‘Best train trip in the world’ said the know-all about
Madacasgar, so how could a train buff resist…
The main train of the day is scheduled to leave Antananarivo at 6am. It does not, however, leave at 6am. It leaves at 5.58 sharp, two minutes early, which gives me – on the platform - a bit of a shock, but it does not seem to surprise anyone else, even though it must be the only important train in the world which sets out before it is due to. Nor does it seem to surprise either of the two stewardesses who travel with the first-class coach. They are resplendent in crisp white shirts, red bootlace ties and dark blue skirts. Stewardesses? On a train that leaves early? What strange place is this?
This is Madagascar. Which as any lemur will tell you was separated from the mainland of Africa thousands of years ago. Nature on the island evolved quite differently from anywhere else, ending up with no wild cats, no monkeys and no people, only lemurs and chameleons. Elsewhere monkeys evolved and man evolved out of monkeys, and homo sapiens eventually matured into David Attenborough, Douglas Adams and a whole tribe of curious naturalists who have flocked to Madagascar to see the lemurs. The lemurs, on the other hand, have never bothered to flock anywhere to look at David Attenborough or Douglas Adams, which suggests that evolution does not have all the trump cards.
Judging from the early start and the new stewardesses, railways too may have evolved differently in Madagascar. And it is the railway I have come to see, because the sort of person who says, ‘I’m surprised you’ve never been to Darjeeling by train - best trip in the world,’ or ‘Actually, Indonesia is the place, better even than Darjeeling’, has recently started saying, ‘Know where is even better than Indonesia? Madagascar, that’s where’.
Naturally, I had taken care to read lots of articles about Madagascar before I came, and they were all about lemurs. So I am fed up with lemurs even before I have seen one – indeed I hope I never see one, so that I can write the first piece about the place which ignores them totally in favour of trains. As a result, all I know about Madagascar (outside lemurs) is that man only got here 1,500 years ago, that the French ran it for a 100 years and that it has kept itself to itself. So well that Africa hardly knows it’s there. Nor have I heard of anyone from there, except for Andy Razaf, who left as a small boy and went on to write all the words for Fats Waller’s songs.
So here I am at 5.58, running for the 6am train which is already moving, leaving the capital, Antananarivo, or Tana as they call it for short (you should see what Razaf was short for), at the start of a 373km journey which will take us over the central mountain spine, down through the forests and along the coast to the big port of Tamatave. The average speed is 31kph, and it will take 12 hours. That’s quite slow. You could drive it in six, or fly it in half an hour, but the train is still packed every day with all sorts of people. With, for example, across from me, a very classy Malagasy lady in suit and sunglasses who looks more used to planes. She opens her copy of the daily paper, Midi, then produces a pair of nail scissors and proceeds carefully to slit open the uncut pages across the top, as if she were raiding a rare first edition. After five minutes, she puts it down and goes into Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.
‘Vous permettez que j’emprunte votre Midi?’ I find myself saying. My French is already coming back fast, and just as well, because very few speak English round here, and none of them would react to ‘Can I borrow your paper?’ The front-page story is that Aids has made few inroads into Madagascar, which is good news for a country so close to Africa, and that infant mortality is way, way up. The leading article comments elegantly and resignedly about the Gulf crisis. ‘If you wish for peace, prepare for war’, it says. But it doesn’t say it in English or French. It says it in Latin – si vis pacem, para bellum – and doesn’t even translate the saying for its readers.
I think that tells you a lot about the culture of this extraordinary island. It’s Third World - tenth poorest in the world. It’s very Catholic – that Latin tag comes from a religious, not university background and churches punctuate the tropical landscape everywhere, rather Tropic of Surrey. It’s French – the coffee is good, you see barefoot villagers carrying baguettes home under their arms, and they make some very good local wines at one-fifth the price of the imported French stuff. And it’s not African – well, I have never been to Africa but Colin Jones, the photographer, has been all over Africa and this doesn’t remind him of it at all.
‘It’s a strange old mixture’, he says.
I couldn’t have put it better myself. The train, too, is a varied little microcosm. There’s a diesel engine, made in France. There is our first-class coach and two second, a bit bleaker, but not much. And, at either end, there is a guard’s van, with doors always open, into which luggage is slung at every station. In it an official sits at a desk, actually doing his book-keeping, while the smartest, youngest passengers jump in to make their journey, hanging out carelessly and riskily, munching at fresh lychees and spitting out the remains with great accuracy. Inside our coach there are eight ceiling fans, none of which works, a sign saying ‘Voyageurs assis: 52’, and windows you can stick your head out of rather awkwardly.
So, the best thing to do is retire to one of the outside doors next to the lavatory, wedge the door open with your foot, and hang out in the open air. This, for me, is one of the great pleasures of train travel – simply hanging out of a door, wedged into position, like a parachutist refusing to jump, and feeling yourself part of the landscape, part of the train, part of the wind and sun. Only in countries where it’s warm, and slow, and a bit laissez-faire can you do it, even if, as in Madagascar, the train does not always go fast enough to blow away the lingering smell from the lavatory.
The first stage of the journey out of Antananarivo is not, actually, that remarkable. Early morning in the suburbs, everyone walking along the canals choking up with water hyacinth. The outer suburbs, where rice fields mingle with the houses. The beginning of the hills, no more sensational than a Scottish lowland or two. What makes up for all this is that it is still not 7am and the sun is already high and hot, and it’s the 19th November. Being south of the Equator, Madagascar has its midsummer about Christmas. Most visitors, however, come in June, July, or August, which is quite the wrong time but, unfortunately, happens in Europe to be the time that people get their holiday. ‘It’s crazy,’ says the young man who is leaning out of the door with me. ‘They always miss the fruit season. OK, they get bananas, which grow all year round. But now is the time for mangoes and lychees and guavas and pineapples, and all those things that only last a month or two.’
I have never seen lychees growing before. They hang, like bundles of bright red Christmas decorations, in big dark green trees, high up. They also dangle from the shoulders of wayside vendors in almost every station we stop at, selling at about 20p for a huge bunch. Unlike mangoes and pineapples, nature has designed the lychee as a great convenience food. You just peel the skin like a hardboiled egg and there it is. We shared a bunch, and the young man told me that he was a railway employee on his day off, going to see his mother. I told him I was a writer who had come to do a piece on his railways.
‘Why?’ he said. ‘They are nothing to write about. They are kept going from hand to mouth. When the French left them behind they were rotten (pourri was the word he used) and whenever they condescend to give us more bits and pieces, they are always worn out. We do not have the money or the investment. Why do you want to write about it?’
I was not interested in the technical side, I told him. Conscious that what I was saying probably sounded foolish, I tried to explain in French that our railways in Britain were pretty good, pretty modern and pretty boring. You couldn’t lean out, the windows were smoked glass to hide the view, and a train was a machine which got you there as undramatically as an elevator. What some of us longed for was a train experience which was unorthodox, unusual, a bit scatty, exotic, different. It was a hard speech to make without using insulting words like romantic or old-fashioned. He looked at me as if everything I had been saying was indeed rather foolish, and said people in Madagascar didn’t have the time or money to go and travel on other people’s railways for fun.
‘Have you ever been abroad?’ I asked.
‘Once. To Réunion.’
‘I was picked for a pétanque team to play against Réunion.’
By now we had stopped at several stations with names like Ambohiman Ambola, usually equipped with a tiny French building which could serve either as a fort or a station, where a decent-sized audience always turned out for the occasion. Some came to hawk and cry out goods and snacks, some to chuck luggage in the open guard’s van, most just to view the big theatrical event of the day: the coming and going of the train. Whichever it was they had to move sharpish. The average length of a station stop, I calculated, was no more than 40 seconds, or exactly the time it takes to write down Ambohiman Ambola accurately. Almost as soon as we arrived, the chef de gar would be running up and down furiously blowing his whistle for departure. At first I was puzzled by the rapidity of the stops, which contrasted with the slowness of the train, but eventually I came to see how the two are connected. You can’t make the train faster, but you can make the halt shorter, and on a line with 38 stations, a minute gained at each one is 38 minutes gained for the journey.
Which makes it all the more extraordinary that at one station they stop for 20 minutes. After nine o’clock, time seems to lose meaning – if it’s only 9am and you’ve already been going for three full hours in broad daylight, things do go out of focus – and by the time it’s nearly 11am, and your mind is a kaleidoscope of banana leaves and paddy fields, and station names are as long as your arm, and brick buildings weirdly reminiscent of England – well, suddenly you reach Périnet in the forest.
You’ve gone over the top, you’ve come down one of the most enchanting valleys in the world, you’ve had vistas, you’ve gone under yourself on a spiral and plunged into deep woodland where the telegraph lines fight a losing battle with the encroaching foliage and where, if still hanging out of doors, you start getting hit by things growing beside the line, and then you come round a corner into Périnet station. Which isn’t a station but a hotel, an enormous Swiss-style chalet labelled Hotel de la Gare, where everyone gets off and eats all the lunch they can in 20 minutes.
We were in no hurry, as we wanted to break the journey here and stay the night which, if nothing else, would give us a chance to see the train coming the other way, up to Tana. It is meant to arrive about half an hour after ours has gone, and already there were a few passengers waiting for it, presumably well lunched.
The rooms at the hotel are fine, but basic. Colin’s was more basic than mine.
‘A cat has crapped on my bed,’ he said. ‘Can you say that in French to room service?’
Room service was a small man who spends all his life polishing the first-floor corridor, but who took time off from his vocation to replace Colin’s blanket. Then, even before we could have lunch, we were captured by Eugène. He was a small, dark, 17-year-old wearing a personal stereo and sunglasses.
‘OK, I am Eugène,’ he said, 'I speak French and English, and I will be your guide so you can see the lemurs. You want to see the lemurs, don’t you? OK, I will take you. It will be 6,000 francs each. See you at one, after lunch. Don’t be late. Bye now.’
I was obviously fated to see the lemurs – after all, Périnet is in the middle of a large forest preserve haunted by lemurs, so what else would a traveller have come to see? As we walked down the road after lunch, Eugène turned out to be a country boy with a city heart. He’d got to know the forest very well, made guides’ money out of it, and spent it all on becoming a cool dude.
He also had a great love of the forest and a great deal of knowledge. When I asked him the name of a flower, he normally gave me the Latin botanical name. His dual personality was well illustrated by the two tapes he had for his stereo. One was pop music (La Compagnie Créole from Réunion) and the other was his own recording of lemur cries, brought along to attract them to us.
‘You want to see a chameleon?’ he asked, at the entrance to the reserve. I supposed I did. He got a long stick and manoeuvred one down from the branch immediately above us, ready waiting, placed there beforehand, no doubt, like a snack in a display case. The chameleon looked at me as long-sufferingly as you or I would if hoicked out of a tree 20 times a day, and I whispered: ‘Sorry.’
‘And there,’ Eugène said suddenly, ‘is the nest of a paradise fly-catcher. If you wait here you will see the mother bird come back.’
‘Where are you going?’
‘To find the indri lemurs. Then I will come and fetch you.’ Five minutes spent standing still in a wood is never wasted, said Duff Hart Davis, so 30 or 40 minutes must be well invested. Not a great deal happened – the mother bird did return spectacularly, a brown rat snuffled round for a while, a convoy of ants passed taking the scenic rather than the straight way home – but mostly we just merged with the forest. Thick and knotted it may be, full of creepers and fallen trunks, but it’s no rainforest, as the guide book tries to hint. Indeed, the predominant feeling is of cool dryness, of refreshing light filtering through the cross-hatching of the branches. Just as we were becoming one with nature, Eugène reappeared and took us to where he had found four indri lemurs settling down for the night. And yes, they were impressive – large, agile, and completely safe 100ft up in their huge eucalyptus.
‘OK, take your pictures, then let’s go,’ he said scornfully. I think he was quite impressed when I said I never carried a camera.
‘Usually, you can always tell the different nationalities of tourists apart,’ he said, while Colin snapped away. ‘Americans are very old, and say: “Gee, swonderful, willya look, gee ‘swonderful”.’
He was a very good mimic.
‘Italians shout “Eccolo! Eccolo!” the Germans go “Guck’ mal, guck’ mal.” They’re all crazy about the lemurs. Except for the French. The French are very blasé and shrug and say: “Ils mangent, ils dormant, what do you expect?”’
‘And the Malagasy?’
‘The people from Madagascar say nothing. They just…’
And he mimed someone trying to shake a tree to get lemurs to fall down, roaring with laughter. On the way back we passed a dumpy Swiss girl going the other way with two guides (‘Too late, unless she wants to see sleeping lemurs,’ sniffed Eugène). When we got to the station and had paid him off, we found the passengers still waiting for the train to Tana. It was now five hours late and the news was that it had been derailed way down the line.
The dusk came down like a curtain and we went in; Colin to eat, me to find a digestif for my stomach, upset by one of the high-risk snacks I’d eaten at one of the many train stops.
‘Brandy?’ I said. ‘Whisky?’
The barman, impassive as a colonial flunky, indicated that funds were not high enough for this sort of luxury. As the only available spirit recommended instead was the ‘punch aux litchis’ – and if drinking sweet syrupy rum steeped in lychees is your idea of a good time, then the Hotel de la Gare is your place – I retire early. In the morning Colin told me over the croissants (not half bad) that dinner had been no great shakes and that the missing train had arrived at 11pm, 11 hours late. The ravenous passengers had stormed in and claimed their lunch at 11.01 pm.
‘How do you know if you were in bed?’
‘I could see them through the floorboards,’ he said.
It’s a funny old place, the Hotel de la Gare. It has a nice atmosphere and is convivial, but the food is mostly dreary. There are luxury little motel bungalows being built out the back, but half the station is occupied by village families. The fact of the matter is that as the only meeting, sleeping and eating place in town, it is a great leveller. It is the common ground of the dumpy Swiss girl with backpack, the second-class Malagasy mother with family, and the disgruntled-looking English financier who turned up with blonde girl, hired car and chauffeur.
It also, like very few other hotels, has trains calling at the front door for passengers. Ours, the very one that had been derailed the day before, turned up on time, and we took our seats on the left to view the rushing gorges and river valleys which Hilary Bradt’s guide (the best) assured us we would see. We did. We also saw a ravaged landscape, quite tragic in parts, where the subsistence farmers had cleared and burnt the trees to provide some grazing for their zebu. In some stretches you see nothing but black hillsides, fringed with flame, studded with charred stumps, as if parts of World War1 had recently been played out there on the side of a steep hill.
Gradually the fires vanish, the land flattens out and the rivers spread lazily. You know you are getting to the coastline. You never actually see the sea, but you know you’re at the sea because the snacks held up for 40 seconds at each station are now small grilled fish, not meat patties or rolls. There are as many lychees as ever – smaller this year, because the expected rains have not come – and now weird things looking like Christmas crackers made out of raffia. What on earth…? I buy half-a-dozen on a whim. I get out my penknife.
‘No, no, no, just do it like this’, says an old man opposite. He takes it in big strong hands and rips it open, then unwraps it. Deep inside the endless packaging are tow little dark things like dog turds.
‘Smoked bananas!’ he proclaims proudly. They’re rather good, actually. They taste like bananas which have been soaked in Lapsang Souchong for a year, smoky and tarry, and in fact they have genuinely been smoked inside their banana leaves (that raffia-like stuff) for nearly a month. Noticing curious eyes upon me, I open more bananas and distribute the contents to everyone from a gold-toothed Malagasy businessman to a young Canadian who has come to see the forest of Madagascar but is more concerned about having $250 nicked from him in Tana market.
The dusk is closing in now, hiding the fact that we are on the most boring bit of the journey, visually, though a long straight line of thick trees either side is not exactly unpleasant. The man who helped me with the bananas turns out to have been a steam driver in the old days, until they did away with all the steam a dozen years ago. He still feels nostalgic about those times, pointing to a ghost water tank down a side line which he used to frequent. But the thing that stands out most in the gloom now, unexpectedly, is the succession of video clubs, usually somewhere near each station. Where once the village cinema reigned, now it is much cheaper to rig up a TV set and charge people to see a video. Outside one hut is a notice for that night’s show: Erick – Soldat de Fortune! Others showing down the line include Karate Kid111, Mad Mission111 and many an old Rambo film.
Enclosed by the darkness, we in the coach feel fellow travellers now, with some of that camaraderie you must have worked up in stage coaches, and none of the claustrophobia of jumbo jets. The bigger the machine, the less room. And what is especially nice about this trainload is that it is not just tourist talking to tourist: the Canadian is practising his French on a local man, I have made friends with a whole family, and Colin is receiving the life story of the only American we meet on the whole trip. We all seem sorry to arrive at Tamatave.
Maybe it was the coming influence of Tamatave, the end of the line. Tamatave is an elegant, broad-streeted, tree-lined place (the jacarandas! the flame trees!) with no sense of urgency at all. The main mode of transport is the rickshaw; in place where everything is pegged to something which can only go as fast as a barefoot man pulling a cart, time is not of the essence. The Malagasy, apparently, think of Tamatave as the No.1 holiday place, and all the English language guides think this is crazy. Tamatave is so boring, they tell you. Well, it’s not boring at all, it’s just wonderfully laid back and charming. The trouble for guide books is that Tamatave is just too European to appeal to them, but under the surface it’s not uptight and European at all. Example: at the hotel in Tana the safety deposits for the guests were like a bit of the Swiss bank – double security and metal vaulted – but at the Hotel Joffre in Tamatave your valuables are put in a flimsy chest of drawers right by the front door and locked with a key which the receptionist pops back into her handbag. That’s laid back.
And in the dining room, where we meet again after changing into train-free clothes, as symbolic release from one of the best train rides in the world, there was wonderful French food, from deep brown fish soup with genuine rouille, to fresh fruit soufflés. When he came down from his room, Colin told me he had just heard on his radio that Mrs Thatcher had resigned a couple of hours previously.
‘Well, well,’ I said.
It seemed a very long way away, and quite unreal. We didn’t refer to it again for the rest of the evening.
The Observer Magazine 20th Jan 1991