Rolling somewhere slow

Having spent countless hours on busses and in matatus/dala-dalas/minivans bumping and winding my way down East African roads and attempts at roads, a change in transport modality was a welcome relief. The Tazara railway links the Tanzanairian capital of Dar Es Salaam with Kapari Moshi in central Zambia. Originally built by the Chinese in the 1970s, the railway aimed to allieviate landlocked Zambia’s reliance on transportation networks through white-minority ruled Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa, and instead give it a access to a port for it’s copper exports at Dar. The multimillion dollar engineering extravaganza was funded by aid from then communist China, although it has struggled ever since to retain economic sustainability. Sadie and Oscar, the couple I had met a week prior in Dar Es Salaam, and I had booked a 4 bed ‘first class’ cabin out. By first class, it wasn’t a champagne, caviar and foot massage kind of first class, but rather, a 4-bed to a small room as different to 6 bedded (and no headroom) second class, or plain seated normal class. We managed to sell to an American guy our 4th ticket we had bought extra, which we had purchased in advance to ensure our extra travelling companion was someone of our choosing.

As the train gathered pace, heading south-westerly through Dar’s outer stretches, we got settled in, and got the cards out. Although it took a bit of work, a stream of games of 500 were soon flowing. Although slower than a bus, it was remarkably refreshing to be able to get up, wander down to the dining car to order some chicken and rice, or pick up a round of beers. Coupled with actually sleeping on something that resembles a bed, rather than at an awkward angle with neck crooked against a cold window only to jar you awake with every bump a bus hits. We were only taking the train half way on its two day ‘express’ voyage to Kapiri Moshi, getting off at Mbeya, in southern Tanzania, just north of the Malawian border. The train made its way across the dry rolling hills of south-eastern Tanzania. One potential highlight of the trip is passing through the Selous National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, the express train heading west passes through it at night, meaning a lack of light turns a highlight into just another stretch of track. Supposedly the wild game can be seen from the train, and is habituated to the railway, meaning the zebras, giraffes, buffalo and elephants happily graze without fretting about an antiquated steel contraption clanging on by.

The views out the window are much the same as a lot of East and Southern Africa. Lightly wooded and dry countryside, with maize and cotton ‘farms’, most the property of smallhold subsistence farmers. I have always wanted to do some of the great rail journeys of the world (probably indoctrinated into my psyche at a young age by dad’s passion for trains), and whilst this was no Trans-Siberian, Orient express or trip across the States from coast to coast, it was a novel change nonetheless. With each station we trundled in to, we were met with a bunch of kids ready to peddle the snacks and trinkets they had prepared for the bi-weekly source of money that heads each way through their neck of the woods. Exact timetables were vague, and we were hoping to get a fair way into Malawi on the same day we got to Mbeya. With google maps plotting our proximity, it became apparent that this was not going to be a bullet train or TGV, so we had the forced relaxation of reading books, writing blog (always a battle to keep up with) and catching some zzz’s. Mid afternoon, we got into Mbeya, did the customary haggling with bus drivers to ensure they took us to the border and then piled into a ‘coaster’ – a small bus that are common on the quieter routes. With the only seats being in the back row, we squished our legs in amongst the sacks of maize, dried fish, personal items, and our overladen backpacks. Within a few hours, we had pulled up at the border village on the Tanzanian side of the Songwe River border crossing. An overburdened bicycle taxi to the border crossing later, followed by compulsory bartering to get rid of our left over Tanzanian shillings and pick up some Malawian Kwacha, we were soon strolling across the bridge in no mans land and into Malawi.

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