Cart pulled by a zebu in front of simple huts and shops
Culture & tradition,  Madagascar

It’s not hell in Hellville

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 decided to visit the town while staying at Eden Lodge. That was in part because with my leg still very sore from an injury earlier in the trip (and as I found out on my return home, now infected), the other outings available would involve more walking than I felt up to. And also because we fancied another change from our wildlife walks.

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!

Driving through Hellville

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 included below! 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.

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!

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.

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. I though that probably explained his apparent much better knowledge of the town than of the wildlife we’d seen with him yesterday evening.

Signs of the past

On the way back to the port we stopped in the centre of town. There was 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.

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.

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.

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 and of the general scene.

Men and women seated in a concrete shelter
Waiting for the ferry
Moored boats and a crane
The port
Woman seated with baskets and a straw mat
Basket seller near the port

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!

I visited Hellville in November 2023


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