Ever since I read Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari, I have wanted to travel on the Tazara Express – the railway line from Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania to Kampiri Mposhi in Zambia, built by the Chinese in the early 1970’s. Whenever I mentioned this to anyone in Kenya, I was promptly told I was mad and given a zillion reasons why I should NOT take this train. It was deemed unsafe and unreliable and I was sure to get robbed! The trip could take anything from 2 days to a week, depending on how many times the train derails!
Then I met Ed Hough, an adventurous young man who had actually been on the trip only a couple of years ago. He said “do it!”, and gave me lots of stories about his experience which renewed my curiosity and gave me the confidence to go ahead. The next fortunate step was meeting Joyce in Dar Es Salaam. She is a teacher at the International School of Tangayika and was planning on staying in Africa for the long vacation. I invited her to join me on my adventure.
The journey was very long, as expected, and when the sun went down and I could no longer enjoy the view out the window, I amused myself playing Pocket Fruity on my iPhone, earning myself a little bit of extra pocket money care of pocketfruity.com. The train was also very bumpy, which I did not expect. We departed on Tuesday at 4pm (only half an hour later than scheduled) and arrived Thursday at 5pm (only 8 hours later than scheduled), so all in all it was a very successful trip. I did not get robbed and the train did not derail!
The railway was built by the Chinese in the 1970’s to assist Zambia in becoming economically independent from Zimbabwe (Rhodesia at that time) and South Africa. The history & politics behind China’s decision to undertake this huge project is quite fascinating.
This short video will give a wee impression of the experience….. enjoy!
I have no idea why the train stops in Kapiri Mposhi and not Lusaka! It was quite painful getting off a 50 hour train ride and cramming into an overcrowded mini-bus for the 3 hour drive to Lusaka. Poor Mirjam was still pretty sick and vomited on the way. However I was pleased the roads were 10x better than in Tanzania or Kenya! We stayed one night in Lusaka at the Backpackers and took a 7 hour bus ride to Livingstone…….. for even more adventures!
TIPS: You need to buy your ticket in advance from the train station. Do not rely on reserving a ticket over the phone. One couple reserved a whole compartment and arrived to be told their reservation did not exist. Go 1st Class. Don’t even consider any other class as the carriages are packed beyond belief in some sections of the journey. A 1st class seat is $50 and there are 4 in a compartment. The compartments are quite comfortable. If heading towards Zambia, the best seat is the bottom, facing the back of the train so you do not have the full sun in your eyes. Also you are less likely to fall out of bed in the night.
If you are a mixed sex couple, you will need to buy the whole compartment, or find another couple to share the compartment with, otherwise you will be split up. When you buy individual seats, sexes are kept separate.
Bring a large 5L bottle of water as buying water on the train is not cheap. You can buy drinks at the bar and also at every stop there are plenty of people outside your window wanting to sell drinks, food, fruit and other items such as irons(?) Meals are bought to you in your compartment if you want them, and are quite cheap (3KSH). Breakfast is fine but lunch and dinner are always the same – chicken or beef with rice. I did not trust the chicken after the 1st day so lived off snacks I bought with me and bananas and oranges I bought at stops, through my window.
Two blankets are provided that are quite warm enough, but no pillows. You also get given toilet paper. Take a thick stick about 30cm long with you to prop open the window, as the catches are broken in most of them.
Once you cross the Zambia border you will need Zambian money. Plenty of money changers will board the train hoping for your business. The visa for Zambia is $50 US but I recommend you get the dual entry one for $80 if you are going to Victoria Falls as you will want to either walk over the bridge to the Zimbabwe side or you might be lucky enough to visit Chobe River in Botswana (quite nearby).