32 – All Aboard the Tazara Express

32 – All Aboard the Tazara Express

It was time to take the Tazara Express – the second train of our trip (the first being The Madaraka Express). Tazara stands for Tanzania-Zambia Railway Authority. The train runs two times a week from Dar es Salaam to Moshi (a few hours from Lusaka in Zambia). We, however, were going to get off before, at Mbeya in Tanzania (70 miles from Malawi).

As advised by the ticket man, we arrived early at the train station to see if we could exchange our third-class tickets. We were in luck: extra carriages had been added to the train! We reserved all four tickets in a first-class carriage as that was the only way we could stay together and have sleeper beds (men and women are usually separate).

Our original third-class tickets (in a cabin with several chairs & no sleeper beds) cost 55,600 Tanzanian Shillings, i.e. nineteen pounds. Our upgrade to first-class cost us an additional 101,600 Tanzanian Shillings, i.e. thirty-five pounds. Yes, fifty-five pounds was expensive, but wow was it worth it! Our adventure on the Tazara turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip.

The train station was beautiful, though falling apart. Were it not for the holes in the ceiling and the leaks running down the walls, we would have thought we were in a Wes Anderson film set!

As we now had first-class tickets, we were entitled to use the first-class waiting room, which was anything but first-class. The puddles on the floor, water-stained walls, and ceiling on the brink of collapse, made us a little apprehensive of what was to come. Waiting with us were a couple of Brazilian guys, a Brazilian lady (complete coincidence – they did not know each other) and a few locals. Last to join us was a Dutch guy. As soon as he laid eyes on us, he rattled off in Dutch. It was only afterwards we clicked that it was because he had seen our tote bag from Amsterdam.

The view of the platforms from the waiting room

All this waiting around made us thirsty. Arnaud went and found us fresh fruit juice. We were soon to discover that leaving the coast also meant saying goodbye to all the fresh fruit juices and coconuts.

Though we felt an urge for fresh fruit juice, we were in fact fully prepared for the journey: our bags were filled with seven litres of water and snacks. Who knew what would be available on the train?! Plus, the train was often delayed – sometimes even by several days!! It was better to be safe than sorry.

Our departure time came and went. We were still in the waiting room…waiting. After several hours, a commotion in the corridor signalled that the bunfight had begun. Everyone scurried to the platform doors. Each time they opened, it was like a mini explosion, twenty more passengers would splatter onto the platform. Each group laid their bags out in a line, took ten steps back and watched on as three very unenthusiastic sniffer dogs would go up and down, pretending to sniff at the bags. 🐕‍🦺🐕‍🦺🐕‍🦺

Excitement bubbled inside us as we walked the final steps to our carriage. We were travelling light compared to the many mothers with their babies tied to their back, balancing bags on their heads, whilst carrying large bags in each arm, sometimes even with another child clinging-on.

Our cabin was pretty impressive, well, we were impressed anyway! I suppose if you compare it to buses we have been on, it was rather luxurious! There were four beds in our carriage (there are six in second class and none in third class). We used the top two as storage for bags and bedding (it was too hot for bedding!) and the bottom two as our lounge, dining room and bedroom. In between the beds was a table (which we were sure to wipe down thoroughly); above it was a fan – yes, a rotating-air-blowing-fan!) and below it were plugs and light switches. Fancy! The best bit of the cabin was the fabulous window.

View of our room from the corridor

We spent nearly all the journey with our heads stuck out the window as we zigzagged through Tanzania’s countryside. Everything was so green and bushy, the ground rusty red in colour. It was impossible to spot any wildlife through the thick forage. We passed crop fields, banana plantations, palm trees, and large expanses of untouched grassland. As we drew closer to our destination, the landscape became hillier and our train went slower as it wound round the bends and through the tunnels. On the other side of deep valleys were forests grown for timber. In the distance, we watched as the overhanging clouds released their heavy downpours.

Click the arrows to see the slideshow below

Our own downpours went straight onto the railway track. First-class’ shared toilet had a metal bowl around the hole over the track. Second and third class just had a hole. In the one corner was a bucket of water (the flush) and in another corner was a mini sink. Even after washing our hands in that sink, we drowned our hands in anti-bac. For no amount of hand washing could make you feel clean after going to that toilet. Next-door to the toilet was a room for powdering your nose or, more likely, brushing your teeth. Large mirrors covered the walls above several sinks.

Apart from the toilets, the Tazara was so fun! I think you need to take it yourself to fully understand just how fun it was! We felt like we were in a James Bond movie and that Bond was going to come running along the rooftops and burst into our carriage looking for a baddie at any moment! The experience was far from luxurious, so it did not feel like we were on the Orient Express. Plus, the characters simply were not suitable for an Agatha Christie!

One of the main characters on this journey was Freddie. Freddie was our train guard, helper and friend by the end. He works full time on the Tazara Express: spending three weeks of the month going back and forth on the train and the remaining week at home with his wife and daughter. He does not have an easy job. He must always be present in case his clients need him to unlock their carriages. He must also be awake to open the train doors every time the train stops (throughout the day and night). Freddie often came to chat with us. We charged his phone for him in our carriage and in return he lent it to Heather so she could send her application for a proxy vote in the UK. Thank-you Freddie!

We were not completely confined to our carriage. The train had two communal spaces: a dining room carriage and a bar carriage, i.e. party carriage. Party carriage had music on full blast and was filled with jolly drinkers, no matter what time. We ordered a couple of Safari Lagers and enjoyed them in the tranquillity of the dining room as we watched the stunning sunset through the windows.

The dining room carriage

Towards the beginning of the journey, near the coast, the train stopped. Much to our delight, a few guys were selling coconuts outside. We did not waste a moment: we waved the guys down, ordered two, then watched as they macheted the tops off.  Other passengers gulped their juice down quickly then handed their coconuts back to be macheted into small pieces. We preferred to savour ours and drink them slowly, meaning that when the train set off again, we had to make-do with our pen knife and metal straw/spoons to cut and spoon-out the coconut meat. Mmmmm, delicious coconuts!!

Mealtimes were exciting on the Tazara. A kitchen manager would come and take our order and money, then later he would bring us our food and change. He never wrote anything down. How he remembered it all, we will never know! The food was alright. I think the room-service made it exciting! Rice with vegetables, tomato soup and a slice of watermelon cost 3,500 Tanzanian shillings per plate, i.e. one pound twenty. Sometimes we got one each, sometimes one to share. Breakfast was the same for everyone: an omelette, toast, a bright pink sausage and a scoop of plain spaghetti. The tea had a slight taste of tomato soup! Haha.

One of the best things about taking the Tazara was seeing people’s excitement when the train went past, even more so when they spotted us Mzungus! Children would often run alongside the train waving at us. I think this trip will change how we welcome others to Paris.

We arrived in Mbeya twenty-eight hours after leaving Dar es Salaam, (only four hours after our predicted arrival time). The other passengers still had at least another twenty-four hours ahead of them to get to Moshi.

Arriving in Mbeya ⬆

We had the most fabulous journey; one we will remember forever. It was fifty-five pounds well spent. We recommend this journey to anyone who loves an adventure but is not put off by dodgy toilettes on an unpredictable rickety train!

Below is a short video clip, taken on the Tazara

4 Replies to “32 – All Aboard the Tazara Express”

  1. How marvelous to relive this adventure. Scenery and descriptions absolutely wonderful – thank you 🙂 xxx

  2. Ah love the click clack sound and adventure. Not sure I would survive the toilet adventure part though… 😮Lxx

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