A stroke of bad luck within touching distance of the granite walls of Tsaranoro, Madagascar meant I was once again making a long journey, this time back to the capital Antananarivo (Tana) from which I’d only just arrived; I’d inadvertently received a dog bite, and rabies treatment (Madagascar is considered a high risk area) appeared to be unavailable in the ‘nearby’ clinics of Fianarantsoa.
Taxi-bruises (the main form of transport in Madagascar) only leave when full and with the last bus outside of Fianarantsoa station empty, we’d had no option but to buy every seat to secure immediate transport back to the capital. However, this didn’t prevent the driver stopping at every available opportunity to fill his 'empty’ seats.
The roads in Madagascar are unlike anything I've seen before (including Morocco); a huge game of chicken, combined with a human version of ‘Frogger’, being endlessly played out. Large potholes repeatedly push vehicles into a head-to-head situation, vying for the last serviceable strip of Tarmac. The game seemingly has only one rule: size matters. 4x4s yield to taxi-bruises (usually a Mercedes Sprinter with enough seats for around 20 people but containing at least 25); taxi-bruises yield to trucks; trucks yield only to tankers.
The inevitable result of the game is apparent next to one of the many bridges: a vehicle off the road, its cab half submerged in the river. Next to the bridge is the previous crossing point, attacked using dynamite by one of the 'Bandits’ during a raid.
Arriving back to the capital some 15 hours later, Madagascar have beaten Nigeria 2-0 in the African Cup of Nations, the whole city is celebrating and traffic is of secondary concern. Children climb on the roofs of cars, dance in the headlights and use their index fingers to recreate the horns of the Zebu (horned cattle) mascot. Progress through the town is slow.
The next day we travel to the rabies clinic, the closest I've seen to a Western hospital facility so far, yet more akin to an ageing dental practice. Tana's streets are choked by traffic and diesel fumes in equal measure and a one-mile journey takes two hours. The consultation is swift after dropping my passport into a box held by a partially closed window. However, the clinic declines to treat. Unsure of what to do, we make a beeline for Ivato airport only to be stopped by our insurers who firmly advise against leaving the country without immediate treatment, recommending we try a further clinic. At first, signs of treatment look hopeful, but it soon becomes apparent that the drug needed is controlled by the previous clinic and isn’t going to be released. A three-way conversation ensues between the two clinics and a French-speaking remote doctor provided by the insurers. After a further day of uncertainty and many emails, the Malagasy clinic yields their position and offers the necessary injection and follow-up three days later. The needle gives a much-needed dose of relief.
As a result of our evacuation to the capital, we have a few days to spend within the city. Our driver and guide takes us to the highest point, explaining the various visible features of the sprawling city; 3.5 million people live in Tana, most in poverty, surviving on less than $2 per day.
The Queen's palace, once destined to become a UNESCO world heritage site, sits half finished; the money required to complete the restoration was stolen in 2009 during a political coup.
Walking through the many markets of Tana, it’s incredibly hard to fathom how so many people survive selling buttons, nail clippers or other niche items. However, from afar logic can be found within the chaos; garment repair stalls sit adjacent to haberdasheries, sales of pots and pans adjacent to food markets, so on and so forth.
A few days later and the second injection is complete. Having missed the best part of a week of climbing we opt to charter a 4x4 back to the valley. Never have I been so happy to see a Toyota Hilux, even if the first corner reveals that the brakes only partially function. Our journey back along the RN7 is swift (comparatively speaking) but as the sun begins to set our driver insists we spend the night in Fianarantsoa, fearing for both our and his own safety further south.
The next morning the journey is concluded after a temporary setback (a tanker proved a little too much for one of the bridges) and, throwing our luggage into the accommodation, we pick up two pre-packed bags and brave the morning heat to finally climb upon the immaculate granite walls. I've only experienced similar views once before; driving into Yosemite Valley. El Capitan and the surrounding formations changes a climbers’ perception of scale forever. The Tsaranoro Massif has similar effect but without the hassle of American bureaucracy. There are no other climbers (a sobering thought).
With the introductory route complete the next objective is selected; Croix du Sud 6b+ (290m; 6a+ obligatory), an 8-pitch route up Vatovarindry requiring more smearing than the surrounding monoliths, broken with pitches climbing the water worn flutings. We return to the floor via abseil, our feet protesting the heat and the abject lack of handholds.
After another rest day and owing to our shortened climbing time we decide to go big; Out of Africa is the usual target for visiting teams, with a maximum grade of 7a (580m; 6b+ obligatory), the route tackles Tsaranoro Kely in 14 pitches. The bolting is just the correct side of lunacy. Given our current pace, a summit and successful return in daylight is far from guaranteed and thus we opt for blasting as far as possible before descending via abseil (a significant undertaking in itself owing to the traversing middle pitches). The route lives up to the hype; a few pitches of shallow slabs lead to a pillar above an overlap. The rock ventures in and out with just enough bolts to ensure the direction of travel but few enough to demand constant attention, further amplified by the complete lack of chalk. As things steepen the rock changes, offering more flakes and edges whereas tougher sections become thin (much like our ever-worsening skin).
Varavaran Tontolo 7b (460m; 6c+ obligatory), first ascended in 2015, and funded by a bolt fund is a rarity in Tsaranoro with up to 18 bolts on the 60m pitches. The route gets early morning shade and consists of pitch after pitch of immaculate sustained, technical granite. A cave at mid-height offers a potential bivi spot or a convenient break for those wanting fewer pitches that day. On the crux pitch, a Malagasy Kestrel watches on, perched upon one of the many blonde tufts of grass attached to the cliff having bombed past just moments before, its wings firmly tucked in during a dive manoeuvre.
At this point in the trip, the rough granite is taking its toll on both skin and feet. The classic route Pectorine 6b/A0/1 (250m; 6a+ obligatory) offers slight respite. At the aid bolts, it’s hard to fathom why the route doesn’t enter from the right, but then again, it’s clear looking around the valley that the amount of rock available for new routing is simply huge.
The final day and the lure of a short walk-in being too hard to resist lead us to Chameleon Air Society 6b+ (250m; 6b obligatory). The route was first ascended in 2013, following local bolting ethics, and it offers a great flavour of the surrounding cliffs (even with the addition of a few bolts on the first pitch).
Having adjusted to Madagascar, and after undertaking the connection journey twice more than planned, the return to the airport is a breeze. You’d expect 15 hours in a vehicle would lead to boredom but the ever-changing landscape and the nature of the many towns of varying size en-route offers entertainment right up until the light fades and leads one to question: Why is tourism in Madagascar is on the decline? Certainly, for climbers, it shouldn’t be.
Climber, and reluctant engineer based in Lancashire