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Madagascar - February 2012
Visit Report and Photographs - Chris Lewis

Having tried the LCGB trips to Albania and the Trans-Siberian across Russia Jennifer and I decided to do another trip, this time with Adrian Palmer to Madagascar, a country unknown to most tourists. Being Africa it was obviously going to be more of an adventure than the previous two trips but we have been used to more adventurous trips in the past. However, we wanted to see more of Madagascar than just trains and so we did.

Lemurs were top of this other agenda. To achieve this four of us decided to arrive at the capital, Antananarivo (or Tana), two days earlier than on the main agenda. I booked these flights and paid LCGB for the land only arrangements but, as it happened, most of the rest of the UK members arrived on the same flight as us.

Air Kenya, to our surprise, gave us a good journey. Other members flew in from California, South Africa, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and of course Roddy Smith from Australia, who we had last met ten years ago in Zimbabwe. He had bought a new mug for his wine in that time!

The Group await a tyre change
So with this extra time LCGB provided a minibus to visit various attractions around Tana including the Lemur Park near Tana. It was much better than some reports had suggested and the lemurs were free to wander in the forest. We saw seven types but we did arrive at feeding time. Even the hardened gricers took many pictures of these adorable animals from very close range.

The Lemur Park
However, on the Tuesday we started the “tour proper” with a visit to the railway works of Madarail in Tana. We were met by Rindra Rakotoarisoa who is responsible for tourism on Madarail. It operates the northern railway lines operating from Tana, one going to Moramanga (122 kms) and then splitting for Ambatondrazaka (142kms) and Tamatave (249kms) both latter distances being beyond Moramanga.

Railcar at Tana
Our train from Tana to Moramanga was the operational Michelin railcar based at Tana, ZM517, the other here, ZM515, being in need of restoration. At the impressive station we found tables on the platform with canapes and drinks to send us on our way. As we were ready we left half an hour early accompanied by Rindra and her equally delightful and capable two helpers who served us lunch.

Canapes on train
The railcar has pneumatic tyres and was one of seven sent to Madagascar, the first arriving in 1932. Three disappeared leaving one in the Michelin museum at Clermont Ferrand and three on the Island. Our railcar has eighteen comfortable individual wicker chairs which limited the numbers on the trip so all could ride on all the sections using these vehicles. The journey to Moramanga took about six hours including stops for pictures at scenic locations, the best being on a spiral. The bar counter was well used and extra beer had to be acquired at one of the stations.

On the Spiral
The next day we used a coach from the Lemur Express with a diesel locomotive. Again with comfortable chairs everyone could have a window seat as there were more than double the number of places as members of our group. As a bonus for me this was attached to a regular twice weekly train from Moramanga to Ambatondrazaka. Apart from our carriage there was another similar empty coach, three normal coaches, a generator car and two freight wagons.

After spending the night at Ambatondrazaka we returned to the station the next morning for an early departure and found the purpose of the freight vehicles. At most stations there were piles of merchandise, including rice, fruit and live poultry being taken to market in Moramanga. Total chaos resulted as it was loaded but the colourful clothes and the friendliness of the people made it an experience to be treasured. At one time we were at least 40 minutes late but arrived in Moramanga early. British railways are not in the same league when it comes to recovery time.

Our Mixed Train
However all was too good to be true. Our departure from Moramanga was meant to be 15.00 but a defective coupling was found. It took two hours to weld and rearrange the train formation but for the trackbashers our coach was taken both ways around the turning loop. (We do not know why either!!) All except two decided to leave the train at Andasibe to arrive at our hotel at Tamatave at 22.30 by the tour minibus. Luckily our dinner was being provided where we changed. The train arrived at 01.30.

Next morning we were away again soon after 07.00 to travel the dock branch. Tamatave is the major port of Madagascar and there are, on average, two freight trains a day to Tana. Just along the coast is a major nickel smelter that will shortly have dedicated trains by Madarail to the port.

Our train headed south to Ambila where our extra coaches once again became the rescheduled service train carrying passengers and merchandise to Moramanga. With its rescheduling to suit us passengers had perhaps been waiting six hours for it but there did not seem to be much concern. Such is Africa!

Our arrival at Moramanga was pretty much to time but then found that the water supply to the town was off. Luckily we were given buckets of water for the toilets (probably from the large swimming pool in the hotel) and there was bottled water so not a great problem. Our air conditioning worked well so we had a comfortable night in a large room.

More Lemurs
Next morning, by now Saturday, Adrian and our guide had organised an early nature trip to a nearby park containing a species of lemur (the Indri) unique to here. Several were seen and while not going myself those that went were very satisfied. Getting on the train for a 13.00 departure we again found canapés before our lunch was served as we departed. We had our Lemur Express coach and generator car, but this time with some general freight vehicles including wheels and bogies for Tana. We have just stopped on the spiral for picture as I write this. Tomorrow we set off south from Tana on the line to Antsirabe.

We departed at 08.00 for the 158 km run to Antsirabe again with good weather and lovely scenery in the Michelin railcar. This gave the impression of nipping through the countryside occasionally over 60kms/hrs but usually slower. About 10.00 we stopped for a morning snack provided in one of the closed stations, in an area famous for foie gras. When we moved off we found we had a puncture so the coach had to be jacked up and the offending tyre replaced. We carried several spares.

Changing tyres with an audience

Lunch was picked up later and the first course was foie gras of course. We arrived about 14.00 Antisirabe staying at the Hotel Thermes giving us the opportunity to relax at a reasonable hotel with a swimming pool. Many of the group went on a conducted tour of the town, again at no extra charge. The next day it was a long bus journey to Fianarantsoa. As we arrived we encountered one of our first tropical storms in daylight and the roads were awash with water.

Inside the Michelin

When we had arrived in Madagascar we were told the sole operational locomotive BB246 on the line to Manakara had broken down and was unlikely to be repaired in time. However, we found it had been repaired and was due to leave at 07.00 next day. It left at 08.30. This train lacked the comfort of those further north and after some six hours became slightly tedious despite this journey being one of the highlights of the tour. It stopped at many stations for thirty minutes or more loading and unloading merchandise as there were no separate freight trains, our train had the only loco available. On the way, as on many of the routes, the scenery was magnificent.

Arrival at Manakara
We passed the remains of another locomotive BB242 on its side and largely cannibalised. (A third one had had a similar fate also after a brake failure.) We understand that the railway operator has asked for money from the Government for two more locomotives without which I cannot see the line surviving for long. Our train arrived at its terminus just 60 minutes late despite the prolonged stops. We stayed one night at Manakara at the Parthenay Club overlooking the Indian Ocean which was quite long enough. Only two caught the train back next day, the others deciding to return to Fianarantsoa on the bus stopping for lunch on the way. We passed through tropical rain forest and the main pineapple growing area. At one point I realised that if several bridges were damaged the detour was 700 kms mainly on dirt track roads, a sobering thought.

The Southern Michelin
The next day we did a local trip on the Michelin ZM516 kept here (about an hour late leaving) before we returned to Antsirabe by bus. Our final rail trip was back on the Michelin kept at Tana. It suffered two punctures before a wheel bearing collapsed caused us to run very slowly to where we could transfer to our bus to complete the last 50 kms to Tana.

So for a summary of our travels in Madagascar. The people are particularly friendly, saying bonjour, smiling and waving. The railway lines are well worth visiting, those in the north appeared to be thriving with freight, while that in the south has a dubious future. (Madarail only own the lines in the north.) The service on the trains in the north was superb from our own attractive hostesses. Food in general was in a French style and tasty and lots of it. Beer was cheap (as was everything else) and good and not been spoilt by international breweries. Scenery was magnificent in parts and with a very backward economy the countryside was fascinating.

Seeing eleven kinds of lemurs overall and walking in rain forests was a highlight for Jennifer and others. The weather was kind to us with very little rain in the day time but often very hot. Open window ventilation controlled this and made it quite pleasant! On the other hand the hotels could only be classed as adequate. For example there were no lifts anywhere. Many of our group suffered upset stomachs despite taking precautions. The country is very poor and without birth control is unlikely to improve. But for a trip costing just £1,600 (without flights) it was excellent value for money.

Adrian with his fans
Adrian Palmer did a marvellous job, putting together the itinerary and leading it. He managed to balance the requirements of the individuals so all were satisfied, not an easy task. While I would not want to go again Jennifer and I are so glad we went and would encourage others to go and enjoy it as we have. Adrian is considering leading another group in the future.

Following the trip to Madagascar eleven of us had two days in Nairobi before returning to the UK. The intention on Sunday was to follow a freight in a minibus from Nairobi to Naivasha. We were told there would be one at 10.40 but we had no evidence that any freight ran on this section during daylight hours. We were told that Mombasa Docks was filled with merchandise to be moved by Rift Valley Railways and an ultimatum had been given that RVR, the railway operator, had to clear it or else.

Garatt at Nairobi

The overnight passenger trains had been suspended to provide more motive power, paths and drivers. (We did see thousands of flamingos at Naivasha and drank beer from the micro brewery of Sierra in Nairobi as some consolation.) The next day the eleven of us met Maurice Barasa, director of the Railway Museum and found Kevin Patience there too.

Kevin supervises the maintenance of the three locos that have steamed in recent years. It was good to see that Maurice is doing a very good job at the museum despite the difficulties. We were taken to the works to see the three locos as well as diesels under repair and dumped. After a pleasant lunch with Maurice and Kevin (with lots of reminiscing) some went to the running shed. We were going to ride a commuter train but in the end no one did because no one knew for sure what time they were running and the road traffic in Nairobi was horrendous.

I spent a pleasant hour at the station watching and talking to local people who are as friendly as they were on my last visit some six years ago. I then took a taxi back to our hotel, the Nairobi Club, which I enjoyed with its tradition. It was a fitting end to an excellent holiday enjoyed by us all. We had a good flight with Kenyan Airways back to London that night. Kenyan Airways were much better than I had expected chiefly because of an extra two inches knee room over BA and Air France. So finished a very enjoyable adventure.