The train was scheduled to leave at 7am; in the event we eventually were hooked up by an engine and left at 9:40. We tourists were booked into first class, which started out sort-of organised, but soon became incredibly crowded, with bundles of goods and people crammed into the aisles. It was incredibly hot, with the sun pouring in on us all day.
All along the way we stopped at villages where we could get off the train or buy food or goods from the hundreds of people who flocked to the station to take advantage of today's new customers. Children pour onto the train carrying food or other things for sale, then they play a dangerous game of hanging off the carriage steps, not jumping until the last second as the train leaves the village and picks up speed along the tracks, often just before a bridge or tunnel.
The stops also allowed off-loading and on-loading of goods, since the train is a major means of moving goods to and from these villages; we generally had twenty minutes to a half-an-hour at each place.
All of the things that this train is famous for are quite true; there are fabulous vistas, lots of waterfalls of all sizes, bridges over gorges and rivers, and tunnels through the hills. Each village offers a wide range of food, and their own special goods for sale - beads or pepper, for example. The scenery changed constantly, as we headed down from the highlands to the coast. One of the most noticeable things was the area where traveler's palms started to dominate the landscape - they are so beautiful silhouetted against the sky. We didn't arrive in Manakara until 8pm, well after dark, so never saw the route as we neared the coast. However, we did have the delight of hundreds of fireflies glimmering on the edge of the track as we passed by.
I was quite keen to photograph some of the kids, since they had beautiful faces, and tried to capture their images when they were unaware that I had a camera pointed at them. I've included a slide-show of some of these portraits showing people at the stations when the train halted. And yes, although I did take some pictures of small boys I am biased towards girls! I love their plaited hair styles.
We spent the night at a fairly nondescript hotel in Manakara, braving the notoriously aggressive pousse-pousse men to get transport from the train station. We had wanted to do a round trip through Manakara, but taxi-brousse transport wasn't available on the route I had mapped out, and we decided to return to Fianar on the train the following day. Cyril and Ambrose, the men who pulled the pousse-pousses, agreed to pick us up in the morning, so we were back at the train station early to get our tickets.
The return trip was very different from our initial train journey. We left only one hour late, and first class was far from crowded; Carmel and I shared a double seat most of the way, with lots of leg room and no baggage cluttering up the aisles. The train journey started well, as we click-clacked across the middle of the Manakara airstrip then re-traced our journey up from the coast into the hills, seeing places we had missed in yesterday's night ride. After a couple of hours we were able to recognise places we'd seen before.
Shortly after leaving the village where pepper was sold tragedy struck. The train killed a man, either by hitting him or because he fell off; we didn't know. The train stopped and most of the passengers (except us tourists) poured off to see what happened; many came back up the tracks crying. The train backed up to load the man's body on board, then we slowly backed up into the village, whistle blowing mournfully all the way. It was so solemn and sad; where we had been welcomed only minutes before as a train full of potential customers, now we pulled into a village lined with silent people. I think that everyone in the village was there, watching our arrival.
I had thought that we might have to wait while police came to investigate the circumstances of the man's death, but we were in the village less than an hour, while the body was taken to the medical post and the train driver made some sort of statement about the accident.
Back on our way to Fianar we were going along just fine until about 3:30 in the afternoon, when the engine more-or-less gave up. By then it was gloomy and raining, and we were going nowhere; we estimated we made about 20km in the next five hours in tiny little bits - ten metres or less at a time. Night fell, and we barely crawled along; the only distractions were a firefly flitting around in the pitch black carriage and the clucks and gobbles of the livestock bought along the way. After yet another long stop the engine seemed to get a new lease of life, and we actually did a long spurt at something approximating a reasonable speed. However, we reverted to our stop-start progress, measured in millimetres rather than kilometres.
The people just on from us had a supply of candles, so part of our long trip was softened by candle-light. The final straw was our actual entry into Fianar, when the train slowed down even further, until we finally arrived at 1:15 in the morning, more than 18 hours after our delayed start. Carmel and I staggered off to Le Cotso, where we had a reservation, had a cup of tea and went to bed.