Published: April 6th 2010March 21st 2010
You might think it a little odd to write a blog entry just about a train journey, but I'm going to give it a shot. I've actually been looking forward to this for some time due to a love of train rides inspired by long trips to see family in Scotland as a child, plenty of travel in China and reading too much Paul Theroux. Trains were supposedly the great symbol of colonialisation and the means for bringing the three C's to Africa; commerce, Christianity and civilisation. In reality they were a tool of exploitation and a look at a map shows train lines penetrating the skin of Africa like deformed mosquito probosces and driving straight for the continent's resources, sucking it dry. Nowadays, like so many colonial hand-me-downs they have been lamentably allowed to decay and crumble and many of the great railway journeys that were once undertaken are now impossible. I therefore jump at the chance to hop aboard the Tazara line between Dar es Salaam and Kapiri Mposhi in Zambia, a welcome change from endless bus rides.
First however, I must get from one side of Tanzania to the other. To neatly prove my point Tanzania's Central
Line has recently been suspended indefinitely so instead I get a bus from Kigoma on Lake Tanganika all the way across to Dar. When I inquire about tickets I am told I must wait four days for the first available seat but I manage to harass one guy enough for him to assign me a "staff seat". The next morning however I discover that this just means the floor, which will be my abode for the entire journey of 30 hours! Honestly, thirty years in prison would be a less punishing prospect for my poor posterior. On this agonising Odyssey I am lumbered with my very own Scylla and Charibdis. In front sits a swarthy fat man who insists not only on angling his corpulent limbs to cut off my already limited leg room but also on planting his huge hairy knee with its pubic like foliage right in my face. Behind me on the floor reclines an equally obese young mother. Her infant is an absolute brat, which is a surprise because African babies have impressed me so far with their stoicism and durability on such long journeys, and insists on soiling itself every few minutes. The mother treats
the toddler as a young child might treat a pet goldfish it has just dropped on the carpet; with a sort of guilty attention and ignorant incomprehension of what to do. She replaces the little hell-raiser's dirty garments but doesn't think to apply nappies and pretty soon there is shit smeared all over the floor behind me. Unfortunately, crossing Tanzania doesn't offer much in the way of distractions. When travelling you must often make your own fun and I'll admit that I don't make much of an effort, but the scenery outside is bland, flat and seemingly never ending in its existence. It is simply boring! Without doubt this is one of the least enjoyable journey's I have ever made.
I spend a few inconsequential days in Dar before I am able to catch one of the twice weekly trains to Zambia. The old hulk is certainly showing some signs of wear and tear - I'm pretty sure the large, squishy depression in our carriage corridor is in fact a big hole concealed only by the worryingly thin plastic flooring, and the windows have unpredictable and bloodthirsty guillotining tendencies. However, I've treated myself to the only marginally more expensive
first class and the four bunk cabins are comfy and spacious enough as is the dining cart that only has one item available on it's menu; chicken and rice, which constitutes my entire diet (besides a kilo of ginger biscuits, mmm) for the next two days.
On the first day we pass just south of Mikumi National Park and I spot plenty of elephant, giraffe and zebra wandering about near the train tracks. It is the first archetypal African wildlife I've seen apart from the ubiquitous baboons that roam the continent. The first night is far from peaceful. At one stage for about an hour the train slows down and jolts back and forth as the driver repeatedly applies the breaks. I ask the next morning about the need for such an uncomfortable procedure, which wakes our entire carriage. Apparently we are ahead of schedule. My jaw almost hits the ground, cartoon fashion, such is my incredulity at this inexcusable stupidity. Not only is it by far the least comfortable method that could be employed - the driver chooses to do it at night, on a sleeper train! - but he also refuses to consider that we may break
down in the future (which we do, twice) on a train line notorious for delays; I chat to one guy who did it once when the trip took four days rather than two, such was the catastrophic level of breakdowns. I have become used to the idiotic and depressingly frequent blinkers on brain off attitude of many people on this continent, but here my head hurts trying to fathom what exactly was running through the driver's head as he slammed on the breaks time after time.
Most of the mzungu depart the train at Mbeya a little way before the border, but after a long wait there we soon grind to a halt again having only just left. We have not broken down (yet) but a train further along the line has, so for three hours we wait while our engine is detached and loaned to another locomotive in order to clear the track ahead. This means we arrive very late to the border and I look on with bleary eyes as the immigration official puts yet another stamp in my passport.
I am told by an old Africa hand that Zambians are the laziest people he has
comes across on the continent. I am generally sceptical of such disparaging comments by foreigners, preferring to find out for myself before passing judgment. However, it soon appears to be a fair assessment. There is absolutely no enterprise on the Zambian side (something which I will see in Lusaka and Livingstone as well). In Tanzania we were bombarded at every stop, no matter how remote, with people bearing buckets of produce on their heads. In Zambia there are only a few kids who bluntly demand hand-outs. One of the depressing things about Africa is undoubtedly its lack of progress (by Western standards) since independence. I have travelled through places such as Sudan and Ethiopia where civil war and infamously exploitative governments have ravaged the land, partly explaining why these countries are still viewed as backward. Yet in places such as Zambia, which has been essentially peaceful for fifty years, there has been little development either; there is no excuse. It is also probably the most despondently dull, and vacuous country I've been to. There is no vibrancy or spirit to the place and it shows in the people.
Delays mean we arrive very late into Kapiri Mposhi but I
feel the overpowering need to get to Lusaka that night owing to my lack of Zambian currency. I therefore do something which is never advisable; I catch a minibus after dark in Africa. To compound this stupidity I soon discover that the two crew members are a pair of despicable gangsters, violently threatening passengers into paying the excessive fee they demand and even chucking out a man when he refuses. My companion from the train and I also suspect that the driver is drunk but when we talk about it he angrily turns round and shouts at us that he is not - a pretty much guaranteed confirmation of our fears. But by this time we're already well on our way and have no real choice but to stay put. Mercifully we arrive around midnight still intact and quickly hurry off in search of accommodation.
There are more photos below