Travel: To Nosy Be, stranger than paradise: Perfumed ylang-ylang, palm-fringed beaches, revolutionary politics: Jane Walker and her family found all these in Madagascar

'There's been a coup in the capital this morning,' said a grinning Jean, our guide for a planned day-trip to the remote Baie des Dunes, outside Madagascar's northern port of Diego Suarez. The laughter echoed all around us. Trying not to look too grim-faced, I inquired whether this should be regarded as serious news. 'Oh no, don't worry. This kind of thing happens all the time in Madagascar.'

During our visit to Madagascar this summer, my family and I were staying in Diego's once elegant but now shabby Hotel de la Poste. As news of the coup filtered through to our hotel, the owner was busy persuading us to vacate our newly acquired rooms because of the imminent arrival of a prominent Malagasy politician.

Professor Albert Zafy, head of the Haute Autorite de l'Etat, was coming to town that evening, accompanied by his 120-strong entourage. By the time the owner explained we would definitely not want to sleep in a hotel filled with armed soldiers, we were ready to agree to his every demand. With a sense of relief we transferred to the annexe, a crumbling, colonial-style building that bore an uncanny resemblance to one of those shelled buildings in war-torn Sarajevo.

Diego Suarez is a cosmopolitan town with some splendid colonnaded buildings dating from the period of French colonialism (Madagascar gained full independence from France in 1960). Like the population of Madagascar itself, which divides into 18 distinct ethnic groups, the people of Diego are a mixed bunch - Indians, Chinese, Arabs, immigrants from the neighbouring Comoros Islands and the Malagasy people themselves.

The political fortunes of the town were also of a mixed nature. As we flew out of Madagascar some weeks later, Diego Suarez was virtually sealed off, with barricades across the runway and the main roads into town, and street battles raging between the federalists, loyal to President Didier Ratsiraka, and the supporters of the Forces Vives of Professor Zafy.

But that was to come. For the moment we were heading south. Leaving Diego, we set off by road (which, in Madagascar, is most likely to be an uneven, pot-holed dust track and occasionally a stretch of uneven, pot-holed tarmac) to the port of Antsahampano. Here we planned to catch the ferry to the island of Nosy Be (pronounced Nosee Bay). Stopping overnight in the small town of Ambanja, we discovered the Albert Zafy bandwagon had rolled out from our prospective hotel that same day. At least we would not have to give up our bedrooms this time.

Rising at 4am, we made our way to the ferry where we found crowds of people struggling to pack themselves into a small and worn-looking ferry boat. As the boatman squeezed more and more bodies on to the flimsy wooden seats, I detected a look of anxiety on the faces of the locals. Finally, the ferry inched its way out of port, but lurched to one side before righting itself, only to tilt slowly over in the opposite direction. The young nun beside me touched the small gold crucifix around her neck, prompting me surreptitiously to check out the lifejacket situation on the racks above my head.

It seemed that the previous day's ferry had been commandeered by, yes, Professor Zafy and his merry men, leaving the local population with no means of getting across to Nosy Be. As our overladen ferry chugged its way across the water, small motor launches sped past us in the opposite direction, sending a tide of unwelcome backwash knocking against our fragile craft. Close behind this flotilla came the ferry carrying the Zafy campaign team, their work on the island completed.

Our perilous journey ended, we set about discovering Nosy Be, which has the dubious reputation of being Madagascar's most 'developed' tourist location. But this means a handful of mostly small, bungalow-style hotels linked by a tarmac road, plus a few tour operators offering excursions to the neighbouring islands of Nosy Komba (for lemur feeding) and Nosy Tanikely (a snorkeller's paradise).

While Nosy Be offers all the attractions of a tropical island - coconut groves, acres of perfumed ylang-ylang plantations (the ylang-ylang flower is used as a fixative in the perfume industry), snorkelling, empty palm-fringed beaches, clear warm seas, plentiful shellfish - it was on Ile Ste Marie, a small island off Madagascar's north-east coast, that we found our tropical paradise. The location of our tiny palm-thatched bamboo bungalow at La Crique was so tranquil and idyllic that even the prospect of cold outdoor showers and a hike to the toilet block in the darkness (the hotel generator packed up at 9.30 each evening) produced not a single protest from the children.

Vanilla, cloves and coffee grow in abundance and we even spotted migratory whales cruising offshore. A 6km hike across to the village of Anafiafy on the east side of Ile Ste Marie, followed by a short ride in a pirogue (a traditional canoe made from a hollowed-out tree trunk), rewarded us with a deserted beach of powdery white sand and a shimmering turquoise sea.

After a brief return to the capital, Antananarivo (popularly referred to as 'Tana'), we set off on our drive down to the south of Madagascar. We had hired a local driver and a four-wheel-drive vehicle (anything less sturdy would be foolhardy). We spent our first night in Antsirabe at the Hotel des Thermes, a vast and splendid-looking hotel whose impressive colonial facade offers few clues to the vinyl, plastic and imitation-brass fittings that characterise the hotel's interior.

After a hot bath and massage (for the equivalent of 30p) at the nearby hot springs, and a short ride in one of the town's 4,000 or so pousse-pousses (a rickshaw-like passenger vehicle), we journeyed on to the town of Fianarantsoa. A brief glance around the car park of our hotel, the incongruously pagoda-styled Chinese-run Soafia, revealed several 4 x 4 vehicles guarded by armed militiamen. Could we have caught up with the political campaigners once more? Indeed we had, and I watched one pay his hotel bill the next morning with an inch-thick wad of crisp new banknotes.

Journeying on to Betroka, 430 miles south of Tana, we would have been disappointed had we not been greeted with the news at our hotel that 'The Minister is coming'. The politicians were rolling into town once more, staying in the only 'tourist' hotel where the toilet facilities were such that my husband and sons opted to relieve themselves against the back wall of the hotel rather than use the cockroach- infested shed shared by guests and locals.

The shortage of rooms was finally solved when the owner generously offered us her own bed, which we crammed into the one tiny room that remained unoccupied. A rude awakening at 3am, to the sound of chanting voices, beating drums and clanging metal, aroused fears that perhaps one of the opposition groups had arrived to confront our resident politicians. The noises eventually faded into the distance, and the identity of the night-time revellers was revealed in the morning. Our driver explained that they were local inhabitants setting off to the rice fields to fetch the sacred water needed for the circumcision ritual of a young male relative. (He later explained that part of the circumcision ceremony involves the consumption of the young child's foreskin, together with a banana, by his father or grandfather.)

All this talk of circumcisions was making my two sons nervous, but happily for them we did not witness any such ceremonies. We did, however, see the specifically Malagasy custom of exhumation, when the bones of people's ancestors are removed from their tombs and 'turned', forming the focal point of a celebration that can entertain a whole village for anything up to three days.

Our visit was timed to coincide with Madagascar's dry season, which also turned out to be prime time for the practice of exhumation. Many Malagasy travel several hundred kilometres to their family village to exhume an ancestor and transport the body, often on the top of a local bus, back to town. In one small southern town we passed a family waiting at the bus stop, the coffin of their exhumed ancestor beside them on the ground, together with a large ghetto-blaster to provide some instant celebratory music.

The presence of an exhumed body in a vehicle is indicated by flying the Malagasy flag. To complete the exhumation celebrations, zebu cattle are slaughtered, musicians are hired and a good time is had by all. The purpose of this practice is to obtain the benediction of one's ancestors.

The final day of our drive took us into the desperately poor and drought-ridden southern region, where the local population is threatened by real famine after several years of pitifully low rainfall. Entering the small town of Ambovombe, we were struck by the frantic behaviour of those who tried to clamber aboard our vehicle. The desperation of these victims of the drought plaguing the whole southern African region was later illustrated by the large crowd that chased down the town's main street after a man who had stolen a cooking pot, presumably filled with precious food.

We could not fail to feel compassion for the suffering of these gentle and attractive southern tribespeople, the more so because, as we crossed the mountain that separates Ambovombe and neighbouring Amboasary from the southern- most town of Fort Dauphin, we were greeted by a downpour of torrential rain.

Getting there: Air Madagascar and Air France operate about three flights a week from Paris to Antananarivo (Trailfinders offers a discounted return fare from London from pounds 772 to pounds 866).

For travellers already in Africa, Air Madagascar flies from Nairobi to Antananarivo (return fare approx pounds 299). Avoid the Monday morning flight from Nairobi which arrives from Paris and is usually heavily overbooked.

For budget travellers, Aeroflot flies from London to Madagascar (via Moscow, Cyprus and Aden) for about pounds 475 return.

Accommodation: After drawing up our itinerary, we enlisted the help of Madagascar Airtours (BP 3874, Antananarivo; tel: 241 92; fax: 343 70) to make our flight and hotel bookings. Internal flights are heavily booked and need to be reconfirmed at least twice.

Prices of good hotels in Antananarivo are high, approx. pounds 80 per night for a double room in the skyscraper Hilton Hotel or pounds 33 at the comfortable Solimotel. Both are out of the centre near Lake Anosy. Hotels in the centre are often cheaper but robbery of tourists is commonplace, particularly in the station and market areas.

Elsewhere, hotel prices range from pounds 7 per night for a family bungalow at La Crique, Ile Ste Marie, to pounds 26 at the Villa Blanche, Nosy Be.

Package tours: Several British tour operators offer trips to Madagascar, including Twickers World, Exodus, Voyages Jules Verne and Swan Hellenic.

Currency: Import and export of Malagasy francs (FMG) are forbidden. French franc travellers' cheques and currency are the most useful. Approx. rates are FMG 350:1 French franc (FMG 3,500: pounds 1). All foreign currency must be declared on arrival and departure.

Visas: British nationals need a visa for Madagascar; 30-day or 90-day tourist visas are obtainable for pounds 30 per person from: Madagascar Consulate, 16 Lanark Mansions, Pennard Road, London W12 8DT (081-746 0133).

Health: Immunisation against hepatitis, typhoid and yellow fever is advisable. Make sure your polio and tetanus are up to date. An anti-Aids pack of sterile needles is recommended. Anti-malaria prophylaxis is essential. Do not drink the tap water anywhere.

(Photographs and map omitted)

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