The Tazara train
“A hasty person misses the sweet things.”
I wasn’t particularly hasty, but I feel like I still missed the sweet thing 😛
Taking the Tazara train from Mbeya to Dar es Salaam (both in Tanzania) was another thing I had decided on doing before I even left Norway. I read up about it online and dreamed of getting my own 1. class sleeper cabin to enjoy the Tanzanian landscape for the full 24 hours that stretch is said to take… Yeah…
The thing is, in Africa things almost never go according to plan, this is a thing I knew before coming here, but I have to admit after 5 months of navigating the continent it’s beginning to wear me down a bit. I thought it would be an exercise in relaxing and “going with the flow”, like so many say we need to learn more of in the west/more developed part of the world, but I find that is only the half of it. It’s not just about relaxing and going with the flow, because quite often if you go with the flow down here you are stuck for days. You have to make your own flow, which is not necessarily particularly relaxing 😉
A couple of things to note while travelling in Africa:
No one here will -ever- admit to not knowing the answer to your question. For some reason it is better for the person you ask to say something they’ve pulled out of their own *ss, something that may be completely the opposite of the truth (like directions), than say “I don’t know”. This is not done out of malice, mind you, but the results can be pretty disastrous for a traveller who wants to get from A to B without getting completely lost (or worse).
In Africa they have all the time in the world. Now, while I agree wholeheartedly that we in the West could learn to chill more and because of that might want to “take a page out of the Africans’ book” so to speak, I would argue that maybe meeting each other halfway is a better idea. Because, to be honest, if we get as relaxed as they are here I doubt anything would ever get done AND I would start killing people… No, really. I would start killing people.
The Tazara train is getting a chapter of its own because a) I would like to tell you guys you should rather take the bus and b) I’m stuck in Zanzibar with a sprained ankle and need more stuff to do 😉 So here goes:
THE TAZARA FROM MBEYA TO DAR ES SALAAM
Claire and I spent the night in Mbeya and got to the train station at the earliest opportunity hoping to get beds in a sleeper, 1. or 2. class was not important at this point, we’d heard rumours the day before that it was full so we just desperately hoped that wasn’t true and that we could get something that wasn’t “chicken coach”. After waiting a little more than an hour after the announced “opening time”, the man behind the counter appeared. He spent an inordinate amount of time selling tickets to the three people ahead of us while we fended of the crowd behind us (if you like people to queue politely, you’re in for a rough time in Africa *lol*) and then it was our turn. We found out that 1. AND 2. class was “full” so we got two tickets for “super seater” – meaning a slightly better seat, I guess…
After waiting for hours on end the already delayed train cruised onto the station and the stampede began (I actually tried to protect a young mother with a toddler fastened on her back from getting “squashed”). It’s all about getting on first. No matter what. This is, of course, because getting on first is the one and only chance of getting decent seats, but the result is absolute mayhem. Every time.
First thing we did before entering was asking the conductor if we could get an upgrade and he told us “later”. This would be another lesson in “don’t be polite and wait in Africa”, but that hadn’t sunk in just yet… We found window seats in out designated car and I was really happy with the prospect of a good view being the “worst case scenario” for the trip. Little did I know…
Turns out when they came to check tickets the upgrade went to two other people behind us and after that “everything was full” 😛
Like Claire said “no more Mr. Nice Guy” (to which I said: “We SAY that, but next time around we’ll still be polite and wait out turn…”)
Luckily, we ended up befriending a lovely, local woman called Victoria who literally fixed everything from then on out. She went and talked to the conductor and “bought him a couple of beers” and we ended up with three beds in a 2. class sleeper. (Yay, corruption) 😛
Optimistic, we moved in to our all-female sleeper cabin and made some new friends. This made us particularly positive when we saw how drunk absolutely all the guys in our “super seater”-car were getting… We stayed in our little room the whole evening, only venturing out to eat a rather meager meal in the insanely overfilled “restaurant-car”.
The next day we travelled across more landscape until the train derailed. Happy days…
We waited and waited and waited. Then we were told we were waiting to get towed to Mangula a couple of hours back the way we came. All this waiting time we were standing still by the way, and when you’re standing still you’re not allowed to use the toilets because they are squat-toilets (with the exception of the 1. class which flushes) – how they imagine that many people will hold it in for hours at a time is beyond me. When we finally got underway (backwards) to Mangula we were told nothing so we asked the conductor and he said we’d stay there for the night and leave in the morning between 7 and 9. Super… So we made the best of it, went to the bathroom while we were moving, tried to get some dinner (this night was even worse, so we waited over an hour only to find they forgot us and had run out of rice (“No more Mr. Nice Guy, eh”?) – then we hung out with our new friends, both local and other tourists (there were about 20 tourists on the train) and I ended up reading a little section of a Greek book with the excellent help of my new bao-partner, Dimitra.
When we arrived at Mangula the train was once again stationary, but the train station “had a toilet” so “Hakuna Matata”, guys… no worries 😛
We spent another night in the train waiting to get on our way, but when we woke up the next day we were still in Mangula. We were, however, “leaving any minute now” (remember how I told you they will say anything rather than “I don’t know”?), so we waited and tried to pass the time until the train would be on its way.
By 11 am we still had not moved and we were told nothing. So we asked the conductor again and he said we would “be on our way any minute now. Maybe in one hour.” So we waited some more, went to the squat toilet at the station (which was surprisingly ok, by the way) and waited again… All the while Victoria was making plans of her own (because none of us trusted that the train would even leave that day). By 11 am the train was nowhere near leaving and we could tell because there was no locomotive. No information. No progress. No communication.
Victoria got hold of a man who said he would drive us, but he quoted a price so steep we rejected it and he didn’t want to haggle so no deal. She then got a hold of a guy working for a local bus company (or “company”, who knows) who said they could reroute their bus to come pick us up and it would cost us the same as the locals paid all the way to Dar es Salaam. We asked the conductors again about the train and they said we were “leaving at any minute now. Very close. Maybe two or three hours.” – We told the bus guys “yes”.
The bus arrived about an hour later with room for all of us (16 of us had decided to leave) and the conductor guys told me that I shouldn’t get on the bus because the roads where very bad and we should stay on the train because we were “leaving any minute now! So close!” – At this point I very nearly lost it and I told the poor conductor that if he DIDN’T KNOW it was MUCH BETTER if he’d just say “I DON’T KNOW”(!!) And finally he said to me “I don’t know” and smiled. I think he was just paying me lip service, but my anger dissipated and I grinned at him and said “Thank you, much better for me. I’m getting on the bus now. Goodbye.”
The moment we placed all our bags on the platform next to where the bus stopped they rang the “bell” (an old kettle hanging by a chain) to let people know that the train would be “moving any minute now”. Such sound. Very wow. At this point I didn’t even care. The word “exasperated” describes my feelings perfectly. I looked at Claire, Panos, Julie, Dominic, Manuel and the others… Several of them now doubting if they should get on the bus or get back on the train. I caught Claire’s eye and she said “What do we do?” – I hesitated a split second then said to her: “I’m getting on this bus.” – She immediately nodded and gave the bus guys our stuff. I ran on to the bus to get decent seats (No more Mr. Nice Guy!!!1) and got us two seats next to each other. The rest of the crew followed suit and we were on our way in what seemed like 20 small minutes. Goodbye, Tazara, hope I never see you again!
The rest of the trip was a breeze by comparison. We were on the bus for… I can’t remember exactly… 7 hours(?) and arrived in Dar es Salaam very late indeed. I caught a cab with my new Germans, Panos, Dominic, Julie and Manuel/Miguel 😉 and after a longwinded, shoddy taxi drive we finally found some rooms where we could have a MUCH needed shower and some rest.
The very next day I sprained my ankle badly before catching the ferry to Zanzibar, but that’s a sunshine story for another (way too long) post 😛
So, in summary:
The Tazara train is known for being 8-24 hours late (even without a derailment) and the views are not worth all the potential hassle (especially since the views from the bus were really good too). Get the bus. Any bus.
The best part about the Tazara was meeting all those cool people: Victoria, my new Germans <3, Dimitra and her friends… They made it a lot more fun than it could’ve been.
Also: I am so very glad I don’t work on that train. I feel for the crew who are no doubt doing the best they can with what they have A small thanks goes to Christopher who sorted a lot of stuff out for us, even though he forgot us at dinner and I suspect he might’ve been the one who required two beers to give us three beds 😛 #Corruption #TIA