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It’s not hell in Hellville

Madagascar day thirteen

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In Hellville

After the storm at dinner yesterday evening we had a more peaceful night, but still woke up early. We had arranged an excursion for this morning so took everything we would need along to breakfast with us. Our guide, the same one we'd had for the nocturnal walk yesterday, met up with us there and we boarded the same small speedboat that had brought us to Eden Lodge, wading out through the shallows. We were heading for Hellville, the small capital of the island of Nosy Bay which we could see from the beach here.

You might think that a place called Hellville would have a dark past. But this lively town takes its name not from any Satanic connections but from Anne Chrétien Louis de Hell, a French admiral who was governor of Réunion Island from 1838 to 1841. I haven’t been able to find any direct connection between the admiral, who was respected for his success in smoothing the path towards the emancipation of slaves on Réunion, and this island, other than the fact that both were French colonies. I suspect he was simply of such a standing that he had multiple honours showered on him!

We crossed to the island in the lodge’s small speedboat, wading out through the shallows to board. The ride to Nosy Be took about 45 minutes and I rather enjoyed bouncing over the admittedly small waves. We docked in the busy port where we met up with a man I took to be a friend of our guide’s, who rather conveniently happened to be a tuk-tuk driver. Convenient for us, as it saved my leg and enabled us to visit some sights out of town. And convenient for him, as he got our business without any need to try!



Hellville scenes

Mahatsingo Sacred Tree

Our driver took us on a sometimes slightly hairy drive through the town and up into the hills beyond on roads that were more pothole than road. Our destination was the Arbre Sacré, or sacred tree. Unlike the sacred tree we had seen in Andisibe, this one is clearly identified as a banyan fig tree. And what a fig tree it is, sprawling so much that you would take it to be a whole grove of trees.

The tree is believed by the local Malagasy tribe, the Sakalava, to be the home of the spirits of their ancestors or ‘Razana’. These spirits go back and forth between their graves and such sacred places.

Tourists are welcome, on payment of a small fee. All are expected to follow certain rules, which were explained to us by the friendly woman who welcomed us. She said that to visit the tree we must go barefooted and wear traditional dress. I rather liked the cloth tube she fastened around me and thought Chris looked pretty good in his outfit too! Our lodge guide insisted on taking some photos on my phone, the least bad of which is below!

In suitable clothing

Then we were welcomed to enter, placing our right foot first over the threshold (another essential rule, showing respect for the spirits). The local guide told us that the tree is 200 years old. It was planted by Indian traders at the request of the last queen of the Sakalava, Queen Tsiomeko, a statue of whom stands by the path. It apparently covers 5,000 square metres; the only way I could capture any sense of its size was by video.

Mahatsingo Sacred Tree

Statue of Queen Tsiomeko, and our local guide

Locals bring offerings of money and food and drape the tree’s many vines with red and white cloths. The guide told us that the red stands for gold and the white for silver. However I’ve read since online that these are also the colours of the Sakalava royal line.

We visited the small and rather scruffy museum attached to the site. There were old photos of the queen and various important people (including the aforementioned Admiral Hell), and of the town in colonial times. A chart showed the stones associated with the signs of the zodiac. It indicated which pairs of signs shouldn’t marry; thankfully Chris and I were pronounced OK! There were some photos of Malagasy wildlife too, and a few other small displays. But the highlight for us was the cat with three one-month-old kittens!

Bust of Queen Tsiomeko in the museum

Two of the kittens

Shops and market

Returning to town we made the inevitable stop at a row of small souvenir shops. We had a short browse, in part to be polite, but did end up buying two items: a small toy lemur for a friend at home and also small painted mask for ourselves, to add to the collection on the wall of our hall.

We then visited the local covered market, much more colourful and busier with traders and shoppers. Our guide pointed out a few food items such as dried rays, powdered cassava leaves and tamarinds. I took some photos shooting from the hip, some of which were more successful than others.

The covered market


Market scenes

Our next stop was at a local restaurant where we had cold drinks sitting on the terrace. Customers were a mix of locals, tourists and what I took to be expats. Chatting to our guide we learned he was originally from north east Madagascar but now lives in Hellville, which might explain his apparent much better knowledge of the town than of the wildlife we'd seen with him yesterday evening. We also learned his name was Satta (spelling my own!), which meant that he wasn’t as I’d assumed the lodge’s resident naturalist guide mentioned in the literature in our room, Philippe – again partly explaining last night’s lack of detailed information about the animals. We had warmed to him more during this tour and of course paid for his drink as well as tipping him and the tuktuk driver.

Signs of the past

On the way back to the port we stopped briefly to admire the view of the mainland and to photograph a bit of street art tht had caught my eye.

View from Hellville

Street art

Back in the centre of town we saw a monument to Russian sailors lost when the Japanese sank their ships just offshore here in 1904, in a war I was totally unaware of until that point. Doing my research later I learned that the two countries were engaged in fighting over their rival imperial ambitions in Manchuria and the Korean Empire. I haven’t however found any reference to this specific incident. But I gather that the Russians used this relatively sheltered harbour to rest after rounding the Cape of Good Hope and before embarking on the next stage of their journey.

Monument to Russian sailors

Nearby another monument commemorates those who died in the fight for national unity and independence in Madagascar. And a third monument here is similar to those we saw in other Madagascan towns and cities. Laurent had told us in Antsiranana that these serve as focal points for celebrations of International Women’s Day on 8th March each year.

Monuments to national martyrs, and to women

I also took a few photos of the old colonial buildings in this area. Although associated with French rule, today many are put to good use as civil offices etc.


Old buildings

A return to paradise

Back at the port we had to wait while our guide called the boat which had been moored offshore. So there was a chance for a few more photos of locals waiting for ferries (more shooting from the hip!) and of the general scene.

The port

Waiting for a ferry

Then we were speeding back to our little slice of paradise. It seemed slightly incongruous that the bustling town we were leaving behind was on an island while the laidback barefoot resort was on the mainland. Baobab Beach, reachable only by boat, really felt like a desert island!

Baobab Beach

We were back in time for lunch then spent a lazy afternoon in various spots including the main area for some online time and our beach loungers.
From there at one point I enjoyed watching the local school children on their way home from school, a reminder of the lodge's support for their education.


Local children on their way home from school

In the evening I enjoyed my final pre-dinner mojito (they make great ones here!) and a reasonable dinner which included a delicious chocolate mousse for dessert. We stayed on in the lounge area to send a few more messages then walked back along the beach to our tent for an early night.

Posted by ToonSarah 14:57 Archived in Madagascar Tagged buildings harbour beach monument culture religion history market africa customs

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Hello, Sarah! Thanks for sharing your impressions of your discoveries!..I read that the Japanese had not sunk the Russian ships offshore in Madagaskar in 1904. There were about twenty Russian sailors, who did not endure the local climate and died there during the three months' stay of Russian ships on the way to the Korean Sea...

by Vic_IV

It would be a bit late if you discovered you and Chris didn't have compatible signs. I believe you have been married for quite a while now. You both look good in your local outfits for visiting the sacred tree.

by irenevt

Thanks Vic and Irene. That's interesting about the Russian sailors - different from what we were told by our guide. But it wouldn't surprise me if he were wrong! He was a nice guy but didn't seem to be an expert on all the topics he talked about, and it's also possible that the story is told differently there.

Irene, yes, we've been married 42 years!!

by ToonSarah

I rarely manage to take any photos of locals so I really enjoy seeing yours! :)

by hennaonthetrek

What a big tree, gosh, unbelievable, thanks for the video. As always love the pictures of the locals and to be honest, you shoot from the hip like the best. I also tried it a few times, but none of the pictures are suitable for being seen I am afraid!

by Ils1976

Thank you again Ils. The photos I take 'shooting from the hip' always need a bit of editing work afterwards - mainly straightening and cropping. Try doing tat on yours, you should be able to find some good ones :)

by ToonSarah

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