We had heard a lot of conflicting things about the Fianarantsoa Cote Est (FCE), the train that runs from Fianarantsoa in the central highlands down to the Indian ocean at Manakara. Reports of the journey time ranged from 8 to 35 hours with some people claiming that it was the best experience they had had travelling around Madagascar, some people telling us it would be a form of self inflicted torture.
One thing I have learned about Madagascar in the few months I have been here is that it has a habit of turning expectations on their head and this journey was no different.
Having decided to give it a go we booked the train by phone a few days before and reserved first class seats. We turned up at the train station at 6am, as advised, to a queue of Malagasy waiting for the ticket office to open. At 6:30am the reservation office opened and we got our tickets with no problems.
A little nervous about what we had let ourselves in for, we decided to go and check out the train and see our seats. The initial surprise was that one of the carriages seemed much more modern than the others. We checked our tickets and found out this was where we would be sitting.
At first I was a little disappointed as I kind of wanted to be in the carriages with a little bit more character but we sat down and waited for the train to leave. We had seen a couple of other “vazaha” tourists but most of the crowd still seemed to be mainly Malagasy. As we waited, our first class carriage slowly started filling up with mostly elderly or middle aged and almost exclusively French tourists.
Eventually the train left at 8pm, an hour late but not too bad by Malagasy standards. At frst we chugged along through the outskirts of Fianarantsoa along a familiar bit of road that we had seen many times through the window of a Taxi Brousse, with piles of smoking bricks and extensive views over rice paddies.
Several of the tour group cars kept pulling up alongside the train with the drivers and guides honking and waving at their respective groups on the train but soon we left the road and pulled up at the first village. As we were expecting ladies and lots of children selling street food flocked around the train. Unexpected however was that there were nearly as many “vazaha” tourists with cameras that also swarmed out of the train.
This continued with the next few villages, some with crumbling but large station buildings and others with more rural Malagasy buildings. We bought some of our favourite street foods: mainly deep fried goods such as Mofo Gasy (fried rice cakes), Mofo Akondro (battered, deep fried bananas) and Sambos (Malagasy samosas). We also tried Koba Akondro: a sweet cake of banana, rice flour and peanuts cooked in a banana leaf.
At several of the stops some of the other tourists would throw out t-shirts, pens and sweets to the children and at a couple of villages the children were holding woven baskets in anticipation, ready to catch the gifts. There was some squabbling between them but also sharing. In one instance we saw several children passing round a single sweet, having one lick each. This gift throwing provoked mixed feelings in me. At first it felt a little obnoxious, like watching keepers at a zoo throwing food to make the animals move for the spectators with cameras. The stark segregation of Vazaha and Malagasy passengers also went some way to increase this uncomfortable feeling. On the other hand this train line provides an important source of income for these otherwise remote villages as the primary trade link for rice and bananas and the sellers certainly make more from the tourists than they would otherwise.
As the train continued, we left the central plateau with the wide expanses of rice paddies and started to descend towards the coast. The track here got much worse with the train grinding slowly along whenever there was a corner. We passed through some small fragments of forest but the true scale of deforestation in Madagascar was fully evident.
One of the villages we stopped at for a while had a lot of children who seemed keen to chat although they mainly kept asking for money and pens. At this village there was a woman selling vanilla that was so potent you could smell it inside the carriages as she walked past!
After about 8 hours on the train we thought we might be nearly there. We were wrong! We stopped at several more villages along the way, with increasingly longer stops as it got dark. The closer we got to Manakara the longer the train stopped at each station to the point where we stopped for about an hour every couple of kilometres.
The last 10 hours of traveling in the dark turned out to be a bit of an endurance test with the carriage getting hot and sweaty and filling with mosquitoes at each stop. The only highlight of this second part of the journey was one village where women selling pepper came up to the windows with their trays lit with candles and we ate a couple more mofo akondro.
Finally at 2am we crawled into Manakara, a full 18 hours after setting off. We fought our way through the crowd of other tourists and got a pousse-pousse to the only hotel we thought might actually be open.
The next couple of days staying in Manakara were a nice relaxing reward and we treated ourselves to beers, seafood and sugary, deep fried coconut on the beach!