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Paradise's perfumed isles

By Jacqui Pile, Mail and Guardian (Johannesburg), 18 February 2000

Johannesburg - Between Madagascar and the African mainland lie several small islands that time forgot.

'Slap ze seat before you sit down," shouted Freddie, the mad German who picked us up at Nosy B, airport. We vigorously hit the seats before we climbed into his convertible Kombi. A cloud of mosquitoes rose up and buzzed around inside.

Three of us opted for the open back instead, crammed on the heap of bags, but free of bugs.

We watched the island whisk by backwards. Distorted ylang-ylang trees, taxis painted pink, lime and royal blue, women in loud sarongs, potholes the size of small swimming pools, skinny figures on wobbling bicycles - all of which Freddie hooted at in celebration as we raced past.

Nosy B,, meaning "great island" in Malagasy, is the largest of many islands off the west coast of Madagascar. A little piece of land which was forgotten when Madagascar was torn from Africa, it offers diverse and unique marine and forest life, not to mention fabulous beaches and all the R "R that goes with them.

The island is also known as l'Ile Parfum,e, because of its vanilla and ylang- ylang plantations and its hilly terrain is covered in a soft blanket of green sugar cane. Contrasted with a deep blue sky, turquoise ocean and white beaches, it is a colourful sensory overload.

Nosy B,'s first inhabitants were probably Swahili and Indian traders in the 15th century. A few centuries later a boatload of Indians were shipwrecked and since then Nosy B, has attracted refugees, merchants and settlers of all descriptions. Not a bad place to be shipwrecked.

The women are beautiful, very petite and also very dangerous, if legends are to be believed. "The women here are warriors," explained one sailor in broken French. "One woman, very small, beat the hell out of two of my friends when they refused to pay her for her services. The one guy was in hospital for a week."

While prostitution is illegal in Madagascar, the trade is alive and well, especially in tourist areas, like Ambatoloaka. These women are chic and well spoken and line the bars in quiet, flirtatious groups, but I wouldn't want to meet them alone in a dark alley.

When French ships dock in ports like Diego Suarez en route from Reunion Island, women from all over Madagascar trek enormous distances to make as much money as they can from the sailors in a short time - and naturally there is plenty of competition for limited business.

Most visitors to Nosy B, head for Ambatoloaka, once a small fishing village, but now the main tourist centre. Here, as scantily clad tourists sip rum on the beach, small Coke-coloured boys race along in the shallows with boats modeled from any waste they can find - polystyrene, wood or even an old shoe.

The town seems stuck in a time warp. It could still be the 1950s, when the French colonialists gave Madagascar its independence. Since then, the island seems to have been forgotten by the outside world and, although it's possible to find the odd business with a computer, any machinery looks horribly out of place. They still play Elvis in some of the discotheques.

Nosy B, is Madagascar's tourist trump card. But unlike Mauritius and the Seychelles, it remains mostly undeveloped with only a few up-market hotels along the more popular beaches.

Basic package travel is taking hold around the tropical island, but up to now most of the foreigners rambling around Madagascar have been involved with foreign aid programmes, anthropology, zoology, geology, botany or conservation. y Because the island has been cut off from Africa for millions of years, it is considered nature's laboratory, with a range of creatures concocted and pieced together that are unlike those found anywhere else on Earth.

Famous for its lemurs, a small bushbaby- like creature with an eerie cry, Madagascar is also home to more species of chameleon than anywhere else. It's a paradise for bird watchers and has more than 145 species of frogs. But, already about 85% of its natural forest systems have been lost, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature. "Poverty, isolation and poor education are often the greatest threats to conservation, and Madagascar is no exception."

We opted to live on the ocean for five days - on a catamaran. We first spotted Bossi, a 13m catamaran glowing in the setting sun in Ambatoloaka bay, and knew then that backpacking was not the only way to see this country.

"I've never seen any virtue in slumming it," says Alex Garland, author of The Beach. And we tended to agree with him.

Next day, we organised a trip with Willem and Elize Strauss, the owners of this magnificent beast. On board, we were introduced to the crew - a full-time chef, skipper, dive instructor and deck hand - and shown around its spacious interiors: a lounge, complete with CD, TV and mini-bar and four double cabins each with a view of the sky through the portholes.

By lunchtime, we set out for the archipelago of Nosy Mitsio, about 60 nautical miles northwest of Nosy B,. Willem had already nicknamed us the "sonskynsusters", thanks to a bad night of seasickness, but by morning we'd found our sea legs and were ready to explore.

Nosy Mitsio is a hot, dry island with few inhabitants, and white bones and coconut shells lie scattered around the hills. The wind here is ideal for windsurfing.

One way of seeing the islands is from a novel invention, a microduck - a mix between a rubber duck and microlight, which ensures a bumpy but thrilling sortie into the air.

By far one of the most beautiful islands we visited in the north was Tsarabajina. A magical hotel with a glorious bar and stunning cottages lies among lush vegetation. Managed by co-owner Richard Walker, who is also an ex South African, Tsarabajina Hotel is a true island escape. The waters off the reef around Tsarabajina are calm and warm - perfect for a midnight skinny dip.