Belo sur Mer

This Malagasy village is a time capsule of the Veso people and their boat-building craft


Text by Wolfgang Grulke with photographs by Wolfgang Grulke and Terri Martin



On the south west coast of Madagascar lies Belo sur Mer, a unique village in which boat builders still construct boats the way the European pirates did hundred years ago. It is the only remaining monument to the Veso boat building craft long forgotten elsewhere in the world. Being there was only half the adventure, getting to Belo was almost as exciting!

After an overnight stop in Antananarivo, it was a routine flight to Morondava on the south west coast of Madagascar. Our flight across the highlands brought the massive deforestation and erosion into clear view. We would learn of some of the consequences to the Veso later.

We were collected at the modest airport by a patient driver. We were the only two passengers in a huge 4x4 truck pretending to be a bus. A short ride took us through the coastal port of Morondava (a great base from which to explore some of western Madagascar’s other highlights such as the Kirindy Forest  and the Alley of the Baobabs) and on to our overnight stop at the Royal Toera Hotel.

From Morondava we took a two-hour trip in an open speedboat to the  remote village at Belo sur Mer which lies about 40km south of Morondava. The village is accessible only by boat for much of the year as the roads and bridges are frequently washed away during the rainy season and seldom repaired. The journey can also be made by traditional sail boat, which would take around eight hours depending on the wind and tides. The speedboat dropped us off right in front of the delightful Marina Hotel, an oasis of rustic charm along this wild and deceptively treacherous coastline. This was to be our base for the week.

This coastline is dominated by coconut palms, strange changing tidal lagoons and the largest mangrove forests of the western Indian Ocean. The village of Belo sur Mer, its palm groves littered with half-constructed boats of all shapes and sizes, lies a short distance from the Marine Hotel. It is one of the traditional homes of the Veso people – the archetypal fishermen and boat-builders, often called ‘the people who struggle with the sea’ –  and is laid out along ordered rectangular grids around a huge open village square. The layout is evidence of their Asian heritage and appears to pay little homage to their African origins from which one might expect a concentric plan. On the edge of the dusty village square a large baobab stands guard with a small shop nestled under its branches. Baobab flowers littered the sand like small white explosions.

The Malagasy people are essentially an exotic blend of  Asian and African, mingled together over the past 2000 years by colonisation from all directions. The western part of Madagascar is dominated by the Sakalava tribe who are primarily farmers of rice and tenders of Zebu cattle. The Veso are considered a sub-clan of the Sakalava as they live off the sea and do not farm crops or keep cattle.

The Veso village itself impresses in terms of the way it is maintained: clean and organised - evidence of a proud people! The children beg not for money but for pens and sweets. The adults all appear seriously busy with routine tasks.  Women sit behind tall rough picket fences, made of widely spaced sticks which surround their wood and palm-thatch homes. The stick fences provide only minimal modesty and cast sharp shadows across the narrow sand streets in the late afternoon sun. A well provides drinking water and is clearly a popular gathering place. We took a Polaroid photograph of a small group gathered there and exuberant wonderment followed – clearly they had never seen a photograph of themselves!

The Veso boats reflect their origins and their pirate heritage. The small pirogues or lakanas are really outriggers of south east Asian origin that have been adapted to Malagasy needs over the centuries.  The base of these primitive boats is typically carved out of a solid log and the sides built up with roughly-shaped planks. The outrigger or balancier is often a simple beam held on by somewhat rickety cross members. These pirougues are similar to those found in the Comoros Islands but are made of a far lighter wood. Some lakanas are rowed while others sport a mast and a small square sail stitched together from appears to be any cloth remnants at hand. There is little attempt at ornamentation.

Centuries ago, in the golden age of piracy in the Mozambique Channel, fleets of more than 300 Veso boats are said to have terrorised the islands near Madagascar. They went as far as the east coast of Africa, using the Comoros as a staging post. Their bounty was African slaves and any goods they could carry. The Napoleonic wars brought European piracy to an end and many pirates retired to secluded spots along the Malagasy coastline where they lived out their lives in relative peace. The larger schooners the Veso now make, still reflect the skills of these European pirates. Walking around the palm groves where the schooners are being built is a bit like entering into a time warp.

There is the ubiquitous sound of men chipping away at wood. There is no attempt at mass production and every element is uniquely conceived and designed. Every plank is individually fashioned to fit the one next to it. The sides of the schooners resemble an elongated wooden jig-saw puzzle.  Here boat-building is an age-old, revered, deliberate process that runs along its own time lines.

The boat builders are not dedicated artisans; primarily they are fishing people who build these boats in their spare time. It is a source of additional income. They work alone, sometimes taking years to build even the most basic schooner. It’s only seldom, and with great reluctance, that they enlist the help of a friend or family member with heavy tasks that cannot be achieved alone.

In the tradition of Michelangelo, the Veso boat artists seem to entice the exact shapes of timbers needed for the hull of the boat out of mangled tree trunks that perfectly fit their purpose every time. Choosing the timbers is a time-honoured and unrecorded art that appears to be handed down the generation and survives nowhere else in Madagascar except in this one remote village.

Like skeletons of beached whales they lie scattered under the palm trees. The sun has turned the wood a bony grey, evidence of the length of time it takes to build these boats. The largest boat currently being built at Belo sur Mer stands modestly in skeletal form beneath a palm grove at the far end of the village. This is to be a 120 tonne monster, already 5 years in the making. The Comorean businessman who commissioned the boat has since died and a new customer has yet to be found.

The Malagasy sailing schooners, even today, have no engines and There are only two ‘models’: the highly manoeuvrable single-masted Boutre with its triangular sail and the large two-masted Goélette with its high load capacity. The Boutres are found mainly in the north west with its many islands and bays. The heavier Goélettes are mainly employed on the long runs between Mahajunga and Tulear on the Madagascar west coast. Still today these schooners have no engines. They sail as far as the Comoros but typically not to continental Africa. It appears, though, that several hundred years ago they did not see themselves limited in this way.

Once the schooner is complete, the whole village gets involved in the gargantuan task of launching the boat. The tides play no small part as the larger boats are absolutely landlocked until the highest of tides and even then the slow journey through the silty channels to the sea can be tricky.

On the day we left Belo sur Mer, a large Goélette, a basic freighter with few adornments and a capacity of 35 tons, left Belo sur Mer on its maiden voyage to Morondava. On the 40m2 deck, more than 20 passengers made themselves at home: ten women with four babies; five children and three men. And two chickens. Two large sails billowed in the wind. On the foredeck, the firewood for the sand-filled cooking pit was stored amogst the anchor and chains!

The schooner  cautiously made its way the channels only to run aground on a sandbank several kilometres out to sea. It capsized and two adults and a child trapped underneath the boat were drowned. Horst Niedhammer, a Swiss national and a man who understands the Veso boat builders intimately, should have been on board but had been turned away as the boat was already overcrowded. The sister and niece of his local interpreter were amongst those killed in this accident. The tragedy and sadness of the incident affected the whole village.

Hundreds of years ago Madagascar was a part of a trade network that spanned the entire Indian Ocean. Today these schooners are the most visible remains of that sea-faring history.

The schooners deliver basic foodstuffs like soap, sugar, beer, candles, textiles and cement. They return with necessities such as dried fish, rice, beans and nuts. The salt from Belo sur Mer is transported by these trading schooners. Also, the coconuts from Maintirano arrive by sea to the markets of  Tulear, Morondava and Mahajunga.

On top of their earnings, the crew earn themselves a substantial amount from the transport of passengers. A trip up or down the coast by boat is typically about one-third of the cost of a land alternative – by rickety bush taxi – and usually quicker. You will find passengers on every freight schooner on every trip. The captain also acts as postman carrying private goods. The transport of dogs, cats and pigs is taboo, but birds of all sorts are accepted.

Trips can last up to two weeks depending on sea conditions and delivery times are never guaranteed. The sailing schooners operate primarily between April and December. During the rainy season, which brings with it significant risks of cyclones, the schooners prefer to remain in harbours or on-shore where essential maintenance is done.

The food aboard never varies. Rice, the staple food of the Malagasy, is included in all three meals. In the cooking pit behind the foremast the wood fire burns all day. Cooking is done in large three-legged pots over the open fire. The passengers prepare their own food. The sailors take turns in preparing their food. The captain receives his portion first: it’s always unsalted rice, mostly without any supplement. There are never vegetables or meat, also no tea or coffee. The crew and passengers drink water from two fresh-water barrels. The sailors rarely fish on these journeys, even though the Mozambique Channel is fish rich and they will often be surrounded by Japanese or Korean fishing vessels on their trips! What they may not know is that the Malagasy government has given them fishing rights in return for cars.

The captain uses no navigational aids: no compass, no sextant or maps, no radio or radar.  The passengers mainly congregate on the planks covering the loading bays at the centre of the ship. They also spend the nights there. At the back of the boat are two cabins each the size of a double bed. Only Children can stand upright in these tiny cabins. At night, when the ship is typically at anchor, the sailors roll themselves into the sails and sleep on the roof of the cabins. The ship is not habitable below decks – the inhospitable storage spaces are damp and infested with finger-sized cockroaches.

One reason why these schooners continue to thrive, is directly linked to the ecological dangers that Madagascar faces. There are only a few harbours that have not been silted up due to the massive catastrophic soil erosion inland. The harbour at Mahajunga silts up at the rate of 20cm per year, so much sediment is pushed down the earthy red Betsiboka river from the almost deforested highlands. This calls for smaller and more manoeuvrable boats. The harbours at Mahajunga and Morondava can only be navigated by sailing schooners with very low draught. At low tide you will see them high on the sand with their bow out of the water.

Most coastal villages have absolutely no harbour facilities. Even at Morombe, previously a major focus for agricultural produce from the hinterland, the sailing schooners sail as close as possible to the sandy beach and then lay on their side at low tide. The loading and unloading is done manually by people splashing through waist-deep water, carrying the goods on their heads.

Late afternoon is always a romantic time at Belo sur Mer. The sky softens in its orange hues as the sun illuminates the back of spectacular clouds. The setting sun reflects in the shallow channels in front of the Marina Hotel and almost imperceptibly, the fishing  boats and schooners drift back into the safety of Belo’s primitive harbour. Mangroves cast daunting silhouettes against the evening sky as the Veso village descends into silent well-earned sleep.


Box on Morondava and the Royal Toera hotel:

 Morondava, a small coastal market town on the south west coast of Madagascar (it has often been called a ‘Wild West’ frontier town) is the cultural centre of the Menabe-Sakalava people and the point of departure for a trip to Belo sur Mer. The Royal Toera Hotel is located in the outskirts of Morondava on a finger of reclaimed mangrove forest. It is a new, impressive seaside hotel with 16 sea-facing wooden chalets of various configurations, built around a swimming pool, with a bar and restaurant that opens up to the sea. From the deck you can watch a wide variety of wooden boats and schooners entering and leaving Morondava’s modest harbour via the tidal channel next to the hotel at high tide, and the constant ferrying of people and their goods across the tidal mouth to a small village on the opposite shore.

Most of the tourist hotels are of the ‘no frills’ variety and all have restaurants. Our recommendation would be to venture into Morondava town and sample some of the local fare – don’t be put off by the dishevelled appearance! The best we found was the inappropriately named ‘Drug Store Mini-Resto’ in the main street opposite the market. The owner, Emilien Marc, speaks German and a little English and the sea food he serves is simply outstanding and the prices are incredibly low. Look past the battered Formica tables (and the flies during the hottest time of the day – a constant feature of Morondava) and have a great meal!

For a bit of an adventure you can take a day trip by boat to a small island called Bosy where a local artist still makes copies of the indigenous wooden erotic grave statues – just make sure, using the excellent local grapevine, that he is ‘in’ before you go!


Box on the Marina Hotel at Belo sur Mer:

The area is still unspoiled and mostly unknown to most westerners. The Marina Hotel is the only accommodation available around Belo sur Mer unless you’re prepared to experiment with very basic lodgings with local families in the village itself.

While the Marina is the only choice, it is an excellent one. The 11 bungalows (mostly sea-facing) are built on stilts and situated largely out of sight of each other in the sandy coastal scrubland, and built of local wood that has bleached almost white in the sun, the roofs are palm-thatch. The rooms are rustic but beautifully designed, the water from your shower runs straight through the slatted floors and onto the white sand a metre below! The overall effect creates one of the most romantic locations imaginable. And, if your really lucky, you may be blessed by a visit of the spectacular Atrophaneura antenor butterfly, the largest in Madagascar, that seems to feed in the blossoms surrounding the pool! (slide 622)

The restaurant is a large palm-thatched facility open to the sea, while cooking is done on open fiires at the back of the restaurant. The grilled fish and vegetable dishes were outstanding. The owners and staff speak very little English and this resulted in much confusion about meals. No-one, not even the French, knew what was being included or excluded from the basic meals resulting in disagreements when it came time to pay! Learn some French before you go!

There is no real swimming off the beach in front of the hotel (remember this is a coast dominated by shifting tidal inlets, mangroves and mud), but there is much else to do once you’ve had your fill of the Belo sur Mer village and its boat builders. The hotel has a diving operation and organises trips to small off-shore islands to visit nomadic Veso fishermen. Diving and trips are pricey by South African standards and we recommend you have these included in your tour price and pay up front. 

Box on Unusual Destinations:

Unusual Destinations did all our travel arrangements and provided much assistance in terms of local information. They are one of the world's leading tour operators specialising in travel to Madagascar and the Mascarenes.

Unusual Destinations can be contacted at telephone +27 11 706 1991, fax +27 11 463 1469, email :; website:;  or by mail at P O Box 97508, Petervale, 2151, South Africa. Talk to director Rita Griessbach or marketing manager Derek Schuurman (who has co-authored two books on Madagascar (Madagascar Wildlife in 1996 and Globetrotter Guide to Madagascar in 1997).


Our thanks go to Unusual Destinations who organised the travel arrangements to and around Madagascar, to Air Madagascar, to Derek Schuurman for sharing his immense knowledge of the area and to Horst Niedhammer for the practical background information on the Veso’s boat building craft. Our thanks to Agfa for allowing us to test their new RSX II professional slide film – the pictures were taken using this film.