The convenience of TAZARA
I can’t believe that I wrote a post about a train journey last week and I’m about to do the same, but the trip on the TAZARA from New Kapri Mposhi (north of Lusaka, Zambia) to Dar Es Salaam (Tanzania) has been a wild ride indeed. It puts the last journey to shame and creates a new benchmark in transportation tales.
Our journey starts in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, at 5am in the morning. We’re on a very dark street towards the bus station and we start to think it wasn’t such a good idea to walk. The pot holes on the side of the road slide under your foot and you’re afraid that if you fall over you might end up like a turtle flipped on its back, rolling around in the ground struggling to get up. The thought that the man you sold us the ticket just wanted to get you into an isolated area at night crosses your head, but as we walk closer we can see the bus humming away.
Our bus drops us off six hours before we’re due to depart. In lettering similar to Hollywood are the words “New Kapri Mposhi” towering above station. The station is gigantic and completely empty. We sit down on the worn and tattered chairs in the “first and second class” lounge, although not so much a lounge as a raised platform in the huge empty hall. The entire complex reminds me of a communist building, which makes sense considering the Chinese built the line, along with so much other infrastructure - new colonial Africa we like to think of it.
People start trickling in and the great vast hall soon becomes bustling with people. The country music over the speakers is interrupted for an announcement. “Today’s TAZARA train will be delayed”. At first they never say by how long, and then later they say we will depart at 2100, five hours late. We started to make friends with the other passengers and went across the road to get some fried stuffs for dinner. 2100 comes and goes and still no new announcement is made. 2200, we’ve officially been in this strange otherworldly place for half a day. Midnight comes and goes and we still haven’t seen a train yet, but they had an announcement saying that passport control will be preformed onboard the train and that this was “the convenience of TAZARA”, we all bust out into laughter. We didn’t start boarding until 0100 and finally departed at 0200, 10 hours late.
The 1st class coach had compartments with berths of four. Because we’d booked in Lusaka, Chloe and I managed to get into a compartment together, but some people that bought tickets at the station were separated into sexes. We shared the compartment with a South African boy and to our delight, an empty bed. Breakfast was served in our compartments and the first day of travel went by without much hassle. The dining car had delicious food and the bar had a good selection of drinks. Passport control came and went and before we knew it, it was bed time again. The clickedy clack of the train soothing us to sleep.
We slept rather well the second night; it didn’t seam to rock the carriage as much. I later found out this was because we had been stopped since 0200. No one really knew how long we would be stuck in the little town of Mbalizi. We looked out of the windows and saw what appeared to be a single goods wagon perched over a cliff edge. There was a large group of children surrounding the carriage, intrigued by the excitement of the train and by a singing, topless crazy lady running around outside. She started throwing rocks at the kids that had gathered around her and they ran in a panicked rush to find shelter.
We ascertained from the staff, that there was a derailment further along the track and that we would be here for a few hours. We decided to take our leave and explore the village. Walking through the back streets we were accompanied by some Americans who were volunteering in Tanzania with Peace Corps. They could speak fairly fluent Swahili and together we went in search of food and the peculiar perching carriage we saw earlier. Around a few corners and past a few shops we walked out into a field and saw not only the perched carriage, but a whole string of train carnage below. The safety slip siding was created to slow and stop any run away carriages, but it mustn’t have worked. Eight carriages became disconnected from the main train and rolled down the hill, into the safety slip, up the embankment where it should have stopped, but didn’t, eight wagons all careered off the top of the embankment, into the air and promptly crashed below, with the last wagon only making it half way off. We went to go for a closer look, but was repelled back by the crazy lady that had some how make her way across to the wreckage as well, followed by more kids that you could count. We wondered where all of the adults were before the Peace Corps people told us that due mainly in fact to AIDS, 45% of Tanzania’s population was under 15 years of age.
It seamed I was thrust into everyday Tanzania the moment I arrived in the country. So I though it fitting to get a local beer at a small hole in the wall shop. We sat out on the dusty street to drink it, watching the flurry of people pass by. I spied a tailor and got some pants I needed taking up and brought it to them. I thanked them and paid them before asking if I could take their photo. I tool a photo for myself before getting out my Polaroid camera and taking another photo, this time for them. At first there was confusion, but as the Polaroid took shape, there was excitant and elation. Everyone wanted to take a look at the magical image came to life.
Back at the train I passed the crazy lady, the conductors had bound her hands. In Tanzania there is no healthcare for the majority of people, let alone mentally disabled people and they’re treated with contempt by the general population and an oddity by the local children. We were told we’d depart any time from now, but sitting at the New Kapri Mposhi station we knew “any time now” could be hours, so I brought out a soccer ball and pump I keep in my bag for just these occasions. Children flocked like seagulls as soon as the ball hit the ground. Dust kicked up everywhere a there was a mad panicked scramble to kick the ball. More than a hundred kids turned up and we decided to have a game. With Dom captaining one team, I the other, a few handfuls of rocks as goals and we were off. With fifty kids per side, we had no idea who was on whose teams, but we played like our lives depended on it. At 1700, after one hour of play and one goal the train started to slowly kick into life and we rushed back waving good bye to this little town that received so much attention for a day.
We were full steam ahead and I held my breath going up the mountain, lest our train’s fate ended up the same way as the last. We were only going for under five minutes before we pulled into a station and stopped. We were out of fuel. I’m not really sure why they didn’t look at their gauge, see they were on E and phone ahead at the last stop, but we were stuck there for a further six hours before we finally departed near on midnight hours late.
Breakfast was provided to us through the window the following day as we bought scrumptious goodies from sellers walking along the tracks any time we hit a station. Mangoes, bread, fried and salted fish, nuts, bananas by the branch anything you want. We got off the train at one point in search of Somas, I bought myself some Ice-cream and the train started leaving without us. Running along side the train I jumped onto the first carriage I could. Getting inside I realize its 3rd class and this train is even more packed than the previous train I caught. As I’m walking over people’s heads down the isle I try to count the people, I gave up at about 200 and focused my efforts of concentration on getting down the isle without squashing anybody.
I asked for a beer at the bar, no beer, how about a coke, no coke. Half of the food items were off the list and someone spied the staff buying potatoes from the side of the train. Water in hand I made it back to the compartment. The train travels through a game reserve and I’d heard spotting big game was common so naturally I was excited. I got my camera set up and had my field guide by my side. We spotted zebra, giraffe, blue wildebeest, impala, warthog and a very happy bloody mouthed lion. It was sitting next to its Zebra kill looking at the train go past, quite proudly as if to say “look at that, see that zebra, yeah, I killed that”. People spend truck loads of money and go on safari for weeks to try and spot a lion kill like this. I was chatting with the conductor who had been working for TAZARA for 30 years, and in that whole time he’d only ever seen two lions from the train before, and never with a kill. We speculated if it was stuffed or not, placed there by TAZARA to keep us happy, but I saw its head move.
We watched a spectacular African Sunset and then the train pulled into a very humid and sticky Dar Es Salaam station at 2115, a mere 34 hours late and I ask people “Why would you fly when you can have all of this?”.
Next stop Zanzibar, so until then “Nimechoka, kwa hivyo, nakwenda kulala”