“If you look at the map, you see that we’re only covering a very small part of the country,” observes Cason. “But even in this 150km, you get a sense of the real spectrum of natural beauty that exists here. There is nowhere, I would say, that is more definitively beautiful or remote than Madagascar.”
He’s right. The landscape in this region changes dramatically, within a matter of kilometres; much of what I see is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. We drive to the Tsingy Rouge – one of Madagascar’s natural wonders – and make our way down into the ravine on foot, where we wait to photograph the first few runners. The brick-red laterite pinnacles rise up into the sky like the custodians of the awesome canyons that surround them.
From here, I decide to run the final 20km of the stage with Francisco, one of the Malagasy athletes. It’s my first taste of how tough it is to run here: there’s very little shade from the burning sun, and the soft sand covering most of the route is relentless. Francisco and I are connected through running; even though we don’t speak the same language, we’re suffering in the same way.
Back at camp, we eat freshly-shucked coconuts from the back of a wooden cart, and sickly- sweet dried bananas. In the absence of cellphone reception and internet access, people are forced to interact with one another for once. The Malagasy and foreign athletes are beginning to forge new relationships.
Outside of Sam Campbell ( 24) – a South African participant, who is also a volunteer at an NGO in Madagascar – none of the foreign athletes speaks Malagasy, and Isabella is the only one who speaks French (the island was a French colony for 60-odd years). Yet we find other ways to communicate. We sing and dance to Malagasy songs, accompanied by drumming. Isabella makes a meaningful contribution to our mobile community by instructing a daily yoga class.
An army of villagers from Ankerika form a line at the edge of our camp. There is more staring.
“What do they make of us?” I ask Sonja Gottlebe.
“It’s a nice distraction for them, because they don’t have TV,” she laughs. “Most of them think we’re crazy – running when it’s hot, and with a car following us we could get into!”
The Tsingy Rouge These awesome laterite pinnacles are one of Madagascar’s natural wonders.