The Fianarantsoa-Côte Est railway connects the high plateau city of Fianarantsoa, the second largest city in Madagascar to Manakara, a port town on the Indian Ocean. Built by the French between 1926 and 1936, the train chugs along the 163 kilometer colonial railway route in around 8 to 12 hours – sometimes more. The scenery on the route is spectacular with waterfalls and plantations drifting by the open windows whilst the train passes through 48 tunnels and over 67 bridges whilst continuously dropping in elevation towards sea level.
Without roads passing through the isolated rural villages, the railway is an economic lifeline to the local Malagasy people. They use the train to transport their produce; bananas and coffee to Fianarantsoa and Manakara where it is then sold at local markets or exported internationally. At each station stop the villages spring into life, with barefooted women and children swarming the train and and hoisting their locally produced delicacies and spices towards the open train windows. The vibrant station atmosphere makes the journey a colourful and delightful experience.
The charming Fianarantsoa station is the starting point of this rail journey. Sitting at 1200 meters above sea level, the train is scheduled to begin its downhill decent to Manakara at 7am on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. It’s the start of the journey so one would naturally expect the train to depart on time, but this assumption couldn’t be further from the truth. The train is known to be unreliable with breakdowns frequently occurring but armed with a hammer, a few stones and a spare rail there's not much the train crew can't fix to get you to your destination (eventually). Just remember though, this is a slow train in Africa, meant for the local Malagsy people so keeping a close check on your expectations will make the journey an unforgettable and enjoyable, not to be missed experience. If time allows, it is worth trying to get a quick glimpse of the La Micheline rubber tyre experimental railcar 'Fandrasa' parked up in the shed at Fianarantsoa.
We arrived at Fianarantsoa station at 6 am (Tuesday 21st April 2015), and our local tour guide pointed us towards a short queue at the first class ticket counter. There were two distinctive sets of travellers waiting for tickets – foreigners and locals. The foreigners, mainly French with their small neat backpacks with enough personal belongings for a short day trip had formed an orderly queue at the first class ticket counter. The locals had rather more stuff. Their personal belongings were sprawled out over the floor of the ticket hall, with crates of cargo and food in bulk piled up high. Their eagerness to be the first to buy a ticket, and then be the first on the train to guarantee a seat (and space for their luggage) resulted in a wide dis-organised squashed up type of queue.
At 7 am the carriages and locomotive were no where to be seen. We waited and waited. Unsurprisingly the so called unreliable train was late, and yes, this is it's starting point - the first station on the 163 kilometer route to Manakara. How could the train possibly be late?
The locals must have been given more information, or may be they just naturally knew there was a problem, a big problem as their queue quickly dispersed. It left us, the foreigners scratching our heads trying to understand the meaning of late in Madagascan terms. Too confused to understand what was happening, I eventually gave up and wandered out onto the platform. There was a handful of children walking around, all clutching a packet of postcards tightly in their hands. They approached each foreigner in turn trying on their best selling tactics whilst this unfortunate delay provided them with a perfect business opportunity.
At around midday we were given the best news of the day (so far). We were now able to buy tickets. Excited about the prospect of something happening, we ventured back inside the ticket hall as surely that also meant that the train couldn't be too far away - or possibly in Madagascan terms, they had actually decided to run the train instead of cancel it. The first class ticket we purchased cost us around 10 US dollars each which included the advance booking supplement and a seat reservation (I doubt the locals paid that much!).
It wasn't too much longer until a red locomotive appeared, with a cloud of black smoke above it, pulling a train of boxed wooden cargo wagons from one of the many isolated villages. After a short while shunting and re-shuffling the empty cargo wagons the locomotive vanished inside the maintenance shed to have a few minor repairs carried out. Thankfully it wasn't anything major as this was the only serviceable locomotive on Fianarantsoa-Côte Est railway and our journey really did depend on the locomotive being functional!
More time passed by and even our tour guide felt certain that the train would depart soon. He actually felt so certain, that he wished us good luck, jumped into his jeep and drove off to Manakara - he wanted to arrive before sunset and he claimed the drive was around 5 hours. So there went our translator and the only person who was able to explain what we should do next.
Then a horn sounded from the shed. Could our guide have been so right in guessing when the train would depart? May be he had seen it all before?
The locomotive slowly appeared, there was some commotion and the train crew started piecing together the 7 am train to Manakara - not forgetting it was now 1 pm. The train shunted three coaches into the platform which clearly was the wrong decision as the smartest looking carriage was removed. Then there was a bit more shunting to attach the freight cars on, and finally at quarter to two, we piled on board the train.
A seasoned African explorer might say a seven hour late start is normal, or even expected. But for a novice like me with very limited African travel experience, a seven hour late start was definitely a late start! I guess that’s just part of the fun though?
*a little note to all those London commuters back home – stop moaning about delayed trains and just be glad your train is precisely (and only) three minutes twenty-one seconds late each day – that’s hardly late is it?
For a while after departing Fianarantsoa, the train followed a road, the last road we would see for almost 24 hours. As we slowly left Madagascan modern civilisation, the railway stations became the focal point of each village community. Each station was bursting with life. Scores of barefooted women and children, carrying trays of bananas and cakes, bags of spices or baskets of drinks, would hoist their offerings towards the open carriage windows. Behind all this excitement, children played whilst the men idly sat on the unused rusty tracks. It was delightful to just watch the chaotic and surreal scenes unfold at each station.
Around three hours into the journey, at a village called Ranomena it all began to go awfully wrong. The train had been stationary for at least an hour and the locals that had surrounded the train with their delicacies had gone home. It was dinner time. The mood was calming with the women cooking in their homes, whilst groups of people just sat around outside chatting. My curiosity led me to take a wander to find the train crew playing cards in the locomotive cab. This led me to guess something wasn’t quite right. Sure enough, a gentleman, who spoke broken English explained there was a broken rail ahead and it needed fixing. May be a 3 hour wait he said. I felt a sudden sense of disappointment, not because of the three hour delay, but because the rest of the journey to Manakara would be in darkness.
Time slowly passed by. I was back in the carriage with my new neighbour - a fish. It was hanging from the roof just above my head, drying I can only assume. It had a whiff to it and I bet it didn’t have a valid first class ticket. Shortly afterwards dusk arrived, followed swiftly by darkness and I honestly thought that was the last of the daylight before our arrival at Manakara, probably at around 2 am. Again, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Eventually the train jolted forward as presumably the track had been fixed. It was pitch black and misty outside. The train rattled along the tracks, swaying from side-to-side, with loud clickity-clack sounds as the wheels passed over gaping big holes between each section of rail. With the window still wide open, the jungle entered the train every few seconds and left piles of shredded leaves behind. At each station I would peer outside, but with no artificial lighting from the houses or street lights in the distance, it was just too dark. All you could see were flashlights suspended in mid air moving around by themselves. A spooky feel. With no entertainment and no light source sleep was my only option. I tried all sorts of sleeping positions - upright with my feet on the floor; with my feet on the bench, lying flat, using the rigid armrest as a pillow and my legs vertical upwards, up the side of the carriage wall. Nothing was comfortable. The night was long.
Considering I thought we would arrive at 2 am I was surprised to still be on the train at dawn. It was a magical event and our enthusiasm for the journey was reawakened. Although tired, I was cheerful. The villages were still alive and the locals greeted the train with joy. The tracks followed a meandering river and with my head out of the window, I watched the carriages precariously rock from side-to-side. At each station, the locals would load bags of coffee and cargo onto the freight wagons. There was still no rush.
Finally just before midday I sighted a windsock. It was Manakara airfield. The train crossed the sleepy airport runway in the rain, one of only a few places in the World where this happens and a few minutes later the train screeched to a halt in Manakara station. We had made it. Stood under the station canopy out of the rain was our tour guide. I was expecting to see a surprised and terrified look on his face, asking what on earth had happened but instead, he peacefully walked us to his jeep and whisked us away to freshen up. It was like he expected a 14 hour late arrival all along!
From Fianarantsoa at 7 am on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays
From Manakara at 6:45 am on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays
10 US$ 1st class tickets (each) - bought with the help of 'Madagascar Tour Guide'
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