Madagascar slow train

The train travels between the towns of Fianarantsoa in the highlands (elevation 1100m) and Manakara on the coast. The gradient of the line partly explains its slow going – the constant breakdowns and heavy cargo are the real issue. The train crosses areas not accessible by road, so it is a lifeline for local communities who use it to trade and travel. It is this amazing spectacle – the road-less landscapes and the loading/unloading theatrics at every station, 18 in total – that make the journey so special.

This kind of slow (and unpredictable) travel isn’t for everyone. It’s either your idea of an authentic experience, or your worst nightmare in your carefully planned two-week holiday. We won’t judge; all we’ll say is that being prepared for inevitable delays and factoring them in in your itinerary is probably the best way to approach this trip.

A little history

The FCE railway was built by the French colonial administration between 1926 and 1936 to open up the east coast and facilitate the export of agricultural products from this fertile region. The tracks were imported from Germany, the carriages from Switzerland.

In its heyday the railway had two locomotives, with five services a week carrying 150,00 passengers and 20,000 tonnes of freight a year. Unfortunately, with Madagascar bumping from one political and economic crisis to the next since the 1960s, little money has been invested in the railway’s upkeep, which explains the record-breaking delays and the serial derailings and breakdowns. There is now one locomotive only and just two passenger services a week (and one freight only), which results in overcrowding and overloading.

The carriages too have seen better days: you may like the idea of travelling second class, but one look at the stationmaster’s appalled face upon your request, and a quick look at the carriage, will likely put paid to your plan in quick order. First class it is then, and not a bad choice at that: the seats are relatively comfortable, the glass is clear and the windows open and shut.

The highlands’ stretch of the journey is arguably the most scenic: the train snakes through steep mountainsides dotted with forest, waterfalls, terraced fields and fruit plantations. With so many mountains to link and rivers to cross, there are no less than 48 tunnels, 67 bridges and four viaducts, including the spectacular one at Ankeba, which towers 40m above a sea of rice paddies.

Travelling through such majestic landscapes is rail travel at its best: the speed is slow (20km/h on average), the windows are usually left open so that the air fills with the scent of the branches the train brushes past. You quickly get to chat to your neighbours, be they fellow tourists or Malagasies. It feels as if for just a few hours, you’ve taken a break from the 21st century’s frenetic pace.

The environment starts changing around Fenomby, about 100km into the journey – the landscape is flatter, the air is warmer, and rice paddies and palm trees replace the forested slopes.

Wildlife renaissance

African Parks was set up in 2000 by conservationists looking for a new way to restore the continent’s poorest wildlife regions. Working with local governments, it takes full management control of reserves for 25 years, aiming to make them ecologically, socially and financially sustainable.

Today, through donations from philanthropists, governments and NGOs, the South African non-profit organisation manages ten parks in seven countries: Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Malawi, Rwanda and Zambia. In total, African Parks protects a massive 60,000 sq km of land and its wildlife. And the organisation has had some astounding results.

In Zambia, African Parks has restored the remote Liuwa Plain National Park, which hosts Africa’s little-known, but second largest, wildebeest migration; in the process the park’s population of wildebeest has trebled from a mere 15,000 to 45,000. In eastern Zambia’s beguiling Bangweulu Wetlands, it is protecting the weirdly prehistoric-looking shoebill, one of the continent’s rarest birds. In Rwanda’s Akagera National Park, where animal populations had dwindled following the country’s horrific genocide, African Parks has reintroduced thousands of animals. The rhino is next on the list, and its return will once again make the park a Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo) destination.

A guide on the lookout for wildlife in Liwonde National Park, Malawi  © Jonathan Gregson / Lonely Planet

There have, however, been challenges and tragedies along the way. In the volatile DRC, African Parks fights organised criminal gangs in military-style operations to protect elephants, with some rangers losing their lives. In Chad, six scouts were brutally murdered by poachers during morning prayers.

In 2003 African Parks’ first project was Majete Wildlife Reserve in southern Malawi. Today, it’s deservedly their flagship reserve – its regeneration has been phenomenal.

Majete Wildlife Reserve: an example in conservation

Poaching used to be rife across Malawi, one of the world’s poorest countries, and by 1992 Majete was an empty, ghostly shell. Every elephant had been killed and barely any wildlife survived, save for crocodiles, hippos and a few resilient antelope. African Parks has since transformed this reserve into a wildlife wonderland. Costing US$3 million, it relocated some 2500 animals here, including the famous Big Five.

Lions were recently reintroduced to Majete Wildlife Reserve by African Parks © Morgan Trimble / Getty Images

A modern-day Noah’s Ark, Majete is now home to around 9000 animals and myriad bird species. The diverse populations live among gentle rolling hills, riverine landscapes, lush woodlands and the majestic Shire River forging its way to the Zambezi. On wildlife drives you can see grumpy buffaloes wallowing in mud, elegant eland lying in sandy riverbeds and nyala (striking antelopes with devilish faces) ducking behind bushes. On boat trips, you’re more likely to see countless elephants mooching along the riverbanks. Indeed, Majete’s elephants have been so happily breeding that 250 of them will soon be relocated to Nkhotakota.

African Parks works with people as well as wildlife, helping locals benefit from conservation through education, healthcare and income-generating projects like the community-run campsite and visitor centre. Nearby, Thawale is a laid-back lodge run by African Parks, or for a little luxury, Mukumaladzi (robinpopesafaris.net) has eight chic chalets overlooking the river. Costing €1.3 million, Mukumuladzi opened in 2011, and was a massive vote of confidence in Majete’s incredible revival.

Liwonde National Park: rhinos, elephants and the Shire River

Flowing from Majete’s success, African Parks took on the management of Liwonde National Park in August 2015. There’s a wondrous beauty about Liwonde, with dappled miombo woodlands, fever-tree forests, baobab and palm trees, and huge candelabra euphorbia scattered across the landscape. But the Shire River is the star of the show here, cutting a swathe through golden floodplains.

An elephant herd slating their thirst at the Shire River, Liwonde National Park © Christophe Cerisier / Getty Images

On boat safaris, you’ll see what this park is all about. Expect to pass scores of hippos and crocs lingering just a couple of metres from elephants drinking on the riverbank, with the only sound breaking the silence being the big beasts’ slurping and gurgling. On the plains, hundreds of waterbucks and impala graze quietly and warthogs trot around. And the birdlife is mesmerising too, from tiny multi-coloured malachite kingfishers and gigantic goliath herons to elegant African skimmers flying in formation over the water.

Liwonde’s sanctuary, a fenced area within the park, is home to buffalo, zebra, sable and rare black rhino. Unusually, visitors can track rhino with researchers, learning all about their plight and conservation.

Living alongside wildlife isn’t easy – elephants kill and devour crops – and this small park spanning 548 sq km is surrounded by people. Until recently, poaching and human wildlife conflict were rife in Liwonde. Helping protect both people and wildlife, African Parks is fencing the entire park, and in the biggest translocation of elephants in Africa’s history, is moving 250 of the park’s 800 elephants to Nkhotakota. The charming Mvuu Lodge and nearby camp offer fascinating village and school visits that reveal glimpses of local life.

Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve: a time to shine

Exciting times lie ahead for Nkhotakota. After years of neglect that saw its wildlife populations plummet, this also became an African Parks reserve in August 2015. Since then, AP has worked closely with local communities (some 300,000 people live around this area) helping them to have a better life beyond poaching. Many have handed in their weapons in exchange for jobs in the park, and snares, traps and guns have been recovered.

Best Place In Emirati to eats

So what exactly is Emirati cuisine? Hearty meat dishes born in the desert and seafood from the Arabian Gulf, usually served with flatbread and rice. Bezar, a blend of roasted and ground spices including coriander, cumin, turmeric and cinnamon, is added to practically everything, while centuries-old trading partners such as Iran and India have also left their mark on the cuisine. Many of the newer restaurants aren’t just sticking to a traditional menu though: camel sliders and chicken tikka-stuffed breads are just a couple of the unexpected Emirati-fusion treats on offer. Here’s where to get your fill.

Contemporary cooking at Aseelah

With dishes like date-stuffed chicken roulade and juicy camel sliders, Aseelah at Radisson Blu Hotel, Dubai Deira Creek serves up the city’s most adventurous and accomplished take on local cuisine. Old-school favourites are not forgotten; chef Uwe Micheel has spent years visiting Emirati families to master recipes like prawns marinated in bezar and aseeda bobar (pumpkin pudding). This stylish spot is the only Emirati restaurant that serves booze, with creative cocktails and a well-priced wine list.

A trio of camel sliders with different toppings including date and lime jam © NikAndTam

Authentic flavours at Al Fanar

Al Fanar is a kitsch, fun spot, with food and décor harking back to the pre-oil days. Don’t let the Festival City Mall location put you off; designed like an old courtyard house, the restaurant is hugely atmospheric (just ignore the dodgy waxworks). First-timers are encouraged to try chicken machboos (a bezar-spiced rice dish) and tender naghar mashwi (grilled squid). There’s a second branch at Town Centre Jumeriah.

Home-style cooking at Al Tawasol

Locals have been flocking to the family-run Al Tawasol in Deira for food-like-Grandma-used-to-make since 1999. Take a seat on a corner of carpet in the main dining area or in one of the private tented majlis, then scoop up succulent lamb machboos and spicy salona (curry) with your hands. Al Tawasol also does a mean mandi, a Yemeni dish that’s been adopted across the Arabian Peninsula: meat slow-cooked in a tandoor and served over aromatic rice.

A platter of lamb salona and chicken mandi at Al Tawasol © Glen Pearson

Camel milk treats at The Majlis

With intricate mashrabiya and a blue-tiled fountain, The Majlis (themajlisdubai.com) at Dubai Mall specialises in coffee, cakes, shakes and ice cream made from camel milk. A staple of the Bedouin diet until the mid-20th century, it’s lower in fat, and higher in vitamins and minerals, than the cow equivalent. Try a camelccino made with the café’s own blend of Ethiopian beans, paired with a pistachio-glazed éclair made with – you guessed it – camel milk.

Trendy-meets-traditional at Seven Sands

Spread over two floors at The Beach at JBR, Seven Sands (sevensandsrestaurant.com) features sleek Arabesque interiors and a breezy terrace overlooking the sea. Blending traditional with trendy, the menu is full of Emirati classics, but you’ll also see dishes from the wider region such as velvety hummus and crumbly kibbeh. Dishes to try? Sambousas – similar to Indian samosas but given a bezar spice twist – and prawn fouga flavoured with bezar, saffron and dry limes.

Prawn fouga (bezar spices cooked together with perfumed stock) at Seven Sands © Glen Pearson

Creative khameer at Logma

Located in trendy BoxPark, Logma (logma.ae) is a hip eatery with modern interiors – think funky camel motifs and hanging kerosene lamps – and casual, contemporary Emirati fare.  It’s a top spot for lunch with soft khameer flatbread stuffed with fillings such as chicken tikka, or smothered in more traditional cream cheese and dibs. Order with a side of Logma’s famous fries seasoned with Khaleeji spices.