There are two infamous train lines in Tanzania. Most locals refer to them as “the crappy railways”. Can you guess where I’m going with this? Yes, I took both. 26 hours on the first ride to cross the country in the south, east to west. 45 hours in the next ride to cross the country again, but this time from the north-west to the south-east. It was grueling, but worth it. Why, you ask? Three reasons. These are two of Africa’s last true great railway journeys, and I couldn’t pass the opportunity for an adventure like this. To experience how the locals travel (I was the only mzungu –white person– on board both times). And to see places on the way I would have never seen if I took a plane instead. Plus, I got a cool story to tell you. So all aboard, let’s take a train across Tanzania!
Tazara Railway (Dar es Salaam to Mbeya)
Do you really want to take the “terrible train”?
I was coming from the Usambara Mountains, with just enough time to get down the mountain to Muheza and take a bus to Dar es Salaam. The bus, of course, left me in a random street in the middle of nowhere. With the clock ticking and in panic of losing the train, I took a boda boda –you know, the Tanzanian motorcycle taxis. I swear, the driver’s whole purpose in life was to get me killed. We passed through bajaji and cars as if they were liquid instead of solid, as if crashing wouldn’t kill us. Luckily, the driver failed in his resolution, and I got there in one piece and on time.
While screaming to the driver to go ‘pole pole’ –slowly, slowly– he replied with “why you go to Tazara?”. Well, to catch the train, I replied with a hint of irony. “What? Why you do that? It’s too terrible. You fly. I take you to airport”. No, no, please drive me to Tazara station, and pole pole, I insisted. “Hakuna matata, sister, but no take train. Train terrible. You alone, they steal your things”. No worries, I’m meeting my friends there, I lied.
Getting acquaintance with the train
However, I wasn’t really lying. The three roommates I had on the train were lovely and welcoming. I was not alone. The compartments are only shared by people of the same gender, unless you’re a family and you book the whole thing. Two of my roommates were Tanzanians, going to small sleepy towns along the route. The third one was Zambian.
You see, the name Tazara comes from Tanzania-Zambia Railway Authority, and it links Dar es Salaam in the east of Tanzania with the town of Kapiri Mposhi in Central Zambia. The single-track railway is 1,860 km (1156 mi) long. The ride to Mbeya, the last stop in Tanzania, was going to take 26 hours (although it’s advertised as 23).
My first-class ticket got me a “bed” in a room with two bunk beds. They come with a sheet, a blanket, and a pillow that haven’t been washed since the train was constructed. In the room there’s also a table, a fan, and one socket. The holders of the lower beds are expected to share them as chairs during the day with the roommates sleeping up. And we all took turns to charge our phones in the one socket provided. The system makes you socialize!
As for the toilets, they are a simple hole in the floor that lets whatever comes out of people straight to the tracks. As the train bounces a lot, I thought I’d wait for a stop to use the facilities, only to discover that they are closed when the train stops, because of the engineering of their design: the train managers don’t want people waiting by the tracks to get splashed by someone’s pee, or worse. So, defeatedly, I waited for the train to start moving again, and bouncing again, to go and try to pee without falling. Which I successfully managed every time nature called, thanks to all the gods. There’s a lavatory with running water, but if you ever adventure into this ride, bring lots of hand disinfectant!
Eating on the train and seeing the hours go by
The train serves food, either to your room or in a restaurant-wagon. There’s an almost unintelligible announcement in the speakers in Swahili and English informing the menu for the meal. They serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner. For little over 1€ the meals are humble, but it’s warm, tasty-ish food. A clerk stops in every room asking what you want, and bringing it too. Or you can go to the restaurant. There they also sell cold beer, an abnormality in a country where beer is often drunk warm.
Immediately as the train departed we were offered lunch. As everyone in the room came prepared, we declined the polite offer from the clerk, and we shared and ate the snacks we had. Two of the girls had male friends traveling in the next compartment, so after a few bites, off they went to have a beer. They signaled for me to join, but between my lack of Swahili, not wanting to be a fifth wheel, and the fact that I woke up at 4 AM and I was half dead already, I thanked them for the offer, but declined.
Instead, I spent my afternoon looking out the window, watching the landscape slowly change. Even the seasons seemed to be changing. We left a grey autumn-like Dar es Salaam behind to get into the plains, where we were met with a bit of rain.
In some of the stops along the way people would sell goods through the window, mostly fruits and soft drinks. In the bigger ones they would go in the train and offer their products door by door.
When darkness took over, I had a humble dinner from the train’s selection. The selection being “do you want dinner or not?”. To make my meal vegetarian they just got rid of the chicken, leaving me with rice, some greens, and a little piece of watermelon. But, as I mentioned, it cost about 1€ so I shouldn’t complain.
Here comes the night, and a new day onboard
Sleep came easily. I’m sure it was because I was dead tired, but I found the bumpiness of the train soothing, like if I was in a cradle being gently rocked. The exhaustion made me overlook the fact that loud music was being played through the speakers the.whole.night(!), and that the fan made the already chilly night, chillier. You’re warned, if you’ll tackle this adventure, come very tired –or bring earplugs and a sleeping bag!
I woke up to a different roommate in the bed in front of mine. This time was a Tanzanian woman with a little girl. All 4 of my roommates were fast asleep while I had breakfast, and spend hours looking out the window. The scenery was much greener, and after a short few minutes of showers, the temperature became pleasant.
The Tanzanian girls left in small towns no one has ever heard of, where the landscape was green and the climate hot. So it was just down to me and the Zambian girl, Esther. We chatted the afternoon away with our heads out of the window, marveling at the gorgeous postcards the train gave us while approaching curves and crossing high bridges in the middle of the forest.
That’s one of the beauties of train travel, it doesn’t follow a motorway, it goes through sights that are impossible to see from any other mean of transportation. This is especially true for the Tazara Railway, since it connects towns, but goes as far away as it can from them. Even the stations are far in the suburbs, treating passengers to spectacular sceneries away from cities.
As the train was delayed and we found ourselves with extra time in our hands, we went to the restaurant/bar-wagon to get a couple of beers. Due to COVID the train didn’t cross the border, which meant that Esther needed to catch a dala dala, walk across border control, and then jump in a bus that would take her home. Another day or so. The 5 hours I had ahead to get to the shore of Lake Nyasa –my final destination on this leg of the trip– seemed like nothing.
A couple of more hours passed and suddenly we were in Mbeya, the green city. It was a much more pleasant journey than I anticipated. 26 hours of beautiful landscapes, impromptu markets, and lovely people. Maybe I should take the other line, after all, this wasn’t crappy at all. Well, beyond the linen and the toilets…
For the latest information about schedules and prices, check the Tazara Railway’s official website.
Central Line Railway (Kigoma to Dar es Salaam)
The first leg of the trip, before the trip started: getting a ticket and waiting for the train
“First class no more, third you can buy”, said the clerk at the train station. “Luxury train on Saturday, you wait”. Considering that it was Tuesday and I already decided I wanted to continue with the trip, Saturday was out of the question. But so was third class. I’ve read the trip takes up to 40 hours. I love adventure, but spending that long sandwiched between 6 humans siting in two benches across each other was beyond what I signed up for. What about second class, I enquired. “No, railway only first and third”. Oh, I see. And are you sure there’s not even one space, it’s just me, I assured him. “Wait. I check”.
Turns out for some odd reason he didn’t sell the tickets for first, they needed to be bought online. Which I could have done on my own. But instead of saying this to me, he called someone else who showed up with a smartphone and booked my ticket. Then escorted me to a phone provider’s office where I could make the payment. And then asked me to wait while he searched for a place to print the ticket. About an hour later I was sitting down in the waiting area with a fainted looking printed piece of paper, with an official stamp from the railway company. Just three more hours until departure time at 4 PM. Or so I thought.
With more than 30°C (90°F) and an overcrowded room, the hours went by slowly. I went through chapter after chapter of the book that was accompanying me during that part of the trip, until my back started aching. Weird, I thought, it’s only been a couple of hours. Well, upon looking at the time I realized that 4 PM came and went, and the train was nowhere to be seen.
At about 6 it appeared. By the time the passengers going to Kigoma disembarked, the train was cleaned, and turned around (oddly, this last part was what took the longest), it was around 7:30.
The first-class compartment
I got in the train, found my room, and got surprised at the fact that there were only two beds. Quite ran down, and with a few bugs crawling on the floor, but only one roommate. Score! As I was the first one in, I threw my backpack in the lower bunk and examined the surroundings.
Besides the bunk bed, the compartment has a small sink with running water, and –I shed an internal tear when I realized this– there are no sockets. The toilet situation is the same as in Tazara: a hole on the floor from which everything disposed of goes to the tracks. The only difference, I later discovered, is that they can be used while the train is at a station. Which was a godsend because this train moves much more than the previous one.
While I was reading, anxiously waiting for departure, my roommate arrived. A lovely lady with a small girl on her back: Adida and Sabrina. I greeted them and asked their names in Swahili (the only thing I can do in the local language), and we realized that body language would have to do. I offered them some of my bananas, and Adida quickly offered everything she had, an array of cassava, fish and mandazi (the Tanzanian version of donuts). At 8:49 the train honked and we started moving. Just 5 hours late…
My friend Heike once told me that while waiting for a bus somewhere in West Africa, she and her husband asked about the departure time a few times, since there was no sign of movement, even though the bus should have left already. The answer they got explains how things work in many places across the continent: “you have the watch, we have the time”. Schedules are merely suggestions, and westerners should just stop looking at their watches. And visit with plenty of time to allow inevitable delays!
After the snacks, someone came with bedding: a nicely folded, clean sheet, and a blanket. Assuming that the little girl would need to go to sleep soon, I shed a second internal tear, and offered to take the upper bunk bed, which was the decent thing to do, although not at all what I wanted. It was only then when I realized there’s no system to get up. No ladder, no supporting steps, nothing. So there I was, with my right foot on the window frame and my left leg flying up, trying to reach the bed pass some leather straps that act as a barrier for the passenger not to fall down while sleeping. Not my most graceful moment.
In the meantime, my roommate made sure the door was locked. I extended the sheet, put the blanket under it, rolled them to create a pillow, and off I went to a bumpy sleep. Not an hour passed, and the temperature dropped dramatically. Gone was my pillow –I actually needed the blanket.
The origins of the train
I woke up many times through the night, with the noise of people laughing in the hall, other (mistakenly, I hope) trying to open the locked door, and most of all with the bumps of the rails. It jumped, it moved side to side, it vibrated. It felt like a ship in the rough sea.
You see, the Central Line was conceived and constructed when Tanzania was a German colony. The government of German East Africa wanted to connect the port city of Dar es Salaam in the Indian Ocean with the western towns of Kigoma (on the shores of Lake Tanganyika), and Mwanza (on Lake Victoria). The fertile lands around the lakes produce coffee, tea, tobacco, and many crops that the Germans wanted to export out of Africa. The tracks of the Tanganyika Railway, as it was then called, followed an old caravan route used by Arab traders, who needed to ship mainly slaves, ivory, salt, and copra through the Indian Ocean to their homelands. The construction of the railway started in 1906, and it remains central to the economy of the western and central regions of the country. But I’m pretty sure it hasn’t had a proper updating since the Germans were forced out… more than a hundred years ago!
It’s like going back in time, traveling in a pre-Great War railway, in the heart of Africa. Not comfortable, but quite an experience nonetheless!
Food, from the train’s kitchen… and from the window!
With the first rays of light I made a graceless descent from the bunk bed, and headed to find the restaurant wagon, which, conveniently, happened to be the next one. For less than 1.5€ I got a cup of tea, an omelet, two toasts, and some cooked white spaghetti (a mysterious mismatch, but no one else seemed surprised with it). While I waited for my feast to be delivered, I asked for a plug, and I was allowed to charge my external battery by the kitchen. What a relief. My poor boyfriend and mom would have freaked out if they didn’t hear from me until I arrived in Dar, especially because no one knew when that would happen. Also, because I was putting the final details together of the next big adventure.
The morning was uneventful. The windows were too scratched and dirty to allow seeing anything outside. The upper part lowers down to open, but it’s too high to see anything from the ground bunk, and too low to see from the upper one. So I spent my hours trying to read while my kindle jumped up and down with the rail bumps, with breaks to stretch my legs and stand by the window to watch the world go by.
Around midday we stopped in Tabora, a town about a third of the way. The train readjusted its position to allow the passengers of all sections to go get lunch and supplies in the impromptu market that sets there. I managed to get chips majay (an odd local staple of French fries in an omelet), a cucumber, bananas, and mandazi (the Tanzanian donuts). Not the healthiest of meals, but what was available. I saw my roommate handing a Tupperware to a mama while screaming instructions, and 15 minutes later it was returned with ugali and some meat sauce. I’m vegetarian, I’m not a fan of ugali, and I don’t speak Swahili, so I’m happy with what I managed to get.
Everyone around my compartment seemed to have kids traveling with them, so during eating hours the doors were opened. Children would go around tasting what they wanted, and unconcerned mamas would follow asking for their wandering offspring. The whole process was a lovely way of socializing. I got a good number of grateful smiles after sharing my bananas and mandazi with every little one that pointed at them.
Mesmerized by the process I didn’t notice Sabrina, my tiny roommate, who happened to be sitting next to me, naked but covered head to toes with sauce and pieces of the corn flour dough. It was a super cute sight, but also a good moment to escape back to my upper bunk to prevent looking any similar.
The train stayed in Tabora for 3.5 hours, until 15:35. All I could think about was that my plane leaves for Europe in about a month, and it was probably not going to be enough time for this train to get to Dar. I’ve been there for 19 hours and only covered 403 of the 1254 km (250 of the 779 mi) of the trip. Send help!
At every arrival and departure the train signaled its intentions with much tooting of its horn. The whole afternoon and evening continued with lengthy honks, and stretched stops, each time with dozens of people selling everything and anything through the windows: crafts, fruits, cooked sweet potatoes, water, nuts, raw rice, and a hundred of mysterious things that I didn’t know who to ask about.
An even bumpier night
When dark came, and we were nowhere near Dar es Salaam, off we went to try to sleep. I had issues with the noises and the movement. But Sabrina, the poor little girl sleeping with her mama in the lower bunk, really struggled. She cried most of the night. Usually I’m not the most sympathetic when it comes to crying babies, but this time I really felt for her. Her mom and me, although for completely different reasons, chose to be in that train. But the girl was taken there, and it was a crappy way to spend a night. An unexpected second one, to make it worse!
A little after 1 the noises in the hallway intensified and a particularly long honk followed. I opened an eye, took my phone, and looked at the map. We were arriving in Dodoma. 788 out of 1254 km (490 out of 779 mi). Almost two thirds! I quickly put the phone back down and tried to fall asleep. If experience taught me anything is that we were going to be there for a while, and although noisy, there was no movement. I adjusted my sheet, turned around and fell asleep.
A few more honks kept me, and Sabrina, in and out of sleep through the rest of the night. But I thought I could catch up on rest the next night in a moveless bed in Dar, so I endured.
Once again, as day light appeared, I ungraciously made my way down my bunk bed and headed to the restaurant. I wasn’t hungry, but the thought of tea drove me. By the time I finished eating my tasteless omelet, I noticed that I’ve spent 36 hours in the train already. Seemed like it would have been faster to wait for the Saturday fast train the clerk offered me in Kigoma.
Unbelievably, the train arrived!
The day was a copy from the previous one. The longest stop was in Morogoro, where we spent 2 hours, until after midday. This time I managed to get my hands on oranges, bananas, an avocado, and some hard-boiled eggs. Not much for lunch, but healthier than the day before.
A few more stops followed, a few more chapters of my book were read, a few more times I stepped down from my bunk bed to watch the landscape change. Suddenly, some houses started to dot the plains. More and more appeared, until the city was revealed. At 5:56 we stopped in Dar es Salaam Central Railway station, exactly 45 hours and 7 minutes after departure, and 49 hours and 56 minutes after the train should have left, even though the Central Line website advertised the trip to last 23 hours and 46 minutes. Africa time at its best!
For the latest information about schedules and prices, check the Central Line Railway’s official website.
The “crappy railways”, from my perspective, were a cool adventure to have, a ticket back in time to a different world, a unique way to cross the country, and a once in a lifetime experience in Africa’s last true great railway journeys. Even though the word ‘luxury’ might appear in any description as the furthest antonym of the voyages, they make an exceptional experience. Then again, from an adventure traveler’s perspective. For the locals, on the other hand, is probably a nightmare they stoically endure. Or maybe not. Everyone seemed happy, like time and comfort were not an issue. Unquestionably “they have the time and we have the watch”. However, it was refreshing to be, if only for the duration of the rides, one of them, enjoying how life slowly goes by in a train across Tanzania.
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