A Travellerspoint blog

TAZARA; a typically African travel experience

93,166 km travelled in total

sunny 31 °C

We set off from Lusaka and took a 6 hour bus ride to the small town of Kapiri Mposhi. Before leaving a preacher blesses the bus and its wheels (Oh holy wheels, may our father protect them from popping and splatting our bodies against a truck. Amen), then proceeds to collect money from the faithful for his hard work. I hope God gets some commission. We set off and after a short time are stopped and told to get off for a police frisk. We have several more of these bribe stops along the way.

When we arrive at station we ask the teller whether the train is leaving on time, “of course” he laughs. We take a seat and do some people watching. We wait and wait, and then wait a bit more. Two hours pass the scheduled leaving time and still nothing. I suppose time is a relative term when it comes to these things, maybe there are leaves on the track, maybe elephants. Eventually, three hours later we are allowed on board, another hour later we actually leave.

Our luxury cabin

Our luxury cabin

The train sets off at a leisurely pace and it feels good to get going. Almost at once we see the wreckages of past carriages at the side of the track, rusted and apparently not even worth salvaging they sit at strange angles in the positions they were thrown from the tracks. We chug along past small villages and children rush out to wave at the train and us, it’s the event of the week and everyone wants to have a wave. Some children are too late and you see them frantically running through the long grass only to miss the last carriage. Every station is packed with people, some selling goods and food and some just there for a wave and a gawp.

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Everything runs smoothly until midnight when our carriage derails. The train stops and then attempts to ride on whilst we are jolted to oblivion. We pick up more speed and we wonder what will happen next. Eventually we come to a stop, apparently the driver decides this cant be done for the next 40 hours. 3 hours are spent sitting in the dark, the lights dont work when train is not moving. Thankfully we have a torch, beer and wine.

Christy hits the bottle

Christy hits the bottle

Eventually the manager who looks a bit like the fat controller, comes in and tells us we have derailed just in case we hadn’t noticed. At 3am he moves us into a second class cabin, the workers disconnect our old carriage and the remaining railed carriages set off again. Ten minutes later we stop again and sit for no apparent reason for another hour in the dark. During this time someone in the next cabin starts preaching loudly into the night, possibly requesting that God intervenes to stop another derailment. I decide that Africans are even more noisy than Americans, shocking but true.

We’re woken up bleary eyed at 7am and given breakfast which is allegedly a full English. They’ve evidently never been to England as it consists of lumps of chicken liver, an omelette created out of play dough and a coffee which looks and tastes like engine oil. We notice that the window in our new carriage wont open, the maintenance man is called and he comes and “fixes” it by sticking a screwdriver into the gap and wedging it open permanently. He leaves cheerfully telling us to watch out as the locals enjoy throwing rocks into the second class cabins. Excellent.

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The train chugs on, we are chuffed it has managed 4 hours in a row. At every station we are met by many local vendors selling roast chicken, fruit and many other things – the railway is their lifeline as they are so isolated. The local children beg for our empty bottles so we oblige and they fall on the floor scrabbling for them as if we’d thrown gold down. The bottles can be filled with water and sold again to other locals. At one station a group of children stand and stare at us for ages. We try to communicate and I attempt rock, scissor paper with one of them. He has never seen this before and thinks that rock is me shaking my fist at him, scissor is me sticking up my fingers and paper is some other strange symbol. He looks a bit offended and sticks his fingers back up at me. Game over. We gave up on games and they amused us by pulling karate moves and falling over repeatedly.

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We eventually arrive at the Tanzanian border and practice our terrible Swahili with some locals. We exchanged a small amount of currency but as we were worried about getting ripped off we only changed £5 worth as we assumed we could still use Zambian money for the rest of the journey. Big mistake.

We set off again and we’re confident that as we are now in Tanzania we’ll be there by the next morning. At 6pm our train stops. After an hour or so I go for a beer and find the Fat Controller sitting in the dark resting a beer on his enormous stomach, I ask him what’s going on and he says that the main engine carriage has broken, and that unfortunately there’s no other carriages nearby to “rescue” us – it could be a long wait. He also tells me we can’t use Zambian money from now on so we have £5 to last us for however long the rescue will take. A few hours later he comes and cheerfully tells us they've found another engine, but that it can only take us to the nearest station. The engine arrives, drives us 30 minutes down the track and then we sit at the station in the dark. Midnight comes and the train starts, we are hopeful another engine has been found. We set off and the carriage jolts all over the place nearly throwing us from our beds. Whilst this is happening the man in the next cabin sleeps on peacefully snoring like a walrus and a million cockroaches are claiming back their cabin by crawling all over it. The train stops apparently unable to go any further without derailing again and we remain stationary with no lights for the next morning.

We set off again ever hopeful that this time we will keep going and eventually arrive. Tanzania has a very different scenery with rolling hills and fields of sunflowers and its very beautiful.

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The train manages to last until about 2am that night which is an amazing feat considering. We stop again, this time in a national park and once again the light disappears. The Fat Controller comes to tell us that another train has derailed and “capsized” (?!) and that we won’t be going anywhere for at least 24 hours. Apparently we have two options; to wait it out until the train can move again or to set off on foot through the nature reserve early the next morning to the nearest village where we can attempt to catch a bus. We chat with the 3 other foreigners on the train and decide to try to catch the bus the next morning. We get up at 5am and there is a mass exodus with everyone leaving the train. I go to get the other Mzungus and they’re still asleep so we have to wait for them. By the time they're ready the train is deserted and we have no idea about how to get to the village. We wait for another 15 minutes and then the other foreigners decide it’s too dangerous to go out in the dark and state that they're not leaving. We boldly set out by ourselves, I try to console Christy by telling her than lions don’t really eat people much anyway and we wonder around in the dark trying to see where we should go. Luckily we meet some other passengers who lead us to the village where we wait for the next few hours whilst a local Muslim man who declares he is President Obama prances, dances and sings his way around in circles and generally looks a bit crazy. After a few hours a man brings out a small board which states he is a ticket office and we buy tickets with Al-Siedy Royal Class coaches which the man earnestly tells us is an excellent bus and reassures us that we will most definitely get to sit down and enjoy the final 300km of our journey. The bus turns up and isn’t one bit royal and it has no class, it’s packed full of people and we have to stand up, the seats are ripped up and the inside looks as though someone has let off a hand grenade in it. A banner on the front window declares that Allah will protect our journey and the bus driver uses this protection to the max and drives like a maniac. We set off at light speed hurtling down mud roads and after about 20 minutes we swerve swiftly to the right clipping a motorbike, then briskly back to the left to avoid some oil drums which have been strategically placed in the middle of the road. I don’t know how we managed to avoid going in the ditch. We look back and the motorcyclist is laid out flat in the middle of the road but the driver doesn’t stop, the locals click their tongues and mutter “God be willing” and it’s left there. Shortly afterwards we zoom over a rickety bridge and one of the back tyres explodes very loudly, the locals cluck a bit again and again the driver continues no doubt thanking Allah for his timely intervention which stopped us plummeting from the bridge to our deaths. An hour later they decide to stop and change the tyre, it’s shredded and there’s a massive hole in it, they patch up the hole with a live chicken and on we go. Forwards we charge through a nature reserve at 130km/ hour, the driver is obviously hoping for further protection as we see elephants and giraffes at the road edge which could easily walk across the road. Thankfully they dont. The park road has many speed bumps and instead of slowing down the driver continues on in his mission to reach terminal velocity which propels all of the seated old ladies into mid air every 5 minutes, they cluck and click away and look in pain, but don’t say anything. By this time Christy has made friends with an old lady next to her by giving her a boiled egg, the lady in exchange is attempting to help get of Christy’s plastic bottles and rubbish by throwing it out of the window into the national park. Christy tries to stop her but she looks at her as if she’s crazy. We drive on and five long and terrifying hours later we arrive in Dar es Salaam, our final destination. The journey took 75 hours in total, a mere 35 hours of delays, we feel very frayed and ragged around the edges from the experience, but very glad to be alive and happy to have experienced something like this. We won't be back again.

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Posted by monkeyboy1 06:36 Archived in Tanzania Tagged train_travel

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