The not so perilous port of Mahajanga, Madagascar

mahajanga rickshaws

Don’t go to Mahajanga, they said. It’s dangerous, they said. The coconut telegraph passes information from one cruiser to the next, and typically it’s useful data about destinations. It’s also good at propagating messages with half-truths or misinformation.

In Madagascar, that message is: it’s a bad idea to go to Mahajanga – also known as Majunga, Madagascar’s second largest port, and the closest clearance port to the Cap Saint Andre where cruising boats typically jump to cross the Mozambique channel. This reputation isn’t undeserved: cruising boats in Mahajanga have been boarded at night by thieves… stuff was taken, and people got hurt. This is probably the primary reason that every boat we know here (and it’s quite a few) is doing outbound clearance up north in Nosy Be, even if they plan to sail by Mahajanga.

We went to Mahajanga anyway. We didn’t go because we’re risk-takers, or looking our acts derring-do to trumpet about. Just the idea of that makes me giggle: we are VERY risk averse. Our reasons for going were practical: our crew was flying and would join Totem there. Outbound clearance couldn’t be done until Ty was on board. So we worked out a plan for security, and went.

katsepy beach sunset

For us, staying safe meant anchoring away from town in the evenings. The sleepy village of Katsepy is a five mile hop cross the mouth of the delta from Mahajanga’s inner harbor. It felt more like our style anyway: instead of the shipping traffic bustle, we watched zebu on the beach at dusk, the crazy ferry loading on the beach in the morning.

We had a lovely evening getting an impromptu tour around town from Patrick, an articulate man who ferries passengers across the delta in his boat a couple of times a day.

patrick on the beach-smaller

He told us about the village: it’s a terminus for bush taxis to drop passangers to be ferried to Mahajanga (a much faster ride than driving around). There’s no clean drinking water: they’re working on it. He showed us to the library they’re building, talked about their small school, their mosque. How he wonders why most of the vazaha (foreigners) he meets – he used to work as a diver on the tourist destination of Nosy Be – make him feel like they’re looking down at him.

zebu cart warning

Shifting between town and anchorage takes less than an hour, and at times it’s a glorious sail. For four nights Totem was anchored off Katsepy, twice a day we’d race outriggers across the water. It also gave us lots of chances to wave greetings to our fellow mariners in outriggers and dhows and tugboats and barges, enjoying how nearly all of them waved back – it’s one of our favorite ways to gauge the friendliness of a new place.

Life gives us unexpected favors, and the three full days we spent in Mahajanga qualifies as a gift in my book. It was actually a very easy and convenient place to provision food and fuel. Fuel was managed by shuttling jerry cans from the dinghy into a tuktuk for filling at a gas station near the harbor. Context: We’ve been able to fill the tanks from a pump at a fuel dock exactly ONCE since leaving Australia more than three years ago… in Malaysia, last January.

There were two higher-end supermarkets walking distance from the watefront, both sparkling clean and very well stocked. I’ve got to keep six people well fed for three weeks – that’s 378 meal portions worth of grub, and we like to eat more than 2-minute noodles so it’s no small task. (Confession: at this very moment, Siobhan is cooking up instant noodles for lunch). I also hoped to find a few last souvenirs, try to send some mail from the post office, and get a few things done online with a good connection.

grocery store

Across the street from one of the schmancy supermarkets reside a group of fruit sellers. These women carry tubs of fruit on their heads effortlessly, with baby tied in a sarong (lamba) on their back. The public market had more flies than I could cope with (and I can cope with a LOT of flies) but they offered beautiful mangoes, papayas, bananas and melons. Since I needed to stock up, why not spread it around? I bought a kilo or two of fruit from each of them. By the end of our transactions, I had half a dozen new friends: we danced, and laughed, and they threw spectacular poses for me.

fruit sellers

Aside from the ease of practicalities (and for the record, the clearance formalities were 1) lightning fast 2) easy 3) absent any bribe requests, unlike Nosy Be), it is just tremendously cool to be in an active port that is centered so much around commerce by sailboat. We had a taste of this earlier in Nosy Be, where sailing dhows and outriggers came through the anchorage daily to deliver sand and palm thatch on the shorts of Crater Bay. Mahajanga just amps it up by a huge dial spin in terms of the traffic. It is incredible to watch these boats and their crews in action.


I’m not sure there are many places in the world any more where commerce on the water is dominated by sailboats. The colorfully painted, bigger dhows are especially beautiful and beg to be photographed. Walking around the docks asking for permission to take photos turned out to be a great way to get invited on board. It even garnered me a marriage proposal! I declined Botsy’s sweet offer as gracefully as I could, and promised to post a picture of the two of us to Facebook – you can see it here. Extra fun was tracking down my suitor the next day and giving him a few of the prints of him, his boat, and the two of us.

guys on the dock

On the first day, task #1 was to top up data on our phone so we could stay in touch with Ty and make connecting a little easier. I picked up a few chits for data from a street hawker adjacent to the harbor. Well, the simplest tasks aren’t always simple, and I couldn’t understand the French instructions on the phone to activate the new credit. Enter Alain, a guide at the adjacent hotel, who immediately made himself invaluable by dealing with my cantankerous phone (the 2 key takes a few tries to work, a screen crack obscures the 9, etc.) and successfully adding data. Did we need help finding things in town? I asked if he’d take us shopping the next morning (Ty’s luggage didn’t make it to Madagascar with him, and he needed clothes), and we made plans to meet.

Over the next two days, this friendly, gentle man was our right hand. He got us where we needed to go, from the gas station to clothing vendors hidden in a rabbit warren of stalls. When I asked what we could pay for his services, he refused. Without guests in the hotel, he said he had time. But he gave us two full days of his time, so we insisted, and later got to meet his wife and children.

alain mahajanga

There were other people who will stick with me. The pharmacist who helped me with a refill, spoke beautiful English, and told me about local problems with drinking water and their clean water project with a New Jersey chapter of Rotary. Then there’s the man who accidentally gave me someone else’s change in a shack of a restaurant, and just about fell over laughing when I asked if it was a ‘cadeau’ for me (bribes here are usually requested as a cadeau, or gift).  And the man who repaired my blown-out flip flops by hand sewing carefully shaped slices from a car tire tube to join the thong to the sole, whose curious pointing and sign language asking about my tattoo resulted in a quasi-conversation in mixed French, English and Malagasy.

sandal repair

There is, of course, a theme here. In this “dangerous” place, we met one lovely person after another. They showed us kindness and humor and were forthcoming with help. I don’t dispute that there has been grief for others here, only that it’s unfair to paint a place with one brush.

At the end, I got a little carried away. Maybe it was wanting to chip away at what Patrick had said about his disappointing interactions with vazaha in Madagascar. Having overbought mangoes, I had a bag in hand while walking around town on various errands so I just started offering them to people. To rickshaw drivers on a break. To the mobile kola-drink vendor. A couple of kids on the corner. The woman in the bakery. Because one of the joys in life is to unexpectedly delight someone – as Mahajanga has delighted us.

This post is syndicated on Sailfeed. Clicking through tosses change in our cruising kitty: thank you!

8 Responses

  1. I’m surprised you heard such negative things about Mahajanga. Last year all the cruisers went there, and there was a whole flotilla of yachts anchored at Katsepe each night.

  2. Behan – as always you are an inspiration. Maybe you should run for supreme world leader – Peace in our time!! 🙂
    Love your pictures. Sail on Girl…. Fair winds and safe passage.

    love ya

  3. So great to hear a wonderful story from Mahajanga. My family including a 3 and 6 y.o. lived in Mahajanga for 2 1/2 years and never once had a problem. I spent many days at the port and on the boats. In April every year is a very large sailing regatta of dhows which should not be missed. Over 100 dhows boats in full color with great sails ( they will let cruisers sail along side but watch out you might not win). The pharmacist name is Patrick and was great help in bringing clean water via the SODIS system to almost 21,000 people with the help of the Stoneybrook Rotary club.

    1. Hi David, love hearing that about your time in Mahajanga. What a cool place it is. I can’t imagine how amazing it would be to witness that regatta! The skill and the pride Malagasy have in their boats was so impressive. Awesome connection with Rotary – thank you! It’s a small world. 🙂

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