Reporting center' then 'Live Piracy Report' one could see updated reports on pirate activity. We walked up the hill behind the resort and along the ridge where we saw sunbirds, bee-eaters and a bulbul. Humpback Whale mothers and young swam through the channel near our boat several times. We also watched a very large turtle and a smaller one surfacing frequently near our boat. The snorkeling was fair, but the local fishermen worked every day to catch fish with nets, traps, lines and spears. We left "Arctracer" and "Ambler" anchored here for six nights while we all took a land tour of northern Madagascar. Local men from nearby villages who worked during the day at Sakatia Towers stayed on our boats at night for 10,000 Ariary per night per boat. This seemed safer and less expensive than leaving our boats in Crater Bay. The story of our land tour is in the next letter. The clear water enticed us back to scrape our propellers before we headed down the west coast of Madagascar to a good "stepping-off" point from which to cross the Mozambique Channel towards South Africa.

(view photos of Nosy Sakatia)

Nosy Mamoko

This was a small island near the end of the big bay south of Nosy Be. The village was on the western side of the island and the anchorage [13 deg 43.4 min S, 48 deg 11.2 min E] was protected from easterly winds but about 50 feet deep. The villagers had trained Black Lemurs to come when they called "Maki! Maki!" The lemurs got banana rewards and the villagers got 3,000 Ar from each tourist. They spoke no English and gave a receipt marked "15,000 Fmg/personne for Tortues and Lemuriens" and we didn't understand at the time that this indicated Malagasy Francs. Ariary were worth five times as much as the old Francs. When we started getting out our money the woman accepted a 10,000 Ar note. Two big old Seychelles tortoises seemed to be village pets. We followed a path a short distance to the rocky northern beach where we strolled for a while and saw a pod of Indo-Pacific Humpbacked Dolphins.

We gave these villagers several bottles and jars, and Jerry gave Turks Head bracelets to all the little girls. We had searched our boat for "extra" stuff to trade with villagers but not many came to trade with us here. Bazil, a carpenter and boat-builder whose wife was named Claudia, paddled his outrigger canoe to our boat a few times to trade. The first time he brought 6 tomatoes, 4 potatoes, 6 duck eggs, and 5½ hands of green bananas and we gave him an old duffle bag, nail polish, small soap, women's pants, a new piece of Indonesian material for a sarong, 2 T-shirts, some shorts and an Indonesian decorative pillow case. He was a carpenter and asked for a hand saw but we didn't have an extra one. A couple of days later we traded swimming trunks, a soiled shirt, a small blue hand towel and 3 old chisels for 5 potatoes, 4 tomatoes and a good-sized lobster. It was wonderful to have Lobster Newburg again!

(view photos of Nosy Mamoko)

Nosy Komba

This high island is just southeast of Nosy Be. The village visited most by tourists is on the northeast corner of the island. The anchorage [13 deg 26.5 min S, 48 deg 21.1 min E] was somewhat exposed to easterly winds and some cruisers reported very rolly conditions. We heard several reports of boats broken into and burglarized here while the crews enjoyed evenings ashore, so we were always on board at sunset and locked the boat securely even when we went ashore in daylight. There were several guesthouses, restaurants and souvenir shops with tourist customers ferried from Hellville in small boats. One specialty of this island was "reclet," a technique for decorating cloth by embroidering and cutting holes to make table cloths, curtains and wall hangings. There were also plenty of other souvenirs for sale, including carvings, paintings and T-shirts. Vanilla beans grew on the island and were offered for sale along with other produce such as bananas and vegetables. We washed vegetables in a bleach solution to avoid bad stomachs (called "Mally Belly" by travel writer Dervla Murphy.) We bought baguettes and bottled water at a tiny shop, and had a good lunch at a back-street restaurant where the only stove was a charcoal burner. We never had any stomach problems eating out in Madagascar, but didn't eat lettuce or tomato slices except on board.

A primary reason tourists came here was to see the endemic Black Lemurs. We paid 2,000 Ar each at a ticket office to be guided to a place where Black Lemurs were trained to jump onto tourists in exchange for bananas. Most tourists enjoyed being photographed with lemurs on their shoulders. A little further up the hill was a village nature park where they kept a boa constrictor (fed a live chicken once a week), a male and a female chameleon, some small Madagascar tortoises and some larger ones (two of which were mating vigorously) and one Seychelles tortoise about 20 years old (much bigger than the others).

One day we took a long walk to the top of the island. The trail from the village was evidently an old road but no vehicles had climbed it for many years. The road was bordered by huge mango trees and the slopes were thickly wooded except where people had cleared and planted gardens. Some areas had vanilla vines, cassava and banana plants, and near small clusters of houses were patches of other vegetables. It was very beautiful high on the hillside with views of sailing boats far below and Nosy Be not far away.

(view photos of Nosy Komba)

Russian Bay (Baie d'Ambavatoby)

This bay was 15 miles southwest of Crater Bay on the Madagascar mainland. Boats going south from Nosy Be had to pass close to the entrance of this bay. The entrance was wide and deep, though the reef on the east side of the entrance protruded quite far towards the west and could be dangerous if underestimated. The deep, clover-leaf-shaped bay was well-protected from winds. It was apparently nicknamed after a Russian fleet of warships which took shelter here during a cyclone. All three sections of the bay had good anchorages. The most popular anchorage [13 deg 32 min S, 48 deg 00 min E] was just inside to the west off a small village where the reef extending south from the west side of the entrance had to be rounded well to the south. Paul lived in one of the villages with his family and was well-organized to provide guided tours of the area. He had a notebook describing walking and outrigger canoe tours. We saw Paul only twice, both times as we were about to leave the bay, so we never used his services. Some of our friends went on tours with Paul and were happy with their experiences.

Another anchorage we used [13 deg 32.5 min S, 47 deg 58.9 min E] was further west in the bay with reefs not much further west. There were a few houses on the hillside and the anchorage was quite peaceful except for dogs barking at wild pigs during the night. On the western shore was the remains of an old ramp which was once the start of a road going up the hill. This was a useful place to begin a walk and some of our friends followed the old trail all the way over to villages and beaches on the western side of the land. We walked up this trail one morning and saw a Madagascar Fish Eagle. We spent an enjoyable evening here with Alan and Pauline on "Zebedee" just before they departed down the Madagascar coast towards South Africa. Longtime cruisers Chris and Pauline on "Long Tom" were anchored here while building a house and developing a garden. We visited them on shore and were given delicious ripe mangoes when the season was just beginning in October.

(view photos of Russian Bay)