Riding the rails in remotest Madagascar

I stumbled upon this photo as I was digging through my hard drives. It was taken on the Fianarantsoa-Côte Est railway as it rattled its way down a mountain to the coastal town of Manakara in Madagascar.

Despite its unreliably – and despite the state it’s in – the train is still an economic lifeline for the people who live in these hills.

There are no roads linking these villages. The train is the only way to transport the bananas and lychees they grow to be sold and exported.

And the only way for vital goods to be delivered. Like the crates of Three Horse Beer you see in the photo.

This scene was played out at each station we stopped at along the route, with snacks supplied by vendors balancing bowls of deep-fried plantain, crayfish and fresh bananas on their head.

The train getting ready to leave Fianarantsoa
The train getting ready to leave Fianarantsoa

The train was also the closest thing you’d get to a theme park ride in Madagascar. If you asked the driver nicely, he would let you ‘ride’ on the front of the train, sitting on a metal platform with your feet dangling over the edge, the scenery rushing towards you.

Actually, ‘rushing’ is probably a bit of an exaggeration. The state of the track meant that the train rarely got over 20 kilometres an hour, but it was thrilling none-the-less.

When I wasn’t riding on the front of the train or watching a tableau of Madagascan life at the the remote mountain stations, I was back in my cabin, transcribing Vengaboy lyrics. 

One of my fellow passengers, a young girl heading back to the coast after a shopping trip in the big smoke of Fianarantsoa, handed me her Walkman and asked me to right down the lyrics of her favourite song. 

It was ‘Kiss (When The Sun Don’t Shine)’ by the Vengaboys.

These days, I’d just do a Google search and message her the results.

But back then I had to listen to the song, over and over again, pressing rewind to re-listen to a troublesome phrase of word.

It took me most of the trip, but I am now one of the few people in the world who actually knows what the song is about.

And has fond memories of Madagascar – and this particular Madagascan rail journey – whenever they hear it.


Two things:

Firstly, the Vengaboy story features on my latest podcast about music and travel. You can listen to it here.

And secondly, when I looked at the metadata for these images I noticed it was taken on an old Kodak DC200, one of the first point and shoot consumer digital cameras. It boasted a massive 1 megapixel sensor – quite a big deal back then!


Girl clutching Vengaboy lyrics

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