The TAZARA train was late. Instead of coming into Mbeya train station at 3:30pm, as advertised, we were told to expect it around 9:30pm.
That morning we had gone to buy our tickets. For that, there were 4 basic options: first-class cabins, with 4 beds; second-class cabins, with 6 beds; ‘super-saver’ carriages, consisting of mildly comfortable seats; and third-class, with less-than mildly comfortable seats. Given that three of us would be making the journey, as I was still travelling with Benny and Adi, and the relative cheapness of the tickets, we decided to book out a first-class cabin: 4 beds between 3 of us, allowing for sleep when necessary and private window viewing the rest of the time.
I approached the ticket office, exuding confidence.
“Hi there,” I smiled my best smile. “Can we please book a 1st class cabin for the TAZARA train to Dar es Salaam tonight?”
“No chance,” the ticket officer didn’t miss a beat, flashing an equally as impressive smile. “All sold out. Only super-saver.”
“Uh, really?” I stumbled slightly, my confidence knocked. “So, er, we can’t book out a first-class cabin?”
“No.” He was still smiling. “Only super-saver.” No beds for the day-long journey then: only mildly-comfortable seats, likely cramped and stuffy.
Having returned from Tembo Coffee Company around lunchtime, we now faced a 9-hour wait in Mbeya station for the train. We were not alone, though – other passengers had already begun to line up their bags in a remarkably organised fashion in the station, while the previously deserted parking lot was now lined with stalls full of budding entrepreneurs selling provisions for the journey ahead, from loafs of bread to packets of sweets. We dumped our bags in line, our travel backpacks standing out amongst plastic bags and travel suitcases, and proceeded to buy our provisions of dense muffins, packaged biscuits and bottled water early.
Waiting was something we’d become accustomed to, and the time passed with many card games and lots of book reading. Small children in warm bright clothing edged towards us as we chucked cards onto the cold tiled floor, while half of the women appeared to be breast-feeding constantly, and others lay flat out, sleeping. The only other people playing cards and/or reading in the hall were, as it turned out, the only other white people catching the train – two middle-aged gentlemen from England in wide-brimmed safari hats, childhood friends on their customary yearly adventure.
As the time ticked closer to 9:30pm, the sky darkened and the atmosphere in the hall grew noticeably frenzied. People appeared out of nowhere, claiming their place in line where their bags had previously held their spot. I was interested to see how orderly this queue would be once the station doors opened onto the platform; in all honesty, I wasn’t expecting much.
Finally, the train rumbled into the station and the hall was at once a place of fevered activity. The lovely, orderly line was no more as everyone grabbed their bags and pushed in unison towards the doors, waving their tickets above their heads in an effort to attract the attentions of the ticket officers who stood by the platform entrances. We shoved our way through, threatening to knock everyone off their feet with our oversized backpacks, and clambered onto a carriage, breathless in the cold night air.
Seats in the super-saver carriage were in groups of four, two facing two on both sides separated by an aisle. We had more space than expected for the initial part of the journey: I managed to get a group of four seats to myself such that I was able to stretch my legs across to the seats opposite, something of a luxury given that we weren’t able to book beds in a cabin.
I settled down with a lukewarm beer, bought from the dim restaurant cabin, to go alongside one dense muffin and a couple of biscuits. In a strange way, I was immensely happy at that point of the journey. I was suffering from a distinct lack of sleep and was for the most part uncomfortable, but I stretched my legs out onto the seats opposite and finally figured out how to close the window to protect myself from the blisteringly cold air, sipping on my beer and nibbling at my muffin. The train rumbled, noisily, shakily, creaking along rusty railway lines: we were moving, not very fast, but moving through the dark African night. There’s nothing quite like being on the move in Africa.
We met a group of 6 European exchange students on the TAZARA who had been travelling from Kapiri Mposhi, Zambia, which is the start of the train line. Most were German, though there was also a Finn and a Belgian, and they’d all done a semester in Windhoek, Namibia. It was fair to say that they were, quite understandably, aggrieved by the time we hopped on at Mbeya: they‘d been on the train for a fair amount of time already, and they had actually booked out a second-class cabin for the 6 of them from Zambia. However, when they reached the Tanzanian border, they’d been told that they had to move to the super-saver carriages, thus giving up their private cabin and the beds that came with it. However, they appeared to be in better moods shortly after they’d pulled spirits from their bags.
I managed to sleep fitfully through several unknown stops before the train screeched to yet another stop at around 3:30am. At this point, the conductor, a friendly old man who periodically stumbled through the train corridors, warned us to keep an eye on our belongings and to sit in our seats properly: the train was about to fill up. I looked outside and my heart sank. We were at Makambako, the first ‘official’ stop of this supposedly express train, and the station platform was packed with bodies, pressed together, swaying from side to side as everyone tried to find a spot where one of the train doors would stop. Sure enough, a mad rush shortly ensued: passengers threw their luggage through open windows onto available seats in a perverted game of shotgun while others ran down the train, jumping on any open seat. Before I had time to wipe my groggy eyes, I was squeezed up against the window, luggage at my feet, smiling awkwardly at the man opposite who promptly ripped the window open, blasting cold air into my face. Even at this time, men and women walked along the outside of the train with bowls of fruit, cool drinks, toothpaste and electrical appliances, amongst other things, desperately trying to make an early morning sale.
Thereafter, sleep was hard to come by, and morning came grey, overcast and miserable. The landscape appeared to reflect this mood, as the rising and falling hills, dark green with dense foliage, seemed sad and uninspiring. Most people had given up trying to sleep, chattering loudly amongst themselves instead, while big mama’s expertly transformed random materials into little trinkets and young men played incomprehensible cellphone music. At this point, I was trying to work out whether I was still happy.
The morning passed slow and relatively uneventful. The train continued to rumble on, frustratingly creaking to a halt at every stop despite the fact it was only meant to stop at 5 official stations. We were greeted enthusiastically by small-time vendors at every stop, eager to make the most of the train’s weekly passing, though the windows were so high it looked as though floating bowls kept passing by, while hills masquerading as mountains stood serenely in the background.
As we passed through the second and third scheduled stops of Mlimba and Ifikara into the afternoon, the landscape changed noticeably. Dense jungle foliage made way for open, sparse flat lands the colour of burnt caramel, glinting in the emerging sun. The air was as dry as the ground and what trees there were stood tall and thin with wide leafed branches stretching out over bleak meagre grass. In the distance, I saw a lone man cycling slowly on a lone path, coming from nowhere and going nowhere.
The savannah-like land, populated by dried-up rivers and endless horizons, left one with the distinct feeling that there was more to see than meets than eye. Sure enough, emerging out of nothing, we soon passed a herd of elephants, galumphing and trumpeting away from the strange metal contraption that rattled past; then, some skipping springboks and snuffling warthogs, causing a wonderful stir in the bronzed African dust. Giraffes pecked and prodded and pulled at the high reaches of sparse trees, buffalo snorted and spluttered and shook their mighty heads, and wildebeest lazily lumbered on yellow-brown grass. The African plain was alive, and I eagerly trained my now bright eyes on the passing scenery as the train panted onwards, sore ass and rumbling stomach long forgotten. In all honesty, I never thought I’d be game viewing from a train.
Finally, we were steaming through Africa at dusk, the sun at her glorious late-afternoon glow, reflecting through the boroughs of trees and off the windows of the TAZARA. I was, once again, perfectly content: succumbing to this large and effortlessly beautiful land with all senses desperately searching and magnificently alive.
We reached Dar es Salaam that evening after a full 25-hour journey on the TAZARA. It was an interesting experience, to say the least: she rumbled at perhaps 30/40 km per hour, on rusted Chinese tracks and parts that dated back to 1974, stopping often and frustrating constantly. There is clearly much improvement to the made to the TAZARA train (not least opening up more first- and second-class cabins), but it was a journey well worth making. We staggered off the train, exhausted, looking forward to our hostel, some real food and a real bed.