OFF THE GRID
MADAGASCAR ISN’T JUST A PARADISIACAL PLAYGROUND FOR TRAIL RUNNERS. RUNNING HERE RETURNS YOU TO THE SIMPLE LIFE, FORCING YOU TO CONNECT WITH YOUR EXPERIENCE – AND THE PEOPLE YOU SHARE IT WITH – IN A MEANINGFUL WAY.
Madagascar is a trail runner’s paradise… and a welcome return to the simple life. BY LISA ABDELLAH
AAn orange glow signals the start of a new day, beyond a waterfall spilling over the edge of the plateau. We’re a few kilometres from the nearest village, Anivorano, and yet I can see nothing but tall grass stretching for kilometres around.
I doubt many people have come this way before.
Thirty trail runners – who up until last night had never met before – are sleeping in a row of army-green tents. A red and green banner marks the start of the Ultra Trail Madagascar: a six-day, 150km stage race in one of the most remote regions of the world’s fourth-largest island.
We’ve all travelled a long way. I flew from Cape Town to the capital, Antananarivo. Then, from the window of a domestic flight to Diego Suarez, I began to understand how enormous Madagascar is. It was like flying over the moon: a desolate landscape sprawled between the city in the centre and the far north, where nothing grows or lives.
A three- hour drive in a 4x4 followed, from Diego Suarez to the first camp – and with it, my first taste of the ‘roads’ in rural Madagascar.
Last night we were shown to our tents, and meat and white rice were ladled onto tin plates. When the runners sat down to eat, their human stories began to emerge.
South African trail-running power couple Christiaan and Landie Greyling have made a career out of competing in endurance races all over the world.
Dan Betts (44) is a bearded high-school chemistry teacher, originally from the US but who recently moved to Zambia. During the late 90s, Dan served in the Peace Corps in Thailand, where he became comfortable with being uncomfortable. Cockroaches were par for the course, and he once single-handedly removed a nest of rats from underneath his bed. It was there he participated in the Black Marathon, a 12-hour overnight run.
Isabella De La Houssaye (53), from New Jersey, rented a hybrid bike in the UK and cycled the 1 000 miles (1 600km) from Land’s
“IT WAS LIKE FLYING OVER THE MOON...”
End to John O’Groats – she completed her 13day trip just six days before the start of Ultra Trail Madagascar. This trip was a graduation present for her son, Cason Crane, who in his short 24-year existence has already run the World’s Toughest Mudder, climbed the Seven Summits, and finished four Ironmans.
Then there is Argentinian Sebastian Armenault. He started a charitable foundation, One Mile One Smile, and pledged to run more than 2 500km of some of the world’s most challenging races. Armenault usually comes close to last, but his sponsors donate far more to schools, hospitals and the elderly than race winners receive in prize money.
Malagasy runner Revelinot Raherinandrasana has only one arm, and placed 10th in the men’s 1 500m in the Paralympic Games in Rio. Sadly, sports aren’t a priority in Madagascar: Revelinot received no fanfare upon his return, and simply went back to his job washing laundry with his wife in a poor part of the capital.
Another Malagasy athlete is Zephirin Zimazava, who is blind. Last year, he only finished the first stage of the race; this year, he will complete all six.
The camp i s as comfortable as it can be, considering the restraints. Last night I slept on a real mattress. There are bush toilets dug into the ground, showers connected to tanks of fresh water, and although meal times are an eat-whatyou’re-given affair, the food is tasty.
Still, it’s far from fivestar luxury. Participants who have travelled here from other countries have paid good money to come on a trailrunning holiday devoid of home comforts and modern technology. Over the next six days, I will hike, run, and drive along the route with a team of photographers and videographers, hoping to find out why.
Leave Your Cellphone at Home Without distractions, par ticipants in the Ultra Trail Madagascar form strong bonds.