We had an eight hour trip to Fianarantsoa and from there another four hours by 4x4 into the valley. The stories about the roads were still accurate, they hadn’t changed much in twelve years. Getting out from Tana wasn't so bad but from there to the Fianarantsoa it was a hell of bumps and animals. The expectation that we would find thousands of different species and tropical forests around every corner however, was soon burst. The reality of Madagascar is one of pastures for cattle and rice fields, swept clean of forest. It’s an ochre landscape without any original vegetation.
We were eager to reach Fianarantsoa where the adventure would start. None of us could wait any longer once saw the mountains in the distance. Just two weeks in the area was never going to be long enough! Tsaranoro Valley is a land of adventure thanks to its vastness and isolation. Everything there requires a lot of planning, effort and logistics, and that’s without factoring in the Cattle Mafias and the well-known violence in the vanilla fields.
Arriving at Tsarasoa lodge was a mix of emotions, the first confirmation that Africa is a land of contrast. There we met the owner Gilles, a French guy who had abandoned everything for love, love of the valley and its walls, and for a Malgache woman, of course. His kindness, his smile and his capacity to communicate in several different languages gave us reassurance, motivation and good vibes. It was unsettling though to see our baggage carried down off the truck by a group of natives. It gave me a glimpse of how it would have been at the time of the colonies.
That evening we were exhausted. We sat at a table in the middle of nowhere in Africa ready to eat a simple meal of rice and local stew surrounded by beautiful tablecloths, cloth napkins and shining cutlery. Gilles customers are climbers, yes, but he knows there are some French tourists who appreciate a touch of luxury.
I don't think I will ever forget that first meal, Pin definitely won’t! We had bought a jar of sesame oil to dress our food and I noticed Pin was using a lot of it in the rice. His stomach protested. The next morning at breakfast we laughed as he wondered if he had got malaria on his first day. He had in fact discovered that an excess of sesame oil is much more dangerous than getting malaria!