Blown away: Kitesurfing in Madagascar

We had been drawn to the Emerald Sea for kitesurfing, the sport of being attached to a giant fabric wing, strapped to a board and pulled across the water at high speed.

Baie des Sakalava at the northern tip of Madagascar is a popular kitesurfing destination, with excellent sea conditions and winds that rarely fall below 20 knots.
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It was unmistakeable. The triangular black fin glinting in the sun above the turquoise water. And it looked big. Sharks were not found inside the reef, we had been told, but this one did not appear to be sticking to the maritime protocol and there it was, moving slowly just a short distance from the waves breaking on the coral on the edge of the Emerald Sea at the northern tip of Madagascar.

The shark, which remains unidentified although suggestions it was the man-eating Tiger variety appear to have been dispelled by the shape of its fin, had perhaps been drawn inside the crashing waves in search of food.

We had been drawn to the Emerald Sea for an entirely different reason - kitesurfing, the sport of being attached to a giant fabric wing, strapped to a board and pulled across the water at high speed. The north of Madagascar provides the kind of conditions that leave a "kiter" sleepless at night: wind that never falls below 20 knots for seven months of the year, beautiful white sandy beaches, warm water and sea conditions that give you the options of flat, calm water or huge Indian Ocean waves.

But this vast island, the fourth largest in the world, offers far more than just the perfect conditions for a rather self-indulgent yet addictive watersport. Unlike some of the most popular wind destinations, just travelling to Madagascar is an adventure into a country with a mix of people, culture and ecology unlike anywhere else in the world.

And it is the island factor that makes Madagascar so fascinating. In fact, it has been an island for 160 million years, ever since it broke away from the African continent 100 million years before mammals even existed.

For that reason, it has one of the most diverse ecologies on the planet with the vast majority of its plants and animals existing nowhere else on earth. Its forests are filled with weird and wonderful creatures, such as 50 species of lemurs, a collage of different chameleons and a vast array of tropical birds.

The people, the Malagasy, are also unique. Despite being just 400km from the east coast of Africa, Madagascar was only settled sometime between 300BC and 500AD and, more surprisingly, it was first inhabited by Indo-Malayans who arrived by sea on a journey along the rim of the Indian Ocean. At times, because of the people's faces and the rice fields found across the island, you could be forgiven for thinking you are in some corner of South East Asia.

Africans soon began to move across the Mozambique Channel and from the ninth century, Arab traders began to inhabit the north. In the 14th century the first Europeans arrived with a fleet of Portuguese ships. Along with the French, Dutch and British, they tried to establish bases and influence on the island. In the meantime, the Malagasy had formed various kingdoms and, by the end of the 17th century pirates from the UK, North America and Spain found Madagascar's vast coastline the perfect place from which to launch their attacks on ships carrying goods and slaves along the African coast.

But it was the French who took Madagascar as a colony in 1896 and proceeded to remove the influence of the Merina kingdom that had unified the country at the start of the century. Fifty years after Madagascar regained its independence, the French influence still runs deep in the capital. After Malagasy, French is the second official language and the menus in the restaurants and bars presents a curious blend of Gallic and indigenous food.

The capital, Antananarivo, or Tana as it is known, is a bustling city strategically centred around steep hills at about 1,400 metres above sea level and slap bang in the middle of the island. The city is dominated by the Rova, or Royal Palace, prominently located atop one of the city's 12 sacred hills. Its current incarnation was designed by the Scottish missionary James Cameron for Queen Ranavalona. The stone structure was built in 1867, but in 1995 a fire gutted the structure and it is still under reconstruction.

A short distance away is the Andafivaratra museum, which gives a fascinating insight into some of the colourful monarchs who ruled over the island before the French took over. Outside are spectacular views across chaotic streets filled with markets selling everything imaginable. Old Renault 4 and 2CV taxis jostle for position, and in the distance the deep blue jacaranda trees provide an unlikely natural display surrounding the city's Lac Anosy.

As night descends across the city, a lack of street lights, and the reality that this is a desperately poor country made even poorer by the effects of a 2009 coup, means tourists are unable to walk around.

Tana's many restaurants and bars can however be safely reached by taxi. Inside, I found both Malagasy and European expats lamenting the current economic conditions brought about since the European Union and United States halted non-humanitarian aid to the country after Andry Rajoelina, a former DJ and mayor of Tana, seized power. The day after I left the country, as Rajoelina held a referendum on a new constitution, a group of rebel soldiers attempted, unsuccessfully, yet another coup.

Maybe in part because of this political instability, travelling around Madagascar is not quite as easy as one might think. The country is linked by a network of taxi brousse, or "bush" taxis, but the country's dismal roads mean a journey to the northern town of Diego Suarez takes at least 24 hours.

An internal flight took about an hour and a half and dropped me into what felt like a different country. Diego Suarez, also known as Antsiranana, was named after the two Portuguese explorers who were the first Europeans to discover Madagascar in 1506. The city is located on the shores of one of the largest natural bays in the world with a dramatic coastline steeped in a rich buccaneering history.

Looking out across the vast bay, past the sacred Nosy Lonja or "sugar loaf" island jutting out from the water and towards the remote peninsula that makes up the northern tip of Madagascar, it is easy to imagine how the pirate Republic of Libertatia once existed here. First mentioned in a story by Daniel Defoe in 1726, the enclave was said to have been established in the early 1600s by the French adventurer Capt James Misson, inspired by a utopian philosophy based on the freedom of men, religion and race. The republic, the existence of which is doubted by many historians, was said to have ended after about 20 years before the Malagasy living nearby were roused by their leaders to destroy it.

About an hour away from Diego lies a utopian dream of an entirely different nature. Baie des Sakalava provides the perfect playground for kitesurfers and windsurfers. A beautiful beach is flanked on one side by palm trees and the other by a huge lagoon. The powerful trade wind, known locally as the Varatraz, blows constantly for most of the year, rarely dropping below 25 knots. (In Dubai, we get excited if it reaches 15 knots.)

If you feel brave enough, you can easily reach the crashing waves breaking on the reef and offering a whole different playground.

Back on land, the Malagasy are known for taking things easy and you often hear the famous saying mora mora, meaning slowly, slowly. This approach, combined with the French appreciation for food, means the adrenalin of kitesurfing at Sakalava is offset by the relaxed pace of life.

The action doesn't start until after a leisurely breakfast of French bread, fruit and coffee. As you prepare your equipment on the beach, the women from the small fishing hamlet of wooden huts, their faces covered in a paste to protect their skin from the sun, check if you will be stopping by for lunch. They prepare a delicious feast of fish - caught that morning in the lagoon by spear fishermen or women hand-casting their nets in waist-deep water - and a rich sticky rice.

The bay has two low-key hotels on the beach. Both provide bungalow-style accommodation opening straight on to the beach. Sakalava Lodge, which has a kitesurfing and windsurfing school attached, provides more basic, traditional style bamboo huts, while the Royal Sakalava run by a Malagasy couple has more modern accommodation and a nice bar and restaurant in which to sit in the evening beneath the bright southern hemisphere stars while the crabs scuttle up and down the sand. Every evening, before sunset, a group of lemurs arrived in the trees outside the bungalows, leaping from branch to branch.

Just as I was settling into the simple rhythm of life in Sakalava, I overheard talk of a concert that night in the nearby fishing village of Ramena. The legendary Malagasy singer Jaojoby, who comes from just near Diego, was playing a "homecoming" concert. After piling into an ageing taxi we arrived at the venue, a simple bar with an stage set up on an open patch of ground outside. When the man, known as the "King of Salagy" (a blend of Sub-Saharan folk music and the Malagasy language) took to the stage, the crowd went wild. Music appears to be a passion in Madagascar and the usually reserved Malagasy danced into the night to the quick-tempo guitar rhythms.

I left Sakalava in search of some of Madagascar's unique flora and fauna. Just south of Diego is one of the island's several national parks, known as the Montagne d'Ambre. A guide took us into the lush rain forest, accompanied by plenty of rain, and proceeded to show us some of its natural wonders. These included impossibly camouflaged lizards, the world's smallest chameleon - smaller than one's little finger - more lemurs and an array of exotic birds.

My next stop was a lodge known as Babaomby located on the shores of the breathtaking Emerald Sea. This fabled stretch of water protected by a reef can only be reached by a boat journey across the entrance to Diego bay, where a large swell tossed our small vessel back and forth. Its name comes from its intensely turquoise colour - a result of the white sand that lies beneath the shallow water.

Babaomby's spectacular location is accompanied by some wonderfully thought-through accommodation in large cosy tents overlooking the waters. The lodge was set up by an avid windsurfer who has sought to make a minimum environmental impact in a country where deforestation, water supplies and other environmental issues are now deeply pressing. Meals, consisting largely of fresh seafood and vegetables grown on the site, were taken at a communal table lit by oil lamps.

And when the day came, that same trade wind that brought the first settlers to Madagascar across the Indian Ocean, and filled the sails of the 18th-century pirate ships seeking shelter along its coast, sends you gliding across the turquoise waters, accompanied by a huge grin, the beats of Jojoaby ringing in your ears and maybe the odd shark.