BD athlete Zoe Hart reports on climbing trip to Madagascar
Black Diamond athlete Zoe Hart traveled to Madagascar on a honeymoon with her husband and fellow ace alpinist Maxime Turgeon. The had their sights set on tackling some of the classic long routes at Tsarano region, as well as get in some cragging and kite surfing near the beach. Below is her report from the trip, including some valuable firsthand logistics info. Thanks to Max for the photos.
Part 1 Down South
I had read stories about Madagascar climbing for a while—news reports and films from years back when Lynn Hill quested there with a team of super strong women to open the hard route called Bravo les Filles (8a+/A0). Many of my French friends had visited the magnificent country (a former French colony) for climbing and other travel exploits. But my plans for a climbing trip to Madagascar never really came together until this fall. For our honeymoon, my husband, Maxime Turgeon, and I asked for contributions towards an adventure to Madagascar. As per our usual fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants style, we gathered a little info from friends, key names of local business men and women, towns, travel means, and then kind of “winged it” from there.
We arrived in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar. We would soon learn that all city names in Madagascar are long and unwieldy (and we sounded like bumbling idiots trying to pronounce the whole name), so the locals shorten them (e.g., Tana or Tananariv for Antananarivo). After a hysterically chaotic procedure of boarder control, whereby three or four people seemed to do something with our passports, hand it along the line until it came out the other side with the same simple stamp that you get in any other country with one person, we waited for our bags. An hour and a half later, and a baggage conveyer belt that seemed like it was being powered by a human riding a bike connected to the belt behind the doors, like the Wizard of Oz behind his curtain, our bags all arrived.
Upon exiting the baggage terminal we met our host with our names scribbled on a piece of paper despite our two hours delay in arriving due to baggage issues and passport control. We traded our money from Euros to Airary, which is like a 2700 to 1 exchange. I stuffed the wad of cash, feeling like a bank robber, into my wallet and headed to the taxi. Not knowing how things worked at all, we tipped the guy who pushed our cart about a year’s salary and headed to the hotel exhausted after a long travel day. At the hotel we would find out that I mistakenly scheduled our transport for the following day, rather than the day after, and our journey would continue at 5 a.m. the next morning. Though, we would realize later that it was seriously to our advantage to come in and get out of the polluted, chaotic capital as soon as possible (Upon our return to Tana we had scheduled a day to “visit” the capital into our plans, and it turned out to be living hell! Scorching temps, hazy diesel fumes, and a taxi that was powered by a liter oil canister hooked up to a plastic hose, sat inside the taxi as the driver linked wires to spark the car to start and chain smoked out the window, our day in Tan was not exactly paradise.)
We opted for the private bus rather than the public bus to get from Tana to Fianarantsoa (aka, Fiana). Eight hours of endless gingerbread straw and clay houses and rice fields later we pulled into the driveway of Gilles Gautier , owner of Madamax, one of the camps in the Tsarano region, and one of the first explorers of the big wall region. We loaded his 4x4 truck with supplies and quickly continued into the Tsarano region in the fading light. After a few more hours heading south and onto dirt tracks we arrived at the small camp of Tsarasoa, ate a simple dinner on a hand-carved granite table, and settled into our thatched hut for a well-deserved sleep.
Early in the morning, with an early rising sun, we were graced with the most spectacular view of endless Yosemite-style granite walls looming outside our window. We reveled in the site and rolled over for a few more hours sleep. We spent the day planning our adventures, and flipping through the binder of topos of the dozens of routes lining the granite walls.
We spent the next week and a half exploring each formation that we could, and climbing the crystalized, clean, compact granite. The routes are bolted in classic Michel Piola-adventure style, sometimes offering only five bolts in a 50-meter pitch on the easier grades. You need to be prepared for proper adventure climbing despite climbing on bolts. The routes are bolted more reasonably as the grades get harder. The rock is so compact that there are very few crack systems and limited traditional routes. We opted for exploring the classic bolted routes so didn’t bring a rack with us. If we were to return we’d for sure bring a rack to explore the next level of adventure climbs.
We made the mistake of bringing a single rope with a tagline as we’d be sport climbing in the north afterwards and wanted to limit our baggage, but a set of double 60’s is really the way forward. The crystalized granite provides for lots of opportunities to get your rope caught, as well as the “wigs“, so named by Max, of random growth of vertical bushes on the granite walls.
The wildlife is spectacular from the lemurs (a monkey-type of creature) to the dragon crickets (a spectacularly colorful cricket species that is as big as your hand), to dinosaur lizards (the biggest lizards you’ve ever seen) to pterodactyls that live in the walls and dive bomb to attack you as you climb past their nests (these are all for sure the scientific names).
Our trip out was not nearly as flawless as our trip in. We gambled and we lost. In hopes to gain a little more time in our journey north, we took a 4x4 to the nearest town, Woodenstock, and then waited for a public bus. We spent half the day roasting under a tree waiting for a bus to leave; they come and go on no particular schedule. Once we finally boarded the bus, we spent another two hours driving around a one square mile town “filling it up,” despite being full—in my perspective—when we got on. We finally left town with over 20 people sitting in 15 seats, chicken and goats on the roof, towering bags, bicycles strapped to the back, and it felt like I could have run faster than we chugged up hill. We arrived about 20-30 km down the valley about six hours after getting on the bus, and Max spent the night itching with flea bites he picked upon the bus (from the stories exchanged with other public bus travelers, fleas are just the norm). When we finally made it to Fiana, 10 hours after leaving camp (as opposed to 2.5 on the way in) we opted for the private bus to get back to Tana.
Here’s the list of some good classics we managed to climb:
Peak : Vatovarinodry Route : Croix du Sud 8p, 6b
Peak : Cameleon Route : Skeleton 6 pitches, 7a
Peak : Tsaranoro Route : Out of Africa 14 pitches, 7a
Peak : Karambony Route : Pectorine, 7 pitches, 6b
Peak : Mitsinjoarivo Route : Le Crab au Pince d’Or, 320 m 7b+
Logistics : Private bus from Tana to Fiana - apx. 120 Euros for bus 6-8 hrs.
Transfer from Fiana to Camp Catta or Tsarasoa - apx. 60 Euros 2-3 hrs.
Public bus Taxi bruss from Tana to Fiana - apx. 10 Euros + fleas 1-2 days.
Public Bus from Fiana to Ambalavao - apx. 2 Euros/person + fleas. 2 hours.
Public Bus from Ambalavao to Woodenstock - apx. 2 Euros/person + fleas. 2 hours.
Transfer from Woodenstock to Camp Catta or Tsarasoa - apx. 20 Euros 1 hour, no fleas.
There is also a small internal flight option from Tana to Fiana, but we didn’t manage to find out information on this. Costs apx. 100 Euros per person each way, likely 1 hour.
Lodging : Tsarasoa : Small rudimentary camp with camping or small hut options, no power, only solar and head lamps. Solar hot water shower, toilets, and clean water from spring sources. Option to bring your own food or have food from the cook. Nice, low key set up if this is what you’re looking for. 20-30 euros per person per night with breakfast, lunch and dinner. Food was horrible.
Camp Catta : First existing camp site built in the valley. Options to rent small houses, huts, rent a tent with linens, or pitch your own tent. Huts and houses are quite expensive, but bringing your own tent is cheap. Huts and houses are upwards of 40 euros/night without food. Bringing your own tent is around 5 euros without food, and using their tent and linens is about 25 euros/night. Offers options such as beer, soda, french fries, lunches, etc. Dinners are around 20 euros per person and there is no cheaper option. If you’re going budget this is a good option if you bring your own food. No spring water, must buy bottled or treat your water. This camp is often crowded with non-climbing tourists and karaoke nights! It is frequently visited by tourists who come in on a 4x4 to explore the valley through a car window
Food : Best option is to shop in Tana or Fiana before heading into the valley, there is very limited food in the valley. Camp Catta sells beers, soda, bottled water and other snacks, Tsarasoa does not. There is a small market in town, I mean small, that has a few snacks, some beers, sodas and bottled water, but the closest town is 11km, and there’s not much more there, and the supplies usually come on foot if they are not for one of the camps. Bring your own batteries, we forgot ours and it was not easy to find them!
Part 2 Up North
Our second half of the trip was spent exploring sacred islands, clipping bolts on tufa’s and limestone, getting a spanking in our new sport of kite surfing, avoiding scorpions and crabs that liked to hang out at our front door at night, and enjoying the beach life in the north. Breakfast was full of ripe mangoes and papayas, and dinner full of fresh fish pulled out of the sea daily by the locals. There are a few places to visit for sport climbing in the North, all run by a New Sea Roc, and all relatively close.
The island trip is worth the visit. A one hour boat ride lands you on a small, sacred island to sleep in grottoes built into natural rock caves, explore coral reefs with snorkeling gear, clip bolts a two-minute walk from camp, and relax on the beach. The island has a strict limit to number of visitors due to the fragile nature of the ecology and the effort to protect the landscape, so best to book in advance.
The last place we visited was the Valley des Perroquets, again run by New Sea Roc, just south of Diego Suarez where we slept in tree houses built into mango trees and explored a few crags with classic limestone tufa climbing. There is also a site called the Montagnes des Français, which is not far from this site as well to explore but we didn’t have time. Best to link up with a New Sea Roc for these destinations as there have been some reported muggings and thefts at these climbing areas. I felt completely safe and was happy to pay a little money into the local economy to feel safe and looked after.
Travel: Fly from Tana to Diego Suarez or directly to Diego Internationally. You can get a taxi to take you out to the beach camps, or in the town of Diego Suarez, hotels easy to come by in town. It’s about a 20 E taxi ride out to the beach one-way. Most taxi’s can get you out to the beach, the Montages des Français, or the Vallee des Perroquets, it’s about a half hour drive from town.
Lodging: Lots of cheap hotels in Diego Suarez for about 15 euros/night. Food is cheap in town if you eat local, plan on 15-20 euros per meal if you eat Western food.
Islands: Islands have to be booked through New Sea Roc and have limited places.
Climbing: Topos are available on the New Sea Roc site, and at the Vallee des Perroquets camp and the Island camps.