Nosy Be to Dubai
Nosy Be has played hard to get. I discovered the place when looking for a few days to stay on a beach close to the capital of Antananarivo three years ago on my first visit. All recommendations pointed to a tiny tropical island on the northwest coast, 90 minutes flying time away. I booked four nights but then cancelled at the last minute in order to pop down to Buenos Aires for a few days (another story). Returning to Madagascar it was only right to give Nosy Be another go, and we dutifully booked four nights at the end of our tour. The tour ran over by two days due to bad weather and missed flights, and four nights became two. And so, with barely 36 hours of tropical paradise remaining we finally boarded our delayed departure and found ourselves flying above the Malagasy clouds with yet another insane sunset in progress. Landing was rather more daunting as there were no obvious signs of life below us as the usual African darkness prevailed over the lack of electricity. However, upon landing it soon became clear that this island was not like the rest of the mainland. The roads were paved to a European standard, we were met at our beachside resort with a fresh towel and fruit juice, blinded by the well-lit snazzy bar and restaurant. Dazed and confused after two weeks of hard driving I was a little confused how to feel, guilty, very happy, or both. There is no doubt that with its tiny international airport this is the island that tourists with money visit. In fact, it isn’t that expensive and it’s the luck of the island that it is blessed with some of the best palm fringed beaches in the world, coral reefs, giant turtles, whales, apparently abundant sea food, quiet resorts, friendly people, few tourists, and of course, lemurs. It’s Zanzibar but French and a little better.
With one full day on the island and a girlfriend obsessed with whale watching we had to make the most of our time and our host happily arranged for his little boat and crew of two to take us out for the day. Within 30 minutes we could see a humpback whale breaching in the distance and I pessimistically thought that was the end of that. Further out, we kept falling upon a humpback mother and her calf as they came up for air and then tilting downwards with a characteristic wave of the tail before disappearing. This is a lovely scene, especially when in a small boat with only four people on board and no other boats around for miles other than the odd fisherman in a canoe, but what happened next was rather unexpected. Maybe 50 metres from the boat a humpback breached, frantically I zoomed out the camera as I wasn’t expecting anything so close, and I managed to get a shot as the whale breached for a second time. There are many ways to get a hit of adrenaline in this world and a colossal whale jumping by the side of you is one. The picture turned out to be a blurry mess but the memory of a humpback almost fully out of the water and pirouetting before crashing back into the sea is something I will never forget. It wasn’t going to get better than that and under the heat of the sun we cruised for a good hour over to the coast where we were immediately greeted by huge turtles grazing on the sea grass below. Granted there were a couple more tourist boats around, but so much space that the two of us spent an age snorkelling with the turtles and no one else. We were then delivered to an empty tropical beach with loungers and a restaurant that served up the best three course seafood meal I’ve ever had. Octopus salad followed with crab and a huge chunk of fish steak and the tastiest coconut rice I ever did try, followed by ice-cream and caramelised apple. Two bottles of complimentary rum were then delivered to the table that we could drink as much as we liked from. Sufficiently fed, I lay down for 20 minutes before returning to the sea for a snorkel amongst the coral reef that lay just offshore. All in all, an incredible day to end an incredible tour in an incredible country. The following day we would be leaving Madagascar and heading to a very different part of the world.
Only in Dubai can you ask a taxi driver where his home country is, be told Bangladesh, and then get into an in-depth conversation about Argentine football to the delight of my Argentine girlfriend at 4am. Dubai is unfortunate in that it appears to be the new Mecca for British tourists and as such a plethora of tacky TV programmes have been made that showcase the city’s extravagances and indulgences. There is no doubt that the city was created in the name of everything I detest, basically excessive consumption, with the whole point of Dubai’s economy to wow the visitor into parting with as much cash as possible. The UAE’s neighbour, Saudi Arabia is used as the Western scapegoat allowing us all to forget that Dubai was built on mega cheap labour and continues to operate on it. I have seen poverty, but little makes me feel so bad as when I see a chap employed to stand in a tiny shopping mall bathroom all day long mopping up the piss left on the floor from old, privileged men. The problem is Dubai is a fantastic city. There I said it. This was my third visit, and in fairness it has always been to see friends and/or watch rugby. This was the first time I had actually seen some of the city instead of sitting in a bar and although I wouldn’t rush back for tourism I would recommend at least one visit, and the appeal of working there is quite obvious. Putting ethical debate to one side for a moment, the city is spotless, it’s safe to the point you can leave your handbag on the table to reserve a place while wondering off to get a drink, there are female only taxis, the metro is spotless, taxi fares are standardised, the food is incredible, the weather is epic, it is truly multinational, and it maintains a degree of respectability, it’s not tacky as I imagine Vegas to be.
I finally visited the famous mall which everyone says should be visited. It’s a frickin shopping centre, nothing more. If there is anything that stands out it would be the bloody big fish tank but otherwise I could literally go to a shopping centre in Leicester for the same but cheaper experience, or Oxford Street in London if I wanted the waste-of-space trendy-trendy shops. I did part with £300 for the two of us to go up to the penultimate viewing deck of the Burj Khalifa, an astonishing amount of money, but I needed to decide myself if it was worth it or not. Our tickets dropped us at the 148th floor (Empire State is 102 floors) and provided soft drinks and some nibbles. They tried to sell us tickets to the 154th floor which is the top observation deck and offers champagne and nibbles, but I figured the difference in view across six floors would be sweet-f-all, as would any sane person. Looking back, I still don’t know if it’s worth it! The view was epic and much to my surprise and delight the viewing deck was peaceful, even around sunset. We also had access to viewing decks on the 124th and 125th floors which were chaos and Insta-central and I was therefore happy to have paid a bit extra to go higher and avoid the crowds. The way up is fast, but the way down is ridiculous and from the 124th floor we were on the ground in less than a minute and watching the floor counter in the lift barely keep up with its speed is both terrifying and impressive. I suppose that’s the thing about the Burj, it’s the highest building in the world, almost 1km up which is insane. The building is stunning to look at and reading about its construction is mind-blowing and so although it is ludicrously expensive to go to the top, there’s no other experience like it in the world, and that sums up Dubai.
Maybe it was too much rattling around a minibus in Madagascar the week before but for some reason I convinced myself that we should do a skydive in Dubai. Rut had never done one and had always wanted to and I had figured that a skydive for me in Dubai would take me to four skydives on four continents. I therefore concluded that six on six would be a good goal in life and may be a lot easier than my other goal of breaking a 6000m peak one day. We checked in on time at 10am only to be told everything was grounded due to the wind and we could wait with fingers crossed, reschedule, or get a refund. We only had that day and so it took every ounce of strength to not ask for a refund. And so it began, waiting. Waiting is very much the killer under these circumstances, and I wasn’t feeling too chirpy when we were finally called up after almost three hours. Wonderfully I was partnered up with a short but hardy Ukrainian who came with that stereotypical Ukrainian/Russian bluntness which actually reassured me greatly. On arrival to the runway, after over an hour of operation, the flights were grounded once again by air traffic control for whatever reason. One plane even had to return fully loaded with jumpers after only reaching 4,000ft. Imagine that, in the plane heading up to jump out of it, only to turn around, land, wait, and do it all again. But never mind, finally I found myself sat in the open doorway of the plane, staring out at Dubai’s coastline with the wind in my face like a scene from a war movie, only I was attached to my dependable Ukrainian. The young chap next to me, so loud and confident leading up to boarding the plane now sat in silence, terror plastered on his face, and then he was gone, and it was me shuffling into position before being tipped out at 13,000ft. There is no greater feeling in life then plummeting to earth at 120mph and I can confidently say it gets better with every jump. It’s a four-stage emotional process. Terror on the way up. Nothing as you leave the plane, the brain freezes. Adrenaline overload as you hit terminal velocity, and absolute peace as you hang under the canopy and drift back to earth. Don’t worry about the height, it’s impossible to grasp any concept and besides you’re already falling and so there’s no need to worry about falling off anything.
It was only two days, but it was a great two days, largely in part due to great friends. Although the day of the skydive was a significant day as we later learnt the Queen had passed away and I’m happy to admit, I felt a little sad. The one of only two dependable constants in British life taken by the other.