The Tazara Train Diaries

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January 25th 2012
Published: January 25th 2012
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(Or All Aboard the Tazara Train - Dar to Kapiri Mposhi . . . Not Exactly . . .)

2012-Jan-24 5:02 PM - Survived the Ordeal (Part 1)

Fast forward folks to the end of this leg of our African safari; its Tuesday afternoon when it should have been Sunday night (your first clue that things did not quite go 'according to plan'😉. After countless trials and tribs, a bit of a leg up from sweet German Tobi and stoic Kenyan Kevin and a huge exercise in patience and trusting in fate, I am now happily rested, showered, have enjoyed a 'real toilet' (sorry to be so graphic but it's the little things that mean so much), taken a walk around downtown Lusaka (during which we secured our bus tickets to Livingstone tomorrow), indulged in a swim and a Mosi beer at the fun little outdoor bar at our backpackers hostel (ok, so we are really suitcasers but are still welcome) and am once again happy as a clam. My back, less so (injured during the Gorilla trek) but I am ignoring the pain (or drowning it in beer). And, as I have come to realize, the 'easy' part
Monica with the LuggageMonica with the LuggageMonica with the Luggage

Unbelievably, for Tazara this is modest!
of our journey may now be over and we have moved on to the 'interesting' part. But, back to the beginning of this . . . I don't even know what to call it.


2012-Jan-20 11:30 AM - Starting Out At Tazara Station

Yes, I'm fretting again about whether we're going to get somewhere on time. Rama, Carol's regular driver, was supposed to pick us up at her house at 11:00 AM to take us to the station, and he's never been late before (we feel we know him quite well, because we've used him for 4 airport runs already, and he's always on time and very helpful). He helped us get these tickets 2 weeks ago when the station clerk spoke hardly any English. He arrived several minutes later (not his fault - Dar traffic is brutal) and despite heavy noon hour traffic dropped us at the station at only a few minutes after noon.


2012-Jan-20 11:30 PM - Setting Off (Finally)

I should have known this trip was going to be a 'thing' when we arrived at the Dar es Salaam Tazara station Friday at noon to board for a 1:30 PM departure and were told immediately that the train would not be departing until 9:00 PM (in fact it was 10 PM when we pulled out). Sigh, here we go I thought; a nine plus hour delay right off the get go. As everyone says (but we have luckily avoided so far) TIA - This Is Africa. Loosely translated this means that time is a bit of a loose construct around here.

As my pal Terry knows, this was the one part of the trip I was a bit tentative about. Stories of delays, stolen luggage (out of train car windows when stopped at night stations), pick pockets and aggressive touts at Kipiri Mposhi (especially at night) made for a less than anticipated start. But somewhat against type, Mon was keen and so far Africa has proved friendly and benign to us (knocking on wood), so I figured what the heck.

The Tazara train line linking Dar es Salaam (and its port) with Kapiri Mposhi, Zambia (the hub of the Zambian copper, manganese and other resources export) was built by the Chinese and completed in 1970 (as usual, Wikipedia-it for more info). Sadly over the years the trains and parts of the line have fallen into increasing disrepair and become the unfortunate victim of vandalism which leads to delays at best and derailments at worst. As I looked around our somewhat gloomy 'first class' berth with tattered upholstery, natty bed linen, grimy floor, non-working lights and fan and barely functioning windows, and bathrooms that either did not work or would leave most of you squeamish (we have long become accustomed to the vagaries of washrooms, really reduced to being called 'toilets'; as in 'could you direct me to the toilets' so this did not bother us too much - at first), I thought 'what have we gotten ourselves into here?' But, except for ensuing events, I grew accustomed to our surroundings and would have considered it quite ok in the end.


2012-Jan-21 8:40 AM - We've reached "Chita Halt"

Just woke up from our first night. The moving train actually lulls you to sleep, but each of the many stops, and jerking starts, wakes you again. (As does the "coach attendant" knocking to let you know the next station is particularly known for thieves so stay on guard.)

We considered not going
Engineering Details 2Engineering Details 2Engineering Details 2

The hand belongs to the litter-bug!
to Selous GR (see last 2 blogs) because I could see from the map that the rail line crosses a good portion of the northern part of the reserve, and a blogger on another site had mentioned seeing wildlife as he passed through. He was either going the other way or was also incredibly late, because unfortunately when the train is on time, you pass through the reserve in the dark. We did also, even with our delay and so saw nothing.

They seem to call the smallest stops "halts", because they are not really stations. Some barely have a platform, which means if you're getting on or off it will be a stretch for one's legs and arms to reach up to the high train. But that doesn't stop dozens of women and men from bringing their wares and foodstuffs to the side of the train to sell. It was great to be able to get a few bananas or some water to supplement what we could get on the train. But I soon realized that many passengers were buying far more goods than they could consume during their journey. In fact they were taking advantage of the low prices for pineapples, mangoes, potatoes, corn, etc., to actually stock up on groceries for their trips home. I don't know where they put all this stuff in their cabins, but I suspect they would come to regret it when the train got so delayed and they were stuck with the train as there was no other way to transport their goods.

We breakfasted on tea and snacks we brought with us. Hold onto your cup as it tends to spill on the swaying and bucking train!


2012-Jan-21 12:25 PM - A Beautiful Afternoon

Just passed through Kitete Halt. The scenery along the route really is stunning. We pass through a number of tunnels chiseled into hillsides which send the train into pitch black because they have no cabin lights during the day. Also, we passed over several beautiful railway bridges (take note Hugh - we thought of you). We watched in the waiting room in Dar, (parts of) an interesting documentary on the difficulties faced by the Chinese in building the railway over this uncharted area but could clearly see the fruits of their labours and travails. It was also fun to see lots children watching and waving from the sidelines - especially when they caught sight of the 2 'muzungwas' (whiteys) peering out from the train.

We also have a number of children in our train car. The compartment next to us, meant for four persons, houses 3 adult women and 4 or 5 children under 8. Unfortunately the parents are not setting a very good example for their kids as we watched all manner of garbage simply getting thrown out of the train window into the country-side.

Later in the afternoon four third class cars got dropped in a siding as we pass through Makambako. Holding probably at least a hundred passengers each, this is a clear sign of how much the train is used to reach these remote regions and how many folks have already gotten off since Dar.


2012-Jan-21 10:30 PM - Mbeya

We have been managing to at least not fall any further behind in time up to now. In Mbeya we say goodbye to our first train friend Uli from Switzerland. He approached us in the Dar station looking for first aid supplies for a badly scraped knee. Then we shared more
Monica is Proud of Her Haul!Monica is Proud of Her Haul!Monica is Proud of Her Haul!

3 bananas, one delicious avocado and 2 apples
band-aids, a couple of meals and drinks and life stories as he told us about his work with a Swiss NGO on a project to bring clean drinking water to 5 villages in a sustainable way. He probably still doesn't know what adventures we encountered after he got off.

At this point, as Mbeya was the last big Tanzanian town only a couple of hours from the Zambian border, a number of money changers got on and we changed all our shillings to kwachas before the border crossing to Zambia. It was a bit creepy as we went to bed and lay in our darkened cabin hearing these men lumbering up and down the train cars muttering in low, slightly sinister voices 'chan, chan, chan' (meaning change as in 'change your currency?'😉. Little did we know it would be almost 24 hours before we actually crossed the border. The train stayed in Mbeya all night long because of some kind of derailment somewhere up the line. It made sleeping very pleasant, but was our first big sign of trouble ahead. And it was the only "sign", because the train authorities don't tell you anything, unless you really drag it out of them, and then you only got rumours and half-truths.

But at least breakfast the following morning in a stopped train was much easier!


2012-Jan-22 1:50 PM - Chewing Our Fingernails in Mlowo

Ok, now things are getting tense. After finally getting going almost 12 hours later from Mbeya, we were stopped again at Mlowo for some 90 minutes and learn of the 'first' derailment (yes folks, there is a second). It is now Sunday; technically we are supposed to have gotten to our end point Kapiri this afternoon and clearly that is not happening. I really hate the thought of getting there in the dark . . . and to make matters worse, no showers since Friday morning and the dining car, never ripe with variety/options for vegetarians is getting low on supplies. But, there is still beer . . .

And we are getting word that there is a second derailment up the line; OMG . . . we are never going to get there.


2012-Jan-22 3:35PM - At the Zambian Border - Finally

Tunduma and Nakonde are the towns on either side of the divide. First the Tanzanian authorities "stamp" you out, then the Zambian ones come through at the next stop and sell you the appropriate visa. We didn't even have to fill out an "entry card", so they clearly care more about the hard currency than whether you're really a desirable visitor. Now the language changes too, so all those Swahili words we've learned are useless. Around here, hardly anyone speaks English, so it was back to sign language ("how many of these little pink bills will it take me to get two of those bananas?"). We discover in the bigger towns that because Zambian has 3-4 significant and languages, and many lesser, many know English even to communicate with each other.


2012-Jan-23 6:30 AM Stopped Dead at Kasama

Kasama, the capital of Zambia's northern province, was supposed to be a half hour stop and when you're trying to sleep, it can be hard to keep track of time. But I definitely knew we were late when the sun started coming up and we were still there. I thought I had heard a freight train passing us in the night (in one of the station sidings) at a good clip, heading towards Kapiri, so I assumed the line must be open, and this was just an extended night stop to re-fuel (man and machine). However, when I now looked out I could see said train parked near the front of our train. Turns out this was the "rescue train", so not a good sign that it was not "rescuing" anything. We have no indication that anyone was injured in either accident we encountered... Still we can't get a straight answer out of anyone who appears to be in command (conveniently for them, no one above waiter on this train wears any uniform or badge). So we had to rely on rumour.

Some said the train would leave at 11:00 (the kitchen supervisor had been told to go into town and buy food for an 11:00 AM departure). Some said that the railway was bringing in buses as alternate transport to Kapiri. Where were they going to get buses, at this time, in this fairly distant town, for what I estimate was at least 1500 passengers. We could see a group of about 50 passengers from the 3rd class coaches arguing with some authorities, but again not knowing the language who can tell . . . Our coach attendant did come around at one point and say that they were taking names of those who would get on such alternate buses. Then I realized they may have intended to transport only the 100 or so 1st and 2nd class passengers. I didn't want to have anything to do with the riot that was likely to cause!


2012-Jan-23 1:30 PM - The Escape Plan

Ok, clearly this is going nowhere (literally). We begin to hear of some folks' thoughts to abandon the train and find private alternative means to move on. Tobias (Tobi), an early 20's German student heading for a 2 month internship at the German embassy in Lusaka, Kevin a young professional from Nairobi, and I walked out of the station towards town to check things out (thanks Patricia, travel agent from Lusaka who was two compartments down from us, for letting us know how she had done this). Barbe stayed and guarded all our luggage on the train (well, not Kevin's - he had only a tiny day pack with all his kit for a two week vacation in Namibia and Vic Falls - how much more do you need for bungee jumping?!?). We hired and negotiated the fare on a taxi to the town centre, and the driver was helpful in taking us to different bus companies until we found one that had space for 4 that afternoon. Then we scrambled back to the train to collect Barbe and the bags and quaff a quick last 'breakfast' of egg and fried bread (at what was really lunchtime but hey, food is food). Another acquaintance, Tony from Zimbabwe, changed his mind about joining us because the latest rumour was that the train was leaving at 3:00 pm, and he said he's ridden too many buses already. . . I bet he regrets that decision now, given what we saw soon after our bus left.


2012-Jan-24 6:30 AM - Passage to Lusaka

So at 2:30-ish on Monday (now 24 hours overdue), Tobi, Kevin, Mon and I boarded a bus bound for Lusaka with great relief. From my point of view, not only were we getting away from our little train disaster but this meant skipping by Kapiri. This came as a huge relief. Soon Tobi and I as baggage loaders (Mon was securing seats and Kevin had to make a desperate 'last stop' to the loo after a nervous bit of time scrambling to extend his permission to enter past the 48 hours now almost completely blown) were arguing (only softly; we did not want to jeopardize our seats) with a sudden 'baggage fee' of 50000 kwacha. Oh well, pay it and move on.

Soon we were merrily skimming down the highway to Lusaka. Ok, not so much. First, the bus was set up in a three seat/two seat configuration; more people, less space. We were hip to hip (in some heat) and could not move or stretch our legs much. Murder on my injured back and Mon said she was getting 'bum cramps.' Second, we were subjected to an interesting Zambian custom of a temporary bus-board preacher extolling Christianity in an unknown language and loud, vehement tones. After about 15 minutes of this, he solicits money and then gets off (note: we saw this again in a more toned down version on our way to Livingstone and Tobi says they do it on all local public transit). Three, we were loudly serenaded THE ENTIRE 12 HOURS by the onboard music system which first churned out 80's country and Dolly Parton tunes, hours of modern reggae (including a reggae tune about Dracula and vampires not less than 5 times in a row!). As the famous wit Dorothy Parker once said 'what fresh hell is this'? I thought I was going to lose my mind.

Of note in the first bit of our travel; we passed along the road that ran parallel to the train and at 3:15 or so, could see the train was still in the station; ok - good move on our part. Then about 30 minutes or so, we went over a railway crossing and close by we could see the derailment site. Clearly visible were a couple of cars off the tracks, lots of debris (reported to be copper ore and maize) and the rescue cars with two cranes. Clearly that work would still take time to clear the track for the poor Tazara.

So we wound our way across Zambia in this fashion for several hours. By the time we came to Kapiri for a quick 'toilet' break, not only was it 1:30 AM and dark but also pouring rain. Kapiri was every bit as grim as I envisioned and I was so, so glad we were skipping over it.

A weary 2 hours later we reached the Lusaka train station and gratefully got off. Oh, to a shower and clean sheets. But not just yet. We were all too early to go to our hostel, Tobi to his house (could not wake his housemates at this ungodly hour) and Kevin had to wait until the ticket office opened to keep moving to Livingstone to join his tour on time. So the four of us stood around for next couple of hours comparing our countries' political systems, fending off the taxi drivers, drunks and touts and reiterating how glad were to be in this dark and somewhat creepy place. Not soon enough, the sun began to rise; we said goodbye and good luck to Kevin and shared a cab with Tobi to our hostel, from where we move on.


2012-Jan-25 8:00 AM- Survived the Ordeal (Part 1)

In the clear light followed by a good night's sleep, we can now laugh at our trip and our motto is 'glad we did it, will never do that again.'



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