By BRUCE DENNILL
Visiting an island engages many parts of a tourist’s body. There is the feel on your skin of the thick-as-a-blanket humidity as you step out of a plane that came from somewhere with breathable air. There is the spike in adrenaline as you realise that the vehicle driven by the guy who had the board with your name on it at the airport is a 40-year-old jalopy with a single functioning door and a carburettor purloined from a third-hand Vespa. There is the caustic reek of something previously ocean-based and still wriggling in a basket in the central fish market you pass on the way to the hotel. And there is the apprehensive anticipation as the scaled-down Stuka wail of the evening’s first mosquito fires up moments after you turn the light out for the night.
On Nosy Be, off the north-western tip of Madagascar, there’s one more area of your anatomy that is employed more often, perhaps, than you might have planned: your rear. It’s a whole island, it seems, on which cushions are anathema.
You meet a friendly local craftsman, and pause to chat at their place of work. The seating arrangement involves a single plank, well sanded and varnished – these are skilled artists, after all – but hard as granite. This is not a problem, as it’s your first day and your buttocks are still conditioned to office and airline chair comfort.
The streetside café where you grab a bite to eat is cooled by permanently running electric fans and features a brilliant bakery. And yet the chairs, elegant dark wood and of contemporary design, feature no padding.
The excursion you decide to take from the hotel, hiring a quad bike and heading up into the hilly territory in the centre of the island, where you follow root-strewn tracks around turquoise lakes, doesn’t help. The bike has an upholstered section where riders’ bottoms connect with the chassis, sure, but comfort is not a priority, and it takes seeing a 12-inch panther chameleon in a tree next to the path to distract you from the fact that neither standing for the the duration of your journey nor sitting as you plough through a ditch is a sustainable option.
The antidote? A day trip to a second, distant and far smaller island, all gleaming white sand, impossibly clear water and a Gustave Eiffel-designed lighthouse on a hill at one end. Nosy Iranja is a vision, a 3D billboard for paradise.
But here’s the thing. It’s a 90-minute boat ride from Nosy Be to Nosy Iranja. If you have the best possible weather for your transfer, it’ll be just slightly bumpy, for every minute of that hour and a half. If you’re slightly less lucky, it’ll feel like you’re crossing 50km of rumble strips. And if it’s not your day, a squall will come out of nowhere and create swells large enough to cause the boat you’re on to vibrate violently as the bow slams down on the surface of the water after ramping off a wave.
The boat carries a bit of freight as well; supplies for the Iranja residents and such; so most of the passengers line benches along the side of the craft. These are constructed of the lightweight Perspex or whatever it is that boatmakers use and, as you might imagine, this is designed to be hard-wearing and easy to clean, not to accommodate the sensitive bum of a city dweller who, 45 minutes into the inter-island transfer, begins to understand that the accumulated butt-bashing of the previous few days has, as it were, come home to roost.
If you did not accept a life jacket when you climbed aboard, accept one now. Those things are packed with foam or compressed air. They are soft. They are welcoming. They want to be your friend. They want to cradle your rump and hold you while you cry.
Remember, after your day on the beach at Iranja, you’re going to need to do the whole crossing in reverse. This time, go straight to the locker in which the jackets are stored: this might not be the sort of rescue their designers had in mind, but if, metaphorically speaking, your behind is ever going to move forward again, you’ll appreciate that bit of planning.