Field Report – Red Island Cycle Tour Madagascar 28th May to 9th June 2014
After more than 14-months of planning, the event finally took place with riders arriving Friday the
29th of May.
Before I get to far ahead of myself, backtrack 20-months with G06 being contacted by Fiona Coward
stating they she was approached by a sponsor asking her to plan a Mountain Bike Challenge in
Madagascar. This was discussed by the committee and it was decided that it will give ORRU
international exposure on events too. G06 went on a recce trip in Feb 2013 with a small team
looking at the possibilities and assessing the terrain. . The second planning trip was exactly one year
ago in May 2013 with G06, B36 and H42 accompanying the planning team to start with the Route
Survey’s, look at infrastructure and medical support and infrastructure. After a number of site visits
to hospitals and ambulance services, it was found that the ORRU team cannot rely on the
government infrastructure, private services and hospitals had to be considered.
(Hospital in Ambositra Ambulance available)
The 10-day trip was a hard pressed with little sleep and
much to be done. The fact that in the summer the
Cyclone Season was going to change the landscape quite
a bit had to be considered in the planning, but the basics had
to be done and formulated.
Press Coverage was quite big to draw the
attention to the upcoming event as the
decision was to also involve local riders as
the Government is attempting to promote
Madagascar as an Eco Tourism destination.
In March 2014, ORRU got more-and-more involved with the logistics planning around the event with
regards to the movement of the people, bicycles and the ORRU equipment. A G06 sent out a mail
requesting ORRU member’s availability for the event, but due to the small number of riders and in
an effort to contain the costs, a decision was made by the event organisers that ORRU only require a
team of two members. ORRU would not do medical support, but we will manage the a local medical
team and up skill them to do event medical support.
A week prior to the team departure, the final decision was made on communication after a number
of unsuccessful attempts to get permission to use VHF. Primary would be Satellite Phones, then Cell
Phone and UHF, if we can get permission to use the channels requested. Medical support would be
contracted to the Red Cross and they would supply a full team for the event including both road and
off-road ambulances and ORRU would be responsible for JOC and Race Control. We would be selfsufficient
medically, to back up the ORRU team, little did we know.
Day prior to departure, all of
the equipment going was
registered with Customs ton
ensure no over eager official will
want VAT and Duties on
equipment coming back.
At this stage, W77 was
requested to assist with some
of the running around duties
as the team were just running
out of time.
Satphones rented and
recharged, vehicle adaptors
and recharge points made
before we left, lesson learnt last
time. This is not your vehicle so do not assume power points work, that the wiring can handle
satphones, radios, cell phones and GPS to name a few things that were charged in the end. ORRU
were ready for the task at hand.
Morning of the 29th of May, the first surprise communication from Fiona, Please bring 4 bicycles
across on your excess baggage allowance. This was negotiated by us with the airline as our
equipment was definitely going to be overweight. G06 weighed in at 65kg total and H42 at 73kg.
(Of the Mozambican coastline, Xai-Xai before heading across the channel for Madagascar).
The afternoon was used to finalise negotiations with Red Cross and get approval for the the Radio
License, which took less than an hour to get so we were legal for UHF comms and this worked out to
be very useful with the Red Cross crews. Medicines and Drugs were all ordered and our requirement
for Spine Boards and other equipment communicated to the Red Cross for preparation for the
departure the following day.
Morning of the 30th, the start of the Prologue however ORRU was not involved with the day as this
was all arranged with the local MTB club, ORRU was off to the Red Cross head office, meet the team
and get the vehicles prepared and advance towards Ambositra for Stage 1. Although it was only a
167km drive, this took nearly 4-hoursdueto the road conditions. (This was one thing that the team
would experience over the next couple of days, you cannot plan on South African kilometres, they
mean nothing here and roads travelled last year, well, they worsened after two Cat 4 Cyclones
passed through in the summer season).
As mentioned, we had three ambulances to our
Disposal, two Land Cruiser Troopy type and one
road ambulance. Each vehicle is staffed by the
driver, two rescuers (first aiders) and one Doctor.
Excessive you might think, well, not exactly.
Each stage has a great deal of single track,
someone goes down, someone needs to carry
them and not for a 100 meters, some of the single
track is up to 15km long. The drivers are responsible
for the vehicles, the Doctor stabilises and the
Rescuers do the heavy work.
The trip to Ambositra was uneventful and the
afternoon was used to get the teams used to the
fact that they would use Radio’s, like typical
Newbies, soon as they got hold of the radios, all
hell broke loose and some very basic radio
procedures were taught and yes, we let them mess
around with the radios so they could get that out
of their system.
With the language barrier being a problem, even with our own driver, a translator was allocated for
our vehicle so we would pass instructions to him, in turn he would communicate to the ambos
accordingly. This worked out very well from the word go or rather ‘dau’ (Malagasy for go). The ORRU
team decided that some basic language skills would come in handy so quickly we started getting
some basic Malagasy sorted for the rest of the vent. It was also decided that each day a wash-up
session and briefing session for the following day would be instituted with a second briefing session
each morning to make sure that the previous day was really understood.
(Radio Lecture 101)
The evening the JOC meeting was also called with the Lead
and Sweep cyclists and bikes so they also understood the
requirement as to how we want to them to feedback
positional and situational reports. Very basic and easy, each
satellite phone as an emergency GPS locater/sender, each
number were recorded the morning before a race and JOC
had a satphones with a car mounted aerial which means we
could operate on the road while driving without having to
stop. The brief was easy, every 5km we needed a GPS fix from both Lead and Sweep, this meant we
could plot, leaders and their speed they were travelling, the distance between front and rear and
also if the cyclists lost the plot and went missing. All cyclists had to have a GPS mounted on their
bicycles as no route was marked, the terrain was remote and language meant you cannot stop and
ask for directions.
The format therefore was like this 1L0632Z = Stage 1, Lead Bike, 0632Z reporting time. And indeed
on Stage 1, our Sweep went missing and could track him to a town 12km away, despatched a vehicle
and all ended well in the end.
So, back to Stage 1, longest ride of the tour at 84km, at relatively high altitude, some steep ascends
and descends and a group of people that were from all parts of the world. We had riders from
Australia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, all parts of South Africa and yes, Sandton.
The Auzzies made the mistake of coming from Sydney, sea level, travelling westwards to Africa (jet
lag), not enough time to acclimatize (arrived the Thursday in South Africa and flew to Madagascar
the following day) and trying to cycle at 1813m, well, you can guess the rest. Man down and litres of
rehydrate and hours of sleep (two days-worth for that matter), and he would rise to fight again on
Stage 4 but I’m jumping the gun a bit.
Stage 1 ended in Sandrandahy at an old church, on Sunday afternoon with a church service about to
begin, all hell broke loose because the ‘Vazaha’ (pronounced Va-za-h, or white people, foreigner)
was the talk of the town. You must understand that the stages were in parts where tourists or
travellers don’t get to at all, this is off the beaten track so majority of the population has not seen a
vazah before. A funnier story later about the vazah. It wasn’t even organised chaos, it was just
During this entire and following stages, communicated was kept by means of UHF Radio and local
cell phones. No GPS units were given to them as our driver nearly killed us when he was so
immersed in our mounted GPS that we nearly ended up in a ditch whilst concentrating on our ‘toys’.
This we as ORRU take for granted. Maps, good old solid A2 Maps folded double and laminated and
we have a more or less working team with deployments.
Stage 2, 1st of June, this was going to be a more relaxed 54km from Ambositra to Sous Le Soleil, ja
right. (Glen by now was labelled as a first world liar, with many songs dedicated to him). Serious
climbs and drops meant that the riders had to be sharp, ORRU had to be just as sharp as our
previous routes identified were now washed away, on the go new routes had to be found but at
least we knew the direction we had to travel, then the satphone goes, Tantaly (our driver), was by
now well versed in shouting UPDATE. He really got into the swing of things and took a lot of pride in
the task of letting us know the radio was going in Malagasy (which sounds like static gone wrong)
and the satphone sms received. Each of the vehicles had to carry enough water and a sponsored
energy drink to make sure that when they met cyclists, the vehicles could re-supply them. The
previous days ride took its toll and dehydration and vomiting was the order of the day. The Local
food did not help the already delicate stomachs so Buscopan and Imodium were used by the ton to
ensure no further SSSP was combated. SSSP = Super Soniese Spuit Poep.
The race ended up at an Echo Lodge, Soul Le Soleil which meant we had no power. The vehicle
charging system came in very handy, radio’s and satphones were charged, they it started, one riders
hearing aids needed charging, ja sure, bring it along, then GPS in addition to our own, oh crap, ok,
Tantaly, start the vehicle and let it idle a bit or we will push, that is for sure. ORRU also took on the
unofficial/official role of sorting out rider GPS, loading tracks for the following day, programming,
arranging and deleting crap that made some of the units not work properly.
Doctor attending to some roasties.
The inevitable briefings:
G06 briefing Le Roy, our translator who
then briefs the drivers. Interesting thing
is, we would talk for 2-minutes, then a 10-
minute local version would ensue, we
would get some serious looks and some
disbelief, “You want us to go there?”
Glenn Harrison – Lead bike giving us updates via satphone. Glenn also planned the routes so the
‘local’ knowledge was good for deployments and roads onto, out-off the routes cycled.
Stage 4, 2nd of June started at Soleil Le Soleil and would be a loop route with and end back at the Eco
Lodge for the evening. One problem, the owner brews his own ‘mampoer’ version and in different
flavours, yip, all was a tad ‘mamoe’ (tipsy) and majority felt really lousy the following morning
(‘makafk’ – hung over). One of the riders who was more or less the first peloton was heard to
mention at the one ambo that his heart rate is through the roof and his balance was all screwed up.
All the ORRU team could do, was to switch the volume on the radios really loud and let the Malagasy
static take over.
Stage 3 misty start Top of the route section (highlands)
Because the area sees a bit more tourist traffic, the children also learnt the nasty habit of asking for
bon-bon (sweets). What saved the ORRU teams bacon was to learn really quickly, tsisi bon-bon (no
sweets). The mere fact that the vazah could speak Malagasy cut that little party short quickly.
Sweep closing Stage 3 with mobile JOC and the two ambo crossing the line last.
Stage 4, 3rd of June was to start at Sous Le Soleil and travel 58km to Vohipusa. This was going to be
challenge for the support teams and majority of this track was single track and very mountainous
which meant, if they do come off, long walks and heavy carries. As it was, one rider did fall and that
ended his race for him although he refused to return to South Africa.
Luckily sense prevailed and no more local brew was bought that evening.
This was also the stage where the ORRU team managed to nearly get ourselves stuck and one of the
Red Cross ambo’s when they reversed into a marshy area, luckily not to bad and was recovered
The roads meant that the teams took a beating of note bouncing around in the vehicles so whenever
the possibility existed, the teams took some quick down time before the satphone starts again and
updates started streaming in.
Once the race ended, the riders and all support crew were transported to Sahambavy for the
evening. This is tea plantation area and the ORRU team was spoiled by the event organisers when
G06 and H42 were given one of the chalets built on the lake, really a big spoil. The view however
could not be appreciated as at this stage the walking wounded started pilling-up and ORRU had to
jump in to start treatments also.
Stage 5, 4th of June.
The morning did not start to well when our Red Cross teams arriving 30-minutes and the mist was
again as thick as soup which put us on the back foot for the morning. In typical ORRU fashion, all was
in order although after some choice the Afrikaans works, the Malagasy team understood and they
apologised a bit later the day for their tardiness.
At this stage we crossed back into a very remote area and this is where we realise what ORRU look
like in Jumpsuit, Rescue Jackets and cap. As the ORRU members walked to go and do a bit of a
survey of the route on the single track, a little girl carrying wood came towards us, she stopped dead
in her tracks, H42 was in front with leading G06 so she saw one of us, in brilliant reflective splendour
on the top of the hill, then the mist rolled through and cleared and then there were two of the
brilliant beings as G06 now stood next to me. As we pointed towards the route and unfortunately
towards the girl as well, she let rip, did a 180 that would make a fighter jet proud and took off at
Mach 2 with the wood literally hanging in mid-air for a few seconds. After wards we asked one of the
local support team members as to why this happened and the story goes as follows. The local’s
belief that White Devils steal their brains, ok, now we understood, combat boots, jump suits with
reflective stripes and heavy bulky Rescue Jackets with more reflective stripes would cause concern in
some corners. Note to self, never point at an unsuspecting native again, try and ignore them first.
Sahambavy early morning Our view, what a shame we couldn’t see anything
Red Cross , trying to make up for their blunder with lights and sirens.
The last 18km of the route was run as a neutral zone due to the only road through the rain forests
being the main tar road and therefore safety was paramount. A regrouping area was created at
small road side café
Safety and briefing session complete with the cyclists and a tally done. The road ambo in front with
lights and siren, an off road ambo in between and JOC and the final ambo in the rear and as load and
visible as possible. That is one thing ORRU does well and the Red Cross gets a lot of respect so sirens
the entire road comes to a standstill.
Race ended at the La Granit hotel in Ranomafana. The afternoon the riders and supporting teams
were taken for a tour of the Nature Reserve.
Yes we saw lemurs, this was taken by one of the riders with his camera so we cannot credit for this.
The 5th of June saw the riders getting a rest day and a transfer of 272km back to Ambositra for the
last Stage. This meant a 7-hour bus drive back to Ambositra and the last Stage being a timed race
day against the local riders.
Stage 6, 6th of June, circle route at Ambositra again.
ORRU has in the meantime been tasked with identifying two areas for Water Points in addition to
the Medical support so the morning was used to identify two suitable areas. The Cameon (Ka-mi-on)
was used which is as rugged as a Samil 20 although it needed a good service as it broke going up the
one hill which meant that all of the ambo’s now had taken the water and energy drink to the
designated areas. Both the ORRU Team and the Red Cross had a couple of hard days with not a lot of
sleep and some very hard driving yet we know the last push is needed to make the event a success.
The last of the Malagasy cyclists were followed in during the prize giving
An interesting point was the fact that the visitors could not catch any of the local riders with their
basic bicycles, mostly because they do not have work and ride an average of 130km / day training.
The ORRU and Red Cross Team
(Tantaly was given an old shirt to make him part of the team)
In general, a very long but successful event thanks to some out of the box thinking, making plans on
the road and never letting anyone that planning had changed, like it was the plan right from the
The riders mention the fact that the teams appeared at the most unlikely places and that gave them
the comfort to focus on what they had to, so in short, typical ORRU fashion. Expect us at every
corner as we have your back, anywhere and everywhere.
From the Desk of the G06 Directeur Général and H42, Directeur des Opérations de terrain