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The Tazara Train – Travelling Overland from Zambia to Tanzania

I’m a big fan of train travel and the Tazara train between Zambia and Tanzania is one of my favourite and most challenging journeys to date.

The bus from Lusaka dropped me off at Kapiri Mposhi station at around 11.30am, ready for my train at 4pm, or as we say in Zambia – “sixteen hours”. I’d been in Africa for almost five weeks now and I was about to embark on my first long solo journey, taking the Tazara train from Zambia to Tanzania. Inside the station I got talking to a Canadian couple (Lindsay and Todd), a British couple (Alex and Ben) and an American guy called Tyler. Chatting to them I realised why I hadn’t been able to book a spot in first class. If booking an individual ticket, the compartments on the train are same sex only, unless you book out the entire carriage. Looking around, there were no other single ladies, so I assumed that the carriages had been bought out in full, and the only ones left were male. I’d only booked my ticket a couple of days before and I probably would have been ok if I’d emailed the ticket office earlier.

Kapiri Mposhi Station, Zambia, Tazara Train Helen in Wonderlust

* Photo Credit: Richard Stupart

The already busy station began to fill up with men, women and children carrying tons of luggage, quite often in the form of large, colourful laundry bags and sacks of nshima (ugali). It appeared some people were taking everything they owned, I wondered where was it all going to go? Whilst I knew I had a sleeper compartment booked, the third class passengers waited close to the train to enable them to run and claim the best spot on the uncomfortable benches they would calling home for the next two days.

We sat waiting in the station for around five hours before we were called forward to board.As I hadn’t been able to buy a first class ticket, I knew I’d be going in a different direction to my new friends once we got to the train. Looking suspiciously at my ticket, the guard stopped me and told me to wait to one side, whilst everyone else went through. I was confused, but he was now busy checking the tickets of the other passengers. I stood, biting my lip nervously. As the minutes ticked over, I felt myself getting a little teary, I didn’t know what I’d done wrong.

Kapiri Mposhi Station Tazara Train Richard Stupart Helen in Wonderlust

* Photo Credit: Richard Stupart

After Tyler had dumped his bags in his carriage, he came back out to look for me. When everyone else had gone, the guard came over to us. He said that I shouldn’t stay in the carriage I’d booked. I told him I’d be fine. He told me that I shouldn’t stay there alone and that he needed to see what other accommodation I could have before he would let me board. Tyler quickly jumped in.

“She can stay in my carriage. There’s just me, I have it all to myself.”

With a bit of persuasion from the two of us, and checking of the other bookings, the guard let me through and I was bumped up to ‘first class’ at no extra cost. I was so grateful to Tyler for his kind offer. He hadn’t booked out the entire carriage, but due to an odd number there was room.

Have you heard of the luxurious Blue Train in South Africa? Well I’ve read a couple of blog posts on that train over at Travel Yourself and Adventurous Kate – glamour, champagne, afternoon tea and comfy beds…

Imagine that train. You got it in your head? Well the Tazara train is the EXACT OPPOSITE of that! 🙂

The Tazara Train Richard Stupart Helen in Wonderlust

* Photo Credit: Richard Stupart

The first class rooms are basic, with 4 hard berths (the top ones fold up), a simple blanket provided and a table in the middle by the window. The bathroom was a basic toilet and a bucket of water to flush. The taps in the washroom provided a small drip to wash my hands.. There were shower rooms but I didn’t use them – yes disgusting I know. And was that a teenie weenie cockroach I just saw? Yes, yes it was.

Tyler and I unpacked, secured the rest of our luggage to the rack above the door and settled into our cabin, our home for the next two days. He got some peanut butter, jam and bread out of his bag. That’s when I realised – I should have brought food. I’d been running around in Lusaka and hadn’t picked any up. Oops. He offered to share, but he didn’t have very much so I said I’d just head to the dining car later. We set off to explore the train and quickly found the couples we’d met, sharing a cabin further back down the train towards the dining cart. Looking at the other crowded and uncomfortable sleeper/sitting carriages I was very grateful that I could afford my ‘luxurious’ cabin.

The sky was  dark as we pulled away from the station, a few hours later than planned, quite impressive by ‘African Time’ standards.

At dinner I ordered rice and stewed chicken which came with a slice of watermelon and a small salad. Sitting alone as the only mzungu, and a girl, I received quite a bit of attention. Two Zambian girls came to sit with me and we struck up a conversation. After dinner, Tyler and I bought some beers from the bar and we went to the couples carriage, where my two new Zambian friends came and joined us.

Beer and soft drinks are available on the train but if you want anything else I’d suggest you take it with you. There’s no drinkable running water either but you can buy it on the train or from a passing seller.

The Tazara Ttrain Helen in Wonderlust

The Tazara Train Helen in Wonderlust

Sleeping on the Tazara train is an interesting experience. Even when at standstill you feel the carriages crash together and you’re shoved around in your seat. I’m assuming this happened when carriages were added or removed at points along the journey, but I never did find out why. My first nights sleep was somewhat broken either by the train stopping, starting, creeking and jarring or the guard knocking on the door to tell us to secure our window.

The following morning, feeling somewhat groggy, I went to the dining cart for a late breakfast. I asked what the options were.

“Omelette Madam.”

“Anything else?”

“All we have is omelette today. And spaghetti. Do you want spaghetti with your omelette Madam?”

Erm… ok. I was imagining some Spaghetti of the tinned Heinz variety or at least with a little sauce. What I got was a plain omelette, dry spaghetti and some butter-less bread. It was fine, if a little dry and I was hungry and don’t like to waste food so I ate it all.

The Tazara Train Richard Stupart Hhelen in Wonderlust

* Photo Credit: Richard Stupart

The rest of the day was spent staring out of the window, relaxing (in between being shoved around in our seats) and enjoying uninterrupted views of Zambia whilst the faint smell of warm urine drifted from the toilet cabin next door.

The Tazara Train Villeton Helen in Wonderlust

* Photo Credit: Villeton

Later that day, I was sitting eating my evening meal of… you guessed it, chicken and rice, listening to my iPod and reading a book, when a man sat down next to me and started chatting. He wasn’t in any way threatening, but he was quite drunk, mildly annoying and with no sense of personal space. I chatted to him whilst I quickly finished up my food and made my excuses and went back to my cabin. On the way through the bar cart, a smartly dressed Zambian man grabbed my hand and asked me where I was from and would like to join him and his friend for a few drinks. I thanked them but went on my way.

The Tazara Train Richard Stupart Helen in Wonderlust

* Photo Credit: Richard Stupart

When the train stopped, it appeared that entire villages turned out for the spectacle – watching, waving and some to sell us everything from water to SIM cards. We did get the odd hostile gesture, but the majority of people were unbelievably welcoming as we passed. Women with babies on their backs and bananas on their heads sold me fruit through the window. Thank God for the fruit vendors, I was sick of rice, chicken and omelette!

Fruit Vendors on the Tazara Train Helen in Wonderlust

Kids ran along side the train waving, or asking for things, hands outstretched “Mzungu, give me my money/pen/bottle!”

Kids on the Tazara Railway Helen in Wonderlust

Quite often, the children were sitting along the railway line that ran parallel to ours. I even remember looking down to see one child lying with his head on the tracks.

Kids on the Tazara Railway Helen in Wonderlust

* Photo Credit: Richard Stupart

When the time allowed, I jumped off the train to chat to the kids, stretch my legs and play some games.

The Tazara Train

The landscape began to change as we neared Tanzania. The golden flat ground of Zambia gave way to lush green hills and in the afternoon of day two we crossed the border. We were running quite a bit behind now. The Zambian and Tanzanian officials came and stamped my passport. I’d bought my visa in advance at the embassy in  Lusaka so the process was very uncomplicated, however my English friends just obtained a visa at the border easily too, but my advice would be to arrange it first if you can, just to be sure.

Kids on the Tazara Railway Helen in Wonderlust

Continuing on into Tanzania, we came to a stop at Mbeya, much later than planned. A rumour came down the train that we’d run out of fuel at one point. Money changers came aboard and I swapped a few dollars for enough Tanzanian shillings to get me through the rest of the journey.

Taking advantage of the stillness I drifted off to sleep but I was woken by footsteps going past in the corridor. The Mbeya passengers were alighting and boarding, including Tanzania Scout troop who had been stranded somewhere near the border. There was a knocking on our door and we were joined in our cabin by an older Scottish couple called Helen and Alan. They, like me had a mix up with their seats and needed a place to stay. We gladly took them in. We all settled down to sleep, not moving again for the best part of the night.

The Tazara Train Richard Stupart

* Photo Credit: Richard Stupart

Feeling more rested than the day before I spent the following day practicing my Swahili with Helen and Tyler and people watching out of the window, waving shouting Swahili greetings to anyone I passed. It was omelette and spaghetti for breakfast again and chicken and rice for dinner. We passed over numerous bridges as we headed towards Dar es Salaam. Some of the bridges were spectacular, others made me close my eyes and hope for the best. It was a bit perturbing to pass some carriages on the embankments below from previously derailed trains. I tried not to think about it and just enjoyed the spectacular views.

We missed the Selous Game Reserve as due to our delay, it was night time when we passed through. I looked out of the window in the hope of catching something but it was just too dark. The night time temperatures changed with the journey too, Zambia evenings in the summer months can get pretty cold, where as it’s quite warm  in eastern Tanzania.

Child on the Tazara Railway Richard Stupart Helen in Wonderlust

* Photo Credit: Richard Stupart

We finally pulled in to Dar es Salaam station early Monday morning after 64 hours – 16 hours late. What a journey.

There were times when I wanted to be off that damn train, and other times when I didn’t want the journey to end.

This trip isn’t luxurious, it’s unreliable and it’s slow – but if you’re not in a rush on your Africa travels and are looking for a real adventure this is a wonderful trip that shouldn’t be missed.

Essential Info:

  • Train ticket from Kapiri Mposhi – Dar es Salaam approx. $50 (1st class). You can’t book your tickets through the Tazara website so I’d advise booking your tickets with the nearest booking office as far in advance as you can. Contact the relevant booking office here to check on the current situation and you should be able to reserve your place and pay at the station (emails can take a while – so do this as early as possible). Don’t wait until you get to Kapiri Mposhi to book, it isn’t the most buzzing town, so you may not want to spend a lot of time there if there’s no space available.
  • A bus from Lusaka to Kapiri Mposhi costs approx. $10. I got an 8am bus which got me there in around 3.5 hours.
  • Tanzanian visa $50.
  • Zambian visa $50 (single entry)/$80 (double entry)
  • Compartments are same sex for sleeping unless you book it all, so be prepared to be separated from your partner. You can always hang out together in the bar or dining car.
  • Things to bring – hand sanitizer, food, wet wipes, luggage chain (the lock on our door didn’t really work), head torch (the lights are unreliable), loo paper, a warm sweater and a book (or two).
  • Close your window when stopped at night and if you are leaving the carriage – keep your valuables with you.
  • Have local currency to pay for food/drinks – you can swap at various points along the way, but if you can have at least some to start that would be best. Dollars are ok to pay for visas but nothing else. Although I would recommend obtaining visas in advance. Especially if you are coming in to Zambia from Tanzania. Sometimes they run out of double entry visas so you’ll be paying an extra $20 for two singles.
  • Take more pictures than I did. I was too busy eating eggs and spaghetti, chatting to folk and staring out the window. This was great, but I do wish I’d taken a few more pics than I did.
  • Charge all of your electricals before you get on. Electricity is unreliable.
  • Speak with the locals, get off the train if you have the opportunity. Buy bananas through the window.
  • Have patience. The train probably won’t run on time.
  • Most of all – have fun. Walk the train, meet some folk and enjoy the journey. It’s a once in a lifetime experience.

Would you take a trip on the Tazara Train?

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