23 Aug 800km by Train
There it sits, 12 cars connected, waiting patiently to be filled with the hoarding crowd of travellers each vying for space in the queue. With an off tinge coat of blue paint, each car looks as if it has been exposed to sun, rain, wind, and dust a thousand times over. Weathered.
This is my first introduction to the legendary Tazara line. I have arrived at the Dar es Salam main station three hours early to receive my first class ticket. The difference between first class and second is that first class cars are separated into sleeper berths with four beds per cabin and second class is a few cars with two rows of two seats, like a coach bus. For the 30 hour journey, the jump to first class is well worth the small extra sum of Tanzanian shillings. Anyway, I arrived three hours early just in the case there was some confusion with the reservation I made, gladly there was not. I got my ticket, joined the crowd, found a seat, and waited.
I was put into car 2, cabin 2, bed B2. Thinking I may only have two roommates was me just being optimistic. I ended up with three and a full berth. The train attracts a lot of backpackers because of its easy access to southern Tanzania, the border with Zambia, and also the border with Malawi. I got two Dutch guys and one local Tanzanian, all travelling through the route for various reasons with various destinations. They were cool and made the trip enjoyable. There was also a girl from Belguim and another local Tanzanian guy in our neighbouring berth who quickly became friends. The five of us chatted away throughout the first afternoon and lazily fell into the beauty of rolling along the tracks watching the sunset over East African grasslands before calling it an early night.
Rock and roll, rock and roll, attempt to sleep, rock and roll. Fucking hell, that was tough. I have slept on trains before, but for some reason I wasn’t drunk, and it was really hard to get to sleep. I think I spent the majority of the night falling in and out of a semi-conscious mind state. The fact that our “first class” mattresses were sheets of plywood (figuratively) did not help the situation. Anyway, come sunrise I had somehow fallen into a comatose state and was able to scratch out about four solid hours of sleep.
I awoke to a dry and desolate landscape. The afternoon of the first day was green, not lush, but green enough with the obvious signs of river beds and watering holes. Through the night we had passed through the Selous National Park and a portion of a valley of which the name I cannot remember. This second morning, I rose to blinding sunlight and dry patched earth. In many places the farmlands and bush were scorched with the obvious signs of fires gone out. Not the slash and burn kinda fires either, just general bush fire kinda scene. It was not what I was expecting. I asked the local Tanzania in my cabin if this was normal and he said “yes, there are more fertile lands down in the valley.” and he pointed towards the window nonchalantly. I had forgotten that we had gained 1,000 meters altitude overnight and I was now travelling across a plateau looking down towards a greenish valley below. Yet, there were still houses and people living in this semi desert of a landscape. I left the cabin to brush my teeth.
Passing time on the train meant a lot of looking out the window for me. That morning I decided to spend the majority of it watching the passing land while standing at the open side door of our car. Yes the side doors were completely open, which is amazingly dangerous and awesome all at the same time. We passed dry plot after dry plot with people seemingly tilling the land and children running after the slow moving train as we passed. Some of the children would screech and scream and call to one another as the train came close to their homes. They are super cute and by the looks of it, very poor. Most of them have taken to holding out their arms and waving their palms in towards themselves, a sign quite obviously saying, “give me something”. This I took as a bit of a shock, as I was more expecting a wave (which I did get from a lot of the passing people) rather than a sign of entitlement to free things, whatever they may be. Maybe someone with more of a perspective on this can comment, but for me it was as if the children saw the train as a chance to receive gifts of some kind by the people on board. Like the train was a sort of glimpse into a life that they don’t know or understand, but feel that it owes them something. The young adults on the other hand quite obviously ignored the train as it passed, as if they knew that nothing of true merit or value would come from those aboard.
In the end the train had stopped about 20 some odd times throughout the 30 hour journey with no real problems or delays, which apparently is a miracle. The food wasn’t spectacular and the beers warm. The views were great, although I did not see any animals, and I was hoping to see at least a giraffe or zebra or something. The company was great and the conversation stimulating. Would I do it again? Absolutely. Who doesn’t like taking train rides? Trains bring out the little kid in all of us and I am no exception. It was a fantastic journey. What were some of your past train trips like?
I am currently in Mbeya, Tanzania at the house of my couch surfing host and will be travelling to Malawi by public bus tomorrow morning. The road continues. Wish me luck!