For those with a flexible schedule, an abundance of time and a lot of patience, a popular thing to do in Madagascar is to take the FCE (Fianarantsoa–Côte Est) railway between Fianarantsoa and Manakara on the east coast. The train leaves around 7am (theoretically – in practice it is almost always late) on Tuesday and Saturday (from Manakara it leaves at 7am on Wednesday and Sunday) and chugs along at 20km per hour on tracks built in the 1930s, reaching its destination between 12 and 24 hours later. Sometimes 48 hours later (yes, it’s that variable)! It all depends on the loading/unloading times along the way, the conditions of the tracks and the train, derailings (commonplace), how heavy the train is, and what the weather's like.
Along the way, you'll pass plantations, waterfalls and green hills, cross 67 bridges and four spectacular viaducts, and go through 48 tunnels. Despite its antiquity and unreliability, the train is still an economic lifeline for the people of the inland villages (where there are no roads), who use it to transport their cargoes of bananas and lychees to be sold and exported. Stopping at each tiny station is a colourful experience, with Malagasy passengers leaning out of the windows to haggle with hordes of vendors balancing baskets of bananas, crayfish or fresh bread on their heads.
For the best views of the cliffs, misty valleys and waterfalls en route, sit on the left side when going from Fianarantsoa to Manakara (and vice versa).
Because of the FCE's erratic schedule, taking the train requires a little planning and a good dose of pragmatism and flexibility should it all go wrong. The most scenic landscapes are between Sahambavy and Fenomby, so it is generally better to take the train from Fianar to Manakara to make sure you travel through this stretch in daylight (it's also downhill). However, the delays are often more severe from Fianar because this is where maintenance and repairs are done.
Bring enough water and food for 24 hours (street food is available along the way but comes with the usual precautionary warnings), and some warm clothes in winter.
For a more detailed history of the railway and the regions through which it passes, pick up a booklet called Le Dernier Train du Corridor by Maggie L Formentin (Ar5000) at Fianar's train station or in souvenir shops.