Notes from the Channel: Madagascar

A glimpse of Madagascar's fickle potential

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Davis has spent years traveling to Madagascar from his home in South Africa. In issue 24.3 he recounts chasing two of the best swells of the season and catching a previously un-surfed left (see footage below). We caught up with Davis for an interview on what keeps drawing him back to Madagascar year after year. As for the rest of the waves he scored, a fuller look is featured in the magazine.

Of all the good surf travel destinations close to your home in South Africa, why do find yourself returning to Madagascar?

When I first went there, I loved the idea that there might be an Indonesia on the doorstep of South Africa. Surfers fly right over so many potentially great empty waves on their way to Indonesia. That always held a certain appeal to me. There was only one little surf camp set up in Madagascar on my first trip. We didn’t really score waves but I loved being there. I stayed in an awesome little subsistence fishing village. The people there used to be nomadic but within the last 50 years or so have settled down and occupied a village. I loved how incredibly different that was from life at home.

Which factors do you think have helped it maintain its “fly-over” status with most South African surfers?

It’s hard to set up a business in Madagascar. The area isn’t as picturesque as a classic tropical region, because it’s sub- equatorial. It has really unique flora and fauna. The southwestern region that’s in a position to collect a lot of swell is a kind of spiny forest. All the trees have thorns on them and it’s quite dry. Plus, a huge amount of Madagascar has big barrier reefs surrounding it. Some of the waves break as far as four kilometers out, which makes access from land difficult.

Do you think the inconsistency of the surf makes it hard to travel there if you don’t have a lot of time to wait for waves?

Most people who travel to Madagascar to surf come for about 10 days, and that’s a little too short to have a good chance at scoring waves there. You need a minimum of two full weeks to have a decent shot at getting part of a good swell—even in peak winter season. Big storms in South Africa push up to Madagascar and often just translate into a lot of wind that blows out the surf. If the swells are too southerly or too westerly they don’t push up the Mozambican channel properly. For surfers, it can be frustrating to sit in Madagascar watching those swells pass you by. But on the right day you can still get some of the best uncrowded waves of your life.

The waves were freight training. The boat captain had scoped it a few times before, but never paddled out.

Did you find that traveling by boat on this trip helped counterbalance the inconsistency?

Being able to follow the surf as it moved along the coast reminded me how great it is to travel by boat in Madagascar. That said, we were so lucky on our trip. There was only one day we didn’t surf and it was only because there was too much wind. We got the two biggest swells of the winter back-to-back. When we left South Africa, J-Bay was 6 to 8 feet. So we had time to wait for the first swell to filter up the coast once we arrived in Madagascar. That swell lasted a full week. Then another swell came a day or two later.

Have you seen an increase in the number of charter boats in Madagascar over the years?

There are still only one-and-a-half charter boats in Madagascar: there’s the one boat we took. And then there’s a South African guy—an old sailor who named some of the surf spots. He usually does trips on his boat but I’m not sure what state it’s in at this point, which is why I say “one-and-a-half.” There’s also a Kiwi guy who does trips in little dugout boats with an outboard motor on the back, which is how a lot of locals travel. He’ll take you to the waves, and as you head down the coast you can camp in a few different villages. It’s a fun little adventure and it’s probably the cheapest way to access a lot of these waves.

Tell me about this new wave you surfed?

That was the second day of the trip. The waves were freight training. The boat captain had scoped it a few times before, but never paddled out. As far as he knows no one had surfed it before. It’s definitely a long barrel on its day. It’s got three or four different sections that are all really good. And they all work well on different conditions. Each one was very pronounced. At the top of the reef there was a slabby section. As it turned the corner farther inside, it sped up but got more organized. Everyone was trying to push farther up the reef to try and ride all the way down through the throaty end section. There are so many other spots that go unridden on a swell like that. We also got some of the best rights I’ve ever surfed in Madagascar on that trip.

A look at the first session at Bolo-Bol