"Arctracer" Letters

Northern Madagascar and Checking-In, July 2011

We arrived in Madagascar on June 23 after sailing from Chagos. We spent a few weeks cruising down the northwestern tip of the island to Nosy Be where we checked in with the officials in Hellville. On the way we visited Baie Ampanasina (our first anchorage in Madagascar), Baie de Befotaka on the mainland coast where we visited a village, Baie Andranoaomby where we visited another village, Nosy Mitsio, Baie de Befotaka on the northwest corner of Nosy Be, and Crater Bay. This letter details those experiences and the process of checking-in with officials in Hellville.

Baie Ampanasina

We anchored for the first time in Madagascar on the 23rd of June in Baie Ampanasina, which is the second bay south of the Cap Ambre lighthouse on the island's west coast. We anchored in the northeastern corner of the bay at 12°01.2'S; 49°12.4'E in about 30' of water. This was fairly well sheltered from prevailing easterly breezes but some boats near us dragged anchor because of poor holding. Other boats that arrived here from Chagos on the same day were "Voyager", "Content" and "Listowel Lady" and the next day "Ambler" arrived. We reattached a dinghy platform board that came loose during the squall we had on the second day of our crossing. We still had eggs left from Sri Lanka and gave some for a cake which all of us shared in celebration of good passages. We thought the best party was in our front cockpit on a lovely evening when all eight of the other cruisers joined us for tortillas, refried beans and all the trimmings. We did minor boat maintenance, read, wrote email, played backgammon and cribbage, worked on Chagos photos for our website, searched the boat to find trade items and rested after the ten-day passage. We went ashore a few times and walked on Zebu paths, saw Zebu cattle, baobab trees, birds and looked down towards the northernmost bay. We burned our trash below the high-water mark at low tide. We found that we needed a lightweight blanket on some nights. We hadn't been this far from the equator on our boat in years and it seemed a bit cool. The most amazing thing that happened here was catching a 39" Spanish Mackerel by casting a lure from our boat with a light pole and light line. Delicious!! In eight days here we saw only a few canoes and none of them approached any boats.

(view photos of Ampanasina Bay)

Befotaka Village

On the 2nd of July we had an exhilarating sail of 41 nautical miles to Baie de Befotaka where we anchored at 12°28.7'S; 48°56.3'E in 22' at high tide north of a village. Two young men immediately visited us in a canoe but they had nothing to trade. They didn't speak English or French but asked for snorkeling masks, fins, cigarettes and beer. To discourage begging we sent them away empty-handed. We went ashore opposite the boat but it was very rocky and difficult to find a good place to leave our rowing dinghy. It probably would have been better to take our dinghy to the beach in front of the village. We walked to the village along the shore at low tide. Jerry had made Turks Head bracelets for little girls, and we also took empty jars, a few items of clothes, a pair of women's shoes, and some magazine photos to give away. Lea, a young woman who spoke French well, met us on the beach and became our guide to her village. "Mountain rice" which grew much like wheat, not in flooded paddies, was drying on mats. Several villagers (mostly young women) were making rice flour by pounding rice in huge mortars with wooden pestles about five feet long. Lea invited us into her one-room house made of hardwood poles, bamboo and thatch. All the houses seemed to be very much the same and were raised about a foot above the ground. It was neat to visit the one-room school with desks facing a large black chalkboard on one wall. The school was simple and probably did not have many books, pencils or papers but the villagers seemed proud to show it to us. Nina demonstrated making origami boxes but none of the villagers seemed interested in learning how to make them so she put string through them and gave them to children. We left the village near high tide and were blocked from returning the way we had come by a stream which was now deep and fast-flowing. Five boys showed us how to detour around the flooded area. In appreciation we gave the lead guide a baseball cap which he seemed to really like. No more canoes came to our boat. We saw a small motorized ferry full of people stop at the village in the evening. The next afternoon the wind was strong enough from the NW to produce an uncomfortable chop, so we left the following morning.

(view photos of Befotaka Village)

Baie Andranoaomby

On the 5th of July we sailed 24 miles to Baie Andranoaomby where we anchored at 12°27'S; 48°46'E in 25' near low tide. On the way we caught another Spanish Mackerel. This bay has four villages and many people paddled out eager to trade mud crabs, bananas, plantain, jackfruit (very sticky to handle unless you first put oil on your fingers), tomatoes, limes, papayas, eggs, and green mangoes. In return they asked for men's shorts, fishing line, hooks, aspirin, T-shirts, small containers of sugar, old bottles and jars, old magazines ("catalogs") or pictures from magazines, cooking oil, bars of soap, and shampoo. These people enjoyed trading and did not simply beg. The only ones who asked for money were two men who wanted to sell crabs, but we had not yet obtained any local currency. For dinner that night we ate the last potatoes bought in Galle, Sri Lanka.

On our second day here Chief Jean Pierre Vilitsi invited us to visit his village, Bobatriratra, on the bay's eastern shore near the entrance. It was quite a long distance to row so we moved our big boat to re-anchor temporarily off the village. We arrived near low tide when there was a big sand flat across which a few boys helped us drag our dinghy. This village looked much like Befotaka Village with similar small houses made of local materials. We were taken to a person who was not feeling well, but his malady seemed to have something to do with diving for lobsters the day before and we did not know how to help him. The chief showed us the new canoe hull he was chopping from a Breadfruit tree trunk. He took us on a tour which included the village coconut grove, huge village gardens full of manioc and bananas, a couple of shallow wells that didn't look potable to us, and his personal garden with a lime tree, tomato plants, bananas, etc. The village school building looked like it had not been used for a long time. There were a couple of Zebu in the village and herds on the hillsides. Fish and Manta Ray strips were drying on racks in the sun. We passed out date-nut bread with marmalade, magazine pictures glued on A4 paper inside plastic covers (very popular), and Turks Head bracelets. The people were obviously poor and grateful for contributions but not hungry. We saw several young men using t-shirts for pants. That is, they had cut the sleeves off and put the t-shirt on upside-down with their legs through the armholes. One of those young guys asked us not for shorts but for a soccer ball.

(view photos of Bobatrirata Village)

This bay offered very good protection from winds and we stayed several days. Sport-fishing boats and local charter boats also sometimes spent nights in this bay with their tourist-guests on board. One afternoon we rowed to the end of the bay and burned trash below the high-tide mark. The mud there by the mangroves at low tide was ankle-deep. We walked from there through mostly open areas up the hill. It was rather warm but we did see a small hawk and other birds, some Zebu bulls, a corral and a spring with cement watering trough and/or place to do laundry. Locals were taking old fence posts to their villages, probably for cooking fires. Most of the hillside was covered in knee-high dried grass which apparently is worthless as food for the cattle. On our last evening we watched a large area of hillside being burned deliberately. This traditional practice is intended to produce new grass shoots for the Zebu to eat, but it degrades soil fertility, accelerates erosion, destroys trees, reduces hillside water retention and eliminates habitats of native birds and animals. We were sad to see the hillside burn.

(view photos of Andranoaomby Bay)

Nosy Mitsio

On the 9th of July we sailed 32 miles to Nosy Mitsio. As we were approaching the anchorage and starting to take down sails a large dinghy zoomed over to us. There were seven men on board and more than one automatic rifle. These were Madagascar Fisheries officials and Police from Fisheries patrol boat "Atsantsa" anchored nearby. They asked to see our passports and boat registration. They asked why we did not have Madagascar visas and we explained that we had come from Chagos and were on our way to Hellville to check-in. They said "Welcome to Madagascar" and departed. Later in Crater Bay we heard that the Americans gave Madagascar two boats to patrol for illegal fishermen. In the commotion we neglected to pull in our trolling line. Although it had a floating lure, it somehow got caught on a rock (did a fish take it?) and the whole line broke off. This was a very strong line and we did not find a replacement line as strong in Madagascar.

We finally anchored at 12°54.5'S; 48°34.7'E in 25' at low tide. At the end of the bay there was a beach and a few small resort bungalows but very few guests during the days we were there. While sailing we noticed a few small holes in our new roller-furling jib. We took the sail down and patched its holes. They were caused by protruding ends of connecting links in the furling extrusion. Tom on "Ambler" filed off those projections and put blobs of silicon rubber over them. We had a good walk up the hill on the eastern side of the bay. On this walk we saw our first Coua, a large bird endemic to Madagascar in the cuckoo family. There were also many palm trees of a type whose leaves were used for thatch. From the hilltop we had a good view back to the north and east.

On our second day here a large lakana (outrigger canoe) with a square-sail came to our boat. The seven adults and one baby aboard apparently lived a few miles away, outside the bay on the western side of the island. They asked for milk powder and medicine in exchange for a green papaya. We gave them a few Ibuprofen tablets and a little powdered milk. We weren't interested in their papaya but showed two lambas (sarongs) and some other things which we were willing to trade for two lobsters. We left all those items in our cockpit until they would return with the lobsters. When they returned with four men, only one lobster and four oranges they requested many more things. We laughed with them about that and eventually gave them the items in the cockpit for the one lobster and the oranges. We learned that the Malagasy will get as much as possible in any exchange.

(view photos of Nosy Mitsio)

Baie de Befotaka

On the 13th of July we sailed 37 miles to Baie de Befotaka on the northwestern corner of Nosy Be. This is a large bay with several shallow areas. As we sailed along the eastern shore towards the head of the bay we suddenly realized the water was only eight feet deep. Before we could turn around we were scraping the muddy bottom. We managed to get back into deeper water without getting stuck and finally anchored at 13°16'S; 48°14.5'E in 25' just after high tide. There were several active resorts on the shores of this bay. For the first time since Southeast Asia we saw people using fast and noisy jet skis. Two other "firsts" since the Maldives were a plane and a cellphone tower. Fishermen in this bay worked regularly on small outrigger canoes with hand lines and cylindrical woven crab pots, but no one approached our boat. We enjoyed watching the sailing lakanas, and did some boat painting and varnishing. We arrived here on Wednesday and decided to wait for the weekend to pass before checking into the country on Monday in Hellville.

Crater Bay

On the 16th of July we sailed 19 miles to Crater Bay on the southwest coast of Nosy Be. This was a charter boat base, and there were several large boats with moorings in the most protected corner. We anchored at 13°23.8'S; 48°13.1'E in 14' at mid-tide, outside all the moorings and very near the huge mudflat which is exposed at low tide. The tidal range was 4 meters so we put our rudders up to draw only a meter and rest comfortably on the mud if necessary. There was a small marina with a bar but no slips. Dinghies could tie up to the (non-floating) pier in front of the marina so we could get ashore without getting our feet wet or muddy for a change. The marina manager was Rudy, a European who had been here for several years and was very helpful.

Many boutres (cargo boats without outriggers, usually with a single big lateen sail) and big lakanas (with outriggers) sailed in and out every day with cargoes of thatch, bamboo poles, hardwood poles, and sand for the local cement block factory. The onshore/offshore pattern of daily winds was well-developed in this area. We usually had easterly breezes in the morning and westerly or northwesterly breezes in the afternoon. The bay is open to the south and southwest but strong winds never came from those directions while we were there. The wind pattern was very good for boats bringing cargo from the mainland and returning home in the evening. It was great to see so many boats working under sail without engines. Sometimes when there was no wind they were pushed through shallow water with long poles. A few went up into the mangrove estuaries at high tide but most anchored off the beach near the marina and the cement block factory. There were also small outrigger canoes which used nets to catch small fish in the bay. With net fishermen often working nearby and large boats often sailing through the anchored and moored boats this place had a lot happening. The local boats were all wooden and very basic, often with tattered sails and frayed ropes. Steering was often done with a rope bridle to the rudder. We took far too many photos of these wonderful boats!

The road which came down to the marina from the town of Dar es Salaam was not paved. Big trucks and carts drawn by Zebu traveled up and down moving sand and other cargoes. The anchored boats were unloaded by men who waded into the water and brought to shore as many as four bags full of sand on their shoulders. The net fishermen unloaded their catch on the same beach amid crowds of local women and children all wanting to carry away a bag or basket of fresh fish. There used to be a railroad track running down to the large wharf near the marina but this had been eliminated. The railroad once moved sugar from Nosy Be mills to ships, but the sugar industry on this island seemed to be a thing of the past. There was still a rum distillery on the island but we did not see any large areas of growing sugar cane. The marina bar was partly made from old railroad cars.

We used the marina's hose at a mooring to fill our water tanks. We had to buy a credit slip for 25,000 Ar and only used half our allotted amount, so had credit left for filling up again later. We also bought propane through the marina. This took a couple of days to organize and then we had to decant it from the full tank which had European fittings into our tanks which had American fittings. Fortunately we were able to borrow a home-made adapter from "Ambler" which solved the problem. We paid 80,000 Ar for a 12-kg tank which we returned empty.

Checking-In at Hellville

On July 18 we borrowed a little local cash from friends for a taxi and rowed ashore to check-in with the officials. We walked up the hill to Dar es Salaam and got into a "collective" taxi. These pick up as many passengers as they can (sometimes cramming in surprising numbers) for a flat fee per person. From Dar es Salaam to the central market in Hellville they always charged 2,000 Ar ("Ariary," the new Madagascar currency whose exchange rate was slightly more than 2,000 Ar per $1 US when we were there.) The taxi drivers would have preferred to give us "express" or "private" service at much higher rates so we always made sure they were "collective." The trip took about 30 minutes.

Our first requirement was to obtain Ariary at an ATM. Hellville had several banks whose ATMs accepted VISA cards and issued Ariary in either 5,000 Ar or 10,000 Ar notes. The slots that issued cash were limited to a maximum of 400,000 Ar if the machine was stocked with 10,000 Ar notes or 200,000 Ar if stocked with 5,000 Ar notes. Sometimes we had to make multiple transactions to obtain the amounts we needed. Sometimes one or more of the ATMs were out-of-cash and there were long queues at machines where cash was available. It was necessary to remove the cash as soon as it was presented because the machines would slurp the money back inside after about ten seconds. We were warned to beware of pickpockets so we tried to be careful and had no bad incidents.

We got three copies of our "Crew List" at a copy shop on the main street. We also made a copy of our last Port Clearance (Maldives) and a copy of our Vessel Documentation. Then we walked down to the port to the Police office in a container near the ferry landing. These Police represented Madagascar Immigration. The first question they asked (in French) was "Where is your boat?" They seemed unhappy that our boat was in Crater Bay and expressed ignorance of where that was, but we knew several boats which had been left there while their crews checked in and out. The police insisted that all boats must anchor in Hellville to clear in and out. They asked for 40,000 Ar because we were anchored in the wrong place. We offered to bring our boat to Hellville if this was such a big problem, but they dismissed that idea. Then they said there was a fee for their services and wrote a receipt for 30,000 Ar. We objected, knowing that our friends had been charged only 20,000 Ar. They finally changed our receipt and accepted 20,000 Ar. We later watched crews of other boats anchored in Hellville hand over 40,000 Ar for this "fee" without questioning the amount because it seemed small (only $20 US) and not exorbitant for a government to charge. We believed this money went straight into the pockets of the officials and didn't want them to get used to receiving large bribes. They took a copy of our last Clearance and stamped our Crew Lists, retaining one. They kept our passports while we obtained visa stamps. We had to buy them in a government office located on the second floor of a large building up the hill towards the market and down a side street. The police drew a crude sketch map and wrote the name of the office so we could find it by asking people along the way. We eventually found the place and bought stamps for three-month visas for 140,000 Ar per person. We brought the stamps back to the Police station and were told to return at 17:00 to pick up our passports. Apparently the visas had to be signed by an official based at the airport outside of town.

We then went to the Port Captain's office, just a block from the Immigration/Police office, but it was closed at 11:30 and would not reopen until 14:30. We went to the building next door where Madagascar Cruising Permits were issued. They would not help us until we paid the Port Captain so we took a break for lunch and shopping. We returned to the Port Captain and paid 150,000 Ar for the boat for three months. He gave us a detailed receipt which we took next door to get our Cruising Permit. This document listed permitted anchorages. We pointed out that the list did not include anchorages to the south and they said not to worry about that. They required our original Clearance from the Maldives plus a copy of our Crew List which had been stamped by Immigration.

We found the Customs officials in a large building down the street beside the big church. They recorded our arrival and collected 20,000 Ar. They told us we would have to pay them another 20,000 Ar at check-out time. We later learned that Port Clearances were provided by the Port Captain and it was not necessary to visit Customs at all to check-out.

Our passports were ready when we returned to the Police container at 17:00. We walked back to the market, got into another "collective" taxi for the ride to Dar es Salaam, walked down to the marina and rowed home. We felt somewhat fortunate in completing our check-in so quickly. We knew of crews which spent three days getting everything done. We planned to check-out in Hellville before our visas expired on October 18. We now knew where the offices were and had been satisfied with our treatment by the officials. The alternative of checking-out in Majunga did not appeal to us because we had heard that the harbor there was dangerous (lighters going back and forth at all hours and people boarding anchored boats to steal things) and the officials were sometimes difficult.

(view photos of Madagascar)