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That Train to Zambia
Tuesday travel column
We’ve been traveling through four African countries and then out to the French département of Réunion Island in the Indian Ocean these past three weeks. We’ll be home by next Tuesday’s travel column, and I’ll resume the r egular CS&W weekly schedule shortly after that. Thanks for being patient with my spotty schedule while we’re on the road.
In case you missed last Tuesday’s column, here it is, to bring you up to date. Last week we worried about getting on a train across a swath of the middle of Africa, from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to Lusaka, Zambia. Because of the funny way they sell the tickets, we weren’t completely confident about getting them.
We got on that train. When we turned up at the train station the day before, the huge, foreboding concrete building was deserted except for a sprinkle of porters, loitering outside for lack of business, and one man inside behind the ticket window. We offered our $188 in Tanzanian Shillings. He offered a big smile, the fact that he had a son in Missouri, and four tickets on the Tazara railroad, so that the two of us, my wife and I, claimed an entire four person compartment for our own.
There is a cliché about Africa, about the need to build in extra time for everything. It’s a cutesy, knowing, slightly smug expression of superiority among tourists when they learn and use it for the first time; it is, in fairness, also true.
The Tazara (TA for Tanzania, ZA for Zambia and RA for railroad) was scheduled for a duration of 42 hours, but we stayed on that train for fifty seven hours and forty minutes, busting through a scheduled Sunday morning arrival time and instead arriving in the middle of the night Monday morning.
You wouldn’t have known it would turn out to be an endurance run at the start. Remarkably, a touch triumphantly, the Tazara pulled out of Dar es Salaam station three minutes late at 3:53 on Friday, the first stop scheduled for four and a quarter hours later, after dark. More to its true character, the Tazara was three hours late by the second stop.
Just a quick introduction to the train: Lime green linens covered thin pads to sleep on, stenciled-stained with “TZR.” Four blankets, no two alike, and pillows with no cases. No sign of needing those blankets - along the coast, at least. The torrid humidity of the coast fell away as the Tazara moved inland, and it wasn’t at all cold. Pleasant, in fact.
There is no doubt the Tazara, in this direction, is a train for regular working Tanzanians. While it runs an international route into Zambia, the vast majority of the passengers left the train before the border, most by the southern Tanzanian town of Mbeya.
We’d been excited about enjoying the view as we progressed across the savannah and up into the hillier parts of Tanzania and Zambia later. I had imagined the chance to view wildlife as we moved across the part of Tanzania south of the Serengeti. Andrew said sometimes he has seen elephants and buffalo.
What we found wasn’t going to make viewing anything easy. Our compartment window was split in half; the top half dropped down for fresh air, but at least on the coast, it went back up opaque from condensation. This impeded the view.
Maybe you can see here, behind the Doritos box of supplies we brought with us from the grocery in Dar es Salaam, the bottom window panel of our compartment had been shattered, and rather than bust out the shards and replace it, they put a new glass panel over it, unfortunately rendering the view opaque. This condition prevailed in several of the cabins.
The steward of the carriage in which we rode, a slight, polite, quiet young guy named Andrew, stuck his head into our compartment to say hello. Clearly, we needed to change to another compartment. So the first thing to do, while everybody was knocking around into each other getting onto the train, was to bring Andrew, who called himself the owner of our compartment, onto the payroll.
We needed a new compartment but we were perilously low on shillings too, and I hoped he could cover us maybe with a bridging loan or credit until we got to the border if we needed it. Shillings, we were low on, but dollars we had, and I donated several to him straight away. Call it alliance building. Once loading the train settled out, he slid us from compartment number four to number six.
So far, so good. Shortly after, Andrew brought us a spare copy of the master keys to the cabins and toilets so that we wouldn’t need to find him to lock up when we left. It has to be said that the lock could be circumvented with any needle nosed plier, and at one stop we watched people tossing keys to others at the platform to on-and-off-load goods, but for all their limited utility, they at least showed Andrew and I were working as a team.
The first stop wasn’t until well after dark and with distance from Dar es Salaam the rails did their hypnotism trick. 3:53 turned into 5, 6:15 next time you looked and when we stopped, we were utterly nowhere.
All along the route the tops of houses in a village would appear alongside plots of cultivated land. Maize, paths through it walled off by fences fashioned from saplings bound together. In the middle of all the maize, a sunflower here or there. The sunflowers insinuated themselves into the maize fields and eventually became fields of their own. Native bamboo now and then in the dense brush. Where there was a (dirt) road, kids on bicycles come down to wave at the train.
The area around Mbeya in southern Tanzania may be the most beautiful along the route. It’s a proper city of 620,000 (2022), capital of a region of two million. Houses reached out in a suburban sprawl and ran up a narrow valley. Just lovely.
The outlying areas ran for so long we thought surely we had missed the center, or weren’t going to stop at Mbeya station, or that this was a sister city. It was just easy-going, low density living, filling up the valley and spreading across the hills.
After we left Mbeya station the town stretched on just as far in the opposite direction, sun slanting in just before sunset casting golden light on the hills. If you’re ever keen to live in Tanzania, much better to live in Mbeya than in busy, crowded Dar es Salaam.
It’s a Chinese built railway. As a broad policy China sided with the various anti-colonial independence movements across the continent, so China and Zambia had a history of, if not exactly brotherhood, then warm cordiality at least back to Zambian independence from Britain in 1964.
Not long afterward Chinese aid and tech built the Tazara in the 60s and 70s, as a way to get Zambia’s main export, copper, out of the country to the coast without Zambia having to do business with the white racist southern African regimes of Rhodesia and South Africa to Zambia’s south (Zambia was “North Rhodesia” before independence).
Tanzania’s and Zambia’s independence leaders Julius Nyerere and Kenneth Kaunda, respectively, looked in different directions in search of an alternative rail route, Nyerere looking east to China and Kaunda, more skeptical of the Communists, to the west. The shortest version of the rest of the story is that no offer of aid from the west was forthcoming.
Construction began in 1970 and took six years via an interest-free loan to be repaid over 30 years. The train surely does use 1970s tech. You’ll be tearing along in the dark and once in a while your car’s coupling will slam up against the car’s in front.
Much later, on the far side of the border in Zambia and an hour or so before dawn, the Tazara stopped and there commenced this unholy banging of cars together. Violent lurching; it was as if they were pushing a rail car in the direction of the train until it gained as much speed as they dared to allow it before it might derail, and then they’d let it go. You’d hear the clatter approach down the tracks and WHAM, you’d jump a foot out of bed and the length of the train would shudder. Just many, many times.
This was the determined addition of a bar car, and they sure did keep at it until they got it right. Now, there was no beer in the bar car. In fairness, I inspected it at something like eight in the morning, to figure out what in the world all that banging was about.
There was no bartender in the bar car. Four refrigerator boxes stood on the floor beside a taller wall unit stood on the floor. The bar car looked just like the restaurant car already attached, with five tables on each side and a counter in front of the cold boxes, instead of a kitchen. There were shelves on the back wall with examples, I guess, of the spirits vended, which were various half pint bottles of clear drink with faded labels.
As it turned out, later in the day they stocked the cold boxes and the beers started to cool, and so we eventually enjoyed a warmish Mosi beer (Mosi-oa-tunya, means "smoke that thunders" the local name for Victoria Falls) with a man named Exavier. Exavier was en route to central Mozambique for ‘geology.’ Turned out that meant he buys and exports rough gemstones. Tanzania’s southern border meets Mozambique, but because of what we in the West call Islamic State violence around the border, he was going around, the very, very long way, on the train.
Usually he could stop in Lusaka and then transit Malawi but because of the really terrible destruction of recent Cyclone Freddy, which plowed inland and then just camped out over Malawi, he had to steer clear of there, too, so he was bound now for Harare, the Zimbabwean capital south of Zambia, a huge, time consuming detour. I don’t know why a gem trader didn’t just fly.
The cyclone killed at least 600 in Malawi, he was sure. Trouble was, even if people knew it was coming, there was nowhere for them to go and nobody was coming to help them except mostly small scale ad hoc relief drivers who could commandeer LandCruisers from a few NGOs and game parks. Malawians just had to wait and see if the mud came to sweep them and their houses away.
I want to tell you about the state of the Tanzania/Zambia rail border, and about crossing the border at midnight, but that will keep until next time. One other thing: I’ll just say that once the ride ended, although you might not imagine it so, it was relatively effortless to arrange a ride from New Kapiri Mposhi station some 200 kilometers north of the Zambian capital, into Lusaka in the middle of the night, in the dark and on the spot. It’s notable what you can achieve if you buy a man a tank of gas.
We’re heading back home, traveling today. We’ll pause in France, to see what’s up with this year’s kind of ticked-off April in Paris.
Have a look at this book review by Leanne Ogasawara, of The Half Known Life by Pico Iyer.
See you next week from back home, and we’ll resume our regular schedule shortly after that. Thanks for reading CS&W.