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The Tazara Railway: Train Travel through Tanzania & Malawi

24

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.

View from Tazara train, Tanzania

View from Tazara train, Tanzania

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.

View from Tazara train, Tanzania

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.

Craig Makepeace in the men's sleeper cabin

Craig Makepeace in the men’s sleeper cabin

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.

Typical food on board, stewed meat and rice

Typical food on board, stewed meat and rice

 

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.

 

Train safari!

A warthog spotted from the train

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.

 

African lady on train platform

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

 

 

Tazara Facts

Schedule:The train runs Tuesdays and FridaysTickets:Cannot be purchased online but can and should be purchased several days before the journey, either at the train station or through a booking agency.Prices:vary depending on what class ticket you buy (USD)

First Class- 4 berth sleepers $22

Second Class- 6 berth sleepers $16

Second Class Seats- $14

Third Class Seats- $13

Tips

Come prepared with enough food for the journey. There is a restaurant on the train but you just never know what can go wrong in Africa. Have plenty of water, patience and books to read. Have your camera ready and make an effort to talk with the other passengers.


24 comments »

  1. I have never considered catching the train in Africa, but now I am sold! Great information Caz!

  2. Norbert says:

    Wow, they still believe in gender division! For some reason I’m not too surprised by that… lol

    Your post gave me a flashback of my train rides in Thailand… of course, they are not as hardcore as the African train rides seem to be, but some Thai trains have similar “living” conditions… but still, they are great to travel comfortably between the regions while watching the scenery.

    • Thanks Norbert. Actually the gender division gave us an excuse to have a break from each other. LOL Only joking. I love train travel for the opportunity it gives you to just stare at the scenery and do nothing but think and appreciate.

  3. Cam says:

    That is a massive looking wart hog!

  4. Clickety Clack, don’t look back. I love this line! Thanks for this guest post Jools – they both have an interesting story.

  5. donnae says:

    Great post Caz, it makes a great juxtaposition to my post on Rovos rail in South Africa. I was in Tanzania a few years ago but did trucks & planes. I like your idea better.

  6. Nancie says:

    Great post. There are so many countries where I feel more comfortable on a train instead of the highway. I don’t need to say why!

  7. robingraham says:

    Great articel -looks similar to a train I took in Kenya once – very old world it was, waiters in starched white and so on…

  8. Jim says:

    Curiously Caz, tonight we had been googling train lines in Zambia.We understand there’s a train route from Lusaka to Dar if you are heading down to Zanzibar. Do you know anything about that?
    Thinking about doing that next year.
    Good report thanks,
    Jim

    • Actually Jim, I don’t know too much about that train trip. It would be worth taking though. It’s really needed in Africa just for the break from the hair raising road travel.

  9. ayngelina says:

    Yes! I love food photos 🙂 This looks like such a great adventure.

  10. The Tazara is a beautiful a comfortable train run between Tanzania and Zimbabwe. It provides wonderful scenic adventures of wildlife and lovely passing by villages in Africa.

  11. admin says:

    Thanks both, glad you liked it. Pretty taken with the idea myself.

  12. Jenny says:

    Great stuff, I like your suggestion. Whenever I will go Africa definitely I will follow your idea.

  13. Tavi says:

    Great write up Caz

    I took that train back in 1990, looks like not much has changed, which is a good thing.

    Back then there was another line I took from Niarobi to Uganda (can’t remember the terminus). I think we went 10 mph the whole way, but it was very cool. One of my favorite photos I ever took was of a sign along the tracks that read “no trains beyond this point without drivers”.

    Thanks for the flashback

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