The train ride from Fianarantsoa to Manakara, The “little train of the cliffs”
The train ride from Fianarantsoa to Manakara, the Fianar–Côte Est, is an experience not to be missed. The 163km route takes you through dense rainforest past waterfalls and the photographic opportunities will be excellent.
The train between Fianarantsoa and Manakara takes theoretically about 8 - 12 hours, but practically, it could take much longer. One could argue that taking 12 to 24 hours to cover the 163km between Madagascar’s highlands and its Indian Ocean coast is a rather slow and inefficient way to travel. It is, but that is the point. Travelling on the Fianar-Côte Est railway isn’t really about getting from A to B – it’s about the journey.
The "little train of the cliffs" nonchalantly skirts the steep slopes of the highlands to join the Indian Ocean, mixing history, culture and folklore, the long stops in each station allowing to imbibe the life of the surrounding villages for whom the train Is the key factor in its economy. The Fianar–Côte Est, first opened in 1936, now twice weekly, in each direction.
This spectacular route with 18 stations, which is one of the steepest of the world, with so many mountains to link and rivers to cross, there are no less than 48 tunnels, 67 bridges and four viaducts, including the spectacular one at Ankeba, which towers 40m above a sea of rice paddies. It offers magnificent views as it descends the escarpment to the east: the train snakes through steep mountainsides dotted with forest, waterfalls, terraced fields and fruit plantations. Travelling through such majestic landscapes is rail travel at its best: the speed is slow (20km/h on average), the windows are usually left open so that the air fills with the scent of the branches the train brushes past. It feels as if for just a few hours, you’ve taken a break from the 21st century’s frenetic pace.
The train crosses areas not accessible by road, so it is a lifeline for local communities who use it to trade and travel. It is this amazing spectacle – the road-less landscapes and the loading/unloading theatrics at every station, 18 in total – that make the journey so special. At each stop in station, myriads of small sellers rush to the windows of the wagons to sell fruits, fritters, kebabs, sweets and snacks, cakes, crafts or drinks. Local spices, black and pink pepper especially, make lovely souvenirs or gifts. For dozens of small traders, this is an opportunity to complement their living by selling. So, the stations are always buzzing.
Scenery aside, one of the highlights of the trip is the station stops. Forget the two minutes you get in Europe to get on or off the train, here a stop means at least 30 minutes, sometimes a couple of hours, to allow to load and unload an impossible quantity of bananas, lychees, sacks of rice, plastic furniture and other precious bits of freight. Passengers therefore have plenty of time to stretch their legs and take in the spectacle.
The combination of all these things – the authenticity, the landscapes, the good company, the one-off experience – that people usually relish. And in a country where you can spend a huge amount of time in the confines of a vehicle on dreadful roads, the opportunity to travel in relative comfort whilst reading a book and taking in Madagascar’s scenery and folklore, is just too good to miss.
A little history. The Fianar–Côte Est railway was built by the French colonial administration between 1926 and 1936 to open up the east coast and facilitate the export of agricultural products from this fertile region. The railway line linking Fianarantsoa to Manakara at the East Coast was inaugurated in 1936. It took 10 years to build this structure. Construction was an exercise in style for its designers, and a gulag for all forced laborers who left their lives behind. The rails even go through the airstrip of the aerodrome for a smooth rail-to-air cohabitation due to the scarcity of smooth surface on one side as well as the other. The rails were imported from Germany, the carriages from Switzerland. In its heyday the railway had two locomotives, with five services a week carrying 150 000 passengers and 20 000 tons of freight a year.
In theory trains depart from Fianar at 7am on Tuesday and Saturday and from Manakara at 6.45am on Wednesday and Sunday. In practice, the only sure way of knowing when the train is departing is to be on it when it leaves. In theory, the train should arrive on the evening of the same day. In practice, it rarely reaches the other end until late at night or early the next morning (the scheduled departures from Manakara are optimistic given the usual arrival time from Fianar).
It is therefore risky to organize a tour around it, unless you are ready to skip the train ride at the worst case, in order to keep the schedule for the rest of the tour. This kind of slow (and unpredictable) travel isn’t for everyone. It’s either your idea of an authentic experience, or your worst nightmare in your carefully planned two-week holiday. We won’t judge; all we’ll say is that being prepared for inevitable delays and factoring them in in your itinerary is probably the best way to approach this trip. If you are keen on train riding, certainly the trip to Manakara is well worth if you bring sufficient time and patience!
The train ride from Fianarantsoa to Manakara perfectly rhymes with the Ranomafana National Park to experience the rainforest's gem through a veritable garden of exoticism Mananjary, you can take a fascinating and very useful trip, "Cruise on the Pangalanes Canal Manakara - Ranomafana NP via Mananjary". Well ... or vice versa, "Cruise on the Pangalanes Canal Ranomafana NP – Manakara and railway Côte Est - Fianar, the "little train of the cliffs". Cruise will get you from Ranomafana to Manakara to discover the Manombo Special Reserve and experience the super railway Côte Est - Fianar. But you can do it just in quicker, but less interesting way to drive a 4x4 car on a dirt road.
You can see more information about rides by train by looking in our section "Trans Lemurie Express".
A tips on board the Fianar–Côte Est:
*To Manakara, left seats offer a better view. From Manakara choose better the right aisle;
*It gets chilly in the highlands and at night, so make sure you have a jumper or jacket with you;
*There are toilets on board but they usually fill up before the end of the journey so you may need to answer the call of nature, well, in nature.
Watch more photos about The train ride from Fianarantsoa to Manakara, the Fianar–Côte Est here.