October 21, 2010 by Jools Stone
The night’s are drawing in here in Scotland, so what better time then to go off the rails on an adventure through Africa’s Tazara Railway? Guest blogger Caz Makepeace from the wonderful Y Travel Blog takes us there.
Want a more luxurious African train experience? Try South Africa’s the Blue Train for size.
Traveling around Africa is mostly done by bus or local mini vans. It is almost never a case of going straight from A to B, usually it entails passing through X, Y and Z first. Travel in Africa is tough. The buses break down frequently, your life flashes before your eyes every minute, wheels have a good chance of falling off mid motion, and you can be sure you’ll be nursing a rooster or small child somewhere.
Every now and then an opportunity will arise for you to leave all this behind and opt for a safer, roomier and more comfortable journey from one place to the next. And that is a journey by train.
Clickety Clack, don’t look back
The TAZARA train runs from Dar Es Saalam in Tanzania to Mbeya, a convenient place to catch a mini van to Malawi, which was where we were going. We had been traveling in Africa already for 6 weeks and had 3 months to go and just knew it was time to travel the 27-hour journey in style. The buses and trains take about the same time, as the trains can sometime hit speeds of only 20km for several miles.
The TAZARA is the Tanzania and Zambia Railway Authority linking the South Africa and East Africa regional transport networks. TAZARA has been in operation since 1976 and I’m sure that each of the diesel electric powered locomotives are still the originals. Don’t expect too much style. Air conditioning comes by way of open window, buckets of water sit beside the toilets for flushing, and the train will lullaby you to sleep at night with its constant rattles and groans.
When we arrived at the station we found one end of the train was packed with African men, women and children huddled around the train door waiting to receive the okay to race on in and claim their spot on one of the cold, hard benches. Those unfortunate latecomers would be standing in the toilet or sitting on peoples’ heads. Wherever a spare spot could be for them to place a toe.
This was the third class ticket section, and whilst it is always great to get an understanding of how the locals live, for a journey this long I was quite happy to be entering the first class section. The exuberant $25 price ticket blew our African daily budget out the window but sometimes sanity splurges like these are in order.
Buying the sleeper class tickets meant Craig and I would be separated for the night, as there are no mixed sleeper cabins. We were both fine with this if it mean a little safety and luxury travel for a night. The cabins are four berth and comfortable enough, and even though the beds are firm, the rocking of the train is sure to send you into a quiet and restful sleep. Linen is provided and there are even shower rooms available for you to enjoy a “cold healthy shower.”
We were allowed to hang out in the lounge cabin together which is where we spent most of the journey eating, reading, and hanging out the windows watching the African plains go by. The lounge cabin was fairly comfortable and close to the dining cabin where simple and cheap meals such as stewed meat and rice can be bought.
We pulled into small villages along the way to pick up more passengers. Villagers flocked to the train windows holding up baskets of bread, bottles of water, potatoes, and bananas for the hungry passengers inside to buy. Hardworking African women stood patiently waiting, heads weighed down with goods to sell, their babies wrapped around their back with their sarongs. Money and food passed between passenger and vendors through the windows. Laughing children, dressed in school uniform ran alongside the train waving frantically and calling “Muzungu”(white man) as we departed.
The biggest draw card to catching the TAZARA is the scenery you encounter on the journey. A train is built to go in the areas roads are not, so the passing outside world is often unspoilt in its natural beauty. Departing from Dar Es Salaam the environment is quite lush and hilly. The train passes over bridges, around mountains and through tunnels until it gives way to the drier, sparse and yellow terrain of the Savannah.
If you are lucky you will pass through the Sealous Game Reserve during the daylight hours. Of course everything in Africa is run on African time so there is the possibility that your train will be late and only make this area during the night. We hit it during the last remaining hours of daylight. From our window, in the distance, we saw giraffes loping across the plains toward the Acacia trees, warthogs racing beside our train, and the ubiquitous zebra and wildebeest trying to blend in with their surroundings.
Riding the TAZARA was the only train travel I did in Africa. I alighted feeling refreshed, comfortable, and with all the hairs left laying down on my body. Death’s breath did not keep me company and so I had time to appreciate the beauty and simplicity of the journey.
Caz Makepeace has been traveling the world for over 10 years along with her husband Craig and now 3 year old girl Kalyra. They believe life is all about the memories and so live a life that gives them many stories to tell. You can follow their adventures at their website y travel blog or connect with them at their fan page and twitter