The Tazara train 

The Tazara train. I’m going to take the train from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, south west to Kapiri Mposhi, in Zambia. It’s 1,980km and is supposed to take 48 hours but can occasionally take anywhere up to 4 days! It’s going to be a proper adventure!

Tuesday 17/10/17 – 09:00: I arrive at the Tazara train station at 9am as requested, to pick up my prepaid, first-class sleeper ticket. The train is scheduled to leave here at 11am but the station is very quiet. I think “scheduled” is the key word here! As soon as I sit down in the lounge, I notice my ticket now says that the train will leave at 1230. Five minutes later and I’m talking to the only other person in our first class lounge. Kim, from south Korea, says he’s been told that the train will now leave at 1.50pm. Still, hakuna matata. Kim is 22 years old and has been hitchhiking and couchsurfing his way from Egypt. I feel like a fraud! He’s a true backpacker! He has horrifying stories of a 30-hour border crossing into Sudan, and an equally frightening crossing from Ethiopia to Kenya – two tribes were fighting at the border so the gates were closed and he had to hunker down in a nearby village for a week. We are soon joined by another couple from Denmark and the four of us watch hopefully as a sleek green train pulls into the station and is besieged by an array of smartly dressed attendants. We soon realise it’s not for us when a few taxis arrive filled with white, very well-heeled tourists, their baggage in smart cases dragged along by porters. They are gently steered into the coaches while the staff in pressed white shirts deal with the paperwork. Apparently it’s a chartered train and will take them all the way down to South Africa. It’s a glimpse of how the very rich white tourists travel when in Africa and it makes me feel more like a real backpacker again.

15:00: An announcement comes crackling over the ancient tannoy and the Africans in our lounge all stand up. The rest of us follow and we join the masses out in the main foyer where movement towards a small gate is apparent. It’s colourful, noisy and exciting but our little first class party looks a bit apprehensive. Nevertheless, we join the melee and squeeze towards the gate. 

After a bit of luck and rough direction, we’re split up and I find my coach and first-class room/cell. It’s sweltering hot. There are two bunkbeds separated by a small table and there are two Tanzanian ladies already sitting on the bottom bunks. I say hello to Ameena and Goosha (sp?!) but their English is only marginally better than my Swahili. There’s no ladder to get to the top bunk but a piece of metal juts out that I can wedge my foot against and with a bit of enthusiasm, I’m up. I plop into a single bed a few inches longer than I am but it’s covered in fleece blankets, which is not my normal go-to material when I’m already a sweaty mess. It’s comfortable enough though despite the puddle I can feel gathering at my back. A third person joins our little room and eyes us all. Blatantly annoyed at having missed out on the easy to reach bottom bunk, she sits beside Goosha regardless, rolls her eyes a lot and begins to ferociously text. It doesn’t feel like quite the right moment for me to introduce myself. Thankfully, Karen from the Denmark couple chooses that moment to pop her head in to make sure I’m okay. I assure her that I am and that I’ll meet them later once the train’s moving. My three carriage-mates, all start speaking on their phones at once. 

Ameena, who definitely has the most English, is screaming on her phone in swahili and suddenly it’s thrown in my face, “Say hello to my children!” They’re skyping and there’s lots of waving and giggling as we say hello, face to face across the country. Ameena and Goosha are laughing and it feels like a happy room all of a sudden. The angry texter leaves – I think she’s starting to warm to me.

15:55 There’s a massive shunt and the train starts to slowly crawl out of the station. I could walk to Zambia quicker. It eventually picks up speed and chundles along, rocking extremely from side to side. I’m glad I don’t get motion sickness. Every so often, the train carriages bump into each other (or so it feels) and everything goes flying from the table. Breaks slam every so often and the screeching is so loud you can hardly talk. Litter gets thrown from the windows and gathers by the side of the tracks. At one point, I’m hanging out the window when one of the kitchen staff throws out some water from a window upfront, which hits me square in the face. Brilliant.

19.06: I’m sitting in the dining cart and we’re making origami birds under the careful tuition of Gaku, a Japanese student. Everyone is intrigued with what we’re doing and quite soon, there’s a couple of Africans at the next table trying it out too. It’s fun with everyone laughing at each other’s efforts. It’s pitch-black outside now, only broken up by the odd masai campfire burning in the dark.

When I call it a night at 9pm, I plop back into my bed and watch the flies circling around the ceiling lamp, a foot away from my face. Aww, bum! Should I be wearing my mosquito net? Too late now as it’s at the bottom of my rucksack. Better malaria than annoy my cabin mates, I suppose. The light gets switched off now anyway and we fall asleep. During the night, my big toe, wedged as it is against the wall, manages to switch the light on without me realising it. We’re all awake and cursing until Ameena gets up and shows me what my misbehaving toe has done. Ten minutes later, I do it again! I think these ladies might be falling in love with me. I sleep okay with my ear plugs deadening most of the noises and voices from the men in the other compartments. Half way through the night, I start worrying about getting bells palsy due to the ceiling fan that’s so close to my face, and I try to shuffle around to change position. I hear my kindle drop through the gap at the wall. A tsk, then a hand thrusts my kindle back up to me. I might be wearing ameena’s hospitality thin. I wake up at 6.30am and the train has stopped. There are lots of voices outside and Goosha tells me they are leaving here so I’ll have the compartment to myself. It’s short lived though as ten minutes later, another lady stops at the compartment, then another and I have fresh roomies to delight.

Wed 18/10/17 – 07.00: Breakfast is served in the dining cart – omelette, dry spaghetti, a teaspoon of beans, slice of bread, and a hot dog.We spend the morning looking out the window and playing drawing games. The only non-Africans, we’ve bonded together in solidarity. We have one Japanese, two Chinese, two Danish, one American, two Germans, four older swedes who don’t leave their cabin, and me. The Africans on the train are mostly friendly but the language barrier prevents a lot of chat. English is definitely more prevalent in the tourist areas.

The train trundles along. We stop every so often at little village platforms and give out origami animals, planes and fortune tellers to the kids that swarm the windows. Women in colourful outfits and men in suits sell individual sweet potatoes, bottle of water, crisps and a whole bunch of things in between. African music plays from a tannoy system at some stations and it feels like a party. I love this!

We travel through luscious green forests, dry orange shrub plains, and dusty spaces of nothing, but there is evidence of people everywhere.

The facilities:

The dining cart. I sit here nearly all day as having a top-bunk means that this is the only place I can really sit properly and see out the window. People join and leave throughout so it’s a great place to chat. Lunch and dinner had been the same on every occasion – chicken, fish or “meat” with rice and some pickled veg. It’s not bad. A basin and bottle of water are passed around before you start eating so that you may wash your hands.

The toilet. There’s one African style toilet (hole on a slightly raised platform) for every carriage (there’s forty people in our carriage). It’s kept pretty clean. It takes me 24 hours to realise that I’ve been using it backwards. There’s a handle on one wall so there’s been no need for me to try and wedge myself in the corner to prevent falling over. You’re not allowed to use the toilet when the train stops which is exactly when my bladder tells me that I need to go. There have been a couple of quick runs to station toilets, panicking the whole time that I’ll hear the train whistle before I’m done.

The shower. There is a room with a shower head in it. I don’t know how it operates as one of the girls that used it said the water was distinctly murky looking and there’s no pressure. I can hold off. Baby wipes rule.

21:20 – At Mbeya, near the border, I sit with the German couple, Cecile and Cem, while the train stops for an hour. Cecile tells me that the flies I was watching last night are the dreaded Tsetse flies. The bite is supposed to be extremely painful. We go to bed knowing that in a few hours, we will be woken by the immigration officers at the Tanzanian/Zambian border.

Thursday 19/10/17: 03:00 – there’s a knock at our door and it’s the Tanzanian immigration department so that we may officially exit the country. The friendly man stamps our passports with a half-working stamp and disappears into the night. Another knock at the door. This time a shady looking man mumbles that he’s the money changer. Cecile is instantly wary but I tell her it’s okay. She doesn’t change money and encourages me not too either because she’d read that you can’t take Zambian money into Zambia. The bemused man tells her this is the border and this is his job! I change $60 into Zambian Kwacha and will just have to cross my fingers that Cecile wasn’t right!

03:40: The train travels a few metres and then stops again. There are lots of voices and sounds of people moving up and down the train. Two smart Zambian officials knock on our compartment door and I sit on the lower bunkbed answering their questions and let them down when I tell them that I’m unlikely to be related to the Doctor Livingstone. A few minutes later, I hand over $50, they stamp my passport, pass me my visa and all my details are recorded in a large old-fashioned ledger. Simples.

While this is going on, we can see lots of new people have boarded the train and are trying to find a bed. There are babies crying and lots of voices with people banging about. We had been warned that there are more passengers than beds or seats from the Zambian border so it’s going to be busy tomorrow.

04:30: The train hasn’t moved yet and it’s got really noisy but I’m going to sleep again.

08.55: At some point during the night, we started moving so I finally allow the noise of the train to wake me and I throw on some clothes for breakfast. Based on the noise levels I expected to find chaos but the dining cart is only marginally busier than it has been. I’m the only non-African. We stop shortly after at a local station and the kids instantly have their hands out and point to their mouths. This looks like quite a poor area. I throw sweeties out the window and they scatter to the wind, the kids shout and chase after the bright wrappers. I spend the day looking out at the scenery, chatting to the people on the train and catching up on some reading. I feel so relaxed.

16:00 Based on our departure time, we should be arriving about now. None of the staff really speak English though so it’s hard to understand how late we’re running. Just need to go with the flow – hakuna matata.

17:00 Hhmm…what did a lion and a warthog have to worry about anyway? That seemed like a cushy little number they had there.

18:00 I really need a shower.

19:00 I resign myself to another meal of chicken and rice. I’ve been alternating beef and chicken for lunch and dinner but this is now the fifth such plate so it’s hard to muster any enthusiasm.

20:00 The train driver seems to be getting a bit impatient too. He’s hammering the breaks regularly and we’re thrown about like ragdolls. We’re all starting to look a bit limp.

21:00 The rumor is that we’ll be arriving at 6/7am. It’s good news in a way because it means we don’t need to get a taxi in the dark. The town at the end of the track isn’t supposed to be very tourist friendly so it’s a welcome plan to get one last sleep on the train and catch a bus when we arrive. Now we know the plan, I can get some sleep… you know, because I’ve had such a busy few days…

Friday 20/10/17: 06:00 – We arrive at Kapiri Mposhi!! Thoroughly recommend this way to travel between the two countries… But definitely only as a one-off. I don’t know if I could face another plate of rice and meat! 

The survivors:

3 thoughts on “The Tazara train 

  1. That is the Kilimanjaro ordinary. I loved it! The train is not as new as the New Mukuba Express (Zambian) but it is Great. The food, the people, the landscape ….. Everything. The trip is just breathtaking especially is you are 30 something and looking for a way not to panic 🙂
    Good Review.


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