We set off for Ankarana the following day, with our guide Philippe, the son of the queen of Antakarana. We lucked out in seeing some crowned lemurs up close. We also saw a gecko tinged a green that I thought had been invented by people who dropped acid, with a few crimson dots on his back, as though outfitted by Anna Sui. Then we saw the tsingys, great needles and undulating waves of limestone, carved by the sea and then brought up by the shifting of tectonic plates. Was it not enough for Madagascar to have such weird plants and animals?Did it have to have weird geology too?Then we came, with Philippe, to an enormous cave in which the spirits of his royal ancestors are said to live.
The next day saw us through our first Third World–ish experience: our flight, for which we had tickets, did not exist, but with an unanticipated connection we ultimately made our way to Tsara Komba, our paradisiacal hotel. It’s owned by a Frenchman and completely casual but just that touch chic in a very Continental kind of way, with an elegant central area where meals are served, and only three rooms, each a private bungalow with a big terrace overlooking the water.
Our guide fetched us by boat the next morning, as there are no roads, cars, or even bicycles on Nosy Komba, the island where we were staying. Madagascar is a big island; and Nosy Be is a smaller island off northern Madagascar; and Nosy Komba is a smaller island off Nosy Be; and we went to Nosy Tanikely, a smaller island off Nosy Komba. Nosy Tanikely was a few palms, white beaches, a hill in the middle with an abandoned lighthouse, and the lighthouse keeper’s cottage, in which the lighthouse keeper still lives, the sole resident of the isle. We snorkeled along the reef and saw beautiful corals, one like a forest of cream-colored asparagus with blue tips, and many fish, including a plump pale one with brilliant turquoise eyelids that resembled an Aeroflot flight attendant. The sea turtles were ponderous, with huge flippers they moved like wings, flapping steadily, occasionally angling to negotiate corners.
I loved what our guide said about the Islamic minority in Madagascar. "We are not fundamentalist. Fundamentalists drink no alcohol. But we say, drink alcohol, but try not to get drunk. Islamic law says not to eat fruit bats and crabs. But we like crabmeat, so we just skip the fruit bats. Fundamentalists say a woman should cover her hair, but we say a woman doesn’t need to do that unless she is chilly."
After lunch, we walked to the park where people feed the black lemurs, who leap out of the trees and sit on your shoulder if you are holding a banana. There were mother lemurs with babies tucked under their bellies, and the sensual delight of intimacy with these half-wild animals was immeasurable. In the late afternoon, the air and water in Nosy Komba were the ideal temperature, the breeze was heaven, there were no bugs, and all I wanted was to figure out a way to stay a year, sitting on my bungalow’s terrace looking at another little island in the middle distance and the big shadow forms of the Madagascar coast beyond, as little dugout pirogues sailed by under square or triangular sails, and a few sail-less ones just being rowed, and not another soul in sight in any direction, and the air smelling like the sea and like flowers.
We next went to Anjajavy L’Hôtel. In the 1990’s, the owner told his Parisian travel agent that he wanted to visit Madagascar, and the agent said there were no hotels up to his standards, so he flew up the coast along the Mozambique Channel until he found the perfect spot, and built a fabulous luxury establishment, the only one of its kind in this country—air-conditioning, wireless Internet access, a gorgeous pool, rosewood villas scattered along the seaside. You get there on the hotel’s private plane; our flight was an exquisite hour. The hotel has declared its own time zone, an hour ahead of the rest of Madagascar, an individual daylight- saving-time package. The owner is French and the management South African, so everything is stylish and everyone speaks English. The place sits on 1,100 parkland acres. There are motorboats for waterskiing and deep-sea fishing and private expeditions. Afternoon tea is served on a grassy knoll where several species of lemur scope out the tourists, including Coquerel’s sifakas, graceful lemurs with brown and white fur. There are also amazing birds who come for the crumbs.