Where in the hell is Hell-ville?

Nosy Be, Madagascar -- Weekly local market in Hell-ville, above the harbor

Hell-ville — Weekly local market above the harbor

Also known as Andoany, Hell-ville is Nosy Be’s largest town and administrative center.  So now the question is, “Where is Nosy Be?”  It’s a tropical island on the west side of the northern end of Madagascar, more-or-less around the corner from Antsiranana, formerly known as Diego Suarez, Madagascar (see our previous blog on Ankarana National Park).

We spent the morning touring the local weekly market in Hell-ville.  It’s a tropical version of the extensive weekend French and Italian combined farmers’ market and housewares market.  The setting was both in the town market building (a permanent structure) and hundreds upon hundreds of stalls and booths lining several streets, running all the way down to the waterfront (see photograph, above).  One of the most popular walk-away food items for immediate consumption were the local fried donuts.

Nosy Be, Madagascar -- Very popular fresh fried donoughts

Hell-ville, Nosy Be, Madagascar — Very popular fresh fried donuts

The town itself was small but picturesque — both the buildings and the locals.

Nosy Be, Madagascar -- A main street shop showing the French influence in design and blue color in Hell-ville

Nosy Be, Madagascar — A main street shop showing the French influence in design and blue color in Hell-ville

Nosy Be, Madagascar -- A handsome local man let me interrupt his coffee time in Hell-ville

Nosy Be, Madagascar — A captivating local man let me interrupt his coffee time in Hell-ville

Nosy Be, Madagascar -- Main street in Hell-ville on market day

Nosy Be, Madagascar — Main street in Hell-ville on market day

Unless you walked down very narrow passages between some of the blocks of buildings, you wouldn’t see the local homes that abut the shops and stalls of the main street.  While there were clear architectural influences of Western colonists in “town”, the homes were typical third-world shanties.

Nosy Be, Madagascar -- One storefront away from main street in Hell-ville: local shanty housing

Nosy Be, Madagascar — One storefront away from main street in Hell-ville: local shanty housing

There were people from all over the island in the market, and the sellers were likewise from across the island, not just the town of Hell-ville.  Quite a few picturesque scenes:

Nosy Be, Madagascar -- Smiling at the crazy American photographer at my stall (taking a picture after hiding to avoid being photographed)

Nosy Be, Madagascar — Smiling at the crazy American photographer at my stall (taking a picture after hiding to avoid being photographed)

Nosy Be, Madagascar -- The assistant sales clerk

Nosy Be, Madagascar — The assistant sales clerk

Nosy Be, Madagascar -- Geometric pattern of fresh shrimp for sale in the market in Hell-ville

Nosy Be, Madagascar — Geometric design of fresh shrimp for sale in the market in Hell-ville

Nosy Be, Madagascar -- Shelling beans for sale in Hell-ville's market

Nosy Be, Madagascar — Shelling beans for sale in Hell-ville’s market

Nosy Be, Madagascar -- Life is good here at Nosy Be

Nosy Be, Madagascar — Life is good here at Nosy Be

At the end of the long stroll through town and the market, we returned to the ship by tender boat.  As we were tying up alongside the ship, a half dozen local dug-out canoes came over with carved wooden souvenirs for sale.

Nosy Be, Madagascar -- Local craftsmen with hand-carved wooden wares

Nosy Be, Madagascar — Local craftsmen with hand-carved wooden wares

Madagascar: Discovering tsingys in Ankarana National Park

Ankarana National Park tsingys and trees

Ankarana National Park tsingys and trees

Our first port in Madagascar was the northern port of Antsiranana, formerly know as Diego Suarez.  Madagascar (formerly known as the Malagasy Republic) was a French colony and achieved independence in 1960. The island country in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of southeast Africa, consists of the island of Madagascar (the fourth largest island in the world — only Greenland, New Guinea and Borneo are larger) and a number of smaller islands surrounding it.

Madagascar gecko

Madagascar gecko

Our granddaughter Eloise will be completely disillusioned as no matter how hard we looked, we could not find any “Penguins of Madagascar.”  Interestingly, nearly 90% of the flora and fauna on the island are indigenous.  Best known for the over 100 subspecies of lemurs, Madagascar is thought to be the place of origin of all chameleons.

Madagascar crowned lemurs

Madagascar crowned lemurs

Our explorations for the day took us through the port and shopping area of Antsiranana — mostly small shanty stalls and a few low wooden buildings, selling mostly food and housewares to the locals — and then south for nearly three hours in a four-wheel drive vehicle.  The 2-lane “highway”, formally known as RN6 (Route National 6), or “National SIx”, is referred to by all the locals as “National SICK”.  The nickname is well deserved, as while it was once-upon-a-time a paved asphalt road, it now looks like black and red Swiss cheese, with the iron-laden soil of the potholes (small, medium, large, and gigantic) showing through everywhere.  And after a heavy rain (which we experienced!), the potholes are full of water (and sometimes the road itself is flooded).  It was always a relief a couple of times to find a few hundred yards of relatively smooth pavement.  There was debate among the 14 of us (in 7 vehicles) when we stopped for lunch at a local cafe at near the entrance to the national park as to whether or not this was the worst road we had ever traveled 75 miles over.

Ankarana National Park hiker on tsingys

Ankarana National Park hiker on tsingys

While Ankarana National Park is best known for its expansive network of caves, our plan to hike to some of them was thwarted by the lack of a bridge to cross a flooded small river that would have required us to walk through water up to our waist.  So our guides went for plan B, which was a fairly steep 1.5-hour hike up through the forest and up and across the top of the mountain over the karst limestone pinnacles known locally as tsingys (in the Malagasy language). (Karst is a “landscape underlain by limestone that has been eroded by dissolution, producing ridges, towers, fissures, sinkholes and other characteristic landforms.”)  The tsingys are a challenge to hike up and over (they can be razor sharp), but when surfacing at the top of the mountain, the view is breathtaking and quite unusual.  None of us had ever seen such spectacular nature-carved rocks.

Ankarana National Park tsingys overlook

Ankarana National Park tsingys overlook

Our guide then took the two of us across the tsingys another 15 minutes further — hiking on flat limestone slabs that had been placed, and sometimes spiked in place with iron spikes — to a spectacular overlook that afforded views of the forested valley and other tsingy formations on nearby ridges.

Ankarana National Park, tsingy "arrowheads"

Ankarana National Park, tsingy “arrowheads”

After the hike back down to the parking lot near the park entrance, we enjoyed the local corn-based refreshment known as “THB.”  Then during the drive back to town and the port, we encountered some spectacular rain squalls that filled up more potholes and made for some adventurous driving.  A shower and clean clothes felt great, and then we relaxed with friends on board the ship over a delicious Continental-cuisine dinner — a world away from the lemurs and tsingys we had spent the day with.

Madagascar THB ("Three Horses Beer")

Madagascar THB (“Three Horses Beer”)

 

Aldabra Atoll, Seychelles — An afternoon island walk

Aldabra Island, Seychelles --   A pristine paradise at any angle

Aldabra Island, Seychelles — A pristine paradise at any angle

Late in the afternoon our Zodiac flotilla landed on Picard Island via the lagoon.  Greeting us was a bronze plaque commemorating the 1982 designation of the atoll as one of two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Seychelles.

Aldabra Island, Seychelles -- a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1982

Aldabra Island, Seychelles — a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1982

Walking along the lagoon we saw many champignon rocks which were set off by the spectacular turquoise water.

Aldabra Island, Seychelles -- Turquoise water and coral

Aldabra Island, Seychelles — Turquoise water and coral

Things seem to have slowed down as the day wound down.  I was finally able to capture “portraits” of two of the fauna that Aldabra is well known for.  The world’s largest anthropod, found on Aldabra atoll, is the coconut crab.

Aldabra Island, Seychelles -- Aldabra coconut crab

Aldabra Island, Seychelles — Aldabra coconut crab

We were fortunate to have some of the staff of the Seychelles Island Foundation snorkel with us over the two days there and they were great guides as we hiked around Picard Island.  Here’s a portrait of Rebecca who led us on a fantastic drift snorkel ride on the incoming current — running about 7 M.P.H. — from the ocean into the lagoon.  We were amazed to learn that approximately 75% of the volume of water in the lagoon returns to the ocean on each outgoing tide and returns hours later on the incoming tide.

Aldabra Island, Seychelles -- Rebecca, one of our Seychelles Islands Foundation guides

Aldabra Island, Seychelles — Rebecca, one of our Seychelles Islands Foundation guides

Another elusive bird that we finally spotted moving a little more slowly was the indigenous Aldabra white-throated rail.  The birds flew to the atoll ages ago and over time, with no natural predators, evolved to be flightless.

Aldabra Island, Seychelles -- Aldabra white-throated rail (a flightless bird)

Aldabra Island, Seychelles — Aldabra white-throated rail (a flightless bird)

North of the location on Picard Island where the current ranger station is located was the site of an old French settlement in the 19th Century.  There are remains of foundations of the houses and school and the one extant building is the old jail.  The vegetation had overtaken many of the buildings, but the SIF has worked to try to remove some of the vegetation in order to better preserve the ruins.

Aldabra Island, Seychelles --   The "old" jail, from the 19th C French settlement

Aldabra Island, Seychelles — The “old” jail, from the 19th C French settlement

One interesting sight was at the bottom of a foundation wall where the stucco, applied over the coral rocks used for construction, had naturally eroded and looked like a primitive painting.  It was quite striking amidst the lush vegetation and building ruins.

Aldabra Island, Seychelles -- Man-made?  Yes, but natural erosion of the 19th C foundation wall stucco

Aldabra Island, Seychelles — Man-made? Yes, but natural erosion of the 19th C foundation wall stucco

Just then we spotted some fruit bats returning to the trees above us — a couple of them had what looked like a love spat, engaging with each other while both hanging upside down and flying around the tree.

Aldabra Island, Seychelles --   Fruit bats

Aldabra Island, Seychelles — Fruit bats

At sunset we returned to the edge of the lagoon where hundreds of white terns returned to the sand bar.  The cloud formations were gorgeous and we watched the sunset as we returned to the ship via our Zodiacs.

Aldabra Island, Seychelles -- Almost sunset and the birds are settling down

Aldabra Island, Seychelles — Almost sunset and the birds are settling down

Aldabra Atoll, Seychelles — A sunrise beach walk

Aldabra Island, Seychelles -- Beachcomber from the ship

Aldabra Island, Seychelles — Beachcomber from the ship

We left the ship at 6:30 a.m. by Zodiac boat for a wet beach landing to be on Aldabra Atoll (Picard Island) near the Ranger Station.  Since being designated in 1982 as a World Heritage Site, the area has been administered by the Seychelles Island Foundation (S.I.F.).  Scientists are resident on the island for six month assignments.  Presently there are just over two dozen people in residence.

We were fortunate on the beach to discover a green sea turtle who had just laid her eggs and was covering them up before returning to the ocean.  These turtles lay 1,000 eggs and typically only one baby turtle survives.  Aldabra has one of the largest populations of nesting green sea turtles in the Western Indian Ocean.

Aldabra Island, Seychelles -- Green sea turtle burying eggs

Aldabra Island, Seychelles — Green sea turtle burying eggs

The island is teeming with sea birds (see our prior blog with photographs from our Zodiac ride).  We were not able to capture a photograph of the very fast running Aldabra white-throated rail — the island’s flightless bird that is unique to the atoll.  We also saw several of the world’s largest anthropods, the coconut crab.  When we ran across a hermit crab with it’s “home” on its back, scurrying across the beach, we were able to make a nice portrait.

Aldabra Island, Seychelles -- Hermit crab

Aldabra Island, Seychelles — Hermit crab

Aldabra Atoll is home to the largest population of giant tortoises in the world, with the latest count of Aldabra great tortoises numbering around 150,000.  Until recently, the rest of the Seychelles Islands were devoid of the tortoises, as they had been hunted to extinction over the past 250 years.  In order to assure their survival longer term as the world’s sea levels rise, the SIF has moved tortoises to other islands for breeding (e.g., Curieuse Island — see a prior blog).  These large,stocky animals can grow to 4 feet in length and weigh up to 500 to 700 pounds when mature.  They are predominantly plant eaters and have evolved a long neck in order to reach some of their food supplies.  The tortoises around the Ranger Station were quite tame and not afraid of us as we walked by (and they were great portrait subjects!).

Aldabra Island, Seychelles -- Aldabra giant tortoise at research station

Aldabra Island, Seychelles — Aldabra giant tortoise at research station

Aldabra Island, Seychelles -- Aldabra giant tortoise -- "E.T., phone home"

Aldabra Island, Seychelles — Aldabra giant tortoise — “E.T., phone home”

Aldabra Island, Seychelles -- Aldabra giant tortoise -- it's too early in the morning

Aldabra Island, Seychelles — Aldabra giant tortoise — it’s too early in the morning

The scientists in residence are very careful to NOT introduce any new species onto the atoll/islands.  They live mostly on fresh fish and seafood caught daily along with frozen fruits and vegetables that are resupplied by ship (on pallets!) every three months.  There is a small botanical garden with crops that don’t drop seeds — to prevent their introduction into the atoll’s ecology.  When we disembarked from the ship for each visit to the atoll, we had to dip our shoes in a sanitizing water solution and were forbidden to bring any food or beverages to the atoll.

Aldabra Island, Seychelles -- Research Station botanical garden

Aldabra Island, Seychelles — Research Station botanical garden

After several hours ashore it was sadly time to depart by Zodiac boats back to the ship, anchored away from the atoll to avoid dropping the anchor onto the coral reefs.

Aldabra Island, Seychelles -- departing for the ship

Aldabra Island, Seychelles — departing Picard Island for the ship

Aldabra Atoll, Seychelles — Our Zodiac boat tour introduction

Aldabra Island, Seychelles -- sunset and southwest corner of the island

Aldabra Island, Seychelles — sunset and southwest corner of the island

From the northern granitic Seychelles Islands (Mahe, Praslin and Curieuse) we “sailed” for two days to reach the Southern Seychelles which are predominantly coral atolls.  An atoll (or coral atoll) is defined by Wikipedia as “a ring-shaped coral reef including a coral rim that encircles a lagoon partially or completely. There may be coral islands/cays on the rim.”  The following photograph illustrates a couple of the rim “champignon islands” (mushroom islands).

Aldabra Island, Seychelles -- champignon (mushroom) Islands

Aldabra Island, Seychelles — champignon (mushroom) Islands

Aldabra Islands is the world’s second largest coral atoll.  Technically, with several channels from the Indian Ocean into the center lagoon, the atoll is comprised of four coral atoll islands with an enormous lagoon in the center.  The largest island, Picard Island — which we visited — is the home of the research station, the only human footprint on overall Aldabra which is 22 miles long and 9 miles wide.  Other than the research station, this World Heritage Site is uninhabited, extremely isolated and virtually pristine.

Sir David Attenborough called Aldabra “one of the wonders of the world” and it is also known as one of the “crown jewels” of the Indian Ocean.

The island has distinctive fauna and avifauna.  The Aldabra giant tortoises (virtually extinct on the other Seychelles Islands, following the past three hundred years of hunting/killing by humans), grows up to 4 feet in length and can weigh over 500 pounds (males).  The white-throated rail is found only on Aldabra, and the island is an important breeding ground for many seabird species, including the red-footed booby and the Magnificent frigate bird.

Aldabra Island, Seychelles -- birds in mangrove trees

Aldabra Island, Seychelles — birds in mangrove trees

After snorkeling on the outer reef in the morning, we boarded a Zodiac (inflatable) boat for exploration of the interior waterways bordering the edge of the lagoon.  We entered through the large, wide main channel (on the north-east corner of Picard Island) and, after passing many champignon islands, wound our way through narrow channels surrounded by the indigenous mangrove trees.

Aldabra Island, Seychelles -- seeing eye-to-eye

Aldabra Island, Seychelles — seeing eye-to-eye

Red-footed boobies are seabirds that are powerful and agile fliers.  They are incredible divers when they seek and catch prey in the water.

Aldabra Island, Seychelles -- two red-footed boobies

Aldabra Island, Seychelles — two red-footed boobies

Aldabra Island, Seychelles -- grooming red-footed boobies

Aldabra Island, Seychelles — grooming red-footed boobies

Frigate bird seabirds (female) and the Magnificent frigate seabirds (male) mostly fly to find food but occasionally will snatch food from other seabirds.

Aldabra Island, Seychelles -- female frigate bird

Aldabra Island, Seychelles — female frigate bird

Aldabra Island, Seychelles -- from the peanut gallery: "Get 'em, get 'em!"

Aldabra Island, Seychelles — from the peanut gallery: “Get ’em, get ’em!”

Magnificent frigate birds (the male species) have a very distinctive red gular pouch that they inflate during breeding season to attract a mate.  There are similar male frigate birds found on the Galápagos Islands.

Aldabra Island, Seychelles -- Magnificent frigate bird (male)

Aldabra Island, Seychelles — Magnificent frigate bird (male)

Aldabra Island, Seychelles -- Aldabra grey heron

Aldabra Island, Seychelles — Aldabra grey heron

Curieuse Marine National Park, Seychelles

Curieuse Marine National Park, Seychelles

Curieuse Marine National Park, Seychelles

The Seychelles (a 115-island nation) is a World Heritage Site with an incredible one-third of the country’s area protected. Not very distant to the northwest of Praslin Island, Seychelles – the second largest island in the Seychelles – and the nearby capital island of Mahe, lays Curieuse Island, a bio-reserve. Curieuse Marine National Park was designated as such on June 1, 1979, in order to protect its outstanding natural beauty, and for the ecological importance of its marine life.

Curieuse Island, Seychelles -- catamarans

Curieuse Island, Seychelles — catamarans

Today daytrip visitors take an organized boat tour from Praslin Island to snorkel and SCUBA dive as well as to see many things unique to Curieuse, including the coco de mer, mangrove forests, Aldabra tortoises and sea life.

Curieuse Island, Seychelles -- beach

Curieuse Island, Seychelles — beach

From 1833 to 1965 the island was used as a leper colony. The museum housed in the old doctor’s residence tells the story of the leper colony – that visit was quite interesting and educational.

The coco de mer, which grows only on Curieuse Island and nearby Praslin Island, produces the largest nut in the world. The double coconut shaped fruit is used in Ayurvedic medicine and traditional Chinese medicine. The fruit is said to be shaped like a young woman’s “bum” viewed from the back and like a “shapely woman” when viewed from the front.

Curieuse Island, Seychelles -- weather worn granite

Curieuse Island, Seychelles — weather worn granite

Curieuse Marine National Park, Seychelles -- good snorkeling and SCUBA diving

Curieuse Marine National Park, Seychelles — good snorkeling and SCUBA diving

The granitic cliffs and boulders along the shore are a magnificent sight. The vertical erosion is the result of “scrubbing” by the wind and rain. We enjoyed an afternoon of snorkeling in the preserve after strolling along the beach and observing numerous large Aldabra tortoises.

Curieuse Marine National Park, Seychelles -- where we went snorkeling

Curieuse Marine National Park, Seychelles — where we went snorkeling

Welcome to the Seychelles

Victoria, Mahe Island, Seychelles -- beach

Victoria, Mahe Island, Seychelles — the beach at Le Meridien Hotel

Lying approximately 1,000 miles east of the African continent in the Indian Ocean, the 115 islands that make up the Republic of Seychelles, an independent country since 1976, have the smallest population of any member of the African Union – only 91,000 people. The vast majority of the population is on Mahe Island, home of the country’s capital, Victoria. Two other northern, granitic islands are home to most of the rest of the citizens.

While first discovered in the early 1600s, the French laid claim to the islands in 1756 and named the islands after Jean Moreau de Séchelles, Louis XV‘s Minister of Finance. Britain took control of the islands in 1810, after Napoleon’s defeat. The independent nation was created in 1976 as a republic within the British Commonwealth.

Tourism is the mainstay of the economy, with nearly one in three residents employed in the tourism industry. Fishing and farming remain important; primary crops include sweet potatoes, vanilla, coconuts and cinnamon.

Given its location near the equator, the weather is fairly consistent through the seasons. The islands are extremely fortunate to be outside the normal track of cyclones and other major weather disturbance, making the seas and beaches idyllic for visitors.

The southern islands are predominantly coral islands (the coral grew up on the remains of individual volcanoes), with Aldabra Island being the second largest atoll island in the world. These atoll islands look considerably different from the northern, granitic islands. We will be traveling from north (Mahe Island) to south (Aldabra Island and Astove Island) and photographs in upcoming blogs will illustrate the differences.