Fianarantsoa, wine capital and rice basket of the Betsileo highlands, is perched on eucalyptus wooded slopes at an altitude of 1,100 meters. Once the train leaves the Fianarantsoa station and the near suburbs, it passes through rice filled valleys for some 10 km before approaching the brilliant green slopes of the Sahambavy tea plantation. Two stations further on, the village of Ranomena (pk 38, altitude 1061) occupies the top edge of the escarpment. For the next 20 kms the line hugs the edge of the hillsides as it begins the steep descent.
At pk 42, we pass through the second, and longest (1072 m) tunnel of the journey. On the left begin a series of spectacular panoramas : a sea of thickly forested hillsides give way to bright patches of cultivated valleys some 200 meters below. Above, the giant rock facades of Andrambovato contrast with the often crystal blue sky.
Here we leave Betsileo country to enter the land of the Antanala people. A string of tunnels and a dozen reinforced concrete bridges (one of which crosses over the magnificent Mandriampotsy waterfall (pk 48) follow in succession. We're still passing through the forest, but it becomes thinner and more patchy with fields and fallow as we drop lower on the escarpment. On arrival at Tolongoina (pk 62, altitude 385 m), we have completed the steepest section of the line, having descended more than 600 meters over the last 20 kms.
The line continues to wend around tight curves for the next 20 kms until we reach Manampatrana (pk 79, altitude 206m), a commercial hub at the mid-point of the line. From this point on, the natural forest largely disappears, being replaced by ravinala (the traveler's palm) and cultivated tree crops that cover the hillsides along the Iohilahy river.
We cross the river at km 90 on a lovely arched bridge; often one sees canoes or local barges plying the river and bringing their goods to the nearby train station to be carried on to the end of the line. We following the gurgling river as it wends its way through the steep embankments, sometimes becoming turbulent and threatening its banks during the rainy season. Soon we will begin our last serious descent towards Sahasinaka (pk 116, altitude 23). For those who are ready to stop here, a lovely waterfall (4 kms from the station) is a nice hike from the Sahasinaka station.
The hillsides become more and more denuded and the countryside more monotonous as the train approaches the coast. We're now entering the land of the Antaimoro coastal peoples. Soon, we begin to catch glimpses of the ocean and a lighthouse appears on our right. Manakara ! Km 163.2 : endpoint of our journey on the FCE.
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Design & R�alisation: Agence MAK