It may be the capital of the Boeny region, the country’s second port and its fifth biggest town, but there’s no question Mahajanga (Majunga) is a bit sleepy: the huge Louis Dreyfus textile factory, a couple of kilometres out of town on the Tana road, has been dormant since the corporation closed it down in 1996, and townsfolk these days seem most interested in keeping out of the heat, sampling their district’s thirteen varieties of mangos and walking along the Corniche at sunset.
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First impressions of the town aren’t encouraging: dusty and potholed sums it up – or muddy and potholed in the rainy season. Majunga sprawls across a flat snout of land, with the ocean and beach on one side, and a somnolent river port, washed by the red flow of Madagascar’s biggest estuary, the Bombetoka, on the other. If you’re flying to Madagascar from Europe, these muddy meanders, carrying the highlands’ precious topsoil into the sea, are quite likely to be your first sight of the country from 10,000m above.
The main reason to come to Majunga is to leave again in order to visit Parc National d’Ankarafantsika, two hours’ drive to the southeast. Wildlife tourism could take off in the immediate area if the transport links were better: there are rare lemurs at Katsepy, impressive cave networks at Anjohibe (see Information and tours) that are world-famous among cavers and rich fossil dinosaur deposits at Berivotra.
Majunga started life as the main settlement of the Boina people (an offshoot of the Sakalava) in the mid-eighteenth century. It was the island’s biggest slave port for nearly a hundred years: thousands of Indian, Arab and Comorian families settled and intermarried here and their eight mosques are scattered across the town. Majunga was formally annexed by the Merina in 1824, but since the end of slavery in 1895, with the arrival of the French (who used Majunga as a beachhead for their colonization of the island), only fishing, mangrove-pole-cutting and a trickle of trade have kept the town afloat.
Majunga’s era as an economic backwater may be drawing to a close, however: recent oil finds in the Mozambique Channel look set to bring rapid development to the area over the next few years and an energetic Englishman, Peter Hanratty, has set up a local chamber of commerce and started a biofuel project, growing jatropha in degraded land shared with livestock.
Majunga splits into several distinct neighbourhoods, and the relatively swanky quarter behind the oceanfront Corniche is certainly the most attractive. Watch a balloon-seller at work here among the crowds as the sun goes down, or a just-married couple posing for photos in front of the famous and gargantuan vieux baobab tree (an African baobab, Adansonia digitata), and you may start to see why many middle-class Antananariviens choose to make Majunga their seaside home from home.